Here are my 50 favourite jazz CDs of 2012 in some kind of numerical order. Most were reviewed on this site and/or in The Birmingham Post, and all are new releases, not reissues. With each there is a link to a website where you can find out more. Most will be available to buy online, sometimes from the artists themselves, though it pleases all of us who still value the traditional record shop if you attempt to buy them from a real human being behind a real counter. And if you do take the online route, might I suggest you snub retailers who avoid paying their taxes in the UK. I don’t necessarily make any claim that these were the best jazz CDs to be released in 2012, though after a drink or two I am happy to argue in their defence; in short, they are just the ones I liked the best.
50 Roller Trio (F-IRE Records): A new trio of saxophone, guitar and drums from the same Leeds scene that brought us Trio VD. The instrumentation and some of the influences may be the same, but whereas Trio VD put the accent on the scary, Roller Trio mix some lyricism in with their highly competent, rock-inclined technical playing. It’s how saxophonist James Mainwaring, guitarist Luke Wynter and drummer Luke Reddin-Williams compose that determines these constructions – a communal development of individually improvised ideas. And it seems to work a treat. Perhaps less tightly focussed than Trio VD, but more inclusive. Mercury Prize short-listers. More here.
49 Konrad Wiszniewski & Euan Stevenson New Focus (Whirlwind Recordings): The saxophonist and the pianist have chosen to split the writing duties, and have added the Glasgow String Quartet, plus bassist Michael Janisch and drummer Alyn Cosker to play the music. But this is not a jazz quartet with strings – it feels more like an integrated octet, with the rhythm team often laying back in favour of the strings. The Scottish influences in all this music are subtle, but they are there in the skirl of some of the melodies and the decoration both players add to the their lines. The title is a nod to the fact the pair came together to play some of the music from the Stan Getz with strings album, Focus. More here.
48 The Golden Age Of Steam Welcome To Bat Country (Basho Records): More fun and games from James Allsopp who plays reeds and composed all the music, with Kit Downes on Hammond and keyboards, and Tim Giles on drums. Guests include Ruth Goller on bass and Alex Bonney on trumpet. It’s 21st-century British jazz which frolics in the spaces between rock, free jazz, sound sculpture and knob-twiddling, and the trio has found a distinctive and coherent way of combining these disparate elements into some kind of mad circus-y whole. And the prize for most original use of a Hammond organ goes, once again, to Kit Downes. More here.
47 Frank Harrison Trio Sideways (Linus Records): Harrison is most often heard playing in Gilad Atzmon’s Orient House Ensemble, but here the English, Berklee-trained pianist has two Continental players for company: bassist Davide Petrocca and drummer Stephen Keogh. They alternate standards – Autumn Leaves, Dindi, How Long Has This Been Going On, You And The Night And The Music – with Harrison originals. The playing is straight-ahead in the best sense – it eschews the fancy and the gimmicky for a marvellously direct and personal interpretation of the classic jazz piano style. More here.
46 George Crowley Quartet Paper Universe (Whirlwind Recordings): Tenor saxophonist George Crowley shows that he is as fine a composer as he is a player. The opening tune reminds me strongly of one Julian Arguelles might write – it has a lovely, long, loping melody which has a certain undefinable English lyricism to it – and his saxophone sound is in the Arguelles tradition, too. The rest of the band is, of course, the Kit Downes Trio, so Crowley has a fully integrated, three-thinking-as-one band already formed to make the most of his compositions. Having a real tenor romantic on the scene is cause for loud hurrahs. More here.
45 Laura Jurd Landing Ground (Chaos Collective): Trumpeter Laura Jurd has assembled an octet – trumpet, piano, double bass and drums plus a string quartet – to play what feels - in coherence of mood and harmony - like a cohesive suite of her own composition. From the opening Flight Music through to The Cross-Atlantic Antics Of Madame Souza, with The Lady Of Bruntal, a Happy Sad Song, the title track and Tales Of The Old Country along the way, the speakers are filled with a compelling mix of Latin-tinged grooves, rich string writing and some sometimes lyrical, sometimes fiery, sometimes strongly contemporary classical playing. That this is the debut of a 22-year-old currently studying at Trinity College in London is extraordinary. More here.
