Gene Seymour’s Top Ten Jazz Albums for 2023

There’s been so much wonderful music out and about this year that I could have easily plucked a few more from my runners-up without losing any sleep. (A motif to which, as with others baked into this year’s blog, we shall, in roundabout manner, return.) And not to sound like a broken record, as it were, but you wonder why with so much talent and achievement coming from so many directions and from so many generations, jazz remains an afterthought, a marginal presence in the global marketplace. Unless I’m mistaken, nobody’s yet asked Esperanza Spalding – sorry, esperanza spalding – to headline a Super Bowl halftime show. Or even an NBA All-Star Weekend. At least, she headlines this list, or, more accurately, shares top billing.
But then, I often wonder whether music, any music, has much of a place in people’s lives these days. If whatever I’ve been seeing lately on Saturday Night Live’s musical guest shots are any indication, presentation and fashion are what matter more than whatever sounds are being made. (I know, I know, whatever the hell am I doing watching Saturday Night Live lately in the first place? Can’t blame COVID anymore, even if it doesn’t seem to have gone away after all…) So maybe it’s no longer just jazz –whatever people believe it to be – that’s getting hit in the face; it’s all the other genres that are now all merely boutiques. There are now college curricula in Hip-Hop History in case you haven’t heard.


Maybe this explains why lately I’ve been thinking about the way past generations, including mine, used to buy records. Briefly: you went to whatever outlet or department store had people you could trust, and you hung out, browsed, and maybe something was playing in the background that made you go, “What’s that?” The people you trusted were happy to not only tell you, but bring out a fresh copy of the thing that turned our head and you decided you needed to take this “ride” home. And then you shared it with other people who trusted you and maybe if there were little people in your house, they would hear it and start getting ideas…


My origin story. If you’re reading this, it’s probably yours, too.


I don’t know what the equivalent of this process is today unless you count tweets and Bandcamp messages in whatever in-box you reserve for such intelligence. I only know it’s not the same and neither is the world that make those earlier, more haphazard encounters possible.


All I know is that the Good Stuff still somehow makes it out and about. Think of me, then, as that guy in the department store or record outlet – whatever that is – tilting his head at the turntable in the corner. Like that? There’s some more over here…

 

 




1.) Fred Hersch & esperanza spalding, Alive at the Village Vanguard (Palmetto) – You need to give this one to the wisenheimers in your life demanding to know what’s so special about jazz, or even what jazz is. It’s possible these people at least remember hearing Barack Obama profess affection for Spalding while he was still president; maybe they’ve heard or even seen live performances of her varied bands showcasing her upright bass, acrobatic vocals, and varied ensembles. For this bare-bones live set at jazz’s Holy Dive with the redoubtable pianist Hersch, Spalding left her bass at home and what results from their collaboration – which I’ve been labeling “Herschsperanza,” and try and stop me from obtaining a copyright! – may be the grandest, most insurgent act of her still-ascendant career. Traditional pop standards are blown up, rewoven, and all-but terraformed into audacious counter-narratives through the interaction of Hersch’s polymorphic variations and Spalding’s serpentine, uproarious digressions. From Ira Gershwin’s lines of “But Not For Me” (“I was a fool to fall and get that way/Hi-ho, alas, and also lack-a-day”), Spalding extrapolates the following strain of vocalese: “Oh, me. Oh, my. What a sad case I seem to be. It’s my fault, letting love to lead the way. I should know that there’ll be skies of gray. I can’t say I’ve seen too many, but they say that Russian plays do boast of many gray skies, all right – and then some words I don’t really understand because it’s, like, old English – hi-ho, alas, and lackaday. That’s how I feel, confused about the whole situation…” She carries this willed ingenuity into smart-alecky battle against Bobby Troup’s ring-a-ding lyrics on Neal Hefti’s “Girl Talk, which in her hands becomes a twelve-minute proto-feminist interrogation of male presumptiveness, at one point, veering into issues of “economic sustainability. Reduce, Reuse. Recycle…Am I lying?” while still riding the song’s theme and changes as if she were on a thoroughbred leading the Preakness by a length-and-a-half. Charlie Parker’s “Little Suede Shoes,” in like fashion, weaves a dream of dancing in suede shoes just as Hersch’s “Dream of Monk” becomes, with Spalding’s vocals, a clarion call for diligent, if circumspect weirdness. These tracks were culled from a three-night engagement, and I bet those in attendance felt as you will when this album ends: wishing these two crazy kids never stop.

 

 

 

 

 

 



2.) Matthew Shipp, The Intrinsic Nature of Shipp (Mahakala) –Three years ago, Shipp wrote an intriguing essay/manifesto, “Black Mystery School Pianists” (Monk, Herbie Nichols, Mal Waldron, Andrew Hill, Hassan Ibn Ali, to name a few examples) who each cultivated willfully idiosyncratic styles constituting “the subconscious of the jazz idiom…a secret code, passed through an underground way of passage, a language outside the mainstream.” Shipp’s own body-of-work over the last quarter-century so exemplifies this subversive counter-tradition he’s defined that it’s tempting to think of him as its apotheosis, especially when weighing the considerable assets of this latest solo album, which could be a kind of hypertext to his essay. The performances here feel at once more expansive and more challenging than usual. While he can still pile on the tone clusters with his customary intensity, as on the aptly named “Crystal Structures,” Shipp here lets more air and space flow and settle in his thematic extensions as with the graceful and intricate “That Vibration” and in his enigmatic montage of fugitive riffs on “The” – yes, that’s what it’s called and whatever mood he’s in, there abides in Shipp a punkish “what’s-it-to-you” impertinence hat, oddly and appropriately, makes him more endearing, whether he’s throwing down the sledgehammer on “The Bulldozer Poetics” or letting his ruminative side reach for deeper, wider tonal combinations on “Tune Into It.” Shipp cherishes his “Mystery School” progenitors for giving him permission to be as mad, bad, glad, and unpredictable as he wants, and needs, to be. However far he continues to expand on this tradition (and there’s a lot about this album that suggests a transition, even a breakthrough), this school won’t close with him. And times being what they are, I think the school will only increase its enrollment because there’ll always be outliers in America’s backyards and basements searching, as Shipp once did, for affirmation that it’s not only O.K. to be as weird as Thelonious, Herbie, and the rest, it’s necessary.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



3.) Jason Moran, From the Dancehall to the Battlefield (Yes) – Visionary badass James Reese Europe (1881-1919) helped make the American Century possible, though you likely never heard of him. He journeyed from his native Alabama to New York in his early 20s to write and conduct show music, then organized the Clef Club, an ambitious collective of Black musicians, whose dance orchestra, 125 members strong, performed a significant recital at Carnegie Hall. His ensembles bent the angularities of ragtime closer towards the looser, more propulsive syncopations shaping the jazz to come. He fought in World War I and organized the 369th Infantry Band, better known as the “Hellfighters.” He hadn’t been back home in Harlem for very long before he was stabbed to death, at just 38, by a drummer incensed with the boss’s criticisms of his on-stage deportment. You would think that a legend of this magnitude yielded dozens of contemporary tribute albums by now, if not a whole Netflix series. But you would also figure that Moran, an artist of comparable vision, would leap to the forefront of an eclectic parade in Europe’s honor, carrying the Hellfighter’s legacy across the century by seamlessly fusing Europe’s arrangement of “Ballin’ the Jack” with the late Geri Allen’s rousing standard “Feed the Fire.” A similar, even greater melding of different eras is executed with Europe’s paean to fallen soldiers, “Flee as a Bird to Your Mountain” transitioning to Albert Ayler’s “Ghosts” with solicitousness and intelligence towards both forms of 20th century modernism. Throughout, Moran’s wide-ranging pianistic gifts and crafty showmanship honors tradition and extends its possibilities with neither undue solemnity nor gratuitous flourish and his various ensembles, anchored by longtime trio mates bassist Tarus Mateen and drummer Nasheet Waits and including David Adewumi on trumpet, Reginald Cyntje and Chris Bates on trombones, Logan Richardson on alto sax, Brian Settles on tenor sax, Darryl Harper on clarinet, José Davila (about whom more later) on tuba, acquit themselves on “Clef Club March,” “Castle House Rag,” “St. Louis Blues” and “That Moaning Trombone” with discipline and energy that would have mightily pleased the demanding Europe. (Available on vinyl and from Bandcamp.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



4.) Henry Threadgill Ensemble, The Other One (PI) – The best jazz book I read this past year is Easily Slip Into Another World (Knopf), Threadgill’s autobiography, written with Brett Hayes Edwards. If you only knew Threadgill’s music, for which he’s already received the Pulitzer Prize, you could have surmised he had an extraordinary life. But…wow! Growing up musical in Chicago and helping create the seminal Association for the advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) before touring with an evangelical preacher in the mid-1960s and then heading off to Vietnam, hoping to survive jungle combat and racism…And even these experiences, however vividly rendered, are no less significant than all his spellbinding insights into modernism, improvisation, and using time and space to extend harmonic possibilities. Not that you couldn’t retrieve some of those same insights from listening to this three-movement composition, “On Valence,” conducted by Threadgill, rendered by an arresting 12-member combination of musicians, including pianist Davis Virelles, violinist Sara Caswell (about whom more later), violist Stephanie Griffin, cellists Christopher Hoffman and Mariel Roberts, and Threadgill’s longtime tuba player Jose Davilo. Even bassoonists Sara Schoenbeck and Adam Cordero are given opportunities to break off into their own intricate, elegantly woven musings. The 16-minute “Movement II” is a tour-de-force of roiling, extemporaneous interplay of the string section with saxophonists Alfredo Colón, Noah Becker, and Peyton Pleninger Each movement and subsection can be heard as episodes in an edge-of-the-seat pursuit thriller and its myriad arcane pleasures may be more accessible. But then, even at its most abstract and inscrutable, Threadgill’s music, in any configuration, finds a way of inviting you in. At the precipice of 80, Threadgill’s compositional powers seem, if anything, more formidable than ever. And as both his book and this album prove, he’s a helluva storyteller, too.

