Gene Seymour’s Top Ten Jazz Discs for 2012

So I’m finally catching up with Homeland after months of people yelling in my face about how my not being able to pay for Showtime was keeping me from a television series whose significance to our time-and-place rivals those of The Wire or The Sopranos. Even with all this hype and glory leading the way, nothing I’d read or heard before I dove into the DVDs alerted me to the relatively-minor-but-to-me-significant fact that Carrie Mathison, the ruthless, bipolar CIA counterterrorism operative played by Claire Danes, is a serious jazz buff.
At first, I’m thinking: How great for jazz to have even this much ancillary presence in a prestigious pop-culture phenomenon. And then I think, well, yeah, but…she’s, like, clinical, man! And not always in a good way. Do the producers imply that jazz is part of her problem, or a plausible way out of her personal wilderness? Hard to tell so far, except maybe for a crucial clue she derives early in the first season from watching a bass player’s fingers work through a chord progression. These days, serious jazz buffs, with or without their maladies showing, will take whatever they can get in validation from the zeitgeist.
Somehow, jazz goes on, with or without pop validation – even, as one keeps hearing, without compact discs, though one also hears of something called “vinyl” making inroads in the marketplace. One is still haunted by the passage of time – and of those who helped write the history of jazz’s first century. One of my picks is led by a man who died in 2011, and most of the albums listed here pay homage to another, bassist Paul Motian, paragon and patron saint of progressive music, who mentored or inspired many of the musicians cited below Nevertheless, those who follow Motian’s example aren’t standing still, but moving ahead, heedless of what the aforementioned marketplace is thinking about – when, that is, it bothers to think at all.

 

1.) Ron Miles, Quiver (Enja/yellowbird) – This intricately-wired gadget had me at hello with “Bruise” – which, at least to these ears, compresses the wavering emotional trajectory of one’s average 24-hour existence into nine-and-a-half action-packed minutes. And, as with any album worth its ranking, it just gets better from there. You wouldn’t think you’d get a big, thick sound out of a trio comprising a trumpet (Miles), a guitar (Bill Frisell) and a trap set (Brian Blade). But this isn’t your average chamber-jazz aggregation. It’s a pocket-sized orchestra with Frisell in top form, whether laying down chords broad enough to encircle a botanic garden or spinning contrapuntal phrases that make antsy-little-bird patterns in the sky. Blade’s already established himself as the most audacious of his generation of drummers and he proves here that his ears are as big as his moxie. Miles, one of the versatile and underappreciated horn players of the present day, leads the way with a nerviness too assured to put on airs, but not afraid to think while singing – or vice-versa. Everything this trio touches works like a fine old timepiece, whether it’s Cotton-Club Ellingtonia (“Doin’ the Voom Voom”), gut-bucket blues (“There Aint No Sweet Man that’s Worth the Salt of my Tears” – and who needs a lyric sheet after a title like that?), old-school balladry (a back-door approach to “Days of Wine and Roses”) and even some rockabilly-with-quirk-sauce (“Just Married”). After you’re through listening to it, wind it up again just to see how the tunes land in your head a second or third time. And that won’t be enough.

2.) Ravi Coltrane, Spirit Fiction (Blue Note) – After more than a decade in which Ravi Coltrane’s been out-front as a leader and composer, newcomers still insist on bringing his parents into the discussion; how he and John play the same axes, how much they’re alike (or not), how Alice’s incantatory style has influenced him and on and on…No use complaining, since just about everything’s that been said on these matters so far has been true. But as of this, his most accomplished album yet, Coltrane has more than earned the right to have his artwork taken on its own distinctive terms. Enabled by co-producer Joe Lovano (about whom, more later), Coltrane triumphantly puts forth a personal vision that inquires as lithely as it asserts, that probes as decisively as it propels. He and his album benefit from having two ensembles at their disposal; a quartet with pianist Luis Perdomo, bassist Drew Gress and drummer E.J. Strickland that gives added running room for Coltrane’s massive chops (especially on such freewheeling runs as “Spring & Hudson” and the more meditative showcase for his soprano sax, “Marilyn & Tammy”) and a quintet with trumpeter Ralph Alessi, bassist James Genus, pianist Geri Allen and drummer Eric Harland that engages his conversational agility. And with individualists as those in the latter crew, one can’t help but listen as deeply as one speaks. Alessi’s compositions, “Klepto,” “Who Wants Ice Cream” and “Yellow Cat,” extract deep tone colors and slippery phrasing from Coltrane as the imperturbable Allen strings together gem-like chords with escalating force. Lovano joins in on worthwhile examinations of Ornette Coleman (“Check Out Time”) and the aforementioned late, lamented Motian (“Fantasm”).