44 Ivo Neame Yatra (Edition Records): Pianist and saxophonist Ivo Neame seems to have leapt up not just to the next level, but a good few levels, since his last album. There is an added confidence and and exuberance that leaps from the speakers with this one that suggests here is a musician who really has found his voice. Perhaps it’s the increased musical palette that he now has, with a four-part woodwind section, in addition to the vibes of Jim Hart, the bass of Jasper Hoiby, the drums of Dave Hamblett and his own piano and accordion. The rhythms tend to be jumpy and urgent but Neame has always had the ability to lay a more serene mood on top of the fidgets. More here.
43 Julian Shore Filaments (Tone Rogue Records): For this sophomore release the Brooklyn pianist has Phil Donkin on bass and Tommy Crane on drums, and then there are various added musicians, including two singers, three guitarists, some saxophones and a trumpet. Despite the changing personnel, the whole album has a remarkable cohesion – a credit to Shore’s strongly whistleable tunes, interesting arrangements, and the over-riding gentle grooving nature of the album. Oh, and one of the guitarists is Kurt Rosenwinkel. One of those charming albums that arrives unexpected on my desk from time to time, and ends up getting played an awful lot more than some of the big-name releases. More here.
42 Elizabeth Shepherd Rewind (Linus Entertainment): If you want to hear how to get a tired old warhorse not only back on its feet but trotting round with its head in the air, just try track one here. It’s Love For Sale, and there are another 11 standards here given a fresh twist by the Canadian singer. There is a charming whisper-sung version of the much undervalued Poinciana with acoustic guitar accompaniment, a couple of French songs, and a lovely reading of a Kurt Weill/Langston Hughes song called Lonely House (I didn’t know it and it’s a real gem). The cover art and the general ambience make it a perfect partner to Donald Fagen’s tribute to Kennedy’s America, The Nightfly. Music for the New Frontier, indeed. More here.
41 John Surman Saltash Bells (ECM): The multi-reedsman’s first solo album for 18 years is not insistent, it doesn’t grab you by the collar and shake you, but it insinuates itself into your consciousness and slowly envelopes you in a most absorbing way. Surman still keeps the digital accompaniments pretty simple and very much in the style we have grown accustomed to in his previous solo discs. Over them he plays soprano, tenor and baritone saxophones, alto bass and contrabass clarinets and harmonica. The inspiration comes from the Saltash Passage between Devon and Cornwall, and Surman’s childhood memories of church bells across the water. A beautiful and heartfelt album. More here.
40 Dave Stapleton Flight (Edition Records): The pianist, composer and head of Edition Records has enlisted the brilliant Danish saxophonist Marius Neset together with Dave Kane on double bass, Olavi Louhivuori on drums and the Brodowski String Quartet. At the beginning the album alternates the string quartet playing heart-achingly on Before and the jazz quartet building intensely on Polaroid, before things settle down and the two foursomes blend for the absorbing and reflective two-part Henryk. It’s a rich programme which takes in yearning late-Romanticism and ‘70s jazz fusion with some Middle Eastern influences in there for good measure. More here.
39 Troyka Moxxy (Edition Records): This trio of guitarist Chris Montague with Joshua Blackmore on drums and Kit Downes on keyboards goes from strength to strength, with this second release both an extension of the first but also showing a considerable deepening of their particular seam with a lot of chunky, glittering rocks being extracted.The opener, Rarebit, is from the scarier end of their repertoire, mixing rock power with jazz complexity. And it’s only just occurred to me that in fact, with Downes using organ a lot of the time, this band also has the classic organ trio line-up. Though, of course, it sounds nothing like a conventional organ trio. More here.
38 Yuri Honing Acoustic Quartet True (Challenge Records): Let’s hear it for the slow saxophonists! There aren’t that many of them around these days, and this is an endangered species we let dwindle at our cost. Flying the flag for Paul Desmond and similar slow movers, the Dutch Yuri Honing sets out his stall from the opening title tune which opens at a plod and sticks there – no, actually plod is not correct – rather the kind of stately processional pace held by men in tights and bejewelled shoes while holding the symbols of state aloft. Playing so slowly leaves you nowhere to hide. The phrasing must be meticulous, the tuning perfect and the tone just right. And Honing has all of those. More here.
