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The Best Jazz of 2012

Jazz today remains the music that stays alive through a remarkable alchemy. The best work in the genre is a shape-shifting wonder. On this list, traditions that go back to the jazz roots co-exist with modern pop tunes, and the avant-garde edges of the music blend in fluid ease with tonal beauty.

This list again combats the somewhat stereotypical notion that there is a jazz battle between stuffy museum curators and wild-eyed experimentalists. On the recent season of HBO’s Treme, the battle is made New Orleans-specific as a main character tries to learn more about playing bebop after a career playing mostly traditional jazz and R&B styles. Either way, it’s an artificial conflict among the top players. The center of jazz bridges tradition and innovation so fluently that these players clearly grew up in the mix, not in camps.

There are a couple of trends that might be teased out of this list. Only one record (Mehldau’s Ode on Nonesuch) is on a “major label”. Even Blue Note and Verve have taken turns toward safer material. There is also not much to choose from in thrilling vocal jazz right now. Mainstream singers such as Diana Krall and Esperanza Spaulding (the latter’s Radio Music Society was a very good jazz record that merely sounded like a pop record) did fine work in 2012, but jazz singing remains weirdly handcuffed by “The American Songbook”. Cassandra Wilson released a record that got beyond it, but hardly her best, and the more-than-affable John Pizzarelli covered Tom Waits and Elvis Costello. But these records weren’t quite in my top ten.

On the most positive side, piano trios continue to innovate in amazing different ways — three very different ones are on this list. And great jazz seems now to come from leaders who night play any instrument in the band; this list has leaders on piano, guitar, bass, drums, trumpet, tenor sax, and alto sax. With the US presidential election still ringing in our ears, it’s also worth noting the continuing multicultural trend, with leaders coming in a huge variety of colors and cultures — and with two women in the top ten, neither of whom sings or plays piano (a number that perhaps ought to be larger but, given jazz’s history, this is progress).

Jazz, long ago banished from the pop charts, thrives. Here are some of the year’s riches, presented this year with my very-favorites first.

 

Artist: Vijay Iyer Trio

Album: Accelerando

Label: ACT

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List Number: 1

Vijay Iyer Trio
Accelerando

Accelerando is simply the best jazz record in recent memory. On this recording, this veteran piano trio — Iyer on piano, Stephan Crump on bass, and Marcus Gilmore on drums — plays with an incredible degree of integration, sounding like it has fully worked out a series of ideas about how a band should deal with rhythm and dynamic interaction in today’s jazz. The music is immensely elastic, but it’s not loose. Rather, the band plays with a roaring, united front of sound, within which the rich tradition of jazz plays out in scintillating conversation. The band’s take on Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature” is a masterpiece, starting with the recognizable piano lick and then moving to a straight melody statement that is syncopated over an idiosyncratic, interlocking pattern that finds Gilmore and Crump mixing funk rhythms with sudden gaps of silence. The improvisations go far afield, however. Other tracks cover Ellington and Henry Threadgill and Rod Temperton, or they are originals that demonstrate a brilliant unity of purpose, as every element of the trio’s round rotates around every other in thrilling choreography.

 

Artist: Dave Douglas Quintet

Album: Be Still

Label: Greenleaf

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List Number: 2

Dave Douglas Quintet
Be Still

If I ranked Accelerando above this crystalline beauty by the great trumpeter, then it is by a hair or less. Be Still is incomparably lovely: a blend of jazz quintet colors, a folk singer’s plaintive clarity, and hymns and other devotional material that have an emotional transparency that is rare in jazz. The unexpected ingredient here is singer Aoife O’Donovan, who puts across these tunes with cool confidence — not like a jazz singer, really, but with a sense of lilt and rhythmic hipness nevertheless. Jon Irabagon is also wonderful on tenor sax, developing his own voice at a quick pace now (and his new records came close to making this list as well). The Douglas original, “Living Streams”, borrows from a tradition Scottish hymn and is one of the most unique and singular musical achievements of the year. But the whole record shines and soothes your soul. Like all the best art, this recording seems to come simultaneously from the history before it and the world around it, yet it also stands as an act of pure imagination that could only have come from the artist himself.

