Year end "best of" lists are always somewhat daunting to undertake, but they do offer the opportunity to revisit the year's music in-depth, and try to give an honest and thoughtful assessment of the most notable releases, well worth repeated listening. After narrowing the many hundreds of jazz albums from 2012 down to 33 that particularly stood out, I despaired at cutting that list down to the typical top ten - so I fudged a bit and settled on an even dozen, 12 jazz CDs from 2012 that I recommend most highly. Surprisingly, I didn't have to agonize at all over my pick for number one, and after that, for picks two and three. From there, those listed from 4 to 12 could really be in any order whatsoever.
Jack DeJohnette, Sound Travels (E One Music)
Drummer, pianist and composer Jack DeJohnette turned 70 this year and released this masterpiece of original compositions, where he is joined by many of the finest younger artists in jazz. The CD opens and closes with quiet, reflective solo piano by Jack, and in between showcases a wide variety of Afro-Caribbean-Latin American rhythms, with the catchy Salsa for Luisito featuring the vocals and bass work of Esperanza Spalding, as well as trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, guitarist Lionel Loueke, and percussionist Luisito Quintero among the many highlights and, in a nod to Sonny Rollins, a calypso called Sonny Light, with the same musicians plus Tim Ries on soprano sax. Pianist Jason Moran is outstanding on Indigo Dreamscapes, and Bobby McFerrin's voice is a perfect fit with DeJohnette's piano on the ethereal Oneness. There's even a funky New Orleans tinged number with guest vocalist Bruce Hornsby.
Chick Corea and Gary Burton, Hot House (Concord)
Pianist Chick Corea and vibist Gary Burton first performed as a duo 40 years ago, and they've managed to do at least a bit of that every year since. There's scant evidence of their duo act growing scale - if anything, they sound even more energized and excited on their new CD, Hot House (and were equally energized at an outstanding concert at the Gem Theater in Kansas City this fall). With an uncanny musical empathy, they thread leads and rhythm, engage in counterpoint, and without fail bring highly creative improvisation to bear on a varied program that includes early bebop (Hot House), Brazilian music (two pieces by Jobim), gorgeous ballads (notably Bill Evans' Time Remembered), music by Monk and Weill, and a powerful, hypnotic reading of Eleanor Rigby from the Beatles songbook. The album is capped by Corea's Mozart Goes Dancing, where they are joined by the Harlem String Quartet.
Pat Metheny, Unity Band (Nonesuch)
It's been over three decades since guitarist Pat Metheny recorded with tenor saxophonists (the 80/81 album band with the late Dewey Redman and Michael Brecker), but he certainly found the right one for this new quarter in Chris Potter (for many years a regular member of Dave Holland's band), who is both a master of power and invention. The rest of the band is equally notable: the highly acclaimed young (27) bassist Ben Williams, winner of the 2009 Monk International Bass Competition, and the powerhouse drummer from Pat's recent bands, Antonio Sanchez. The CD covers a wide spectrum of Pat's guitar work, from the gentle acoustic opening to the first track, New Year, to his fluid electric guitar on the soulful Leaving Town, to his rocking guitar synthesizer on Roof Dogs. There's even a taste of his Orchestrion (Pat's own "one man band" of a wide variety of bells, gongs, chimes and whatnot) on the exploratory Signals. This group also provided one of the concert highlights of the year with a stunning show at the Folly Theater in Kansas City.
The soulful side of jazz flourished on these two very impressive releases. Curtis Mayfield, first with the Impressions and then recording and performing under his own name, blended R & B, gospel and funk influences into a heady brew of socially conscious soul music that helped define the ‘60s and ‘70s, and on Impressions of Curtis Mayfield, a terrific combination of musicians show how to give new life to these songs in a jazz context. From Ernie Watts’ hard charging tenor sax on Freddie's Dead to the gospel preaching of Wallace Roney’s trumpet on People Get Ready, to the funky guitar riffs by Phil Upchurch on It’s All Right, there's a plethora of delights all the way through. Terri Lyne Carrington propels things on drums, with the air of longtime Mayfield percussionist Master Henry Gibson, while Bob Hurst on bass and pianist Russell Ferrante are rock solid as well.
Speaking of soulful jazz, singer Gregory Porter certainly turned my head when I first heard his album, Be Good. A follow up to his Grammy-nominated 2010 debut, Water, this one is, if anything, an even better fusing of jazz and soul music, notable not only for Porter's warm, rich voice that simply bursts with passion and emotion, but for his very fine songwriting. His straight up jazz swinger, On My Way to Harlem, tips a lyrical hat to Duke Ellington, Langston Hughes and Marvin Gaye...and that trio well reflects Porter's artistic inspirations. There's also gorgeous, timeless soul music, such as Real Good Hands. Porter closes the CD with two covers, Nat Adderley's soul-jazz classic, Work Song, and an a cappella version of Billie Holiday's God Bless the Child.
Kenny Garrett, Seeds from the Underground (Mack Avenue)
Simply one of the finest and most powerful outings in the career of saxophonist Kenny Garrett, this album features ten original compositions by Garrett paying tribute to various mentors and influences. Eschewing the electronic and heavy funk trappings he sometimes uses, the focus is on a hard charging quartet, with special kudos due to the Tyner-inspired piano of Benito Gonzalez and longtime Garrett compatriot, bassist Nat Reeves. Highlights include J Mac, a churning, hard-edged tribute to Jackie McLean, a hypnotic waltz, Haynes Here, honoring Roy Haynes and with the wordless vocals of Nedelka Prescod, and the catchy, playful Boogety Boogety, with the tasty percussion added by Rudy Bird. You can catch Kenny Garrett next February at the Folly Theater in Kansas City.
