Best of 2012

 

For 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.

There is a link to a more formal review following each entry. The text that accompanies each album isn’t a review so much as reminiscences of aspects of the recording I liked when I first heard it and how I still feel about it now. I wasn’t looking to sum any of them up… that’s what reviews are for. 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/helpful to me at the time.

 

The Top Albums of 2012:

 

1. Adam Fairhall – The Imaginary Delta

If I had to point to one album that exemplified the thriving state of Jazz, and its undeniable hope for the future, it would be The Imaginary Delta. By mixing traditional instruments and forms with modern instruments and composition, Fairhall is simultaneously forward-thinking while still tending to the roots of Jazz’s past. And, really, both those things are important. Jazz is about tradition, just as Jazz is about innovation. Most jazz musicians are able to do one of those things well, a smaller group are able to do one of those things great… but it’s a rare thing for an artist to do both of those things, simultaneously, great. Fairhall has done that here. Inventive music that echoes the spirit of Charles Mingus.  The Bird is the Worm 2012 Album of the Year. 

Released on the SLAM Productions label.

A Bird is the Worm review here.

*****

 

2. Amit Friedman – Sunrise

Friedman’s blend of Jazz and Middle-East music has had me enthusiastic all year long. An album that often soars, but doesn’t forget to swing. This is the kind of joyful music that defines Jazz as something special. Many Jazz albums have a joyful sound, but rarely one as inspiring as Sunrise. It still hits me right square in the heart. I originally wrote that it was an album I wanted to shout from the rooftops and share with the world. I still do.

Released on the Origin Arts label.

A Bird is the Worm review here.

*****

 

3. Omer Avital – Suite of the East

Avital makes the kind of music that I know years from now, decades even, that’ll I’ll come back to with the same enthusiasm that I do John Handy’s Live at Monterey and John Coltrane’s Live at Newport ’63. The kind of surging energy that culminates with joyful expressiveness, and part-and-parcel with intelligent music that isn’t trying to take the easy route to the listener’s heart.

Released on the Anzic Records label.

A Bird is the Worm review here.

*****

 

4. Matt Ulery – By a Little Light

This double-disc recording still leaves me in awe. A mix of jazz, classical, and folk that behaves more as a creation of a brand new sound rather than an amalgamation of its elements. Even surrounded by orchestration, Ulery displays the ability to sound small and vulnerable. But mostly, this is Big Music of an expansive scope and breadth. Art needs time to incubate, to let time bring context to the bigger picture. In the instance of By a Little Light, the endgame on that equation is a question of ‘masterpiece.’ This may very be just that.

Released on the Greenleaf Music label.

A Bird is the Worm review here.

*****

 

5. Jeremy Siskind – Finger-Songwriter

jeremysiskind_fingersongwriterA trio of piano, vocals, and bass clarinet/sax. A storytelling flair that could give Tom Waits a run for his money. Heartbreak stories about hopeless cases who can’t stop hoping for the best. Siskind has plenty of page-turning moments on keys, but doesn’t hog the spotlight from his trio mates. Harms has a way with vocals that give jawdropping turns of vulnerability and disarming playful missives. Pino charms on bass clarinet, and provides a noir-ish ambiance to an album that is moody as hell. Also, what you hear on the album is what you get live… the trio is just as evocative in a live setting. One of those albums that just seems to materialize out of thin air, full of intensity and presence.

This album is Self-Produced.

A Bird is the Worm review here.

*****

 

6. Lynne Arriale – Solo

lynnearriale_solo_dssAlbums like this is why piano solo recordings exist. Arriale finds the right mix of emotional punch and technical facility, and that means both the heart and the brain are going to be engaged completely for fifty-two amazing minutes. Probably most under-recognized on this album of potent melodies is Arriale’s deft manipulation of tempos. Also, second track “The Dove” may be the most beautiful song I’ve heard in the last decade. I’m listening to it now as I type this, and it no less affecting than it was when I first heard it earlier this year. Outstanding.

Released on the Motema Records label.

