Jazz is all over the place, and that’s the glorious point of it. Sure, it’s a form of art music that nobody listens to any more—in the popular sense. But as art music, jazz actually defies the stereotypes associated with it. Jazz is stuffy, academic, lounge music for old folks, just too boring? 2013 disproves those things if any year does. When you add up all its little corners and areas of enjoyment, the music remains huge.
Our “best of” list this year will thrill you and challenge you, get you dancing and touch your heart. It’s noisy and weird, tender and traditional, it’s classical and it’s drenched in folk tradition.
This is also a list we could easily double in length. We’re leaving out a great new record from jazz legend Wayne Shorter, for example, and we easily have plugged in Michele Rosewoman’s New Yor-Uba for the Latin Jazz record we loved just a skosh more. The remarkable vocal-piano duo between Kristin Slipp and Dov Manski is still the fresher jazz singing debut in… forever. We could go on and on.
So, here, in alphabetical order, are our 12 favorite jazz recordings of 2013.
Take the Space Trane
Producer, DJ, and electronic musician Mark de Clive-Lowe has teamed up with the Rotterdam Jazz Orchestra for a surprisingly cohesive blend of electronics and big band sounds. A hodge-podge of originals and Ellington covers, Clive-Lowe and his army of musicians on loan can distill them all down into a compelling listen that rewards both passing glances and deep entrenchment with headphones. The mix swirls around your head like shoegaze but never forsakes the swing of the horns nor the rump-shake of the club beat. It sounds like an ungodly mess, but Clive-Lowe pulls it off with a style that should put him on the musical map for years to come. John Garratt
Moment & the Message
If you’re a fan of precise, complex modern jazz—the kind of daring and often thrilling stuff that Steve Lehman, Henry Threadgill, and Mary Halvorson have been making in the last decade—then you’ve been wondering when trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson would make his debut as a leader. He has been gracing cutting edge recordings with his precise and pungent sound for a good while now, always seeming to be telepathically connected to the other players, no matter how tricky the compositions or concept. Moment & the Message is his first foray as a leader, and it fulfills every promise. It is intricate and alluring, melodic but daring, riveting and rare: a mature disc that threads together modern jazz styles without seeming like a jumble. Much of what’s great here is in the make-up of this amazing band: Damion Reid on drums, Miles Okazaki on guitar, pianist David Virelles, and Keith Witty on bass. While this is complex, interwoven modern jazz, it refuses to alienate its listener. With a tune called “Circus”, things ought to feel high-wire…but fun. And they are. “Tensegrity” starts with a cool, strummed acoustic guitar part, and it develops a roiling momentum that matches a hip Flamenco bluesiness. “Scaean Gates” is built from a funky unison pattern for bass and left-hand piano that is one part “Super Mario Brothers” and another part Kind of Blue. “Five and Pennies” uses a simple idea—a repeated note almost like a clock’s chime—that accelerates in tempo and shifts in texture until you feel like Finlayson’s trumpet solo is on the verge of ecstasy. Not a bad word for the whole record. Will Layman
Unfold Ordinary Mind
Clarinetist Ben Goldberg released two albums in 2013. Subatomic Particle Homesick Blues was great and Unfold Ordinary Mind was even better than great. If the former was a post-bop stroll through Goldberg’s tamer writing styles, than the latter is the rock-tinged ugly twin brother flailing for attention. With Ches Smith as your drummer and Nels Cline as your guitarist, things are bound to become unruly. Goldberg channels the sound into a healthy brew for modern times, one that doesn’t beat you over the head with its fearlessness. In other words, Ben Goldberg can restrain the wild child without taming it. John Garratt
Guitarist Joel Harrison has always been in complete control of his instrument. But when it comes to his bands, he’s more prone to let other people steer the ship now and then. For Infinite Possibilities, the Joel Harrison 19 (!) finds our hero removing himself from the proceedings much of the time, letting his unique orchestra stir up a hairy gumbo of noise and harmony. Infinite Possibilites is also one hell of a showcase of Harrison’s writing abilities. His compositions are so thick and tense you have to wonder if the guy ever gets a normal night’s sleep. John Garratt
Acoustic jazz bassist Dave Holland—who played on some of those great Miles records that birthed the stuff but never really had a “fusion band”, per se—has created the coolest fusion record in decades. This new quartet is fronted by guitarist Kevin Eubanks, who played with Holland long ago (before his Tonight Show gig), and keyboard wizard Craig Taborn. The drummer, dazzling, is frequent collaborator Eric Harland. It’s a wonderfully balanced group, likely because the leader stays fully back of the pack, serving up great compositions but rarely crowding his players for sonic prominence. The result is a huge smear of sound and joy: exuberance, subtlety (yeah, even in fusion), beauty, fire. Part of what makes Prism sound specifically like “fusion” is the preponderance of tunes that do not “swing” in the usual sense, but are instead built on tricky riffs that interlock with a groove that is heavy on backbeat. On all these tunes, the “degree of difficulty” is very high (a fusion trademark), but the execution rises even higher. “Evolution” is chock-a-block with stop-start movement that each player rides across with ease. The guitar and piano solos on “Determination” are pure virtuosity. “Spirals” is built around a complex set of jigsaw pieces: piano parts, bass lines, guitar licks, drum fills. It is all played with nonchalant ease, and then Eubanks and Taborn spin astonishing improvised lines atop it all. A really smart, really thrilling, really fun record. Fusion! Yes! Will Layman
Songs I Like a Lot
John Hollenbeck is a drummer, composer, and a brilliant student of big band arranging. This record was one of several this year to showcase large ensemble writing that goes well beyond the jazz “big band” tradition. Songs I Like a Lot, among other things, leverages an interest in classical music so that these “large ensemble” charts seem to shimmer with (Philip) Glass-ian dazzle. They are also the least likely collection of jazz arrangements of pop songs (sort of) you will hear this year. An admitted nerd with a relatively narrow connection to rock, Hollenbeck chose a set of idiosyncratic tunes that let him channel melody and lyrics into something more transcendent through his unique style. The collection starts with a track of utter bliss: a rethinking of Jimmy Webb’s famous “Wichita Lineman”, featuring both Hollenbeck’s regular vocalist, Theo Bleckmann, and Kate McGarry. Hollenbeck sets the woodwinds of the Frankfurt Radio Big Band into a quavering set of patterns that burble with minimalist beauty before McGarry states the first verse accompanied by rhythm and pianist Gary Versace. Patterns fill the song between verses like woven silk. After Bleckmann’s verse, the patterns grow more complex, with Hollenbeck’s mallet percussion setting up a stuttering pattern and a guitar restating the melody in half-time, with the melody eventually doubled by wordless vocals and horns, even as the brass sets down a bed of shifting chords. In its final minutes, the arrangement essentially cuts itself loose of its source and floats off into bliss. This tune is so inventively beautiful, so unlike any other jazz or pop or classical music you can hear elsewhere—it sets the bar so high that the rest of Songs I Like a Lot is playing continual catch up. But it mostly does keep up. Will Layman