In continuing with a long-held tradition, I’ve parsed out the jazz that goes avant-garde from the more conventional stuff. Drawing that line between mainstream jazz and whack jazz can be arbitrary to some but not so for me. If I’m enjoying the music because of all the weird, wonderful noises it makes as opposed to enjoying it because it swings and the solos are weaving lines around the harmony, then it’s a different kind of music to me.
It’s been quite a year for out-jazz, which is the only explanation I have for why this list is so danged long. Since it’s the intent to present a list of albums I can recommend without any qualifier (unless the qualifier is, you must like whack jazz) without any arbitrary cutoff, then I couldn’t take any of these off. And when some of my main guys like Wadada Leo Smith and Fujii Satoko (Gato Libre) get regulated to the honorable mentions, then you know that the competition was especially brutal in 2012.
Even more brutal was coming up with that one record that stands above the rest. At one time or another, I strongly considered this year’s albums by Matt Shipp, Peter Van Huffel, Steve Lehman and Jason Robinson for the “king of kings” honor. In any other year I’d have picked these guys’ records without hesitation. In the end though, I took note of one of two guys who got represented twice here, once on each list presented below. It’s time to give an ol’ vet his due, especially since he’s returning to his greatest strength and letting everyone know he’s still the boss.
Click through the titles for the complete reviews …
ALBUM OF THE YEAR: Charles Gayle Trio – Streets: Describing improvised music is one thing; describing why it connects with you can often be even more elusive. When I listen to Charles Gayle play a tenor saxophone, I don’t hear a bunch of errant, squealing notes, but a certain deep spirituality that only a handful of others (Coltrane, Dolphy, Ayler) were able to tap into and articulate on a consistent basis. Consistency is the word that comes to fore when listening to his newest record, Streets alongside his other 2012 release Look Up, which was also a sax/bass/drums trio recording but performed back in 1994 with a completely different rhythm section. The years, intervening albums of different formats and the shifting personnel support hadn’t altered Gayle’s mission when he’s toting a tenor sax.
His first album in five years, Gayle makes sounds that form a wordless narrative, perhaps in his mind preaching the Gospel but indisputably is a spiritual, purposeful intensity about some ambition or another. Larry Roland (double bass) and Michael TA Thompson (drums) give him crucial support, the former serving the tonal center of the swirling woodwind storm and the latter alternately competing with and punctuating Gayle’s passion-packed statements. It remains, however, all about Gayle’s potent saxophone.
From a guy who up until about twenty-five years ago was performing and living on the streets, Streets gets by the same Gayle got by then: an unwavering faith in his religious beliefs and the healing force of the tenor saxophone.
THE BEST OF THE REST:
Hafez Modirzadeh – Post-Chromodal Out!: Instead of attempting to advance a new kind of music from a certain culture, Modirzadeh’s “post-chromodal” approach intends to surpass any notion of culture-based music.
Katherine Young’s Pretty Monsters – Katherine Young’s Pretty Monsters: A brash, assured first statement from a talented young performer who is poised to do for the bassoon what Tom Cora did for the cello.
Devin Gray – Dirigo Rataplan: Gray’s flair for composing complex music for complex musicians and then leading them from behind the drum kit, is something you don’t normally see from “rookie” recording artists, especially in the realm of advanced jazz.
Jon Irabagon’s Outright – Unhinged: Irabagon makes just about every edgy jazz stop on this trip through many styles that he’s got a good grasp on. All tracks are held together by a spunky attitude and daring that typifies his discography as a whole.
Iron Dog – Interactive Album Rock: This ain’t album rock, but it is a cool exploration of the spaces between the notes as much as the notes themselves, thriving on minimalism to put the odd sounds they create in sharper relief.
Jason Robinson – Tiresian Symmetry: Robinson is following in the footsteps of the great Henry Threadgill, and at the rate he’s going, it might not be long before he catches up.
Peter Van Huffel’s Gorilla Mask – Howl!: Huffel’s more direct, confrontational method results in a thrash-jazz record that’s more purposeful, unpredictable and just plain fun. Huffel and Gorilla Mask have created the perfect gateway drug into acoustic jazz for Henry Rollins fans.
Joe Morris/William Parker/Gerald Cleaver – Altitude: A fifteen year old idea by AUM Records founder Steven Joerg for these three to make a record together seemed like a good idea then, looks like a stroke of genius now that thought was finally acted upon.
Mary Halvorson Quintet – Bending Bridges: Hear the blossoming of one of the most unique voices in jazz guitar to come around in a while.
Many Arms – Many Arms: Some might not call this jazz at all but it’s whack in a wonderfully raw, mathematical kind of way.
Maria Neckam – Unison: Evocative of many but duplicative of no one, Maria Neckam advances her art with this eccentric but endearing vocal jazz release. A record bound to make some waves in the hard-to-impress world of New York modern jazz.
Matthew Shipp Trio – Elastic Aspects: Shipp and his very capable rhythm section create friction against each other, providing the sparks that makes this album dynamic and dance on the edge.
Chicago Underground Duo – Age Of Energy: Creating in the moment like their AACM brethren but with the lo-fi electronic effects of an indie act, the Duo continue to make truly original music only possible by two, open minded and innovative musicians.
Eivind Opsvik – Overseas IV: Opsvik calls it “experimental cinematic music,” I call it an ingenuous alchemy of the very ornate with the very edgy.
Johnny DeBlase Quartet – Composites – Similar to Deblase’s Many Arms band, but with a trumpet and more breathing space. Turns out, DeBlase is a force on acoustic bass, too.
Steve Lehman Trio – Dialect Fluorescent: Steve Lehman has propelled past his peers because he took more time to fully immerse himself in tradition first. And it shows on Dialect Fluorescent.
Jenny Scheinman – Mischief & Mayhem: Like her sometimes bandleader Bill Frisell, Scheinman’s music is hard to categorize, but easy to love. Scheinman’s songs lurch from chamber and bluegrass to jazz and fusion, but with a consistent flair for experimentation and creativity. Excellent support from Nels Cline, Jim Black and Todd Sickafoose.
Ross Hammond – Adored: Loose but intense, Hammond & Co. play this collection of avant jazz-rock songs largely by instinct; they have good instincts.
Tim Berne – Snakeoil: Brilliantly walking the line between free and forethought, Berne’s new band is about improvising that doesn’t force fit into composed music; through dramatic and impulsive turns, it feels its way naturally to the melody.
Superlith – Plasma Clsuters
Josh Berman & His Gang – There Now
Jon Irabagon – I Don’t Hear Nothin’ But The Blues, Volume 2: Appalachian Haze
Kalle Kalima and K-18 – Out To Lynch
Wadada Leo Smith and Louis Moholo-Moholo – Ancestors
The Charles Gayle Trio – Look Up
Sean Noonan – A Gambler’s Hand
Gato Libre – Forever
Grass Roots (Sean Conly/Alex Harding/Darius Jones/Chad Taylor) – Grass Roots
David Virelles – Continuum
NEXT UP: Part 4, Fusion Jazz