Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Best of 2012: Open season

Top 10 albums of 2012 (all genres in play):
Time Out New York (annotated, with Spotify playlist)
Pitchfork (unannotated, with top 10 singles list)

Top 10 jazz albums of 2012 (with many honorable mentions):
Jazz Journalists Association, plus annotated breakdown, part I (plus intro), II and III


I participated in a few different year-end polls this season, each with its own parameters. I tried to keep my picks consistent across the various platforms, but inevitably, a bit of imprecision crept in. Below you'll find a list of my top 50 records of the year, as submitted to the Pitchfork contributors' poll. (My final list may have differed very slightly in terms of order, but I'm 99 percent sure that these 50 records are the ones I ended up voting for; it's hard to say because I entered my picks via an online voting portal that's since disappeared.) The first 10 constitute the same top 10 I submitted to Time Out New York and the Village Voice's Pazz and Jop poll, and the 15 jazz records found here constitute the top 15 jazz records I listed over at the JJA site, with the top 10 of those making up my Jazz Critics Poll ballot.

Below, I link to my prior coverage where applicable, discuss any strays and provide listening samples for albums 20–50 (via a playlist apiece for each grouping of 10, including a track from every selection that's available on Spotify). Hat-tip to Seth Colter-Walls—who's got a great all-genres list over at the Awl—for the formatting suggestion.

Thanks for reading. As always, comments/feedback welcome, especially re: records I might have missed! 


1. Christian Mistress Possession 
2. Japandroids Celebration Rock
3. Converge All We Love We Leave Behind
4. Pallbearer Sorrow and Extinction 
5. Propagandhi Failed States
6. fun. Some Nights
7. Loincloth Iron Balls of Steel 
8. Frank Ocean Channel Orange
9. Billy Hart All Our Reasons
10. Corin Tucker Band Kill My Blues

A rock- and male-heavy top 10, yes. I've been a little bothered by that in recent days, thinking I should've mixed it up a bit more, but (A) I sort of believe that top 10 lists make themselves, i.e., these are the albums that chose me over the past year, not the other way around (to put it another way, these are records I played and played and played, in both professional and personal contexts), (B) this list is much less monochrome than it looks on the surface and (C) I've done my best to shout-out at least a sampling of all the other great albums I heard in 2012 below and via the jazz-only list linked above. The narrowing part was tough; there are albums in the 30s and 40s below that were in serious contention for the top 10.

To comment a briefly on the unlinked above:

Possession is a magical album. As I suggested in my TONY list, this record both epitomizes and transcends the recent retro-metal trend. Yes, its basic palette is an old one, but its emotional content is so not mere pastiche; in the mold of the best of Dio-fronted Sabbath (Mob Rules, The Devil You Know), it's at once tough and badass, and also crushingly sad, qualities embodied in Christine Davis's scratchy-throated vocal turn—somehow both majestic and humble. And the riffs and structures go way beyond post-Sabbath-ism—so effortlessly, stylishly progressive, full of twists and sudden set changes. Spend time with this album, enough time to listen past its surface retro-ness and on to its timeless rewards. Metal is not something donned, assumed for Christian Mistress; this is real communion with the past—the ’70s and ’80s, yes, but also more ancient eras. Possession is so damn earthy it almost feels pagan. A big salute to this one.

Damn, is fun. ever fun. Some Nights speaks to the part of me that loves the pomp of Elton and Queen, but as with Christian Mistress, this isn't mere retro. This band's gift is updating that sound with a very modern kind of wryness—it seems almost too perfect that one of the dudes in the band is dating Lena Dunham. This is the kind of record that takes a subculture (the modern NYC hipster) and makes it into a kind of super-stylized Broadway-style tragicomedy. It's over-the-top and self-deprecating but it's also deeply touching. And the songwriting and arrangements are just stellar. I love this kind of pop, the kind that respects old-school craft but finds a way to say something contemporary.


11. Nude Beach II 
12. The Smashing Pumpkins Oceania 
13. Asphyx Deathhammer
14. Rush Clockwork Angels 
15. Prong Carved Into Stone 
16. Steve Lehman Trio Dialect Fluorescent
17. R. Kelly Write Me Back 
18. Darius Jones Quartet Book of Mæ'bul (Another Kind of Sunrise)
19. Dysrhythmia Test of Submission 
20. How to Dress Well Total Loss


Re: Nude Beach, again with the retro. The entire album is not quite this good—if it was, it might've been my album of the year—but, dear God, "Radio" and a few more…

The Rush album is solid, solid, solid. Snakes and Arrows was a decent record, but they are back in the driver's seat with this one. The real story here isn't the recent Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees' (ahem) return to concept-album-dom; it's that that they've written probably their strongest set of songs since 1993's Counterparts.

R. Kelly is still on his own backward-looking tip, and he seems to be having a hell of a time. There's plenty of cheese on this record, but also pure, post–Barry White gold, e.g., "Lady Sunday."

The Dysrhythmia record is crammed with their own brand of "hits." As I've written before, these are Dysrhythmia's catchiest songs to date. Went through a period of could-not-stop-listening-to-this re: Test of Submission a month or so back, due largely to "In Secrecy" and three or four others.


