The Year In Review: Best Jazz Of 2013

Best Jazz Of 2013


azz Is Dead.  This has been a proclamation for many years and from many corners.  In 2011, jazz trumpeter Nicholas Payton famously blogged that jazz died in 1959. Now I realize that Mr. Payton was exaggerating to make a point about music and race in America, but this exact sentiment has been widespread.  Maybe we’ll all look back someday to 2013 and mark it as the point where the death knells were forced to subside.  For not only is jazz still alive, it is thriving.  Even the Grammy voters realized this year that there is more going on in jazz than Pat Metheny, Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock.  They still didn’t get it right by failing to nominate Wayne Shorter for best jazz album, but his work off that album was nominated in the Best Improvised Jazz Solo, so I will withhold my slings and arrows.

To many, jazz has followed a linear progression through the years, but as J.J. Johnson once said, “Jazz is forever seeking…and exploring.”  Jazz has, and always will have, a floating baseline.   For while jazz-rock and avant-garde jazz, among other fused styles, began decades ago, there is a new wave of pioneers taking jazz even further into other genres.  In fact, some of the most impressive avant-garde jazz albums of the last ten years came out in 2013. The beauty of this year is that some of the best jazz comes from these young Turks and their explorations, while still others come from the year’s best come from the Old Guard – players like Shorter and Ahmad Jamal who bring their old tricks to bear while evolving with new compositions and takes on old tunes.

Perhaps some of the best signs in 2013 for the future of jazz came from its past.  The installation of Don Was last year as the president of Blue Note has so far proven to be a masterstroke.  Blue Note, in 2013, announced their intent to lead jazz well into the 21st century by releasing sparkling debuts from Gregory Porter and José James, as well as fresh takes from reinvigorated old friends – Shorter and Terence Blanchard.  Bryan Ferry, Roxy Music’s old front man, went even further backward to go forward.  Ferry parlayed a renewed love for Gatsby to rework his own songs in the style of the 1930s.

The dichotomy of 2013 can be summed up as the year that the old vanguard came home and produced some of their best work in years but also the year that fresh, young voices continued pushing jazz through preexisting, yet unspoken boundaries into hip hop, ambient, electronic, and drone.  The 20 albums below are our favorites from 2013 and clearly reflect this dichotomy, and that’s a good thing.

Aaron Parks - ArborescenceAaron Parks
Buy: Insound

This is Aaron Parks’ solo ECM debut, after his great Blue Note debut in 2008, Invisible Cinema. Before that, Parks played in Terence Blanchard’s band, and the experience comes to bear here on Arborescence. Parks may be a Blanchard pupil, but the feel on this one is more pastoral, with strains of Keith Jarrett and the classical influences of Satie and Bartok. With song titles that elicit memories of a late ’80s New Age album on Windham Hill or Narada, Parks is clearly setting a light tone with Arborescence. In fact, in an earlier decade Arborescence might not even be shelved with jazz. A closer listen, though, reveals more depth to his composition – a range in tone and harmony that differentiate it and keep it in the jazz family. The way the soft, sleepy tinkling of “Branches” gives way to the more rolling, spacious “River Ways,” shows that Park has put a lot of thought into the construction of Arborescence and it pays off.

Ahmad Jamal - Saturday MorningAhmad Jamal
Saturday Morning
Buy: iTunes

At 83, Ahmad Jamal continues to pull rabbits out of hats. This is one of his best records from any era. Even though there are the usual ballads, the album is filled with Afro-Caribbean beats. It’s punchy and groovy and Jamal continues to try and piss people off by using misdirection, even when covering Ellington on songs like “I Got It Bad and That Ain’t Good.” This is Jamal’s second straight record with the current band, recorded at the same studio in Avignon, France (La Buissone) where he recorded Blue Moon, and France seems to suit Jamal just fine. Saturday Morning begins relaxing and comfortable and moves into fresh and startling, especially with the Afro-Caribbean rhythms and percussion of “Edith’s Cake” and “The Line.” I’m a big Horace Silver fan and I’d love to know what he thinks of Saturday Morning’s Silver tribute, “Horace” – it’s the best track on the album with Jamal pounding out a hard bop rhythm. Jamal still favors space over speed and improvisation, and that works so well on a casual Saturday Morning.

