We'll follow in a separate article with my thoughts on many other notable new jazz releases. End-of-the-year "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. Here are my top five jazz albums for 2013.
Christian McBride and Inside Straight, People Music
Fresh off a big band album from last year, the energetic bassist Christian McBride released two of the best albums of 2013. This one marks the return of his quintet Inside Straight, which was featured in a 2009 debut. McBride notes that the title People Music reflects the notion that this should be accessible music. That it is, but not in a bland way, as the band combines hard swinging, melodic jazz with interesting approaches to time, creative soloing, and a good variety to the material. Highlights include McBride's own catchy Fair Hope Theme and a new, powerful version of one of his older tunes, The Movement, Revisited, Steve Wilson's moving piece Ms. Angelou, featuring Wilson on soprano sax, and young pianist Christian Sands' Dream Train. Sands and drummer Ulysses Owens, Jr., are on two tracks, with pianist Peter Martin and drummer Carl Allen on the other six. Joining McBride throughout the album are the outstanding young vibist Warren Wolf and the consistently fine saxophonist Steve Wilson. Throughout, McBride is constantly impressive with his outstanding work on bass, both in ensembles and as a soloist.
Christian McBride Trio, Out Here
Where Inside Straight glides along like a well-built luxury car (McBride has compared it to a '69 Lincoln Continental), his trio with the brilliant young pianist Christian Sands and drummer Ulysses Owens, Jr., is a much more flashy model, a high performance sports car - eager to show off its chops. And what chops! You want fast? Check out the trio's version of Cherokee. But fundamentally, it's not just about speed; it's also about handling. And in this trio it's about soul, as you can hear on the opening track, Ham Hocks and Cabbage or the rousing Oscar Peterson tune, Hallelujah Time. While there seems to be an obsession in today's jazz world with abstraction, with chilly exploration of mathematical mazes, there is too often a lack of, to put it simply, soul and swing. McBride's band may be taking an old fashioned approach by putting the emphasis on those last two things, but they never come across as same old, same old. They freshen up My Favorite Things with a 5/4 beat, and throughout the youthful energy of Sands and Owens bring new life to well-worn approaches. Oh, and that McBride fella plays some pretty amazing bass.
Gregory Porter, Liquid Spirit
New Blue Note head Don Was had the good ears and good sense to make Gregory Porter one of his first signings to Blue Note. After two impressive CDs for Motema Records, Porter is getting a lot more attention after this debut on Blue Note, and for good reason. Working with his regular band, Porter demonstrates the richness, soulfulness and nuance of his powerful voice, as well as his songwriting (he wrote all but three of the 14 songs on the CD). With early- to mid-'60s soul being the dominant vibe (it's no wonder that one of the covers is The "In" Crowd), Porter mixes tender ballads like Hey Laura and Water Under Bridges with the powerful, grooving gospel of the title track, and some pointed social commentary in Musical Genocide. There's a gripping version of Abbey Lincoln's Lonesome Lover and the opening track, No Love Dying, finds the narrator of the song defiant despite the bad signs all around him. The band, featuring Chip Crawford on piano, Aaron James on bass, and Emanuel Harrold on drums (and a few spots for one of my favorite young saxophonists, Tivon Pennicott) is in the pocket the whole way.
Cécile McLorin Salvant, WomanChild
It's easy to hear why McLorin Salvant won the 2010 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Vocals Competition at the tender age of 20. This Miami-born singer of Haitian and Guadeloupian descent, who grew up in France, possesses a truly amazing voice, coupled with a desire to explore a wide range of material and influences. With a terrific band (Aaron Diehl, piano; Rodney Whitaker, bass, and Herlin Riley, drums), Salvant reaches back to the 1920s for St. Louis Gal (recorded by Bessie Smith) and even further for a stunning version of the folk song John Henry, but this CD is anything but a nostalgia trip, as shown in Salvant's own composition that is the title track. The changing tempos of What a Little Moonlight Can Do reflect the kind of risk-taking adventurousness of Betty Carter, and the stunning vocal improvisation in I Didn't Know What Time It Was recall the very best of Sarah Vaughn. Salvant is one of the most impressive new voices to come along in jazz in quite some time.
Bobby Watson & the I Have a Dream Band, Check Cashing Day
Saxophonist Bobby Watson's ambitious mix of hard bop jazz and powerful spoken word makes both a fitting tribute to the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and an exciting musical experience. The title refers to the passage in Dr. King's speech that August day about the need to cash the 100-year-old check promising racial equality in America. The spoken word poetry of Glenn North throughout this project melds well with Watson's music to make it clear that check has yet to be fully cashed, but also serves to inspire. The music itself is filled with Watson's typically memorable and swinging melodies (the kick-off track, Sweet Dreams, is particularly outstanding), and the band is terrific. Trumpeter Hermon Mehari continues to show why he is one of the most promising young artists in jazz; pianist Richard Johnson, drummer Eric Kennedy, and longtime Watson compatriot Curtis Lundy are an outstanding rhythm section. Pamela Baskin-Watson sings on two numbers, including the anthemic Seekers of the Sun (Son), and Horace Washington makes three guest spots on flute, while Karita Carter is on trombone on another. Filled with powerful messages, Check Cashing Day finds Watson at a creative and musical peak.