Monday, December 23, 2013

2013 jazz top 10

My 2013 jazz top 10 is live now at the Jazz Journalists Association site. My 2012 year-end jazz list was pretty extensive; this one is more concise, simply because I didn't spend as much time with new jazz, either on disc or out and about, as I did last year. That wasn't by design, or any indication of a large-scale shift in my tastes; jazz just wasn't as much where my listening brain was at during these past 12 months. That said: plenty of great records heard, and a handful of great shows witnessed, so let's talk about ’em.

(The Lloyd/Moran, Parks and Lonnie Smith albums aren't on Spotify; you can stream the other seven selections here.)

1. Black Host Life in the Sugar Candle Mines [Northern Spy]

I had high expectations for this record. I'd heard this band live two years back and was mightily intrigued. Life absolutely measures up. The Cleaver-as-a-leader discography is one of my favorite in contemporary jazz, and this is at least as strong a statement as Be It as I See It (discussed here). Probably stronger, because the personnel—Darius Jones, Brandon Seabrook, Cooper-Moore, Pascal Niggenkemper—is just so damn impressive. Serious kudos to Cleaver for figuring out a way to re-present the perennially underrated Cooper-Moore to the world. C-M's understated star turn on Life's concluding track, "May Be Home," is one of my favorite musical moments of the year. There's plenty of electrifying skronk on this record—some of which drags on a bit long for my tastes, that being the main reason this didn't crack my all-genres-in-play top 10—but the almost gospel-ish, soul-stirring element is what really draws me in. The quieter moments, such as the dreamy breakdown around 4:00 in "Hover," the heartbreakingly fragile "Citizen Rose" or the aforementioned "May Be Home" are pure bliss. For more on Life, see my Pitchfork review.

2. Charles Lloyd / Jason Moran Hagar's Song [ECM]

What a warm and sumptuous album this is. These two are just hanging out and playing great songs together. I'm a big fan of the Bandwagon, but I prefer Moran in a more unadorned setting, like this. There's no hook, no concept, just full engagement with the material. I'm currently revisiting one of my favorite tracks, "Bess, You Is My Woman Now," and Moran takes the most loving, unflashy solo, laying out the red carpet for Lloyd, whose presence throughout is, at the risk of sounding cliché, totally Zen-ed out. The epitome of a nothing-to-prove session. There's a little bit of modernist scrambling, but mostly this album is just songs (pop standards such as "God Only Knows" are treated as reverently as the jazz ones), with a bias toward luminous ballads. Absolutely fine by me. This is jazz you can really live with.

3. Aaron Parks Arborescence [ECM]

I would say the same of this album. I say, without shame, that both have served as cooking-dinner soundtracks for me. Is it doing a disservice to the deep beauty of Arborescence to say that it's ideal mood-setting music? I shy away from the idea of background music, but I wonder if the pianist himself would even take offense to that? He seems to really want to reach his audience here. These are mostly improvised pieces; to my ear, they're unrepentantly pretty and more classical-ish than jazzy. It's strange, but in a way, my experience of Arborescence is what I imagine the experience of The Köln Concert to be. I've never spent good time with that legendary record—no bias; I just haven't gotten around to the Jarrett solo repertoire in general—but judging by everything I've heard about Köln, Arborescence is, at least niche-wise if not style-wise, the same kind of piano record. One that, in theory, anyone could enjoy, and one that a purist might see fit to frown upon. Sometimes Arborescence is so wispy and drawn out that it almost seems to disappear, but there's real power in that ephemerality. You sit with this and you marvel at Parks's ability to simply make music, and to do so selflessly enough to make it so universal. It's hard to imagine an ear that doesn't crane toward this music as to soft morning sunlight, as mine is doing right now as I revisit it.

