Top Picks for 2013
Our annual boilerplate, slightly emended from last year: Misgivings aside, we still 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...
There are four of us left on the RJA board, and we all have eclectic, though not identically eclectic, tastes. What follows is our collective stock-taking of those discs released between November 1, 2012 and October 31, 2013 which a plurality of us managed to hear. (Okay: our #1 album arrived just past the Halloween deadline, but we couldn't in good conscience leave it out of the running. A couple of other discs were released in October 2012 but didn't officially hit the U.S. till January.) There's a lot of pseudo-science behind our rankings, and we won't bore you (or bullshit) you with it. All ten are equally worthy of repeated listens. So are the other hundred or so that didn’t make the final cut, including a whole bunch of albums that only one or two of us spent enough time with to say so. And that’s not counting the who-knows-how-many great releases that none of us got to hearing this year. Anyway, here’s how it all shook out.
(P.S.: Click on the label logos to purchase the albums.)
1. René Marie, I Wanna Be Evil: A Tribute to Eartha Kitt (Motéma). Like the woman she honors, Marie is equal parts sensual and sophisticated. On this album she raises her game, augmenting her trio with a horn section that includes trombonist Wycliffe Gordon and trumpeter Etienne Charles, who's behild the horn arrangements that smolder and swing. We think the knockout "I'd Rather Be Burned As a Witch" should become a New American Standard. Hands-down our favorite album of the year.
|2. Craig Taborn Trio, Chants (ECM). Taborn, who's finally getting the attention he deserves, is part of a generation of pianists inventing a new jazz language. (Cf: Jason Moran, Vijay Iyer, Ethan Iverson.) The compositions are edgy and contrapuntal yet gorgeously spacious. His working group--which includes Thomas Morgan on bass and old friend Gerald Cleaver on drums--knows just what to do with them, and together they go well beyond the established frontiers of the piano trio.
|3. Myra Melford, Life Carries Me This Way (Firehouse 12). The pianist and composer has dazzled us in her recordings and performances with Trio M and Be Bread (not to mention Allison Miller's Boom Tic Boom). Now, she steps forward with a suite of solo pieces inspired by artworks of the late Bay Area painter Don Reich. These musical meditations are sometimes contemplative, sometimes scintillating, and marked by the unique brio of a superb jazz artist. If life carries Myra Melford this way, then Life Is Good.
|4. Dayna Stephens, That Nepenthetic Place (Sunnyside). We've been waiting a long time for this album, a "Kickstarted" project that got stalled for way too long before Sunnyside had the good sense to bring it to the showroom. More personal than the straight-ahead dates Stephens has done for other labels, it features bandmates who are also old friends and musical soulmates: Ambrose Akinmusire, Joe Sanders, Justin Brown, Jaleel Shaw, et al. This record marks an important player's belated arrival.
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|5. Michael Blake, In the Grand Scheme of Things (Songlines). The veteran tenor stirs "world" beats, blues, electronica and more into adventurous tunes that are by turn gospelly, cinematic, and Monkish. They all lead up to the broodingly atmospheric title suite, which Blake follows with the most soulful jazz cover of "Treat Her Right" you've ever heard.|
6. Aruán Ortiz/Michael Janisch Quintet featuring Greg Osby, Banned in London: Live at the London Jazz Festival (Whirlwind). Ortiz, the latest outbreak in an epidemic of fantastic young Cuban pianists, teams up with Wisconsin-born/London-based bassist Janisch to lead a group featuring American alto star Greg Osby and everybody's A-list drummer Rudy Royston. Their hot set, on top of the ovens at "Pizza Express" (a well-known venue for London jazz) must have had patrons fanning themselves to keep from fainting!
7. Darcy James Argue's Secret Society, Brooklyn Babylon (New Amsterdam). Secret Society's debut of a few years back offered a revelatory update of the big band format. But this one's an eye-opener, too. Argue's programmatic music for a staged multi-media work about a decidedly "steampunk" future Brooklyn (with animations and live painting by comics artist Danil Zezelj) also stands on its own--and burbles and pulses and soars, besides.
|8. Tomasz Stanko, Wislawa (ECM). Like his labelmate Charles Lloyd, the legendary Polish trumpeter is one of those jazzers of a certain age who keep surrounding themselves with elite young sidemen. This time it's his new "New York" quartet, with Cuban-born pianist David Virelles plus bassist Thomas Morgan and drummer Gerald Cleaver, both members of the Craig Taborn Trio (above). A fresh, two-disc take on the classic Stańko sound.
9. Tom Harrell, Colors of a Dream (High Note). Saxophonist Jaleel Shaw and bassist Esperanza Spalding join four-fifths of Harrell’s working quintet on the prolific trumpeter's latest release. Esperanza sings and scats on some of Harrell’s freshest compositions ever, all of them colored by his own dreamy take on the Latin tinge. The tunes include the classic "Sail Away," here reimagined as a bossa nova.
|10. 3 Cohens, Tightrope (Anzic). It's a family affair: siblings Yuval (soprano sax), Anat (tenor sax & clarinets) and Avishai (trumpet) have made two previous albums--great ones--for the label run by sister Anat. On Tightrope they're joined on three tracks by pianist Fred Hersch, while bassist Christian McBride swings by for Duke Ellington's "Just Squeeze Me" and drummer Johnathan Blake just plain swings on an Avishai original. Israeli roots thriving in the soil of the bebop tradition.
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If you want to go deep, here's another passel o' honorable mentions--every one of which probably deserves to be closer to the top--culled from our individual ballots.
- Ralph Alessi, Baida (ECM)
- Carla Bley/Andy Sheppard/Steve Swallow, Trios (ECM)
- Marty Ehrlich, A Trumpet in the Morning (New World)
- Reuben Fowler, Between Shadows (Edition)
- Fred Hersch/Ralph Alessi, Only Many (CAM Jazz)
- Dave Holland, Prism (Dare2)
- Jeff Lederer's Swing n' Dix (Little (i) Music)
- Carol Morgan, Retroactive (Blue Bamboo)
- Marius Neset, Birds (Edition)
- Noah Preminger, Haymaker (Palmetto)
- Kurt Rosenwinkel, Star of Jupiter (Wommusic)
- Cecile McLoren Salvant, WomanChild (Mack Avenue)
- Travis Sullivan's Bjorkestra, I Go Humble (Zoho)
- The [Steve] Swallow Quintet, Into the Woodwork (ECM/XtraWatt)
- Alexi Tuomarila, Seven Hills (Edition)
- David Weiss, Endangered Species: The Music of Wayne Shorter (Motema)
And if you had the patience, we could recommend about 100 more. >Sigh...<