Top Picks for 2012
Our annual boilerplate, slightly amended from last year: Misgivings aside, we stand with New Yorker music writer Alex Ross, who figures that whatever their shortcomings, these things are "one more way to salute good work." You want hand-wringing? Take us out for a beer...
Anyway, there are four of us left on the RJA board, and we all have fairly eclectic, but not identically eclectic, tastes. What follows is our collective stock-taking of those discs released between November 1, 2011 and October 30, 2012 which a majority of us managed to hear. (Some fantastic albums—like Kurt Rosenwinkel''s Star of Jupiter, for example—have dropped since Halloween. We'll catch them next year.) The pseudo-science: We put all of the contenders into a spreadsheet and each of us rates what we’ve heard, on a five-point scale. Then we weight each disc’s average rating for total number of votes (i.e., a disc with a greater number of ratings gets a "heavier" score than one with a lesser number). And that gives us our rankings. But really: regardless of their rank, all ten—er, thirteen—are equally worthy of repeated listenings. So are the other hundred or so that didn’t make the final cut, including a whole bunch of discs that only one or two of us spent enough time with to say so. And that’s not to speak of the who-knows-how-many great releases that none of us got to this year. Anyway, here’s how it all shook out.
(P.S.: Click on the label logos to purchase the albums.)
1. Matt Wilson's Arts & Crafts, An Attitude for Gratitude (Palmetto). What do an 80-year old Tin Pan Alley tune, a 1970s fusion classic, “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” and a Carl Sandburg poem about bubbles have in common? They’re all (along with some choice originals) vehicles for Wilson and his compassionate quartet to make music that’s both instantly accessible and richly rewarding. Give thanks.
2. Trio M, The Guest House (enja/yellowbird). The cooperative trio of Myra Melford, Mark Dresser and Matt Wilson shares a musical vocabulary that embraces blues, free improvisation, Zimbabwean pop, New Orleans second line, and the 21st-century classical avant-garde. They make it all hang together through empathetic interplay on compositions inspired by everything from the mystic poetry of Rumi to the sublime comedy of Don Knotts.
|3. Ahmad Jamal, Blue Moon (Jazz Village). An okay album—if you like your music with lots of joy and beauty and groove. (“Damn!” a listener we know said of Jamal’s recent Center Arts appearance; “that was so good, I think it added a year to my life!”) At 83, the maestro writes and plays at peak power, with able assists from an all-star band of veterans Reginald Veal, Herlin Riley, and Manolo Badrena.
|4. Vijay Iyer Trio, Accelerando (ACT Music). This was the year that Iyer’s apotheosis was made official (he won 5, count ‘em, 5 categories in the DownBeat Critics Poll, for starters). With this album, his trio raised its already elevated game to a higher level, too, solving the equation of “time divided by time” and making odd meters oddly danceable. They work their calculus on a broad array of rhythms, from Flying Lotus to Heatwave to Ellington at his most soulful.
|5. Chick Corea, Eddie Gomez, Paul Motian, Further Explorations (Concord Jazz). The live performances that fill this double-CD are culled from a two-week stand at New York’s Blue Note, with tunes drawn from the Bill Evans repertoire plus some originals. The music is alive with spontaneity, passion (some simmering, some fiery), and playfulness. Gomez’s bass sings, Corea is a keyboard wizard, and Motian’s musical drums weave it all into a gorgeous tapestry.
|6. Frank Kimbrough Trio, Live at Kitano (Palmetto). Call 2012 the Year of the Piano Trio. Of the five great records that made it onto our list (and many others—led by Brad Mehldau, Fred Hersch, Dave King, et al.—that didn't), this one may be the sleeper. Here are three guys who dig each other, making art in the moment at a club whose owner and audience respect the music and the musicians. Effortless, understated, and cool.|
|7. Ryan Truesdell, Centennial: Newly Discovered Works of Gil Evans (ArtistShare). A little miracle. Never-before-heard music from the great arranger/composer/bandleader Gil Evans, discovered and realized by Ryan Truesdell with an orchestra of New York's finest, many from Maria Schneider's band. Soloists include Frank Kimbrough and Donny McCaslin, and Kate McGarry and Luciana Souza each contribute vocals.
|8. Gregory Porter, Be Good (Motéma Music). On his sophomore album, the baritone ex-linebacker is already a star, showing scintillating vocal skills on ballads and blues, slow-burners and cookers, some of them his own fine compositions. He can shape a song and scat brilliantly, and his backup band is equally adroit.
