1.) Regina Carter, “Reverse Thread” (E1) – For years, I’ve been waiting for the best jazz violinist of her generation to make an album as great as she is. Not that she hasn’t been placed in contexts that complement her range and virtuosity before now, but her previous discs (not counting those where she’s been an often-galvanizing guest star) have in varied ways fallen short of conveying the flamboyant charge of her live performances. This assortment of African-inspired jewels, finally, delivers the goods – and then some. The blend of instrumentalists is zesty – two accordions (Will Holshouser, Gary Versace), two basses (Mamadou Ba, Chris Lightcap), guitar (Adam Rogers) and percussion (Alvester Garnett). Add to this mix Yacouba Sissoko on the kora, a 12-string West African harp used by griots, and you have a disc that is, from start to finish, the most thrilling and gorgeous dance music imaginable from an artist steeped in jazz, but now even more “beyond category” than she was before.
2.) Jason Moran, “Ten” (Blue Note) – The MacArthur “genius grant” he received this year only validates a ticket he’s been carrying around for most of this new century, at least as far as serious jazz heads are concerned. Both the foundation’s gift and this disc combine to provide a fitting capstone to Moran’s decade of habitual brilliance. As with all his best recordings, Moran plays here as if he embodied the whole 20th century of jazz piano from old-time striding to post-bop romanticism to polyrhythmic R&B/hip-hop extensions. (Yeah I know, but if you’re so smart, you come up with a better description of “Gangsterism Over 10 Years.”) “Ten” also firmly establishes his trio, with bassist Tarus Mateen and drummer Nasheet Watts, as one of those all-time, all-world combos whose members seem to anticipate each other’s thoughts and intentions in the quicksilver manner of an elite basketball team overpowering hapless opponents on its home court.
3.) Geri Allen, “Flying Toward the Sound” (Motema) – Sooner or later, someone is going to have to declare Professor Allen a national treasure, which is among the precious few honors she hasn’t collected in a lifetime of laudable accomplishments. This “Solo Piano Excursion Inspired by Cecil Taylor, McCoy Tyner and Herbie Hancock” (her words) is by far her most breathtaking dare yet; a suite of nine pieces whose deliberately crafted format frees her to take off on stunning harmonic combinations, some lyrical and ruminative, others surging off the keyboard with speed, power and poise. As a storyteller trafficking in mystical and spiritual themes, she can caress and upend, often in the same narrative passage. You hear not only the lessons she’s absorbed from the three influences cited above, but also those she learned from Mary Lou Williams, Bud Powell, Betty Carter, Ornette Coleman and Charlie Haden. I’d be willing to label this her masterpiece if I wasn’t sure she’s capable of even greater astonishments to come.
4.) Henry Threadgill Zooid, “This Brings Us To: Volume II” (PI) –As with Threadgill’s peers who cultivated their artistry under the aegis of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Music (AACM), it is best to consider his music analogous to scientific or spiritual inquiry. Putting it another way, whenever Threadgill hears something that even vaguely offers possibilities if it’s blended with something unfamiliar and/or intriguing, he follows his impulse and doesn’t worry too much about what others think. A long time ago, this kind of thinking was labeled “avant-garde” and Zooid, a quintet which meshes his flute and alto sax with Liberty Elfman’s guitar, Jose Davila’s trombone and tuba, Stomu Takeishi’s bass and Elliot Kavee’s drums, offers wary and credulous listeners alike (relatively) easy access to what remains both unsettlingly bold and oddly familiar about such experimentation. Take hold of whatever instrument, rhythmic pattern or riff you want for ballast and you may end up captivated by what Threadgill and his gang are up to. Not everyone wants to hang around these neighborhoods, but there are unexpected rewards for those who do.
5.) Ted Nash & Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, “Portrait in Seven Shades” (J@LC) – Nash, a quality mensch as a reed player and composer, has been one of the glittering ornaments of Wynton Marsalis’ uptown confab for a decade. The eponymous suite, commissioned by Marsalis, written by Nash and premiered three years ago, uses seven great artists as inspirations for some colorful sonic painting on a big-band canvas. “Dali,” for instance, is propelled by an inexorably eccentric 13/8 tempo upon which solos by Nash and trumpeter Marcus Printup distend themselves like timepieces in “The Persistence of Memory.” By contrast, “Chagall” brings in Natalie Bonin’s violin and Bill Schimmel’s accordion to help evoke the painter’s winsome, carnival-esque theatricality. Perhaps appropriately, it’s “Picasso” that dominates the whole enterprise with motifs that unfurl like giant flags and fire-breathing solos by trombonist Vincent Gardner and Marsalis (who, as always, sounds serenely locked in his comfort zone as a role player).