21. Serpentine Path Serpentine Path 
22. Van Halen A Different Kind of Truth 
23. Jim Black Trio Somatic 
24. Cannibal Corpse Torture 
25. Federico Ughi Songs for Four Cities 
26. Henry Threadgill Zooid Tomorrow Sunny / The Revelry, Spp 
27. The Men Open Your Heart
28. Say Anything Anarchy, My Dear 
29. Neurosis Honor Found in Decay 
30. Dr. John Locked Down


What a puzzle Open Your Heart is. This album blindsides you in at least four different ways. Individual tracks make perfect sense, but as a whole, it's inscrutable in a way I very much enjoy. "Rock" sticks, but any subgenre tag you might try to pin on it slides right off.

I think Anarchy, My Dear is the best Say Anything album since the frankly untouchable …Is a Real Boy. Max Bemis is one of our great songwriter/bandleaders.
Locked Down is essentially a perfect example of the "re-branding" album, i.e., one of these increasingly common efforts where an older artist whose career has slowed or perhaps even stalled teams up with a sharp, savvy producer who can reconnect him or her with the kids/critics. Sometimes these efforts can smack of crass strategizing, but this one is simply a great Dr. John album that happens to have been abetted by a famous young musician (Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys). This material sounded every bit as good live, when I heard it at BAM earlier this year.


31. Joel Harrison / Lorenzo Feliciati Holy Abyss
32. Behold… the Arctopus Horrorscension 
33. David Virelles Continuum 
34. Tim Berne Snakeoil 
35. Incantation Vanquish in Vengeance 
36. The Cookers Believe 
37. The Howling Wind Of Babalon 
38. Matt Wilson's Arts and Crafts An Attitude for Gratitude 
39. George Schuller's Circle Wide Listen Both Ways 
40. Aaron Freeman Marvelous Clouds


A glorious return for Behold, which marks the BtA debut of Weasel Walter on drums. It's only fitting that this project should rev up again just as the Flying Luttenbachers endeavor was concluding. Extraordinary, inspiring extended composition first; great metal second.

Doug Moore's Invisible Oranges write-up of Vanquish in Vengeance was spot-on. This record (A) sounds very little like the murk-fi masterpieces (Onward to Golgotha, Mortal Throne of Nazarene) that established Incantation's sterling reputation, and (B) really isn't surprising in the least. It's simply an excellent genre-obedient effort by a band that helped define the genre—in other words, the death-metal analog to the Cookers' Believe.

Man, is Of Babalon ever heavy. An excellent companion to Serpentine Path, another 2012 effort featuring former Unearthly Trance member Ryan Lipynsky. This one is both more diverse stylewise and more vicious in its mood. Lipynsky isn't a revolutionary, but the degree to which he really and truly means it when he makes metal makes him a standout figure in the underground.


41. Cattle Decapitation Monolith of Inhumanity 
42. Dr. Lonnie Smith The Healer
43. Napalm Death Utilitarian
44. Sam Rivers / Dave Holland / Barry Altschul Reunion: Live in New York
45. Jozef Van Wissem / Jim Jarmusch Concerning the Entrance Into Eternity
46. Death Grips No Love Deep Web
47. Leonard Cohen Old Ideas
48. Bob Mould Silver Age
49. Unsane Wreck
50. Eri Yamamoto The Next Page


Monolith and Utilitarian are blistering new albums by long-running bands I've never truly loved in the past; these efforts woke me up. (In Napalm Death's case, an incredible Maryland Deathfest set helped too.) Both records impressed me with how catchy and diverse they were—dig those theatrical chorus hooks on Monolith, esp.—demonstrating that grindcore has come a long way from its super-primitive roots.

The hype surrounding Death Grips (Epic, not Epic—yadda, yadda) was a little wearisome, but I still found No Love Deep Web to be worthy of its title. It's a chaotic yet focused negative-vibe spew that's hard to tear yourself away from.

I'm a big Leonard fan in general, but the past couple LPs haven't grabbed me. This one seems stronger, aiming for the midpoint between solemn and wry. Like his current live show (I caught him at the Beacon a few years back), Old Ideas feels warm and connected but not hokey. In contrast, I don't know Mould's post–Hüsker Dü work well, but Silver Age grabbed me immediately, as I expect it would anyone who enjoys aggressive, tightly composed melodic rock. "Descent" is an incredible song. Speaking of, I meant to include that in my top 10 singles list…



As indicated at the top of my 2012 jazz round-up, Ravi Coltrane's Spirit Fiction was an album I enjoyed greatly throughout the year and unintentionally overlooked when it came time for year-end voting. I'm bummed about that; if I had my Jazz Journalists Association / Jazz Critics Poll top 10 and Pitchfork all-genre top 50 to do over, I'd include it in both. In any case, one happy side effect of the omission is that I became re-enthralled by Spirit Fiction over the past couple weeks. It really is outstanding, start to finish.

Another two I woke up to too late to consider them for these polls:

Bill McHenry La Peur du Vide

I loved the quartet on this record—with Orrin Evans, Eric Revis and Andrew Cyrille—when I heard them at the Vanguard last November. But I didn't warm up to La Peur (recorded at the same venue this past March) on a first listen. Something about it sounded straighter, less mysterious than what I'd remembered. Turns out I just didn't sit with the record long enough. The first track, "Siglo XX," is indeed pretty conventional post-Coltrane sax-quartet jazz, but things get so deep/surprising as the album continues. Such an absolute pleasure to hear Andrew Cyrille featured so prominently and in such unpredictable ways, and Evans and Revis are in bruising form here as well. This record is a subtle killer, every bit as essential as McHenry's earlier collaborations with Paul Motian.