 

 

 

 

 

 


5.) Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society, Dynamic Maximum Tension (Nonesuch) – So let’s see: Buckminster Fuller, Levon Helm, Mae West, Bob Brookmeyer, Alan Turing…The far-flung subject matter for this wild and, yes, somewhat wooly program of inspirational big-band adventures comes across like a code waiting to be deciphered. Indeed, the first track on the second disc, a tribute to Turing, whose genius helped break down the Nazis, is entitled “Codebreaker” and its opening bars dare you to write out whatever combination of words and numbers its beat is tapping out – except you’ll be too busy digging that beat to care whether it means anything or not. The pleasures are constant, the inventions surprise. “Dymaxion,” a portmanteau of the album title, was coined by Fuller the merry futurist and the rhythmic mischief makes you alert to possibility and transfiguration throughout from “All In,” a tribute to charter Secret Society member Laurie Frank, to “Last Waltz for Levon,” which honors the memory of the late drummer for The Band to “Wingèd Beasts,” whose silky, tendril-like design is reminiscent of Brookmeyer’s arrangements for Gerry Mulligan’s big bands. Elsewhere, Cecile McLorin Salvant (about whom more later) drops by for “Mae West: Advice,” to have her impudent fun with Paisley Rekdal’s dada-like lyrics mimicking La West’s saucy bon mots (“…date a cad and canoodle/be éclat on a cot…”) As brainy as Argue’s music is, thematically and conceptually, it never fails to hit and sustain a solid groove, even on the epic, near-35-minute “Tensile Curves,” an anthology of tension-release motifs, time signatures, and riff extensions inspired by Duke Ellington’s “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue.” Once again, you’ll be tempted to take the track apart, shove its fragments beneath an ontological microscope, and probe for methodology by virtue of its sheer dimension. But as with everything else in this bountiful, sunny exhibition of relentless virtuosity and cheeky intelligence, you’re better off just letting the orchestrations wash over and carry you along with its most of its mysteries intact and undisturbed. Not for nothing, after all, does Argue’s 18-piece aggregation roam the Earth as a “Secret Society.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


6.) Cecile McLorin Salvant, Mélusine (Nonesuch) – She keeps raising the stakes on her range of expression, her repertoire, and her conceptual prowess, both as a vocalist and as a maker of albums. Once again, she shows her fearlessness in not doing the same thing twice with this daring, almost imposing array of French chanson and other music woven around the record’s eponymous half-woman-half-serpent mythic figure from the 14th century. (The short version: she turned into a dragon and flew away after her duplicitous lover came upon her snake-like part.) The song cycle fashioned to tell her story begins with “Est-Ce Ainsi Que Les Hommes Vivent” (“Is This the Way Men Live?”) with lyrics by Louis Aragon and music by Leo Ferre, which is followed closely by Charles Trenet’s “La Route Enchantée” and eventually to Mélusine posing the musical question, “Dites Moi Que Je Suis Belle” (“Tell Me I’m Beautiful”), carrying echoes of Salvant’s “Look at Me” from her 2015 For One to Love. Which is as good a prompt as any to how the singer’s gifts as a composer meld so seamlessly with those of the French composers she honors here, most especially in the startlingly gorgeous title song, which she performs bilingually with only Daniel Swenberg’s acoustic guitar as backup. It would be tempting to say that Salvant, like her heroine here, has taken flight it weren’t for the fact – yes, an irrefutable fact – that she is already her own mighty legend, majestically soaring several hundred miles above any vocalist in any medium you can name.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


7.) Sara Caswell, The Way to You (Anzic) – One of those cases where a seasoned, resourceful instrumentalist is matched with a first-rate supporting cast (vibraphonist Chris Dingman as special guest star!) and a far-flung itinerary of genres and styles. And what you get is an album that refuses to sit quietly on the shelf all year long. Caswell’s clear tone, fluid dynamics, and agile phrasing on the violin are what you needed all year round, whether to paint sonic landscapes you can imagine drifting by your car window (“South Shore”), pull your coat in frisky, breathless give-and-take on a crowded dance floor (“7 Anéis”), tear off an aromatic slice of classic hard bop (“Voyage” by Kenny Barron – about whom more later), or bathe the senses in balladry, by turns probing (”Stillness”), impassioned (“O Que Tinha De Ser,” “On the Way to You”), and pastoral (“Warren’s Way”). Caswell led her working quartet of bassist Ike Sturm, drummer Jared Schonig, and guitarist Jesse Lewis for a project that, if the album notes are to be believed, took 17 years to put together. She’s very busy; her dance card has names like the aforementioned Threadgill, Spalding and Argue, and prominent jazz bandleaders crowded all along the genre waterfront in pursuit of her services. I speak here only for myself, but I hope it doesn’t take as long for a follow-up to materialize, even though I don’t expect to get tired of this one.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


8.) Kenny Barron, The Source (Artwork) – The first thing to mention is the gorgeous acoustics. I’ve never actually been to the Théâtre d’Athenéé in Paris, but after diving deep into this solo recital countless times over the past year, the place is as familiar to me as my family’s basement rec room (where, by the way, I first heard Barron’s piano comping on Joe Henderson’s 1967 album, The Kicker.) As with his immediate surroundings, Professor Barron conveys an imposing, but expansive familiarity in his playing. And yet, as much as you think you may already know about the Strayhorn-Ellington standards, “Daydream” and “Isfahan,” Barron burrows deep within the contours of their melodies rather than spin into virtuosic inventions. The corners, this approach insists, is where you find the gold. He also reasserts his primacy as an interpreter of Monk’s music, speaking fluent Thelonious (while remaining his elegant. dryly romantic self) on “Teo” and “Well, You Needn’t.” But it’s in Barron’s own beautiful and haunting compositions where what once seems familiar is transformed into something you never heard before. “Dolores Street, SF”is a fog-shrouded dawn over a landscape huge enough to contain both possibility and loss and he has you on the edge of your seat wondering how, or if, it reaches resolution. The Brazilian-inflected “Sunshower” has a different, downward trajectory that puts forth its own bittersweet lyricism while the jocular “What If?” and the eerie “Phantoms” are reinvigorated by Barron’s authoritative progressions. The master, all told, is in wondrously durable voice and leaves you waiting for more surprises, alone or with others.

 

 

 

 

 

 



9.) Anat Fort Trio, The Berlin Sessions (Sunnyside) – The world as we know it has been all too much with Israeli pianist Fort, who was forced by the 2020 lockdown to be separated from bassist Gary Lang and drummer Roland Schneider after two decades of working together. Two-and-a-half years later, they reunited in Munich for a one-time gig and then headed for Berlin’s Hansa Studios to release what was apparently a metric ton of pent-up energy. In these sessions, you hear the joy, relief, and exuberance in being able to let chance take its course and play freely with whatever ideas and phrases materialize in their shared space. “First Dance” sets off a four-part, 16-minute suite of reacquaintance that gives the group a chance to loosen up, pitch, catch, and spin off each other’s ideas and, as the cliché goes, it’s as though they’ve never been away from each other. Once they’re settled in, the trio settles in for another series of pieces written by Fort and inspired by pieces of eastern art at New York’s Rubin Museum, making “The Jain Suite” its own gallery of insinuating harmonic and tonal designs. The reunion spills over into another disc with a rollicking blend of Fort originals (“Wish Cloud,” “Fire Drill Blues”), a matched set of old (“All the Things You Are”) and (relatively) new (“Just The Way You Are”) pop standards delivered with conviction and affection, and even a little something from Level 42 (“The Sun Goes Down”) What made this trio session stand out so starkly from others released this year are two meditative pieces that seemed especially affecting given the violent upheavals in Fort’s homeland: “Oseh Shalom,” a rendition of composer Nurit Hirsh’s prayer for peace, and “The World as a Human Being,” which comes across as both a somber lament for squandered opportunities and a defiant plea for renewal and resolution. At least, that’s what I heard. But, as a listener, I’m part of this collaborative process, too.

 

 

 

 

 



10.) Allen Lowe & the Constant Sorrow Orchestra, In the Dark (ESP) – These three discs celebrate (if that’s the right word) a more arduous recovery process. Lowe, a protean composite of saxophonist, bandleader, archivist, producer, composer, sound engineer, musicologist, cultural historian, and gadfly (still not sure whether he altogether approves of my using that last one) has had to somehow persevere through these myriad vocations while undergoing more than a dozen operations for cancer, including surgery for removal of a tumor from his sinus. This left Lowe with a debilitating case of insomnia in which he was at best able to doze for minutes at a time, said times being as early at 5 a.m. or as late as, well, 5 a.m. Throughout this harrowing time, Lowe somehow kept writing and composing music and, with the help of his faithful and highly adaptable musician friends – pianist (and fellow musicologist) Lewis Porter, clarinetist Ken Peplowski, altoist Aaron Johnson, drummer Rob Landis, bassist Kyle Colina, trombonist Brian Simontacchi, trumpeter Kellin Hannas, and baritone saxist Lisa Parrott – assembled a formidably eclectic bounty of recordings that manage to evoke several traditions of jazz and blues in ways that sound both cutting edge and mischievously retro in the manner of Lowe’s previous projects. (In case you need it, there’s even a tango called “Velasco’s Revenge.”) Scattered throughout are compositions prefaced by “In the Dark” suggesting they were written at those midnight-or-later hours when he couldn’t sleep. The rest of those titles suggest his moods of those moments; on the one hand, there are “Night Terrors,” “Tears,” and “; on the other, there’s “Dance of the Apparitions” and “Elvis Don’t you Weep.” Along with the tributes to Eric Dolphy, Barry Harris, Jelly Roll Morton, and Duke Ellington, there are other crafty gnomish tunes with such crafty gnomish titles as “Kickin’ the Bucket,” “Innuendo in Blue,” “Blues for Old Jews,” and “Do You Know What It Means to Leave New Orleans,” the latter of which could be a teaser for his long-awaited Louis Armstrong project. Yes, he’s working as you read this, despite the ongoing physical challenges and, lest one forget, he sounds pretty good on his tenor saxophone for somebody who’s been through as much as he has.

 

 

 

 



HONORABLE MENTION: Tyshawn Sorey Trio, Continuing (PI), Myra Melford’s Fire & Water Quintet, Hear the Light Singing (RogueArt), Christian McBride’s New Jawn, Prime (Mack Avenue), Brad Mehldau, Your Mother Should Know: Brad Mehldau Plays the Beatles (Nonesuch), Kris Davis’s Diatom Ribbons, Live at the Village Vanguard (Pyroclastic), Orrin Davis, The Red Door (Smoke Sessions) Craig Taborn, Joëlle Léandre, Mat Maneri, hEARoes (RogueArt).


VOCAL
Fred Hersch & esperanza spalding, Alive at the Village Vanguard (Palmetto)
Cecile McLorin Salvant, Mélusine (Nonesuch)
Luciana Sousa & Trio Corrente, Cometa (Sunnyside)

 

 


LATIN
Miguel Zenon & Luis Perdomo, El Arte del Bolero, Vol. 2 (Miel Music)
Luciana Sousa & Trio Corrente, Cometa (Sunnyside)
Arturo O’Farrill, Legacies (Blue Note)

 

 

 

 



HISTORIC
Geri Allen & Kurt Rosenwinkel, A Lovesome Thing (Motema)
Ahmad Jamal, Emerald City Nights: Live at the Penthouse 1966-1968 (Jazz Detective)
Sun Ra & His Arkestra, Jazz in Silhouette: Expanded Edition (Cosmic Myth) 

Gene Seymour’s Top Ten Jazz Albums for 2022

Not one of the better years for recorded jazz, I’ve decided, though what’s listed below is still, as Spencer Tracy once put it, “cherce.” I’ve spent more than three decades insisting that jazz’s yearly yield of recordings showed that its energy and quality was surging despite the relative and not-so-benign neglect of what used to be called the music industry. But I now think we may have finally hit, if not a wall, maybe a bump, or a dip in the road.

Then again, I wasn’t expecting much from this past year since everybody and everything is still recovering from the last couple years of lockdown and loathing. With a couple of exceptions, most of what I heard last year sounded tentative and restrained, as if jazz were feeling its way through the emotional wreckage of the previous six years (or so) to get its bearings; just like you, me, and everybody we know.

Which I wouldn’t have minded so much if 2022 hadn’t also been Charles Mingus’s centennial, reminding me of a time when jazz was ALL affirmation, thrust, and drive. Even the best jazz music I heard on record this year seemed to make its way hesitantly, even diffidently from the edges of space while Mingus, the prototype of whatever’s meant by “force of nature,” went all out, coming at and for you, whether you were amenable to what he was laying down or not. When reacquainting myself with the polyphonic momentum and high drama of “Black Saint and the Sinner Lady,” “Pithecanthropus Erectus,” “Fables of Faubus” and other Mingus landmarks, I found myself wandering further back to Fletcher Henderson’s deco-dynamics of the twenties and thirties and wondering where all that hotfoot urgency and furious invention had gone – and whether it’ll every come back.

