I've posted a list of my favorite 2012 jazz recordings at the Jazz Journalists Association site. As you'll see, it's a little unwieldy: 15 numbered choices, plus 11 extras. I'd almost rather not order these at all, but so far, I've submitted rankings to two year-end polls (one jazz-only and one where all genres are in play), and I wanted to maintain some consistency between my various lists. Really, though, I view this as a non-hierarchical set. I consider all these picks honorable mentions, in a non-consolation-prize sense; this is the jazz that captured my attention this year, and each of these albums comes highly recommended. Below are some thoughts on eight of the selections, presented in an intuitive order not related to the rankings of the aforelinked list; I'll post comments on the rest soon, probably in two more installments. I've included Spotify and Bandcamp embeds, as well as video links, when available.
Spirit Fiction [Blue Note]
I'll begin with this album, and devote extended space to it, because (A) it slipped my mind as I was hastily compiling my year-end lists—one or two worthy records always do—and (B) I've been re-enchanted with it over the past couple days. Before hearing Spirit Fiction, I was only vaguely familiar with Ravi Coltrane's work; I think I may have skimmed through his 2009 full-length, Blending Times. I can't tell you how this compares, but as an entry point, it's stellar.
Normally I like my albums of a piece, i.e., recorded in one session—or at a few close together—with stable personnel, but Spirit Fiction makes a strong case for a different model. The record flip-flops between tracks by two different bands: Coltrane's working quartet with pianist Luis Perdomo, bassist Drew Gress and drummer E.J. Strickland, and a quintet with trumpeter Ralph Alessi, pianist Geri Allen, bassist James Genus and drummer Eric Harland. Joe Lovano, the album's co-producer, sits in on two tracks by the latter, and though this all sounds like a bit of a jumble, the pieces flow together beautifully.
Interestingly, the quartet focuses on free jazz, in the literal sense (i.e., jazz that's free, rather than Free Jazz; compare progressive rock and Progressive Rock)—a strategy that's also employed, as I'm now reading, on Blending Times. There's only the faintest connection here to the ecstatic jazz launched by Coltrane senior; these improvisations are nimble, lyrical, responsive—almost like a more overtly jazzy version of what you hear on the Spontaneous Music Ensemble's Karyobin—with the players sort of skipping over and around each other as they gradually cohere into grooves. In contrast, the quintet tracks (three of which are by Alessi) are tight, swinging and refreshingly nonformulaic; "Who Wants Ice Cream," e.g., starts with a magical little Coltrane/Alessi duet before the full group kicks in. A few other pieces also atomize the personnel: "Spring and Hudson"—a Coltrane/Strickland duet—and "Fantasm," a remarkable Coltrane/Lovano/Allen reading of a Paul Motian composition that does right by the title. Rather than distracting you, the variety helps you focus. Listening straight through, you don't know what's coming next, and the changes in personnel, ensemble texture and performance strategy re-engage the ear.
Basically, Spirit Fiction is the kind of record that proves to me that there really is no contemporary jazz mainstream, per se, at least not a uniform one; any artist who matters, and I'm now fully convinced that Ravi Coltrane does, comes off like a movement of one. Coltrane isn't a soul-baring searcher like his dad; he's far humbler and more emotionally cool than that. But at the same time, there's nothing staid or rote about what he does; it's accessible without being particularly conventional. Spirit Fiction doesn't reach out and grab you; instead, it subtly draws you in, gradually waking you up to an aesthetic that's far richer than it seems on the surface, one that wants to present the leader against various backdrops, to showcase him as a consummate interactor. (Again, it's a small miracle that the album hangs together, and doesn't feel at all haphazard.) I have no idea what to compare this record to, and I find that exhilarating. Hear this.
(In case you're keeping track, tracks 1, 3, 4, 7 and 11 are by the quartet; 2, 5, 8 and 9 are by the quintet, with the latter also featuring Lovano; 6 is the Strickland duet; and 10 is the Lovano/Allen trio.)
