Best of 2013

 

BitW square avatarFor each album considered for inclusion, I was looking for it to hit me right in my heart, provoke a strong emotional reaction.  I was also looking for it to engage my brain, provide some intrigue or fascination with the music being presented.  Extra points were awarded for doing Something Different or building on a premise that embraced the best qualities of creativity.  Strong musicianship alone is not enough.  Many solid albums didn’t make the list.  It literally pains me when I see some of the albums that weren’t included.  But I listen to a lot of music, and one of the rare downsides to encountering so much great Jazz is that some of it won’t receive the recognition it deserves.  So there you have it.

These are not reviews.  They are simple thoughts, reminiscences, fragments of recollections, and brief opinions about how each album struck me both now and when I first heard it.  There is a link to a more formal review following each entry… that’s where you go to find out what’s what about each recording.  Most reviews are accompanied with embedded audio so you can hear some of the music, as well as personnel and label information, links to artist, label, and retail sites, and anything else that seemed relevant at the time I wrote the review.

Let’s begin…

*****

 

1.  Jaimeo Brown – Transcendence

Jaimeo Brown - "Transcendence"Jaimeo Brown‘s phenomenal debut Transcendence has both eyes aimed squarely at the Jazz of Today, while keeping both the past and future in his peripheral vision.  This is more than just a modern jazz recording.  With the use of emergent editing and recording techniques, Brown is thinking ahead.  By incorporating the gospel music of the Gee’s Bend Quilters, Brown has an ear attuned to the past.  And by embracing elements of other genres and fusing them into a modern post-bop session, Brown has himself planted firmly in the present day.

The power of this music is apparent right from the start.  The recording is a livewire of electricity, and yet has a self-contained fire that is all blues and all heart.  This album has a massive presence, and comports itself as such regardless of whether the song is a display of unrestrained dissonant fury or the softest touch of soulful melody.

About as powerful a statement as an artist could make for their debut.  Outstanding.  The Bird is the Worm 2013 Album of the Year.

Released on Motema Records.

A Bird is the Worm review HERE.

*****

2.  Emilio Teubal – Música Para un Dragon Dormido

Emilio Teubal - "Musica Para un Dragon Dormido"This music has a boundless energy, and it grabs me each time I hit the play button.  Teubal brings both modern jazz and Argentinean music to the table, but infuses it with other influences to where it’s not so easy to draw a clear lineage.  Apparently this was Teubal’s intention, and it clearly worked.  A stunning album of immaculate beauty.  It’s about as near perfect as an album could be, and I still find it hard to believe it didn’t end up as my Album of the Year.  On saxophones, Sam Sadigursky puts out some of the best moments on a jazz album in 2013.  Cellist Erik Friedlander had a quietly massive 2013, putting out a beautiful album under his own name, and also performing on some of 2013′s top recordings in a supporting role.  On the fourth and fifth tracks, “El Acrobata” and “Un Dragon Dormido,” which could be considered the same composition, Friedlander interacts with other ensemble members to create some heavenly sonic expressions, of a supreme elegance and stately beauty.  Jazz is more diverse than ever, and the internet age has opened up new avenues for jazz artists to record and produce their own music, thus making it tougher for the general public to decipher what they should be listening to… but when someone asks you what will be considered the classic albums of this modern jazz age in fifty years time, you should point to this recording as one of them.  As near to perfection as you can get.

Released on Brooklyn Jazz Underground Records.

A Bird is the Worm review HERE.

*****

3.  Arun Ghosh – A South Asian Suite

Arun Ghosh - "A South Asian Suite"Clarinettist Ghosh has one of the more original sounds on the modern jazz scene.  His style of Indo-Jazz is both eccentric and amicable, diverse and complex, yet so easy to connect with.  I was taken with his previous recordings quite a bit, but on his newest recording, he brings an even fuller sound to the table, one more rounded out and self-assured.  Melodies that strike to the heart of the matter and rhythmic architectures that offer up plenty of ornamentation and structural fireworks.  Or said differently, this album sounds like it has a lot going on, and it does, and yet by crafting rich, beautiful melodies, Ghosh makes this gregarious album so easy, and enjoyable, to spend time with.  His mix of modern jazz approaches with that of regional musics from Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan, India, and Sri Lanka spin a breathless weave of influences, all which abide comfortably under the same roof of one album, and which import a sense of excitement as the sound shifts from scene to scene.  Just an outstanding album.