6.) Fred Hersch Trio, “Whirl” (Palmetto) – Hersch has pulled himself through physical travail to play with as much craft, energy and passion as he ever did. What makes this characteristically fine album especially gratifying is the showcase it offers for Hersch as composer. He wrote six of the album’s ten selections and each deserves consideration for anybody’s regular repertoire, especially the enchanting title track, the irresistibly hooky “Skipping” and two Brazilian-inspired pieces, “Mandevilla” and “Sad Poet,” the latter dedicated to Antonio Carlos Jobim’s memory. “Snow is Falling…” would be a fine addition to someone’s holiday anthology while “Still Here,” though written in tribute to Wayne Shorter, could just as easily apply to this trio’s imperturbable, seemingly indefatigable leader.
7.) Cassandra Wilson, “Silver Pony” (Blue Note) – It’s been only three years since Wilson’s previous new release, yet it somehow seems a lot longer. Perhaps it’s because so much has happened with her in the intervening years, notably her resettlement in her native Deep South, spending part of the time caring for her ailing mother in Jackson, Mississippi and the rest of it making a new home for herself in N’awlins. What she brings back from that journey is a kind of scrapbook; some live sets, some studio tracks, some original compositions (“Beneath a Silver Moon”), standards (“Lover Come Back To Me”), delta blues (“Saddle Up My Pony”), retro-pop (“If It’s Magic”) and a collaboration with John Legend (“Watch the Sunrise”). In short, she’s throwing everything at you that sums up where she’s been and who she’s become and, even with the disc’s occasional rough spots, you can’t help sensing that she revels in being in a good place now, in more ways than one. And she makes you share her exuberance in ways she never has before on – so to speak – record.
8.) Anat Fort Trio, “And If” (ECM) – The burgundy glow of a winter sunset pervades one’s imagination throughout most of this disc, though “And If” is, in no way, to be mistaken for one of those New Age-y room-fresheners-for-the-ear. Fort’s thematically inventive approach to the piano is aggressive enough to leap off the walls without pushing too far ahead of her trio mates, bassist Gary Wang and drummer Roland Schneider, who respond with some delicate, ingenious probing of their own. Fort’s spare attack and richly layered harmonies conceal a penchant for subtle traps. Just when she’s got you enraptured with her spacious-skies homage to her home state, “Minnesota,” she lands a wicked combination on your senses with “Nu,” a kind of extraterrestrial beat-box exercise that gives the whole trio room to frolic. This seems sufficient reason to keep your eyes on Fort – or, at least, to never turn your back on her
9.) Charles Lloyd Quartet, “Mirror” (ECM) – It’s by now a conditioned reflex to mention Lloyd in the same breath as John Coltrane But the deeper Lloyd gets into the great late-autumnal phase of his career, one is increasingly tempted to find similarities with the most conspicuous of Trane’s employers, Miles Davis. This resemblance is driven home with the opener, “I Fall in Love Too Easily,” which remained a constant in the Miles-ian repertoire throughout Davis’ stylistic transitions. But the plaintive beauty of Lloyd’s tone belongs to him alone, especially on ballads, where Lloyd’s Coltrane-esque thematic variations are offset by the almost offhand grace of their resolutions. His “singing” through his sax is especially pronounced – and effective – when he lets the melody do most of the heavy-lifting, as in “La Llorona” or Brian Wilson’s “Caroline, No.” Once again, he’s served well by his band-mates, especially his drummer Eric Harland and the aforementioned genius on the piano, Jason Moran.
10.) Anat Cohen, “Clarinetwork: Live at the VillageVangyard” (Anzic) – It’s impossible to record a bad album in the Basement Shrine on Seventh Avenue., which on the night of Benny Goodman’s 100th birthday (June 5 of last year), showed typically astute judgment in hosting one of the leading avatars of the jazz clarinet’s late 20th century resurgence. Backed by an elite rhythm section of pianist Benny Green, bassist Peter Washington and drummer Lewis Nash, Cohen paid the best possible 21st century tribute to Goodman by plucking items from the Swing King’s song book (“After You’ve Gone,” “Body and Soul”, “Lullaby of the Leaves”) and deftly weaving everything she knows about modern and post-modern jazz into the tunes without doing violence to the essential charm of Goodman’s original interpretations. Such solicitous tugging and pulling of classic material is what jazz repertory, at its best, is supposed to do. It’s also supposed to make musicians such as Cohen more famous than they are now. Ah, well, dig we must, as the saying goeth…
The Jazz Passengers, “Reunited” (Justin Time)
Kenny Werner, “No Beginning, No End” (Half Note)
Frank Kimbrough, “Rumors” (Palmetto)
Brad Mehldau, “Highway Rider” (Nonesuch)
Keith Jarrett, Charlie Haden, “Jasmine” (ECM)
Bill Charlap, Renee Rosnes, “Double Portrait” (Blue Note)
BEST LATIN ALBUM
Chucho Valdes, “Chucho’s Steps” (4Q)
Honorable Mention: Conrad Herwig, “The Latin Side of Herbie Hancock” (Half Note)
“The Complete Novus & Columbia Recordings of Henry Threadgill & Air” (Mosaic)
Wilson, “Silver Pony” (SEE ABOVE)
Honorable Mention: Hilary Kole, “You Are There” (Justin Time)
BEST BIG-BAND ALBUM
“Portrait in Seven Shades” (SEE ABOVE)