A Bird is the Worm review here.

*****

 

7. Peggy Lee Band – Invitation

Cellist Lee has pretty much discovered the perfect synthesis of avant-garde jazz and classical, and she’s methodically been amassing an impressive discography of her signature sound. An album where sharp dissonance and sublime beauty cohabit in peaceful harmony, I find myself drawn through the recording track by track, pulled ahead in anticipation of sounds that will perpetually keep me guessing. Inventive, original, and a display of the many shades of beauty.

Released on the Drip Audio label.

A Bird is the Worm review here.

*****

 

8. Erik Jekabson – Anti-Mass

Trumpeter Jekabson brings a little bit of chamber jazz sound to his modern straight-ahead compositions, but it’s got all kinds of potency, not unlike how a little bit of excellent whiskey can help me shake off the effects of a bitter winter day. Strings and sax weave all kinds of lovely patterns through this excellent recording, but it’s soaring trumpet lines and bass work that really gives this album its sun and its soil. One of those albums that made an excellent first impression, then dug its heels in and began impressing all over again with methodical slowly accumulating appreciation. An album of elegance, soul, and distant beauty. The inspiration for each album composition were pieces of art at the DeYoung Museum, which, actually, goes a long way to explaining the elegance, soul, and distant beauty of the music.

The album is Self-Produced, released under Jekab’s Music.

A Bird is the Worm review here.

*****

 

9. Marc Bernstein – Good People Music

This is an album that’s been a refuge for me all year long. A quartet featuring two vets at the top of their game, the interplay between Bernstein’s saxes and bass clarinet and the percussion of Billy Hart makes the right balance of fire and earth. Casual in a way that becomes sublime, while letting its synapses fire at will, this is unquiet music for quiet moments. My review link leads only to a Tiny Review I wrote as part of my eMusic column. I always meant to write more about this album, something that would make more apparent my feelings on how strong this recording is. But it just never happened. Maybe later. Slotting it at number nine of my Best of 2012 list will have to suffice for now.

Released on the Blackout Music label.

A Bird is the Worm review here.

*****

 

10. Blommor Inomhus – Blommor Inomhus

I just can’t get enough of this album. A trio of trombone, piano, and vocals who add orchestration for some tracks, the tunes shift between sweet ferocity and edgy lightness. Melodies are so damn catchy, but have a rustic bite to them. Almgren’s evocative vocals have a carefree appeal that could give indie-pop stars a run for their money. I love how orchestra goes from gilded accompaniment to washing everything over. This is fun music. It sounds Alive. There is a freshness to this music that is so buoyant, and which fills me with enthusiasm each time it starts up again. Perhaps a slightly unconventional choice at #10 on the list, but this is one of those recordings that says to me, This Is What Music Is All About.

This album is Self-Produced.

A Bird is the Worm review here.

*****

 

11. Pete Robbins – Live in Basel

peterobbins_liveinbaselFrom a live performance while on tour, Robbins brings a studio warmth to the vivid persona of a live recording. Robbins knows how to giftwrap a complex melody into a simple present, and it’s the highlight of this album. Interplay between quartet members an added bonus, but it’s the tunefulness of the album tracks that makes this recording so damn addictive. I already had a pretty strong like of past Robbins’ recordings, but he really upped the bar to my mind with this release. Robbins is making his mark.

The album is Self-Produced, released on Robbin’s Hate Laugh Music label.

A Bird is the Worm review here.

*****

 

12. Todd Bishop Group – Little Played Little Bird

toddbishop_littleplayedlittlebirdSo, take obscure compositions from the songbook of a challenging artist and perform renditions… the math for that equation should result in something resembling a didactic lecture of music theory and not the refreshingly listenable Little Played Little Bird. Todd Bishop tackles the music of Ornette Coleman, and without watering down the source material, has created a recording that was both tuneful and a fun listen. It’s an impressive accomplishment, and a solid album when judged on its own merits. I find this album as infectious at the end of the year as I did when it originally came out.