Why wonder? The founder of Rolling Stone was quoted this past year saying rock-and-roll had declined so much that it’s never coming back. “It’ll end up,” Jann Wenner said, “like jazz.” Burn! From wherever he’s calling home, Wenner likely hasn’t even heard of Cecile McLorin Salvant or Maria Schneider or (maybe) even Robert Glasper, no matter how much their work engages the present moment. What I suppose he’s really saying is that rock-and-roll, as with jazz, blues, or even, I’ve been hearing lately, hip-hop no longer own or compel the present moment as they once did. (What does? Podcasts? Hulu? The noises in Elon Musk’s head?)

But as much as it hurts to admit it, Wenner’s right. The dual queens of pop, Beyoncé Knowles and Taylor Swift, now preside over the music zeitgeist without much of a challenge. We could do worse. We could do better. In the meantime, we tend to our gardens and fend off negativity. And it’s hard not to be negative given the losses in the past year of people like Creed Taylor, Ronnie Cuber, Sue Mingus, Ramsey Lewis, jamie branch, Joey De Francesco, Ron Miles, Charnett Moffett, Grachan Moncur III, and Pharoah Sanders. When one or more of them leave, we cast about for replacements until we accept that there are no replacements for any of them. There’s just us, the originals who remain, and those whose names we don’t know yet, but can’t wait to get into the action. Zeitgeist or no zeitgeist, these folks go on, no matter how messed up or constricted the rest of the world is.

 

 



1.) Cecile McLorin Salvant, Ghost Song (Nonesuch) – We have a right to expect our best artists to make deep, hard connections to the present from whatever angles they choose. This latest act of insurgency from the finest, shrewdest, most adventurous jazz vocalist of her generation didn’t only connect (as it were); it seemed to be inventing the emotional whirlwind of the entire year as it spun wildly into being, anticipating hope and dread at every shaded turn. Remember that song from The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy, Toto, and their shabby retinue have escaped the toxic poppy fields and are skipping towards the gates of Oz? The ditty that goes: “You’re out of the woods/ You’re out of the dark/You’re out of the niiight…” Tell me something like that didn’t pop into your head the morning after this year’s midterms and in exactly the wifty, pop-eyed, kewpie-doll fashion Salvant’s rendition does here before it gives way to Gregory Porter’s more ruminative “No Love Dying,” whose lyrics are far less credulous towards life’s possibilities, but instead encourage abiding faith in love’s persistence however many “broken wings” materialize in rebuttal. Salvant has from the beginning of her meteoric rise to the pinnacle of her profession displayed rapier-like smarts towards relevance and applicability of song, which comes through in blending not just Porter and Harold Arlen, but also Kurt Weill (“The World is Mean”), and Sting (“Until”) along with orchestrating, in “Dead Poplar,” a letter Alfred Stieglitz once wrote to Georgia O’Keefe. She’s not just showing off her erudition…OK, maybe she is, a little. But this formidable sound collage is enhanced by her own compositions, some of which play along the edges of introspective passion, if there is such a paradox. (From “Obligation”: “Promises Lead to Resentment/ I could Love You if only it would stop your weeping, and start your smiling/ But is that Love?” Your move, Taylor Swift.) She closes her recital, unexpectedly, yet impeccably, with the old English folk ballad, “Unquiet Grave,” which at once recognizes the pain and depth of loss, while imploring for the necessity of letting go and moving on. It all sounds a lot like what we’ve been thinking lately – and a lot more like what we’ll be feeling forever after.

 

 


2.) Matthew Shipp Trio, World Construct (ESP) – This version of Shipp’s trio – with bassist Michael Bisio and drummer Newman Taylor Baker – has lasted the longest and the fruitfulness of their collaboration becomes wildly, emphatically apparent on their fourth – and best – album. Shipp’s virtuosity on the piano is as spiky and as spiny as ever. There’s even a track titled “Spine,” followed by one called “Jazz Posture” and both evoke painstaking, but undaunted ascent to full upright position and forward motion. What compels your attention throughout is the easy-does-it flow of layered motifs between Shipp, Bisio, and Baker. On “Beyond Understanding,” a whisper from the drummer ‘s hi-hat can stir both the bassist and the pianist to reply with their own streams of color and insinuation. Their shared comfort level is infectious, and you get swept up in the momentum of, say, “Abandoned” in the same way you’re riveted by a Hitchcock set piece. The climactic title track, also the album’s longest, has this unit coalescing into one shape-shifting organism insisting on the prerogative to change minds and break through the clouds without holding back or hugging corners. Shipp sustains the spirit of go-for-broke assertion in jazz music and, especially with this unit, has made his progressive vision more accessible without compromise. More than ever, you can’t wait for their next one, and with these guys, you don’t have to wait very long.

 

 

 

 

 



3.) Ryan Keberle’s Collectiv Do Brazil, Sonhos Da Esquina (Alternate Side) – In a handful of innovative ensembles, Keberle has transformed the slide trombone into a nimble, dulcet, near-crystalline singing voice, perfectly suited for, among other things, Brazilian music. The story behind this gorgeous panoply of sonhos (dreams) begins in 2017 when Keberle took time off from directing the jazz studies program at Hunter College to travel to Brazil and get cozy with the nation’s tradition of soft beats and intricate melodies. In the process, he hooked up with the working trio of pianist Felipe Silveira, bassist Thiago Alves and drummer Paulinho Vincente, finding communion and transcendence in live performances throughout Sao Paulo. They recorded these tracks about a year later and you can feel both the air-tight seamlessness of their interaction and how each of them stands out in their soloing. The compositions of both Milton Nascimento (“Cio Da Terra,” “Clube Da Esquina”) and Tonino Horta (“Aqui, Oh!,” “Francisca”) dominate the proceedings and are given fresh reinvention through arrangements by Keberle and Silveira. The intricacy of Brazilian song tradition infuses Keberle’s originals, including the bold, sinuous title track and “Carbon Neutral,” as haunting (ominous?)  an anthem for confronting climate change as one can imagine.

 

 

 

 


4.) Samara Joy, Linger Awhile (Verve) – Working within tradition still delivers decisive shocks to the system. Case in point: this Bronx-born, 22-year-old prodigy whose second album delivers on the bright promise of the first with startling dividends. Her prize-winning vocal chops show both exuberance and intelligence in near-perfect equipoise and their lively reanimation of familiar standards makes those warhorses seem frisky, airy, and ripe for discovery by a new century of listeners. She unravels the unadulterated melodrama of “Guess Who I Saw Today” with plenty of glissando flourishes. But by keeping clear of cocktail lounge mannerisms and gratuitous histrionics, she lets the story tell itself and sticks the landing without wobble or excess. She also knows her way around vocalese and the lyrics she applies to Fats Navarro’s “Nostalgia” (which could have been the title track) displays her own adroitness with delivering an absorbing narrative all her own. If you think you’ve heard enough versions to last a lifetime of “Misty,” “Round Midnight,” and “Someone to Watch Over Me,” you’ll reconsider, especially after hearing her duet with guitarist Pasquale Grasso on the Gershwin tune. The greats of an earlier time, from Ella to Sarah to Carmen to Dinah, are evoked, but she arrives in the here-and-now in early triumph as her own person with rich tones and inventive agility belonging to nobody else but her. Of all the sundry delights that come with this album, the most tantalizing is the prospect of watching her already considerable talent grow with greater refinement, broader resources, and more formidable challenges.

 

 

 

 

 


5.) Marta Sanchez, SAAM (Spanish American Art Museum) (Whirlwind) – At once forbidding and enrapturing, Sanchez’s music confronts the sense of loss endemic (so to speak) to these times with grounded resolve and melancholy rumination. From the opening track,” The Unconquered Vulnerable Areas,” through the keening, wailing harmonies of “The Eternal Stillness” title track to the incendiary closer, “When Dreaming is the Only,” Sanchez’s piano lays down a tempestuous swirl of motifs to galvanize her crack ensemble of saxophonists Alex LoRe and Roman Filiu, bassist Rashaan Carter and drummer Allan Mednard. She dedicates this album to her mother Marivi, who died in December 2020 in Spain while Sanchez was moored in New York because of COVID-19-travel restrictions and the two pieces written in her memory, “December 11th (the day she died) and “Marivi” carry added poignance, especially the latter, which is buttressed by Ambrose Akinmusire’s plaintive trumpet and Camila Meza’s limpid vocals.

 

 


6.) Keith Jarrett, Bordeaux Concert (ECM) – He always gave you everything but the kitchen sink at these solo recitals. But in what is now supposed to be his absolute last such recording that will ever be released (which is what they said about 2020’s Budapest Concert, performed three days before this one in July 2016 during his valedictory tour, so I withhold concurrence), that “everything” means something different than it used to. Where he once kept you on the edge of your seat wondering whether he’d stroll, stomp, or bear down on his next steep curve into the next sonic weather system, here he teases out his motifs into mostly (and understandably) elegiac patterns, giving you wave upon wave of lyricism, whether blues-, or folk-based. The pastoral and wistful elements of his solos were always close by, with or without his trios. The first, and longest, of his numbered installments warns of tangled, wayward emotions at the outset, struggling for a calm place where he can lay out and reflect. No splinters or raw edges are in evidence from tracks II to XIII. But you’re still on the edge of your seat in anticipation of some fresh bloom or shaft of sunlight. The way he trails off at the very end may be the one discomfiting moment of the whole performance. This irresolution could be his idea of an appropriate farewell, an ambiguous flight into fading sunlight. Or you could choose to believe it’s a sign that there may well be yet another Absolutely Positively Last Solo Recording after this one. If I were prone to betting, I’d push.

 

 

 

 


7.) Tyshawn Sorey Trio, Mesmerism (Yeros7) – Any trio with Aaron Diehl at the keyboards is a force to be reckoned with. But there’s an excellent reason why this ensemble carries the drummer’s name. Sorey has been widely acclaimed and decorated (with a 2017 MacArthur grant, for instance) not just for his percussive work, but for his compositions in classical and jazz idioms. So, in seizing the reins of a traditional acoustic jazz trio, it’s to be expected that Sorey brings his formidable gifts as a conductor, arranger, and conceptualizer to such standards as “Detour Ahead,” with a sidelong approach to the melody that spurs breathtaking, epochal solos from Diehl and bassist Matt Brewer. The group’s dynamic and, at times, riveting interplay channels the spirit of the late drummer Paul Motian and, appropriately, Motian’s “From Time to Time” is included on the playlist and its thematic essence is lovingly contained, even as it is transformed here into a landscape so impressionistic as to be close to surreal. Each piece, whether it’s Horace Silver’s “Enchantment” or Muhal Richard Abrams’ “Two Over One,” maintains a center of gravity around which each member can either roam freely within the harmonies or stay in his zone and decorate the changes at will. Some suggest that in putting out a “conventional” trio recording, the protean Sorey is taking a breather between more ambitious work. But that point-of-view makes Mesmerism sound like a relative trifle that any trio can toss off. By the time you get to this trio’s version of Duke Ellington’s “Rem Blues,” you’ll be convinced that any group that swings as smartly and as impeccably as this is hardly anybody’s idea of a day at the beach – except for the lucky listener.