The Bad Plus Made Possible

Another strong Bad Plus record. For me, this one doesn't quite reach the level of the sublime Never Stop, but there's some extraordinary stuff on here, particularly Reid Anderson's two latest triumphs: the hushed-then-ecstatic epic "In Stitches" and the plainspoken, melancholy-pop-ish "Pound for Pound." (File the latter of these alongside the Eri Yamamoto and Federico Ughi records discussed here.)

Also, Xaddax and Feast of the Epiphany made great records this year—in Feast's case, several great records; I especially endorse Solitude—which were out-of-bounds for me pollwise due to friendships with the parties responsible. Visit Xaddax here and Feast here.



Time Out New York's full year-end Music package—including a list of top concerts, with a few of my entries—as well as top 10 lists by my colleagues Steve Smith and Sophie Harris.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Best of 2012: Jazz, part III

Here's the third and final installment of my 2012 jazz round-up. Complete, unannotated list is here, part I and an intro are here, and part II is here. And here's a thematically fitting bonus track: my Pitchfork review of the new Mingus box set on Mosaic. All-genres-in-play year-end lists coming soon!

Jim Black Trio
Somatic [Winter and Winter]
David Virelles
Continuum [Pi Recordings]

Grouping these two together might be a little bit of a stretch, but I think it makes sense. At heart, they're both unconventional piano-trio records that work hard to sustain a particular mood/feel over their respective running times.

I remember receiving a download of Somatic about a year ago, right in the middle of the 2011 year-end-list frenzy. Right from the first spin, I really enjoyed it, but I was worried that it would get lost in the shuffle as the year progressed; albums that come out early in January often do. (Though, interestingly, the album that ended up topping my 2012 all-genres-in-play list—to be revealed in due time—is also a record I've had my hands on since the very beginning of the year.) Fortunately, this did not occur. I saw a very good show by this band at Cornelia Street Café in February, and the record stuck with me pretty stubbornly throughout the year.

So what is Somatic, exactly? Jim Black is a musician I've come around to gradually. I first heard him at Tonic with Dave Douglas's Tiny Bell Trio, probably around 1999 or 2000, and soon after that I ran into him on records by Tim Berne's Bloodcount. I wasn't in love with his drumming at that time. I respected the skill, but the aesthetic didn't click with me; something about the way he was channeling rock seemed sort of like a knowing paraphrase rather than the result of true, head-on engagement, and I found his signature idiosyncrasies, both timbral and rhythmic, a little distracting. But as I heard more of Black's work over the years—especially the gorgeous records he made with his AlasNoAxis band (e.g., Houseplant), on which he did an awesome job of getting out of the way of his own compositions and simply letting them speak—I really turned around on him. Jim Black, the composer-bandleader, appealed to me much more than Jim Black, the sideman.

With Somatic, I think he's reached a new peak. He's stripping the aesthetic down to the bone here, uncluttering it in an admirable way. AlasNoAxis retained that rockish feel via Hilmar Jensson's guitar and the backbeat feel of some of the grooves, but that kind of allusion is less apparent here. This set of pieces feels entirely secure within itself; listening, you're not preoccupied with what the influences might have been. So yes, as I mentioned above, this is a piano trio record: Black, plus bassist Thomas Morgan and pianist Elias Stemeseder (a young Austrian player whose name is new to me). The writing is just remarkable. You get these simple, folksy, memorable themes, such as "Uglysnug" and "Terrotow," which gets stuck in my head constantly, and a bunch of moodier, more troubled-, pensive-sounding ones—like opener "Tahre" and "Chibi Jones"—and then some, like "Somatic," that seem to combine those two sensations. A lot of slow, extremely chilled-out music here, but unpredictable and unboring. "Somatic" is a good illustration of what's so compelling about this record; the composition is sort of lilting and catchy, but the playing is teeming with strange detail. Black, Morgan and Stemeseder are having a real Bill Evans Trio kind of group conversation here, drifting in and out of in-time playing, just sort of flowing where the piece takes them. This record isn't just my favorite example to date of Jim Black's writing; it might be my favorite example of his drumming as well. On "Somatic," he seems to be going for an unbelievably subtle version of the Tony Williams–on-"Nefertiti" thing, i.e., a sort of constructive disruption. The trademark sounds of his kit, those dry cymbals, the splatty bass drum, and the strange, slurred time feel—here you hear all this in a quiet and composed setting. The improvisation does threaten to heat up at times, but it's all so dynamically controlled, so essentially balladic.

This trio doesn't sound anything like the Motian/Frisell/Lovano band, but there's a similar kind of murky, liquid lyricism at work here—an experimentalism that has no time for obvious signifiers. A few pieces on the record veer off in other directions—the postboppish "Sure Are You," one of the only tracks here with what I'd describe as a jazzy rhythmic feel, and the tumbling, prog-funky "Beariere"—but overall, Somatic is a pretty remarkable feat of sustained moodcraft. If you like your jazz reflective, with a little stimulating yet unobtrusive weirdness around the edges, you will eat this record up. Every time I put it on, I feel like I've previously underestimated how good it is.

Again, David Virelles's Continuum—a very different record. Jim Black is a veteran compared to Virelles, whose name I've only started seeing around over the past couple of years. When I noticed that this Cuban pianist's working band, also called Continuum, featured Andrew Cyrille on drums—as well as Ben Street, also a member of the Billy Hart Quartet discussed in part II of this round-up—I was instantly intrigued. Cyrille's been doing awesome work in Bill McHenry's band over the past couple years (check out the recent La Peur du Vide), and he sounds incredible on Continuum. (I've written before about intergenerational jazz bands designed to showcase the work of an older drummer; you can add Virelles trio to that list.)