3.) Vijay Iyer Trio, Accelerando (ACT) – There’s no respite in pianist Iyer’s assault on the traditional jazz repertoire. If anything, his trio shakes things up with even more urgency on its latest production. Yet there’s also greater authority in its overall execution given how better attuned its members are to each other’s instincts. With something as well-worn as “Human Nature” (and no, once and for all, Michael Jackson did NOT write it, but my Hartford housing-project homeboy Steve Porcaro did with John Bettis), Iyer, bassist Stephen Crump and drummer Marcus Gilmore re-jigger familiar elements into something like a grand incantation while still making it sound like something you could dance to (though it might be a slightly different dance from the one you’re prepared for). The trio also unearths unexpected theme-extending possibilities in other pop-funk guests on the playlist: “Mmmhmm” by bassist “Thundercat” Bruner and Flying Lotus and “The Star of the Story”, written by Rod Temperton for the seventies disco band Heatwave. The jazz “standards” are, of course, so left-field that Henry Threadgill’s wildly-eccentric “Little Pocket-Sized Demons” is given as straightforward a reading as can be imagined while a conventionally-swinging foundation is generously applied to Herbie Nichols’ typically-unconventional “Wildflower.” And why doesn’t it surprise that when Duke Ellington is invited to the party, his house gift is the lesser-known-than-it-should-be “Village of the Virgins,” from the maestro’s collaboration with choreographer Alvin Ailey? Iyer’s own pieces, including the explosive title track, move forward with a kind of mutant turbulence reminiscent of both Andrew Hill and Charles Mingus, while achieving a definitive shape they’ve earned on their own. It’s hard to tell at times whether harmonies are being re-imagined here as rhythms, or the other way around. Either way, you’re ready for whatever the Iyer Gang stirs up next time.

4.) Henry Threadgill, Tomorrow Sunny/the Revelry, Spp (Pi) – Yup, that’s the title — even those last three letters, which look like the tail end of a URL address from an undiscovered continent, but likely stand for “species”, given the biological roots of the ensemble’s name, Zooid (pronounced “zoh-oyd” and defined as “an organic cell or organized body that has independent movement within a living organism.”) Once again, it would appear Henry Threadgill’s not going to make things easy for us. Yet if you keep in mind what that Z-word means, you can begin to understand how his group’s instrumental voices merge to form their own arresting unity from ostensible chaos. To the regular quintet — the omnipresent Threadgill on reeds, the irrepressible Liberty Elfman on guitar, Jose Davila on tuba and trombone, Stomu Takeishi on bass guitar, Elliot Humberto Kavee on percussion – cellist Christopher Hoffman is added, which broadens the range of melodic-harmonic conversation while providing additional underpinning for the rhythmic attack The frisky result is the most cohesive and accessible of Threadgill’s previous four Zooid albums. It’s almost as if the guys finally got around to what they wanted to say all along and are better able to bring all of us into the flow. Then again, maybe we’re the ones who are adjusting to the seemingly fragmented nature of this music given how increasingly static our digitized day-to-day living has become. There’s a third possibility: That the lilting dynamics of this particular disc shields more disconcerting perceptions (e.g. If “tomorrow” is “sunny,” then what’s that make “today”? And how long before “tomorrow” gets here?) But why make things harder for us than they need to be? Just revel, Humans from Earth.