Released on the Origin Arts label.

A Bird is the Worm review here.

*****

 

13. Martin Hoper – The Bride

martinhoper_thebrideHoper knows how to present brooding music without letting things spiral down into bleak sadness. From the Stockholm, Sweden scene, this is full-on Scandinavian Jazz sound. Brooding, contemplative, and melancholy… though it largely avoids much of the trite atmospherics that typifies some of the music coming out of the area. End result is a thoughtful album with some soul. Some heartbreakingly beautiful tunes that never lose their emotional impact, no matter how frequently I listen to this recording. And I’ve listened to it a lot in 2012. Just beautiful.

Released on the Hoob Records label.

A Bird is the Worm review here.

*****

 

14. Andy Clausen – Wishbone Suite

Trombonist Clausen’s daring Wishbone Suite sounds much bigger than it really is. Just a quintet that gives the impression of a larger ensemble, and whimsical quirky compositions that suggest the breadth of an epic journey, Clausen has made serious music a fun listen. His differing ratios of jazz and classical have perpetually kept my ear guessing, and the proliferation of short tracks and interludes allows him spread out variations of similar themes, creating a sense of cohesion amidst the sprawling album of tunes. Mechanically eccentric, yet simple as clockwork.

Released on the Table & Chairs Music label.

A Bird is the Worm review here.

*****

 

15. Jesse van Ruller Chambertones Trio – The Ninth Planet

Ruller’s trio of guitar, bass clarinet, and bass brings the moodiness of the Netherlands scene full-on, and applies it to a chamber jazz format. Sparse and haunting, yet so full of warmth. Quiet music for quiet moments, but performed in a way to keep the brain’s synapses fully occupied. This album has been in regular rotation on my stereo since I first discovered it, and it’s showing no signs of going away. I’m a fan of sleepy music, but it’s the albums that also let some life shine through that gain my esteem. One of those albums that does more with less.

Released on the C-String Records label.

A Bird is the Worm review here.

*****

 

16. Todd Marcus – Inheritance

Todd Marcus - "Inheritance"I’ve always had a thing for bass clarinet. A deep soulful sound that likes to spill messy notes that are fuzzy at the edges. Marcus shows that need not always be the case. Displaying the instruments ability to sound crisp and clear, Marcus swings through a set of modern tunes that are equally joyful and engaging. Slight influence of Middle East music just adds to the intrigue. Straight-ahead jazz, but nothing straight-forward about it. An album that keeps getting better to my ears with each subsequent listen.

Released on the Hipnotic Records label.

A Bird is the Worm review here.

*****

 

17. Jacob Garchik – The Heavens

Garchik’s nine-part suite for trombone choir, with each part performed by himself solo, should alone be enough to earn him a slot somewhere on a Best Of list… but that, in the process, he created a supremely listenable album from the seed of a tricky premise just makes the feat all the more remarkable. Soulful, joyous, and celebratory. Modern jazz that will appeal to fans up and down the continuum.

The album is Self-Produced, released on Garchik’s own Yestereve Records.

A Bird is the Worm review here.

*****

 

18. Jessica Lurie – Megaphone Heart

This was the album I’d been waiting for from Lurie. Her mix of Seattle-infused rainy-day jazz and Balkan folk always appealed to me personally, and spoke of the innovation and originality so relevant to a discussion of Jazz’s best qualities. But as much as I enjoyed Shop of Wild Dreams and Licorice & Smoke, there was something slightly uneven about them. On Megaphone Heart, Lurie offers up an expanded tunefulness that elevates this recording to a higher plateau. And that she does this without losing her edge or compromising her voice just goes to show how substantive her music development is. It’s fun to listen in as a musician’s sound develops, and even better when the result is as special as this album is. Honestly, I’ll probably go back and re-tag my original review of this album to be included in the Something Different review series. This album and artist totally nail the inclusion criteria. The title-track still sends chills up my spine.

The album is Self-Produced.

A Bird is the Worm review here.