Released on Camoci Records.

A Bird is the Worm review HERE.

*****

4.  Ben Goldberg – Unfold Ordinary Mind

Ben Goldberg - "Unfold Ordinary Mind"Goldberg opened 2013 with two strong recordings, released simultaneously at the outset of the year.  Unfold Ordinary Mind was the stronger of the two (though Subatomic Particle Homesick Blues was certainly no slouch), courtesy of how Goldberg’s ensemble managed to create challenging music cloaked in catchy melodies and intermittent grooves.  It’s not unlike an avant-garde rendition of a Motown recording session.  Goldberg has always been an innovative sort, delving into projects that probably shouldn’t work, but producing engaging, often very listenable music despite the odds.  He does that here, too, and the result is no less impressive or fascinating with many many subsequent listens.  An outstanding achievement in a career marked by them, and a fun album, to boot.

Released on BAG Production Records.

A Bird is the Worm review HERE.

*****

5.  Nicolas Moreaux – Fall Somewhere

Nicolas Moreaux - "Fall Somewhere"This is an album of beautiful melodies.  The melodies aren’t stated… they’re slowly exhaled.  Tenor sax man Bill McHenry is the perfect musician for this type of album, with songs of a languorous demeanor, even when they’re moving at a brisk pace.  His big sound is delivered with a peaceful ease, and matches well with Moreaux’s ensemble, which utilizes a dynamic percussive approach that serves more as an undercurrent of crackling electricity, and allows the melodies to serve up the heavy voltage.  Bassist Moreaux has been collaborating with jazz-folk saxophonist Jeremy Udden, and this album clearly illustrates that those two are peas of the same pod… they both have that eminently peaceful sound, of a warmth that provides sufficient heat to prevent the music from ever getting terribly sleepy.  This is a strong album that, unfortunately, seems to have flown a bit under the radar.  Hopefully this will kick-start some interest.  It should, because this is a gorgeous recording.

Released on Fresh Sound New Talent.

A Bird is the Worm review HERE.

*****

6.  Tim Horner – The Head of the Circle 

Tim Horner - "The Head of the Circle"This album just keeps getting better with each listen.  A sextet built upon one excellent melody after the next, and possessing a sound of such fullness as to suggest that it’s more than just six musicians at work.  The quality I most love about this recording is the anticipation it builds for the next firework display of melody in the subsequent song, even as the current one is still working its way through to its conclusion.  In that way, I find it somewhat reminiscent of a 2012 album released by Horner’s label mate Florian Hoefner, Songs Without Words.  Horner has vibraphonist Joe Locke sitting in on this session, and that turned out to be a very wise decision.  An album that engages the listener in concise, fascinating conversations.

Released on Origin Arts.

A Bird is the Worm review HERE.

*****

7.  Reijseger / Fraanje / Sylla – Down Deep

Ernst Reijseger - "Deep Down"This trio recording of piano, cello, percussion and chant harks back to the Codona trio recordings of Don Cherry, Collin Walcott and Nana Vasconcelos.  In this instance, cellist Ernst Reijseger, pianist Harmen Fraanje, and percussionist Mola Sylla bring their own expression of jazz and folk music.  Like the Codona recordings, Down Deep leans far heavier to the folk music side of that equation, but like the Codona recordings, the music is just too damn beautiful for it to really matter what genre the album belongs to more.  Peaceful seaside music that ambles patiently from note to note, a rustic kind of serenity that can fill the space of a lazy Sunday afternoon with sublime music that sparks with life and drifts like dreams.  A stunning album built on nuance and grace.

Released on Winter & Winter.

A Bird is the Worm review HERE.