George Schuller's Circle Wide
Listen Both Ways [Playscape]
Schuller is another artist I woke up to this year; I knew that he was Gunther's son, and that I'd enjoyed his brother Ed's bass playing in the ’80s Paul Motian quintet, but I'm not sure I'd ever heard him before this record showed up in the mail. And like Spirit Fiction, Listen Both Ways is the kind of record that doesn't fit into any convenient jazz subcategory; it's nonformulaic without feeling eccentric in any obvious or gimmicky ways, and it's unabashedly beautiful without seeming saccharine. Unlike Spirit Fiction, Listen Both Ways is very much the sound of a single ensemble, made up of really strong, distinctive, seasoned players who—the leader included—are probably less well known than they should be: saxist Peter Apfelbaum (for me, he might be the star of the record; he's got this gruff yet songful tone that reminds of me of Dewey Redman at his best), guitarist Brad Shepik (I first heard him with Dave Douglas's Tiny Bell Trio, probably the first "downtown" jazz group I saw live), vibist Tom Beckham and bassist David Ambrosio. Most of the music is by Schuller, and it's got this airy, folkish yet still propulsive and engaging quality—much like the leader's drumming. Sometimes, as on "Store Without a Name," the aesthetic reminds me of Paul Motian—sort of this ghostly, free-floating mass of melody; other times, as on Margo Guryan's "Edwin," it's more playful and boppish. But what's present overall is a very strong engagement with the material; the forms aren't terribly unconventional, but this isn't just a band playing heads and soloing. Both together and as a unit, these players are putting forth something personal and intimate. As with Spirit Fiction, it's easy to call Listen Both Ways worthwhile jazz, but it's hard to peg it with any easy signifier beyond that.
Schuller and Circle Wide play a CD-release gig December 19 at ShapeShifter Lab in Brooklyn.
In contrast to the two names above, I knew Tim Berne's work really well coming into Snakeoil; so this one wasn't so much about surprise as it was about appreciating a subtle reframing. (More on that in my Time Out NY preview.) Over the past few years, Berne has been working hard with his current quartet (Oscar Noriega on clarinets, Matt Mitchell on piano and Ches Smith on percussion, an ensemble formerly known as Los Totopos), and though his writing for this group doesn't differ hugely from the multivalent prog-jazz he put forth in projects like Hardcell, the band has found its own way into the material. As you hear on Snakeoil, the upshot is kind of a "chamber" version of the Benre aesthetic—not defanged, by any means, but especially engaged with moody, lyrical improvisation. You'll find some of the prettiest Berne to date on pieces like "Spare Parts"; these performances still have his trademark robot-ballet momentum, but the band seems to always be pushing toward a pensive, abstract place, which they do without losing a sense of purpose. Not exactly something new from Berne, in other words, but fresh enough to be entirely worthwhile.
Darius Jones Quartet
Book of Mæ'bul (Another Kind of Sunrise) [Aum Fidelity]
Book of Mæ'bul parallels Snakeoil in two ways: (A) It presents an often gritty alto saxophonist-composer in a relatively refined light, and (B) it also features Matt Mitchell and Ches Smith, contributing the same sort of elegant adventurousness that they do on the Berne recording. But this album serves a very different function in the Jones discography than Snakeoil does in the Berne one. Tim Berne has issued many, many full-lengths, whereas Jones is still a relatively young recording artist; Book of Mæ'bul is, by my count, only his third LP as a leader (in addition to a duo with Matthew Shipp, a couple records with Little Women and a new one as part of the Grass Roots collective). I enjoyed Jones's last two records, 2011's Big Gurl (Smell My Dream) and 2009's Man'ish Boy (A Raw and Beautiful Thing)—especially the latter, which featured the monster tandem of Cooper-Moore and Bob Moses—but I think he's reached a new level with Book of Mæ'bul. No one who's heard Jones over the past few years would dispute that he's one of the more searingly soulful young saxophonists playing today, a worthy heir to the original Free Jazz giants, but with this record, he shows that he's after much more than straight catharsis. Here, you really hear Darius Jones the writer, sculpting poetic melodies—opener "The Enjoli Moon" breaks my heart, and deserves to become a new standard—living with them, and then, when he gets the urge, blowing them to bits. Music like this makes me think of the classic Sonny Sharrock manifesto: "I've been trying to find a way for the terror and the beauty to live together in one song." To me, Book of Mæ'bul represents Jones's own quest for that same aesthetic grail. Fortunately, the musicians in his quartet grasp this entirely. To me, this group sounds like a potential heir to the late David S. Ware's fabled quartet; there's a similar kind of caress-then-crush duality going on in. I can't wait to hear the next chapter.
Songs for Four Cities [Skycap]
Eri Yamamoto Trio
The Next Page [Aum Fidelity]
More personnel overlap here: The band on drummer Federico Ughi's Songs for Four Cities features both Darius Jones and pianist Eri Yamamoto—whose own 2012 full-length also made my list—not to mention the aforementioned Ed Schuller. The Ughi was a real sleeper for me; unlike the records above, and many other records I chose, this one didn't benefit from any sort of PR push whatsoever. I doubt I'd have heard of it at all if it weren't for my weekly TONY duties; I checked out Songs for Four Cities after I noticed a listing for a record-release show at Firehouse Space (a show I unfortunately didn't get to see). Before this, I had a sense of Ughi as a staunch free-jazzer, mainly affiliated with William Parker, Daniel Carter and other Vision Festival mainstays, as well as with guitarist Adam Caine, an old friend and former bandmate of mine who currently works with Ughi in a rousing freeform duo known as The Moon.
