One major reason why I so enjoy this time at the end of the year is not only to reassess what this past year has looked like musically, not only to be able to look at a multitude of truly great works from great artists and say stuff like “oh, wow, Darcy James Argue gave us another album this year” or “hey, Wayne Shorter came back to Blue Note” and “how do David Weiss and Point of Departure not have a single YouTube video?” (sorry in advance), but also to look back and what this publication as a whole likes and how that reflects on our collective voice. Last week, when I posted my own favorites lists, I leaned pretty hard on the honorable mentions and some other choices that ultimately didn’t make my list at all but I still wanted people to know about the great albums that were released this year that I just didn’t have it in my to write. Thankfully, this staff could fill in some of the cracks that I as an individual show.
Tie 20. Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society – Brooklyn Babylon (New Amsterdam)
Brooklyn Babylon is, as an album, an incomplete work, it missing the multimedia visualizations Argue wrote the music to be paired with. This shows, particularly on some of the album’s more purely textual moments. So while I do miss some of the directness and power of 2009’s brilliant Infernal Machines, Babylon does still exhibit the same gift of dynamic control and sweeping orchestration that endears his best work. Not since Gil Evans has a jazz composer exhibited such reckless ambition or complete disregard for boundaries of genre, so here’s hoping Darcy’s got plenty more in him.
Tie 20. Gerald Clayton – A Life Forum (Concord Jazz)
This album has staying power. Pianist Gerald Clayton in his Concord Jazz debut album had a mind to expand his sound to include more than his standard trio of bassist Joe Sanders and drummer Justin Brown. With Kneebody’s Ben Wendel overseeing production, Clayton melds Dayna Stephens and Logan Richardson’s saxophones, Ambrose Akinmusire’s trumpet, and Gretchen Parlato, Sachal Vasandani & Carl Hancock Rux’s vocals into a collection of songs larger in scope and just as enjoyable. As Clayton continues to stretch out as an artist and composer, his career continues to flourish and his albums just keep getting better and better, and with this one, Clayton has the Grammy nomination to prove it.
19. Etienne Charles – Creole Soul (Culture Shock Music)
Trumpeter Etienne Charles’ release this year was a pure shock to me, one of those albums that your friends have been talking about for a little while but you didn’t pay them any mind for a while because you were off doing your own thing and listening to other stuff, but then you’re hanging out somewhere and it’s on and you’re vibing to it… hard. Everything flows about it so well– the ideas of a soulful, cool R&B vibe with just a touch of the Caribbean. Kris Bowers on keys downright astounding. Ben Williams on bass is holding it down with expected levels of unexpectedness. It the kind of album where if you heard it in a room, you’d stop what you’re doing and ask “who is this?!” And you’d remember the answer when you got home.
Tie 17. Allison Miller’s Boom Tic Boom – No Morphine No Lilies (The Royal Potato Family)
The band is called Boom Tic Boom. It’s led by a notoriously explosive drummer. Their new album, if its title is to be believed, rejects both both relaxation and beauty (well, maybe they just don’t like flowers or opiates.) But No Morphine No Lilies isn’t the frantic free-jazz freak-out it may suggest, at least not all the time. Like all great drummer-bandleaders, Miller is a master of dynamic, shifting her quartet on a dime from start-stop post-bop to bottled up ballads of surprising delicacy. It doesn’t hurt either that the band–featuring Myra Melford at piano, Todd Sickafoose, and a more prominently featured Jenny Scheinman on violin–have gelled considerably since Boom Tic Boom’s debut outing in 2010. The record bristles with an unhinged energy that keeps every track an unpredictable, and hugely enjoyable, ride.
Tie 17. Linda Oh – Sun Pictures (Greenleaf Music)
Linda Oh’s Sun Pictures starts with what sounds, at first blush, like a red herring. “Shutterspeed Dreams” starts with a looped guitar chord from James Muller before adding additional loops and layers from Oh’s bass, Ben Wendel’s sax, and Ted Poor’s drums. The song builds to a climax with backward drums, synths (or pitch-shifted samples?), and the loops that start the song, before coming to an end. After this loop-heavy composition, the rest of Sun Pictures is a thoroughly modern album of originals by Linda Oh, with excellent solos from Wendel in particular, strong rhythmic backing from Oh and Poor, and Muller’s guitar chords holding the whole thing together. Muller gets in some excellent solos, but he really shines here as a part of the band more than a soloist – his tone is perfect and I could happily listen to him strumming chord voicings. After digesting Sun Pictures a bit more, “Shutterspeed Dreams,” while still an outlier from the rest of the album, seems like less of a red herring. In 2013, when jazz has thoroughly incorporated all types of music, it shouldn’t be so shocking to hear the samples and loops from the electronic world showing up on a jazz album. The six tunes that follow “Shutterspeed Dreams” are all products of a composer and a band that is very much of today, with jazz front and center, but with big influences from rock, hip-hop, and electronic music. Sun Pictures holds up as an excellent album-length statement from Linda Oh and her bandmates.
