Best Jazz of 2012

Cosmic Jazz enters its fifth year and our Best of 2012 features the same eclectic mix of music as the regular show. Our brief is jazz – and beyond and that’s where we begin, outside the fringes of jazz with a choice that kept me entertained whilst on the subways of Beijing with its mix of Cubana and dubstep. UK pioneer Mala, whose father left Jamaica in the 1960s for life in London, returned to the region under the aegis of Gilles Peterson’s Brownswood label to work with new Cuban musicians and – well – just see what happened. The result was Mala in Cuba and the music is a surprisingly easygoing mix. There are no standout tracks but download Tribal, Changuito or Cuba Electronic to get a feel of the sound.

Still outside the jazz tip but with family connections (Steven Ellison is Alice Coltrane’s nephew) we liked Until the Quiet Comes from LA’s Flying Lotus. Full of short tracks deep in the distinctive Flying Lotus soundworld, the album also featured the late Austin Peralta on some tracks. Also stateside, Be Good, the sophomore release from vocalist Gregory Porter, was a CJ slow burner but had the same mix of great vocals, memorable originals and imaginative cover versions as his first release Water. Most importantly for us at CJ, what we like about both these albums is the way that Porter gives space for soloists to breathe and stretch out. Tracks we came back to included Be Good (Lion’s Song), On My Way to Harlem (which is already beginning to sound like a standard) and Nat Adderley’s Work Song. Porter is clearly the real deal which is why it was exciting for us to be involved in an interview with him earlier in the year.

We both liked New York saxophonist Steve Lehmann’s release Dialect Fluorescent which saw him tackling standards for the first time. Lehmann’s acerbic tone matched with his twists and turns around classics like Coltrane’s Moment’s Notice were refreshing and original. Another trio that we liked was an old CJ favourite, Brad Mehldau with two releases this year, one of originals and one of other’s compositions. Unexpectedly, the better of the two was probably the first album of originals, Ode, but Where Do You Start was good too. Try out the track 26 from the first and Melhdau’s take on Toninho Horta’s lovely Aquelas Coisas Todas from the later album.

2012 saw the return of UK pianist Jessica Lauren with a new self titled release, Jessica Lauren Four. We returned to two tracks several times over the year, White Mountain and The Name of Fela Will Always Stand for Freedom. Top of the poll in 2011 was saxophonist Nat Birchall who had a fine 2012 album out on his own label, World Without Form. Birchall just gets better and better and it was great to see Leeds free drummer Paul Hession on album credits again. We played The Black Ark on a recent show but we’ll be playing a lot more from this great new release in future shows.

Benin guitarist Lionel Loueke has been an impressive sideman in recent years, most notably for Herbie Hancock. His new release Heritage on Blue Note was produced by Robert Glasper and features a very different sound from his previous solo albums. Glasper wrote a couple of tracks himself and features throughout on Fender Rhodes and piano.

2012 was a great year for reissues and we championed several of our favourites over the year, beginning with Sleeper, a double ECM CD that isn’t actually a reissue but an unreleased live 1979 performance from Keith Jarrett’s European Quartet featuring Jan Garbarek on saxes, Palle Danielsson on bass and Jon Christensen on drums. It’s difficult to know why this concert wasn’t released at the time as it is significantly better than Personal Mountains and Nude Ants, both live recordings from the same period. For an example, just download the Personal Mountains track itself which already sounds epic with Christensen’s powerful drumming very much dominating the final part of this 20 minute track.

ECM was certainly our label of the year for reissues, with their minimally packaged boxed sets netting three great packages – the most recent being one of the best. Jack DeJohnette’s Special Edition was one of the most interesting groups of the 70s/80s and ECM collected four CDs which showcased some of the most ambitious music he has ever created. Drummer DeJohnette is a great jazz composer and these four discs features an all star horn line up – Arthur Blythe, David Murray, Chico Freeman and John Purcell among others – and some great music. For a taste of DeJohnette’s magic, download The Gri Gri Man or I Know – great music! Also in this ECM series was Terje Rypdal’s Odyssey (which featured an extended version of the classic Rolling Stone) and Jan Garbarek’s Dansere (which featured the stunning Wichi-Tai-To album from 1974). This is not only Garbarek’s finest recording to date but also one of the greatest ECM albums and should be in everyone’s collection.

British saxophonist John Surman has an enviably long discography, including three albums for ECM which feature his soprano, tenor and baritone saxes together with alto, bass and contrabass clarinets multi-tracked with a synth pulse. It might sound rather new age and vapid but, in practice, it’s anything but. On Saltash Bells, Surman brings one of the most recognised tones in jazz to some great compositions – this could be a record you will come back to again and again.

Trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith’s work been part of Cosmic Jazz since we began five years ago and 2012 saw the release of his epic Ten Freedom Summers. Always expansive in conception, his music has become ever more ambitious in scope in recent years. This new project features his Golden Quintet alongside a chamber music orchestra. The liner notes make clear the focus of this 4CD set: “music accompanied all components of the various activities gathered under what we now call think of as the Civil Rights movement, its power to inspire, to instigate, to dramatize, and to heal a crucial part of the movements overall achievements”. Music remains a powerful weapon in the fight for justice and equality and Wadada Leo Smith’s major project of 2012 reminds us of the role that jazz has played in this enterprise over the years.

In 2010 we couldn’t agree on Esperanza Spalding and her album Chamber Music Society. Unlike the rest of the known world, Neil was not convinced and we rarely returned to the album on the show. But this all changed with Spalding’s 2012 Radio Music Society, an album that could easily have reached the top of our new releases pile. Buy this one and you’ll be playing it for years to come. We’ve written about it on this site many times but here’s some of our thoughts. The record is an impressive and complete work, working successfully on many different levels. Pop Matters got it right in their end of year review when they noted that “It may have ripping hooks and huge bed of soulful grooves, but Spalding, at her core, remains a jazz musician. So, the opener, Radio Song, may be built around an irresistible chorus and a very hip two-note vocal hook at the start, but then there’s the long middle section with a charging brass figure that sets up a vocalese break followed by a swinging tenor sax solo. Tack on a long, modern-jazz piano solo on the end for good measure and you’ve got… not a kind of radio hit at all. But, of course, that’s why Spalding is terrific. She’s not Adele or even Macy Gray. She has made an ambitious jazz record that creatively uses soul forms to grab our ears. You can call it whatever you want, but you’ll want to listen. Yes, it all fits together perfectly.” We’d add that the neglected Wayne Shorter tune Endangered Species is given lyrics by Spalding that Shorter would surely love, and it comes on sounding like vintage mid-period Weather Report. This is another album for your Christmas list.

Kenny Garrett’s 2012 release was Seeds From the Underground and CJ featured several tracks from the album. A highlight of the jazz year for Derek was going to see Garrett’s Quartet at The Jazz Café. From the first moment it was a full-on, intensive, power-packed session, particularly with the interplay between Kenny Garrett on alto sax and Ronald Bruner on drums. To get some idea of what Garrett is like live , download Welcome Earth Song. Play it and you will want to play it again, and again, and again…

Regular listeners know how much Cosmic Jazz likes to support British jazz and there have been plenty of good releases to champion this year. Another live highlight for Derek was the performance of Jerry Dammers’s Spatial AKA Orkestra at the Norfolk and Norwich Festival in May and a record he enjoyed as much as any other this year was Transcendental from Larry ‘Stonephace’ Stabbins using a group of musicians he met in Dammers’s group. One of these was Zoe Rahman who plays piano on the record. Stabbins describes her playing as “always wonderful, delicate and powerful in equal measure”. The same could be said for the record, which is modal, soulful, spiritual and powerful in equal measure. Stabbins has been an influential figure on the UK scene for nearly four decades now. He’s best known for co-founding the Latin-soul outfit Working Week, which skirted mainstream pop crossover success; and is credited with helping to stir up the Brit-jazz revival of the 1980s. Back as 1971, he was part of pianist Keith Tippett’s 50-piece behemoth, Centipede, and he’s worked with many other UK avant-garde luminaries. As the BBC review noted, “this latest finds him pitched somewhere between the two extremes – nodding to serious jazz while keeping one foot tapping to an accessible beat.” Here at CJ we await the first Spatial AKA Orkestra release due in 2013 with interest.

Talking of modal, mention should be made of Matthew Halsall’s CD Fletcher Moss Park on Manchester’s wonderful Gondwana label. The inclusion of Rachael Gladwin on harp adds an interesting and contemplative dimension as well as a nod towards Alice Coltrane. GoGo Penguin is another trio, formerly music students from Manchester. Their CD Fanfares– also on Gondwana – was on heavy rotation at CJ. The members of the trio each bring to the set the best bits from the music they were influenced by, including jazz, classical piano, electronica, ambient and dance music. A definite influence was Swedish piano trio EST and Seven Sons of Bjorn, the opening track on the CD, is a tribute to Esbjorn Svensson following his untimely death in 2010. Watch out for more from GoGo Penguin in 2013. Roller Trio are very different: a trio of music students from Leeds, their eponymous CD brought them the token jazz nomination for the Mercury Prize. The combination of drums/guitar/saxophone makes for an original and edgy sound.

