Thursday, December 19, 2013

My Favorite 25 New CDs (non-vocal) of 2013

This listing is in order from number 25 to number 1.

Before I start, a comment.. It was noticeable yesterday that when NPR printed its Critics Poll results, based on 137 submissions that were tabulated by Tom Hull, that the most votes any single CD got (each ballot listed a top ten) were the 46 received by "Without a Net" by Wayne Shorter. In other words, even the top pick was left of 91 ballots. By numbers 9 and 10 of the poll, those CDs received just 14 votes, meaning that 123 others did not list them in the top ten. Four hundred and ninety CDs in all were listed at least once in somebody's top ten.

What's it mean? Well first, of course a top ten for anyone is a wholly subjective task based on what each listener likes, heard, etc. Second, the presence of smaller European labels is not strong so there is a strong (and not unexpected) bias towards releases that are easy to come by stateside. So yes there are a plethora of ECM recordings, along with ACT, Pirouet, Steeplechase, CamJazz, et al, but not nearly as many on labels like Edition, Hubro, Basho, In and Out etc.that produce a number of exciting CDs each year. Third, and most importantly, it means that there is an amazing amount of good music being produced each year, and this year especially I have seen a lot written that this was a particularly strong one. Readers should look at the results, nicely packaged with links at.

Product DetailsHere are mine.

25. Kit Downes, "Light From Old Stars" (Basho 2013): Starting off already with a small but exciting label from England. Intricate modern jazz with overtones of the blues at times. A contemporary quintet with special sounds from Downes on piano, James Allsopp on tenor sax (and a bit of flute) and James Maddren on percussion. Beautiful music at times haunting, at others driving, but always exciting post modern creativity shines through.

Myra Melford: Life Carries Me This Way
24. Myra Melford, "Life Carries Me This Way" (Firehouse 12 2013): Eleven small pieces on solo piano by modernist Melford. Creativity abounds on her first solo CD, full of expressive play, a strong left hand, varied rhythms, and shimmering melodies.  

Product Details23. Charles Lloyd and Jason Moran, Hagar's Song (ECM 2013): The two share sensibilities and a symbiotic relationship as they weave in and out with each other on a series of tunes including standards like "Mood Indigo" and "You've Changed." Clear, pure tenor sax play and intricate and inspirational play by Moran add to a first rate CD. 
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Product Details22. Mats Eilertsen Trio, "Sails Set" (Hubro 2013): A modern jazz trio from Scandanavia, this is their fourth outing on Hubro and once again it is full of interesting songs, sounds, and rhythms. Often quiet and contemplative using space as an instrument. Never rushed. One of many new European piano trios blending modernism, romance, and folk music into new creaetions. A group that continues to impress with its creativity rooted in the romanticism of Bobo Stenson, Ketil Bjornstad and others. 

Product Details21 Gary Peacock and Marilyn Crispell, "Azure" (ECM 2013): Piano and bass, music that is glorious to listen to in the best ECM tradition. Warm lovely songs, lush and inviting music. Evocative songs that stir the soul. I have no other words left to describe its beauty.

20. Ben Wendel and Dan Tepfer, "Small Constructions" (Sunnyside 2013): Good things in small packages, in this case twelve small pieces for the duo of Wendel on wind instruments and Tepfer on keyboards, except on "Oblique Strategy",the last piece, where they exchange instruments. It a love song to jazz, classical, and pop music. It has lovely renditions of "Pannonica", "Darn that Dream" and Handel's "Variation 1 in D Minor." among other songs. It has soul, emotion, and texture. It's beautiful. Simple but elegant. 
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19. Ahmad Jamal, "Saturday Morning" (Jazz Village 2013): Speaking of simple, no one does it better in a trio than Jamal. Can he really be getting better in his 80s? A CD of standards, new compositions and reworked older material, it reminds one of the classic 50s era for Jamal, but with a bit more bravura mixed in. Wonderous dexterity an passion in has fingers pours out into the music. 

Product Details18. Julia Hulsmann Quartet, "In Full View" (ECM 2013): Hulsmann goes beyond her previous, wonderful piano trios by adding Tom Arthurs on trumpet and flugelhorn. The expanded palette and textures he provides raises this work to new highs for Hulsmann, who has chosen beautiful, flowing melodies that complement the four players. Exquisite. 

Product Details17. Randy Weston and Billy Harper, "The Roots of the Blues" (Sunnyside 2013): Piano and tenor sax duo playing strong compositions by Weston rooted in the rhythms of Africa that underlie jazz along with a small selection of standards like "Body and Soul", "Take the A Train" and "How High The Moon." Nice sound and balance throughout by the two players enhances the joyous feel of the thirteen pieces. 