As Ben Ratliff pointed out in his review, Continuum is a multimedia presentation, in which Román Díaz's chant and even Alberto Lescay's painting play a central role. While I've come to enjoy those elements—and I'll admit that Díaz's vocals took some getting used to—the sound of the piano trio at the core of this ensemble is what's kept me coming back to Continuum. I love the way Virelles, Street and Cyrille groove on the funky dervish dance "The Executioner"—Díaz's subtle Afro-Cuban percussion is key here too—working up to a tense climax and giving way to a masterfully textural Cyrille solo. Some of the other pieces go for pure texture; "Threefold" is a super-quiet masterpiece, an abstracted ballad, in which Virelles and Street leave tons of space for Cyrille's pinging cymbals and rustling brush-on-snare work.

The record can be a little disorienting, since the group's approach mutates constantly; almost every piece seems to have a different sonic objective. After a few spins, though, I started to embrace the variety. This is a record that ranges from "Manongo Pablo," essentially a nimble, uptempo Cyrille drum solo set against Virelles's spacey, almost psychedelic Wurlitzer, to "Our Birthright," where a Díaz recitation over hushed accompaniment from the trio gradually transitions into a passionate, spirit-raising free-jazz episode, featuring guest horn players Román Filiú, Mark Turner and Jonathan Finlayson. (During this latter section, you really hear how valuable Cyrille is to the session; when the other players dial up the intensity, he keeps his volume and density carefully controlled, assuring that the crescendo doesn't turn into a cacophonous blowout.)

While I look forward to spending more time with Continuum, I'm not sure I'll ever understand fully what Virelles is going for here. In the liner notes, he writes about the Afro-Cuban religious practices that inspired the record, discussing the "highly complex cosmologies" that guide them and the way Díaz's verse weaves together Spanish with the "ritual languages" of Karabali, Kongo and Yorùbá-Lucumí. No translations of any of the text are provided, so in a sense, any listener not steeped in these traditions is kept deliberately on the outside. It's an intriguing and, in a weird way, almost refreshing way to present a record, i.e., clue the listener in slightly to the concepts guiding the work but don't overexplain. The result is that Continuum scans like a mystery rather than some sort of context-laden cross-cultural artifact. It's fascinating stuff.

Note that this band plays Drom tonight. They're also at the Village Vanguard from January 29 through February 3, with Filiú guesting Friday to Sunday and none other than Henry Threadgill (!) sitting in on Thursday.


Henry Threadgill Zooid
Tomorrow Sunny / The Revelry, Spp [Pi Recordings]

As discussed on DFSBP a couple weeks back, I recently had a bit of a moment with Threadgill's three most recent Zooid releases, developing a new appreciation for the band's sound—and the ways in which it diverges from H.T.'s "classic" work. The postscript marked "Update" there features some in-the-moment impressions of this latest Zooid record, which welcomes cellist Christopher Hoffman to the fold, so I won't go into too much detail here. Tomorrow Sunny doesn't differ wildly from the bands prior two LPs—Vols. 1 and 2 of This Brings Us To—but you can hear a progression in terms of the band's deep-listening interaction. The group dynamic on tracks like "So Pleased, No Clue"—one of the sparser, shorter, less groove-oriented pieces—is stunningly sensitive. You really hear the players breathing together, completing each other's sentences, coexisting, collaboratively coaxing out the ensemble sound. In the post linked above, I wrote about how Zooid's music isn't the kind that comes to you; you have to meet it on its own terms. But once you're there—and for me, that meant shedding my desire for big, bold, super-memorable ensemble themes, so prevalent in older Threadgill—this is a very pleasurable, even sensuous record and probably my favorite Zooid statement yet.


Joe Fiedler
Big Sackbut [Yellow Sound Label]

I don't know too much about the trombonist Joe Fiedler, but I have enjoyed the last couple of albums of his I've checked out: 2007's The Crab and last year's Sacred Chrome Orb, both lean trio discs geared toward showcasing the leader's charming compositions and impressive command of odd timbral effects. Big Sackbut debuts a very different project, a World Saxophone Quartet–style four-piece with three trombones (Fiedler, Ryan Keberle and Josh Roseman) and one tuba (Marcus Rojas. I like the more extroverted tracks on here, e.g. Fieder's "Mixed Bag" and a take on Willie Colon's "Calle Luna, Calle Sol," but the more measured, reflective pieces ("#11," "Don Pullen") impress me the most. For me, the real hurdle a project like this has to clear is "Does the music transcend the eccentricity of the ensemble make-up?," and I'd answer a definite yes with respect to this record. Enjoyable stuff, especially for the brass-inclined.

Here's a clip of the group doing "Calle Luna, Calle Sol" live in 2010.


Yoni Kretzmer 2Bass Quartet
Weight [OutNow]

Another one that foregrounds an unusual ensemble make-up. Here, I'd heard everyone but the leader—Israeli tenor-saxist Yoni Kretzmer—going in; the rest of the band—bassist Sean Conly and Reuben Radding, and drummer Mike Pride—are all NYC stalwarts.  There's definitely a gritty, post-Ayler quality to Weight, but that's only a fraction of what's going on here. Kretzmer has a very classic tenor sound, raspy yet melodic—I believe I cited Dewey Redman in one of the prior write-ups; I think of him here too—and a sometimes borderline-sentimental compositional sense; on pieces like "Giving Tree," and "A Bit of Peace," these qualities clash fruitfully with the grittiness of the improvising. This push-and-pull keeps me interested. I'm all for the backbeat-driven meltdown at the beginning of "Again and Again," but I'm even more intrigued by the way the dynamics dip down to ballad level instead of continuing to blare. "Smallone," a measured interlude that sets Kretzmer against the two plucked basses and Pride's tasteful brushwork, is another standout. As with the Threadgill record, Kretzmer really lets you hear every player in the band; it's a beautifully recorded disc, and its greatest pleasure is hearing the group members carrying on a lively yet expertly controlled conversation, e.g., on a track like the sing-songy "A Bit of Peace." Everyone's really listening, here and throughout the album.