37 Beats & Pieces Big Band Big Ideas (Efpi Records): Ben Cottrell writes and conducts while leaping in the air, the trumpets, trombones and saxophones play big and brassy, while the rhythm team takes a thoroughly contemporary rocky road, and piano and guitar are electric and wah-wah respectively. What is most striking is how Cottrell has stayed true to both 20th-Century big band principles and 21st-century Indie attitudes without compromising either. The band has the energy of a new Loose Tubes and the character of the individual players – mostly graduates of the Royal Northern College Of Music – is starting to shine through strongly, courtesy of Cottrell’s Ellingtonian attitude to writing specifically for them. More here.
36 Gareth Lockrane’s Grooveyard The Strut (Whirlwind Recordings): The flute used to have a rather wussy reputation. In jazz Herbie Mann changed all that, especially with his Memphis Underground album which placed the instrument in a rock context. Gareth Lockrane achieves a similar thing by using his various flutes at the heart of a band full of muscle and edge. He has Alex Garnett on saxophones, Mike Outram on guitar, Ross Stanley on Hammond and Nick Smalley on drums, with Nia Lynn adding wordless vocals on a trio of tracks. The arrangements are modern and not restricted to the heads, working the tasty timbral blend of flute, saxophone and guitar in throughout. More here.
35 David Gilmore Numerology: Live at Jazz Standard (Evolutionary Music): It’s natural that musicians should be drawn to the mystical and spiritual meaning of numbers. This is a suite, played by the guitarist with vocalist Claudia Acuna, saxophonist Miguel Zenon, pianist Luis Perdomo, bassist Christian McBride, drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts and percussionist Mino Cinelu. These are players who entertain and educate simultaneously. The timing is tricky in places, the melodic sequences a little odd (in a nice way) and the harmonies likewise, but it’s all pretty funky, too, and played with such total commitment and energy. More here.
34 Scott McLemore Remote Location (Sunny/Sky): The title of this album comes from the fact that drummer Scott McLemore, born in Norfolk, Virginia, USA, has relocated to Reykjavik in Iceland. He might feel a long way from home but he has a bunch of Icelandic musicians to play with and they, and the location, have clearly inspired him.The accent is on melodies. McLemore describes it as “an emotionally laden collection of songs. Although there are no lyrics, there is a lot of meaning/memory/feeling behind the notes”. Sometimes the most rewarding musical experiences come not from the tried and trusted names whose complete back catalogues you own, but from a bunch of musicians you have never heard before. And, gosh, how much do I like the sound of tenor player Oskar Gudjonsson? More here.
33 Euan Burton Occurrences (Whirlwind Recordings): The Scottish-born, Birmingham Conservatoire-trained double bass player, band leader and composer Euan Burton wrote Occurrences as a kind of suite, with each track just a number, but each tune stands on its own. There is a lovely relaxed feel to the album, despite the complexity of some of the material. The band comprises New York-based alto and soprano saxophonist Will Vinson, Irish guitarist Mark McKnight, fellow Scot Steve Hamilton on piano and Fender Rhodes, and that busy man, James Maddren, on the drums. There is, as Burton has indicated, the feeling of a film or play developing here, with different characters and moods emerging in the course of the suite. More here.
32 The Cloudmakers Trio with Ralph Alessi Live At The Pizza Express (Whirlwind Recordings): There’s a smile on my face in the first few seconds as the familiar team of double bassist Michael Janisch and drummer Dave Smith lock in to a gorgeously lithe rhythm. When Jim Hart’s vibes joins them, and guest from the US Ralph Alessi adds his characteristic just slightly smeared trumpet tone on top, the smile widens further. The instrumentation and the playing styles of all four guarantee lots of lovely space, and their ability to build intensity without ever shouting or getting rowdy makes for an absolutely compelling listen. More here.