4. David Ake Bridges [Posi-Tone]

For me, the jazz writer of the year was Phil Freeman. He covered more of the music, in a more genuinely useful way—i.e., a way that made you want to seek out the sounds—than anyone else I read in 2013. Phil's year-end jazz round-up is essential; among the records he cited there, I got particularly into David Ake's Bridges, which I checked out a while back after reading this Burning Ambulance post. Bridges is one of those somewhat rare sessions where, going in, I'd never heard of the leader but I knew most of the other players well. The lineup is stellar—trumpeter Ralph Alessi, saxists Peter Epstein and Ravi Coltrane, bassist Scott Colley and drummer Mark Ferber—but it's what Ake, a pianist, does with the personnel that makes this album work. The compositions are maybe the tightest, most intricate and most memorable that I've heard on a jazz album this year. Ake leaves space for his sidemen to speak up—I'm listening to a great Colley solo, with commentary from Alessi, on the track "Sonomads"—but what you'll remember are these beautifully arranged, little-big-band themes, executed in a modern postbop style. Phil cited a minimalism influence, and I can definitely hear that, combined with the lusher, more meticulous end of the mid-’60s Blue Note sound—maybe a little bit of Dimensions and Extensions or The All-Seeing Eye, though Bridges is lighter in tone, funkier and more approachable, in a way that sometimes reminds me of Ravi Coltrane's own 2012 date Spirit Fiction (discussed here), which also features Alessi. Sometimes the mood gets greasier, slurrier, such as on the raucous and bluesy "Year in Review," where—as often happens on the album—the horns solo in unison. Even there, though, there's such a wonderful sense of order to this record, of a leader taking the time not only to assemble a great band but also to put together a compelling context for them to work within. I'd recommend this to any fan of well-made, composer-centric but also player-friendly small-group jazz.

5. Aaron Diehl The Bespoke Man's Narrative [Mack Avenue]

Same deal here, but in a more consciously retro idiom. As with the Aaron Parks above, I can think back to a time when I might have found a session like this—one that, God forbid, dares to hark back to that age-old connection between jazz and snappy dressing—distasteful. Now I find it to be the opposite. Anyone who writes this off due to the cover art is going to be missing on a gorgeous record. Steve Smith likened the concept here to the Modern Jazz Quartet, and he's right: That similarity is inescapable, given the piano-vibes-bass-drums instrumentation and almost obsessive polish and elegance on display in the playing and composition. But if there's retro-ness at play here, it's the most lived-in, un-gimmicky kind. There is such a nothing-to-prove quality about a piece like "Blue Nude" here; as with the Lloyd/Moran above—note that Bespoke also includes a marvelous version of "Bess, You Is My Woman Now"—Diehl just wants to play songs, to swing crisply, muse tastefully, give you a good feeling while at the same time presenting a striking portrait of who he is as a bandleader. You could hear, say, this group's reading of "Moonlight in Vermont" in passing and think it was merely "right," in the not-a-hair-out-of-place sense, but as with the MJQ, you listen closely and you're blown away by the unassuming skill, shrewdness, loving care of it all. Diehl's solo version of Ellington's "Single Petal of a Rose," burrows a little deeper; the ballads on Hagar's Song are astonishing in their unhurried composure, but this might even be more so. This record radiates love and care, for the material, yes, but also for the listener. Diehl wants to make you comfortable, not as an end in itself, but so that he can move you. The Bespoke Man's Narrative is radical in its sheer composure.

6. Matthew Shipp Piano Sutras [Thirsty Ear]

We think of Matthew Shipp as an avant-garde guy, someone on the opposite end of the spectrum from an immaculately groomed, Juilliard-trained, J@LC–anointed (complete with Wynton co-sign and Crouch liner notes) prodigy such as Diehl. And, to judge by Shipp's pugilistic stance toward the jazz maintream, he thinks of himself that way. But strip away the rhetoric and you're left with an aesthetic that's plenty approachable, plenty jazzy and, as heard on Piano Sutras, really, really satisfying. For one thing, Shipp takes the trouble to make records, as such. He's no Cecil Taylor, who for roughly the past 35 years has released almost exclusively live records, or rather others have released them. Taylor seems to have very little regard for how his music is consumed after it's made; Shipp, on the other hand, seems to only be getting better at plotting out programs that his listeners can genuinely engage with. Piano Sutras is a collection of 13 short-ish pieces. Aside from the standards, I'm not sure which are based on preconceived ideas and which were improvised on the spot, but each one seems to have a strong center and purpose—we're not just listening to Shipp jam. There are some tracks on this record that set a killer mood, that make essentially abstract, solo, sort-of-jazz piano seem like the same thing as songwriting: "Space Bubble" captures that crystalline sense of mystery that I associate with my favorite Shipp recordings (New Orbit, e.g.); "Blue Orbit" does sound like a blues, but refracted beautifully through the Shipp prism; "Cosmic Dust" comes off like a tug-of-war between Taylor and Andrew Hill. And then there are the standards, which strike me as deeply generous. I know that's a weird word to use, but the 71-second "Giant Steps" is just pure nourishing gorgeousness. "Nefertiti" is little more diffuse, but again, this is no deconstruction of, no attack on a chestnut; like the "Giant Steps," and like all great interpretations of standards, it's a celebration of the raw material. Overall, Piano Sutras is as warmly swinging as it is mad-scientist demented (see esp. "Cosmic Shuffle," which perfectly illustrates the tension between those two currents in Shipp's playing); it can be difficult, but generally, it meets you halfway. In that sense, I think Shipp has more in common with Hill than with Taylor. Thinking of Shipp as merely an iconoclast, whose output is as forbidding as his verbal critiques, does him a disservice. I like Piano Sutras because it's a record of weird solo piano that nevertheless invites you in.