Ted Nash
The Creep [Plastic Sax]

I'd never really checked out Ted Nash's work before this year. One of the most welcome side benefits of researching my Jazz Composers Collective profile a couple months back was getting to know various Nash projects like the Double Quartet, Still Evolved and Odeon. As with the Fiedler and Kretzmer records above, some of this past Nash work—e.g., the tango-inspired Odeon and the string-quartet-augmented Double Quartet—thrives on unconventional ensemble make-up. The Creep is something different, though. It's simply a scrappy, hard-swinging quartet record, driven by Ulysses Owens's ass-kicking drumming and the stimulating warm-cool contrast between Nash's saxophone and Ron Horton's trumpet. Much like the Dolphy/Curson/Mingus/Richmond band, this group gets a ton of mileage out of its stripped-down instrumentation, emphasizing density or sparseness, abandon or control as the situation demands. Check out "Burnt Toast and Avocado" and "Plastic Sax Lullaby" in succession and you'll see what I mean. Nash has cited Ornette (particularly his use of a plastic saxophone) as an inspiration for this record, but to continue with our overriding theme, The Creep is another no-school jazz statement. It simply does its thing (many things, really) and leaves the classification up to the listener.


Jeremy Pelt 
Soul [HighNote]

Hat-tip to Phil Freeman for turning me on to this one. I knew Pelt's name, but little else about him, going in. I was intrigued by the idea of hearing JD Allen and Gerald Cleaver in a new context, and I wasn't disappointed at all. This is a low-key and unassuming session, ballad-heavy, clearly indebted to ’60s Blue Note fare—esp. moody Wayne Shorter records like Speak No Evil—and gorgeously recorded. (Pelt's site says that Rudy Van Gelder himself engineered this one, though, oddly, Joe Marciano's name is listed on the CD itself.)  It's a throwback record, but it's not slavish in the slightest, and the playing is outstanding, whether on the more freewheeling, uptempo tracks like "What's Wrong Is Wright" or "The Tempest"—both of these have a pretty strong mid-to-late-’60s-Miles-quintet vibe going on, with Cleaver clearly mining a Tony Williams vibe on the latter, and sounding great—or whispery slow pieces like "The Ballad of Ichabod Crane." The latter piece exemplifies one of Soul's most appealing qualities, its ability to convey chill-ness without sleepiness; in the end, this is a fairly straightforward record, but there's enough intrigue and conviction in the playing that it doesn't feel rote. Playing this again now, though, I'm reminded by its subtle magnetism—I'll definitely be returning to this one, and keeping an eye out for future Pelt releases.


Ralph Peterson 
The Duality Perspective [Onyx]

As with Soul, I woke up to this one after reading another writer's take, in this case Ben Ratliff's review. And again, I'm very thankful for the heads-up, since I wasn't familiar with Peterson's prior work. Part of what intrigued me in the Times write-up was the description of the Fo'tet—one of two bands featured on this record—a quartet with clarinet, vibes and bass. (The sidemen are Felix Peikli, Joseph Doubleday and Alexander L.J. Tosh, respectively—all new names to me.) The combination of clarinet and vibes is one I've loved since I first heard the ’30s Benny Goodman Quartet back in college—got a nice opportunity to binge on these sides during WKCR's recent Teddy Wilson centennial marathon—and though the Fo'tet is no Swing Era throwback, the texture of the band does hint at the crisp, fresh, chamber-jazzy interplay of Goodman and Lionel Hampton. To me, this group sounds best playing more or less straightforward postbop, as on album opener "One False Move." What I like about this piece, and "Princess" as well, is the contrast between the cool sound of the clarinet-vibes frontline—and I mean that more texturally, since Peikli is a daring and passionate soloist—and Peterson's busy, churning accompaniment. He's got a rumbling, Elvin Jones quality to his swing, and he certainly smacks the kit from time to time, but his dynamics are impressively controlled; he's driving the band without overdoing it. I'd have to agree with Ratliff's assessment of the record's latter half, which features Peterson's sextet ("The sextet has its moments, but it deals in more weighed-down and conventional moods and doesn’t have as recognizable a group sound," he wrote). The title track—a lushly orchestrated ballad—is a definite winner, though: a strong showcase for Peterson's writing/arranging, that muscular yet sensitive drumming style I mentioned above and the appealing two-sax frontline of Walter Smith III and Tia Fuller. I look forward to hearing more from Peterson, especially the Fo'tet.


Eric Revis's 11:11
Parallax [Clean Feed]

Was a little apprehensive about including this one on my year-end list, mainly because it only showed up in the mail a few days before I filed. But I knew that (A) the band featured here—the sidemen are Ken Vandermark, Jason Moran and Nasheet Waits—was too special to overlook and that (B) the record wasn't really going to be eligible for 2013 consideration. Definitely still digesting this one, so my impressions are a little sketchy. But I will tentatively say that Parallax lives up to my high expectations. (I remember seeing this band listed on the Jazz Gallery schedule a few years back, and after missing that gig, I eagerly awaited a recording.) Revis is, in his own way, one of the most eclectic players I know. I've been seriously impressed by his playing with Tarbaby, Bill McHenry's current working quartet, Peter Brötzmann (the 2011 Vision Festival featured a Revis / Brötzmann / William Parker trio), and Branford Marsalis—a pretty wide range of contexts—and I remember really digging his last leader record, Laughter's Necklace of Tears, when I checked it out a while back.