31 Orchestre National De Jazz Piazzolla! (Jazz Village): We can always rely on the Paris-based ONJ to bring a fresh approach to well-worn material. Artistic director Daniel Yvinec says in the sleevenotes: “Piazzolla is like getting close to the heart of a fire and digging deep for the strength to carry these extraordinary melodies, those that will smoke out our buried emotions.” Assisting the band to smoke out those emotions is arranger Gil Goldstein, who is a dab hand at combining acoustic and electric instruments, jazz and rock influences, and using fresh instrumental textures. So, In Libertango, we get puffing flutes against Fender Rhodes with minimalist horn patterns; in the ten-minute long mix of Chiequilin de Bachin and Balada Para Un Loco we get tenor saxophone against a precise bass guitar pulseat the start and some well-orchestrated chaos near the end. More here.
30 Daniel Herskedal & Marius Neset Neck Of The Woods (Edition Records): If you think a saxophone and tuba duo album sounds a bit hard core and unrelenting, think again. From the opening title track, which sets Neset’s lustrous tenor saxophone against a bass line from Herskedal and the Svanholm Singers, a wordless choir of voices, it is clear that the sound palette will be much broader than the personnel listing suggests. On Preludium Neset multi-tracks his instruments into luscious horn sections and then interweaves his soprano sax with Herskedal’s gently pumping tuba. It’s beautifully recorded, sensitively programmed to make a rich and rewarding whole. Just simply brilliant. More here.
29 Aruan Ortiz & Michael Janisch Quintet Banned In London (Whirlwind Recordings): This live recording from last year’s London Jazz Festival gig at the Pizza Express opens with Janisch’s bass and in his hands alone there is that thoroughly modern yet absolutely classic meeting of spontaneous melody and rhythm that is the intoxicating essence of jazz. The rest of the band kicks in – fellow leader Ortiz on piano, Rudy Royston on drums, Greg Osby on alto and Raynald Colom on trumpet – and Janisch’s perfectly-titled Precisely Now becomes a 14-minute rollercoaster ride. In fact this is a hallmark of the CD as a whole – the energy levels of a Janisch band are always that little bit higher, the players pushed to play intensely. More here.
28 Nikki Iles Hush (Basho Records): The British pianist Nikki Iles went into the recording studio of Tony Bennett’s son, Dae, in New Jersey, accompanied by two New York musicians she had come to know but who had never played together before: double basist Rufus Reid and drummer Jeff Williams. This album is the glorious result. Nikki is a strong composer herself, but chooses just three of her own tunes here, preferring to interpret music by Kenny Wheeler, Miles Davis, Dave Brubeck, Ralph Towner and Julian Arguelles, as well as linking two jazz standards. It all sounds like a warm state of grace – translated from studio to your speakers. More here.
27 Brad Mehldau Trio Ode (Nonesuch): The new Mehldau trio – the one with Jeff Ballard on drums – had only made three albums over the last seven years when this came out, but each had been a gem. With Larry Grenadier on double bass, the band is in the studio again for this set of original Mehldau songs. You might find yourself singing along with a lot of this album. And there is a reason for that. Mehldau explains that he wrote the music very much as tunes that could be sung. He says: “In our case here it’s the singing only without all those pesky words.” And, indeed, all three sing for their supper. Stronger than the album of other people’s tunes that the trio released later in the year. More here.
26 Manu Katché (ECM): The instrumentation has changed again for the drummer’s fourth ECM album, with the only carry-over from 2010′s Third Round the go-to ECM and Edition Records saxophonist Tore Brunborg. Joining him are trumpeter Nils Petter Molvaer and keyboard player Jim Watson. What, no bassist? Well, a listen to the album shows this is not a player missing but a space filled, sometimes by Katché’s drums and sometimes by Watson’s Hammond B3 pedals. The joys lie not primarily in jazz solos – nice though they are – but in the combinations of timbres over catchy grooves, and the drummer seems to have a bottomless pit of both timbral and rhythmic ideas, as well as a knack for a sweet tune. More here.
