JAZZ IN SPACE: December 2012

Sunday, December 30, 2012


Why does it seem like the jazz recordings released in 2012 were particularly great? The music I kept returning to throughout the year was mostly grounded in the jazz tradition yet still presented fresh sounds and ideas. Artists like Melissa Stylianou, Yosvany Terry, Christian Scott, Vijay Iyer and Orrin Evans pushed jazz in new directions, while Gregory Porter, Ahmad Jamal, Ryan Truesdell, Fred Hersch and Eliane Elias/Marc Johnson eloquently embraced tradition to inform their modern recordings. As always, quality of music, depth of feeling, musicianship and recording acoustics all figured into my determining my favorites list. Unexpectedly, 2012 produced worthwhile double disc releases from Hersch, Scott, Rosenwinkel, Gonzalo Rubalcaba and a phenomenal release from Keith Jarrett (Sleeper: Tokyo, April 16, 1979) that sounds as current as this year’s music. These are artists with something meaningful to say. Jazz is not dead, as the Atlantic would provocatively state (hey, it got them more readers,) it’s just appreciated in smaller numbers for now until one of the young lions or lionesses kick it to the masses. Can’t wait for that to happen.

Gregory Porter, Be Good (Motema) Singer/songwriter Gregory Porter made the best jazz vocal album of 2012. “Be Good” is an intoxicating mix of storytelling and elegant musicianship, sprinkled with Motown backbeats and fleet arrangements. The original songs are structured as narratives and Porter’s soulful melodies soon take residence in your head. He pulls out the stops on the fabulously catchy love letter “On My Way To Harlem” saluting heroes like Duke, Langston Hughes and Marvin Gaye, complete with a rubbery bassline, tick-tock percussion, and punchy horns. Credit veteran producer Brian Bacchus (Norah Jones) who frames Porter with right-on accompaniment – pianist Chip Crawford, bassist Aaron James and drummer Emanuel Harrold hold down the brilliant rhythm section and they essentially let Porter do his thing.  

Ahmad Jamal, Blue Moon (Jazz Village) You would never know that the pianist on this recording is 81 years old, but Ahmad Jamal proves he can still create the kind of drama and release that pushed him into fame and the history books on “Blue Moon,” playing like a musician half his age. Like Sonny Rollins, he finds Broadway show tunes ripe for reinterpretation yet the music here is remarkably present. His rhythm team is his working trio -- bassist Reginald Veal, drummer Herlin Riley and percussionist Manolo Badrena – who, with a combination of hard grooves and tender contours, give Jamal plenty of room to play or not since the pianist is famous for exploiting empty spaces in a song. Jamal’s inventiveness still thrills and that gives “Blue Moon” the distinction of being one of Jamal’s best recordings ever.

Ryan Truesdell, Centennial: The Gil Evans Project (ArtistShare)
The best jazz performance I saw in 2012 was at the Jazz Standard last spring, where conductor/arranger Ryan Truesdell presented music from his debut recording – a celebration of the modern composer and conductor Gil Evans incorporating newly discovered works by Evans and tunes like “Look To The Rainbow.” Crowd-funded through Artistshare, Truesdell’s tirelessly researched Evans’ old charts and put together complete ones from fragments and notes. The finished album is made whole by an expansive band, starring a who’s who list of musicians, and it is doubtless one of the decade’s best jazz albums. A sonic and experiential gem that includes dynamite turns by Kate McGarry, Wendy Gilles, Luciana Souza and pianist Frank Kimbrough.

Melissa Stylianou, Silent Movie (Anzic Records) 2012 was a year that put the best female jazz singers (and those with a jazz vibe) in the spotlight. Kate McGarry, Stacey Kent, Luciana Souza, Sara Gazarek, Amy Cervini, Denise Donatelli are among those that made an impression. But it was Melissa Stylianou I returned to throughout the year. Melissa Stylianou’s fourth recording, “Silent Movie,” is a winner by all measures. By linking the listening of her album to the experience of watching a story unfold on screen, Stylianou smartly frames these twelve songs that comprise “Silent Movie” with a welcome intimacy. Her song selection mix modern classics like Paul Simon’s “Hearts and Bones” and James Taylor’s “Something In The Way She Moves,” with the unexpected (Johnny Cash’s “I Still Miss Someone.”)  Like the best Joni Mitchell albums, a strong influence on Stylianou, the album has a satisfying completeness that keeps you fully engaged and its cinematic motif is nicely underscored by the inclusion of Charles’ Chaplin’s “Smile” and Mancini’s “Moon River,” stalwart screen gems with built in appeal that bookend the recording and which Stylianou delivers with delicate grace.

Marc Johnson / Eliane Elias, Swept Away (ECM) On the instrumental “Swept Away,” the charismatic Eliane Elias shares top billing with her husband, bassist Marc Johnson, creating a blissful album that exercises her jazz chops and provides an opportunity to ply her estimable talent against like-minded colleagues, saxophonist Joe Lovano and drummer Joey Baron. Less meditative than most ECM albums, “Swept Away” swings from Elias’ athletic pianism, ushering in a particularly rewarding brand of straight-ahead jazz. Everyone sounds remarkably present, from Johnson’s lush bass notes to Baron’s precise accompaniment on his kit, but it’s Lovano that truly surprises as sideman often evoking Stan Getz’s unaffected style. This is an album with mainstream jazz appeal, where Elias embraces her lyrical side (“B Is For Butterfly”) with resolute grace and it gives this quartet a vivid sense of purpose and clarity.