Ben Allison - The Stars Look Very Different TodayBen Allison
The Stars Look Very Different Today
[Sonic Camera]
Buy: Direct

This is a jarring album — and I mean that in the best possible way. The title of the album is our first clue – a quote from a Bowie song, itself influenced by the film 2001: A Space Odyssey. Next, Ben Allison has assembled an unusual quartet for The Stars Look Very Different Today – he’s on bass with Allison Miller on drums and then two guitarists, Steve Cardenas and Brandon Seabrook. That’s it. This is Allison’s first release on his own label, Sonic Camera, and he sounds freed up to both leave his imprint and improvise more. Album opener, “D.A.V.E.” (get it – Space Oddysey/H.A.L./David Bowie?) starts as a prog jazz piece between Allison and Miller, then Cardenas and Seabrook come in with dueling guitars, sounding like Jimmy Page and Nels Cline. The album is full of surprises – it’s my favorite “what will happen next?” album of 2013. It’s filled with rock, both punk and prog varieties (“Swiss Cheese D” opens sounding akin to Rush circa 2112), and electronic noise and humor. And banjo.

The Bryan Ferry Orchestra - The Jazz AgeThe Bryan Ferry Orchestra
The Jazz Age
[BMG Rights Management]
Buy: Insound

I’ll admit straight up – I’m a sucker for tuxedos, spats and twirling on the floor to sounds from the Golden Age of jazz. So when Bryan Ferry put together an orchestra to perform compositions in that style, I was very excited. When I discovered that he was doing an album entirely of his own songs in the same style, I began to get wary. Sure, covering a Jelly Roll Morton song sounds swell, but will an overly familiar Roxy Music song like “Avalon” work in the same vein? I needn’t have worried. The Jazz Age is Ferry’s Great Gatsby – a ’20s era-drenched collection of covers complete with trumpet mutes and the scratchy sound of a faraway era. Ferry has done a masterful job of reworking these gems, from the familiar Roxy Music songs like “Slave to Love” and “Don’t Stop the Dance” to lesser known Ferry solo tracks like “This Island Earth.” While I found myself missing Ferry’s distinctive voice on “Love is the Drug,” I was still ready to get out and do a 4/4 foxtrot to it.

Carla Bley - TriosCarla Bley
Buy: Direct

Carla Bley has been composing and playing for 50 years, and over that period she’s put in time with post bop, jazz opera, and duets. She helped carry the free jazz movement into the 1970s and spent a good chunk of the 90s exploring composition with big bands. What she’s done here, at the ripe young age of 77, is take some of her previous compositions, add only bass and sax to her exquisite piano, and make an album of wholly contemporary fresh takes. Primarily what Bley is doing on Trios is taking some of her own, more crowded work and paring down everything before rebuilding it. There’s so much open space here that on “Les Trois Lagons (D’Apres Henri Matisse),” for example, Bley takes an organ-infused composition from 2000 that was recorded with an octet, and converts it into a slower, more exploratory piece with plenty of room for Andy Sheppard’s saxophone to roam. I’m almost to the end of the album’s second piece, “Vashkar,” before I’m consciously aware that this is a “drummerless” trio. In previous incarnations of “Vashkar” by Bley’s ex-husband Paul, Jaco Pastorius and others, drums played an integral role in the rhythm. On Trios, however, Bley and Steve Swallow fill the absence of drums with a youthful playfulness between the piano and bass. Bley and Swallow have been playing together for many years and it shows here. They leave enough room for Sheppard to move around and the result is a delightful and playful album.