*****

 

19. Florian Hoefner Group – Songs Without Words

Of all the albums in my Top 30, this one here may be the recording most focused on jazz composition as songs. Aside from a free-form opening track, the other album tracks have some conventional forms for composition bookends and the melodies are all wheat-no chaff, and give just the right whiff of pop-music sensibility. Length of album tracks aren’t too short, nor too long. And it’s the thoughtful care Hoefner put into the creation of these melodies that makes this a signature album. Complex emotions are made deceptively simple, and a recording that gives plenty of opportunity to hum along is also one that will stimulate some serious thought.

Released on the Origin Arts label.

A Bird is the Worm review here.

*****

 

20. Rebecca Trescher’s Hochzeit Null11 – Sud

I keep waiting for the spark to die on this album, but it just won’t quit. Led by Trescher’s woodwinds, this plays Music To Prowl To. Ominous, dangerous, and an obvious weight to its punch. Yet just when things get all heavy, Trescher floats a sublime melody through the room, and everything is beautiful. Contemplative to be sure, but it’s also got an emotional subtext that’s subtle, but makes its presence known. Fans of Marty Ehrlich should be all over this recording. Sweetly unconventional.

Released on the Metropol Musik label.

A Bird is the Worm review here.

*****

 

21. Jeremy Udden – Folk Art

Jeremy Udden - "Folk Art"This is the third Plainville ensemble album saxophonist Udden has recorded, and it continues the trend of deconstructing the sublime beauty of the first and exploring Udden’s singular folk jazz sound. With each subsequent album, Udden has managed to engage my brain at increasing strengths without relinquishing its emotional pull. That’s a pretty deft trick to pull off. It’s also why I continue to express my belief that Udden is onto something here, and that his voice will be an important one on the development of Jazz in years to come.

Released on the Fresh Sound Records label.

A Bird is the Worm review here.

*****

 

22. Sunny Kim – Painters Eye

Just a beautiful symbiosis between Kim’s vocals and Ben Monder’s guitar. There’s more to the ensemble than just those two, but it’s their interplay that really has caused this album to remain on my radar for so long. Kim’s inspiration for the compositions was an Impressionist painter and poet, and the music has a presence and a motion that suggests both those sources. Haunting music of a hazy nature, songs that are sharp in contrast except when they become like mist. Beautiful stuff, and an album I keep returning to.

Released on the Sunnyside Records label.

A Bird is the Worm review here.

*****

 

23. Piet Verbist – Zygomatik

pietverbist_zygomatic_dssA high-energy recording that just bounces rambunctiously off the walls. Bassist Verbist and keyboardist Bram Weijters aren’t new to one another, and the synthesis on display backs that up. With some excitable drumming and a crowd of saxophones, this album has a swagger while keeping in party-time mode. An album that understands that laying a groove on thick negates an essential lightness. This has that Friday Night On The Town bombast not unlike Lee Morgan’s The Gigolo. An album that never stops being fun.

Released on the Origin Arts label.

A Bird is the Worm review here.

*****

 

24. Jean Lapouge – Des Enfants

Lapouge’s trio of guitar, trombone, and vibes is both soothing and eerie. Reminiscent of the Bill Frisell recording Quartet with a bit of 80s ambient prog-rock thrown in for good measure. I am persistently drawn to this little mystery of an album. It sounds so different, yet so simple in its delivery, that while I find it challenging on many levels, nothing about the music presents an obstacle to just sitting back and disengaging. It’s lack of conventionalism only adds to this album’s beauty.

Released on the Musea Records label.

A Bird is the Worm review here.

*****

 

25. Chambr – Freewheel

I considered leaving this one off the list. A sextet that features all strings except for one member on percussion, this is a group that strays far enough out of Jazz territory for it to be included on a Best of Jazz list. With classical and folk the predominant influences, Freewheel does possess much of the folky romanticism and chamber jazz austerity of older World Jazz groups, notably Oregon, especially their earlier recordings on the Vanguard label, not to mention some chipper gypsy swing that can trace its roots back to Jazz territory. What it all came down to really was that this is music with a soaring beauty that deserves inclusion on a Best Of list, genre slap-fighting be damned.