*****

8.  Anna Webber – Percussive Mechanics

Anna Webber - "Percussive Mechanics"I love how all the moving parts on this complex album just seem to fall into place at exactly the right time.  An album that made a terrific first impression, then went through a series of slow reveals of additional interesting facets as the first blush faded and the real work of getting to know an album got underway.  The rhythmic action is this album’s bread and butter, but it’s the way melodies coalesce from within a percussive fog that elevates this recording up a notch or three.  Not easy to make a challenging album so damn simple to connect with, but Webber pulls that feat off.  No end to this album’s ability to fascinate.

Released on Pirouet Records.

A Bird is the Worm review HERE.

*****

9.  John Zorn – The Mysteries

John Zorn - "The Mysteries"A trio recording of guitarist Bill Frisell, harpist Carol Emanuel, and Kenny Wollesen on vibes (and bells), performing the compositions of John Zorn, following up on last year’s Gnostic Preludes, and mining the same themes.  It’s a sea of rhythmic eddies and curls and ripples, and the melodies are glimpses of fish darting beneath its surface.  Those fish are what the eye is drawn to, but the reason for the magic in the first place is the environment created by the rhythmic approach.  It’s also why, despite the album’s heavy melodic presence, these songs speak more to tapping the foot and bobbing the head than they do humming along to the music.  A mesmerizing album, one that a listener can just immerse themselves in.  Each time it ends, I feel like something has been taken away from me, and often feel compelled to hit that play button again and start over from the beginning.

Released on the Tzadik label.

A Bird is the Worm review HERE.

*****

10.  Nicole Mitchell’s Ice Crystal – Aquarius

Nicole Mitchell - "Aquarius"I kept expecting this album’s mesmerizing quality to shatter.  Its haunting presence, its dissonant personality, its sharp angles and edgy demeanor… all of these things should be sufficient to keep the listener at a safe distance, but the music’s abiding warmth makes it safe to get right up close, and its why once eye contact is made with this recording, it won’t let go.  There’s something almost hypnotic about this music.  That is possesses this characteristic while presenting challenging music… that’s an accomplishment that can’t be esteemed too greatly.  Mitchell keeps making music that’s a little bit different every time, yet retains a signature sound that translates to each successive project.  I’m amazed at how amazing this music continues to be.

Released on Delmark Records.

A Bird is the Worm review HERE.

*****

11.  Ches Smith & These Arches – Hammered

Ches Smith - "Hammered"Released near the start of 2013, my fascination with this recording hasn’t much waned.  The music has an electric blanket warmth courtesy of Andrea Parkins’ accordion and electronic effects, and even this alone elevates the album from being just another typically strong Clean Feed Records release.  But add to this the twisting saxophone vines of Malaby and Berne, Halvorson’s woozy guitar twangs, and Smith’s rock ‘n roll barrage on drums, and now you’ve got an album overflowing with personality.  Plenty of dissonance, but the way catchy riffs emerge and disappear into that dissonance afford plenty of surprises on this inviting album.

Released on Clean Feed Records.

A Bird is the Worm review HERE.

*****

12.  Pablo Ablanedo Octet(o) – ReContraDoble

Pablo Ablanedo Octet - "Recontradoble"Ablanedo’s blend of Jazz and Argentinian music possesses both an intimate warmth and a noble grandeur.  The pianist deftly builds up from a solid melodic foundation, revisiting and reforming fragments of the melody over and over, creating a stream of variations, all the meanwhile adding texture via percussion, and eventually that little melody sounds Big.  I was pretty taken with his previous release Alegria, but his newest ups the ante with a fullness of sound that the previous release hinted at.

Released on Creative Nation Music.

A Bird is the Worm review HERE.

*****

13.  Nilson Matta – Black Orpheus

Nilson Matta - "Black Orpheus"I find this album no less personable than when first I gave it a listen.  Matta’s interpretation of de Moraes and Jobim’s respective takes on the story of Orpheus & Eurydice has an abounding warmth, a succinct lyricism, and a stately elegance… characteristics which, in combination, present an album with a storyteller’s heart.  Not an album that creates a big splash, but with each successive surge of tides, it eventually becomes apparent that this is a recording so easy to just immerse oneself in for hours.  To say this album grew on me would be understating things.  Wonderful music.