Cecile McLorin Salvant - Woman ChildCecile McLorin Salvant
Woman Child
[Mack Avenue]
Buy: Amazon

Simply put, Cecile McLorin Salvant has released the vocal jazz album of the year. Woman Child is a stunning debut from the young French-American singer. I first caught Salvant on Later…with Jools Holland before I heard Woman Child. Her face is so expressive and her body language so theatrical when she sings, I was concerned that listening to her album might take away from her performance. I didn’t need to be concerned. The entire album is lush and brilliant as Salvant shows off her voice as a diverse instrument. I think Salvant made a wise choice here by not reworking classics, but instead covering songs that don’t get redone over and over and then also mixing in some of her own compositions. I mean, this is a debut and there are moments on Woman Child where she makes Diane Schuur and Diana Krall sound like American Idol auditioners. She ranges from low to high and everywhere in between. Her growls on “You Bring Out the Savage In Me” demonstrate her playful side and her husky, sultry styling of “Le Front Cache Sur Tes Genoux” might be the sexiest French vocal this side of Edith Piaf.

Colin Stetson - New History Warfare, Vol. 3Colin Stetson
New History Warfare, Vol. 3: To See More Light
Buy: Insound

Listening to Colin Stetson’s work with Arcade Fire and Bon Iver does not prepare one for the New History Warfare trilogy, despite Justin Vernon’s guest moans. This is the last volume in a trilogy of exploration, and it is the best of the three. This is a drone-filled jazz album that Godspeed You! Black Emperor would like to make. My first take was an uncertainty that using Vernon here was necessary, especially as his vocals are the only part of this record that were dubbed over rather than looped in a single take. However, I can see where Stetson was going with this as I listen to a Vernon wail accompanied by Stetson’s circular saxophone on “Among the Sef.” I wonder how much fun the two of them had putting together “Brute,” a heavy metal jazz piece with Stetson using his instrument as the thrashing guitar and Vernon doing his best death growl. The subtitle of this album is To See More Light but could probably have been called To Find More Space; Stetson’s circular breathing style that allows for longer notes and single takes also allows him to grab the space he’s looking for. On New History Warfare, Vol. 3, Stetson successfully fills more space with tension, dread and isolation throughout.

Dawn of Midi - DysnomiaDawn Of Midi
[Thirsty Ear]
Buy: Insound

Many consider Dawn of Midi to be classified more properly as electronic or classical minimalist. In fact, the only thing that cements them to the world of jazz is that they’re formed like a standard jazz rhythm trio – stand up bass, piano and drums. And in execution, Dysnomia sounds closer to Phillip Glass or Steve Reich than any standard jazz trio, but Dysnomia is about rhythm and so is jazz. These are minimalist and repetitive rhythms, granted, but it’s part of the jazz family as far as I’m concerned. In fact, I’m calling this the best jazz trio avant-garde album of the year (and I have no idea how many of those there are). The opening of the first track, “Io,” begins with a plucked bass line that is filled with dread, like the notes of a horror movie, and Dysnomia never lets up while it experiments with various rhythms all the way through. The album’s songs are taken from moons in the solar system. Dysnomia, while ostensibly so-called because it is also a moon (of Eris, a dwarf planet), the moon’s name comes from a Greek word for lawlessness. Dawn of Midi doesn’t, in fact, care about your laws of jazz or composition or meter or structure. They’re just a trio working together in a polyrhythmic fashion to get somewhere else, maybe outer space.

Gregory Porter - Liquid SpiritGregory Porter
Liquid Spirit
[Blue Note]
Buy: Insound

For someone so talented to only be a few albums in at the age of 42 is astounding. That’s where Gregory Porter is though – Liquid Spirit is his Blue Note debut and only his third full-length album. The album, along with Porter’s vocal stylings, is a throwback to the era of Nat King Cole, but with updated themes and composition. His voice is so pure on the gospel-sounding tracks that it’s not blasphemy to say his talent at times approaches Marvin Gaye. The title track is a toe-tapping spiritual that perfectly suits Porter’s rich baritone. “Free” calls to mind the Temptations’ “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” both thematically and vocally. While most of the songs here are Porter’s own compositions, his cover of the Page brothers’ song “The ‘In’ Crowd” (more Ramsey Lewis than Petula Clark, despite the vocals) really cements the soul/jazz combination of the album. I will always claim Joe Williams as the greatest male jazz vocalist, but damn if Porter isn’t testing me with Liquid Spirit.

