In the first part of this shamefully belated look at the best recorded jazz of 2012, I (a) listed some of the reasons it is so late; (b) explained and referred to the Rhapsody.com annual Jazz Critics’ Poll of nearly 120 writers, so as to set my own choices within the context of my fellow professional listeners; and (c) listed the bottom half of my Baker’s Dozen for the year past, along with another dozen discs that just missed the cut.
I also want to mention another batch that caught my ear, and that I think would assuredly please most others, but that I didn’t elevate to the final list for one reason or another. In some cases, the album didn’t seem consistent enough, despite many wonderful moments. In others, consistency was the culprit: the wonderful moments mostly struck the same note, and I’d have preferred a little more variety.
With some albums, such as those by Jon Irabagon and Sam Rivers (which placed second in the Rhapsody Poll), I frankly didn’t get to spend enough time with the music to comfortably elevate them to The List. That’s on me, and I freely admit it, but I’d hate to leave them unnoted.
As for the rest, I point to the maddening drawbacks inherent in the whole process of ranking art. Even those of us who do this professionally sometimes doubt the process of pitting things as personal as art works against each other in head-to-head comparisons. (You can measure the differences between albums on my list in micrometers: at some point, the distinctions become almost arbitrary.)
Suffice it to say that any and all such lists serve primarily as a guide. You’ll find albums you’d never heard of but that greatly impressed a writer whose taste you admire; I know I do, when I look at the individual ballots collected in the Rhapsody Poll. Hear what you can.
The albums I’d have loved to have squeezed into my Top 25 (in alphabetical order):
Georg Breinschmid, “Brains On Fire” (Preiser)
Brian Charette, “Music For Organ Sextette” (SteepleChase)
Dave Douglas, “Be Still” (Greenleaf)
Kurt Elling, “1619 Broadway: The Brill Building Project” (Concord)
Fred Ho, “Snake-Eaters” (Mutable/Big Red Media)
Jon Irabagon’s Outright, “Unhinged” (Irabbagast)
Lee Konitz, “Enfant Terribles” (Half Note)
Jessica Lurie, “Megaphone Heart” (Zipa)
Ivo Perelman, “Family Ties” (Leo)
Sam Rivers, “Reunion: Live In New York” (Pi)
Esperanza Spalding, “Radio Music Society” (Heads Up)
Henry Threadgill, “Tomorrow Sunny / The Revelry, Spp” (Pi)
TromBari, “The Devil’s Hopyard” (Jazzmaniac)
Papo Vazquez, “Oasis” (Picaro)
Matt Wilson’s Arts & Crafts, “An Attitude For Gratitude” (Palmetto)
And finishing the countdown of my top albums for 2012:
7. Ray Anderson Pocket Brass Band, “Sweet Chicago Suite” (Intuition). Anderson leads this quartet – trumpet, trombone, tuba, and drums – with his usual combination of jaw-dropping technique and uninhibited glee; he positively glows within this miniature drum-and-bugle corps (right down to the occasional New Orleans march beat, underscored by Matt Perrine’s ridiculously nimble work on the wraparound tuba known as the sousaphone). But who wouldn’t glow when surrounded by Perrine, drummer Bobby Previte, and the veteran trumpet genius Lew Soloff? Among the very greatest trombonists in jazz history, Anderson also struts his compositional stuff with the title suite, comprising six movements written to capture images and events he experienced growing up in 1950s-60s, Chicago. These include “Magnificent Mistifiyo,” spurred by memories of hearing early AACM concerts; “Some Day,” which recounts Operation PUSH meetings on the South Side; and the self-explanatory “Going To Maxwell Street.” But this is no mere hometown pick: Anderson’s vivid storytelling should animate these memories even for people who’ve never visited the city. And his municipal travelogue also catalogs the influences that have shaped his protean career and boisterously cheery music.
6. Ryan Truesdell, “Centennial – Newly Discovered Works of Gil Evans” (ArtistShare). This album finished fourth overall in the Rhapsody Poll (and was a runaway choice as the poll’s “Best Debut Album”), after racking up rave reviews across the board and a slew of feature articles; it also garnered three nominations for the upcoming GRAMMY® awards. Not bad for a disc that nobody expected from a guy nobody ever heard of. Truesdell, a promising composer in his own right, apprenticed with big-band doyenne Maria Schneider – who herself studied with the legendary arranger Gil Evans, best known for his collaborations with Miles Davis (such as “Sketches Of Spain” and “Porgy And Bess”). A few years ago, Truesdell uncovered several previously unreleased (and even unrecorded) Evans charts spanning four decades; then he enlisted many of the musicians in Schneider’s band as the core for this album, the release of which coincided with the centennial of Evans’s birth. The album would have grabbed attention even it weren’t so meticulously crafted and brilliantly realized; the fact that it comes from a rookie makes the accomplishment all the more remarkable.
5. Ivo Perelman with Sirius Quartet, “The Passion According To G.H.” (Leo). In preparing the liner notes for this album, I asked Perelman who wrote the arrangements for Sirius, the string quartet with which he shares the album. Listening to the test pressing, I was especially taken by the mastery with which Perelman – the Brazilian born, post-freedom tenor saxist, with an uncanny command of the instrument’s upper-register “squawk tones” – interwove his remarkably lyrical wails with passages from the quartet. Imagine my shock to learn that they recorded the album without a shred of written music: all six pieces were improvised from scratch, without even a pre-composed theme, let alone the painstakingly intricate arrangements you’ll swear you hear. Methodology aside, the album unfolds with a clarity and purpose that defies the most frequent complaint about “free jazz” – namely, that it bogs down or flies afield – while brilliantly displaying Perelman’s startling if unorthodox virtuosity. In the midst of a frantic creative jag, Perelman released six albums in 2012, most of them featuring members of his quartet (which stars pianist Matthew Shipp, whose own release appears a little lower on this list). They all astonish in different ways, but this one shines especially bright.
