It is finally time for my Top 10 Jazz Albums of 2012! The end of each year we get bombarded by ‘top 10’ lists for just about everything, but for me it is too soon. Personally, I like to be sure all releases are out, and take some time over the holidays to reflect and re-listen to stuff I loved — or thought I loved — or perhaps barely touched all year long. Last year this resulted in a late February ‘Baker’s Dozen’ best of list where I spent too much time on stuff NOT on the list and never made any real definitive statements or attempts at ranking.
This year I am only doing a Top 10 list, and only for Jazz, and only for new releases (specifically of new music). Yes there was great music in other genres, more than 10 albums I loved, and some awesome re-releases and new discoveries. I will mention many of these AFTER the list. As for the list, I will count backwards, with the BEST at the top and work my way down. Honestly after the first three the numbering loses its meaning – but my intent this year is to get the best stuff IN YOUR FACE! So here are my Top 10 Jazz Albums of 2012!
- #1. Bending Bridges – Mary Halvorson Quintet
I made the bold proclamation in my review that “Bending Bridges will absolutely appear on my list of the ‘Top 10? albums of 2012.” Well, I was right, but it did better – it is at the top of the list. Why? Because Mary Halvorson is the most exciting young guitarist I have heard in a long time, she is also an amazing composer, and works with incredible musicians who make great music happen. Some of the best ‘musical moments’ of the year are on this album, from the ‘shimmering chords’ of Forgotten Men In Silver, the pounding pulse and quick shifts of Deformed Weight of Hands and many more. This is not music for everyone, but if you have an adventurous ear it is without equal.
- #2: Vijay Iyer Trio – Accelerando
Last year I cut Iyer’s ‘Solo’ out of my top recordings of the year, but also mentioned that he had perhaps the best record of 2009 with Historicity. This year he topped even THAT record with what I consider his best work ever. What is so great about it? Iyer himself continues to progress in terms of technique and communication and composition skills, and the trio format as he works it is simply stunning as it allows all three members to participate as equals operating at the very highest levels of collaborative improvisation. His revisit to ‘Human Nature’ and the title track are simply two of the highlights in jazz of 2012. His ability to play both ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ has always intrigued me, but tends to make it a bit harmonically intense for casual listening.
Here is the press kit for Accelerando with some great live playing:
- #3: Robert Glasper Experiment – Black Radio
An indication of how useless the Grammy Awards are, is that this recording was dumped into R&B. There are actually two releases here, the main album and then the remastered EP … and you should really hear them both. The same two songs – Afro Blue and Black Radio – were my favorites on each recording, but with the order reversed (I liked the original Afro Blue better, and the remixed Black Radio better). There is funk, soul, R&B and other influences all over the music, but as Glasper himself says the spine running through everything is pure jazz. This music feels like jazz, but jazz made in a world where everyone grows up hearing rock and pop and rap music all the time, so our sensibilities are altered by that experience. This is gorgeous, smart, and amazingly produced music – and pretty easy for most folks to try out.
Here is the EPK for the original album:
Here is the remixed version of Black Radio featuring Yasiin Bey:
- #4: Living by Lanterns – New Myth/Old Science
Take four of the hottest young Chicago jazz players and four of the hottest young New York jazz players, have them playing a bunch of compositions based on recently discovered Sun Ra rehearsal tapes, and you have the makings for a dream session that seems it would end up better on paper than in reality. But the surprise is that this recording actually exceeds expectations! The artists include Greg Ward, Taylor Ho Bynum, Ingrid Laubrock, Tomeka Reid, Mary Halvorson, Jason Adasiewicz, Joshua Abrams, Tomas Fujiwara, Mike Reed, Nick Butcher; with Adasiewicz and Reed as the leaders and composers. The presence of Mary Halvorson should alert you to the experimental nature of the recording, with most of the musicians comfortable floating between jazz genres. The songs are structured and thoughtfully arranged with plenty of improvisational space, but there are also loads of enharmonic sequences and and challenging free elements. It is stunningly original, tremendously deep and generously rewarding music – but again you need an adventurous ear.
Here is the song ‘Forget B’ from the album.
- #5: Kurt Rosenwinkel – Star Of Jupiter
Kurt Rosenwinkel has been one of the hidden stars of jazz guitar until the last couple of years when he has finally gotten his due. Star of Jupiter is his 11th album as a leader, and in my opinion it is his best work yet. He is a chameleon, playing music that is clearly jazz, but that brings in rock and fusion and world music influences throughout. Through the years he has honed his tone and technique, so that from the beginning to the end of this sprawling double album you hear him in full command of his craft and band, with great support from all of the players. Rosenwinkel also leads a standards trio, so here he is more focused on delivering a modern jazz tone and message, with a layered and effect-laden sound for his guitar, and most of the compositions representing a fusion of jazz and some other elements. Great to see him finally getting the recognition he deserves (the album debuted at #1 on the iTunes jazz charts), and can’t wait to see what he delivers next.