Jon Batiste and Stay Human - Social MusicJon Batiste And Stay Human
Social Music
[Razor & Tie]
Buy: Direct

Jon Batiste is a 26-year old pianist from New Orleans. Before those stats have you paint him into any corners, he’s also a Juilliard graduate who composes and plays with four classmates and has the most restless style I’ve seen in the last few years. The quintet, Stay Human, floats through genres from song to song here. Every time you think you have zigged enough to have Social Music pegged, they zag. As if to underscore this point, the end of “Express Yourself (Say Yes)” asks “what is jazz?” The next track begins with the answer – “The Jazz Man Speaks (Maple Leaf Rag)” containing a standard ragtime under a spoken word proclamation on jazz and how everyone in America has the wrong idea of what it is. Social Music is not just an album; it’s a movement. It’s a replacement, in Batistes’s words, for the unwieldy term of rock-jazz-gospel-pop-R&B. The New Orleans influence is prevalent throughout Social Music, but Batiste is clearly reaching for more here and grabbing it.

Jon Cowherd - MercyJon Cowherd
Buy: Direct

Jon Cowherd has played piano for everyone from Iggy Pop to Joni Mitchell. For Mercy, he’s also assembled a top flight quartet including Brian Blade on drums, Bill Frissell on guitar, and John Patitucci on bass. With all this firepower, surprisingly, Cowherd could not get Mercy picked up on a major label and so is independently publishing the record and using ArtistShare to help fund it. It is fortunate then, that I stumbled onto this record outside the normal channels of finding new music, because Mercy is beautiful. This quartet was new to each other, yet the improvisational handoffs and the smooth interplay between Cowherd and Frissell seem like the result of familiarity. The compositions here all build layer upon layer with Cowherd’s melodic piano at the core of each. The odd man out on Mercy, is “Seconds,” a repetitious, less-layered track, almost like Phillip Glass with a Middle Eastern dash thrown in. It might not resemble the other songs on the album but it’s wonderful in a different way. The entire album is rich, textured and beautiful, but it is the album’s “Mercy Suite” that shines brightest, 16 wonderful minutes of piano work that makes me long for a snowfall so I’ll have the perfect backdrop to play it over and over.

Jose James - No Beginning No EndJosé James
No Beginning No End
[Blue Note]
Buy: Insound

José James has dropped a stunning album for his Blue Note debut. The son of a jazz man, James is a New Yorker who also grew up listening to hip hop and R&B. No Beginning No End shows these influences and mixes in a few more. It’s a melting pot of genres, realizing the dream that James has often talked about – a desire to break barriers, to avoid classification and to bring music to a wider audience. He’s enlisted quite a roster for No Beginning No End, including vocalists Emily King on the lovely neo-soul duet “Heaven on the Ground” and Hindi Zahra, who brings her smoky French-Moroccan voice to the sultry standout track “Sword + Gun.” Pino Palladino even found time away from Nine Inch Nails to play bass on almost every track here. Despite the success this album has in melding styles, this is a jazz album. James is trying to prove that there’s more to jazz than what your grandpa spun on the old Victrola. As if to offer more direct proof of this, James also dropped a 5-song EP, Come To My Door, this year with remixes of tracks by FaltyDL, Oddisee and Taylor McFerrin.

Mary Halvorson - Illusionary SeaMary Halvorson
Illusionary Sea
[Firehouse 12]
Buy: Insound

During her short tenure as a composer and bandleader, Mary Halvorson has grown her band from a trio to the current septet on Illusionary Sea. I wonder if Halvorson has any cuts or scrapes from all the glass ceilings she’s broken. Not only a woman and young, but she’s a guitarist as well. The beauty of Illusionary Sea is Halvorson’s willingness to let the rest of the septet take over various pieces. Many of the songs here begin in a familiar jazz time with percussion and piano laying down a rhythm, then the horn comes in, then her familiar guitar licks grow in resonance to redirect the piece or to come in for a statement and then move back out of the way. “Four Pages of Robots,” (the song title alone won me over) has Halvorson almost imperceptible until the final minute when a punk, avant-garde frenetic guitar-slashing takes over the piece – this is presumably where the robots take over. In “Butterfly Orbit,” there’s a standard jazz piece going until the middle when Havlorson again comes in to provide a Hendrix or Prince-like guitar solo, an improvisation that takes the piece far away from where it began. It’s disorienting and extremely enjoyable at the same time.

