Music

The Best Jazz of 2013

Will Layman and John Garratt

Jazz is all over the place, and that's the glorious point of it. When you add up all its little corners and areas of enjoyment in 2013, the music remains huge.

Six more great jazz albums...

Artist: Little Women

Album: Lung

Label: Aum Fidelity

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Little Women
Lung

Brooklyn's Little Women, led by the two-sax attack of Darius Jones and Travis Laplante, had a reputation for punching their listeners with sound. After an EP and one full-length, Teeth and Throat, respectively, this unusual quartet opted for a sneak attack on Lung, a celebration of life and nature's respiratory system: the seasons. Lung is only one track, a mindful journey of decay and renewal that pits paint-peeling skronk against deafening quiet. This is the release where Little Women have truly shed their skin and made something new while turning themselves into something new. John Garratt

 
Artist: Rudresh Mahanthappa

Album: Gamak

Label: ACT Music & Vision

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Rudresh Mahanthappa
Gamak

Has Rudresh Mahanthappa made a fusion or rock album? No, not exactly, but Gamak is different from most of the alto saxophonist's previous music. Gamak features a quartet led by Mahanthappa's acidic alto saxophone and fleshed out by electric guitar from David Fiucynski, Francois Moutin on acoustic bass, and drums courtesy of Dan Weiss. Fiucynski is able to bend strings and use his effects such that he can simulate the microtonal action necessary to give voice to the leader's South Asian-tinged tunes -- while at the same time having huge jazz chops and the tone, crunch, and firepower necessary to rip up the material here and bleed over to fusion and even rock. "Waiting Is Forbidden" starts with the saxophone playing an aggressively stabbed line in repetition, and then the guitar comes in with a syncopated funk figure, with the rhythm section syncopating things further so that the sound is a thick nest of groove. When the melody enters, Fiucynski sounds just a touch like a sitar. The music swirls and unspools with power, electricity, and precision, but it has little of the slickness of, say, Return to Forever. And just as this thought crosses your mind, around 6:30 into the tune, Fiucynski wraps a big fuzz tone around a line that could have come from "Hymn for the Seventh Galaxy", while drummer Dan Weiss lays down thick rock drumming every bit as fusion-y as Lenny White or Billy Cobham at their most 1970s-ish. Because it's Mahanthappa, all this fun is used to serve harmonic daring and genuine emotion from the players. Will Layman

 
Artist: The Pedrito Martinez Group

Album: The Pedrito Martinez Group

Label: Motéma Music

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The Pedrito Martinez Group
The Pedrito Martinez Group

This percussionist and singer has been the toast of New York for some years now, playing a regular midtown restaurant gig that has drawn famous musicians to his joyous Afro-Cuban party. The quartet's debut is a thrill from the start, as traditional Cuban material mixes and matches with a Robert Johnson blues and the Jackson Five's "I'll Be There". As forceful as Martinez is as a leader, the pianist and singer Aniacne Trujillo is a revelation, filling up the middle of the music with so much harmony, soul, and improvisation that one wonders when she will become a leader. It doesn't hurt that this debut has hip little contributions from John Scofield's guitar, Wynton Marsalis's trumpet, and Steve Gadd's drums. This is an example of where attention is being paid for all the right reasons. Get on the bandwagon! Will Layman

 
Artist: Gregory Porter

Album: Liquid Spirit

Label: Blue Note

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Gregory Porter
Liquid Spirit

The legendary jazz label Blue Note released a couple of great records in 2013, but one of them doesn't belong on this list: a soul album by Jose James. Gregory Porter is a jazz singer, however steeped he is in gospel and soul, whose Blue Note debut is absolutely a jazz record -- a record of gorgeous, propulsive, lyrical story-songs that allow his soulful voice to ricochet from Joe Williams to Stevie Wonder, from Kurt Elling to Donnie Hathaway. This is the kind of jazz that grabs snatches of gospel, blues, and soul with fluid skill. But the freedoms that Porter takes with time, his combination of supreme vocal control and masterful tonal variety, his willingness to sing with an aching vulnerability -- those things make it jazz. Well, that and a killer acoustic rhythm section and a hip pair of saxophonists that spice up several tunes. The good kind of jazz. The kind that moves you. So, romantics, here is a new jazz record filled with love songs that overflow with a tender sadness like "Hey, Laura", or killer pop ballads like "Water Under Bridges" that could be a hit for someone like Adele, or even a jazz standard like "I Fall in Love Too Easily" that is done in a wholly original way. Will Layman

 
Artist: Marc Ribot's Ceramic Dog

Album: Your Turn

Label: Northern Spy

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Marc Ribot's Ceramic Dog
Your Turn

Twisting music to suit one's unholy will is standard practice for spaz-jazz guitarist Marc Ribot. But that extra something that makes Your Turn, his second album with Ceramic Dog, so extra special is the sound of expectations being met, par excellence. Their 2008 debut Party Intellectuals met the double-edge sword of acclaimed debuts; sure it was great, but what were they going to do next? After a few false starts, Ceramic Dog took their equipment underground and recorded in the damp, sticky underbelly of New York City basements. The resulting Your Turn is a smorgasbord of things cast to their wall...and sticking. Aggressive eclecticism is one thing. Making a bold artistic statement with it is another thing entirely. John Garratt

 
Artist: Matthew Shipp

Album: Piano Sutras

Label: Thirsty Ear

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Matthew Shipp
Piano Sutras

Matthew Shipp has been one of the most fresh and unclichéd jazz pianists of the last decade. What does he have left to prove? His latest, coming after rumors that he was retiring as a recording artist, consists of relatively brief and focused solo piano essays. They cover a wide stylistic range, but each is driven by a logic or strong sense of sequence. They don't typically sound like standard jazz -- there no "tune", variations on the tune, return to the tune sequence -- but neither are they "free jazz" in any meaningful sense. Shipp, in this collection, has refined a style that allows composition and improvisation to work seamlessly as partners, seemingly indistinguishable. Could this be some kind of "modern classical music"? I guess so, except that Shipp remains a jazz player at his core: emphasizing the surging rhythms and blues sensibility that remains the core of great original American music, whatever name you want to give it. Will Layman

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