- #6: Christian Scott – Christian aTunde Adjuah
Back in 2010 I predicted that Christian Scott’s ‘Yesterday You Said Tomorrow’ would be on every Top 10 list, as it was modern without being too ‘out there’, it represented the continuation of the Miles Davis ‘Bitches Brew’ tradition that was once rejected but is now embraced, and that it was just plain excellent. Well … Christian aTunde Adjuah, Christian Scott’s new double album, is even better. It is a huge effort, and continues to bring in the jazz and rock and hip-hop and R&B with his quintet. He heavily relies on guitarist Matthew Stevens here for melodic support, sometimes placing Scott in a support role with the trumpet. But while there are uneven moments and the recording is perhaps over-long, there is no escaping the ambition and vision at work. This again deserves its place on so many Top 10 lists because it is a statement of one type of great 21st century jazz.Here is the EPK for the album:
- #7: Brad Mehldau Trio – Ode
I have had a mixed history with Brad Mehldau, or more to the point I have generally admired his talent but never really connected with his music. 2012 changed that with two great albums, ‘Where Do You Start?’, and ‘Ode’. Ode was the first time I ever had something of Mehldau’s on my iPod for more than a month … and the fact that it remains in heavy rotation 9 months later speaks volumes about how much I enjoyed it. On Ode he delivers an amazing set of trio compositions and improvisations. The first song ‘M.B.’ feels solidly in the Bill Evans tradition, with all members communicating and contributing equally (I often find Mehldau’s heavy left hand messes with the natural harmonic and rhythmic flow of his trios), and the melody is gorgeous. The remainder of the album echoes these themes – great songs, perfect execution, solid teamwork. Either album is a solid recommendation, but for me ‘Ode’ is the winner.Here is the trio performing ‘Number 19’, which became the title track Ode.
- #8: Bill Laswell – Means of Deliverance
I have been a huge fan of Bill Laswell since his 1982 solo debut ‘Baselines’, a somewhat ironic title for a bassist. Yet it wasn’t until 2012 he released a truly ‘bass-first’ record, and even then it is not truly ‘solo bass’, as there are occasional wordless vocals, environmental sounds, and other instruments woven into his sonic tapestry. Yet his skillful and passionate bass playing remain at the core and have kept me transfixed. Laswell is a stunning producer (Peter Gabriel, Mick Jagger, Herbie Hancock’s Fiturshock, Miles Davis’ Panthalassa, and many more), but for me it is always his instrumental work that brings me back – Baselines, his dub/trance/electronics stuff, and now his solo bass work. The skill and mastery at work producing a bass album that doesn’t feel like just a solo bass recording is amazing. I can’t get enough of this one.
- #9: Jenny Scheinman – Mischief & Mayhem
I talk about ‘musical moments’, and the song ‘A Ride With Polly Jean’ is one of those, and is one of the favorites of my family from all of the jazz I have played this year. I seldom hear a ‘ooh, leave this one on!’ from them, but with this song they dig the groove and the melody and the overall feel. The rest of the album reflects her eclectic sensibilities – she has played with Norah Jones and Sean Lennon as well as Bill Frisell and other jazz luminaries. Here she collaborates heavily with guitarist Nels Cline and the results are simply amazing. There are ‘out there’ songs, rocking tunes like the one in the video, and the easy groove of ‘Polly Jean’ and others. This is one I keep going back to and am always rewarded by a new discovery.
Here is the Mischief & Mayhem band performing “Blues For the Double Vee” live in 2012:
- #10: Pat Metheny – Unity Band
It is a testament to the strength of the music released in 2012 that this release from one of my favorite all-time artists barely made the cut. I feel like I spent way too much time this year trying to decide where this record falls compared to the classic Metheny ’80/81′ recording with similar instrumentation … whicih is why I never did a full review. But once I got past that, I realized that this is just an amazing record. I love the band – Chris Potter is a dynamic saxophonist and one of my favorites, Antonio Sanchez is making a huge impact all over jazz, and Ben Williams is also a great player getting recognition. Together they blend seamlessly in a way that reflects many of the sensibilities of the 80/81 recording, but also brings in the more rock, hip-hop, fusion and other influences from the group and produces a great record that has simply become a real Metheny fave of mine. Chris Potter isn’t trying to be anyone else but himself, and as a result he is constantly exciting and interesting. The rhythm section has total control of the groove and flow, and the results are a fantastic set of music that most people will find easily approachable.
Now on with the rest of the great stuff: other great jazz stuff, two jazz re-issues, and two’best of the year’ picks for jazz-rock fusion, electronic, hop hop, and other re-issues. No rock or pop or country? No, for a couple of reasons: first I don’t dig into those genres as heavily, and second from what I did listen to there wasn’t enough stuff I thought was deserving to feel I was making an informed choice. But don’t worry, because those three genres get the most mainstream coverage anyway.
More Great Jazz Albums from 2012
As you might expect, whittling down all of the great jazz to 10 items was tough. Here are five other recordings very much worthy of your time (and I still had to whittle THAT list down from more than 30!)