But while there are moments of old-school ecstatic-jazz catharsis on Songs, that's not the prevailing vibe here at all. No, on the contrary, this is one of the warmest, most straightforwardly approachable records I've heard in 2012, jazz or otherwise. The Songs in the title is no accident; the pieces here—inspired, as the title would suggest, by four cities around the world where Ughi has lived—feel as elemental as deep, old hymns, and as catchy as great ’70s soul. Once you've heard tracks like "Tolmin" and "Claygate," I can pretty much guarantee they'll be looping in your head. And the band plays the material with such loving respect; the themes aren't just improvisational fodder, stated and then jettisoned; Jones and Yamamoto, both proud guardians of melody in their own work, really dig into these compositions, nurturing them, seeing to it that they bloom. I'm thinking of moments like Yamamoto's solo on "Claygate"—it's just so lush and bluesy and fun and heartfelt, so extremely not about hip jazz sophistication, geared entirely to bringing out the essence of Ughi's writing and sharing it with the audience. Again, there are hints of free-jazz fire in this music, as on "When We Cry," during which the band reaches a hectic, increasingly abstract crescendo, but even here, it's not at the expense of the tune. The straighter pieces are what really put this one over the top for me, though; every time I put this record on, I marvel at its unpretentiousness—how it's not some knowing gloss on a sort of pop-jazz aesthetic (and I use pop-jazz in a totally non-pejorative sense), but a fully realized embrace of that idea, the notion that jazz, whatever its "school," should be about the song first and foremost, and about how improvisation grows from that like a flower from soil. Whatever your particular tastes, you need to hear what Ughi and his band are doing here.
Here's some video from a 2011 gig by the Songs for Four Cities band.
Much of what I've written above also applies to Yamamoto's own 2012 release, The Next Page. I've enjoyed her last couple discs on Aum Fidelity, but this latest one seems to me like a definitive statement. As with Songs for Four Cities, there's something wonderfully out-of-step about Yamamoto's aesthetic as a bandleader. A good illustration of what I mean: I had The Next Page on in the kitchen the other day, and my wife asked if I was listening to A Charlie Brown Christmas. I laughed and told her that that was exactly what I thought of when I first heard this record. (Maybe my recent appreciation of Yamamoto's work is no coincidence, given that I woke up to Vince Guaraldi's trio in a big way earlier this year when I wrote about drummer Jerry Granelli.) I think the Guaraldi comparison is fully apt here, and fully complimentary. Again, as with the Ughi, this is an unfashionable record: unfashionable in its plainspoken devotion to song. I mean Yamamoto and her bandmates (bassist David Ambrosio, who's also on the George Schuller record above, and drummer Ikuo Takeuchi) no disrespect when I say that pieces like "Whiskey River," a particularly warm and bluesy piece here, sound almost like themes for vintage sitcoms, the kind of music that might play as a camera pans down a row of inviting Brooklyn brownstones in autumn.
This is the kind of jazz that's extremely easy to take for granted, even to condescend to. (Indeed, I guess you could accuse me of the same in light of that sitcom description, but I'm just honestly reporting the images this record conjures for me.) Reviewing this album on PopMatters, Will Layman wrote, "But in a field of new jazz piano trios operating at the heights of
Glasper and Moran, Iyer and Taborn, Shipp and Parks, Yamamoto’s group on
The Next Page seems too sweet and too pleasant to grab a listener’s ear and demand that it listen." In a way, I think that's exactly what I enjoy about the Yamamoto aesthetic, i.e., its alleged too-pleasantness, which doesn't seem excessive at all to me. On the whole, I respect and enjoy the work of the pianists above—as readers of this blog might know, I'm particularly partial to Taborn, Shipp and Moran—but to me, it seems narrow-minded to portray jazz piano as some kind of arms race, a contest to see who can sound the most contemporary, whether it be via hip repertory choices, engagement with cutting-edge pop forms or staunch avant-gardism.