5.) Luciana Souza, Duos III (Sunnyside) – Her voice is such a gorgeous instrument that it tempts producers to frame it in all manner of contexts, whether it’s Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry set to music or Chet Baker’s songbook steeped in indigo. But the formula that’s thus far worked best for Souza puts her in a studio with the finest guitarists of her native Brazil and lets them run free in duet mode with the classic repertoire of their homeland. To say this third installment is as great as its 2001 and 2005 predecessors only solidifies the stature of this career-defining trilogy. It’s hard to single out any of her accompanists, Toninho Horta, Romero Lubambo and Marco Pereira, since each manage to bring out her inner poet, chemist or dancer, whichever the occasion requires. Her interplay with Pereira on the latter’s “Dona Lu” is as ingenious as it is enchanting while Lubambo, mainstay of the invaluable Trio La Paz, collaborates with her on a transcendent, enrapturing version of Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Dindi,” which, as with many of the other tunes here, sounds both warmly familiar and startlingly fresh.

6.) Dave Douglas, Be Still (Green Leaf) – Not since 1998’s Charms of the Night Sky has a Dave Douglas album beguiled as consistently as this. The soft, wistful essences of Be Still have more elegiac tinctures given that it is a series of tunes, many of them in the folk and spiritual idiom, dedicated to the memory of the trumpeter’s late mother Emily. Hence, the first verse of “This is My Father’s World” substitutes “mother” for “father.” Moreover, the quintet of Douglas, saxophonist Jon Irabagon, pianist Matt Mitchell, bassist Linda Oh and drummer Rudy Royston make the century-old hymn swing ever so gently behind the spring-water vocals of bluegrass singer Aoife O’Donovan, who shows here that she can hold her own with the jazz kids. She brings such limpid, ethereal grace to such songs as “Be Still My Soul” (whose music comes from Jean Sibelius), “Barbara Allen” and Douglas’ “Living Streams” that you almost wish she was on all the tracks. But Douglas’ own instrument is plaintive and poignant enough, even with it kicks up some dust on the more festive “Going Somewhere with You.” By its last cut, “Whither Must I Wander”, Douglas’ tribute seems suspended in a nether region between grief and acceptance, solemnity and release. It’s where most of us end up after we lose someone close to us – and where we sometimes tend to stay longer than we should. It’s that very ambivalence that makes Douglas’ musical wake seem a generous, more authentic gift to the living.

7.) Fred Hersch Trio, Alive at the Vanguard (Palmetto) – It’s not the first album Hersch has recorded at the fabled Village Vanguard – and, now that we’re sure he’s in fine fettle, one expects it won’t be the last. But that word in the title, “Alive,” carries added weight precisely because of the pianist’s astounding recovery from an AIDS-related coma in 2008. He seems to have come back from the abyss with greater fortitude and rawer energy than he’d had before. Even the romantic lyricism, one of many attributes that prompted immediate comparisons with Bill Evans upon his earlier emergence, packs earthier, more serrated textures on such intriguing medleys as “The Wind/Moon and Sand” and “From This Moment On/The Song Is You.” He literally tosses the Evans comparisons in the spin cycle by melding “Nardis” with Ornette Coleman’s “Lonely Woman.” With his simpatico band mates, bassist John Hebert and drummer Eric McPherson, opening doors and windows for his imaginative faculties, Hersch leaps, saunters and, sometimes, stomps through those passages with a unassailable bravado that tells anybody who’s listening: Yes, I’m alive, thanks. Are you?

8.) John Abercrombie Quartet, Within A Song (ECM) – Yes, guitarist Abercrombie is the name on the door, and he is also leader of the pack and owner of the context (jazz music from the late 1950s and early 1960s that inspired him). But from the moment Joe Lovano’s tenor saxophone starts his journey into deeper, broader variations on “Where Are You” that are worthy of the mighty Coleman Hawkins and his epoch-making 1939 recording of “Body and Soul,” he’s the one you’re most anxious to hear again throughout, whether soaring on balladry or pirouetting through Something Completely Different (e.g. Ornette Coleman’s “Blues Connotation.”) Abercrombie’s downy, single-note lyricism seems to yield so much of the floor to the greatest saxophonist of his generation that you almost overlook the unflappable expertise he shows in letting his guitar wrap itself around all manner of rhythms. Both bassist Drew Gress and drummer Joey Baron glide and pivot their way through whatever each tune requires, whether it’s the title track (Abercrombie’s crafty inversion of “Without A Song,” reminiscent of the 1961 colloquy on that standard between Jim Hall and Sonny Rollins on the latter’s “The Bridge”) or pieces by John Coltrane (“Wise One”) and Bill Evans (“Interplay”, “Sometime Ago”). It’s a delicate bit of retrospective-izing that never fawns over the past, but finds elegant ways to re-invigorate it.

