TOP TEN JAZZ RECORDINGS OF 2012
by Mike Stratton, host of The Vinyl Side of Midnight
(A radio program featuring this music will be broadcast live on Sunday, 12/30/12 at 9 p.m. – midnight on 89.7 FM, WLNZ or on line at http://www.lcc.edu/radio/onair/. The program will be re-broadcast in coming weeks on http://taintradio.org)
10) PONCHO SANCHEZ AND HIS LATIN BAND – LIVE IN HOLLYWOOD (Concord Records)
Latin legend Sanchez and his mighty band, smokin’ hot in front of an appreciative audience. This album, along with Sanchez’ lifetime achievement award from the Latin Recording Academy, cap a long and illustrious career. And the music? Percolating polyrhythms (Promenade), sultry sambas, tributes to Clare Fischer (Morning), and Mongo Santamaria (Afro Blue) (both key figures in Poncho’s career), cool solos. If you’re not dancing during this disc, even in your chair, see a doctor.
9) ROBERT GLASPER EXPERIMENT – BLACK RADIO (Blue Note Records)
Pianist Glasper flirted with Neo-Soul and Hip Hop on his previous releases, but with his Experiment band he goes all in. The first track tips off his intent: the studio is a laboratory for developing ideas and motifs that break through barriers and labels. A load of guests, including Erykah Badu and Laiah Hathaway, and enticing covers (David Bowie! Nirvana!) keep things fresh and interesting. A very chill, kicked back session.
JAZZ SOUL SEVEN – IMPRESSIONS OF CURTIS MAYFIELD (BFM Music)
Ironically, one of the best ‘straight ahead’ sessions of the year isn’t an homage to Duke or Monk or Bird, but to soul singer Curtis Mayfield. The Jazz Soul Seven is stacked with ringers: Terri Lynne Carrington on drums, Bob Hurst on bass, Phil Upchurch on guitar, Ernie Watts on sax and Wallace Roney on trumpet. Russ Ferrante holds down the piano chair while Mayfield alum Master Henry Gibson is on percussion. And all of the hits you’d want to hear are present: Freddie’s Dead, Superfly, People Get Ready and much more.
7) WADADA LEO SMITH & LOUIS MOHOLO-MOHOLO – ANCESTORS (TUM)
Trumpeter Leo Smith has one foot in the Delta of his youth, and one in the avant garde of the AACM. He had a busy year, his four disc set, Ten Freedom Summers, is supposedly superlative, but I didn’t hear it (see Bill Murray’s turn on Oscar predictions via his stint anchoring the news on SNL back in the day). This duet with the unique percussionist Louis Moholo-Moholo is better than alright. The first track (Moholo-Moholo/Golden Spirit) is my favorite, shifting from a skitterish entry to a throbbing promenade of somber melody. A long time civil rights advocate, this year that saw a real threat to suppress the vote reminds us of the need for musicians who carry a message as well as a tune.
6) RAVI COLTRANE – SPIRIT FICTION (BLUE NOTE)
Son of jazz legend John Coltrane, Ravi (named after recently departed sitarist Ravi Shankar) mines some of the territory of his ancestry, but rather than taking after his father, Coltrane seems more interested in the free bop of Ornette Coleman, filtered through the aesthetics and methods of mid-60s Miles Davis. That’s a lot of name dropping for music that is actually very much it’s own. Surprisingly organic, given the different line ups of the band and recording sites. This strikes just the right balance between the loosey goosey of free jazz with yet enough structure and melody to keep the listener engaged. Check out the lovely ballads, The Change, My Girl, or Yellow Cat. Joe Lovano produces the recording!
5) BILLY HART – ALL OUR REASONS (ECM)
Billy Hart has had an extensive career, playing with jazz giants Jimmy Smith, Miles Davis (On The Corner & Big Fun), McCoy Tyner and was a part of Herbie Hancock’s Sextet. His penchant for exploration is fully realized in this long standing quartet, rounded out by saxist Mark Turner (Fly), pianist Ethan Iverson (The Bad Plus) and bassist Ben Street. This is state of the art music from some dedicated artists: nocturnal, cerebral, open and flowing. The abstractions tend towards the beautiful.
4) BRAD MEHLDAU TRIO – WHERE DO YOU START (Nonesuch)
Start by acknowledging that this trio has been working together for the better part of a decade, achieving near telepathic chemistry. Start by recognizing that these (mainly) covers were culled from the same sessions that produced the originals recorded for the excellent ODE, also released this year. But I like this one better. Why? Well, let’s start with Holland, Mehldau doing Sufjan Stevens (from his Michigan album!), a cool simmer of a meditation, complete with Larry Grenadier’s dancing bear of a bass line, and Mehldau gently stroking the bittersweet melody. This trio is so well documented and never disappoints. The ballads carry the day, in spite of burners such as Airegin (Sonny Rollins) and Brownie Speaks (Clifford Brown).
3) LINDA OH – INITIAL HERE (Green Leaf Music)
The Australian born Malaysian bassist may get less press than Esperanza Spalding, but her skills on the big acoustic instrument are no less impressive. Highly influenced by Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Oh is funky and groove oriented yet also has her head in the clouds as a composer and band leader. Meaning, much free playing and an ear for the clever. Bernstein’s “Something’s Coming”, for instance, is given a totally new work up. But her compositions are worthy of covering themselves. Ultimate Persona features the aforementioned groove. Mr. M conjures Mingus without quite mentioning his name. The quartet (Dayna Stephens on sax, Rudy Royston on drums and Fabian Almazon on keyboards) sounds anything but derivative.
2) PAT METHENY – UNITY BAND (Nonesuch)
Metheny has been on a tear in recent years, his idiosyncratic Orchestrion project, followed by a gorgeous rendition of covers for solo guitar (What’s It All About), and now the Unity Band. Much is made of the guitarist working again with a sax player (Chris Potter). But the rhythm section of Antonio Sanchez on drums and wunderkind bassist Ben Williams makes this a true band, the grooves and swing just as enjoyable as what’s layered on top. My favorite track is Come And See, which features Potter’s bass clarinet on the head before a mercurial guitar solo by Metheny, followed by a turgid tenor workout by Potter, one of jazz’ finest players (both for his solo career and his playing in various Dave Holland projects). Ben takes a chorus, melodic and woody, before the band kicks into the head again. Don’t miss this one.
1) AHMAD JAMAL – BLUE MOON (ACM)
In a year given to fabulous piano releases, octogenarian pianist Ahmad Jamal gets my nod for album of the year. He opens his masterpiece, piling one set of chords atop another, a virtual recreation of Autumn Rain complete with new theme. And again with the title track. The rhythms set up by drummer Herlin Riley, at times a funky throb, another a busy contrapuntal crossing of patterns, underscored by the bubbling percussion of Manolo Badrena. Reginald Veal is set more for grooves than for walking the bass. All this creates a playground for Jamal, oft said to be Miles Davis’ favorite pianist. And he is a font of creativity, playing hide and seek with the melody, using technique with such mastery that it disappears. He’s playing. In every sense of the word. Really delightful music.
Tags: Ahmad Jamal, Best of 2012, Billy Hart, Brad Mehldau, Jazz Soul Seven, Linda Oh, Pat Metheny Unity Band, Poncho Sanchez, Ravi Coltrane, Robert Glasper Experiment, vinyl side of midnight, Wadada Leo Smith