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January 10, 2013

Jazz Critics' Poll 2012: The Big Sort

by  |  January 10, 2013

I reviewed 535 new (or at least previously unreleased) jazz albums in 2012: down a bit from recent years, but still enough to get a feel for how rich and varied the jazz universe has become. I sorted those down to 59 A-list albums, another 113 strong honorable mentions, lots more good records, some not-so-good and a few I could have done without -- the best-known are Pat Metheny's Unity Band and Esperanza Spalding's Radio Music Society.

Whittling that list of 59 down to a ballot-sized Top 10 may have exposed some of my taste preferences -- saxes over pianos (Vijay Iyer, Michael McNeill, Peter Zak) and guitars (Raoul Björkenheim, Anders Nilsson, Jon Lundbom) and vocals (Neneh Cherry, Diana Krall); new over old (Bill Evans, Art Pepper, Frank Wright); avant edge over squall (Charles Gayle, Hairy Bones, Holus-Bolus) and calm (Louis Sclavis, John Surman) and mainstream norms (Jerry Bergonzi, Branford Marsalis, Ted Nash); although the "list of 59" includes all that and more (Juhani Aaltonen, Dave Douglas, Peggy Lee, Weasel Walter, Mort Weiss).

Still, these are my 10 favorites:

Steve Lehman Trio, Dialect Fluorescent (Pi)
Alto saxophonist, studied under two legends – Anthony Braxton and Jackie McLean -- and has found his own synthesis, as brainy as the former and as gritty as the latter.

Sam Rivers/Dave Holland/Barry Altschul, Reunion: Live in New York (Pi)
Recorded in 2007, 35 years after the trio got together with Anthony Braxton to record Holland's landmark Conference of the Birds, four years before Rivers died at 88. He remained a power on tenor sax, engaging on flute and quite some pianist, while the bassist returns to his avant youth.

Houston Person, Naturally (High Note)
The last tenor sax great from the soul jazz era, always a delight, here with a dream group -- Cedar Walton, Ray Drummond, Lewis Nash -- just relaxed, enjoying themselves, luxuriating in his sound.

Ivo Perelman/Joe Morris/Gerald Cleaver: Living Jelly (Leo)
Six albums for the Brazilian saxophonist this year, five of them trios, four on my A-list, this one a slight favorite for the way Morris' guitar flows out and beyond the sax.

Jenny Scheinman, Mischief & Mayhem (self-released)
String-focused group, with the leader's violin, Nels Cline's guitar, plus bass and drums; the fast pieces veering between bluegrass and rock, the slower ones opening up to enjoy the atmosphere.

The Ben Riley Quartet: Grown Folks Music (Sunnyside)
Monk's drummer, a legacy he carried on in Sphere, but he started out with with Johnny Griffin and Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis, tenor sax models Wayne Escoffery can warm his abundant chops to.

Fred Lonberg-Holm's Fast Citizens, Gather (Delmark)
Chicago group with three horns and a rotating leader slot depending on who brings in the tunes. On their third outing, it's the cellist's turn, and he manages both to deepen the structure and keep the party quotient up.

Nik Bärtsch's Ronin, Live (ECM)
Swiss pianist, generally plays acoustic but is such a student of rhythm that he builds the most eloquent jazztronica around. Doing it live lets him rehash his greatest beats, and stretch out.

Arthur Kell Quartet, Jester (Bju'ecords)
One of many fine bassist-composers working today picks up worldly beats and channels them through Brad Shepik's guitar, with Loren Stillman's bright and brittle alto sax building from there.

Jacob Garchik, The Heavens: The Atheist Trombone Album (Yestereve)
All horns, mostly trombones, overdubbed by the leader, drawing on gospel swoops and raising the rafters, but with something else in mind.

The rest of the list (and I do mean all of it) is here.

The poll's Best Reissue category threw me a curve this year. If you look at the poll results, you'll see that the top two slots went to Mosaic box sets, and much of what followed went to small boxes of LP replicas that Sony/Legacy put out (Charles Mingus, Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, Dave Brubeck, Weather Report, etc.). These are big-ticket items and reviewers are delighted to be favored with them, but those of us who didn't find them in the mail will think twice before shelling out the bucks, if for no other reason than that we most likely have most of them already. I have no doubt that Coleman Hawkins' Classic Sessions is a top reissue of the year, but I don't have a copy to review, not that I couldn't construct a complete playlist from the many Hawkins recordings I do have.

Similarly, I hold Sony's Mingus, Ellington, and Monk collections in especially high regard, again because I have nearly all of the original albums. Beyond that, there's a lot of interesting reissue activity in Europe, thanks to their 50-year-limit copyright laws, but it's little-publicized over here. On the other hand, we're seeing a few albums of historical interest each year, often old concerts by recognized stars – Bill Evans, Live at Art D'Lugoff's Top of the Gate and Art Pepper, Sankei Hall, Osaka, Japan are good examples that offer more of what you're already familiar with -- but sometimes the vaults reveal treasures you're less familiar with.

So I wanted to spend my reissue slots to recognize two of these: Juma Sultan's Aboriginal Music Society, Whispers from the Archive (1970-78, Porter), and William Parker, Centering: Unreleased Early Recordings 1976-1987 (NoBusiness). The former, from a drummer associated with Jimi Hendrix and Archie Shepp, came from a Black Power moment when it seemed possible for both to be revolutionary and popular -- a party record that's also a head trip. That moment is so far gone it's impossible to think of the record as new music. The latter is a six-CD box set, a fully documented epoch in the evolution of the great bassist of our times. One can debate how Parker's box stands up against Mosaic's boxes, but trying to slot it into this year's list of truly new records is impossible.

So make that 12 favorites, and punt the reissue category.

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