The 20 Best Jazz Albums of 2012
Assembling a year-end list that’s going to get a lot of traffic demands a certain degree of responsibility: to be paying attention, and to be keeping an eye on what’s lurking in the shadows because that’s usually where the action is. Gil Evans knew that, and that’s why he’s on this one.
As pretty much everybody knows, the final Dave Brubeck Quartet live show surfaced this year, as did the earliest known Wes Montgomery recordings, a tasty couple of rare Bill Evans live sets and a big box set of previously unreleased Mingus. The reason why they’re not on this list is because they’re on everybody else’s…and because they’re easy picks. This is an attempt to be a little more adventurous, to cast a wider net, to help spread the word about current artists whose work is every bit as transcendent. Obviously, there are going to be glaring omissions here: even the most rabid jazz advocate can only digest a few hundred albums a year at the most. And much as Henry Threadgill’s Tomorrow Sunny/The Revelry, Spp and the historic Sam Rivers Trio’s Reunion: Live in New York are phenomenal albums, they both fell off the list since each has received plenty of praise elsewhere.
1. Wadada Leo Smith – Ten Freedom Summers
The trumpeter/bandleader’s massive four-cd box set is his magnum opus, as historically important as it is sonically rich, harrowing, cinematic and eclectic, anchored in the blues and gospel and taking flight pretty much everywhere else. Some will say that the string-driven sections of this restless Civil Rights Movement epic are classical music, and they’re probably right: Smith is just as formidable and powerful a composer in that idiom as he is in jazz. With a huge cast of characters, most notably pianist Anthony Davis and drummer Pheeroan AkLaff. This Cuneiform release gets the top spot for 2012.
2. Centennial: Newly Discovered Works of Gil Evans
Conductor/arranger Ryan Truesdell, a leading Evans scholar, unearthed and then recorded ten of the iconic composer’s most obscure big band works and arrangements for the first time, with the blessing of the composer’s family and an inspired cast of players. In a way, to fail to put this lush noir masterpiece at the top of the list is ridiculous, considering how emotionally intense, luminous, haunting and resonant this music is. As with Smith’s album, a huge lineup turns in a chilling performance, including possibly career-defining moments from drummer Lewis Nash, pianist Frank Kimbrough and especially vibraphonist Joe Locke. Truesdell heads up the Gil Evans Project, who put this out.
3. Hafez Modirzadeh – Post-Chromodal Out!
The most radical, paradigm-shifting and sonically intriguing album of the year was the Persian-American saxophonist’s latest adventure in microtonal music. Blue notes have defined jazz from the beginning, but this album is blue flames: and to be hubristic, here’s to the argument that this album is Vijay Iyer’s greatest shining moment so far, as he revels in a piano tuned in three-quarter tones to mimic the tetrachords of the music of Iran. An adventurous cast delivers overtone-fueled, sometimes gamelanesque mystery and menace through two suites, one by Modirzadeh, one by saxophonist Jim Norton. With Amir ElSaffar on trumpet, Ken Filiano on bass, Royal Hartigan on drums, Danongan Kalanduyan on kulintang, Faraz Minooei on santoor and Timothy Volpicella on guitar. Pi Records get credit for this one.
4. Ran Blake & Sara Serpa – Aurora
The second collaboration from the iconic noir pianist and the eclectic singer/composer is every bit as intense and otheworldly as their 2010 collaboration, Camera Obscura, and considerably more diverse. This one’s taken mostly from a concert in Serpa’s native Portugal, a mix of classics, brilliant obscurities, icy/lurid cinematic themes and a riveting a-cappella take of Strange Fruit. It’s out on Clean Feed.
5. David Fiuczynski – Planet Microjam
A stunningly diverse set by the pioneering microtonal guitarist, joining forces with Evan Marien on bass, Evgeny Lebedev on piano, David Radley on violin, Takeru Yamazaki on keyboards and a rotating cast of drummers including Kenwood Dennard, Jovol Bell, Jack DeJohnette and Club D’Elf’s Eric Kerr. Alternately otherworldly, wryly sardonic, ferocious and utterly Lynchian, Fiuczynski reinvents Beethoven as well as exploring Asian, Middle Eastern and Indian themes. It’s out from Rare Noise.
6. Neil Welch – Sleeper
The Seattle saxophonist leads a chamber jazz ensemble with Ivan Arteaga on alto and soprano saxes, Jesse Canterbury on bass clarinet, Vincent LaBelle on trombone and David Balatero and Natalie Hall on cellos through a chilling narrative suite about the murder of an Iraqi general, Abdel Hamed Mowhoush, tortured to death in American custody. Shostakovian ambience gives way to a cinematic trajectory laced with sarcasm and terrifying allusiveness. A triumph for Seattle’s Table and Chairs Music.
7. The Fab Trio – History of Jazz in Reverse
The late violin titan Billy Bang with bassist Joe Fonda and drummer Barry Altschul in a deep and casually riveting 2005 session, improvising a gospel-drenched Bea Rivers elegy, an Asian-tinged Don Cherry homage, a salsa vamp and chillingly chromatic funk and swing. Tum Records happily saw fit to pull this one out of the archives.
8. Giacomo Merega – Watch the Walls
The bassist is joined by his Dollshot saxophonist bandmate Noah Kaplan plus Marco Cappelli on guitar, Mauro Pagani on violin and Anthony Coleman on piano for a chillingly sepulchral series of improvisations that range from whispery, to atmospheric, to quietly horrific, to funereal: a bleak black-and-white film noir for the ears. Free jazz doesn’t get any better than this. It’s out on Underwolf Records.