Like that LP, Parallax is an eclectic and challenging set. Revis doesn't just put together bands and let them rip; he assembles real programs' worth of music. This album features muscular, trancelike solo bass ("Percival," e.g.); dramatic, tightly orchestrated pieces like "Dark Net" and "MXR," which almost come off as proggy chamber jazz; entropic yet sensitive free-jazz pieces ("I'm Going to Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter," "Celestial Hobo," "ENKJ") that really show off the potent group dynamic this quartet has achieved; and at least one piece ("Winin' Boy Blues") that sounds like a riff on the kind of stylized retro vibe that Moran and Waits often explore in the Bandwagon. Skimming back through the tracks now, I'm realizing that I can't wait to give this record a few more focused spins. Revis has put together a fascinating group here—one that can breathe free-form fire when called upon to do so, e.g., "Hyperthral," or groove hard and tough, e.g., "Split"—and he really seems to be wringing all the potential he can out of these players.


Harris Eisenstadt
Canada Day III [Songlines]


Canada Day Octet [482 Music]

Harris Eisenstadt has been a mainstay of my year-end lists over the past few years—I particularly dug 2008's Guewel and 2010's Woodblock Prints. He's prolific, but he's always worth checking in with. I'd overlooked Eisenstadt's Canada Day band in the past, maybe because it's his most conventional-sounding ensemble, a quintet with saxophone, trumpet, vibes and bass. As with previous Canada Day releases, the writing on III is very clean, clear and lyrical, sometimes with a shade of playful quirk.  The pieces seem designed to show off the sidemen, specifically the extraordinary frontline of saxist Matt Bauder and trumpeter Nate Wooley; both can veer into abstract/abrasive territory—fans of Wooley's work in freer contexts will recognize what he's up to on "Nosey Parker"—but what impresses me most here is when they're playing in this sort of soft, murmuring style—as on "Song for Sara"—and mingling their sounds with Chris Dingman's vibes. It's a very pleasant and accessible group texture, but far from conventional, which seems to be a hallmark of Eisenstadt's work overall. Don't meant to short-shrift the Canda Day Octet record record when I say that it's more or less a companion piece. Eisenstadt's writing for this expanded group is just as sharp as it is for the core band—the multipart "Ombudsman" suite, which really takes advantage of the larger ensemble, is magical—and again, Bauder, Wooley and Dingman are the stars here. Both these discs are highly recommended.

Here's some live footage of the octet.


40Twenty [Yeah Yeah]

David Ambrosio has shown up a couple times on this list already, on the Schuller and Yamamoto records, and the other three here are familiar names, all of whom lead their own projects. (Garchik's The Heavens is definitely one to check out.) This is a subtle one that I might have overlooked if it wasn't for Nate Chinen's recent shout-out. I like how this record manages to sound both weird and composed at the same time, as when the band plays an expertly controlled form of free jazz on Ambrosio's "One Five," or a slurry Monkish march on Sacks's "Jan 20." With only trombone in the frontline, the group has a kind of drollness about it, a vibe that's also reinforced in the writing, but there's some really heated, energized playing on tracks like Garchik's "Gi." Like many of the other projects on this list, 40Twenty is taking what it needs from various jazz strains without aligning itself to any of them. "Jan 20" sounds almost throwbacky—appropriate since the band's name is a nod to the grueling nightclub gig schedules of yore—while "Plainchant" is as delicate and austere as the name would suggest. The feel of the latter piece captures what I enjoy about this record—the way both its beauty and its oddness feel muted, sort of far off. 40Twenty is more elusive than most of the records cited above, but it's worth taking the time to get close to it.


P.S. The best jazz performances I saw this year, with links to coverage, where applicable:

Miguel Zenón Quartet
January 6; Zinc Bar (Winter Jazzfest)

Craig Taborn Trio
April 6, 8; Village Vanguard

Darius Jones Quartet
June 12; Roulette (Vision Festival)

Marc Ribot Trio

June 29; Village Vanguard

Ethan Iverson / Ben Street / Albert "Tootie" Heath
August 26; Village Vanguard

Bob Stewart Quintet
November 10; Central Park (Jazz and Colors)

Henry Threadgill Zooid
November 24; Roulette

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Best of 2012: Jazz, part II

Here's part II of an ongoing rundown of my favorite 2012 jazz recordings. Full, unannotated list here; intro and part I here. Part III to follow as soon as I have time to write it up!

Joel Harrison / Lorenzo Feliciati
Holy Abyss [Cuneiform]

As I suggested in a TONY preview back in May, guitarist Joel Harrison is a hard guy to keep tabs on. He's about as prolific as, say, Ken Vandermark, and even harder to pin down, stylewise; I've only woken up to his work within the past couple years, and I already feel a little overwhelmed by what there is to hear. Harrison also put out a very good album on Sunnyside this year, Search, but the one I kept coming back to was this oddity, a session co-led by Lorenzo Feliciati, a Italian fusion bassist whose name was new to me.

