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JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

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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December 25, 2012 Posted by | jazz, lists, Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Slumgum: Perennially Dark and Cutting-Edge

Old paradigm: albums get buried in the stack or maybe get stolen. New paradigm: albums get lost on the server or accidentally deleted. Los Angeles jazz quartet Slumgum definitely belong to the new paradigm, so it’s only fitting that’s what happened here as far as their album Qardboard Flavored Fiber is concerned (it came over the transom almost a year ago). But good records stand the test of time, and this one’s no less fun or paradigm-shifting now than it was then.

Slumgum defies categorization. Aware of jazz history but not constrained by it, committed to improvisation but not constrained by that either, the band mixes an impressively eclectic series of clever cross-genre tropes with vivid cinematics that often venture into totally noir territory: Sam Fuller movie themes in color for a new century. A suite titled Big Fun, which ranges from apprehensive free improvisation, to latin, to third-stream themes, runs through the album and opens it on a chilly, spacious note, Rory Cowal’s icy, Ran Blake-inflected piano mingling with Dave Tranchina’s terse bass incisions and scraping ambience, Jon Armstrong’s tenor sax adding wary atmospherics. They follow that with the Lynchian Hancho Pancho, Cowal’s echoey Rhodes intertwining with Armstrong, who builds to a smoky, terrified crescendo over Tranchina’s molten pitchblende chords. The way they manage to take it out with an unexpected grace is one of the high points of the album.

Big Fun (New Ruckus) is a warped salsa jazz tune that coalesces slowly and then falls apart twice as fast, the band leaving everything to the bass and drummer Trevor Anderies’ unexpectedly blithe rimshots. A mini-epic, Eshu’s Trick morphs playfully from a clave groove to darkly Ethiopian-tinged sonics with striking light/dark contrasts between sax and drums – and is Armstrong playing baritone and alto at the same time, or is that an overdub? Either way, the harmonies are an unexpected treat. They end it with a very cool, psychedelic reggae-jazz interlude that turns nebulous and polyrhythmic. Big Fun (Street Puddle Rainbow), which follows, is a pretty, third-stream after-the-rain vignette, making a good segue with Afternoon, the most trad piece here, driven by Cowal’s expansively warm, stately melodicism.

Big Fun (Liberation) is surprisingly tentative and gentle, Tranchina’s judicious solo bass bookending quiet, pensive sax and piano incisions. The high point of the album, and one of the most stunning jazz compositions of recent years, is the title track, a rollercoaster ride that alternates a devious, baritone sax funk riff with Cowal’s rippling, Schumannesque arpeggios and runs up and then all the way down the piano, adding brooding chromatics and shortening the distance between horror and comedy as the song goes on. It ends unresolved. Big Fun (Buzzsaw Flower Blossom) reverts to slowly crescendoing, Ran Blake-ish intensity, also mining a pretty/ugly dichotomy but with considerably more humor. A rather cruel lounge-jazz satire, Puce over Pumpkin with a Hint of Lime builds from a tricky circular piano/sax circularity to a coldly suspenseful, martial interlude before they swing it, Cowal going totally noir, Armstrong leading the band all the way up before the wheels all fall off, one by one. Cowal ends it on an especially lurid/icy note. And that’s how they end the album, with the creepy tone poem Big Fun (The Bellows), Anderies’ whispery cymbals growing to a succession of waves as the sax and bass rise tectonically against it – a call for help in a storm, maybe? Whatever the case, count this as one of the most entertainingly intense jazz albums of recent months, irrespective of when it might have come out.

March 4, 2012 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Reptet: The Future of Jazz?

Along with New York’s Moon Hooch, Chicago’s Herculaneum and Los Angeles ensemble Slumgum, Seattle band Reptet are at the forefront of fearless, aggressive, punk-inspired jazz. Their album At the Cabin came out last year; these self-described “horn-heavy tone bandits, injecting jazz with adrenaline and bringing it to the streets” blend influences from all over the map with a good-natured sense of humor. The whole album as well as their equally interesting previous releases are streaming at their Bandcamp. Although their instrumentation is fairly traditional, they’re more about creating a new, high-energy sound than drawing on past influences or styles. Funky hooks alternate with woozy collective improvisation, hard-hitting rhythms shift to quiet ambience, and the melodies reach far afield from the basic blues to Ethiopia, the Balkans and the baroque.

The brightly shuffling, rhythmically tricky Mayfield Safety kicks off the album. It’s a diptych with neatly arranged crescendos changing hands, from Izaak Mills’ tenor sax, to Chris Credit’s baritone sax, to Samantha Boshnack’s trumpet delivering the big payoff. The second part is considerably quieter, the trumpet’s microtonal quavers shifting to the unexpected warmth of Credit’s alto sax. Snow Leopard sends big, exuberant horn charts riding the waves from clave, to funk, to an Ethiopian triplet groove and some potent contrasts between the trumpet and Nelson Bell’s trombone working tightly with guest Mark Oi’s guitar. From there they segue into the casual, carefree intro to Milky Shakes, which turns droll and comedic in a catchy Moisturizer way, with a surprise ending.

Something Like What turns slinky soul-funk into Ethiopiques, packed with light/dark contrasts, nimble handoffs between voices and some especially choice, incisive clarinet work from Credit on klezmer-tinged clarinet. Mock Arena is an exuberantly successful clinic in full-band counterpoint and clever two-versus-two horn charts, while the bubbly Songitty Song plays variations on a latin mode. Silly outerspace efx contrast with soul/gospel joy in the practically ten-minute Agendacide, with solo euphonium kicking off a spacy jam that builds to a triumphant George Clinton-esque finish. The band’s sense of humor takes over completely on the last two tracks, the crazed, vividly breathless, jazzcore Trash Can Race, where laughter eventually overwhelms any sense of coherence, and the bouncy, sly faux-Balkan tune Pills, which they keep meticulously tight until those pills start to really kick in and at that point the same thing happens but much, much more slowly. What a great time to be alive and watch bands like Reptet creating the future of jazz in such a cutting-edge yet accessible way.

February 24, 2012 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment