As we approach the end of the year, it's traditional for bloggers to start writing articles entitled 'The Best Albums of 2012'. Personally, I've never been keen to write one of those myself for two reasons: Firstly because you tend to subconsciously give weight to albums released in the second half of the year that you've heard more recently, but perhaps more importantly, because I really don't see the calendar year as being a particularly useful way to group and evaluate albums.
However, I came across a great idea suggested by Will Rodway, author of the 'Sure Nuff' blog who has similar reservations about these kind of articles. Will's idea was to write a post about the albums that he'd either discovered in 2012 or that had the greatest impact on him this year. I thought it was a great idea - reflections on a personal year of listening to music struck me as a much more interesting way to sign off these last 12 months. Chatting on twitter, we decided to do a joint post where we would each choose five albums that have been significant to us and post them. It doesn't matter when the albums where released, only that they had some personal significance to us in 2012.
Narrowing it down to five wasn't easy, but here are the choices I whittled it down to after much thoughtful beard-stroking:
Brian Blade and the Fellowship Band - Season of Changes
This 2008 release from drummer Brian Blade's ensemble had somehow slipped under my radar, but after hearing a track on the radio, I tracked it down. My only regret is that I didn't find it sooner. This is a beautiful album, at times introspective and sweetly melancholic yet also full of joy and energy.
One of the things I complain most about in some modern jazz is what I see as a disproportionate emphasis on the individual solo at the expense of the group sound. Brian Blade and the Fellowship Band give a masterclass here in ensemble playing; nobody overplays and the band works beautifully as a unit.
This is the album I've found myself returning to more than any other this year.
Jerry Bergonzi - Napoli Connection
In my own practice this year, I've been exploring new applications of pentatonic scales. I came across Jerry Bergonzi's excellent book on the subject and whilst I was aware of his name, I hadn't heard too much of his playing. Sometimes, when I'm investigating somebody new, I'll just buy a random album and see what I get. In this case I got a lot of saxophone playing for my money!
Despite everything I said in the paragraph above, if you're going to build a reputation as a hard-blowing soloist then you'd better be good! This 1992 album is all about Bergonzi's saxophone playing and his solo and cadenza on the opening 'Love For Sale' serve to represent the high-octane virtuosity that marks this recording. Aside from the opening standard and Bruno Martino's 'Estate', the rest of the tracks are all Bergonzi originals, although each of them really serves as a vehicle for blowing.
What attracts me to the leader's playing is his commitment to the melodic line and the way he explores the full range of the saxophone. Shreaks, squeaks, harmonics and other cliched sax 'effects' are kept to a minimum as Bergonzi weaves phrase after phrase of immaculately constructed melody. He possesses a seemingly rare ability amongst sax players to create excitement and build climaxes without simply going to the top end of his register and screaming.
The rhythm section of Valerio Silvestro (piano), Tony Ronga (bass) and Salvatore Tranchini (drums)pulls its weight whilst showing admirable restraint and this record now serves as one of my favourite examples of the modern mainstream sound.
Snarky Puppy - Ground Up
Ok this isn't strictly a jazz album, but Snarky Puppy are my favourite musical discovery of 2012. This New York-based instrumental collective fuses a range of infectious grooves with a heavy dose of improvised jazz, blues and gospel sounds.
Recorded simultaneously as a CD and DVD in the Shapeshifter Lab in Brooklyn, this album continually explores different dynamics, soundscapes, rhythms and textures and it's this variety that keeps the interest alive and never allows it to descend into the 'noodling over a groove' monotony I hear in much of what gets described as 'fusion'.
I was fortunate enough to attend a workshop with this band and see them live at a medium-sized venue in Liverpool this year. I doubt they'll be so accessible this time next year; this band is going to be huge.
Bill Evans - Portrait in Jazz
The jazz world lost some giants this year, and this album gets included because it was the first time I heard drummer Paul Motian's playing. When I bought this Bill Evans album, I was still relatively new to jazz and chose it largely because most of the tunes were standards I was trying to learn. As a newcomer, although I liked what I was hearing, I couldn't yet appreciate just how unique the interplay between the trio of Evans, Scott le Faro on bass and Paul Motian really was.
In later years, and with the discovery of 'Sunday at the Village Vanguard', this album found its way into the CD player less frequently but i dug it out this year for a trip down memory lane when I heard of Motian's passing. The trio naturally gets a lot of praise for its interplay and a sound where bass and drums were promoted to a more prominent and equal role, but I think that much of that praise is given to Evans and Le Faro. Motian's contribution is perhaps less obvious and therefore more easily overlooked. Nevertheless, his playing on this album reminds me of everything I loved about his drumming - his effortless swing, enormous ears and selfless musicality. For my money he was also one of the finest brush players of any era.