Trish Clowes is a British tenor sax player who has already attracted attention in 2012 and will be a shining UK star in 2013. Derek saw her quartet at the wonderful Milestones Jazz Club on the seafront in Lowestoft, which must have the cheapest admission prices of any jazz club in the UK. The quartet came across as a serious, dedicated, thoughtful and personable group of musicians. Trish’s CD for 2012 And in the night-time she is there includes guest appearances from Gwilym Simcock, Kathleen Willison as well as an improvising string quartet led by Thomas Gould. Download the opening track Atlas for a taste of this highly recommended new release.

A record that could easily have been at the top of our CD pile in 2012 was the final release from the most influential piano trio in jazz over the last ten years. EST (or the Esbjorn Svensson Trio) recorded a double album’s worth of material in their final recording sessions before Svensson’s untimely death in 2007. Now, four years later, comes 301, a final album that is highly recommended by both of us at Cosmic Jazz. This may be one of EST’s greatest albums, a summation of where the trio had been, and also of where these perpetually evolving players were heading next. The album combines what at times is rock power with extreme delicacy – in other words, all that you associate with EST. If you don’t have this music just go and buy it.

Jack DeJohnette celebrated his 70th birthday with the release of a new CD entitled Sound Travels. It has an impressive guest list of musicians including Cosmic Jazz favourites Esperanza Spalding, Luisito Quintero, Ambrose Akimusire and Lionel Loueke and some great tracks. Carmen Lundy – under-rated by many and loved by CJ – released a typically high standard CD Changes which seemed to go by virtually unnoticed. Start with the tune Love Thy Neighbour as a catchy standout but checkout all nine tracks. Each deserves a listen.

Kelan Philip Cohran and The Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, a release on the British label Honest Jon’s features the mysteries and mysticism of Sun Ra combined with an extra heavy brass sound. The album was recorded in Chicago and featured a father who once played with Sun Ra and eight of his children who are the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble. Play this and hear joyful music for deep and heavy contemplation.

Re-releases we liked included the fourth in the excellent Viagem series compiled by the Italian DJ and musician Nicola Conte. This is Viagem IV: Lost Bossa and Samba Jazz Classics from the Swinging Brazilian 60s. A lively compilation that included Brazilian and other tracks was BGP presents Jazz Funk with artists including Patrice Rushen, Flora Purim, The BlackByrds, Paulinho Da Costa, Charles Earland, Azar Lawrence, Stanley Cowell, Johnny Hammond and Spider’s Web.

The British label Jazzman Records continued to inspire CJ with their releases, especially in the ongoing Spiritual Jazz series, with two interesting releases in 2012. Firstly came Spiritual Jazz Volume II, subtitled Esoteric, Modal and Deep European Jazz 1960 – 78 and then Spiritual Jazz Volume III, subtitled Modal, Esoteric and Ethereal Jazz from the European Underground 1963 – 1972. The subtitles say it all.‘The One’ from Azanyah. was another Jazzman re-release which deserves special mention. The group were led by the bass player Mamanijj Azanyah who was born in London to Jamaican parents, although the family moved to Atlanta, Georgia when he was thirteen years of age. The record was released originally in 1987 and is a piece of deep, spiritual and cosmic jazz rooted in pan-African culture.

So, who ended up at the top of our jazz tree in 2012? After much deliberation, we turned to pianist Vijay Iyer and his trio. We’ve followed his progress over the years from New York outsider to mainstream ACT label leader. His 2010 release Historicity was nominated for a Grammy award but 2012’s Accelerando is the real deal – a unique combination of edgy pianism applied to possibly the most eclectic mix of music likely to be encountered on any one album – from Duke Ellington and Rod Temperton to the aforementioned Flying Lotus. Throw in some powerful originals too and you have music that is complex and accessible in equal measure. Just download the three track sequence Optimism, The Star of the Story and Human Nature and be blown away by the interplay of Iyer, bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Marcus Gilmore (grandson of the most stylish sticksman in jazz Roy Haynes). What Iyer’s trio does with Jackson’s Human Nature is remarkable – they take the tune apart, keeping the pulse and even a recreation of Jackson’s intuitive yelps on Crump’s bass, before Iyer brings it all back with blocked chords and – as the London Jazz review noted – “rallentando replacing accelerando in the final reckoning”.

Another great year for new jazz but maybe an even a better year for reissues. CJ looks forward to more great music in 2013. Join us each week – Thursdays at 8:30pm GMT – as we unearth the best new jazz for you to enjoy.

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