25 Avishai Cohen with Nitai Hershkovits Duende (Blue Note): The word might be Spanish – it means “spirit” – but the mood is that distinct one Avishai Cohen has been exploring over the last few albums. It’s a hugely uplifting mix of jazz and Middle Eastern folk traditions, all conveyed with extraordinary facility. This is a duo affair with 24-year-old Tel Aviv pianist Nitai Hershkovits. The pair might not have been playing together that long but they already show an extraordinary unity of spirit and a common vision. As with Cohen’s recent albums, the original themes are richly melodic with quickening and slowing rhythms that give them a marvellous organic feel. There’s also a lovely reading of Monk’s Criss Cross. More here.
24 Simcock Garland Sirkis Lighthouse (ACT): Pianist Gwilym Simcock, saxophonist Tim Garland and percussionist Asaf Sirkis know their way round their instruments like few people on the planet, never mind in this country. With their Lighthouse trio, they bounce ideas off each other with the kind of delight that Messi, Ronaldo and Xavi might show if they could just get together for a quiet kick-about. Both Garland and Simcock provide the tunes, and the scope is wide, from funkified groovers to something approaching chamber jazz. There are musicians who can play the most complicated stuff, and there are musicians who make their instruments sound just gorgeous. And then there are those who do both those things and also make perfect sense out of it all. There are three such musicians here. More here.
23 Ryan Truesdell Centennial: Newly Discovered Works Of Gil Evans (ArtistShare): Truesdell’s name will be familiar to Maria Schneider Orchestra fans. He co-produced her Concert In The Garden and Sky Blue albums, and is her music copyist as well as being a composer and arranger himself. He was granted full access to the Gil Evans archive and as a result he has produced a terrific album of hitherto lost works – either compositions or arrangements – by Evans, and has a top-notch band to play them. As you would expect, it includes some familiar names from the Schneider Orchestra, including saxophonist Donny McCaslin and pianist Frank Kimbrough. There are also players like vibraphonist Joe Locke along for the ride. As a tribute to Gil Evans in the 100th anniversary year of his birth it really couldn’t be bettered. More here.
22 Food Mercurial Balm (ECM): Mercurial Balm is another magical album from Norwegian drummer Thomas Stronen and British saxophonist Iain Ballamy. Ballamy has always been a favourite of mine, right from Loose Tubes days, but it is Stronen who strikes me as the epitome of the 21st century jazz musician. He is just so talented. A beautiful and richly rounded album, and a masterclass in how to incorporate all the technology into the most organic sounding music, as well as a stunning example of how modern musicians can create in the moment in the most original ways. (The composition credits suggest that these are all spontaneous group compositions – a kind of contemporary “free jazz” too!) More here.
21 Jazz Bigband Graz Urban Folktales (ACT): There are as many different big band sounds as there are big bands, but JBBG really is a long way from the massed trumpets, trombones and saxophones of the more conventional main-stream swingers. Just look at the soloists: they include electric hurdy gurdy, theremin, electric zither, live electronic processing and African e-bow. They make a fabulous sound, full of rock-influenced spacey grooves and with strong African overtones. The tunes have the accessible melodies implied by the album title – these are indeed urban folksongs, as eclectic as our urban areas in the 21st century, and just as full of excitement. And you do get your fair share of blasting brass, too. More here.
20 Gregory Porter Be Good (Motema): Be Good is, if anything, even stronger than the debut disc. Porter has a gorgeous hot chocolate vocal timbre and a seemingly effortless delivery, and yet he doesn’t draw attention to it as a singer, making it an almost transparent vehicle for his lyrics, his melodies, the emotions and ideas he wishes to convey. He is also a classic songwriter in the sense that the melodies and harmonic progressions of his compositions follow all the right rules that Arlen, Gershwin, that other Porter, and Berlin developed. And yet, his songs also sound modern and fresh, not like some pastiche of the American Song Book. More here.
19 Billy Hart All Our Reasons (ECM): Originally billed as the Ethan Iverson/Mark Turner Quartet, this is now Billy’s band, but the drummer is ably assisted with compositions by Iverson and Turner in addition to his own. Turner is often in particularly rhapsodic mood on tenor. Iverson does a pretty amazing solo intro to his own Ohnedareth, seeming to have his hands moving independently of each other, not only in rhythm but in harmonic material too. Ben Street is a beautifully nuanced bassist. Hart is just a master, having some of the quiet musicality of Paul Motian but with his very personal tonal palette and rhythmic feel. A very rich album, full of absorbing musical musings that give more insight on each listen. More here.
