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Your last best list of the year's jazz recordings (Photos)

Pianist Matthew Shipp's trio album comes in at #8.
Pianist Matthew Shipp's trio album comes in at #8.
Neil Tesser

You can think of this as the last “Best Of” list you’re likely to read about last year. Or, if you prefer, consider it the first “Best Of” list you’re likely to read this year. But either way – and just when you thought it was safe to stop thinking about 2012 – here comes my list of the Top Jazz Albums for the year just passed.

Why so late? I have plenty of reasons, some of which might even qualify as good. For example:

  • I spent most of December – including the weeks when I would normally have prepared this column – finishing up a big deadlined project, editing the upcoming autobiography of the vibraphonist/bandleader/educator Gary Burton. (It’s due in September on Berklee Press.)
  • Also, we’re in the process of selling one condo and buying another – staying in Chicago, thanks for asking – and all the negotiations came to a head right around the end of December. (And don’t even get me started on the logistics required to move approximately 25,000 CDs.)
  • Also, I wasn’t feeling so good: hip problems from locking my knees when I stand (according to my chiropractor), and maybe just thinking about those 25,000 CDs.
  • According to a fine column in the Science section of The New York Times, a framed copy of which will hang in my new office, “structured procrastination” can have a positive impact on the task at hand by spurring valuable insights.
  • And if you find none of those excuses convincing, then at least give me credit for getting you the list before the New Year – that is, the Chinese New Year. (The Year of the Snake begins on February 10.)

An earlier and slightly different version of this list is included among the nearly 120 ballots tallied for’s annual Jazz Critics’ Poll. That poll asks voters to select top picks for Latin jazz, jazz vocal, debut album, and reissue, in addition to the traditional Top Ten. You can see each individual critic’s choices by clicking here.

(The Jazz Critics’ Poll prohibits writers from voting for any albums to which they might have contributed – say, by writing liner notes – and that accounts for a slight difference between my Poll ballot and the list you’ll see here. In addition, I’ve chosen not 10 but a Baker’s Dozen albums for this post – a respectful nod to the fact that while I’m surveying the year 2012, we have in fact moved on to ’13.)

Six of my Baker’s Dozen got enough votes to finish in the Poll’s Top 50; two were in the Poll’s Top 10. If you add in my “also-rans” – the discs (listed at the bottom of this column) that barely missed the cut – then ten of my choices match up with those in the Rhapsody Poll. I mention this neither to validate my picks nor sully any others’; I’m just noting the areas where I agreed and disagreed with the prevailing wisdom.

Perhaps more to the point, almost half my choices didn’t place at all in the Rhapsody 50 – including my #1, #4, and #5 picks – which, if nothing else, suggests the enormous discrepancy possible when even “the experts” get together to hash things out. If an album didn’t appear in the Rhapsody 50, it means that it failed to show up on as few as four ballots; in other words, only I and maybe two or three others, out of nearly 120 writers, liked these albums enough to put them on our ballots. (To which I can only say – What’s wrong with the rest of you guys?)

Counting down:

13. Gary Burton & Chick Corea, “Hot House” (Concord). Forty years after they released their iconic ECM album “Crystal Silence,” the longest-running duo act in jazz history recorded the first of their seven albums to primarily feature jazz standards – from the bop-era title track to Tin Pan Alley classics, to tunes by Thelonious Monk and Dave Brubeck, and even “Eleanor Rigby.” Would that be enough? Even someone enamored of both these artists (as I am) could be forgiven for wanting to recognize other, younger artists – or, for that matter, wondering whether the Burton-Corea collaboration had anything left in the tank. Then the music begins – virtuosically thrilling, driven by a remarkable telepathy, utterly captivating – and the questions disappear: you just can’t ignore improvisation at this level, performed by two of the finest practitioners on their instruments in history. A bonus lies in the fact that the arrangements of these familiar tunes reveal aspects of both men’s personalities – Burton’s steeplechase melodicism, Corea’s unique harmonic signature – without losing the original songs’ essence.

12. Fred Lonberg-Holm’s Fast Citizens, “Gather” (Delmark). Don’t be confused: this is indeed the third album from the loose confederation of Chicagoans called “Fast Citizens” – and also the third different artist to serve as the group’s titular leader, exemplifying the very concept of an artists’ cooperative. That this one stands above its predecessors may stem from the experience of working together, but I’ll give more of the credit to cellist Lonberg-Holm, who wrote five of these seven far-ranging compositions. (The other two are from saxists Aram Shelton and Keefe Jackson, each of whom fronted a previous “Fast Citizen” disc.) Lonberg-Holm’s work is eclectic in the aggregate, but even more so within each piece; none of them runs shorter than eight minutes, and several spin off enough different themes and moods to suggest a novel rather than a short story. The music pulls and pushes the listener into sometimes bewildering landscapes – you won’t be bored. Lonberg-Holm plays cornet and guitar in addition to cello; Josh Berman (cornet), Aaron Hatwich (bass), and Frank Rosaly (drums) round out this flexible and explosive sextet.