Revisiting this album in 2012, I became painfully aware that this is too fine a recording to play second fiddle to anything - even those Village Vanguard sessions. With captivatingly original arrangements and and an utterly original trio sound, Portrait in Jazz will not be so easily overlooked in my collection this time around.
RIP Paul Motian.
Dave Brubeck - Take Five, The Jazz Masters Series
By making it to the ripe old age of 91, you could argue that Dave Brubeck had lived for nearly three jazz lifetimes! Nevertheless, 91 years still didn't seem enough for somebody who was as universally admired and respected as a man as much as a musician.
This rather obscure 1982 live Montreux recording was the first Dave Brubeck album I owned and I bought it from the bargain bin of a local record shop. At the time, all I thought I knew about Dave Brubeck was that he had written Take Five (and of course that turned out to be wrong!). However, I was immediately attracted to the energy and good humour of these live recordings although to be honest, I hadn't listened to this album for years before Dave died and I decided to go back to my first experience of his music.
This concert is an enjoyable snapshot of Brubeck as composer, entertainer and pianist and perhaps the thing that shines through the most for me is the energy, humour and enormous power in his piano playing that he was able to deliver consistently throughout an incredible career. I never got the sense that Brubeck was capable of playing half-heartedly or dialling a performance in and I think it was that willingness to pour himself into every gig and session that made him such a popular artist. So long Dave, and thanks.
So those were the most significant records for me personally in 2012, below is Will Rodway's selection. However, if you haven't done so already, make time to read his moving and eloquent post about my final artist choice above, Dave Brubeck.
Will Rodway's Best Albums DISCOVERED in 2012
Benny Carter – New York Nights
This live recording from 1995 captures alto saxophonist Benny Carter, at the grand age of 87, in killer form alongside Chris Neville on piano, bassist Steve LaSpina and drummer Sherman Ferguson. This is the first late-period Carter album I’ve owned and he is now on the top of my to-purchase list. Carter was one the last great swing-period horn-men. He stands alongside Webster, Hodges, and Hawkins in his ability to “maintain primitive vitality in the face of sophistication.” His execution of vibrant lines and fresh ideas over well-trodden standards is awe-inspiring. Here is Stanley Crouch on the late-period Carter…
“In his work, one heard a plush vibrato purring around and pouncing on his notes, which were always chosen with the infinitesimal deliberation of a past master who had heard the saxophone develop from a circus tool of barnyard eccentricity to an instrument capable of expressing aristocratic inclinations as it was all the low-down dirty blue memories that arrive from the innumerable alleys and boudoirs of the world.”
The above quotes are from Crouch’s Considering Genius, and Crouch’s love for the man and his music can also be found in his highly personal album liner notes. A perfect example of Carter drawing on these two social worlds on this live date can be found on his statement of the theme and solo on Easy Money. After an exquisite and lavish opening from Neville, Carter’s alto enters brimming with note bending and caricature effects usually banished to the pre-bop era. Yet Carter delivers these horn add-ons with such panache, such exact precision, that the man’s perfect pitch is wholly evident. Chris Neville’s solo is beautiful as well, alternating between 8th note runs, to rhapsodic chordal statements, and ending with a broken chord, shimmering coda. Carter is quoted as calling Chris Neville an “exceptional pianist,” some praise from a man of Carter’s historical stature.
Joe Henderson – In Japan
Another live record, this time recorded in 1971. This will be the third time I’ve mentioned this album on Sure ‘Nuff this year, so it’s a worthy addition to the list. This is important Henderson as it captures the man whilst on an international tour during a difficult economic period for great jazzmen (the 70’s) playing with noticeably harder-grit.
His introductory cadenza to ‘Round Midnight is peppered with his stereotypical harsh diversions – as is his statement of the theme when the rest of the local outfit enter – yet these tenor-glottal utterances, far from masking his sincere melancholic yearning, magnify Henderson’s intended expression. Henderson’s trademark tune Blue Bossa is another great track on the album, due in part to Hideo Ichikawa’s solo on Fender Rhodes. Jazz historian Bill Kirchner is quoted on the back of the album as having said “In Japan is one of the handful of records from the late Sixties and early Seventies to be studied like a textbook by the most advanced young jazz musicians. It’s that kind of record.” Well, I’m currently transcribing Ichikawa’s Blue Bossa solo, so who am I to disagree?