Released on Motema Records.

A Bird is the Worm review HERE.

*****

14.  Dan Tepfer & Ben Wendel – Small Constructions

Tepfer-Wendell - "Small Constructions"I’m just taken with this album.  This duo collaboration of Wendel (on wind instruments) and Tepfer (on various keys) is bursting with personality and spontaneity.  Some originals, some covers, some improvisation, some nifty editing techniques, but ultimately it’s all about the conversation.  Anytime it’s a duo session, there’s the challenge of keeping things simple and exciting, both, and the way this album twitters with life even as it obsesses over a pretty melody, these musicians strike the perfect balance.  Several songs on this album I find myself humming, often forgetting where the songs come from until I’m reminded upon playing this album again.  Music that digs deep like that into a listener’s memory isn’t something that happens all that often, and it sure ain’t something to take for granted.  A sublime outing.

Released on Sunnyside Records.

A Bird is the Worm review HERE.

*****

15.  Mary Halvorson Septet – Illusionary Sea

Mary Halvorson - "Illusionary Sea"Halvorson has carved out her own sound on guitar.  It ain’t always pretty.  It’s handy to employ the signifier ‘avant-garde’ in reference to her music.  However, the addition of trombonist Garchik and the tenor sax of Ingrid Laubrock adds some softer textures to hard-edged music, and it really allows the melodies more room to breathe.  As a result, this album’s potent dissonance provides plenty of handholds to grasp the music and go along for the ride.  An album of a strange geometry, of melodies with a warped beauty and harmonies of an essential warmth, bringing a fuzzy hospitality to chaotic, unfettered music.

Released on Firehouse 12 Records.

A Bird is the Worm review HERE.

*****

16.  Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society – Brooklyn Babylon

Darcy James Argue - "Brooklyn Babylon"I keep shaking my head each time I’m reminded that I haven’t yet reviewed this album, but when I consider everything bouncing around in my head about this recording, it’s really no wonder at all.  Argue’s sophomore release has all the excitement of his debut, with the added bonus of it being a companion piece of a multi-media event.  His inventive sound for jazz orchestra continues to round itself out, even as it heads out in new directions.  A recording that keeps revealing new aspects of itself, inciting a brand new sense of excitement with each listen.

Released on New Amsterdam Records.

A Bird is the Worm article HERE.

*****

17.  Alan Blackman – The Coastal Suite

Alan Blackman - "The Coastal Suite"A suite based on a one-day cycle on the water’s edge, and married to watercolor paintings of an artist who specializes in that theme, this sublime recording has all the serenity of that landscape, as well as its nuanced unpredictability.  I was taken right in by this mesmerizing recording, an album which has become a bit of a refuge for me from those days when life just won’t get the hell out of my face.  Along with the below link to the review, if you search on Blackman’s name on my site, you’ll pull up a video for which album music is set against the paintings associated with the various songs.  Just beautiful music… the kind in which the artist succinctly translates the source of inspiration and leaves plenty of room for the listener to personalize the music to themselves.

The album is Self-Produced.

A Bird is the Worm review HERE.

*****

18.  Frank Wess – Magic 101

Frank Wess - "Magic 101"A bittersweet entry for this one.  Veteran saxophonist (and flautist) Wess recently passed away, not long after the release of this album, and just before the follow-up (hitting the streets in 2014).  The most straight-ahead and old-school of all the albums in this year’s Best Of list.  What I find most remarkable about the album is how much listening to it made me feel like back in the day when I was just discovering Jazz and picking up albums by McCoy Tyner and Donald Byrd and Red Garland… this sense of excitement, about this new music, sounding so fresh and alive and vibrant, with no thought to the fact that it was decades old, because it sounded like today.  Well, this music is from Today, and it sounds like it, even as it breathes the bop and swing and swagger of Jazz from fifty years ago.  Outstanding.

Released on IPO Recordings.

A Bird is the Worm review HERE.

*****

19.  Will Martina – Modular Living By Design

Will Martina - "Modular Living By Design"Not easy leading a jazz ensemble as cellist, but Will Martina has pulled off the feat successfully on his last two recordings.  The previous release The Dam Levels was remarkably straight-ahead.  On his newest, he dips more into the chamber jazz thing, but pianist Jason Lindner knows how to work a groove, and drummer Richie Barshay can work the crease between jazz and indie-rock, and so the album has more intimate warmth than a stately elegance more common to chamber jazz recordings.  That makes this a winner, with a series of sublime pieces that twitter with life and glide along on pretty melodies.

The album is Self-Produced.

A Bird is the Worm review HERE.

*****

20.  Operation Northwoods – The Bureau of Fiction

Operation Northwoods - "Bureau of Fiction"A chamber jazz recording that makes as effective use of silence and pauses as any recording released in 2013.  An album for the late nights when the city is asleep and you don’t want to play anything that might wake it and shatter the beautiful silence.  And, yet, this isn’t sleepy music.  With no bass or drums, the quartet has to share the heavy work on developing a tempo, and their punchy attitude keeps things lively.  But the real joy on this recording are the sublime fragments of melody that the quartet lifts up into the air and lets hang there for a brief, beautiful moment before drifting delicately away… just to be replaced by the next, and the next, and the next.  A gorgeous recording, in a cerebral sort of way.

Released on PJCE Records.

A Bird is the Worm review HERE.

*****

21.  Brian Landrus Kaleidoscope – Mirage

Brian Landrus - "Mirage"I was perpetually fascinated throughout the year in how Landrus was able to mesmerize with his blend of mainstream jazz, old-school soul jazz, and string quartet.  A reed man who specializes in the low end of the register, Landrus’s music had the added gift of the haunting warmth of contra-alto & bass clarinets and bass & bari saxes.  This, when balanced against the lightness of strings and the shimmering glow of a mainstream sound, resulted in a textured sound that hit the mark time and time again.  Just a remarkable album.

Released on BlueLand Records.

A Bird is the Worm review HERE.

*****

22.  Gary Burton Quartet – Guided Tour

Gary Burton - "Guided Tour"The communion between Burton’s vibes and Julian Lage’s guitar is the winning formula on this recording.  Sanchez and Colley on drums and bass sure didn’t hurt, but Burton’s icy brightness and Lage’s charming twang was a partnership in sound that gave this album its defining character.  An instance where a straight-ahead recording differentiates itself from the pack, and displays that there is no end to the singular ways to express old languages in new, exciting ways.

Released on Mack Avenue Records.

A Bird is the Worm review HERE.

*****

23.  Matt Holman’s Diversion Ensemble – When Flooded

Matt Holman - "When Flooded"Back when I made this album my eMusic Pick of the Week, I described this recording as having a “heavy serenity.”  I still think that’s an apt description.  The trumpet led outing possesses a gravity that precludes analogizing this album with terms of flight, and yet the addition of clarinets, guitar, and cello provides a delicate touch that belies its prevalent weightiness.  That contrast is one of the qualities that make this such a winning album.  Beautiful drifting melodies would be another.

Released on Brooklyn Jazz Underground.

A Bird is the Worm review HERE.

*****

24.  Damir Out Loud – Graduation Day

Damir Out Loud - "Graduation Day"There is an abiding warmth to this music that has never waned for me.  Modern in approach, and yet it hits on enough hard bop moments of the past to appeal to both the old- and new-schooler in me.  Melodies that emerge suddenly, but structured in a way that keeps on the memory long after each song has ended.  The interplay between trumpet and vibes carries the day on this charming debut recording, and solidify its position as one of the best recordings of 2013.

Released on Unit Records.

A Bird is the Worm review HERE.

