2013 was, by far, one of the best years for new Jazz in over a decade. Compiling a top ten list for a year like this can be a difficult task, mostly because of the omissions one must make. For the 2013 list, I polled key members of the KMHD staff that play new releases on their programs. I also accounted for our JazzWeek charts from the past year, to identify albums that received the most airplay on the station. Finally, I looked for records that were diverse, well-thought out, and listenable the whole way through. Without further ado, here are our choices for the best records of 2013:
Matthew Halsall “Fletcher Moss Park”
While this list is not ranked in any certain order, there is a definite reason for this album being placed at the top. If we had to choose a #1 for this list, this would be it. You may have never heard of the Manchester, UK based trumpeter Matthew Halsall, but I hope you’ll spend some time with his music. This record isn’t just one of the best from the past year, it’s one of the best new releases I’ve heard in over a decade. Sure, Halsall doesn’t over do it with showcases of chops or virtuosity, but this record’s spiritual feel is executed in beautiful fashion. The all acoustic release with all-orginial compositions gets a lift from the addition of harpist Rachel Gladwin, which compliments Halsall’s soft trumpet work. Reminiscent of late period John Coltrane – and further work from Alice Coltrane…truly a special listening experience the whole way through.
Cecile McLorin Salvant “Womanchild”
It’s safe to say that female vocalists dominate the new release spectrum in Jazz. A rough survey of KMHD’s CD intake on any given week yields about a 40% ratio of female vocals to instrumentals. I don’t know why this is the case, but it’s true. Sifting through all that material for the good stuff can be a daunting task, but with just one listen to the voice of Cecile McLorin-Salvant, I could tell I was holding something special in my hands. This album sounds like a classic recording right out of the gate. And, while Salvant could draw comparisons to legends like Ella, Sarah, and Billie – she is possesses a distinct, fresh delivery that makes this one of the finest vocal albums of the past few years.
Etienne Charles “Creole Soul”
Etienne Charles can swing with the best of them. His new record could be considered modern Jazz, Latin Jazz, Fusion, Afro-Caribean, and much much more. But why try to categorize something as beautiful and original as this? While it’s true that the Trinidadian trumpeter is deeply rooted in his native music, he brings along a heavy dose of other sounds that have influenced him. This new brand of Caribbean Jazz fusion (which was one of the late Dizzy Gillespie’s keen interests) is modern, and possesses a very unique rhythmic sensibility.
Blue Cranes “Swim”
Portland’s Blue Cranes released perhaps their most ambitious work to date last spring with the carefully crafted “Swim” on the Maryland-based Cuneiform record label. Here, you’ll find the sound of some of life’s great trials and tribulations (Birth, Death, and Love) distilled into the sounds of triumph and beauty. The quintet expanded for this recording (which was produced by the Decemberists Nate Query) adding a string quartet that features the especially gifted viola work of Eyvind Kang, saxophonist Noah Bernstein and many more. A musical tour-de-force the whole way through and a band for Portland’s Jazz scene to be especially proud of.
Preservation Hall Jazz Band “That’s It”
Traditional Jazz (despite it’s resurgence over the past few years) can still be a tough sell to audiences not familiar with the rhythms developed by Scott Joplin and Sydney Bechet. Often glorified “cover bands,” many of the touring outfits left out there (and there aren’t many) tend to play the classics, often covering tunes verbatim without improvisation or even altering the original melodies. That’s why it was refreshing to our ears to hear the Preservation Hall Jazz Band doing all original songs on their new record. While creating new compositions for one of Jazz’s oldest style would be a feat in itself, the Preservation Hall Jazz band made these sound fresh, unique, and most of all – fun.
Gregory Porter “Liquid Spirit”
We’ve been following the career of Gregory Porter since his first album was released 4 years ago. What originally caught our attention was Porter’s soulful, powerful voice. Today, Porter’s star is sharply on the rise (with appearances on Leno and Letterman under his belt). On his newest release, Liquid Spirit (his first for the Blue Note label) – he evokes the spirit of the great Ray Charles, but with his own unique compositions and his chest rumbling baritone voice. The songs are uplifting, heart-wrenching, and most of all, beautifully executed. Beyond that, many of these tracks just get stuck in your head (in a good way).
Ahmad Jamal “Saturday Morning”
This Jazz master continues to put out instant classics. Ahmad Jamal holds a distinction that’s rare amongst Jazz musicians in that he’s never appeared as a side man before. The consummate leader one could say, leads his new quartet through a style that the pianist has been pioneering through the 50’s, with careful use of space and a soulful touch. Each of the selections on this record with have listeners tapping their toes, bobbing their heads – and feeling good. Jamal is the perfect example of individual sound in Jazz music - you can recognize his sound anywhere (and isn’t that what really what this music is all about?).
Roberto Fonseca “Yo”
Sounds from Cuban-born piano player who has developed his own rhythmic sensibilities on this new effort. The album moves seamlessly between introspective ballads and up-tempo moving numbers that will have you snapping your fingers and bobbing your head in no time. Fonseca presents a new vocabulary for latin Jazz piano, a refreshing one that we haven’t heard before.
The Bad Plus “Made Possible”
Over the past decade, the three members of the Bad Plus (Dave King, Ethan Iverson and Reid Anderson) have redefined what Jazz piano trio sound. That evolution continues on their newest release, “Made Possible.” This is one of those special albums that is so nuanced and balanced that it truly grows on the listener over time, all but demanding repeated listens. The possibilities for this band are seemingly endless.
Robert Walter’s 20th Congress “Get Thy Bearings”
Keyboardist Robert Walter comes out of the New Orleans tradition, but in the spirit of that tradition, he’s forged his own path and developed an individual sound. On his newest release with his 20th Congress band, you’ll find soul Jazz sounds revamped for today. This is a feel-good album that is a solid listen the whole way through, one that brings the spirit of dance-ability back to the Jazz record.