 

 


8.) Steve Cardenas, Ben Allison, Ted Nash, Healing Power: The Music of Carla Bley (Sunnyside) – Another trio, this one without a drum or piano, strongly redolent of the groundbreaking chamber sessions of the late 1950s featuring Jimmy Giuffre and Jim Hall. The arresting, resourceful interplay of guitarist Cardenas, bassist Allison, and reedman Nash were last heard working within and around the score of West Side Story on 2019’s Something Else. They now wander into Carla Bley’s comparably fabled precinct of American music and their elemental, lyrical approach to her varied oeuvre gives it plenty of space to breathe and circulate. The album opens with Bley’s best-known work, “Ida Lupino,” whose near-incantatory melody allows each musician to invent their own countermelodies branching off the main theme. When hearing such lithe, witty, and buoyant classics as “Donkey,” “Ictus,” and “And Now, The Queen,” all of which are more than sixty years old, you’re blown away at how up-to-the-minute they still sound. Then there’s “Lawns,” a ballad whose deceptively simple melody barely cloaks the song’s implications of disappointment and heartbreak, much of which are dislodged by Cardenas’s and Nash’s probing, revelatory solos. The case has been made many times over for Bley, now 86, as one of the greatest living jazz composers. We still need to talk about why, whether amongst ourselves or with others. Healing Power is such a fresh addition to this conversation that it makes you feel that it’s only just started.

 

 

 

 


9.) Melissa Aldana, 12 Stars (Blue Note) – The Chilean-born Aldana, who turned 34 this week, seemed to arrive on the scene more than a decade ago fully-formed and already at the top of her game as a master of the tenor saxophone. (One frequently hears the word “athletic” in describing Aldana’s performances.) All she needed was a suitable framework for her expressive gifts and her much-anticipated Blue Note label debut delivers a mature artist with her own style and an insistent, but contemplative point-of-view. Her tenor carries a fluted, at times plaintive tone, cruising the middle and upper registers with fluidity and elegance. She gets the support she needs from bassist Pablo Menares, drummer Kush Abaday, pianist Sullivan Fortner, and guitarist Lage Lund, who also collaborates with Aldana on her mosaic-like compositions, including “The Bluest Eye,” inspired by the Toni Morrison novel of the same name, where she supply knits together an arresting pattern of deep-toned, meditative phrases suggesting what it felt like for her – and, possibly, you, too – to edge up to Morrison’s complex prose. Even when her themes are more direct, as in “Los Ojos de Chile,” inspired by the recent political upheaval in her native country, you can hear her thinking her way towards affirmation and resolve.

 

 


10.) Mark Turner, Return from the Stars (ECM) – As with its predecessor, 2014’s Lathe of Heaven (yeah, it’s been a minute), Turner’s latest borrows its title and, to some extent, its vibe from a modern science fiction classic. In this case, the book is Stanislaus Lem’s novel about an astronaut returning to Earth after what he thought was a ten-year mission only to find that it’s been closer to 130 years. The resulting dislocation, upheaval, trauma, and general unease are all within reach of Turner’s dry-guy aesthetics, as titles like “Terminus,” “Waste Land,” and “Unacceptable” suggest. “It’s Not All Right With Me” is a cheeky reply to Cole Porter’s standard whose thematic reversals arouse pretzel-logic modal mischief that, one suspects, Porter would appreciate for its rambunctious cleverness alone. This edition of his quartet – trumpeter Jason Palmer, bassist Joe Martin, and drummer Jonathan Pinson – seem especially attuned to wherever Turner’s radar happens to be pointed. Do we have to wait another 10 years to find out how their interchange evolves? Or is there a way for – what’s it called again? – “time dilation” to make the years fly by?



HONORABLE MENTION

 

 

Avram Fefer Quartet, Juba Lee (Clean Feed)

Mary Halvorson, Belladonna (Nonesuch)

Miles Okasaki, Thisness (PI)

Kirk Knuffke Trio, Gravity Without Airs (Tao Forms)

Al Foster, Reflections (Smoke Sessions)

Javon Jackson, The Gospel According to Nikki Giovanni (Solid Jackson)


BEST LATIN JAZZ

 



Ryan Keberle’s Collectiv do Brasil, Sonhos da Esquina
HONORABLE MENTION: Miguel Zenón, Música De Las Americas (Miel)


BEST VOCAL

Cecile McLorin Salvant, Ghost Song.
HONORABLE MENTION: Samara Joy, Linger Awhile


ARCHIVAL

 

 

Ahmad Jamal, Emerald City Nights: Live at the Penthouse 1963-1964, 1965-1966 (Jazz Detective)

Mal Waldron, Searching in Grenoble: The 1978 Solo Piano Concert (Tompkins Square)

Charles Mingus, Mingus The Lost Album From Ronnie Scott’s (Resonance)

Gene Seymour’s Top Ten Jazz Albums for 2021

 

 

I’m not altogether sure what it says about this year – or, rather, my year – in jazz that for the first time since I started putting these things together, a single artist dominates my annual list as William Parker does this one. It’s not as though he’s an overnight sensation; he’s been a redoubtable and influential fixture on the progressive jazz scene since the 1970s when the music’s cutting edge could be found working through its experiments in big-city lofts. But his impulse to outwork, out-produce and out-gig his peers both within and outside the (so-called) avant-garde has been especially apparent this year, not just with the significance of the ten-disc omnibus that leads the list (see below), but in the appearance during the past 12 months of at least six albums bearing his name, including three that are also on the list. (5, 6 and 10) It helps that Parker is something of a polymath: a grandmaster of the upright bass with a formidable body-of-work as a composer along with an ability to express himself on many other instruments and an accomplished, if relatively unsung poet. From reading Cisco Bradley’s Universal Tonality: The Life and Work of William Parker (Duke University Press), also published this year, one gets the impression that irrepressible curiosity and a multiplicity of interests are among the things that drive Parker forward. I’m sort of thinking that most of us who have struggled throughout 2021 to recuperate in various ways from 2020 while still feeling wary and uneasy about what’s happening now and whatever’s ahead could profit from the example set by somebody like William Parker, who at 70 has cultivated and honed his craft to a glistening edge while retaining an active abhorrence of injustice, a profound sense of cultural history and a steadfast, self-effacing core of spiritual equilibrium.

Most of the other artists on this year’s list have in different ways released albums that convey those same values. Some are declarative in expression, others more contemplative. They engage the prevailing disquiet, not (necessarily) in anger, but with a determination to face turbulence and dread with clarity and understanding. (I almost said “correctness.” I refuse to say “woke.” Never mind why.)

Also: if you’d somehow found my 20-something self under siege in the seventies and told me that more than a half-century later, albums headlined by both Pharoah Sanders and Archie Shepp would be included among my personal top-ten list, I’d have said you were either daft or irrationally optimistic. Their octogenarian triumphs make me wonder whether, “irrational optimism” is a legitimate and necessary response to whatever’s now threatening us all, whether from nature or from humans. It may well be that both Sanders and Shepp persist because they’re both still somehow necessary to fight the power in their different ways. Feel free to suggest that in another few decades, four of Wynton Marsalis’ albums will find their way to the upper half of such lists, assuming we’ll still have albums, or lists, or…

No. Let’s not go to there. We’re going to try “irrational optimism” for a while longer. At least, I am.

 





1.) The Music of William Parker, Migration of Silence Into and Out of the Tone World, Volumes 1-10 (AUM) – On its own, this imposing gallery-without-walls is a Top-10 list. And not just for jazz, but also for world music, art songs, soundscapes and “spoken poetry.” Think of it also as a ginormous prism that, when held to natural light, emits wildly varying arrays of color and echo. The first volume, “Blue Limelight,” sets the table for its successors as Parker’s musical autobiography suffused with childhood memories and dreams (“Cosmic Funk,” “A Great Day to Be Dead”) and reminiscences of such colleagues as Cecil Taylor and lesser-know-but-still-legendary Hoboken trumpeter Bennie Bishop. The remaining volumes comprise a portable universe of possibility – and of orchestration: a whole disc of solo piano pieces played by Eri Yamamoto taking off from some of the composer’s personal iconography (Malachi Favors, Malcolm X) and his abiding engagement with Native American history and culture; another volume, “Cheops,” whose title track is named after an Egyptian pyramid, places in its foreground the startling range and pyrotechnics of vocalist Kyoko Kitamura with Parker not only playing bass, but also a bass dudek (an ancient Armenian double-reed instrument) and fujara (a “fipple flute,” tall enough to stare down a bassoon). The composer provides plenty of space for voices to lay out, notably on a volume where Lisa Sokolov does a stunning a capella recital of Parker’s “Afternoon Poem.” Parker throughout is less of a presence on bass than he is on other such exotic instruments whose deployment emerges in all manner of settings whether they are reveries of Harlem, Mexico or the films of Fellini, Visconti, Antonioni, and other Italian filmmakers (“Lights in the Rain.”) To find the best encapsulation of this ambitious collection, you need to go all the way back to the first volume’s third track, “I’d Rather Be” in which this titan of what is still regarded as jazz’s “avant-garde” has a character from one his “tone poems” declare that she “would rather be a human being than be avant-garde [because] the most avant-garde thing you can be is a human being.”


 

 



2.) Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra Septet with Wynton Marsalis,The Democracy! Suite (Blue Engine) – The leanest, tightest, toughest-minded music released under Wynton Marsalis’ name in decades made its public debut in the Appel Room of J@LC’s Frederick C. Rose Hall in September 2020, just about the time when the shattering events of that year were propelling the nation towards its Election Day rendezvous with destiny. There was no live audience because of the COVID-19 lockdown. But there’s urgency, momentum and focus merging together in Marsalis’ eight-part composition in ways not often encountered in his previous work. The first track, “Be Present,” is as declamatory as its title, throwing punches at the prevailing chaos without flailing. Once this group has your attention, it keeps up the pace with “Sloganize, Patronize, Realize, Revolutionize (Black Lives Matter),” a piquant rouser upon which Marsalis’ old boss Art Blakey would have pounced with polychordal brio. Of the ensemble’s soloists, J@LC mainstay Walter Blanding makes his tenor sax growl deep and dissonant on this track, in case there’s any doubt that Marsalis and his men are out to kick Trumpism in the teeth. But it’s not all grievance and exasperation. Things perk up with “Ballot Box Bounce” anchored by reed master Ted Nash’s breezy rendering on flute of Marsalis’ witty melody and “That Dance We Do (That You Love),” with Blanding, Nash, trombonist Elliot Mason, pianist Dan Nimmer, drummer Obed Calvaire, and bassist Carlos Henriquez helping their leader here and elsewhere make his most emphatic case yet for jazz being the consummate expression of, and metaphor for the democratic process: individual freedom flourishing within the collective imperative. And if the resilience of that paradox isn’t clear to all, or even some, Marsalis composes a movement for that, too: “It Come ‘Round ‘Gin.” As everything, good, bad, and indifferent, always does in America.