Melt Yourself Down - Melt Yourself DownMelt Yourself Down
Melt Yourself Down
Buy: Direct

Melt Yourself Down is one of the more perfect ensemble and album names I’ve heard. In order to prepare for the assault of this album you need to melt down all your genre ideas and preconceived notions of what jazz is or should be. The band, formed by British sax player Pete Wareham, has put together an album that’s experimental, exhausting, punk, ska, Afrobeat, and full of energy (and lasers). But at its root, it’s jazz and it’s unlike anything else in the jazz world this year. Wareham has put this album together using the pieces of his previous punk jazz project, Acoustic Ladyland, and it appears that the group wanted to know what it would sound like if the English Beat and Deltron 3030 decided to do an album with Spyro Gyro. There are songs that are heavily percussion-driven like “Release!” and “Free Walk,” and others that are driven by hard saxophones from Wareham and Shabaka Hutchings. I’ll be honest; I have no idea what language, if any, that the album’s chanting is in – it often sounds like voodoo incantations done at high speed, but damn if I don’t find myself bobbing right along with it.

Oliver Lake - WheelsOliver Lake
[Passin' Thru]
Buy: Direct

With Wheels, Oliver Lake has put out the best big band album of the year. Other than the throwaway opener, “Drum Thing,” Lake takes all seventeen members and does a masterful job of melding the unit together while also giving everyone space to shine. The 18-minute “Wheels Suite” is the centerpiece of Wheels both in terms of album placement and prestige. The song rolls between intimate piano and alto solos to cacophonous bouquets of sound. This and the following track, “Clicker,” are like set ups – pieces that start with a nice, polite big band standard sound that breaks into waves of avant-garde noise. It makes you pay attention. It makes you appreciate the stylistic impressions going on throughout the album. Not to be overlooked is the fact that Lake is not a big band veteran and his assemblage is not filled with big names in every corner. Despite that, this group and their resulting album make it seem like it’s old hat. And you just haven’t lived until you’ve heard Outkast’s “The Whole World” done as a rolling, big band New Orleans dirge.

Omar Sosa - EggunOmar Sosa
Buy: Direct

It takes a bit of hubris to do a tribute album to Miles Davis’ 1959 masterpiece, Kind Of Blue. I don’t know if there’s a word for doing such a tribute by creating an entirely new album of songs without any covers or replications from the original. But that’s exactly what Omar Sosa has done with this album. “Eggūn” means “ancestor” or “spirits of the dead” in Afro-Latin culture, and Sosa respects the spirits of Davis and his Kind Of Blue band, but with an eleven-person band called the Afro-Lectric Experience. The band is aptly named as Sosa turns the classic album into an Afro-Latin infused, electric experience. While the first track, “Alejet,” echoes “Blue in Green” (which is actually the last track of Side One on Kind of Blue), Sosa quickly goes off on his own path. Sure there are songs titled “Alternativo Sketches” and “So All Freddie,” evoking the titles from Kind Of Blue, but these are still complete Sosa meditations. What remains is the muted trumpet, the playfulness with modality and time and an updated, electric sound. What would Miles think if he were still alive today? If he were just being Miles, he’d probably say “So What.” But if he were being honest, I think he’d say this is exactly what Kind Of Blue should sound like 50 years later.

Terence Blanchard - MagneticTerence Blanchard
[Blue Note]
Buy: Amazon

Magnetic is Terence Blanchard’s return to Blue Note Records and boy is it welcome. Blanchard brought his live band together for Magnetic, including Ravi Coltrane and Brice Winston on saxophone, Kendrick Scott on drums and Fabian Almazan on piano. Rather than do a safe album of covers for his return or pull together some of his recent film work, Blanchard has put together an album made up of compositions by him as well as by various members of the band. I heard this news before I heard the album, and I honestly expected a mess. I could not have been more wrong – Blanchard clearly knew what he was doing here. The album’s final three pieces, for example, run from the Blanchard-composed “Central Focus” – a post-bop throwback — into “Another Step” with a ’70s echo chamber trumpet sound and then concludes with the more up-tempo Winston composition, “Time to Spare.” When listening to them straight through, it all somehow sounds proper that these are back-to-back tracks on the same album. Blanchard’s willingness to step back and lead is also evident from his allowing Almazan to just about steal the show. The piano throughout Magnetic is a study in contrast, from tinkling to pounding, as Almazan shows a varied mastery of the keys. In the end, though, Blanchard’s trumpet is clearly in charge here – it is the one permeating presence that binds this delicious stew.