 

Artist: Tim Berne

Album: Snakeoil

Label: ECM

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List Number: 3

Tim Berne
Snakeoil

Tim Berne has been making uncompromising jazz beyond boundaries for an entire career, mostly on his own label. Snakeoil finds him on the esteemed ECM label with a new band, a quartet featuring his alto sax, pianist Matt Mitchell (also on the Dave Douglas record, playing very differently but no less well), clarinet work from Oscar Noriega, and drummer Ches Smith. For me, Berne’s work has often elicited admiration but not enough enjoyment: his energy would be high, his imagination fluid, but I felt I needed armor get through more than one song. But this band is beautifully balanced: acid-toned in some places but lushly harmonic in others. The compositions lock and unwind in a rhythm, and not one moment sounds forced, clichéd, or wasted. With six tunes, most of which clock in over 12 minutes, can you believe that it’s a breezy jazz listen? That’s how engaging this slice of “free” jazz is. Berne’s best record ever.

 

Artist: Mary Halvorson Quintet

Album: Bending Bridges

Label: Firehouse 12

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List Number: 4

Mary Halvorson Quintet
Bending Bridges

Bending Bridges is the second beautiful and urgent recording from Mary Halvorson’s quintet, with trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson, saxophonist Jon Irabagon (again), bassist John Hébert, and Ches Smith (again) on drums. The band plays with precision and fire on a series of Halvorson tunes that entertain and tell stories. Every track here sounds like a journey: with repetitions but also fresh horizons, with sweeping vistas and moments of pure road momentum. The leader’s guitar sound is knotty and abrasive, even unmelodic. A bracing flavor. But her tunes and arrangements almost sound like rock songs, so catchy and compelling are they. “All the Clocks (No. 29)”, could convince any jazz skeptic, with its faster-then-slower picked guitar lines almost like a progressive rock song, then the horns building another rush of patterns, some of which speed up and slow down and as well. The improvisations all over Bending Bridges are intelligent and original, never a string of “the standard” jazz licks. A decent part tuneful but a whole dollop adventurous, the Mary Halvorson Quintet is an ideal modern jazz ensemble.

 

Artist: Rez Abbasi Trio

Album: Continuous Beat

Label: Enja

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List Number: 5

Rez Abbasi Trio
Continuous Beat

Rez Abbasi has been so active and so productive in recent years that it seems like you almost have to pencil him into the top ten list in March, just in case he releases anything new in the coming year. And he always does. This debut by his loose and fun trio smacks of a truly fresh appeal — having not a little in common with the very first trio record of jazz star Pat Metheny (Bright Size Life from 1975). Continuous Beat shares with Metheny’s young debut a lively sense of melody and a pulsating groove. Abbasi’s music, to date, has been generously listenable, but this disc goes right at the listener with melody and groove abundant, though never cheaply. “Divided Attention” uses a tricky time signature but doesn’t skimp of propulsion, “The Cure” features a slinky blues melody with a heap of hip backbeat, “Major Major” is a ray of sunshine conjured by a series of radiant chords, and every tune is enlivened by the huge sound of John Hebert’s bass and Satoshi Takeishi’s multi-directional rhythm. You will also listen scores of times to the surprising closing track: a shimmering reharmonization of “The Star-Spangled Banner” for solo acoustic guitar. Abbasi arrives, again.

6 – 10

Artist: The Bad Plus

Album: Made Possible

Label: Entertainment One

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List Number: 6

The Bad Plus
Made Possible

The Bad Plus have been the poster boys for a certain kind of new jazz for about a decade. They covered “Smells Like a Teen Spirit” on their first major release, and they did it with a muscular seriousness that suggests both an interest in finding an audience and no room for watering down their sensibility. Made Possible continues to live up to that dual tradition, offering compelling original music that is muscular and melodic, knotty and dynamic. What’s different here is that the essentially acoustic piano trio has started to supplement its sound with some electronics. The result, however, isn’t any kind of sweetening or softening of the group’s sound. Rather, these new sounds are deployed in the classic Bad Plus manner — with a bold sense of surprise and drama. So, “Sing for a Silver Dollar” trades in electronic drums sounds used almost as sound effects rather than as grooves. The ending melody in “Re-Elect That” is played by a strident synth, voiced so that it sounds just a bit like a Super-Mario tune. That said, the collection’s one cover, “Victoria” by the late Paul Motian, is almost reverential in its purity. Made Possible is another great one by a band that isn’t and never was a gimmick. Hurrah!