Product Details16. Kris Davis, "Massive Threads" (Thirsty Ear 2013): Kris Davis had a few nice recordings this past year but it is this set of 8 solos that I enjoyed the most. Some prepared piano, some angularity and dissonance, but also some simple charm. The first song immediately sets the stage with over a minute and a half of a repeated phrase played with only very subtle changes, and on a damped set of strings to boot. It's abstract modernism stripped to the essentials of sound and rhythm that explores the capabilities of the piano through the hands of a modern piano master. But then listen to the title song -- it is hypnotic, alive, and fresh. I call it fascinating and love to hear what can be done on a piano, my family calls it noise. For lovers of the avant garde. 

Product Details15. Vadim Neselovskyi, "Music for September" (Sunnyside 2013): And now at the other extreme, a lush and lyrical debut CD by this protege of Gary Burton. Neselovskyi is on solo piano playing his own compositions, some standards, and some classical pieces, demonstrating both his range and his compositional and arranging sensibilities that allow him to incorporate all of these materials into his own special sound. And this is special, something that everyone should go out and purchase and listen to. Wow! 

Product Details14. Andrea Pozza, "A Jellyfish from the Bosphorus" (Abeat 2013): Another of the European labels that are hard to find, Abeat has produced a gem by a well-known and highly regarded pianist from Italy in a piano trio setting. God Bless the Italians and their love of melody, romance, and fine atmosphere, which are all encompassed in this outing of nine pieces, highlighted for me by the title piece, a composition -- one of five -- by Pozza. It speaks to the emotions, to love, and to beauty through his nimble touch and the support of he band. He also does wonders for "Where or When", and "In A Sentimental Mood", and provides a bouncy reharmonized "Get Happy." Its my fifth CD of Pozza's and it's first rate. 

Product Details13. Etienne Charles, "Creole Soul" (Culture Shock 2013): Charles is a professor of jazz at Michigan State University and a young player of incredible skills on the trumpet and flugelhorn. I've seen him play trumpet as well as on percussion, which he demonstrates here on one piece, and it's pretty awesome. Lucky kids at MSU. Here he works with a sextet, occasional augmented by added percussion, guitar and some voice, highlighted by Ben Williams on bass, Jacques Schwartz-Bart on tenor sax (a player who should be much more known in the U.S.), and Kris Bowers on keyboards, and he delivers an upbeat, Creole/Latin inflected set of eleven pieces with some reggae, calypso and other beats. It's a tribute to Charles' roots and a joy for the listener.  
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12. Giovanni Guidi, "City of Broken Dreams" (ECM 2013): Gorgeous piano trio music that I fell in love with almost instantly and wrote glowingly about back in May. It's his first on ECM but not his first by a long shot, and he has often demonstrated his ear for harmony and lyricism. It's another special piano trio from Italy. 

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11. Joshua Redman, "Walking Shadows" (Nonesuch 2013): Redman on sax, Mehldau on piano, Larry Grenadier on bass, and Brian Blade on drums. A group that cannot get much better produces some lovely music, occasionally supported by strings. It's mostly an eclectic selection of covers, including "Infant Eyes", "Lush Life", and "Let It Be" with  couple of tunes by Redman and one by Mehldau. It's as nice as it sounds.

Product Details10. Frank Wess, "Magic 101" (IPO 2013): This was recorded when Wess, who passed away recently, was still a young 89 year old, leading a trio of Kenny Barron, on piano, Kenny Davis on bass, and Winard Harper on drums through seven classics like "The Very Thought of You", "Come Rain or Come Shine", and All Too Soon."  Wess' tenor rang sweetly with his full tone still there and lyrical sensibility covering every tune. The sad news of his passing is only slightly mitigated by the news that there will be a "Magic 201" this spring. 

Product Details9. Christian McBride Trio, "Out Here" (Mack Avenue 2013): Solid mainstream music that swings, grooves, pulses, and raises the spirits on every listen. Hits hard right at the start with "Ham Hocks and Cabbage." Young Christian Sands is fantastic and his skills belie his age. Ulysses Owens Jr. is the third member of this powerful trio. A nice mix of the upbeat and pulsing, the blues, and ballads will keep one's interest and demands repeated listening. 

Product Details8. Stan Tracey Quintet, "The Flying Pig" (ReSteamed 2013): Tracey, who just passed away,  was one of the revered fathers of modern jazz in England. Readers should take the time to find one or more of the obituaries and tributes to him from the past couple of weeks to see how strongly he represented jazz in England since the 1950s. This is his final work and it is great, a quitet playing a set by Tracey dedicated to his father and those who fought the war to end all wars, WW1. Just lovely. 

Product Details7. Chucho Valdes and the Afro-Cuban Messengers, "Border Free" (Jazz Village 2013): My number one Latin album of the year. As the CD cover says, it's enthralling an infused with the verve of Valdes' earlier group Irakere. What a mix of hard bop with African and Cuban rhythms. Absolutely riveting music. Special appearance by Branford Marsalis on saxes spices the music up even further. 