Tomasz Stanko - WislawaTomasz Stańko
Buy: Amazon

The Polish trumpeter, Tomasz Stanko, has put together a fantastic quartet to record a very personal album based on the life and work of Polish poet, Wisława Szymborska. Wisława is a wide exploration that is abetted by the great quartet Stanko has put together here. With Thomas Morgan on bass, Gerald Cleaver on drums, and David Virelles on piano; Stanko, seeming spryer than ever at 70, appears to trust the band to run with him, and not in a straight line. Many of the songs here are named after Szymborska poems and she was reportedly a big influence on Stanko. There is a lot of space here as the band moves from an aggressive, in-your-face style of Miles (“Assassins”) to sleepy and rolling (“Mikrokosmos”). The interplay amongst the quartet allows everyone to shine even though Stanko’s trumpet is everywhere. I’m not familiar enough with the Nobel Prize winner’s poetry to know if these songs relate directly to the poems they’re named for, but I have to believe Szymborska would be proud of the beautiful tribute Stanko’s laid out on Wisława.

Wayne Shorter - Without a NetWayne Shorter
Without A Net
[Blue Note]
Buy: Amazon

Without A Net is Wayne Shorter’s return to the Blue Note label 43 years after he recorded 11 records for the famed jazz label from 1964-1970, and it is both long overdue and warmly welcome. On Without A Net, we get six brand new compositions from him. The other three songs might as well be new compositions because Shorter takes the original versions and turns them around and inside out. The quartet who play on Without A Net have been playing together for more than ten years, and that familiarity and polish is evident throughout the entire album. With Shorter playing both tenor and soprano sax, Danilo Perez on piano, Brian Blade on the drums and John Patitucci on bass, this foursome has crafted a lengthy tale of exploration – the album comes in at more than 75 minutes, time that flies by. Everything here is perfect – even the decision to use live recordings was a wise one as it helps evoke the past even while Shorter’s music moves forward. Capturing the “hey” and “whoa” in the background and even an amazed “Oh my God!” during “Pegasus” makes a jazz recording feel fresh and free. As Shorter said recently in a New York Times interview, “The word ‘jazz’ to me only means ‘I dare you.’” As he moves into the role of octogenarian, Shorter still has the ability to be daring and turn a track on its head. On Without A Net, he also shows the ability to turn a phrase on its head, as this old dog can teach the kids a few new tricks.

Yelena Eckemoff Trio - Glass SongYelena Eckemoff Trio
Glass Song
[Modern Jazz]
Buy: Amazon

Glass Song is Yelena Eckemoff’s Four Seasons. It’s not a suite of all the seasons, per se, but the album is filled with a hearkening to winter making way for summer, and of the rains of spring replacing the cold and ice. Eckemoff works here with Arild Andersen on bass and Peter Erskine on drums to forge a simpatico trio. The compositions here are clearly Eckemoff’s though as she embraces her classical roots while expressing herself through jazz. These are soulful pieces, going from coldness to warmth with Eckemoff’s piano sometimes taking a backseat to the outstanding bass and drum work. There is a perceptible giddiness to the swing of “Dripping Icicles” – it’s the glee seen in a sign of winter’s end. “Sunny Day in the Woods,” is a spacious, piano-driven piece with the subtle percussion serving as the rays of summer. Knowing Eckemoff’s back story as a classically-trained pianist turned Russian refugee to the United States, makes these pieces all the more poignant. She’s lived through these winters and looked for these summers, just as she’s found the Western sounds of jazz to express herself on Glass Song.

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