In another year in which another uninformed, self-important magazine writer chose to declare it dead, jazz took greater advantage than ever of social media and the internet to declare that writer like, so many who came before him, to be full of hot air. As young artists took advantages of their musical roots and influences, I saw things that made this writer very hopeful about the future of this music: Young people came out in throngs, fist pumping and dancing at Robert Glasper’s Atlanta Jazz Festival appearance. Esperanza Spalding, Tia Fuller and Anat Cohen, released albums that demonstrated the growing power of women instrumentalists. And some veterans proved that they still “got game”.
So here in alphabetical order, are the first ten on my list of my favorite jazz albums that were released in 2012. Since I didn’t get to publish a midterm list this year, there will be another ten coming in the next post, plus a few others that are also worthy of more than several listens.
Accelerando – Vijay Iyer (ACT)
This is Mr. Iyer’s third appearance on our list in the last four years. The pianist is releasing music on an album per year basis and each year, he manages to top his previous offering with an approach that never covers the same ground twice. On Accelerando, Iyer is back with his trio mates from 2009’s Historicity, bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Marcus Gilmore and as on that now classic album, the trio delivers a mix of intricate original compositions with reworkings of little heard jazz and pop tunes. Each is fired up by Crump and Gilmore’s unshakable rhythms, which are now showing a touch of a hip-hop influence. Anyway it comes at you, Vijay Iyer has done it again and I can’t wait to see what 2013 brings.
Angelic Warrior – Tia Fuller (Mack Avenue)
Still known mostly for her work as the saxophonist in Beyonce’s touring band, Ms. Fuller has come home again to produce another dynamite straight ahead jazz album. Angelic Warrior leaps out of the gate with the fiery “Royston Rumble” and doesn’t let go until “Ode to Be”, the closing outro. Ms. Fuller has developed into a strong composer, as proven by “Ralphie’s Groove” and “Tailor Made” and she is also an exciting and creative soloist, who makes an uptempo medley of “So In Love” and “All of You” work like a new Rolex. Wake up and take notice jazz world, Tia Fuller is the real deal.
Be Good – Gregory Porter (Motéma)
The best new hope for male jazz singers to come along in at least a decade knocked aside any thought of a sophomore jinx on this disc, which also drew some attention in the R&B/Pop idioms. It’s easy to see why. Porter has a voice that is equal parts Donny Hathaway and Al Jarreau and as a writer, he has learned how to write an irresistible hook. Porter has married the best of jazz and soul singing by taking the best of both worlds and bringing them together in beautiful harmony. Don’t miss his towering take on “Work Song”, the melodic “When Did You Learn” and the closer, an a cappella version of “God Bless The Child”.
Be Still – Dave Douglas (Greenleaf Music)
Be Still is another in a long line of brilliant and original works by Mr. Douglas. This album was born out of the hymns that Douglas’ mother requested him to play at her memorial service. After meeting Aoife O’Donovan, an ethereally voiced young singer, with bluegrass roots, Douglas began to envision an album of these hymns as a kind of folk-jazz music. The result is an album of remarkable intimacy, Ms. O’Donovan, Mr. Douglas and a quartet of up and coming young jazz stars (Jon Irabagon, Matt Mitchell, Linda Oh and Rudy Royston) create works that are starkly beautiful. Be Still manages to be reflective, even moody but never maudlin. I’ve always been someone who looks to find God in places that others don’t look. I found Him in the sincerity of the performances on this album.
Black Radio – Robert Glasper Experiment (Blue Note)
This album arrived this spring on the wings of massive hype. And it delivered. Though he has amassed unquestionable credentials in the mainstream realm, Mr. Glasper has strong hip-hop roots, as you might expect from an artist of his age (34). What he has done here is taken what was hinted at on the second half of his last album, Double Booked, to its logical conclusion, with a mixture of jazz, hip-hop, R&B, neo-soul and rock. What we get is something that can’t be pigeonholed into any genre but has reached fans of many ages and musical preferences. With help from guest stars from across the musical universe, Black Radio gives us a peek at where the next generation wants to take what we called jazz. I suggest that we “Old Schoolers” get on board and enjoy the ride.