- Nik Bartsch’s Ronin – Live – I love Nik Bartsch’s Ronin, as it brings in my love of minimalism, jazz, polyrhythms, and tight improvisation. This live record takes the great songs from the studio records and plays them out in a way that preserves the original but allows some space for new levels of intensity and improvisation.
- Marcus Miller – Renaissance – over the last decade of so Marcus Miller has had a somewhat uneven output record, with some great songs but too much ‘fluff’ on records and WAY too much ‘sameness’ recently. But Renaissance is a … well, renaissance, with great songs, collaborations and playing throughout. As always, Miller plays some of everything but his collaborators make a great contribution.
- Jon Irabagon – Outright! Unhinged – another Halvorson collaborator, Jon Irabagon revisits his 2008 solo debut, but now with a new group and new looks at all of his music. I never listened to the original, but this new one is excellent – from his signature ‘Charles Barkley’ to a totally free cover of ‘Take Five’, this is an excellent record from a top young artist.
- Marc Johnson/Eliane Elias – Swept Away – This is one of those recordings summed up as ‘gorgeous’. Beautiful music, wonderful interplay between pianist and bassist, and incredibly rewarding on repeated listenings.
- Ravi Coltrane – Spirit Fiction – no pressure, just the son of legend John Coltrane releasing an album on saxophone. And Ravi performs amazingly well here – this isn’t his debut, but is really the first time when he is at a level to be judged outside of the shadow of his father. His tone is gorgeous (John Coltrane had a famously harsh tone), and his playing is stellar throughout. One of the best mainstream jazz recordings of the year.
Best Jazz Reissues Albums of 2012
- Wes Montgomery – Echoes of Indiana Avenue
An early recording from an under-recorded late 50s period of Wes Montgomery’s short life, these show his development and also some great collaborations with his brothers Monk and Buddy. While he would mature later and had a couple of years at top form before producers started exploiting him for pop covers, this is a priceless gem showing just where he started.
- Bills Evans – Live At Art D’Lugoff’s Top Of The Gate
The great Bill Evans trio with Eddie Gomez and Marty Morell did produce some solid recordings, but this recent discovery is perhaps their finest moment. Recorded by a fan and long forgotten, this captures the trio at their best, sublime communication and interplay. The early 60s Evans trio remain the pinnacle of the jazz piano trio, but this recording earns a spot in the pantheon of great trio work.
Best Jazz-Rock Fusion Album of 2012
- Gary Husband – Dirty & Beautiful, Volume 2 – I absolutely loved Volume 1, and had been anticipating Volume 2 for a while. It arrived late – but was worth the wait! There are loads of guitarists and other artists – Alan Holdsworth and John McLaughlin and Mike Stern and others all make a great contribution, with Holdsworth’s ‘Fred 2011’ reworking of a classic making a highlight. But the cohesive element is Gary Husband, who has put together an amazing array of music here.
- John McLaughlin – Now Here This – The addition of explosive drummer Ranjit Barot takes this group to the next level, and the heavier use of Gary Husband’s keyboards make this my favorite McLaughlin record since Mahavishnu. The master guitarist shows no signs of slowing down, and that is a great thing!
Best Electronic Album of 2012
- Zedd – Clarity – the album spawned an amazing hit single with ‘Spectrum’, yet it is the consistent quality of all the tracks that make this such a great release. Whereas Skrillex killed it with the song ‘Bangarang’ but the rest of the album floundered, Zedd carves out a path between popular dance music and hardcore electronica that is exceptional in its drive towards a common theme even as each song takes on a different part of the genre.
Best Hip-Hop Album of 2012
- Kendrick Lamar – Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City – I have not been terribly fond of much music in the hip-hop genre lately, finding it harmonically thin, lyrically offensive and trite, and overall simply unimpressive. So I was thrilled when I heard Kendrick Lamar, a young rapper with a great vision for his music and the ability to execute on that vision on an album with music worth hearing and lyrics that don’t make my ears bleed. The 25 year old Lamar actually delivers where so many of his contemporaries merely pronounce their own greatness. If you are a fan of hip-hop, you simply must own this album.
Best Re-Issue of 2012
- Frank Zappa Catalog Remaster Releases – Once again I am cheating, because this covers several albums from Zappa’s vast catalogue. Several things happened: loads of music came to iTunes, new entries to the catalog were introduced from ‘the vault’, stuff lost to the LP era made an appearance, and everything released was meticulously remastered. The result? Stuff like ‘We’re Only In It For The Money’ that was ruined by too much overlay on the CD transfer in the 90s sounds better than it has since the original release. I have yet to hear something sound ‘worse’ than the original, and as a result have slowly been replacing my Zappa CDs with digital copies.
As I said, it is an amazing set of music, spanning youthful instrumentalists in their early 20s all the way through legendary grand masters with just about everything in between. The genres range from traditional jazz to the avant-garde to funk to rock to fusion … but there is one constant: great music.
OK, that is MY list of the Top 10 Jazz Albums of 2012 … now what is YOUR favorite music from 2012?