Vijay Iyer, Accelerando (ACT Records) This guy settles into a vibe with a pair of spiritually connected partners, bassist Stephen Crump and drummer Marcus Gilmore, and the result is pitched with intensity and a groove. In addition to their originals, the trio embraces Ellington together with Michael Jackson and Flying Lotus, crisscrossing time signatures and rhythm changes to punctuate their brand of forward-looking jazz. This is a marvelous statement and deserves all the awards and accolades you’ve heard about. Now hear the record.

Yosvany Terry, Today’s Opinion (Criss Cross) After arriving in New York in 1999, saxophonist Terry made an instant impression, playing to acclaim with Roy Hargrove, Steve Coleman, Dave Douglas and Eddie Palmieri among others. He’s currently a member of 5Passion, an extraordinary quintet headed by pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba. “Today’s Opinion” isn't purely a Latin jazz recording but it’s got Latin passion coursing throughout every track. Out of 8 tracks, Terry wrote seven and all are performed by his amazing group with emotional vigor and resounding heart.

Orrin Evans, Flip The Script (Posi-tone)  Lucid pianism and bright grooves are two reasons that Philly based Orrin Evans is so in demand as a player. His 14th recording as a leader, Flip The Script, is a tremendous set of fully realized originals like “TC’s Blues” and The Answer,” and a cover or two (Luther Vandross’ “Brand New Day”) that dodge your expectations. Bassist Ben Wolfe and drummer Donald Edwards, two long-time associates who click with the pianist in every best way on tunes like “Question,” a time-shifting pleasure with Monkish twists and turns and “Clean House,” an outright exhilarating slice of breezy swing. Evans plays the final track, “The Sound Of Philadelphia” (the theme song to Soul Train) as a solo feature with tranquil licks and soulful phrasing. As a trio recording, “Flip” is a highly listenable record fueled by Evans’ muscular and attractive playing style.

Fred Hersch Trio, Alive At The Vanguard (Palmetto) Pianist Hersch has released other live recordings from the Vanguard, but this one is special enough to invite comparison with Bill Evans fabled dates there. The music is playful, mysterious, grand and reflective. And Hersch has never sounded so inspired. With bassist John Hebert and drummer Eric McPherson, the trio marvels as an engine of resourcefulness and sheer musicality. Lovely.

Christian Scott, Christian Scott aTunde Adujuah (Concord Jazz) To be fair, this spot on my list alternated between this recording and a live date by saxophonist Jesse Davis at Small Jazz club. The Davis date is a testament to Charlie Parker’s influence and the immediacy of creativity in a live setting. But nagging at me was Scott’s modernistic record, a two-disc visionary set that’s informed by personal history, family tradition, displaced justice and lagging social reforms. In fact, Scott may be the most patriotic of American jazz musicians, proudly owning his New Orleans/Indian heritage and writing music that reflects a distinctly American landscape. Brash and aggressive at times, Scott’s album has songs that are equally beautiful. Blurring the lines between art and life, I’m reminded of a fictional critic’s comment about Delmond Lambreaux, the jazz trumpeter on the HBO series, Treme, who has released a new album, when he says, “the songs are going to stand.” That’s true of Scott’s work, too, and this date is highly listenable and will remain on my playlist throughout 2013.

11. Jesse Davis, Live at Smalls (Smalls Jazz)
12. Kurt Rosenwinkel, Star Of Jupiter (Wommusic)
13. Brad Mehldau Trio, Ode (Nonesuch)
14. Anat Cohen, Claroscuro (Anzic Records)
15. Jimmy Owens, The Monk Project (IPO)
16. J.D. Allen Trio, The Matador And The Bull (Savant)
17. Kate McGarry, Girl Talk (Palmetto)
18. Dave Douglas, Be Still (Greenleaf)
19. Mary Stallings, Don’t Look Back (HighNote)
20. Matt Wilson, An Attitude For Gratitude (Palmetto)
21. John Abercrombie, Within A Song (ECM)
22. Billy Hart, All Our Reasons (ECM)
23. Michael Feinberg, Elvin Jones Project (Sunnyside)
24. Elizabeth Shepherd, Rewind (Linus)
25. Neil Crowley Trio, Face Of Mount Molehill (Naim)

  • Charles Mingus, The Jazz Workshop Concerts 1964-65 (Mosaic)
  • Bill Evans, Live at Art D’Lugoff’s Top Of The Gate (Resonance)
  • Wes Montgomery, Echoes Of Indiana Avenue, (Resonance)

Artists that also released outstanding recordings in 2012: Frank Kimbrough, Pat Metheny, Nik Bartsch Ronin, Iris Ornig, The Cookers, Branford Marsalis, Ulysses Owen, Carol Robbins, Brandon Wright, Ed Cherry, Tord Gustavsen, Kathy Kosins, Bruce Barth, Joe Locke and Geoffrey Keezer, Ravi Coltrane, Donald Vega, George Cables, Harold Mabern, E.S.T., Patrick Cornelius, Wallace Roney, Jeremy Pelt, Tia Fuller and Kenny Garrett.