Product Details6. Enrico Pieranunzi, "Live at the Village Vanguard" (CamJazz 2013): I've said often that this is my number one pianist in jazz and here is with Marc Johnson on bass and the sublime Paul Motian on drums. It's a dream group on a dream set, one of the last for Motian, who's exquisite colors adds to the richness of Pieranunzi's lyricism and sense of melody. Three originals by the leader, and a host of special covers -- "I Mean You", My Funny Valentine", "La Dolce Vita." I noted earlier on the Pozza CD that Italians love melody, harmony, emotion, and romance, and no one does it better than Pieranunzi. 

Product Details5. Keith Jarrett, "Concerts Bregenz and Munchen" (ECM 2013): Some have this as a reissue since it is a concert from 1981 but it really is not that dissimilar to Jarrett's slow releases of other special concerts. Even if there were vinyls once upon a time that was so long ago....Anyway, this is sublime music, done during the period when Jarrett was still using the long form for these concerts. The music fills the room and displays all of the best of these improvisations as it moves through different styles and rhythms with elan. First rate Jarrett. Hard to choose between Jarrett and Pieranunzi when I want to hear sublime piano -- cannot go wrong with either man. 

Product Details4. Darcy James Argue, "Brooklyn Babylon" (Carcopithecine 2013): My top five really distinguished themselves for me as a head above the rest of the list, and while I was able to sort them into an order, any of the five absolutely need to be heard. The distinguishing characteristic of this big band album is its absolute originality. I know of no band that sounds like this one, and that includes "Infernal Machines", their first outing. Argue is the composer, arranger, and conductor of this 18 piece orchestra. The music is powerful and cinematic, which is should be since it accompanied a film about the the history of Brooklyn and its multi-cultural residents who built the city/borough. It's big band music but non-traditional big band, scored to be visual and viseral, and it achieves greatness. 

Product Details3. Fred Hersch and Julian Lage, "Free Flying" (Palmetto 2013): Almost the antithesis of "Brooklyn Babylon", this is a subtle and beautiful duo of Lage on guitar and Hersch on piano. The intimacy of the music is captured in the recording, which is crisp and clear. the playing is quiet and restrained, the song choices matching the tone. Many of the songs are dedicated by composer Hersch to great guitarists -- Jim Hall, Egnerto Gismonti, Bill Frisell. Weaving in and out of each others lines, the two provide one of the loveliest, yet simplest, albums of the year.  

Product Details2. The Keith Jarrett Standards Trio, "Somewhere" (ECM 2013): Jarrett had one of those years. He had five releases, and I have two in the top five. (If I was doing classical CDs I  would add Six Sonatas for Violin and Piano  with Michelle Makarski.) Anyway, the Standards Trio never fails to reward us, still finding new ways of expression in classics. And the companion pieces like "Deep Space" with "Solar", and "Everywhere" with "Somewhere" are inventive, expressive, and beautiful additions. This is an outstanding addition to the collection of programs by the trio. 


Julie Sassoon: Julie Sassoon: Land of ShadowsJulie Sassoon, "Land of Shadows" (Jazzwerkstatt 2013): On a German label, this piano solo CD has all of the emotion, all of the lyricism, and all of the drama in the best of my favorite pianists, Enrico Pieranunzi and Keith Jarrett. All compositions are by Ms. Sassoon, and the work was recorded in the Neue Synagogue in Berlin in 2012, a venue that added wonderfully deep acoustics to the music. 

The back story to the music is an important part of its experience. Sassoon is British, trained in both classical and jazz piano, and melds these two disciplines in this riveting CD. The music is borne from her desire to learn more about her family's background and experiences in the 1930s in Germany, and their escape to England in 1939 These things  were barely discussed at home, especially in light of her great grandparents' death in Auschwitz and her grandfather's captivity in Dachau until he was released and they escaped. She had visited Berlin and loved the city and then moved there in 2009, married a German and now has a daughter. 

As she has plumbed the depth of her and her family's experience, it has shaped her music and her live performances. She says that this concert was "like delving into a continuum, re-enduring hte past and cleansing it at the same time." The emotions come right to the surface during this extraordinary concert, the palette is rich and complex with many shades and tones. 
The piano is at once reflective and sorrowful, although hope seems to spring forth from several of the melodies. 

This is a brave and personal work that opens up the composer's life and feelings to the audience is a profound way. It's a tale of suffering but also of hope, a very strong emphasis upon hope as reflected in the closing 20 minute "New Life". And it is piano music that is a cut beyond, in the same class as Jarrett or Pieranunzi or other first class players. 

Truly a CD that stood out for me from the pack with its sumptuous harmonies and lyrical melodies, but also with its emotional core. 

So that's it. I'd love to hear from readers with their reactions, what I may have left off, etc. Have a safe and happy holiday period.  Not sure when I will be posting again. 

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