Old lions — namely Wayne Shorter, Boz Scaggs and James Cotton — certainly roared in 2013, putting out some of the most vital, present music of their careers.
That, of course, is no easy thing. With age comes inertia, and the crushing weight of expectation.
That they found new ways to engage us (despite, in Cotton’s case, a debilitating battle with illness) is cause for no small amount of celebration. In some cases, they have never sounded better.
But Shorter, Scaggs and Cotton weren’t alone in their successes, as a next generation of innovators like Etienne Charles, Terence Blanchard and Billy Martin shook things up with all of the vigorous impetuousness associated with youth.
They shamed Cuisineart in their ability mix things up.
Meanwhile, there were smart updates of familiar personas from the likes of the Fabulous Thunderbirds and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, and a gut-bucket triumph from Robben Ford. Each added a new chapter in their on-going narratives of greatness.
But how did they finish, as we continue counting them down? Well, that’s part of the fun this time of year …
No. 10: JAMES COTTON – COTTON MOUTH MAN (BLUES): Cotton, the Chicago harp legend, is joined here by a bevy of big names — among them Gregg Allman, Ruthie Foster, Joe Bonamassa and Delbert McClinton. Still, don’t get the idea that Cotton is relegated to a sideman role on his own album. Cotton Mouth Man remains firmly within Cotton’s grasp, as he unleashes run after blast-furnace run on the harmonica, even while weaving his own story through the album’s raft of original material.
No. 9: WAYNE SHORTER – WITHOUT A NET (JAZZ): Despite the frankly incredible reality that he turned 80 this year, Shorter remains in utter command of both a song’s structure and, of course, of his horn. Working with an ever-tightening quartet that’s been together for more than a decade, Shorter and Co. offer furtive insights on “Myrrh,” tough-minded roundhouses throughout “UFO,” and very cool new angles inside “S.S. Golden Mean.” Collectively brilliant and ever-incisive, the backing group of Blade, Patitucci and Perez make their own case as new century masters — even as they bolster the dizzying credentials of a living legend from the most recent one.
No. 8: GOV’T MULE – SHOUT! (BLUES/ROCK): Initially, this guest-packed idea from Warren Haynes’ Gov’t Mule sounded like a disappointment ready to happen. Shout! arrived, however, as a two-album set, with one disc devoted to a straight-ahead run through of the new music, and the second featuring new friends. That gives those who are interested in comparing and contrasting the opportunity to do so, and those who aren’t a chance to enjoy Shout! unencumbered by these well-meaning intrusions. Turns out, this was one of Gov’t Mule’s most complete efforts — and certainly the most variedly accessible, hit-worthy album yet.
No. 7: ETIENNE CHARLES – CREOLE SOUL (JAZZ): The Trinidad-born Charles plays with a knifing, jazz-focused intensity, but inside a layered, rhythmically complex atmosphere that makes Creole Soul anything but the same old straight-ahead fare. Like the bubbling roux that provides a foundation for any good gumbo, Charles stirs in a broad spectrum of spicy moods and resonant textures — reggae and island cadences from his own native Caribbean, sure, but also tangy asides from the Spanish and French traditions and a pinch of R&B and blues. The album emerges as a joyous celebration of imagination without borders, and music without boundaries.
No. 6: ROBBEN FORD – BRINGING IT BACK HOME (BLUES): The do-anything guitarist Ford hailed Bringing It Back Home as “my favorite thing that I’ve done in a long time,” and that’s certainly saying something. Over his amazingly varied, and quite fascinating career, Ford has performed and recorded with blues legend Jimmy Witherspoon, George Harrison of the Beatles, Joni Mitchell, the Yellowjackets, Miles Davis, even Kiss — all while issuing some 18 previous similarly varied solo albums. Here, he’s again performing alongside keyboardist Larry Goldings, but there’s little else typical about this soul-lifting set of R&B-laced, jazz-informed groovers. One of his very best, and that’s saying something, too.
No. 5: TERENCE BLANCHARD – MAGNETIC (JAZZ): In making Magnetic such a collaborative, free-flowing effort, Blanchard has fashioned one of his most layered studio efforts ever. This is the trumpeter’s first Blue Note release since 2007’s A Tale of God’s Will,, a shattering reflection on Katrina’s destruction of his hometown. If this new album is far less personal, it’s also far more intriguing — as he effortlessly blends straight ahead sounds with fusion excursions.
No. 4: BILLY MARTIN’S WICKED KNEE – HEELS OVER HEAD (JAZZ): For those looking for more of Billy Martin’s well-established sound as part of the next-gen jazz trio Medeski Martin and Wood, this new title is likely perfectly named. Turns out Martin has long had a passion for New Orleans street music. And he’s not the only one. Though Martin’s name is prominently featured, Wicked Knee is very much a band effort. Everyone contributes musically, and in their own way helped shape the final project. Just as importantly, while each of the players here clearly has an affection for this brass tradition, they’re not afraid to push against its conventional edges — and hard.
No. 3: FABULOUS THUNDERBIRDS – ON THE VERGE (BLUES): Kim Wilson, in detouring through the slow-simmering joys of R&B on this new Fabulous Thunderbirds recording, has allowed himself a remarkable depth of feeling. It is, to my ear, the best he’s ever sung. Throughout, On the Verge hews closer to the Stax Records aesthetic than it does the Texas roadhouse. Not that you can’t peg this as the Fabulous Thunderbirds, whatever the album’s atmospherics. There’s just suddenly a lot more going on around what was once a straight-forward sound.
No. 2: PRESERVATION HALL JAZZ BAND – THAT’S IT! (JAZZ): Its very name speaks to the old ways, and keeping them as they always were. And for a long time, maybe too long, that’s the way it’s been with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. Until now. There’s an important outside voice overseeing things on That’s It!, in producer Jim James of My Morning Jacket. He worked in tandem with group leader Ben Jaffe, whose parents Allan and Sandra Jaffe founded the Preservation Hall Jazz Band in 1961, in crafting an album the nudges this mythical New Orleans institution into uncharted — and very thrilling — waters.
No. 1: BOZ SCAGGS – MEMPHIS (BLUES): Boz Scaggs references some of the most distinctive, timeless R&B recordings of the 1970s, even as he continues exploring outward from that tradition on Memphis. Like Scaggs himself, it’s not easily pegged. Still, while the results are something hard to pin down, in terms of theme, Memphis is easy to appreciate from the chin down. This is music for the heart, and for places somewhere lower. In that way, Scaggs has made a triumphal return, after a five-year span between projects. Listen without trying to figure things out, and he maps out a stunning argument for his place as one of our greatest living white soul singers.