Like with many of the other records on this list, Holy Abyss carves out its own stylistic niche—a boldly unfashionable one that I'd loosely peg as some sort of prog-blues fusion. The second track, "Saturday Night in Pendleton" moves from a whimsical, laid-back swing intro to a raunchy roots-rock stomp, with drummer Dan Weiss sloshing it up on the hi-hat, keyboardist Roy Powell providing gleaming B3 organ and Harrison shredding in a sort of Pat Metheny–gone-roadhouse style. Some of the writing and arrangement reminds me of Metheny as well (tracks like "Requiem for an Unknown Soldier," which you can hear below, and "North Wind (Mistral)," esp.); something about the unabashed drama of the compositions and the super-stylized arrangements recalls a record like The Way Up for me. (Also, Metheny Group trumpeter Cuong Vu is on trumpet here.) But Holy Abyss has a mood all its own, evidenced in the soothing yet sinister drift of a piece like "Faith," which is much more about pure texture than flash.

I'm just now reading on Harrison's site that writing duties are shared on this record, and that's impressive because this set of pieces really does feel coherent in some hard-to-pin-down way. Maybe it's that sort of noirish mood I was getting at above in the "Faith" description, or the way the pieces will suddenly move from spacey to ballsy. As with the more proggish Metheny, this music can flirt with over-slickness, but there's enough grit to make it work. Overall, Holy Abyss really surprised me, and I'd love to hear more from this band.


Jasmine Lovell-Smith's Towering Poppies
Fortune Songs [Paintbox]

Haven't spent as much time with this one as I would've liked, but it has me hooked. Fortune Songs is an almost incredibly assured-sounding debut. Lovell-Smith is a soprano saxophonist (a still-rare specialist on the instrument) from New Zealand, and this is the first I'd heard of her; same for the other four members of her band. What she's going for her is a boldly lyrical sound, almost uniformly mellifluous without being saccharine. As you can hear on a track like "Darkling I Listen," the themes are often striking, but what impresses me most is the way the band plays like a single instrument—Lovell-Smith has a beautifully songlike style, and the entire band seems to channel that sound, operating in a kind of dreamy trance—as well as how measured and focused the improvisations are. I may be leaning too heavily on this notion, but it's very apt here: This record is of no school. Listen to the unmoored rhythm section work going on in "Confidence (Two)"; this is jazz that's free but that subscribes to no clichés of the avant-garde. (The in-time playing on, e.g., "A Nest to Fly" is just as satisfying.) Fortune Songs isn't in a hurry to grab your attention; it just patiently goes about its business. It's pretty rare for any record, let alone a debut, to put forth such a firm yet subtle aesthetic. Really impressive stuff.


Matt Wilson's Arts and Crafts
An Attitude for Gratitude [Palmetto]

This is another very beautiful and approachable record that's full of surprises. I've been impressed with Wilson's playing for many years, and his Matt Wilson Quartet records have always grabbed my attention. But this is probably my favorite album I've heard from him. What I love about the Arts and Crafts band—a quartet with Terell Stafford on trumpet and flugelhorn, Gary Versace on keyboards and Martin Wind on bass—is the way it comes off as both classic and eccentric. The band's preferred mode is simple, buoyant swing, soloists proceeding in orderly fashion, etc.; they sound thoroughly convincing playing groovy soul-jazz ("Little Boy with the Sad Eyes") or a romantic ballad ("Happy Days Are Here Again"). Where Wilson's fun-loving personality comes through is in the offbeat details—e.g., Versace's stylized accordion on "Bubbles," which also features a Wilson recitation of a Carl Sandburg poem—which add color without tipping the project over into quirkiness, and in his gleefully liberal approach to repertoire. In addition to "Little Boy," a Nat Adderley piece, you get pieces by Jaco ("Teen Town") and Jon Scofield ("You Bet"), originals from Versace, Wind and Wilson, the standard "There's No You"(played unaccompanied by Stafford, a brilliant late-in-the-album curveball) and an absolutely gorgeous Versace/Wind/Wilson rendition of "Bridge Over Troubled Water," maybe the best jazz cover of a well-known pop song I've ever heard. That performance sums up the charm of this record; as with the Yamamoto above, An Attitude for Gratitude is easy to love but still deep and nourishing.


The Cookers 
Believe [Motéma Music]

Billy Hart 
All Our Reasons [ECM]

Believe is another record that wears its charms right on the surface. The Cookers' 2010 debut, Warriors, landed on my best-jazz list for that year, but I think this one (their third LP) might be even better. The Cookers are an all-star band—convened by trumpeter David Weiss as an illustration of the timelessness of great hardbop—filled with lifers such as George Cables, Cecil McBee and Billy Hart and they play like it, with plenty of flash, brawn and virtuosity, but what I love most about them is the way their records don't just feel like a bunch of pros jamming. The repertoire consists mostly of compelling originals from the band members, arranged in little-big-band fashion. There's generally a theme-solos-theme thing going on, but there's nothing auto-pilot-y about the way the Cookers perform this material; they're playing compositions, not just heads. That said, when it's solo time, the frontline just steps up and shreds, esp. tenor player Billy Harper, who shines on two pieces he wrote: album opener "Believe, for it Is True" and "Quest." Billy Hart sounds typically magical throughout this record, whether propelling the band through a rave-up like Wayne Shorter's "Free for All" or a delicate waltz (Cables's "But He Knows"); what I love about Hart is the way that, like, say, Elvin, you always hear his personal sound stamp, even when he's playing a background role, and the Cookers is a great showcase for that. As with Spirit Fiction, Believe is another record that muddies the idea of a contemporary jazz mainstream; sure it's accessible, conventional and crowd-pleasing in a sense, a little retro even, but at the same time, it's not part of any contemporary jazz movement. It's just too damn engaging to pigeonhole.