18 Vinicius Cantuaria Indio de Apartamento (Naive Records): The singer, guitarist and composer adds yet another gorgeous curlicue to the centrepiece of modern Brazilian music from his home far away in Brooklyn. He begins with a whisper in your ear and a lush bed of strings behind the acoustic guitar for Humanos – this is smooth Cantuaria. But with track two, Moca Fela, we get the subtly off-the-wall Cantuaria, too. The album is determined in mood by the death of Cantuaria’s mother, but then his music has always had a melancholy edge to it – it’s part of its humanity and appeal. Apparently he records in his own studio and works slowly building things – hence the subtle detail. But he must also be a ruthless editor, because there is nothing extraneous here. More here.
17 Lionel Loueke Heritage (Blue Note): The Benin-born guitarist and singer Lionel Loueke shows an innovative amalgam of African and US jazz music. There are great riches here and many of them are to be found in contradictions: how can a man who uses such highly processed means of music making – his guitar on the opening track sounds more like a synth and his vocals are often electronically manipulated and overlaid – make it all sound so organic? And how, working as he is here with that epitome of modern American music Robert Glasper, can his music turn out sounding even more strongly African in its character and ethos? Which reminds me that you might have been expecting Glasper’s much admired Black Music Radio in this Festive 50; well, I think Glasper is better as a producer influencing the music of Loueke or Gretchen Parlato than as a leader. More here.
16 Oriole Every New Day (F-IRE Records): Much of the music was written and developed by guitarist Jonny Phillips in Spain and Portugal, and the titles reflect this – Levante and Sintra, for example. Sounds, styles and rhythms come from Spain, from Portugal, from Brazil and Venezuela, but the overall mood and sound of the band is like nothing since the last Oriole album. A lot of the magic comes from the gorgeous mix of timbre and texture of cello and tenor saxophone playing closely together, sometimes in harmony, sometimes in counter melodies, and sometimes in unison. And Seb Rochford’s particular take on all these Iberian/Latin beats is another magic ingredient. More here.
15 Tord Gustavsen Quartet The Well (ECM): The Norwegian pianist’s fifth album for ECM contains some music composed for commissions by Cheltenham Jazz Festival and for the Oslo Church Music Festival, some written on the road, some at home, and all of it staying true to the strongly melodic, gospel-tinged, reflective mood that has characterised Gustavsen’s music from the start. Jarle Vespestad is on drums, Mats Eilertsen on double bass and Tore Brunborg on tenor saxophone, and it is a gorgeous sound they make, the interaction organic, the balancing of the notes and the spaces in between still kept crucially airy, the drive so quietly insistent. and the managing of mood expertly achieved. More here.
14 Loose Tubes Säd Afrika (Lost Marble): Joy of joys! A second CD by the late great Tubes gleaned from their final week at Ronnie Scott’s in London before they all went their separate ways. Like the first one, Dancing On Frith Street, it is a rich recording full of great tunes and great playing, with the kind of energy that in person could feel almost physical. The richness of the influences that feed through the band include the Brazilian big band experimentalism of Hermeto Pascoal as well as African, Latin and Jamaican tinges. But this is also supremely British music, evoking tea dance orchestras, the English classical heritage and the folk music of these isles as well. More here.
13 Ahmad Jamal Blue Moon – The New York Session (Jazz Village): The drums enter with a really strong groove, as rich with funk as jazz, huge piano chords add complex voicings and a strong and vibrant thrust, percussion adds further rhythmic wealth and bass fills out the harmony and pulse, as the melody, a combination of rich single note decorations and more rich chords develops. As the improvisation develops there are powerful, fisted runs up the keys and down, and the groove deepens further before easing off into lyrical playing, soon interrupted by yet more urgent block chord work. Jamal is 82 and this is a monument to the life-giving properties of jazz and the longevity of wit, risk-taking and sheer exhilarating experimentation from one the truly hippest men in the music. More here.