 

Artist: Bill McHenry

Album: La Peur du Vide

Label: Sunnyside

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List Number: 7

Bill McHenry
La Peur du Vide

Bill McHenry is one of those 40-year-old guys who seems to have arrived all of a sudden, even thought that’s unfair. Certainly his new disc La Peur du Vide is a perfect balance of modern tradition and daring adventure — a live date from the Village Vanguard that features an ideally balanced quartet and showcases a tenor talent who fuses technique, tone, and captivating quirk. The opening track, “Siglo XX”, comes out of the gate like Coltrane from the mid-‘60s, with pianist Orrin Evans rocking a modal vamp and McHenry pushing out a steely tone that ripens in its upper register and growls down low. And while there are clearly moments when McHenry is purposefully calling back to ‘Trane, he more often works his improvisation with a mathematical care and spare concision that is the opposite of Coltrane. McHenry seems to be serving notice in two ways at once: this is a player straight from the modern tradition but also defiantly individual. What impresses most fully about McHenry is how he manages to perform outside of convention and still sound clean and beautiful. When he plays without following standard harmonic conventions, his playing doesn’t become ragged or unintentional. Instead, he makes brilliant, surprising decisions.

 

Artist: Brad Meldau Trio

Album: Ode

Label: Nonesuch

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List Number: 8

Brad Meldau Trio
Ode

Ode is a more traditional jazz record than Day Is Done, the previous record by this working trio. It features concise themes and long improvisations, with brilliant rhythmic play running throughout the trio’s incredible dialogue. As such, it’s a high-wire act in the grand piano trio tradition, a clear heir to the likes of Bud Powell and Bill Evans and McCoy Tyner. It’s hardly old-fashioned, however. There are ballads and Latin themes here, swingers too, but Mehldau’s original compositions also feel modern, with some having a pulsing groove that threads a needle between Reich-ian minimalism and the dance of world music. Through it all is the leader’s astonishing pianism, particularly the many passages in which Mehldau’s left and right hands engage in a conversation that is raises the temperature of the music several notches. That the rest of the trio — Jeff Ballard on drums and Larry Grenadier on bass — is just as good seems almost unfair. Every lick in this lick-heavy date is the product of great musical intelligence. Ode is long on great solos and is therefore maybe a bit traditional sounding. But it’s a part of the jazz tradition that we wouldn’t want to lose.

 

Artist: Matt Wilson’s Arts & Crafts

Album: An Attitude for Gratitude

Label: Palmetto

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List Number: 9

Matt Wilson’s Arts & Crafts
An Attitude for Gratitude

If there is one true “grower” on this list, it is An Attitude for Gratitude, a record that offers so much and with so little apparent effort that it was maybe easy to take for granted on first listen. Two brilliant standouts are a trio take on Paul Simon’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” (Gary Versace on piano, along with the leader’s loose drumming and bassist Martin Wind) and then a melancholy “Happy Days Are Here Again” that is such a beautiful caress from trumpeter Terrell Stafford that you wonder why this tune hasn’t been played this way before. But there’s much more to this quartet, a group that uses wit and wonder to achieve something larger than gimmick. “Bubbles” combines circus music, a recited poem, and an accordion jam. If the name “Arts & Crafts” suggest a wild collection of stuff all glued together then it’s right on — except that it’s done here with an artfulness that is more Picasso than summer camp.

 

Artist: Linda Oh

Album: Initial Here

Label: Greenleaf

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List Number: 10

Linda Oh
Initial Here

Linda Oh is currently the bassist in Dave Douglas’s quintet (see Be Still above), and her second solo album is one of the year’s treats. Oh has a great story (born in Malaysia, raised in Australia, now in the U.S.), but better is her music, which burbles and bounces and sings with youthful zing. This is a record that seems to be discovering itself constantly. The group’s take on Leonard Bernstein’s “Something’s Coming” is a marvel, with the familiar melody rising up out of a rumination, turning into a sprint of the whole band forward, and then splintering into a series of repeated notes that let individual lines of the original tune pop to the surface. It swings, without a doubt, but there is also maximum freedom in service to the idea of the song. Rudy Royston (from Douglas’s band) is controlling the traffic like a pro, but I’m mainly happy to soak up the new talent here: Fabian Almazan on piano (and ripping and ripe Fender Rhodes electric piano, fresh as piquant on “No. 1 Hit”) and tenor saxophonist Dayna Stephens, who plays with great presence everywhere but shines on a reading of Ellington’s “Come Sunday”. The leader’s bass solo there also says it all: that she is a young player fully mature, already in a grand tradition. This record is daring and fun, beautiful and edgy enough not to curdle, new and old at once.

 

And that last sentence could sum up jazz in 2012 too: hitting on all cylinders across a wide array of styles and sources.

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