All That Jazz!, or Top Ten Jazz Albums of 2012, by SK, or Shane

23Dec12

#1) Miguel Zenon & Laurent Coq: Rayuela

An album based on a groundbreaking 1963 novel “Hopscotch” by Julio Cortazar, a book that I’ve learned is pivotal in Argentine literature, as well as in experimental literature in general. The book, from what I understand, is like a postmodern, experimental Choose-Your-Own Adventure with multiple endings, bebop-like streams-of-consciousness, and subjective involvement of the reader, and it has been described as a “counter-novel”. Whatever that means. I’ve yet to understand how the music relates to the book, as I’ve just started reading the thing and am still not sure if I’ll get through it. But the music is far more inviting than is the book. The meandering and evolving compositions sound like nothing I’ve heard before, yet somehow are interesting and rewarding to listen to, and together add up to a truly coherent experience. Miguel Zenon’s alto sax playing, as usual, somehow combines technical mastery with a downright nostaltic, romantic tone that just works. Everyone’s great on the album, and despite its ambition and density, everyone comes through crystal clear and contributes to a transcendant whole. Try “Gekrepten”, “Talita”, or “La Maga”, or this nifty EPK:

#2) Brad Mehldau Trio: Ode

Probably the world’s best young-ish jazz pianist (although I was shocked to see that he has gone completely gray since the last album), it’s no surprise that this wound up on here. He’s never released a bad or even mediocre recording, and this is up there with his best studio recordings. (By the way, for his best live album, and one of the best piano trio albums of all time, check out his 1999 release “Art of Trio, Vol. 4: Back at the Vanguard”.) The title track is, I believe, a perfect example of Brad’s greatest contribution to the format–his absolutely unprecedented ability to combine simple, almost pop melodicism with an unmatched two-handed technique. Try “Ode” to see what I mean (particularly from 3:50-4:32, the most joyous moment of the year in jazz, and landing him a Grammy nomination for best improvised solo):

#3) Pat Metheny: Unity Band

Not much to say. A powerhouse dream team band. It’s exactly what I expected it to be, which is awesome. It got a Grammy nomination. Pat collaborates for the first time with Chris Potter, my favorite living saxophonist, an absolute monster. Try “Come and See”:

#4) Johnathan Blake: 11th Hour

This album was really addictive for me. Great compositions, and a really amazing assembly of musicians with solo careers of their own. But it doesn’t feel competitive or thrown together. This album is actually a great representation of what contemporary jazz is doing these days. Try the title track:

#5) Omer Avital: Suite of the East

I don’t know what’s going on over in Israel, but in recent years, they have given us a wave on incredible jazz musicians (most notably the bassist Avishai Cohen). This is a really special album. From the opening seconds of the first song “Free Forever”, I was in love with the orchestral Israeli-jazz. If the improvisation had succeeded as well as the compositions, this would’ve been my favorite album of the year. Check out “Song for Peace” for a good representation of the style:

#6) Brad Mehldau: Where Do You Start

This is all covers, and is a companion album to “Ode”. While not as memorable as “Ode”, some may prefer it due to the familiarity of some of the songs. Sadly, Brad chose not to cover any Radiohead this time around. Try his take on Sufjan Stevens’ “Holland”:

#7) Vijay Iyer Trio: Accelerando

I’ve kept this guy at arm’s length for several years now. He’s an Indian-born pianist who combines Hindi off-kilter rhythms with traditional jazz piano, which is great in theory but it’s somehow not worked for me. I’m probably too conservative—I’d have been one of those jazz critics who rejected Thelonious Monk back in the day. Iyer came to my college and I saw him perform solo from the third row and I absolutely hated it. Anyway, I don’t if he’s changed or if I have, but I finally gave this album a chance and I have to admit, it rocks hard. Check out his “Optimism” to its dramatic ending:

#8) Ben Allison – Union Square

This one wins the award for “intimate jazz club feel”. It burns along with a quiet yet potent intensity. Every little touch is ripe with significance. Try “No Other Side”.

#9) Branford Marsalis Quartet: Four MFs Playin’ Tunes

This band has been working together for years and have incredible communication, freedom, and fun. Straight-ahead but hip and swings hard. Sadly, this one’s just not as good as most of their other stuff though—a little too subdued. God I wish this had been a live album. (To see what they’re capable of live, check this out, but maybe turn down your speakers first:)

#10) Billy Hart: All Our Reasons

A really intimate, raw group featuring great work by saxophonist Mark Turner and super-old-but-still-limber Billy Hart. I can only really recommend this to pretty hardcore jazz fans, though, as much of it’s pretty abstract, almost like they’re trying to sound bad and awkward at times, but that’s why it’s so fun. Try “Tolli’s Dance”.

Disappointments

Robert Glasper Experiment: Black Radio

This will likely end up being declared jazz album of the year by many. They’ve successfully combined R&B with jazz. But it’s a drag to listen to.

Kurt Rosenwinkel: Star of Jupiter

Another big, anticipated release in the world of jazz. This will be blasphemy to some, but I can’t help but think it sounds lifeless. Perhaps more listens will reveal its genius, but I don’t have the energy to listen to two hours of this. Maybe I’m too old.

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