12 Wadada Leo Smith Ten Freedom Summers (Cuneiform Records): Compared to opera or the late romantics, small is usually beautiful in jazz. But I think monumental is an accurate description of Ten Freedom Summers, a kind of personal history in music of the civil rights movement in America. There is nearly four and a half hours of music on the four CDs, ranging from the heart-achingly gentle to the incandescently enraged, from the formally composed and notated to the wildly free, from plangent string writing to some really heavily-grooved stuff. At its centre, of course, is the distinctive clear, almost vibrato-less trumpet sound of Wadada Leo Smith. It’s going to take years of listening but it’s going to be a journey of infinite riches. More here.
11 Fred Hersch Trio Alive At The Vanguard (Palmetto): This double disc recorded in February might be Hersch’s finest live work yet in this most magical of club settings (and that’s acknowledging that last year’s solo recording in the same space set the bar ridiculously high). With him are John Hebert on double bass and Eric McPherson on drums, and it’s a threesome that has settled into that kind of acrobatic trust where each can follow the others’ subtlest twist or turn. The material is a rich mix of jazz tunes, great American songbook standards and original Hersch compositions. And these latter pieces are exceptionally strong. More here.
10 Django Bates’ Beloved Confirmation (Lost Marble): This is a kind of companion piece to last year’s Beloved Bird, and has the pianist playing in a trio format with bassist Petter Eldh and drummer Peter Bruun once more. It is also centred around the compositions of Charlie Parker, though this time there are just three Parker tunes, with six Bates originals and a contrasting coda of a vocal arrangement of Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s A House Is Not A Home. The pianist does all his usual mix of revoiced harmonies, deconstruction and reconstruction of melody, slowing and speeding of tempi, worrying the theme this way and that, treating it as chewing gum with an extraordinary elastic mix of off-the-wall brilliance and jaw-dropping bravura technique. It’s schtick as genius and genius as schtick. More here.
9 Phronesis Walking Dark (Edition Records): There is a moment in the title track of this fourth disc from the Anglo-Scandinavian piano trio when, so fidgety are Jasper Hoiby’s double bass and Anton Eger’s drums that I thought maybe the CD was jumping. Of course, it wasn’t. This was just this amazing pair of musicians doing what comes naturally – combining awesome technique with great rhythmic complexity and doing it with great dollops of sheer musical exuberance. Pianist Ivo Neame can match the edgy hyperactivity when he wants to, but mostly he acts as the creator of a kind of arching stretch of relative calm to both contrast with and bring more long-term form to the intense busyness swirling and churning beneath. More here.
8 Nik Bartsch’s Ronin Live (ECM): Bartsch writes in the liner notes: “Musical empathy is an evolutionary quality, extending from the time long before we became humans – and that is why communal music-making is not luxury; it is an existential need.” I’ve been in the audience at a Ronin concert twice and can vouch for the fact that there is something very special that happens with a band that embraces its audience in this way. Some of the “zen funk” on these discs will be familiar from the studio recordings, some pieces are extended or stretched out of shape by longer introductions or interludes. All are called Modul something, of course, and all have that heightened intensity that the musicians bring to a live performance. More here.
7 Christine Tobin Sailing To Byzantium (Trail Belle): Christine Tobin has set some WB Yeats poems to music, and it’s a rich and rewarding listen for all sorts of reasons, but mainly for the intelligence – both artistic and emotional – that Tobin has brought to the whole project. Her singing style seems ideally suited to poetry where every word counts – she articulates wonderfully, there is no mumbling or slurring, and yet makes it all sound so natural and almost conversational. And the tonal richness in her voice means she can convey all manner of emotion, both subtle and powerful, without using any of the cliches or tricks of conventional jazz singing. Great band, too, including Phil Robson on guitar. More here.
6 Christian Scott Christian a Tunde Adjuah (Concord): It’s a huge album, two CDs and a solid two hours of music performed by a small band with a big sound. The accent is on the drums of Jamire Williams with the pushing guitar of Matthew Stevens also playing a major role. But the trumpeter leads from the front, playing with extraordinary power and intensity. He includes a track of knowing rebuttal of some of his commentators called Who They Wish I Was, in which he plays muted trumpet in the Miles manner; who he really is is abundantly clear on the rest of the tracks which show a bright, clean tone, some very high playing and a passion which is far from cool or introverted. It’s interesting that while some other players have been rejecting the jazz word, Christian has found, through that New Orleans path, a way to incorporate it. More here.