*****

25.  Goran Kajfes Subtropic Arkestra – The Reason Why Vol. 1

Goran Kajfes - "The Reason Why Vol 1"The hyper-exhilaration of this album just won’t fade with time.  Backed by his Subtropic Arkestra, Kajfes channels the simultaneous imagery of outer space big band jazz like Sun Ra, and the finely textured ambient drive of Krautrock acts like Cluster, while voicing this music with his personal blend of jazz, rock, and psychedelia.  This recording’s spot-on blend of colorful orchestration, catchy melodies, and rhythmic fireworks would be equally at home in late-night dance halls as it would be as a soundtrack to a James Bond action flick.  There’s something undeniably cool about this music, enhanced by its ability to elicit smiles on command.

Released on Headspin Recordings.

A Bird is the Worm review HERE.

*****

26.  Mike McGinnis – Ängsudden Song Cycle

Mike McGinnis - "Angsudden Song Cycle"This chamber jazz recording that merges jazz, classical, folk, and poetry seems a bit daunting at first blush, but the more I listened to this album, the friendlier it became… until it got to where I couldn’t figure out why I didn’t get along famously with it right from the start.  A haunting beauty to go with warm harmonies and the occasional catchy melody.  Music inspired by the majestic beauty of Swedish Angsudden archipelago, and that beauty translates right on through.  I could’ve easily justified featuring McGinnis’s album in my Something Different series… and I might have, had I not grown so familiar with the music as to where it began sounding quite normal.

Released on 482 Music.

A Bird is the Worm review HERE.

*****

27.  Christian Muthspiel 4 – Seaven Teares

Christian Muthspiel - "Seaven Teares"This chamber jazz recording is an extended lullaby, a suite of good night tunes that only seem to be separated by the brief moments of silence between tracks.  The trombone’s mix of punchy attitude and delicate sonorous murmurs is probably what sells me on this album, though the way vibes enhances both of those qualities might be what seals the deal.  An album I keep coming back to, and one that works splendidly for those peaceful times of early morning and late night, when it seems like the whole world is asleep and the music fills the silence with sublime, peaceful sounds.

Released on ACT Music.

A Bird is the Worm review HERE.

*****

28.  Power of the Horns – Alaman

Power of the Horns - "Alaman"This one still bowls me over.  An avant-garde big band that shouts to the skies with the same wild abandon of similar ensembles of the 70s free improv scene.  Melodies don’t stick around for long, as both soloists and accompaniment go charging off in random directions.  But through all that wild swinging and swerving, the rhythm section is a tight air tunnel of focus, keeping the tunes on the tracks no matter how many explosions the band sets off from the engine room.  Fun, exciting, and all kinds of maniacal.  Pure creative energy, unbounded and limitless.

Released on For-Tune Records.

A Bird is the Worm review HERE.

*****

29.  Cliff Hines – Wanderlust

Cliff Hines - "Wanderlust"I still don’t know what to make of this recording.  It’s pretty common for younger musicians to utilize all the influences in their development to that point and attempt to present as many of the creative thoughts bouncing around in their heads all at once.  This often leads to some crazily exciting music, with the measure of success a secondary consideration.  Wanderlust is a mix of modern and old-school jazz, pop music, folk, ambient post-rock, and probably a few other things I’m leaving out.  Somehow it all works.  And, more specifically, it works like a charm.  Most impressive perhaps is that this album possesses a single identity, an album cohesion locked in place regardless of how the shifting tides of influence and expression change throughout this very fun, very likable, near magical recording.  There was just no way to leave this off my Best of 2013 list.

The album is Self-Produced.

A Bird is the Worm review HERE.

*****

30.  Nashaz – Nashaz

Nashaz - "Nashaz"An album with catchy melodies and breezy rhythms.  The rhythmic element is terrifically dynamic, and the fact that it’s so rich and yet retains a light fluid motion is a testament to the music’s enduring strength.  Based upon the theory of maqam, an approach typical to traditional Arabic music, Nashaz is able to build songs around strong melodies that serve as a launching pad for improvisation.  And it gives the opportunity to hear the oud as the lead instrument on a jazz recording, and illustrates just how vast is Jazz’s range of expressiveness.

The album is Self-Produced.

A Bird is the Worm review HERE.

*****

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