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2013 year in review

alex sipiagin

2013 was a good year for jazz. The highlights were many and diverse, with fabulous classic straight ahead releases and new fusion and funk influenced dates from artists big and small, including a fascinating archival release of early electric period Miles Davis. I struggled to pare to my inevitable best of list down to 10 items, which I suppose says something about the futility of these sorts of tasks. I enjoyed quite a lot of new stuff this year and no matter what your tastes are, you probably can find something to fit them too. Still, I feel compelled to present a year end list, partly because that seems to be what people do and partly because I enjoy the opportunity to rethink all the new music that’s come out this year. My list is after the break, in alphabetical order of first name.

Alex Sipiagin, Live at Smalls

In some ways, this release by trumpeter Sipiagin is a stand in for the whole Smalls Live series. The Smalls jazz club is dedicated to, among other things, recording and broadcasting every, or nearly every, show that takes place there. The shows packaged for independent release have so far all been excellent. The club attracts such a strong caliber of local, dedicated musician that you can pretty much buy a Smalls Live release for the brand and be guaranteed some quality swing, even if you don’t recognize anyone involved.

Of all the Smalls Live releases I have, though, none are quite as good Sipiagin’s. Here he really digs into 5 compositions with a stellar band of Seamus Blake on saxophone, Dave Kikoski on piano, Boris Kozlov on bass and Nate Smith on drums. That’s a band of heavyweights and they have plenty of time to open up and play (each song is over 10 minutes with the longest tracking in at nearly 20). Sipiagin also released a studio album this year with Chris Potter, Scott Colley and Eric Harland which was also quite good, but I didn’t fixate on it quite like I did with Live at Smalls. A five star release without doubt.

Craig Taborn, Chants

His follow up to his ECM solo debut, Chants sees Taborn’s trio sometimes treading lightly through and sometimes tearing up 9 original compositions. There’s such a depth in Taborn’s playing; he can make the atonal groove and bring melody to every situation. I continue to be surprised by the diversity of his playing, and the trio, with Thomas Morgan and Gerald Cleaver, is practically telepathic.

Dave Holland, Prism

In some ways, Prism calls to mind the last album Holland made with guitarist Kevin Eubanks, 1989’s Extensions. Both bring a certain electric energy, but to my mind Prism is far better than its predecessor. Replacing alto saxophonist Steve Coleman is Craig Taborn on Rhodes, bringing the funk to the proceedings like only he can. Rounding out the quartet is the unbelievable Eric Harland on drums, creating a quartet playing the best electrified funk infused jazz in recent memory, if not ever.

Enrico Pieranunzi, Live at the Village Vanguard

A trio date with Marc Johnson on bass and the late, great Paul Motian on drums. This live recording exemplifies the absolute best in a straight ahead jazz trio with Paul Motian. The loose swinging feel is unmistakable, and everything just comes together. I clearly need to explore the Pieranunzi discography more (an album of his playing in a trio behind Charlie Haden with Billy Higgins is also fabulous), but for the time being this is in regular rotation.

Fred Hersch with Julian Lage, Free Flying

I have so far never been disappointed with a Fred Hersch album. Some I like better than others, but none have I disliked. His high-minded but accessible lyricism makes him one of the most interesting pianists in recent memory. A couple of years ago he played a week or two at the Jazz Standard in New York in a series of duets and small groups with different musicians. I was lucky to see one of these performances, a trio that had never played together with Dave Holland on bass and Billy Hart on drums. They played a take on ‘Caravan’ in five that was, frankly, a little frightening it was so good.

One of the other shows, that I did not have the luxury to see at the time, was a duet with guitar prodigy Julian Lage. Luckily, some of their live material has been released as Free Flying. Lage is a perfect compliment to Hersch, technically gifted but with an obvious concern for lyricism over strict showmanship. The way the two of them weave about each other is exhilarating. Particularly deserving of praise are the title track and their take on the Sam Rivers composition ‘Beatrice’, which may very well be the best version I have ever heard.