Released on the F-IRE Collective label.

A Bird is the Worm review here.

*****

 

26.  Motian Sickness: The Music of Paul Motian – For the Love of Sarah

The music of Paul Motian isn’t an easy safe to crack, possessing a quiet strength that’s both subtle and obtuse.  Drummer Jeff Cosgrove found a way in, however, and came back out with his own sound and vision of Motian’s music.  With an overt bluegrass/folk sheen to his jazz interpretations, Cosgrove’s ensemble found the right mix of haunting warmth to do honor the late great drummer, while also bringing a unique recording to the table.  This is the type of album I listen to only on occasion but when I do, I completely immerse myself in it.  This music is self-contained, like losing oneself for a short time in a little-known far-away place.  Very cool.

The album is Self-Produced.

A Bird is the Worm review here.

*****

 

27.  Miguel Zenon / Laurent Coq Quartet – Rayuela

Laurent Coq - "Rayuela"Based on a book that gave the freedom to approach the story in different ways, so it goes on Rayeula that complexities and wrinkles are woven into the fabric of beautifully textured music.  This is one of those recordings that dropped my jaw the first time I heard it, then slowly displayed other, more subtle reasons to appreciate it over the course of time.  Zenon increasingly establishes himself as one of the premier voices in Jazz on saxophone, and Coq shows himself to be the perfect foil on piano, counterbalancing Zenon’s fire with some keyboard ice.  The inspired decision to include Dana Leong on cello and trombone, and add tabla and various other percussion to Dan Weiss’s ensemble responsibilities both add elements to the music that imbues it with a vibrant color that elevates this album up a notch.  Challenging music that is simple to enjoy.

Released on the Sunnyside Records label.

A Bird is the Worm review here.

*****

 

28.  Dialogues Trio w/Julian Siegel – Twinkle Twinkle

I’m enamored with the premise of building an album around compositions based on the children’s lullaby “Twinkle Twinkle.”  It’s the right kind of clever.  However, while there is a soothing nighttime quality to this music, these ain’t song to fall asleep to.  When I first sat down to listen to this recording, my assumption is that it would be something not unlike an ECM piano trio snoozer.  But, actually, most tracks are quite lively, and far more representative of Babel Label’s inventive catalog of releases.  Solid, from first note to last.

Released on the Babel Label.

A Bird is the Worm review here.

*****

 

29.  Threads Orchestra – Ranch

Threads Orchestra’s sophomore release leaves behind much of the genre-warping it artfully performed on its debut Threads, and instead focus on a seamless mix of jazz, classical, and folk as its vehicle for presenting some of the more compelling music on the scene.  A cinematic presence with a theatrical flair, the album reflects the music for unperformed theater as dreamt up in composer Jonathan Brigg’s head.  This ensemble has proven over the course of two albums that they won’t hesitate to experiment without having to compromise making their music an effortless listen.

The album is Self-Produced.

A Bird is the Worm review here.

*****

 

30.  Beppe di Benedetto 5tet – See the Sky

There’s a relentlessness to this album that’s always appealed to me.  It can be felt even when di Benedetto’s ensemble takes to the sky to soar or when it slows things down to slowly crunch over earth.  A straight-ahead recording that should appeal to both new and old-schoolers alike.

Released on the TRJ Records label.

A Bird is the Worm review here.

*****

 

 

These lists are tough.

Cheers.

-Dave

4 Responses to Best of 2012

  1. Beppe says:

    Hi Dave, thanks you very much for appreciating my album and my music, i think you have a very good ear ;-)
    Hope to hear you soon.
    Beppe Di Benedetto

  2. davesumner says:

    Next update on October 1st (or shortly thereafter).

  3. davesumner says:

    Sorry, I know I said I’d have the update done by now. Soon, my lovelies, very soon. I’m thinking this Sunday or Tuesday.

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