 

 

 

 

 


3.) Veronica Swift, This Bitter Earth (Mack Avenue)— For Swift, the classic pop song repertoire is more than an arena for her fearsome vocal agility. It is also a mode of interrogation, an agency of dissent. Think of how her sister Millennial phenom Cecile McLorin Salvant assembled a concept album of standards, 2015’s For One to Love, illuminating the often-casually toxic quirks of the male gaze. The title track of Swift’s latest album, which until now seemed the sole property of Dinah Washington, signals thoughtful and passionate engagement with the anxious present. She applies shading and intensity to the Clyde Otis dirge, which at once contains its majesty while maximizing its power. It’s an exquisite balancing act that sets the table for the creative and virtuosic renditions of stage musical standards and such Brill Building oddities as “He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss),” Carole King and Gerry Goffin’s disquieting dissection of abusive love, which she sings to the stark accompaniment of Armand Hirsch’s guitar. She carries this inquiry into questionable behavior between the sexes to such grand old war horses as “As Long as He Needs Me” from “Oliver!” and “How Lovely to Be a Woman,” from “Bye Bye Birdie,” whose effervescent interpretation barely conceals the gimlet-eyed contempt for its implicit sexism. She trains her sights on racism with Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught,” which is immediately, but no less trenchantly (or imaginatively) countered with that same duo’s “Getting To Know You.” Her range of concerns is as deep and wide as her vocal resources, taking in Bob Dorough’s bopping “You’re the Dangerous Type” and Dave Frishberg’s “The Sports Page,” cheekily summing up why so many of us seek refuge in scores and highlights from the exasperations of whatever “hard news” delivers. The present spreads all over This Bitter Earth. But Swift’s mesmerizing chops remain Beautiful and True in any time frame.

 

 

 

 

 



4.) Floating Points & Pharoah Sanders featuring the London Symphony Orchestra, Promises (Luaka Bop) – OK. John Coltrane’s Ascension, right? Pharoah Sanders was one of the eleven musicians who played on that landmark 1965 album that drew a line in the sand between those who were totally onboard for the Free Jazz rocket flight and those who wanted no part of it. After a six-decade career which he began as an avatar for “outside” saxophone inventions, Sanders, now 81, aligned himself with British electronic music artisan Sam Shepherd, alias Floating Points, who composed a nine-part suite he and Sanders recorded with the LSO not long before everything locked down. So, what does the tempestuous Ascension, which I’ve routinely characterized (in a good way) as a “sonic maelstrom” or a “polyphonic orchestrated abstraction” have in common with a sequence of suggestive, near-pastoral impressions? (A glibly convenient, if not terribly useful shorthand description might be, “trance music with soul.”) For one thing, both works take off from a simple progression of notes that become an ongoing riff: Ascension takes off from five while Promises sets sail from seven. Each work also wears its own brand of inscrutability, daring you to poke around its layers, resisting any effort towards “understanding” what makes each of them tick. With Promises, there are tensions winnowing throughout between space and time, declaration and insinuation, abandonment and resolve. Sanders’ voice, downier, warmer, but every bit as probing and incantatory as it was when he was in his mid-twenties, is what carries you along the contours laid out by Shepherd’s keyboards and the LSO’s strings. (At various points, you hear the saxophonist’s gentle singing voice seeping into the mixture with his own non-verbal lyrics.) On the whole, the album delivers nowhere near the same kind of intensity associated with Ascension. It is a far subtler, more enchanting, and comparably provocative experience that coerces repeated listening in search of more secrets, not resolutions necessarily, just more secrets.

 

 

 


5.) William Parker, Painter’s Winter (AUM)

 

 

 



6.) William Parker, Mayan Space Station (AUM) – Two very different trios make the case for Parker’s mastery of both his principal instrument and of guiding small bands of any size towards expansive and productive interplay. With electric guitarist Ava Mendoza setting off harmonic firestorms propelled by the equally combustible drummer Gerald Cleaver, Mayan Space Station is redolent of the riveting mosaics of amplified sound forged in trios led by the late Sonny Sharrock. Parker’s bass playing does as much breakaway running as his two partners, though most of the time he’s content to drive this vehicle forward and let their younger people go off. The acoustic trio on Painter’s Window that includes multi-instrumentalist Daniel Carter and drummer Hamid Drake seems a lot more composed. But their collaboration is just as intense and deeply committed with Carter’s solos on trumpet, saxophones and flute unfurling intricate patterns as Drake’s percussive momentum shifty enough to keep up with the indefatigable bassist. Besides Parker, the only quality these two discs share is narrative drive that’s both refined and rugged.

 

 

 

 



7.) Kimbrough (Newvelle) – Frank Kimbrough died just before last New Year’s Eve at 64, setting off a still-resounding wave of shock and grief from generations of jazz musicians who played with or studied under him. Among these artists, Kimbrough was beloved as a “pianist’s pianist,” a droll and ubiquitous presence on the New York City scene, an archivist tending diligently to the legacies of Herbie Nichols and Thelonious Monk, a crucial member of the critically acclaimed Maria Schneider Orchestra, a devoted teacher who mentored aspiring musicians at NYU and Julliard, and a gifted, uncompromising, and prolific composer. It is mostly to that latter aspect of Kimbrough’s life and work that this extensive, ambitious tribute album was recorded almost six months after his death. There are 61 tracks featuring 67musicians in 55 different combinations. Any random sample of the players involved – Ben Allison, Fred Hersch, Michael Blake, Dave Douglas, Craig Taborn, Joe Lovano, Matt Wilson, Helen Sung, Noah Preminger, among many others – is enough to suggest the breadth and depth of Kimbrough’s influence on his peers and ex-pupils alike. The compositions they play, sometimes on one take and in different versions (“Reluctance” is rendered in solo and quartet form) offer so many revelations as to suggest decades to come of workshops, repertory orchestrations and ensemble performances of Kimbrough’s mostly unsung work spreading out to concert halls and colleges here and abroad. In the immediate aftermath of Kimbrough’s passing, one of his heartbroken friends wondered whether it marked the end of an era or the beginning of a new one. This album’s release reinforces my belief that it’s more the latter. I’m sure Frank would agree.

 

 

 

 



8.) Archie Shepp & Jason Moran, Let My People Go (Archieball) – There was always something of the old-time spiritual revivalist in Shepp, even as far back as the mid-1960s when he emerged as one of the more stridently political of the emerging tenor saxophonists inspired and nurtured by John Coltrane. At 83, Shepp doesn’t let his phrasings wail with the sustained force he exerted on such classics as 1966s Mama Too Tight, 1972’s Attica Blues or (my all-time favorite) 1975’s A Sea of Faces. His mature style relies more on space and timing, the vocalizing more contained, but no less intense. In this collaboration with the mighty, simpatico pianist Jason Moran, Shepp sings with and without the tenor or (mostly) soprano sax with a depth of feeling that releases itself in bursts, especially in the “sorrow songs” such as “Go Down, Moses” and “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.” Shepp’s stark, weathered vocals allow you to hear each line and word with a deeper sense of desolation and yearning on these spirituals and Moran’s own spare and impeccably timed comping provides an elegant frame for Shepp’s arias. On the other tracks, Shepp and Moran are more conversational, their measured, lively exchange of themes and ideas inspiring fresh ways of engaging such familiar standards as Ellington’s and Strayhorn’s “Isfahan,” Monk’s “Round Midnight,” Coltrane’s “Wise One,” Shepp’s own “Ujamaa,” and, in an especially multi-layered rendering, Moran’s own “He Cares.” Shepp’s patented blurts, bleats and squawks flare up over the cushions of chords Moran sets loose or holds back whenever the occasion demands. It often sounds as though both are collaborating on separate dramas with their synchronistical dialogue weaving seamlessly into place. One remembers that back in those 1960s, Shepp was, among other things, a playwright.

 

 

 

 

 

 


9.) Julian Lage, Squint (Blue Note) – Anyone whose curriculum vitae includes gigs with Nels Cline, Charles Lloyd, John Zorn, Bela Fleck, Gary Burton, David Grisman and Yoko Ono should have your attention from the jump. And Lage (pronounced “lahzh,” as in “lozenge”) goes all out on his first release with the fabled Blue Note label to show he can do anything and everything he wants to with a guitar, whether it’s a neoclassical a cappella solo (“Etude”), straight-ahead swing (“Boo Blues,” the title track), classic covers (Johnny Mandel’s “Emily,” Gene Autry’s “Call of the Canyon”), country-rock (“Day and Age,” “Twilight Surfer”). Clearly Lage knows more than a little about a lot of different genres. But he makes his best impression as a player not by leading with his learning or virtuosity, but by gently asserting and maneuvering his own sensibility into each piece. It helps to have a rhythm section of bassist Jorge Roeder and drummer Dave King as smart and attentive to his needs as any great piano trio. Indeed, Lage’s trio has drawn comparisons to Bill Evans’ deathless 1961 Village Vanguard threesome both for the seamless interaction between the principals and the insinuating lyricism. Other influences raise their hands for attention in Lage’s style from Chet Atkins to Pat Martino. But Lage, who first gained notice as an eight-year-old prodigy, is still just getting started and with greater name recognition an all-but-inevitable result from Squint , one gets a little tingly over what he’ll be able to do with even broader resources available to him.

 

 

 

 

10.) William Parker & Matthew Shipp, Re-Union 2021 (Rogue Art) – Though Parker and Shipp have worked together on several projects with larger groups, this Re-Union marks only the third time they’ve played together as a duo. Their respective personalities blend so well together that it’s surprising they haven’t “re-unioned” more often. As with most friends’ conversations, one of them starts out with something small: a thread, a fragment, a half-baked suggestion, the punch line of a joke neither knows about (yet), any of which could make the other either carry the thought towards a tentative conclusion or veer off into another topic entirely. Which is how I’d best characterize the 22-minute title track that kicks things off. If you’re able to keep up with the exchange, you can start taking measure of the two personalities and how they are or aren’t alike. Shipp’s eccentric, enigmatic combinations of chord clusters follow their own logic while Parker’s austere, but fluid bass lines follow him along when they’re not shoving him in an altogether different direction. Neither seems particularly worried about whether the other lands, though the unwary listener should always be alert for shifts in direction, temperament, maybe an impromptu lull in their transaction before picking up the previous thread or finding a new one. They’re both free spirits in different ways – but not so free-spirited that they forget you’re listening. So be ready when Parker decides to pick up his bow to assert himself more or Shipp re-doubles his efforts to deepen his attack. Think of it as just another afternoon of eavesdropping at the coffee house when voices are raised without warning, but nobody’s mad at anybody.
In this spirit, we leave the last words to both these gentlemen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



HONORABLE MENTION: Kenny Garrett, Sounds from the Ancestors (Mack Avenue); Vijay Iyer, Uneasy (ECM); Henry Threadgill Zooid, Poof (PI); Gerry Gibbs Thrasher Dream Trios, Songs from My Father (Whaling City Sound); Bill Charlap Trio, Street of Dreams (Blue Note) Artifacts (Tomeka Reid, Nicole Mitchell, Mike Reed)…and then there’s this (Astral Spirits)

 

 

 

 

REISSUE OR HISTORICAL RELEASE: 1.) Hasaan Ibn Ali, Metaphysics: The Lost Atlantic Album (Omnivore) 2.) Roy Hargrove & Mulgrew Miller, In Harmony (Resonance) 3.) Hasaan Ibn Ali, Retrospect in Retirement of Delay: The Solo Recordings (Omnivore)

 

 

 

 


LATIN: Eliane Elias, Chick Corea & Chucho Valdes, Mirror, Mirror (Candid)

VOCAL: Swift, This Bitter Earth
HONORABLE MENTION: Mary LaRose, Out There (Little Music)

 

 

 


DEBUT: Patricia Brennan, Maquishti (Valley of Search)

Gene Seymour’s Top Ten Jazz Discs for 2015

Yeah, yeah, whatever…

But if all that’s true, then why, I keep asking every year, is there so much good-to-great “product” (a euphemism I loathe, but am stringing along, hoping it’ll take the hint from the diminishing effect of quote marks) that still comes out? Why is it that I made up this year’s list thinking that there were so many discs I could have easily included that didn’t even make the Honorable Mention cut? Why is it that any of the top five on this list could have easily been number one and why could any of the ones below them, even the Honorable Mentions, could have slipped into the top five?