4. Clare Fischer Latin Jazz Big Band, “Ritmo!” (Clavo). Almost everyone missed out on this, the last will and testament of the remarkable composer and arranger Clare Fischer. (Everyone except The Recording Academy: the album received a GRAMMY nomination, in the newly restored Latin Jazz category.) Fischer, who died at the beginning of 2012 – nine months before the release of “Ritmo!” – was revered for composing two Latin jazz standards, “Morning” and “Pensativa”; he also wrote arrangements for a wild array of artists (from Dizzy Gillespie to Paula Abdul) in a career spanning five decades. He recorded some 50 albums under his own name, and “Ritmo!” presents a glorious valedictory, with a palette as colorful as a tropical forest, and passages as intricately layered as Aztec architecture. The galaxy-class lineup includes drummer Peter Erskine and a trio of star percussionists – Poncho Sanchez, Alex Acuña, Luis Conte – who provide more than enough Latin cred, while guitarist Steve Khan, pianist Alan Pasqua, and a gleaming west-coast horn section inhabit Fischer’s transcendent melodies and deep chords. He’ll be missed.
3. Keith Jarrett, “Sleeper” (ECM). I shy away from including old music on this list, such as reissues or even previously unissued recordings from the past. But what’s a rule without exceptions? The double-disc “Sleeper” was recorded in 1979, at a Tokyo concert by Jarrett’s “Scandinavian quartet,” with the Asgardian saxist Jan Garbarek and the preternaturally attuned rhythm team of fellow Norseman, bassist Palle Danielsson, and Swedish drummer Jon Christensen. (The band was Jarrett’s foreign affair, formed several years earlier, just as his American quartet – the one with Dewey Redman, Charlie Haden, and Paul Motian – was collapsing under the weight of its individual personalities.) Perfectly titled, “Sleeper” remained undercover, like a long-embedded agent provocateur, before emerging more than three decades later. But it doesn’t look or feel like a relic; in fact, it contains some of the freshest music of the year, and reminds us that the fusion-focused 70s made room for remarkable acoustic music as well. Inviting but rigorous, lyric but challenging, these seven lengthy performances have a sweep and grandeur too often missing these days – from jazz in general, and even from Jarrett’s own work. (That may account for it coming in at an impressive #14 in the Rhapsody Poll.)
2. Vijay Iyer, “Accelerando” (ACT). When the Rhapsody Poll crowned Iyer’s album at #1, it became the latest media outlet to make him its poster boy: in the last year, he also graced the covers of Jazz Times and Downbeat (winning five categories in the mag’s 60th annual Critics Poll), while “Accelerando” made just about every important Top Ten list around the country. Nothing new there: for the last five years, Iyer has captivated critics with the intellectual vivacity of his cross-cultural music, transmuting an appreciation of his Indian roots into textured shards of jazz. Ironically, though, it’s the comparative distance from those roots that pushes “Accelerando” over the top. Since forming this trio, Iyer has moved beyond any obvious traces of South Asian music, into a more oblique connection with his history; what remains are sense memories of Indian music, fully integrated into a breathtakingly original body of work. The work, now less jagged, has a more seductive sheen: those who previously considered Iyer too confrontational will have to rethink their views. But since his Indian heritage still surfaces in the complex stew of rhythms roiling beneath his most melodic playing, Iyer depends as much as ever on the sensational organicity of his trio (bassist Stephan Crump, drummer Marcus Gilmore).
1. Scott Robinson Doctette, “Bronze Nemesis” (Doc-Tone). Totally out of the blue, completely wacky, brilliantly executed, and guaranteed to make almost nobody else’s list – not because it’s undeserving, but simply because so few people heard it. (The only other Poll voter to list the album was Dan Morgenstern, widely considered the dean of American jazz critics; so at least I’m in good company.) Scott Robinson based these dozen programmatic compositions on the adventures of Doc Savage, a pulp-fiction superhero of the 30s and 40s, whose sterling intellect and toned physique earned him the nickname “Man Of Bronze” and who helped inspire such characters as Superman, James Bond, Reed Richards, and Mr. Spock. You can understand the character’s appeal to the veteran sideman Robinson, a mad-scientist multi-instrumentalist best known in New York circles as the guy you call when you need someone to double on bass sax and piccolo (with a side order of euphonium). Using several of New York’s finest, including trumpeter Randy Sandke and pianist Ted Rosenthal – and incorporating a couple of theremins for appropriately cheesy sci-fi effects – Robinson’s moods run a gamut from Mingus cool to Kentonian heft. He went all out on the thematics, renaming his combo a “Doctette” and creating a new label imprint (Doc-Tone) for the occasion; then he topped himself with a spiffy liner-note essay introducing the Doc to newbies, while simultaneously capturing the breathless spirit of the pulps. You just can’t have more fun with a great record from 2012.
NOTE: This article has been revised to remove the incorrect statement that the “Doctette” is a 12-piece band. It is primarily a quintet.