1. Dawn Upshaw and Maria Schneider, Winter Morning Walks (ArtistShare).
Is this jazz? It’s nominated for three Grammys in the classical competition, it’s performed by chamber orchestras (alternately the St. Paul and the Australian), and the lyrics (taken from poems by Ted Kooser and Carlos Drummond de Andrade) are sung by the opera singer Dawn Upshaw. Then again, Maria Schneider—the pre-eminent big-band composer of our time—fuses classical idioms (strands of Copland, Barber, and Ives) with her jazz sensibility (rooted in, but now well past, her mentors Gil Evans and Bob Brookmeyer); she augments the orchestras with a handful of her usual bandmates (for an edge of swing); and, to hell with labels, this is simply gorgeous music. Schneider has evolved into a composer beyond category, and this may be her pinnacle achievement. Available from her website: mariaschneider.com.
2. Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society, Brooklyn Babylon (New Amsterdam Records).
Darcy James Argue’s first album, Infernal Machines, was the most promising big-band debut in a long time, and his follow-up fulfills all expectations. The score was first performed at the Brooklyn Academy of Music as a multimedia piece, with his 18-piece ensemble backing a stream of drawings and animation by the graphic-novel artist Danijel Žeželj. Argue calls his music “steampunk big band,” and it exudes a heady mix of propulsive rhythms, indigo dissonance, and march beats, at once boisterous …
… and teeming with mystery:
3. Marc Cary, For the Love of Abbey (Motema Music).
The pianist Marc Cary once accompanied the singer Abbey Lincoln, and this tribute album is a deeply pleasurable surprise. He makes a passionate case for her brilliance as a composer and embellishes her songs with adventurous harmonies and burnished romance.
4. William Parker, Wood Flute Songs: Anthology/Live 2006-2012. (AUM Fidelity).
William Parker is an astonishing bassist, composer, and bandleader, a longtime staple in New York’s experimental jazz scene, and this eight-CD boxed set of live concerts—mainly with his quartet, a few with added guests—is a wonder. It occasionally drifts into noise, but in the main it’s riveting, even danceable. Imagine Ornette Coleman’s classic quartet but with the bass and drums hoisting the lead, i.e., with rhythm trumping melody—and it’s worth noting that the drummer, Hamid Drake, is every bit as hair-raising as Parker. (If eight CDs is too deep a plunge, you can buy each disc as a separate download: a twofer combining discs 1 and 2 is the best start.)
5. Dave Douglas, Time Travel (Greenleaf Music).
Dave Douglas is the most inventive jazz trumpeter around, and this—his 40th album in 20 years as a leader—is a serpentine cruise through the full range of his styles: raucous, intricate, always accessible, clearly rooted in Monk, Miles, film noir, and New Orleans, but always distinctively original. His new quintet—Jon Irabagon on tenor sax, Matt Mitchell on piano, Rudy Royston on drums, and especially Linda Oh on bass—is his best in years.
6. Steve Coleman and Five Elements, Functional Arrhythmias (Pi Recordings).
Alto saxophonist Steve Coleman has long explored new ways of fusing improvisation and structure, especially in ways that simulate heartbeats and contrapuntal nerve bursts coursing through the human body. The concept sounds twee on paper, but this is a terrific album, dense with crisscrossing lines locked in a tight, pulsating tandem.
7. John Zorn, Dreamachines (Tzadik).
John Zorn, the former bad boy of Manhattan’s downtown jazz scene, is now a modern master touted by the city’s centers of high culture, and while he hasn’t lost his spunk or verve, his music these days is less angry, more lyrical. He’s long experimented with musical versions of the “cut-up” techniques of William Burroughs, who in the early ’60s cut up passages he’d written, then rearranged them randomly, as in collage. But while Zorn’s earlier takes had a slash-and-burn feel, this new album is infused with melody, wit, even beauty. Zorn doesn’t play his alto sax, but conducts his longtime associates: John Medeski, piano; Kenny Wollesen, vibes; Joey Baron, drums; Trevor Dunn, bass. It’s a head-spinning delight.
8. Matthew Shipp, Piano Sutras (Thirsty Ear).
The pianist Matthew Shipp comes out of the avant-garde tradition, studying with Ran Blake and playing for years with Roscoe Mitchell and David S. Ware, but in this solo album he laces his syncopated dirges and blue notes with a lilting lyricism.
9. Ben Goldberg, Subatomic Particle Homesick Blues (BAG Production).
As the title suggests, this is a seriously playful album: witty, joyous, embracing a range of roots from the outré harmonies of Monk and Andrew Hill to the early blues of Ornette Coleman to the gentle freedom of Jimmy Giuffre. Goldberg is a West Coast clarinetist, too little-known back East (though he plays on the soundtrack of the film Nebraska). His top-notch band includes Josh Redman on tenor sax and Ron Miles on trumpet. Quietly terrific.
10. Preservation Hall Jazz Band, That’s It! (Legacy Recordings). This one’s pure fun: the New Orleans treasure blaring all new songs, sounding more like the R&B-drenched clubs on Frenchmen Street than the trad-jazz repertoire that it usually unfurls in its austere historic hall.* The octet—trumpet, trombone, two tubas, two reeds, piano, and drums (with some of the musicians switching to sing as well)—is still in great high-low form.
BEST REISSUES OR HISTORICAL ALBUMS:
Clifford Jordan, The Complete Strata-East Sessions (Mosaic Records).
This is a breathtaking release: a six-CD boxed set of albums on the Strata-East label, a small artist-owned company of the ’70s, that were rarities even in their day, featuring Clifford Jordan, Eric Dolphy, Don Cherry, Ed Blackwell, Wilbur Ware, Roy Haynes, and more. (Available only from mosaicrecords.com.)
Jim Hall, Live, Vol. 2-4 (ArtistShare).
A three-CD set of trio sessions from 1975 by the great guitarist Jim Hall, who just died. These are unreleased outtakes from the album Live, widely considered Hall’s best, and they’re no less stellar.
*Correction, Dec. 19, 2013: This article originally misspelled New Orleans' Frenchmen Street. (Return.)
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