9.) Sam Rivers, Dave Holland, Barry Atschul, Reunion: Live in New York (Pi) – Do the math. Rivers died a year ago this month at age 88. He recorded this in May, 2007. That would make him 84 at the time; actually, 83, since his birthday was in September. Whatever the case, you will simply not believe that a man in his eighties is capable of the kind of sustained energetic invention on saxophone and flute that Rivers displays on this epic series of live performances with old friends Holland and Atschul at Columbia University, their first performance together in a quarter-century. Those who recall how naturally lucid and enrapturing their free-form interplay was in the 1970s may not find any true astonishments in this interchange. Even so, there is always anticipation whenever Holland tosses a bass line or two into the void. Will Rivers grab at a bop-like riff and weave a few quick licks into a bird call? Will Atschul (and where has he been all this time?) pounce on his hi-hat to propel their thoughts or pry open a new path with the proverbial different drum? Maybe Rivers will move to a piano; something he rarely, if ever did back in the day. This is free jazz at its most accessible, which makes it no less challenging and much more fun. The only thing that would have made it more galvanic an event would have been an appearance by Anthony Braxton to round out the crew that was aboard for the Holland-led 1973 ECM disc, Conference of the Birds. As it is, this Reunion was more than enough to remind devotees-of-a-certain-age of the sublime, long-lost joys of listening to musicians in loft apartments make artful noise purely for inspiration’s sake.

10.) Bobby Hutcherson, Somewhere in the Night (Kind of Blue) –. Aficionados of the jazz organ know Joey De Francesco’s cooking facilities are at even- or above-par with such masters of the pedal-walking bass line as Jimmies Smith and McGriff. But on this 2009 live date with vibraphonist Hutcherson at Dizzy’s Coca-Cola club at New York’s Jazz @Lincoln Center, Joey Dee shows off his commanding maturity and range of expression. He seems especially charged by this eclectic play list to flash some lyrical agility in his solos. Who knew that Duke Ellington’s “Take the Coltrane” would make for such a four-alarm barnburner with De Francesco tearing into riffs only to blow them apart and use their shards as fuel for thin-air improv? He’d walk off with the whole program in his back pocket if it weren’t for sure-handed drummer Byron Landham driving the crew in the focused, but open-hearted way your parents would take your Little League team to and from a long-distance away game and guitarist Peter Bernstein un-spooling his own versatility (especially on the title track, best remembered by those of us raised on black-and-white TV as “The Theme from ‘Naked City’”) from a pronounced center-of -gravity. But this date, basically and properly, belongs to the leader, who turns 72 next month and, despite his seemingly inexhaustible drive, still doesn’t get the props he deserves as both instrumentalist and composer.

HONORABLE MENTION
1.) Anat Cohen, Claroscuro (Anzic)
2.) Matthew Shipp, Elastic Aspects (Thirsty Ear)
3.) Ted Nash, The Creep (Plastic Sax)
4.) Chick Corea & Gary Burton, Hot House (Concord)
5.) Billy Hart, All Our Reasons (ECM)

BEST NEW ARTIST: Ryan Truesdell, Centennial: Newly Discovered Works by Gil Evans (ArtistsShare) Honorable Mention: Reggie Quinerly, Music Inspired by Freedmantown (Redefinition)

BEST LATIN JAZZ: Guillermo Klein Y Los Gauchos, Carrera (Sunnyside) Honorable Mention: David Virelles, Continuum (Pi)

BEST VOCAL: Luciana Souza, Duos III (Sunnyside)
Honorable Mention: Tessa Souter, Beyond the Blue (Motema); Cassandra Wilson, Another Country (Entertainment One); Susie Arioli, All The Way (Jazzheads)

BEST REISSUE: Charles Mingus, The Jazz Workshop Concerts, 1964-65 (Mosaic)

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