The Gary Burton New Quartet, Guided Tour

Julian Lage makes another appearance on this list in Gary Burton’s current quartet, which also showcases Antonio Sanchez on drums and Scott Colley on bass. Burton is not only a bandleader of historic capability but one of the most gifted improvisers in the jazz canon and this band speaks for itself. Guided Tour is even better than the first New Quartet album.

Next Collective, Cover Art

Finally, an album to deliver on what Black Radio promised but failed so profoundly at. Next Collective is composed of the young and quickly rising or already risen stars of jazz, saxophonists Logan Richardson and Walter Smith III, piano and Rhodes players Gerald Clayton and Kris Bowers, guitarist Matthew Stevens, bassist Ben Williams and drummer Jamire Williams. On their debut album they cover rap, hip hop and rock songs, sometimes radically re-imagined into a new jazz paradigm that is both faithful to the drive and groove of the source material and leaves the musicians space to stretch out. Christian Scott also lends his trumpet to a handful of tracks. This is the sort of album I want to see more of: deep, soulful, improvisatory and unique. Here’s hoping 2014 sees a follow up.

Pat Metheny, Tap

I have mentioned before my love/hate relationship with the music of Pat Metheny. I have, since my review of Unity Band, thought a great deal about what makes some Metheny so interesting to me and some Metheny not. In thinking about the Metheny albums I like best, 80/81, the Ornette Coleman collaboration Song X, Rejoicing, Parallel Realities Live with Herbie Hancock, Jack Dejohnette and Dave Holland, I think I’ve noticed a trend. Metheny works best when working with strong musical and, particularly, composerly voices that he actively has to play against. As a band leader of younger, rising musicians, as he was with his trio of Christian McBride and Antonio Sanchez, he is firmly in control and the music doesn’t seem to go anywhere. Playing opposite Ornette Coleman or Herbie Hancock, however, there is a constant dialogue.

I suppose that sort of dialogue is why I enjoy Tap so much. It is Pat Metheny’s undertaking of a handful of John Zorn’s compositions in the ‘Book of Angels’ series. There is real meat for Metheny to chew on in the compositions and aesthetic concerns of Zorn’s series and Metheny, with the help of Antonio Sanchez and his orchestrionics, rises to the challenge. The opening track, ‘Mastema’, contains a wild abandon and avant-flair not seen in Metheny’s work since the 80s. If this is the sort of results we can expect, Metheny should work with Zorn more often.

Trio 3 and Jason Moran, Refraction-Breaking Glass

Trio 3, Reggie Workman, Oliver Lake and Andrew Cyrille, is a band of masters to begin with, but one of the particularly interesting things about their recent playing has been their tendency to perform for a stint with an added pianist, and have in recent years performed with a handful of fabulous, and somewhat diverse, names. To the best of my knowledge, there have been no recordings of their collaborations with Geri Allen or Vijay Iyer (I would like to hear those very much), but they did go into the studio with Jason Moran and the result is the fabulous Refraction-Breaking Glass. This collaboration is a match made in heaven. Moran has, like his partners in Trio 3, a mastery of the avant garde rooted in the blues and early jazz. The album is one of the most soulful and exciting pieces of free jazz in recent memory, an exploration of freedom and the black diaspora better than any I know of released since the 70’s.

Wayne Shorter, Without a Net

What new can I say about Shorter’s fabulous live album? It set the tone early in the year and has been a standard against which all following releases might be measured.

Wayne’s tone has aged since his heyday in the 60’s and 70’s, but no matter. If his abilities as a technician have declined, his work as a composer and band leader has only gotten better. On Without a Net he leads his quartet through what is nothing short of a musical journey, sometimes wild and sometimes contemplative, but always enthralling. The epic ‘Pegasus’ on which the quartet is joined by the Imani Winds avoids all the pitfalls of ‘chamber jazz’ and delivers a suite that at 23 minutes somehow feels too short.

The fact that the incredible archival Miles Davis didn’t make this list should give some indication of the strength of the competition this year. Indeed, a second list of things that didn’t quite make this one might be even more telling. Here’s hoping 2014’s lineup is even half as strong.

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