|9. Masabumi Kikuchi Trio, Sunrise (ECM). The great Japanese pianist’s first outing for ECM affords a final opportunity to experience the crafty subtlety of the late drummer Paul Motian. Dynamic excursions into zen rubato—the rhythmic shape-shifting makes for music that's beautifully eccentric.
|10 (Four-way tie—no, really!). Adam Baldych & The Baltic Gang, Imaginary Room (ACT Music [Stream]); Anat Cohen, Claroscuro (Anzic [Stream]); Ben Allison, Michael Blake, and Rudy Royston, Union Square (ABeat [Stream]); Tom Harrell, Number Five (HighNote [Stream Samples]). Great new albums from three veterans (and past RJA guests)—and one newcomer: Polish violinist Baldych teams up with Scandinavian bandmates on captivating tunes that are spacious, bluesy, and technically precise. Outstanding interplay with Finnish trumpeter Verneri Pohjola.|
If you want to go deep, here's another passel o' honorable mentions. Call it a starter list:
- John Abercrombie, Within a Song (ECM)
- Michael Blake, In the Grand Scheme of Things (Songlines)
- Scott Dubois, Landscape Scripture (Sunnyside)
- Dave King, I'll Be Ringing You (Sunnyside)
- Brad Mehldau Trio, Ode and Where Do You Start (Nonesuch)
- Metta Quintet, Big Drum, Small World (Jazz Reach)
- Ivo Neame, Yatra (Edition)
- Linda Oh, Initial Here (Greenleaf)
- Phronesis, Walking Dark (Edition)
- Verneri Pohjola Quartet, Ancient History (ACT Music)
And here, in case anyone is remotely interested, is the blow-by-blow (er, boardmember-by-boardmember):
- Dan (in no particular order): Adam Baldych & the Baltic Gang, Imaginary Room; Dave King, I'll Be Ringing You; Matt Wilson's Arts & Crafts, An Attitude for Gratitude; Trio M, The Guest House; Vijay Iyer Trio, Accelerando; Ryan Truesdell and the Gil Evans Project, Centennial; Ahmad Jamal, Blue Moon; Anat Cohen, Claroscuro; Ben Allison, Michael Blake, & Rudy Royston, Union Square; Donny McCaslin, Casting for Gravity.
- David (also in no particular order): Chick Corea, Eddie Gomez, & Paul Motian, Further Explorations; Gregory Porter, Be Good; Matt Wilson's Arts & Crafts, An Attitude for Gratitude; Frank Kimbrough Trio, Live at Kitano; Ibrahim Maalouf, Wind; Verneri Pohjola Quartet, Ancient History; Ahmad Jamal, Blue Moon; Masabumi Kikuchi, Sunrise; Enrico Rava, Rava on the Dance Floor; Laura Jurd, Landing Ground.
- Michael E (first- and second-string, in very roughly descending order): Matt Wilson's Arts & Crafts, An Attitude for Gratitude; Ryan Truesdell and the Gil Evans Project, Centennial; Frank Kimbrough Trio, Live at Kitano; Michael Blake, In the Grand Scheme of Things; Brad Mehldau Trio, Ode + Where Do You Start; Vijay Iyer Trio, Accelerando; Verneri Pohjola Quartet, Ancient History; Phronesis, Walking Dark + Ivo Neame, Yatra; Ben Allison, Michael Blake, & Rudy Royston, Union Square; Trio M, The Guest House; Arthur Kell Quartet: Jester II/Live in Germany: Gregory Porter, Be Good; Linda Oh, Initial Here; Metta Quintet, Big Drum Small World.
- Michael Q (favorite fifteen): Adam Baldych & the Baltic Gang, Imaginary Room; Gregory Porter, Be Good; Dave King, I'll Be Ringing You; Matt Wilson's Arts & Crafts, An Attitude for Gratitude; Trio M, The Guest House; Vijay Iyer Trio, Accelerando; Bobby Sanabria Big Band, Multiverse; Michael Blake, In the Grand Scheme of Things; Verneri Pohjola Quartet, Ancient History; Scott Dubois, Landscape Scripture; Frank Kimbrough Trio, Live at Kitano; Brad Mehldau Trio, Where Do You Start; Manuel Valera, New Cuban Express; Joel Harrison 7, Search.