7. Dr. Lonnie Smith Octet In the Beginning, Vols. 1 and 2 [Pilgrimage]

The second release from this veteran organist's own label, Pilgrimage, and the follow-up to a highly enjoyable trio set that made my jazz honorable-mentions list for 2012. Frequently, this record is the epitome of what you might estimate it to be: an exemplary soul-jazz set in the mode that Smith helped to perfect. Then, suddenly, when the leader goes off on one of his skipping-record excursions, wiggling his fingers relentlessly between two notes, or holding down a chord so long that it starts to feel like a laser beam of joy aimed at your skull, you start to realize that you're glimpsing the infinite. The band is pure fire and focus, whether the mode on display is crackling hardbop ("Turning Point"), strutting funk ("Move Your Hand," which features a beautiful Smith lead vocal) or pensive balladry ("In the Beginning"). The other soloists are generally strong; the arrangements, by saxist-flutist Ian Hendrickson-Smith; and the rhythm section—with guitarist Ed Cherry and drummer Jonathan Blake—kicks a great deal of ass. But the glory of this set is the leader himself, how hard he pushes, how, with each solo, he erases the line between music for your body and music for your spirit. You rarely hear a man so clearly convinced that his chosen instrument is a vehicle for transcendence, even salvation. Let's let Smith have the last word, via a quote from Ted Panken's informative liner notes: "I always say that the Hammond has all the elements in the world to me—the thunder and the lightning and the rainbow, the feel of the earth, the sun, the moon, the water."

8. Kirk Knuffke Chorale [SteepleChase]

I've dug cornetist's Kirk Knuffke's playing whenever I've heard him live, with bands like Ideal Bread or Merger (discussed here), as well as on recent records like Federico Ughi's self-titled quartet album, Max Johnson's Elevated Vegetation and the collaborative trio Sifter. I think Chorale is the first record I'd heard under Knuffke's own name. He's been making a bunch of cool CDs for the venerable SteepleChase label—including various collaborations with pianist Jesse Stacken—that I really need to take a closer look at, but Chorale grabbed me instantly, largely because I'm a complete sucker for anything with Billy Hart on it. Because of the unmistakable presence of Hart's drumming, its authority and weight—even when he's barely playing—he's going to be more or less a co-leader in any band in which he appears. That's definitely the case here, but Hart isn't dominating. The great thing is, no one is. Knuffke is a wonderfully patient, lyrical player, who's seemingly obsessed with the simple beauty of the line. You'll sometimes hear him going for slight timbral distortions, but mostly he's just singing, softly yet forcefully. He's not coming to the table on Chorale with a huge amount of compositional baggage. He seems to want to simply mix it up with the wonderful band he's assembled, which also includes pianist Russ Lossing and bassist Michael Formanek. What they're playing is a kind of cool-toned free jazz. In pieces like "Made," the musicians are jumping from one lily pad to the next, unbound by meter, but the interplay is so right-on—each player seeming so willing to help the others, as well as the overall sound, along. Sometimes the sound is more traditional, like on the gentle postbop dance "Standing," but the band maintains its wonderfully plush feel. Listening back now, I'm starting to hear the whole group concept of this record as an extension of Knuffke's songful cornet style, a style so self-assured that he doesn't have to raise his voice. There's not a lot of overt heat on Chorale, but the mojo bubbling beneath the surface is formidable. Like Hart, the rest of the players here know how to make their mark on a session simply by speaking clearly as themselves.

