The Best Jazz Albums of 2013 (So Far)

cecile mclorin salvantOver the last couple of years, I’ve noticed a small but insistent wave in jazz. We’re seeing artists in their twenties and thirties playing music that does nod to the traditions but also shows the influences of what a lot of these younger musicians grew up listening to; hip-hop; crunk and other related styles. This style has evolved from the confused mess that some of the early cross genre attempts were, into something that is fresh and stands on its own, apart from either of its main musical parents.  As a result, I’ve begun to see a number of today’s jazz writers (and a few musicians as well) rise up and take arms against the “interlopers”. They have written page after page on why what the young musicians are doing “isn’t jazz”.

Whatever else it is, “jazz” will always be about evolution, improvisation and change. What the young cats are now trying to do, could represent the first really new thing in jazz in 50 years. I may not like everything that’s a part of it but I embrace the fact that someone is doing something new.

You’ll see a couple of those albums among my mid-term favorites. Disagreements and agreements are always welcome but spam is not. The albums are in alphabetical order by title.

The Bespoke Man’s Narrative – Aaron Diehl (Mack Avenue)

This was the first album this year to “wow” me. Mr. Diehl’s third album is an unabashed tribute to the Modern Jazz Quartet, which was the first jazz group to “wow” me, over thirty years ago. Mr. Diehl is an outstanding pianist with a strong sense of swing, yet a light touch, reminiscent of course, of John Lewis. And when label mate Warren Wolf sits in on vibes, the transformation becomes complete.

Border Free – Chucho Valdes and the Afro-Cuban Messengers (Jazz Village)

The great Cuban pianist just gets better with age. This album  is a deeply personal statement, filled with tributes to his family members and others who have influenced his musical direction. But you never forget that this is a Chucho Valdés album, so these tributes are carried out in the midst of killer Afro-Cuban rhythms and piano statements of astonishing brilliance. You can read my full review HERE.

Grace – J.D. Allen (Savant)

After recording in the sax, bass, drums trio format for five years, J.D. brings a pianist back into the group on Grace. Not just any pianist but Russian-born wunderkind Eldar Djangirov. Instead of altering the group’s style, Djangirov blends in nicely adding a rich texture to Allen’s group that was missing in some of the previous outings. The pianist has made a good thing even better. You can read my full review HERE.

In A World of Mallets – Jason Marsalis (Basin Street Records)

The youngest of the musical Marsalis brothers, Jason made a committment to playing the vibes full-time a few years ago. While he was a world-class drummer, Marsalis struggled a bit on his first album after making the switch four years ago.  He seems to have put those troubles behind him on this album, which is a rich, quirky and mature musical statement. It also takes my award for the punniest album title so far this year,

Live Today – Derrick Hodge (Blue Note Records)

Derrick Hodge, who was a major presence on Robert Glasper’s Grammy Winning Black Radio in 2012, has made an even stronger musical statement on his debut as a leader. The big name guest stars are not here but the music is denser and more complex than Black Radio’s. Finally, an artist has nailed it in the search for a hip-hop/jazz hybrid. This is “Real Jazz” for the 21st Century. You can read my full review HERE.

Magnetic – Terence Blanchard (Blue Note Records)

Hard to believe that Terence Blanchard has been on the jazz scene for over thirty years. While he has done everything from score films, to write operas, when you get right down to it, he is never better than he is when he fronting a group and reminding everyone that before all of the Hollywood accolades, Blanchard was one of the best jazz trumpet players around; period. He reminds us again here, with his working group and stellar guest spots from Ravi Coltrane, Lionel Loueke and the incomparable Ron Carter. You can read my full review HERE.

No Beginning, No End – Jose James (Blue Note Records)

The vocal love child of Al Green and Bill Henderson, Jose James struck pay dirt on this album, his Blue Note debut. It’s not as straight ahead jazzy as his Impulse! album from a couple of years back nor is it as club ready as some of his first efforts. It’s a blend of jazz, hip-hop and R&B that fits like a glove around James’ unique voice.  It is absolutely irresistible. No Beginning No End hasn’t left my CD Jukebox since its release and there’s a good chance that it will remain there until the end of the year.

Songs From This Season – Tim Green (True Melody Music)

This Baltimore native first drew attention with his second place finish in the 2008 Monk Saxophone Competition. He has recorded with a litany of jazz and Gospel artists from Warren Wolf to Andrae Crouch. But it’s Songs From This Season which has brought Mr. Green to the attention of most of the jazz world. It’s easy to see why. The album’s selections are mostly traditional post bop and Green is on fire throughout; be it on introspective ballads such as “Psalm 1” or burners such as his trio take on “Pinocchio”. This young man has musical ideas to spare. Something tells me that he will be on this list numerous times in the future.

That Nepenthetic Place – Dayna Stephens (Sunnyside Records)

A “nepenthe” is a fictional medicine for sorrow, a “drug of forgetfulness” mentioned in ancient Greek literature and Greek mythology. That ancient word is an apt description for the music performed by tenor saxophonist Dayna Stephens and his quartet on this album. Though the selections are not decidedly upbeat, when taken as a whole, they leave you feeling terrific when they are done. Add in contributions from Gretchen Parlato, trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire and alto saxophonist Jaleel Shaw and the third album proves to be the charm for Mr. Stephens. This is his best and most well-rounded recording to date.

Cecile McLorin Salvant – WomanChild (Mack Avenue Records)

This is the most talked about album from a female jazz singer this year. Why? Because it is also the best album by a jazz vocalist so far this year, hands down.  The requisite comparisons to Billie Holiday, Carmen McRae and a number of other vocal greats have already begun. Ignore them. For though this is only the second album from this Miami native, she has established enough of her own style already to make most of those comparisons unfair and fairly irrelevant. Cecile won the Monk vocal competition in 2010 and if you want to know why, listen to this album. It’s not the work of a neophyte finding herself but of an established vocalist who knows exactly where she is going.

Again, this list represents my favorites among the jazz albums released this year that I’ve heard to this point. There’s much more that I will hear, including the stack of new recordings on my desk now. In December we will post the final list for 2013, which will include these albums plus the ones that I will be privileged to hear over the next four months. Until then, The Jazz Continues…

3 Responses to “The Best Jazz Albums of 2013 (So Far)”

  1. keep up the great work! I love the new jazz we need more sites like yours…

  2. […] to confess that this year’s list of the best jazz albums feels somehow incomplete. The albums on the first list, posted in early August and the ones in this article are all outstanding but as much as I get to hear, due to my vocation […]

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