Why? Why ask why?

An answer — not “the” answer — is that whatever infrastructure that used to be in place for promoting and marketing music is in worse shape than some of our bridges, tunnels and highways. In fact, there might not even BE an infrastructure so much as a make-it-up-as-we-go-along system that spreads and circulates the word on artists and “product.”

Or not. I don’t know, really. As with everybody else who still cares, I go with my gut. And what my gut tells me is that jazz, whether God likes it or not, is finding a way to move along on its own power regardless of who’s noticing at this point. And my top five especially give me hope that the music is not just moving along or getting by, but transforming itself into something not even Lisa Simpson or Mayor Quimby will recognize at first. I say it every year at this time and I will find some way of saying it again next year.

And I’m not giving up my compact discs either. Why? Vinyl. That’s why. You all said THAT was dead, too, once.

 

 

 

 

For One to Love

 

1.) Cecile McLorin Salvant, For One to Love (Mack Avenue) – Her debut album two years ago was one of those once-in-a-generation calling cards in which soul, grace, power and intelligence materialize in one implausibly commanding 24-year-old package. She could have easily followed it up with another mélange of classic or out-of-left-field standards and maintained her front-running status as the Next Great Jazz Vocalist without making your jaw drop as she did when introducing herself. But damned if she doesn’t do that to you again, and then some, with a bold concept album whose range and depth are reminiscent of similar innovations from this year’s centennial birthday boy Frank Sinatra during the fifties (“Only the Lonely”) and sixties (“September of My Years”). The songs on this album are connected in some way with what it’s like to for one’s looks to be scrutinized and summarily judged. I’d also be inclined to label her effort here as an attempt to filter The Male Gaze through a prism of her own design. But why limit oneself, or her, to one gender’s glancing assessments? The biggest tip-off is “Look at Me,” one of her five original compositions here, in which self-conscious doubt starts seeping into an otherwise idyllic romance. (“Why don’t you look at me/ the way you look at all the other girls you see?”) along with its companion, “Left Over” (“I wonder if he even knows my name”) Such plaintive, yet pointed inquiries make themselves known in other selections, such as “Stepsister’s Lament” from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Cinderella” and that sweet swinging Bacharach-David tune, “Wives and Lovers,” which she nonchalantly hits over the fence and through the windshield of a neighbor’s car parked four houses away. Her penchant for unearthing early blues (Spencer and Clarence Williams’ “What’s the Matter Now?”) also melds easily with the overall concept, whose poignancy is offset by the ferocious jolts of hope and mother-wit infusing “The Trolley Song” and an especially breathtaking “Something’s Coming.” It almost frightens you to keep listening. Yet you have to. And of course, it all wouldn’t work nearly as well without the pliant and comparably ingenious accompaniment of pianist Aaron Diehl, bassist Paul Sikivie and drummer Lawrence Leathers.

 

 

The Epic Cover
2.) Kamasi Washington, The Epic (Brainfeeder) – I suspect this will likely lead most of the lists my peers are assembling for the year’s best jazz albums. If the level of emotional investment shown in the previous entry hadn’t moved me more, I’d have been right along with them. This represents one of those occasions where you’re not only recognizing artistry on these three discs, but what this whole work represents: A heady return to the notion of orchestrated jazz as a source of emphatic, unmediated ecstasy; the difference here from the raw, searching energies summoned by John Coltrane, Su Ra, Rahsaan Roland Kirk and generations of “New Thing” acolytes and fellow travelers from the past being a wider accessibility to beat and tone. Because of Washington’s Los Angeles roots, I kept thinking about great bandleaders and mentors from that scene such as Gerald Wilson and Horace Tapscott whose charts roared, stomped and often sprawled the way these pieces do. But because of the conspicuous presence of Washington’s keening, quicksilver tenor sax on Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly (which, if you were holding my feet to the fire, I’d be ready to declare the Album of the Year among all genres), I also recognize in this Epic’s conception Hip-Hop’s big, avid ears for blending rogue sounds. In this case: tiers of percussion propelling choirs of angels, street-hard horns breaking and merging at will and, once in a while, the familiar sound of a Hammond B-3 organ (summoned by keyboardist Brandon Coleman). It’s an achievement of such conspicuous heft and dimension that it makes you wonder if Washington’s trying to do too much at once. But just when you think those aforementioned energies are flagging, something, maybe a speed run by the bassist known as Thundercat, an extended comp by acoustic pianist Cameron Graves, an incisive lead vocal by Patrice Quinn or a fervent, reasonably straightforward take on “Clair de Lune” comes along to sustain the sense of the ground beneath one’s feet rumbling. It’s not that The Epic  represents anything new under the sun. (It even revives “Cherokee,” for Charlie Ventura’s sake!) But it makes you aware of how long it’s been since jazz music made you want to reach for the sun, much less stare at it without fear.

 

 

The Thompson Fields
3.) Maria Schneider Orchestra, The Thompson Fields (ArtistShare) – In a year when the overall level of jazz composing, arranging and orchestration challenged the adequacy of one’s supply of superlatives, it altogether figured that the redoubtable Schneider would put forth what, up to this still-relatively-early point in her brilliant career, could well be her masterpiece: An eight-piece suite, a decade or so in the making, evoking the outward graces and cherished epiphanies of the Minnesota prairie where she grew up. The music at first lulls you into thinking this handsomely packaged selection will be nothing but daydreams bathed in twilight pastels. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.) But Schneider, whose ability to “play” an 18-piece orchestra has never before been as consummate or as confident as it is here, layers her pastoral vision with themes that thicken, recede and recharge with the mercurial impulses of Nature itself. After all, the weather isn’t always sunny and warm in one’s past, or, to be sure, in one’s present either. As with every great bandleader, Schneider allows her soloists near-collaborative space to enhance her vision, as in the cases of pianist Frank Kimbrough and guitarist Lage Lund replicating the tension between memory and reality on the title piece or Rich Perry’s inquisitive tenor sax summoning the persisting lure and unfulfilled yearning of “Home.” Too often, Schneider’s work as a composer-arranger incites comparisons to her inspirations/mentors Bob Brookmeyer and Gil Evans (about whom more later on this list). Now, she stands alone as a musical force capable of inspiring others. And if I were to make any comparisons at this point, it would be less towards other bandleaders than towards poets, to whose influence she has been paying homage on recent discs. In particular, her work on Thompson Fields reminds me of Robert Frost, another pastoralist whose darker, more ambivalent approaches to the passages of time and the seasons are often overlooked at first glance because of the elemental beauty of his tone. In both his case and hers, the subtler sense of unease aroused by their respective visions incline you to be more solicitous to the living things around you – and to treat their mysteries with respect and discretion.

 

 

Juneteenth cover
4.) Stanley Cowell, Juneteenth (Vision Fugitive) – Now 74, Cowell has been among the underappreciated stalwarts – and treasures – of American music. As with generations of jazz masters who found themselves marginalized in the cultural firmament even as they were becoming more autonomous as producers (he was one of the co-founders of the legendary Strata-East independent label in the seventies), Cowell spent most of the last several decades in academia while continuing to write, perform and record in a variety of settings as sideman and leader. He has also been one of the few pianists whose solo work is as textured and broadly realized as any combo’s repertoire. This unaccompanied performance of a work originally written for large ensemble commemorating the 150th anniversary of Emancipation, or at least its informal announcement in Texas in 1865, feels very much like a splendid gift to his abiding fans as well as a moving tribute to Cowell’s resilience. Because he shares a Toledo, Ohio birthplace with the great virtuoso Art Tatum, Cowell lays claim to the same faultless command of time and space that Tatum displayed in his own formidable body of solo recordings. He also weaves references to, and extensions upon, such disparate tunes as “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” “Strange Fruit,” “Dixie” and other Americana redolent of the surging, shape-shifting referencing of Charles Mingus, only with a more probing and nuanced approach. With the issues animating the Civil War gaining more urgency in the years since Cowell was commissioned (in 2012) to compose this suite, “Juneteenth” feels at once both topical and enduring; news that, for better and worse, stays news.

 

 

 

Bird Calls cover
5.) Rudresh Mahanthappa, Bird Calls (ACT) – Modernism meets post-modernism and the former gets a “fly” face-lift it can grow with. Bird Calls is (far) less a “tribute album” to Charlie Parker than a young alto-sax daredevil’s attempt to connect with the divinities that made Parker soar into uncharted changes more than 70 years ago. Mahanthappa borrows or, more appropriately, “samples” themes, licks and riffs from the Parker canon and uses them as propellant for his own fire-breathing inventions. The familiar fanfare from the “Parker’s Mood,” for instance, is transfigured on “Talin is Thinking” into a incantation setting the table for a dirge drastically different, yet no less resonant or far-reaching than the original while “Maybe Later” cheekily elbows tropes from “Now’s the Time,” Parker’s slow-hand blues that midwifed both bebop and post-war rhythm-and-blues, and creates a bouncy number that swings more like an uptown rave than a downtown slide. The only thing that strongly evokes Parker throughout is the insurgent, turbo-charged drive to Make It New; and, in the process, to expand the possibilities for jazz to emerge from the chrysalis of its established traditions into something resembling full, unrestrained flight. Trumpeter Adam O’Farrill, pianist Matt Mitchell, bassist Francois Moutin and drummer Rudy Royston robustly share their leader’s commitment to this process and, you hope, other attempts at homage to past masters will take the hint.

 

Synovial Joints cover
6.) Steve Coleman, Synovial Joints (PI) – “Doctor” Coleman continues the inquiry into the human body he commenced two years before with Functional Arrythmias (also on PI) and expands his bag of implements beyond those of his customary quintet of trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson, bassist Anthony Tidd, guitarist Miles Okasaki and, this time, drummer Marcus Gilmore to include a few more horns, a flute and piccolo, a string quartet, a pianist (David Bryant) and a singer (Jen Shyu) who join him on the eponymous four-part exploration/appreciation of, as Coleman writes in the liner notes, “the joints that bind the human musculoskeletal system [that] function as a means of connecting bones, binding tissue and provid[ing] various degrees of movement for our bodies.” Yes, I had the exact same thought: What a fine dance performance routine this music would serve. And the pull-pull interplay between strings and horns, bass lines and modes encourage one to imagine knees, elbows, legs and shoulders accommodating themselves to whatever groove gets transmitted as permission to ambulate. This disc doesn’t just go inside on “Acupuncture Openings” and “Celtic Cells” (not those in the body, but in medieval clusters of otherwise scattered visionaries. They also spend time in the Sahara desert on “Harmattan” and “Nomadic.” Wherever they go, Coleman’s ad-hoc musical aggregation sustains an engaging blend of the spontaneous and the deliberate that keeps mind and body in constant motion at delightfully varied speeds. It’s even fun if you’re just walking at a normal pace and this quirky music’s somehow playing – in more ways than one – through your ears.