My two favorite drummer-led discs of the year come from a well-respected veteran in the prime of his career and a younger drummer stepping out from prestigious sideman roles into the leader's spot. Matt Wilson, who studied percussion at Wichita State University, is one of the rare musicians equally at home playing very "outside," adventuresome music, as he's done with the likes of Dewey Redman, Bill Frisell and the Either/Orchestra, and "inside" straight ahead jazz, with Dianne Reeves, Herbie Hancock and countless others. This CD comes from his Arts and Crafts band, featuring newcomers Martin Wind, replacing the late Dennis Irwin, on bass and keyboards by Gary Versace, stepping in for Larry Goldings, along with the returning member of the band, trumpeter Terell Stafford. Wilson always exudes joy from behind his drum kit, and navigates through an eclectic array of music, here including the soulful Nat Adderley swinging Little Boy with the Sad Eyes (with a church organ intro by Versace), a pensive, ballad tempo feature for Stafford on trumpet on Happy Days are Here Again, and Wilson's own, very free piece called Stolen Time.
Johnathan Blake, who at age 36 has been a member for years of bands led by jazz luminaries Tom Harrell and Kenny Barron, has appeared on over 50 albums, many by the most creative young musicians in jazz today, such as Avishai Cohen and Omer Avital. And for this debut as a leader, Blake's band reads like a who's who of today's creative musicians: saxophonists Jaleel Shaw and Mark Turner, pianist Kevin Hays, and drummer Ben Street; with guest spots for the likes of Harrell and keyboardist Robert Glasper. The album opens with the retro sound of a needle hitting a well worn vinyl album, then grooves into a soulful drum intro and the fender rhodes of Glaspar and a catchy unisorn horn line. But there's also straight ahead swingers such as Blue News, and the compelling Free Fall, which builds intensity while holding one's interest for over ten minutes. There's a devilishly tricky number, Clues, based on Monk's evidence, and a gorgeously atmospheric final number, Glasper's Canvas, with the harmonica of Gregoire Maret. Both Wilson's and Blake's albums are at the highest level musically, and offer great variety of colors, tempos and approaches to the music.
Pianist Brad Mehldau has been at the forefront of jazz piano, especially in a trio context, for the last fifteen years, but his trio output had slowed in recent years as he explored other contexts, including solo work and collaborations with the likes of Pat Metheny. But 2012 brought forth not one, but two new trio releases with bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jeff Ballard. Ode features 11 Mehldau originals, and the album gets off to a compelling start with M.B., a tribute to Michael Brecker, where Mehldau displays the same breathtaking power and virtuosity on piano that Brecker did on tenor sax. The trio ambles on the loose stroll called Dream Sketch, and burns on the up tempo Stan the Man. There's a slightly off kilter blues tune, Bee Blues, and a hypnotic tribute to comic character Aquaman.
After the spring release of Ode, fall brought forth Where Do You Start, with 10 of the 11 tracks as covers. Mehldau explores contemporary music ranging from Alice in Chains (Got Me Wrong) to Elvis Costello (Baby Play Around). There's a brooding take on Hendrix on Hey Joe, and Nick Drake's delicate Time Has Told Me, but the trio shows its ability to burn through classic bebop as well, with Clifford Brown's Brownie Speaks and Sonny Rollins' Airegin. Taken together, these two albums define contemporary piano trio music at its finest.
No startling innovations on these two releases - just mainstream jazz combo music, expertly played and highly accessible. Trombonist Steve Turre (who many have seen over the decades in the house band for Saturday Night Live) works at a consistently high quality, and on this album, dedicated to Turre's onetime boss and mentor, the late trumpet player Woody Shaw, is in especially fine form. The title track, very much in a Shaw vein, opens things in a burning manner, with special guest trumpeter Jon Faddis. In fact, there are five guest trumpeters, with two tracks each with Faddis, Wallace Roney, Claudio Roditi, and Freddie Hendrix, and one with Chocolate Armenteros on the cooking Latin number Manny's Mambo (a tribute to Manny Oquendo - and yes, Turre's worked in his band, as well), with pianist Luis Perdomo setting the riff in action and a host of percussionists, plus a bit of the conch shell playing of Turre. Young Hendrix shows his stuff on the very Coltrane-ish 3 for Woody.
Speaking of trombonists, Wycliffe Gordon is one of two special guests, along with vibist Stefon Harris, on The Clayton Brothers album, The Gathering. There's nothing fancy or slick about this band led by brothers John on bass and Jeff on sax, with John’s son Gerald at the piano, trumpeter Terell Stafford and drummer Obed Calvaire. They specialize in bluesy hard bop and gorgeous ballads, and this CD has plenty of both. There’s just two covers, gorgeous ballads by Billie Holiday (Don't Explain) and Benny Carter (Souvenir). The tenor of this band, and this album, can be summed up in the titles of some of the original tracks: Friday Struttin', Blues Gathering and This Ain't Nothin' but a Party.