5 Amir ElSaffar Two Rivers Ensemble Inana (Pi Recordings): The Iraqi/American makes a strongly spiritual jazz which incorporates other musical traditions in a grander tradition, the tradition of Randy Weston, perhaps, or the AACM. One can almost glimpse the silhouettes of the great musicians stretching back in time, back and back down the centuries. For not only does this music have a wonderful, dusty, ancient quality to it, while also being thoroughly modern and forward-pushing, but this particular recording celebrates an ancient goddess. The layering of drums and bass, then oud and buzuq, then saxophone and trumpet is just breathtaking in its richness. Released in 2011, but I only got to hear it at the beginning of this year and it’s stayed with me ever since. More here.
4 Kurt Elling 1619 Broadway (Concord Jazz): The Chicagoan is celebrating that other great city, the one where he now lives: New York. But instead of singing Gershwin, Cole Porter et al, he has picked his set list from the mountain of great sheet music that emerged if not from the Brill Building itself. Although many of these songs are hard-wired into the consciousness of anyone aged between, say, 40 and 70, a lot of us will be rewriting our “favourite version” lists. The seven-minutes of A House Is Not A Home is just breathtaking. Elling starts fairly low-key and then, using the gentlest reworking of the tune and his full arsenal of varied tone, timbre, timing, phrasing, vibrato, melisma, emotional nuance and vocal range, he develops the song into what feels like a whole short story of complex longing and heartbreak. More here.
3 Snarky Puppy: groundUP (Ropeadope): Electric bassist Michael League is at the heart of a band made up mainly of his fellow North Texas State graduates, and in many ways he has created a 21st-century equivalent of the Jaco Pastorius Big Band. He mixes up styles and textures, including jazz, funk, Afro-beat, gospel, hip-hop, classical and pop. In addition to two or three electric guitars, a horn section and strings, there are retro synth sounds all driven by a cracking drum/percussion team. League also chooses to record live with a small audience – a pleasing hybrid of studio sound quality and concert vibe. There might have been more profound albums in 2012 but I’m not sure any have brought me quite this level of visceral joy. More here.
1= Dave Douglas Be Still (Greenleaf Music): Dave Douglas has explored many different musical territories but I suspect only those very close to the New York trumpeter would have predicted Be Still. The music was prompted by the death of Emily Douglas, Dave’s mother, and the music she wanted him to play at her memorial service. Many are hymn tunes, and they have prompted Douglas to add a singer to his band. Not, as we might have expected, a jazz singer but the bluegrass/folk specialist Aoife O’Donovan. The results – quiet, thoughtful, gently crafted, played with deep but held-in feeling – are sublime. Just listen to O’Donovan’s vocal on the title track, the way she attends to the most delicate edges of her lines; the way the rhythm of Linda Oh and Rudy Royston builds behind the solos and then ebbs for the verses, the comments Douglas, Jon Irabagon and Matt Mitchell add, and their brief but perfectly measured solos. More here.
1= Marc Johnson/Eliane Elias Swept Away (ECM): Double bassist Marc Johnson, from the US’s mid-west, was in Bill Evans last trio; pianist Eliane Elias, from Sao Paulo in Brazil, first came to wide attention in Steps Ahead. They have been a couple for a long time now, and the near-telepathic interchange of the bass and piano throughout this album, their rising and falling as one to heighten the tension of a phrase and then to release it, is a joy to hear. Just try the opening title piece for a taste. It’s a trio track and Joey Baron’s drumming is so subtle it’s like punctuation marks in the poetry. On some of the tracks Joe Lovano adds his similarly inimitable voice. The compositions, all by Johnson, Elias or the two together, are songlike, lyrical and have a country serenity to them. The music is a kind of all-round complex emotional sound picture of a close and romantic relationship. More here.
For 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2011 Festive 50s go here.