Here's a Cookers EPK.

The Billy Hart Quartet, oft-praised on this blog, is a very different setting in which to hear Hart. All Our Reasons is only the band's second album, a long-awaited follow-up to 2006's Quartet, but it shores up what the group was doing on that earlier release, makes it official; the Billy Hart Quartet, in other words, has trademarked a sound—or more accurately several sounds. Every piece on this record has something very specific to say: the slyly funky "Tolli's Dance" and the sprawling and meditative "Song for Balkis" (both Hart originals); Iverson's "Ohnedaruth," which reconfigures "Giant Steps" much as the band scrambled "Moment's Notice" on the first record, and "Nostalgia for the Impossible," a mysterious and poetic ballad that's probably the closest I've heard another composer come to nailing the Andrew Hill vibe. Material aside, though, what I love most about this record is how it captures the way these four musicians—Hart, Iverson, saxist Mark Turner and bassist Ben Street—have braided together like ivy in this project; as I listen back to "Tolli's Dance," Turner's dusky tenor tone, Hart's whispering cymbals, Iverson's sparse chords and Street's funky undergirding all seem to spring from one mind. You feel that especially on a piece like "Wasteland," where Turner, Iverson and Street play a floating melody as Hart murmurs underneath, playing mallets on his toms. What I'm trying to get at is that this band has a headspace, a shadowy and beautiful one, and All Our Reasons captures it exquisitely. (For some background, here's my profile of the group, based on a joint interview with Hart and Iverson.)

Here's a Billy Hart Quartet EPK.


Wadada Leo Smith / Louis Moholo-Moholo
Ancestors [TUM]

Sam Rivers / Dave Holland / Barry Altschul
Reunion: Live in New York [Pi Recordings]

Speaking of shadowy and beautiful… Leo Smith has been on a tear in recent years, and it's been tough, though thrilling at the same time, to try and keep up. I've loved the various records he's put out on Cuneiform, including Heart's Reflections, Spiritual Dimensions and Tabligh, and while I just haven't had enough time to digest this year's civil-rights-themed opus Ten Freedom Summers, I look forward to digging in further. Ancestors—the second Smith album to come out on the Finnish label TUM—is very different than any of the ensemble-oriented albums listed above. It's the latest installment of an ongoing sidebar in Smith's career that has found him dueting with some of the world's best drummers, yielding stunning collaborations with Jack DeJohnette (check out 2009's America), Ed Blackwell (heard on The Blue Mountain's Sun Drummer) and Gunter "Baby" Sommer (the Smith/Sommer performance I caught at the Vision Festival a few years back was one of the best free-improv sets I've ever seen, if not the best). Here's another one to add to that list. I don't really know what you say about a record like this, other than that it documents two masterful improvisers sharing time and space, in absolutely gorgeous studio fidelity. I've always loved what I've heard of Louis Moholo-Moholo (e.g., Remembrance, his duet with Cecil Taylor, found in the big 1988 FMP box set), but because I don't own very many recordings by him and because I've never caught him live, he seems like an elusive figure to me. This record helps bring him into focus.

It's a true pleasure to hear him and Smith simply dancing together. Each of these musicians is the kind of player who has little time for the self-conscious avant-garde gesture. Yes, they're playing free, but that doesn't mean they're playing "out," i.e., they're not preoccupied with ugliness, strangeness, unconventionality, disruption. They're just interested in singing a song that's made up in the moment. There are very few free-improv records that truly matter to me—increasingly less, as time goes by, I find—but an album like Ancestors is the exception. It's not just a random live date, packaged and sold as though it had been intended as some lasting statement; it's a real legacy documented, played, recorded and issued with love.

Reunion: Live in New York is similar case. This is, in fact, a live recording, though it documents a pretty special 2007 gig, the first performance by the Rivers/Holland/Altschul trio in (as Pi reports) 25 years. I'll admit to being a tad skeptical about this release at first. First, I was worried that its reception would get too tangled up with the sad fact of Rivers's sad passing a year ago this month, making the record seem like some kind of definitive musical epitaph, when it was really just one night of music-making in a life filled with them. Second, I attended the actual concert heard here and while I definitely remember enjoying it, my recollection of the performance was that it was somewhat tentative and diffuse—about what you'd expect from three old friends who hadn't stepped onstage together in decades.

What a pleasant surprise, then, to find this music sounding so fresh on disc. I haven't spent enough time with this record to be able to give you an event-by-event rundown, but I feel secure in recommending it highly. It's pure improv, and it's very long, but the sound is fantastic, and the listening and responsiveness are exemplary. There's as much conviction and purpose in the abstract sections (such as part 3 of the first set here, with Rivers on piano) as in the swinging ones (part 4 of the same set), and in that sense Reunion: Live in New York is classic Rivers, a document of the way he didn't wall himself and his bands off from any area of jazzmaking. You can't get all the Rivers you need in just one record, but this one is definitely a real keeper, a worthy cap to any well-rounded Sam collection—not to mention the fact that it's a rare recent example of Dave Holland playing in a free-improv mode, and that it's a chance to hear Barry Altschul right at the point when he was starting to reemerge as a real force around NYC and beyond. (Speaking of, he's playing tonight at Cornelia Street Café with Jon Irabagon.)

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Best of 2012: Jazz, part I

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.

Ravi Coltrane
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.


Tim Berne
Snakeoil [ECM]

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.


Federico Ughi
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.