Blue Moon – Ahmad Jamal (Jazz Village)
I’ll be damned! At 81, the artist formerly known as Fritz, a man who Miles Davis called one of his greatest influences, has turned in his finest album in at least four decades. The tracks are mostly from the Great American Songbook or jazz standards, but this is by no means a tired romp through familiar territory. What has happened is the veteran rhythm section of drummer Herlin Riley, bassist Reginald Veal and percussionist Manolo Badrena, light a percussive fire under Mr. Jamal that has clearly inspired his artistry. Their 10 minute deconstruction of “Blue Moon” will compel you to listen to it repeatedly. For a real treat, listen to Black Radio and this album back to back. You’ll realize that the generations are not that far apart at all.
Claroscuro – Anat Cohen (Anzic)
IMO, the finest clarinetist in jazz today, Anat Cohen takes us on a joyously eclectic stylistic tour. Through West Africa, to Brazil to swing to bop, Ms. Cohen covers a tremendous amount of ground. With fine guest spots from the great Paquito D’Rivera (a killer clarinet duet on Artie Shaw’s “Nightmare”) and a fun loving Wycliffe Gordon (on trombone and vocals), this disc did not lose my interest for one second. And for those like me, who are big fans of Ms. Cohen’s tenor sax work, she brings the proceedings to a nice close with a rich version of Abdullah Ibrahim’s “The Wedding”. In Spanish, one of the definitions of Claroscuro is “a contrast of light and shadows”. Now knowing that, I can’t think of a better title for this disc.
Don’t Look Back – Mary Stallings (HighNote)
Mary Stallings has always been one of those singers who makes you scratch your head and wonder why she isn’t more well known. With a career that spans five decades, a still fabulous and nuanced vocal instrument and now with the great pianist Eric Reed as her musical partner, at 73, it’s not paradoxical to say that Ms. Stallings’ future is brighter than ever. Don’t Look Back is the third album for the Stallings/Reed team and Reed by now compliments her the way that Tommy Flanagan complimented Ella. The selection of somewhat familiar but not overexposed tunes is excellent and the intimate performances from Stallings and Reed’s trio are unhurried and flawlessly executed.
Flip the Script – Orrin Evans (Posi-Tone)
Orrin Evans is not only prolific; he’s damn good as well. Last year he gave us two well received albums (Captain Black Big Band and Freedom) and he’s back now with another extremely strong trio set. Like the aforementioned Tommy Flanagan, Evans is a pianist’s pianist. Whatever he plays flows effortlessly and he never seems to be phoning it in. On Flip The Script, Mr. Evans joins forces with the hard swinging bassist Ben Wolfe and the rock solid drummer Donald Evans to put together a tremendous set. These cats are deep in the pocket from first note to last. Then Evans wraps things up with a wonderful surprise, a solo piano version of the Soul Train theme “The Sound of Philadelphia”, slowed down to “last call at the bar” speed. It’s sweet icing on a beautiful cake.
Four MFs Playin’ Tunes – Branford Marsalis Quartet (Marsalis Music)
One of the many beauties of this disc is that the title tells you all that you need to know. For as much as I love Branford Marsalis, some of his recent works had drifted into the realm of blowing great sounding solos over chords, without discernible structure. It sounded impressive but sometimes left me cold. On this disc Branford, his longtime musical partners and new drummer Justin Faulkner are relaxed and having fun, with some great musical foundations to work with – “tunes”, if you will. Branford on soprano and tenor is as impressive as ever (I’ve always considered him to be the most musically exciting of the Marsalis brothers) and he and Joey Calderazzo are by now, one musical mind. To hear them bump their way through Monk’s “Teo” is worth the price of admission all by itself. It’s back to basics and it’s all good.
Again, another ten selections will be included in the next post. They include a few more unheralded singers making their presence known; a couple of formidable British born sax men, with different stylistic approaches and the other half of the first brother-sister duo to make our list.