9. Harris Eisenstadt September Trio The Destructive Element [Clean Feed]

The Destructive Element is slightly heavier on the compositional emphasis than Chorale, i.e., the specific pieces here stand out as much as the overall feel, where on the Knuffke I tend to come away savoring the latter. As I indicated on last year's jazz recap, which featured a pair of new Harris Eisenstadt records (I think these were the third and fourth Eisenstadt albums that have turned up in my year-end coverage in recent years), I'm consistently impressed by this drummer-composer's ability to build bands that matter, that have something to say. A lot of jazz musicians are really fond of hatching projects, period. It's not always clear why a given composer/conceptualist feels the constant need to found their various ventures. But with Eisenstadt, I always feel like I understand why this group needs to be playing this music. That's really the case in the repertoire of the September Trio, which features two extraordinary players: pianist Angelica Sanchez and saxophonist Ellery Eskelin. I remember liking this band's self-titled 2011 debut, but I think this is better. The compositions on The Destructive Element seem to me to be Eisenstadt's love letters to his collaborators. He really seems to be working hard to give them what they need compositionally to be themselves as players. There are few things I've heard on record this year as beautiful as the ballad "Back and Forth"—Sanchez and Eisenstadt marching steadily forward as Eskelin emotes in that passion-packed yet anti-histrionic style of his. "Swimming, Then Rained Out"—an almost gospel-ish slow-burner—is another piece with the same kind of unassuming authority. All three of these players are known for venturing into various sorts of free-jazz territory, and there is a bit of hectic scramble on this record (e.g., the brief improv episodes that fall between the signpost theme statements in "Additives"). But gorgeousness is, I'd say, the chief imperative. There is so much pleasure and care and warmth and soul in these pieces—Eisenstadt working hard for Sanchez and Eskelin, and them working hard for him in turn. This isn't an all-ballads program, like they used to make back in the day, but it's definitely oriented that way, and it has the same spirit, i.e., "This is the vibe we're going to be working with, so get on board with it." I really admire that commitment, and I find myself wishing that this band would go even further in that direction on their next effort. Few working jazz groups I can think of have a more affecting, unpretentious way of singing a song together.

10. Kris Davis Massive Threads [Thirsty Ear]

This was a serious year for solo piano. In addition to Massive Threads, you've got the Parks and Shipp albums above, and a few other acclaimed discs—by Myra Melford, Bobby Avey, Geri Allen (hers was mostly solo, some duo)—that sounded intriguing to me on a first spin but that I didn't get a chance to put in good time with. This might be the most challenging of the whole crop. What I like about Massive Threads is that it sounds genuinely experimental, i.e., like a document of fresh ideas being road-tested, without coming off as ponderous. The first piece, "Ten Exorcists," is a study in what sounds like prepared-piano minimalism; I'm not sure if Davis is actually placing objects inside the piano, or simply muting the hammers with her fingers, but the net effect is something like a mini tuned-percussion orchestra. It's technically impressive, but why it works is that it sounds genuinely curious—like Davis is excited to share what she's found, rather than austerely demonstrating some rarefied technique. I feel the same of "Dancing Marlins," where she seems to really be getting down to basics with the piano, reveling in it as a sound generator, rather than an instrument with all this heavy tradition behind it. On a piece like this, she sounds almost playful, but there's clearly a heavy thought going into these exursions, as though she'd spent days and weeks homing in on a specific area of inquiry before tossing away the blueprints and hitting record. Like Craig Taborn—and I think of Massive Threads as a cousin to his Avenging Angel (discussed here), in a way—Davis is clearly a player of frighteningly advanced technique who often seems utterly ambivalent about showing it off. The idea is primary, the sense of chasing down some weird sound zone—cornering it, dissecting it, finally inhabiting it. These players are poker-faced; they can verge on Cecil Taylor's density and destabilization, but the torrential outbursts he's famous for aren't their style. With Taborn and Davis, there's more the sense that, yes, they could slay you at any moment, but they'd rather keep you, and themselves, in infinite suspense. You get on their wavelength or you turn the record off; it's that simple. As intimidating as that sounds, there's a deep, human pleasure in listening to Davis live with these ideas. "Desolation and Despair" (what a title!)—just crawling, limping along, but not maudlin or emotionally showy. She's seeking stillness on Massive Threads, just as much as she's seeking herky-jerky mobility on some of the other pieces. As with Taborn, whatever the area of inquiry, Davis is going to get to the very bottom of it, at her own pace. And that's a thrilling thing to witness.


