Jazz of the Year 2012

Once again Rhapsody is going to be hosting the annual poll of jazz critics that Francis Davis has been organizing for the previous six years, and I have voted in it for the third year running (results will be published January).

Here’s the ballot I gave him, plus more. The nature of the list is that it is a snapshot in time, as of late last week, and if I put it together again today it would likely be different. The relative rankings change on a daily basis, and some discs that I list below as ‘Honorable Mentions’ might find their way into the top ten, and vice-versa. What this means is that these are all fine recordings, spanning a broad range of thinking and styles. Discs in the ‘Honorable Mention’ can be as strong as the top ten, but depending on the day I’m listening they might have seem to have a little less of that certain je ne sais quoi, that bit of idiosyncratic music-making that pushes past forms and structures. One thing is pretty rock-solid though, and that’s the top two records which can go back and forth for me minute to minute but are the two finest jazz releases of 2012.

2012 best new releases:

1. Sam Rivers Trio, Reunion: Live in New York

2. Elliott Sharp Trio, Aggregat

Two records of trio improvisations, both of the very highest order. The music on each is free playing but within an extensive and clear jazz vocabulary and syntax: each trio works with rhythm, harmony, horizontal lines that are fair to call melody. Great group playing that maintains space for both clarity and order and the type of constant invention that pulls your attention along. The most exciting and satisfying jazz albums of the year. Rivers is more beautiful, Sharp is more exuberant, so go with your mood.

3. Wadada Leo Smith, Ten Freedom Summers

Smith’s explosively creative late period continues with a record that marks a high point in the composition of jazz. Smith resolutely avoids trying to make jazzy compositions or composed jazz and juxtaposes ways to guide and support improvisation with extended musical statements for strings that are expressive non-jazz compositions. His language and skill as a composer of contemporary chamber music are on par with Threadgill’s, meaning he’s making some of the most important music inside or outside the academies and concert halls. While the album is ‘about’ the civil rights movement, very little of the music falls into the trap of trying to illustrate history and ideas. It’s just Smith telling us what he thinks and feels. It’s an enormous amount of music, and so not entirely consistent, the only quality that keeps it from the top rank.

4. Living by Lanterns, New Myth/Old Science

A good year for Mike Reed, who has another terrific post-Mingus release below, but this record, exploring rock and electronics, is even more exciting.

5. Henry Threadgill Zooid, Tomorrow Sunny/The Revelry Spp

Threadgill has added a cello to Zooid, and that extra voice adds transparency and depth to his compositional concept, itself a balance between abstract beauty and wicked funk.

6. Steve Lehman Trio, Dialect Fluorescent

An intense blowing date from arguably the most important alto player of this generation.

7. Ahmad Jamal, Blue Moon

The return of the Magus. Jamal picks up elements of contemporary music, shreds them through his succinct blues feeling, and makes the best contemporary standards and piano trio album that has come out in many years.

8. Jacob Garchik, The Heavens

Garchik mans all the brass reinvents the idea of liturgical jazz and roots music.

9. Jerome Sabbagh, Plugged In

Jazz-Rock as it should be; sophisticated, funky, soulful, shedding the formal and rhythmical limits of rock and the standards/song-form conventional wisdom of jazz.

10. Virginia Mayhew Quartet, Mary Lou Williams: The Next 100 Years

A great disc of small-group jazz playing, with material from one of the most important and under-appreciated innovators in the music’s history.

2012 Best Reissues

1. Charles Mingus, The Jazz Workshop Concerts 1964

One of the two great groups of the 1960s, along with Miles Davis’ second Quintet, meaning one of the great groups of all time. This was a historic tour, and there are many concert recordings available, great to extraordinary. Mingus is still the finest composer of jazz music, meant to be played as jazz, and the band — Dannie Richmond, Jacki Byard, Johnnie Coles, Clifford Jordan and Eric Dolphy — understood his structural ideas implicitly, while also blowing their asses off. Essential.

2. Steve Lacy, Complete Remastered Recordings on Black Saint/Soul Note; Solos, Duos and Trios

This collects his solo Monk records, duos with Mal Waldron, including the exquisite Sempre Amore, and an excellent trio date, The Window. Essential.

3. Weather Report, The Complete Columbia Albums 1971-1975

There was an interview with Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter in Musician magazine in the 1980s where, and I’m paraphrasing, Zawinul said “Weather Report is the greatest fucking band in the world, man.” He was right, of course. In this box you can hear them overcome their fairly pretentious beginnings via the ferocious Live in Tokyo, which has never been in print, I believe, in the US. From there to Sweetnighter and eternity. Essential.

2012 Best Vocal album

Christine Correa & Ran Blake, Down Here Below

There are singers who sing jazz songs, standards, pop tunes with great artistry, then there are great artists who make music with the voices. That’s Christine Correa.

2012 Best debut

Old Time Musketry, Different Times

A debut in the truest sense, a first statement full of promise. Old Time Musketry is making contemporary music with one foot in early jazz. This is a good record, enjoyable and intriguing, and if it feels at times a little stiff and a little unsure of itself, it’s quality tells me the next record is something to look forward to.


2012 Best latin Jazz

David Virelles, Continuum

The stale, living-dead jazz that is too prevalent in the music is the worst in latin jazz, and endlessly repeated set of licks and gestures, style with no substance. Which is shame, because there are so many musical possibilities in the genre. David Virelles has done something enigmatic and evocative, taking the firm roots of the music and twisting them into an entirely new kind of tree.

Honorary Mention


Author: gtra1n

I'm a composer and musician, and I write about music—I do that here, for the New York Classical Review, at the Brooklyn Rail (I edit the music section there) and any place else that will have me, like New Music Box and Music & Literature. I also wrote the Miles Davis' Bitches Brew book in the 33 1/3 series.