9. Gregg August – Four By Six
The eclectic bassist from JD Allen’s trio (and the Brooklyn Philharmonic) writes intense, pulsing pan-latin themes, often with a brooding Gil Evans luminosity. This one mixes quartet and sextet pieces, with Sam Newsome on soprano sax, Luis Perdomo on piano and E.J. Strickland or Rudy Royston on drums,Yosvany Terry on alto sax, John Bailey on trumpet and JD Allen on tenor sax.
10. Orrin Evans – Flip the Script
Glistening with gritty melody, wit, plaintiveness and unease, this is the pianist’s most straightforward and impactful small-group release to date (to distinguish it from his work with the mighty Captain Black Big Band), a trio session with bassist Ben Wolfe and drummer Donald Edwards. Phantasmagorical blues, chromatic soul and a haunting reinvention of the old disco hit The Sound of Philadelphia are highlights of this Posi-Tone release.
11. The Fred Hersch Trio – Alive at the Vanguard
The pianist’s third live album at this mecca is a charm, like the other two, a lavish and gorgeously melodic double-disc set culled from his February, 2012 stand there with bassist John Hebert and drummer Eric McPherson Mostly slow-to-midtempo with lots nocturnes, interplay, a Paul Motian homage, and happily plenty of Hersch’s lyrical originals. It’s out on Palmetto.
12. Brian Charette – Music for Organ Sextette
Organ jazz doesn’t get any more interesting or cutting-edge than this richly arranged, characteristically witty, high-energy session with Charette on the B3 along with John Ellis taking a turn on bass clarinet, Jay Collins on flute, Joel Frahm on tenor, Mike DiRubbo on alto and Jochen Rueckert on drums. Eclectic themes – a reggae trope gone to extremes, a baroque fugue, jaggedly Messiaenic funk and gospel grooves – make a launching pad for witty repartee.
13. Tia Fuller – Angelic Warrior
The saxophonist shows off her sizzilng postbop chops on both soprano and alto sax on a fiery mix of mostly original compositions with a warm camaderie among the band: Shamie Royston on piano, Rudy Royston on drums, Mimi Jones on bass, John Patitucci playing single-note guitar-style leads on piccolo bass, Shirazette Tinnin on percussion. Terri Lyne Carrington on drums on three tracks, and Dianne Reeves adding an aptly misty vocal on Body and Soul It’s a Mack Avenue release.
14. Guy Klucevsek – The Multiple Personality Reunion Tour
The irrepressible accordionist teams up with members of novoya polka stars Brave Combo for this playful, brightly entertaining, characteristically devious romp through waltzes, cinematic themes, and reinventions of Erik Satie. With Marcus Rojas on tuba, Jo Lawry on vocals, John Hollenbeck on drums, Dave Douglas on trumpet, Brandon Seabrook on guitar, Steve Elson on tenor sax and many others. It’s out on Innova.
15. Old Time Musketry – Different Times
On their auspicious debut, multi-reedman Adam Schneit and multi-keyboardist JP Schlegelmilch lead this quartet with bassist Phil Rowan and drummer Max Goldman through a moody yet rhythmically intense mix of wintry, pensive, Americana-tinged themes in the same vein as the best work of Bill Frisell or Jeremy Udden.
16. Endemic Ensemble – Lunar
For some reason, Seattle has put out a ton of good music this year and this is yet another example, a tuneful mix of swing, droll minatures and a darkly majestic clave tune, all with bright and distinct horn charts. With Steve Messick on bass, Ken French on drums, David Franklin on piano, Matso Limtiaco on baritoine saxes amd Travis Ranney on saxes
17. The Danny Fox Trio – The One Constant
We may have lost Brubeck, but lyrical third-stream composition is in good hands with guys like pianist Danny Fox, gritting his teeth here with bassist Chris van Voorst van Beest and drummer Max Goldman throughout this edgy, bitingly vivid, occasionally sardonic set of mood pieces and cruelly amusing narratives
18. Slumgum – Quardboard Flavored Fiber
Rainy-day improvisation, noirish third-stream themes, latin and funk interludes, Sam Fuller-style cinematic themes for a new century and playful satire from this fearless LA quartet: Rory Cowal on piano, Joe Armstrong on tenor sax, Dave Tranchina on bass and Trevor Anderies on drums.
19. Catherine Russell – Strictly Romancin’
Guitarist Matt Munisteri is the svengali behind this historically rich, expansive, soulful Louis Armstrong homage from the chanteuse whose multi-instrumentalist dad played with Satchmo for many years. With Mark Shane on piano, Lee Hudson on bass, Mark McClean on drums; Joey Barbato on accordion; Jon-Erik Kellso on trumpet; John Allred on trombone, and Dan Block and Andy Farber on reeds. From Harmonia Mundi.
20. Juhani Aaltonen and Heikki Sarmanto – Conversations
Two old lions of Nordic jazz, Finnish tenor saxophonist Juhani Aaltonen and pianist Heikki Sarmanto trade on and off lush, nocturnal modal themes throughout this lavish, casually vivid double-disc set. Notes linger and are never wasted, the two take their time and leave a mark that’s either warmly resonant or broodingly ominous. A Tum Records release.
21. Bass X3 – Transatlantic
For anyone who might think that this is a joke, or a novelty record – Chris Dahlgren and Clayton Thomas’ basses blending with Gebhard Ullmann’s bass clarinet – you have to hear it. For fans of low tonalities, it’s sonic bliss, the centerpiece being a roughly 45-minute drone improvisation broken up into three parts, spiced with playfully ghostly embellishments amidst brooding desolation and hypnotic, suspenseful rumbles. A Leo Records release.
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