11. Ahmad Jamal, “Blue Moon” (Jazz Village). Every 8 or 12 years, pianist Ahmad Jamal confounds those who wrote off a previous artistic misstep, and records a masterpiece. (Someone needs to figure out the life sciences – biological, chemical, spiritual – behind Jamal’s renewals and make it available to the rest of us.) Now in his 80s, Jamal has gone for broke on “Blue Moon,” which is elevated by a level of aesthetic risk-taking usually seen only in Young Turks – or in a treasured elder whose venerated status lets him get away with saying (or playing) anything he damn pleases. The material isn’t especially novel: the title track dates to 1934, and even Jamal’s new compositions follow the pattern of exotic half-century-old hits (like his “Poinciana”): insidiously seductive rhythms, significant vamp sections, and tried-and-true set pieces at the piano, which Jamal swaps in and out of each solo. It’s the energy and precision of the attack, and the creative abandon with which he applies those attributes, that makes this Jamal’s most dynamic and compelling album in a couple decades – and a pointed reminder of his unique piano style which, with its revolutionary use of space, strongly influenced Miles Davis (and by extension, the entire cool-jazz movement) in the 50s.

10. Avishai Cohen, “Triveni II” (Anzic). With this recording (the second by this trio), Israeli-born Avishai Cohen does for the trumpet what Sonny Rollins did in his saxophone-led trios of the late 50s: he displays a sense of orchestration, and an awareness of the extra-melodic capabilities of his instrument, that allows him to fill the role of a chord instrument. In the process, he obviates the need for that instrument entirely. The direction of the music, as well as the repertoire – which includes tunes by Charles Mingus and Dizzy Gillespie (as well as Ornette Coleman and Cohen himself) – suggest a modern mainstream quartet, and you’d expect to find piano or guitar in the mix. But Cohen’s superlative ability to suggest harmonies fills in the gaps; so does his knack for slipping the trumpet in and out of the rhythm section, often freeing bassist Omer Avital (Cohen’s lantzman) and even drummer Nasheet Waits to take on some of the melody work themselves. The resulting music is compact, translucent, kaleidoscopic, and often transcendent.

9. Chano Dominguez, “Flamenco Sketches” (Blue Note). Miles Davis’s “Kind Of Blue” remains the most lionized and emblematic jazz album of all, and as such has inspired plenty of tributes – some of which, like this one, recount the original album’s five compositions (often in the same order). But trust me, you haven’t heard Davis’s masterpiece like this. The album title, taken from one piece on “Kind Of Blue,” clues you into Dominguez's concept: the vociferous Spanish pianist blends the original album’s repertoire with flamenco music, incorporating that idiom's earthy, fevered rhythms via the vocalist and two percussionists in his quintet. (Although never attempted in this fashion, it makes perfect sense: “Kind Of Blue” was the first album in jazz to fully embrace modal harmonies, which also undergird flamenco.) You might expect this approach to galvanize the tune “Flamenco Sketches,” and it does; surprisingly, this same fusion also works on the album’s bluesier and more conventional tunes, turning them inside out and easing initial doubts as to why we needed to hear these tunes again.

8. Matthew Shipp Trio, “Elastic Aspects” (Thirsty Ear). Every time you think you’ve got a bead on pianist Shipp, you should simply accept that you’re probably wrong, and that his continued artistic development – even now, in his 50s, an age when most musicians have established and even ossified their styles – constitutes a remarkable saga. (I don’t think the album’s cover illustration is an accident: a digitally rendered, cubist depiction of a butterfly, it suggests transformation, and nothing better describes Shipp’s career.) By turns bombastic and tender, spirited and introspective, Shipp has managed to remove the rougher edges off his music without diluting its startling impact. I suspect that those who once shied away from his music’s aggressiveness can now hear the passion underneath, while longtime admirers will find an even more fully integrated persona. Shipp’s bandmates, comprising bassist Michael Bisio and drummer Whit Dickey, adapt themselves seamlessly to his demanding, open-ended approach improvisatory style. And Shipp, after his long apprenticeship with the late David S. Ware, seems newly comfortable at the reins of his own band, rightfully secure in the body of work he brings to this enterprise.

Coming up Friday: The rest of my Baker’s Dozen for 2012. Until then (as promised above) and listed alphabetically, those discs that just bubbled under the cutoff – none of them by much, and all of them entirely recommended for appreciating the year just passed, as well as for pure enjoyment.

Zach Brock, “Almost Never Was” (Criss Cross)

Bobby Broom, “Upper West Side Story” (Origin)

Chick Corea/Eddie Gomez/Paul Motian, “Further Explorations” (Concord)

Kenny Garrett, “Seeds From The Underground” (Mack Avenue)

Marshall Gilkes, “Sound Stories” (Alternate Sound)

Paul Kogut, “Turn Of Phrase” (Blujazz)

Rob Mazurek Pulsar Quartet, “Stellar Pulsations” (Delmark)

Pat Metheny, “Unity Band”

Mike Reed’s New Myth/Old Science, “Living By Lanterns” (Cuneiform)

Sam Rivers, “Reunion: Live In New York” (Pi)

Wadada Leo Smith, “Ten Freedom Summers” (Cuneiform)

Matt Ulery, “By A Little Light” (Greenleaf)


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