Tie 14. Ben Allison – The Stars Look Very Different Today (Sonic Camera Records)
Ben Allison has always been adept at pulling from numerous, and typically unexpected, sources, a tendency characterized by the wide-ranging cover material on 2011’s Action/Refraction and the shifting lineups he employs for each release. As it’s Bowie referencing title might imply, The Stars Look Very Different Today sees Allison’s focus shift towards late 60s/early 70s sci-fi. 2001: A Space Odyssey, Midnight Cowboy, and Planet of the Apes all get title shout-outs here, and the accompanying music succeeds in sounding like the trippy soundtrack to a classic outer space b-movie. Plus this band may be the most solid Allison has yet assembled, with the bassist anchoring the weaving guitar work of Steve Cardenas and Brandon Seabrook, and the unpredictably intriguing Allison Miller stirring everything up at drums.
Tie 14. Terri Lyne Carrington – Money Jungle: Provocative in Blue (Concord Jazz)
Taking on Money Jungle? It’s not a straight cover of this classic with Ellington, Mingus, and Roach, but Carrington instead put together an excellent album that nods to the original, bringing in influences from the jazz, funk, and hip-hop worlds (not to overstate it – this is a jazz album) and great playing from Gerald Clayton and Christian McBride. The opening tune alone (“Money Jungle”) is worth the price of admission, with some cool rhythms to set off the album along with some vocal samples to bring in the money theme, followed by some fantastic piano trio playing in the spirit of the original Money Jungle album and a coda including more great percussion and some vocal samples to reprise the introduction. An entire album of Carrington/Clayton/McBride playing standards, or just vamping, or whatever, would be more than satisfying, but Carrington also brought in guests including Clark Terry, Robin Eubanks, Nir Felder, Tia Fuller, Antonio Hart, and Arturo Stable on horns, winds, and guitar, and wrote a few original tunes to round out the songs from the original Money Jungle album. This won’t replace the original album, nor is it designed to – take Carrington’s re-working of “Fleurette Africaine”, with Clayton’s piano beautifully echoing Ellington’s original, Clark Terry’s nonsense scatting, and a beautifully-orchestrated section for flutes that calls to mind a third-stream piece. Or take Carrington and company’s de-construction of the “Wig Wise” melody, showing that these tunes are very much alive and evolving. This album absolutely stands on its own as a fantastic listen, but the connections to the Ellington/Mingus/Roach original just strengthen what Carrington put together here.
Tie 14. Albert “Tootie” Heath – Tootie’s Tempo (Sunnyside)
Sometimes, one of the most beautiful things ever is witnessing an artisan perfectly in sync with his or her craft, when all cylinders are firing and all involved can tell. There had to have been magic in the studio those days in 2012 when pianist Ethan Iverson and bassist Ben Street linked up with the legendary drummer Albert “Tootie” Heath to create Tootie’s Tempo. This isn’t just an album where everything old is new again. This trio’s take on standards like Eric Dolphy’s “Fire Waltz” (betcha can’t play it just once), James P. Johnson’s “The Charleston”, and Lalo Schifrin’s “Danube Incident” are just saturated with pure joy. Heath’s vibe on the drums has all the gravitas of an elder statesman of his stature but do statesman smile this much? Can a swinging drum beat sound like a smile? What I’m saying is Tootie’s Tempo is so fun a listen, it might just induce synesthesia.
Tie 12. Davis Weiss and Point of Departure – Venture Inward (Posi-Tone)
David Weiss’ Venture Inward, with Weiss on trumpet, JD Allen on sax, Nir Felder on guitar, Luques Curtis on bass, and Jamire Williams on drums, snuck up on me. Anthony suggested I check this one out for their version of Herbie Hancock’s “I Have a Dream,” and it ended up staying in heavy rotation ever since. Check the transition from “I Have a Dream” to “Black Comedy,” and the incredible solos from, in particular, JD Allen. If only for his solo on “I Have a Dream,” conjuring up an original, melodic statement in ways that the giants of the instrument have done it – Shorter, Rollins, Coltrane – this would be one of the best of 2013. Excellent, straight-ahead jazz that stands up and grabs you by the ears.
Tie 12. Wayne Shorter Quartet – Without a Net (Blue Note)
It’s nigh-impossible to talk about this album without mentioning the famous “Oh, my God!” moment about 7:17 into the epic, 23 minute “Pegasus” with the quintet Imani Winds backing the Wayne Shorter Quartet in complete astonishment. It’s a moment that perfectly captures every great thing about what Without a Net incites in the listener. Shorter strips away from old compositions, leaving a hint of what was before, leaving he, drummer Brian Blade, bassist John Patitucci, and pianist Danilo Pérez plenty of space to fill with staggered tones. No other album this year better lives up to that common credo that it’s not just the notes they play but also the ones they don’t play. This isn’t an album, it’s an atmosphere. It’s an ecosystem filled with bustling traffic and windy deserts and rivers and streams and meadows at dusk. It’s a contentious album, as many this year have spoken as lauditorily of it as those who have lambasted it, but it’s altogether amazing and thought provoking. That can’t be denied.
Nextbop Editor-in-Chief Anthony Dean-Harris hosts the modern jazz radio show, The Line-Up, Fridays at 9pm CST on 91.7 FM KRTU San Antonio and is also a contributing writer to DownBeat Magazine and the San Antonio Current.