 

 

Lines of Color cover
7.) ) Ryan Truesdell Gil Evans Project, Lines of Color (ArtistShare) – Despite several albums of live performances by his big band released during the last 15 years of his life, so much of the reputation of arranger-bandleader-composer-enabler-of-the-cool Gil Evans (1912-1988) remains tethered to studio work, most especially whenever Miles Davis was involved. Thus, Ryan Truesdell, to whom so much is already owed for his Evans project’s award-winning 2012 debut. Centennial (also on ArtistShare), continues to restore Evans’ body of work and its myriad possibilities for revision. Here, he  also helps re-establish  the exuberant interaction of big band music with its audience — even if it’s sitting and drinking along, as opposed to dancing, which for all I know happened, too, at midtown Manhattan’s Jazz Standard, where these sessions were recorded. Take, just as an example, the project’s reiteration of Evans’ arrangement of Bix Biederbecke’s “Davenport Blues.” On the 1959 Pacific Jazz album, Great Jazz Standards, the piece is carried along by the late trumpeter Johnny Coles’ soft, cool and dry solo, this version’s rhythmic pulse is amplified by drummer Lewis Nash’s down-and-dirty beat and trumpeter Mat Jodrell’s flamboyantly vertical solo. I thought Evans’ 1965 version of “Greensleeves” would be a non-starter without Kenny Burrell’s guitar up front, but trombonist Marshall Gilkes busts the arrangement wide open. Because Truesdell is as much curator as orchestrator, he also uses such occasions for lesser-known or previously unrecorded Evans, notably “Avalon Town,” which he’d written during his mid-1940s apprenticeship with Claude Thornhill, during which he began tinkering with impressionism and modulated brass.

 

 

 

Conduct of Jazz cover
8.) Matthew Shipp Trio, The Conduct of Jazz (Thirsty Ear) –This is the small group album many of us have been waiting for from Wilmington’s Excitable Renegade. His knotty, multi-clustered attack on the piano is as relentless as ever with his themes and motifs rolling, tumbling and shifting direction with seemingly inexhaustible inventiveness. The first few bars of “Instinctive Touch” (along with the title itself) announces to the uninitiated how insistently he’s willing to stress test a motif until it breaks apart to reveal some promising new form of life. Yet it’s the title track that discloses something new to the mix; an exuberant drive that somehow seems more contained and yet more fluid and expansive. I’m going out on a limb by saying that it’s the addition of drummer Newton Taylor Baker to the tandem of Shipp and bassist Michael Bisio, whose solos likewise seem to have gained greater breadth and openness. Baker’s playing, both with the others and on its own, stretches and spreads out along with Shipp’s and Bisio’s, establishing keener interaction within the trip and helping Shipp’s compositions, whether as crypto-funky as “Blue Abyss,” or as discursive as “Primary Form” reach trajectories that challenge listeners without leaving them stranded or shortchanged. Mostly, it’s fun. Which is how jazz at whatever level of ambition or comprehension is supposed to “conduct” itself.

 

 

 

Intents and Purposes cover
9.) Rez Abbasi Acoustic Quartet, Intents and Purposes (Enja) – The year’s notable contribution to the file marked, Discs-I-Couldn’t-Keep-Out-Of-My-Player-Without-Knowing-Exactly-Why is a disarming and surprisingly illuminating inquiry into the oft-discredited realm of what we used to know in the 1970s as jazz-rock fusion. Because so much of the music associated with that genre leaned on synthesizers, wah-wah pedals and other plug-in accessories, purists of all persuasions suspected both its players and its repertoire of coasting on waves of bombast and white noise. Abbasi’s guitars, assisted by Bill Ware’s vibes, Stephan Crump’s upright bass and Eric McPherson’s trap set, excise the bubbles and fuzz from one’s memories of Herbie Hancock’s “Butterfly,” Billy Cobham’s “Red Baron,” Chick Corea’s “Medieval Overture” and Pat Martino’s “Joyous Lake,” among others, to reveal their sinewy lyricism without muting their sounds or constricting their energies. These guys come on strong enough to make you check the cover again to make sure nobody’s packing a concealed amplifier.

 

 

Heads-of-State-Search-for-Peace-e1430418654102
10.) Heads of State, Search for Peace (Smoke Sessions) – This gathering of gray eminences – saxophonist Gary Bartz, pianist Larry Willis, bassist Buster Williams and drummer Al Foster – isn’t out to re-invent the wheel, or anything else. This is about as unassuming as “straight ahead” jazz gets these days, given its selection of standards, both familiar (“Impressions,” “Lotus Blossom,” “I Wish I Knew”) and not quite as well known that you don’t need to mention their composers’ names (Benny Carter’s “Summer Serenade,” Jackie McLean’s “Capuchin Swing”). There are also two pieces, “Soulstice” and “Uncle Bubba,” written by Bartz – and as masterly as the other esteemed “heads” are, it is Bartz to whom this album truly belongs and whose playing throughout is a clinic in lyricism, timing and tone. At 75, he is a living exemplar of the alto saxophone and all you have to do is listen to him lay out on something like “Crazy She Calls Me” to bask in the reflected glory of someone who knows exactly what to say, how to say it and where each bend and curve in a variation needs to go. Jazz doesn’t always have to change the world, or even rearrange the furniture in your head, to be great. Sometimes, all it needs is a rich, ripe and still evolving gift such as Bartz’s to remind you why you don’t really care what anybody else says about jazz music’s alleged “deterioration” or “demise.” If Bartz still believes, you should, too

HONORABLE MENTION

 

 

Solo Hersch cover

 

 

Fred Hersch, Solo (Palmetto)

Myra Melford, Snowy Egret (Enja)
Chris Potter Underground Orchestra, Imaginary Cities (ECM)
Erik Friedlander, Oscalypso (Skipstone)
Tigran Hamasyan, Luys I Luso (ECM)
Romain Collin, Press Enter (ACT)
Albert “Tootie” Heath, Ethan Iverson, Ben Street, Philadelphia Beat (Sunnyside)
Vijay Iyer Trio, Break Stuff (ECM)
Liberty Elfman, Radiate (PI)

BEST VOCAL: For One to Love HONORABLE MENTION:  Cassandra Wilson, Coming Forth By Day (Legacy)

 

 

 

Cuba Conversation cover

 

 

BEST LATIN ALBUM: Arturo O’ Farrill & the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra, Cuba: The Conversation Continues (Motema)

 

 

 

Complete Concert by the sea

 

 

 

BEST REISSUE: Erroll Garner, The Complete Concert by the Sea (Legacy)

Gene Seymour’s Top Ten Jazz Discs for 2013

Of the assorted cans of worms pried open among jazz heads on the Internet in recent years, my favorite comes from Branford Marsalis who has been calling out his peers (and, by implication, critics like me) for embracing virtuosity and harmonic invention at the expense of melodic content, which in turn was pushing more and more listeners away. “Harmonic music,” Marsalis said back in 2011, “tends to be very insular. It tends to be [like] you’re in the private club with a secret handshake.”

From that same interview: “When laypeople listen to records, there’re certain things they’re going to get to. First of all, how it sounds to them. If the value of the song is based on intense analysis of music, you’re doomed. Because people that buy records don’t know shit about music. When they put on ‘Kind of Blue’ and say they like it, I always ask people: What did you like about it? They describe it in physical terms, in visceral terms, but never in musical terms.”

The argument over whether jazz is hermetically sealing itself by being absorbed with invention-for-its-own-sake is as almost as old as jazz itself. Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray, for all their worship of literary modernism, snarled over most of the boundary-busting jazz music that came after the swing era. (People of varied generations and races are always shocked to find that Ellison disliked Charlie Parker almost as much as Philip Larkin.) Even Miles Davis at some point in the early1960s admitted that he didn’t buy jazz records of his era because “they make me too sad, man.”

I don’t get sad with what I hear lately. Once in a while, I even like being sad, and so do what Marsalis calls, “laypeople.” But there were times in the last several months when I was getting impatient with the new discs I was listening to. I was, like, OK, I’m impressed. But I’m not aroused. So you can make chord changes sit up, roll over and swim across a pond. But my question is the same one Lester Young asked long ago, “Can you sing a song?” I’ll throw another one out there: Can you handle a groove?

 

Maybe that’s why, even in a better-than-average year for product, I was drawn to those albums that gave me a bit more of what Marsalis describes as “physical” or “visceral” pleasure. I admit that in Larkin’s famous tautology, I still lean a little more towards intelligence-without-beat over beat-without-intelligence. But most of what I choose to venerate this year came close to achieving a balance between the two. The needle’s still stuck at the low end as far as jazz music’s presence in the marketplace is concerned. But maybe some of these will help nudge it a little higher and attract more people who search the clouds, or Cloud, for sounds that both please and challenge. Baby steps, I suppose; dance steps, I hope.

Ahmad Jamal Saturday Morning

1.) Ahmad Jamal, “Saturday Morning” (Jazzbook) – You’re Ahmad Jamal and life right now couldn’t be more satisfying. You’ve outlasted almost all the pianists you’ve influenced since the 1950s who, fairly or not, received more critical approbation than you. You’ve also outlasted most of those critics who either demeaned or second-guessed your popularity and, in any case, never gave you the degree of respect you’ve received from audiences and fellow musicians. In the meantime, you’ve been putting out immaculately crafted recorded product for at least the last three decades. And at 83 years old, you’re playing with even greater vitality, invention and polish, submitting (for our approval) one of the crown jewels of your long career: A sweet-swinging session recorded at the Studio La Buissonne with the attentive support of bassist Reginald Veal and drummer Herlin Riley. As always, your trio keeps time like a handcrafted wristwatch. What broadens the package is the sparkling variety of tempo and mode. You seem even more engaged by the material, even with such familiar should-have-been-classics-long-ago as “The Line.” And though yours is the last such unit that would need extra percussion, the contributions of Manolo Badrena are seamlessly wired into your rhythm machine. You’re Ahmad Jamal and we’re just about as satisfied with your life right now as you are. (Thank you, Jimmy Cannon and may your own termite artistry soon be rediscovered.)

Steve Coleman Functional

2.) Steve Coleman & Five Elements, “Functional Arrhythmias” (Pi) –And speaking of rhythm machines…First, though, a confession: Over the three or four decades alto saxophonist/composer Steve Coleman’s M-Base movement has been around, I could never cozy up to it; especially when it seemed intent on fashioning a kind of cerebral funk, as I prefer my funk to be pure and uncut. GIVE IT UP, PEOPLE, FOR BOOTSY’S RUBBER BAAAAAANNNND!!!! But I digress…If Coleman’s aesthetic principles have led to this ultra-sophisticated and fearsomely versatile aggregation of bassist Anthony Tidd, drummer Sean Rickman, guitarist Miles Okazaki and trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson, then I need to rethink, if not revoke, my earlier skepticism. As the titles of both the disc and its contents (e.g. “Sinews”, “Cerebrum Crossover”, “Cardiovascular”) imply, the intent here is to strike a polyrhythmic, harmonically complex connection with human physiology. It’s a smart idea (inspired, as Coleman says, by the example of drummer Milford Graves). But the intelligence behind the concept isn’t as conspicuous as its vigorous application. The band members are locked into each other’s frequencies and their interaction glides, strides, twists and meshes in the same manner as an abstract painting or modern dance piece. Coleman and Finlayson’s front-line conversations have a riveting yin-yang quality that places them at or near the high-end spectrum of such similar sax-horn confabs as Bird and Diz, Trane and Miles and Coleman’s namesake (if not relative) Ornette and Don Cherry. This disc has all the brains, and then some, of Coleman’s body-of-work. But it’s also got an unexpected surplus of — well, you know – heart.