Dexter Gordon – Jumpin’ Blues
Another horn led ensemble from the early 70’s? Afraid so. 2012 will go down as the year I truly fell in love with Dexter Gordon’s playing, and it’s thanks to a plethora of often-maligned prestige dates. It was a close call between Jumpin’ Blues and The Panther! – recorded a month earlier – but the riotous bluesy vibe of Wynton Kelly helped push this record through. Take Kelly’s vamping under Dex on Rhythm-A-Ning for example. Whilst Dex is blowing hard, swirling beautiful bop motifs into formidable improvised statements, Kelly drives the rhythm along in angular motion to the steady walking bass of Sam Brooks and the riding high beat of drummer Roy Brooks. What I love about Kelly’s playing on this tune is his ability to simultaneously emulate the accompanying posturing of Monk yet not relinquish the duty of his own ears and natural musical responses – his dynamic chord responses to Dex’s solo throughout is evident of this. Kelly then gives a master-class in restraint and eloquent blues phrasing in his solo – once he’s said all he has to say, that’s it, done, leaving the bass walking. It’s also of interest to note this was one of Kelly’s last recordings before he passed away the following spring.
In the Penguin Guide To Jazz On CD, Jumpin’ Blues is described as a reminder “to the jazz audience (in the U.S.A.) that the old lion was still out there rather than (a) meaningful statement.” However the track listing goes against this non-“meaningful” point, as there is a nostalgic and sentimental theme throughout – many of the tunes were composed by past contemporaries such as Charlie Parker’s Jumpin’ Blues, Monk’s Rhythm-A-Ning, Tadd Dameron’s If You Could See Me Now and the pop hit of it’s day For Sentimental Reasons. This self-reflective set-list equates to a slight change in style to Dex’s playing compared to his Blue Note period, “a willingness to play more quietly, using fewer notes, a greater dynamic range and willingness to dwell on effective phrases.” This is a great, transitional record in the career of Dexter Gordon.
Lee Konitz – Spirits
I’d never truly listened to the piano playing of Sal Mosca prior to obtaining this record. Like Konitz, Mosca was a Lennie Tristano disciple, and one can assume the dense, sometimes aggressive approach to accompanying Mosca portrayals stems from his tutorage under Tristano. This is by no means a negative statement, there is great interest and individuality in Mosca’s playing , and his style is a welcome antithesis to the overly indulged rhapsodic approach often displayed by too many of Bill Evan’s disciples. Yet, as a result of the relentless driving nature in Mosca’s playing one feels Konitz in response plays deliberately anti-lyrical, as though to frequently surprise himself and the listener.
Dedicated to their former master, Mosca and Konitz duet on 5 of the 9 pieces, whilst for the other 4 they are augmented with the wonderful Ron Carter on bass and the fantastically named Mousey Alexander on drums. As well as featuring a selection of Tristano’s convoluted heads (Baby, Dreams, Hugo’s Head etc) the ensemble also perform Warne Marsh’s Background Music and a couple of Konitz originals for good measure. My favorite track on the record is Lennie-Bird featuring all 4 players. Alexander is an incredibly energetic player, and alongside Carter they are able to create some real swing, enticing Konitz to be a tad more lyrical compared to the duet pieces. It’s an interesting, cobbled-together record that keeps pulling me back for more.
Tommy Flanagan – Thelonica
Recorded just 8 months after Thelonious Monks death, Flanagan manages to heighten the quintessential essence of his personal style whilst capturing the introspective spirit of Monk – much like Wynton Kelly’s solo on Rhythm-A-Ning from Dexter Gordon’s Jumpin’ Blues.
Accompanied by the solid bass work of George Mraz with Art Taylor on drums, Flanagan’s solo on Off Minor exemplifies why I love Flanagan’s playing; killer swing, gorgeous motific bop phrases with a clean execution of ideas. Whatever he plays Flanagan does it with such care, delicacy and steadiness that I just want to sit down and transcribe it, then unashamedly claim it as my own.
In truth there are some rough edges to Flanagan’s improvisations, particularly once his solos have reached their zenith and his ideas start to lag. Yet these moments are typically balanced by his lingering intelligent phrasing. This is one of THE great Monk Tribute albums, with a focus on Monks lesser know tunes. Flanagan’s interpretation of Reflections is bewitching due to his touch and finely balanced (between the lush and the dissonant) chord voicings. Mraz’s counterpoint playing is also a delight on this track whilst Taylor’s delicate snare work keeps things moving nicely. A firm favorite in the Flanagan catalogue.
So there you go folks, this post has been my way of signing off 2012 at PlayJazz. I have to admit, I haven't been here as much as I would like this year, but it's because I've been working on some other exciting things which I look forward to sharing with you in the New Year.
Best wishes to you all for 2013