There are a bunch of other 2013 jazz records that I dug and hope to be able to spend more time with. These include the two Ethan Iverson–plus-contemporaries-and-veteran sessions (Tootie's Tempo, Costumes Are Mandatory), Tarbaby's Ballad of Sam Langford, Hush Point's self-titled debut, Dan Tepfer and Ben Wendel's Small Constructions and Dave Holland's Prism.

But the one formal honorable mention I feel like I need to make is of Ben Allison's The Stars Look Very Different Today, an album that came out recently and only made its greatest impact on me once I'd already filed my 2013 jazz ballot. I'm not sure that this one would've ended up displacing anything listed above, but I still probably would've given the matter serious thought if I'd had another couple weeks. Like Eisenstadt, Ben Allison has shown up on my end-of-year jazz list before; I loved Action-Refraction from 2011. I think Stars might be better. Allison is the kind of composer-bandleader that always seems to be heading further from jazz, per se, and nearer to his own personal soundworld. On The Stars, he's firmly in his own space. The instrumentation—Brandon Seabrook (it's great to compare his work here with that on the Black Host record, btw) and Steve Cardenas on wonderfully complementary guitars, and Allison Miller on drums—helps to give the record its individualized feel, but it's also the writing and the thrust of the performances. I've placed so much emphasis above on the idea of song. I have no problem repeating myself, because it so pleases me to hear a band zeroing in on that notion and getting it right. The songs here are magical—"Neutron Star," a sort of psychedelic roots-rock theme, is one of my favorite pieces of music of the year. There's great soloing on The Stars, but when I reflect on it, I think of a band laboring intensely in the pursuit of Allison's beautiful writing. Such that when they improvise, it's more like embellishment rather than departure. The thing is the singing of these wordless reveries, and the little mini idiom Allison has created here, this sort of folksy, funky, emotive, spacey-textured wordless pop that he's focusing on. He seems to want the instrumentation and the material to exist in perfect balance, so that you don't hear jazz, you hear these themes, and underlying them, the personal signatures of himself and his collaborators. I wish all "jazz" felt this personal, this generous, this simultaneously unfamiliar and inviting.


My favorite historical releases (reissues/unearthings) of 2013 were:

Miles Davis The Bootleg Series, Volume 2: Live in Europe 1969 [Columbia/Legacy] 
Pitchfork review here.

New York Art Quartet call it art [Triple Point]
Thoughts here.

Woody Shaw The Complete Muse Sessions [Mosaic]
I'm slowly making my way through this set, and it's sounding excellent—an important document of a period (mostly ’74–’87) that's a blank spot on many jazz maps, and was on mine until not that long ago. One session that blows my mind is the December ’65 date Shaw originally recorded for Blue Note—Wikipedia says it was a demo tape; the Mosaic liners say that Alfred Lion intended to release it but backed out after he sold the company. Anyway, those five tracks are as good as you'd hope/expect given the vintage and the personnel: Joe Henderson and Joe Chambers, along with either Larry Young (on piano rather than organ, a month after the great Unity, which features Shaw and Henderson) and Ron Carter, or Herbie Hancock and Paul Chambers. I'm curious to know how Woody Shaw's general stature in jazz would look if this album had come out on Blue Note at the time it was made. Anyway, point is, it's great, and I can't wait to spend more time with this set as a whole. (Speaking of Mosaic, I really want to get my hands on that Clifford Jordan box, as well.)


On the live front, my favorite jazz performances of the year were:

Eric Revis, Kris Davis and Andrew Cyrille at Winter Jazzfest
Thoughts here.

A Tribute to Paul Motian at Symphony Space
Thoughts here.

McCoy Tyner, Gary Bartz and Co. at the Blue Note
Thoughts here.

Milford Graves with, respectively, Evan Parker, John Zorn and Joe Lovano, at, respectively, the Stone, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Stone.
Thoughts here.

I also loved seeing Black Host at Seeds (May 29) and Roy Haynes at the Blue Note (June 27).


P.S. Aside from Phil Freeman's excellent jazz round-up, linked above, I've really enjoyed perusing the latest installment of Francis Davis's annual Jazz Critics Poll (plus the always-fascinating data breakdown by Tom Hull), as well as Seth Colter Walls's Rhapsody list, and Ben Ratliff and Nate Chinen's jazz-heavy NYT top 10s.

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