Brooklyn Babylon

3.) Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society, “Brooklyn Babylon” (New Amsterdam) – Having spent twenty thrilling years inhabiting the Beautiful Borough as it made the awkward, irrepressible leap from hipster incubator to Promised Land, I can testify that one of the many things that fascinate even the most casual Brooklyn bystander is the ongoing tension between its gilded skyscraping aspirations and its wait-till-next-year past lives. This 17-part suite for an 18-piece orchestra conflates Brooklyn’s past, present and (potential) future into what amounts to a steampunk fantasy novel of the mind. Argue’s epic tells the story of a master carpenter named Lev who, in a dystopian future (or alternate present), is commissioned to build a carousel atop a tower whose immensity could obliterate whatever‘s left of Brooklyn’s old-soul romance. The music aims as high as that mythical tower and you can feel yourself ascending on its surging waves of energy. But the suite doesn’t just go up; it spreads out to encompass different cultures from Eastern Europe to Latin America to the Middle East, keeping a fingertip or two on all-American swing and/or rock. You could follow Argue’s story or project one of your own upon its volatile contours. As with the only science fiction that matters, “Brooklyn Babylon” is lavishly hypothetical, strangely familiar and recognizably human in the grandest and grubbiest terms.

Creole Soul

 

4.) Etienne Charles, “Creole Soul” (Culture Shock) – Jazz’s grow-or-die imperative has found its most gratifying adherents among 30-and-under musicians willing to use what they’ve learned of the music’s basics as springboards to more adventurous or exotic compounds. Charles, who just turned 30 this year, is a Trinidad-born trumpeter who received much of his education at Florida State and Juilliard and was inspired by the examples set at both institutions respectively by Marcus Roberts and Wynton Marsalis in re-energizing the music’s mainstream traditions. He retains some of Marsalis’ sound in his horn. But it’s the multicultural, polyrhythmic setting of this zesty, spicy gumbo that makes Charles’ music sound like exactly no one else’s. With a formidable array of young instrumentalists and percussionists as backup, Charles immerses himself in the varied strains of Caribbean pop – reggae, mambo, conga, even Gulf Coast R&B – to put together an mélange of electro-boogie, calypso and funk. Traditionalists can growl, snap and dismiss it all as “slick” pop. But the music they cherish has a far better chance for long-term survival with a sensibility willing to invite Monk (“Green Chimneys”), Marley (“Turn Your Lights Down Low”) and Bo Diddley (“You Don’t Love Me”) to the same house party and give each of them the respect and elbowroom they deserve. And, by the way, he also serves up melodies that stick to your head like Post-It notes reminding you what music is for.

 

Endangered Species

5.) David Weiss, “Endangered Species: The Music of Wayne Shorter” (Motema) –Weiss, who also holds down a trumpeter’s chair here, leads a 12-piece murderer’s row of first-rank instrumentalists that includes trombonist Steve Davis, trumpeter Jeremy Pelt, saxophonists Ravi Coltrane and Tim Green, drummer E.J. Strickland and the incomparable pianist Geri Allen in celebrating the legacy and (though recorded live a year earlier at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola) 80th birthday of the Greatest Living Jazz Composer. They do not come to merely pay homage. That would be too much like church and the guy they’re honoring is far from finished. (See below.) Weiss instead leads his cadre on a reconnaissance mission probing the less-heralded (as in least-covered) pieces of the Shorter oeuvre as a means of illuminating its orchestral possibilities. The recital opens your eyes from the jump with “Nellie Bly,” which the always-surprising Mr. Weird wrote very early in his career when he was sitting in Maynard Ferguson’s reed section and now comes across as one of the more ornately conceived barn-burners ever lit. Even the most familiar of these selections, the inscrutably haunting ballad “Fall,” is given a rich, harmonically-layered treatment that inspires glistening fire-and-ice variations from Allen, Coltrane and, especially, Pelt. As widely acknowledged as Shorter’s writing brilliance has been over generations, it takes a classic setting such as this to reaffirm both the sturdiness and suppleness of Shorter’s melodies e.g., they endure and you can do almost anything you want with them.

 

Piano Sutras

 

6.) Matthew Shipp, “Piano Sutras” (Thirsty Ear) – If progressive jazz pianists carried the same renegade credibility in pop culture as heavy-metal rock guitarists, Matthew Shipp would be a biker’s tattoo by now. Twenty-something years is a long time to be an Angry Young Man. But the customary rules don’t apply to Shipp, who at age 53 can still wield a thorny club with swaggering panache, both on- and off-stage. His jazz-outlaw persona packs dual reserves of intensity and insolence; the latter, especially, gets him noticed in jazz circles when it’s directed at such elder statesmen as Shorter, Herbie Hancock and Keith Jarrett – the latter of whom could, ironically enough, match Shipp on whatever Mr. Cranky meter that’s available. For whatever it’s worth, I think Shipp’s uncompromising, mostly unsung insurgency gives him better reason to complain than Jarrett. He even released a “Greatest Hits” compilation earlier this year that made an impassioned what-the-eff-more-do-I-have-to-do case for his artistry. Still, this solo recital, meditative, prickly and ingenious, is an even more persuasive brief on Shipp’s behalf. It literally stomps, like the step-master of an unruly fraternity, to its own beat, piling dense tone clusters and weaving thick harmonic passages into eccentric, arresting patterns. On such pieces as “Cosmic Shuffle” and “Uncreated Light,” Shipp indulges his combative impulses before giving way to lyrical rumination. Though he may seem at times to be an unrepentant churl, Shipp’s “Sutras” remind listeners that, whatever hard things he may have to say, or play, at a given moment, he’s not inclined to stay mad – or stay anything else – for very long. (I bet he’s still happy, though, that I ranked this disc ahead of the next one.)

Without a Net album cover

 

 

7.) Wayne Shorter Quintet, “Without a Net” (Blue Note)As I said (maybe) earlier this year, the more I’ve listen to it, the deeper its mysteries grow; almost to the point of making me wonder whether there’s anything more to this group’s colloquies than mysteries for their own sake. Then, I try to tell myself what Shorter, in his way, is telling everybody else: that questions and answers are often the same thing. And I’ll go, yes, but…This incessant give-and-take between my ears is why “Without a Net,” for all its insistence on keeping secrets, stays on this list, no matter what. Give me another month or two and it’ll likely be back in the top five, but for the moment….

Claudia September

8.) The Claudia Quintet, “September” (Cuneiform) – Because I am an easy mark for crafty historical gimmicks, I was piped aboard this vessel by a number called “September 29th, 1936: ‘Me Warn You’,” in which the voice of FDR, sarcastically chiding his Republican fat-cat opposition for their empty promises of out-dealing the New Deal, is carved up, sampled, mixed, mimicked and harmonized with throughout by this eclectic chamber ensemble led by percussionist John Hollenbeck and featuring Chris Speed on reeds, Matt Moran on vibes, Red Wierenga on accordion and either Drew Gress or Chris Tordini on bass. Once you get past the wonder of hearing instrumental correlatives to Roosevelt’s memorable pipes and recognize the sly contemporary references being made by this juxtaposition, you start to wonder if the joke is being carried a little too far – until, about seven minutes in, when the group, collectively and individually, starts laying down its own cheeky variations on the president’s joke. This open-ended interplay typifies the rest of the album – a series of sound mosaics and tone poems devoted to the month that Hollenbeck prefers to use as time for reflection and contemplation. There’s a witty birthday salute to the unavoidable Mr. Shorter (“September 9th Wayne Phases”), a deep-dyed autumnal ballad (“September 25th Somber Blanket”) and, inevitably, a 9/11 piece (“September 12th Coping Song”) that closes the disc on with introspection that never becomes maudlin. It’s taken me longer than it probably should to have climbed aboard Claudia’s bandwagon and I’m still not sure why this particular one did the trick. But I plan to check back with them.

 

Border Free Chucho

9.) Chucho Valdes, “Border Free” (Jazz Village) – I hope he wont take this the wrong way, but it must be said up-front: This man is a beast, a monster, an unstoppable force-of-nature – and, to be sure, a supreme virtuoso. But his is the kind of virtuosity that, rather than swooping down from thin air, blows the doors open to his listeners, making them run en masse towards him and scream for more. (Just listen to the first five minutes of “Congadanza” and you’ll know exactly what I mean. The last four are pretty “wow”, too.) Valdes is also a paragon among 70-something artists who seem to be gaining in raw power and messianic force with age. He and his Afro-Cuban Jazz Messengers aren’t just wearing down the all-but-fragmented barriers between hard bop and Latin jazz; they’re also expanding rhythmic horizons towards Native American (“Afro-Comanche”) and Andalusian (“Abdel”) sources of inspiration. He also takes time out to honor both his pianist father (“Bebo”) and his late mother (“Pilar”) in ways that make his Cuban homeland vivid and stirring. OK, so he gets a little carried away at times with the occasional Rachmaninoff reference and melodramatic flourish. So long as you can still keep up with the stories, what do they matter?

 

Gerry Gibbs Dream

10.) Gerry Gibbs, Kenny Barron, Ron Carter, “Gerry Gibbs Thrasher Dream Trio” (Whaling City Sound) – If I had Barron, a grandmaster of jazz piano, and Carter, the greatest bassist alive, at my disposal, I bet even I could complete a dream trio with a frying pan, a crockpot and a pair of wooden spoons. But Gibbs, who’s been following in his vibraphonist father Terry’s footsteps by leading his own big band, brings his own aggressive sound, far-reaching chops and orchestrator’s instincts to this session, giving these two demigods a wide-open frame for their immense resources to roam like wolves. The result is a surprising rarity: a piano trio album delivering music with the heft and momentum of a larger ensemble, thanks mostly to the prodigious balance of power and flexibility coming through Gibbs’ trap set. Along with the usual stops (“Epistrophy,” “Impressions,”), the trio shines new light on works by McCoy Tyner (“When I Dream”) and Herbie Hancock (“The Eye of the Hurricane,” “Tell Me a Bedtime Story”). The biggest revelations, however, come from the pop book: that old mid-1960s warhorse, “The Shadow of Your Smile,” Stevie Wonder’s “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing” and, most especially “Promises, Promises,” whose sleek mounting and seamless arrangement here showcase Carter and Barron’s mastery of tempo and changes while delivering what may be the most effective jazz take yet on a Burt Bacharach tune.

 

 

 

digipak_REVERSE

HONORABLE MENTION: Maria Schneider & Dawn Upshaw, “Winter Morning Walks” (ArtistShare) Marc Cary, “For the Love of Abbey” (Motema) Charles Lloyd & Jason Moran, “Hagar’s Song” (ECM) Joe Lovano UsFive, “Cross Culture” (Blue Note) Geri Allen, “Grand River Crossings” (Motema) Bill Frisell, “Big Sur” (Okeh) Carla Bley, Andy Sheppard, Steve Swallow, “Trios” (ECM) Wadada Leo Smith & Tumo, “Occupy the World” (Tum) Ben Allison, “The Stars Look Very Different Today” (Sonic Camera) Rudresh Mahanthappa, “Gamak” (ACT) Fred Hersch & Julian Lage, “Free Flying” (Palmetto) Art Pepper, “Unreleased Art, Vol. VIII: Live at the Winery, September 6, 1976” (Widow’s Taste) Matt Mitchell, “Fiction” (Pi)

 

Finlayson cover

BEST NEW ARTIST: Jonathan Finlayson & Sicilian Defense, “Moment & the Message” (Pi)

 

 

Gregory Porter cover

 

BEST VOCALIST: Gregory Porter, “Liquid Spirit” (Blue Note) HONORABLE MENTION: Youn Sun Nah, “Lento” (ACT)

BEST LATIN ALBUM: “Creole Soul” HONORABLE MENTION: “Border-Free”