I'm not sure exactly when this gig ended, but for a long while—I'm talking years—Yamamoto and her band played weekly (maybe even more frequently?) at Arthur's Tavern in the Village. I've never been there, so I can't tell you exactly what it's like, but I do know that Arthur's isn't a jazz haunt, per se, like, say, Smalls is. My sense is that it's a neighborhood bar, where the music plays more of a background role. Or at least, that's how I imagine it, hearing The Next Page. This is music that fits into and shores up life, rather than music that demands intellectual engagement. It doesn't flatter the listener's urbane sophistication, so it's only logical that it wouldn't be a critics' favorite. (Hey, I like brainy jazz as much as the next person, enough so that I've been accused of "recondite hipsterism" in the past; the inclusion of, say, Steve Lehman's record on my year-end list shows you that I'm still very enticed by progressiveness, when done well, that is. Also, I should say that part of the uphill battle for Yamamoto in particular might be that she records for Aum Fidelity, which many consider synonymous with classically styled free jazz. She's also appeared on albums by William Parker and Whit Dickey. Maybe there's an unfair expectation that her own work will follow up on that thread.) On the other hand, The Next Page sounds really good and gives you a genuinely warm feeling—much the way "Linus and Lucy" does. In these areas, it succeeds mightily, and I think that's all one can ask of a record: that it choose a direction and head that way wholeheartedly. The Next Page is a simple pleasure, but it isn't a shallow one. Much like on the Ughi record, Yamamoto, Ambrosio and Takeuchi are really singing songs here, together, and I think jazz could use a bit more of that.
Steve Lehman Trio
Dialect Fluorescent [Pi Recordings]
Since I mentioned the Lehman above, I'll head here next. I wrote at length on Lehman and this record in a June profile for TONY, so I'll keep this relatively brief. Part of what attracts me to Dialect Fluorescent is how smartly it contrasts with Lehman's previous LP as a bandleader (not counting sessions co-led by Rudresh Mahanthappa and Stephan Crump), 2009's octet release Travail, Transformation and Flow. As I wrote in the TONY piece, Travail is a contemporary masterpiece, an example of "what you point to when someone asks you what NYC jazz sounds like right now." Dialect Fluorescent is also a very right-now kind of jazz record, but one achieved with a totally different set of tools, namely the incorporation several standards (not to mention the theme from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory) and the use of a slimmed-down ensemble. Simply put, this trio, with bassist Matt Brewer and drummer Damion Reid, cooks in a way that a record like Travail couldn't. In 2009, I wrote about a live performance by Fieldwork (the collective trio of Lehman, Vijay Iyer and Tyshawn Sorey), dubbing their aesthetic robojazz. There's a similarly prog-minded virtuosity at work on Dialect, but the pure funk is closer to the surface here. To me, this record is as much about the super-dry, unforgiving sound of Reid's kit as it is about Lehman's tart-toned lines; it's about daredevil busy-ness, but with tons of space left, as on pieces like "Foster Brothers." Travail was about Lehman the composer; this one's more about the athleticism, the breakdance. And simply by virtue of it being a trio release, the sidemen aren't really sidemen anymore; they're right there with Lehman, pushing, prodding, stutter-stepping. You have to be in a certain mood to dig this one: caffeinated, almost—primed for hyper-awareness, as you would be when stepping up to an addictive yet fiendishly challenging arcade game. But when that feeling strikes, Dialect Fluorescent is the perfect musical counterpart.
Here's an EPK on Vimeo.
Dr. Lonnie Smith
The Healer [Pilgrimage]
The Healer is, again, a totally different kind of jazz record than any of the others I've listed: not complex and acutely engaged like the Lehman, or homey and inviting like the Yamamoto. I think of this album as an exercise in vibe cultivation. Going into this record, my impression of Lonnie Smith was more or less a caricature: classic soul-jazz organ dude, wears a turban, etc. He's the kind of artist that almost invites you to underestimate him, pigeonhole him, align him with a sound or an era or a motivation, to file him away with a "Yeah, I get it." As with the Yamamoto, though, it's a mistake to consider approachability and shallowness to be synonymous. This record blindsided me and swallowed me up. I'm not familiar enough with Smith's recent career to know how long he's been gigging in a trio format with guitarist Jonathan Kreisberg and drummer Jamire Williams—the band featured here, as well as on 2010's Spiral—but this group has achieved a rare kind of mojo: somewhere between laid-back funk, chopsy fusion and spacey psychedelia. On pieces like "Backtrack," the three musicians enter a kind of slow-burning group trance: humid, slinky, almost impossibly patient. These are the kind of grooves you wish would go on forever, vamps where in the macro sense, nothing much of consequence is happening, but where the tiny details have mind-altering potential if you let them work on you. Yes, the aesthetic here is very retro, as though a crate-digger's samples had come to life, but obviously Smith comes by it honestly, having been at it since the ’60s; Kreisberg and Williams, meanwhile, groove like a dream. Every time I put this record on, I want to drift away with it (see esp. the molasses-slow version of "Chelsea Bridge"); if you're a sucker for the intersection of funkiness and trippiness, I think you'll feel the same. I should mention too, that the disc is far from uniformly placid: "Beehive" burns like the rare-groove equivalent of Mahavishnu Orchestra. It's all just badass, super-authentic and, to me, pretty much irresistible.
Check out the EPK here, and a Spotify stream below.