Top 10 Jazz Albums Of 2012

The Vijay Iyer Trio is Marcus Gilmore (left, drums), Iyer (center, piano) and Stephan Crump (right, bass). (Courtesy of the artist)

For the better part of this year, I haven't been able to shake a certain phrase from the back of my mind. It was written by the pianist and composer Vijay Iyer in the liner notes to his brilliant trio album Accelerando: "[T]his album is in the lineage of American creative music based on dance rhythms."

It's one of the more precise descriptions I've encountered for my favorite jazz records, in this year or any. None of them sing the blues the same way. But deep down, they all feel how rhythm is fundamentally movement. They all represent the utmost levels of creativity. They all plug into the wisdom of a tradition which precedes them, and they all aim to build upon it.

Here, in alphabetical order, are my top ten albums in the great lineage of jazz and improvised music of 2012.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit

Vijay Iyer Trio, 'Accelerando'

Quite possibly my favorite single thing on record this year is track seven, "Little Pocket Size Demons," on the Vijay Iyer Trio album Accelerando. It's a version of a Henry Threadgill composition which was lopsided and rumbling enough when it was originally scored for seven people; pared down for trio, it's relentless intensity from the gun. Mind you, this album is about more than raw power: Its originals breach new territory for the classic piano-bass-drums combination, and its unexpected covers (Michael Jackson, Flying Lotus, a Duke Ellington ballet, etc.) return dialogue with other goings-on in modern music. Still, I keep coming back to that seven-minute stretch, in search of the primal irregular head-nodding it encourages. How are they possibly making this work? Inevitably, I repeat the track to find out.

Matt Ulery, 'By A Little Light'

I'm a sucker for the meeting of strings and snares, so bassist Matt Ulery's double album attacked my predispositions from the outset. There's a wide gulf, though, from "that's nice" to "heartrendingly beautiful," and Ulery bridges that gap handily. He's been exploring textures beyond bebop for years with his other bands. He's drawing from a deep talent pool in Chicago, whether the Polish vocalist Grazyna Auguscik, or members of the new-music ensemble eighth blackbird, or his regular rhythm sections. And it's obvious he's got big ears for small details. I once asked him about chamber jazz recordings which inspired him, but I'm starting to think even that's a bit reductive. Beautiful music is the more important category.

Neneh Cherry & The Thing, 'The Cherry Thing'

This is a collaboration between someone who was rapping on hits in the late '80s and a Scandinavian free-jazz trio known for skronking into the front row. It's also a collaboration between the stepdaughter of cornet conquistador Don Cherry, who was born in Sweden, and the band which first assembled specifically to play Don Cherry tunes. Put that way, Neneh Cherry and The Thing have much more in common: a love of American traditions, an immersion in cross-cultural improvisation, a high degree of musicianship. They unite over an inspired program of mostly covers, invoking Suicide, MF Doom, even Don Cherry himself. It's a spontaneous side of Neneh Cherry, a relatively measured version of The Thing, a compromise which draws out convictions we didn't know we craved.

Darius Jones Quartet, 'Book of Mae'bul'

The first thing you notice about alto saxophonist Darius Jones is his tone, a presence so pungent and plangent you wonder how a thirty-something could have lived enough of the blues to possess it. (One answer: grow up as a black man in the American South, as Jones has.) But as this third volume in a loosely autobiographical trilogy demonstrates, he's got much more than just a searing sound. While his early reputation was based largely around his free improvising, Book of Mae'bul finds Jones plotting eight defined compositions for a new quartet. This is unfolding music, music whose long tones and dissonances sound naive at first and increasingly meaningful as they gnaw at you. One standout ballad is called "Be Patient With Me," good advice for something this potent.

Ryan Truesdell, 'Centennial: Newly Discovered Works Of Gil Evans'

Ryan Truesdell's debut album shows all the professions often contained in the job description of "musician." When Truesdell learned of the existence of previously unrecorded charts by Gil Evans — the luminary composer/arranger who looms large among any large jazz ensemble within the last 60 years — he became a historian, tracking them down in personal collections and archives around the country. Then he became a detective, trying to rebuild the unfinished or fragmented ones. And then he was a record producer in assembling musicians to document this stuff. (He had a lot of help from the Maria Schneider Jazz Orchestra, where he's a copyist.) It all pays off: From the first downbeat, the results are as majestic and colorful as you would expect.

Scott Dubois, 'Landscape Scripture'

The guitarist Scott DuBois has released three albums with his quartet since 2008. And for all three, he's chosen cover art where deserted outdoor scenes are engulfed in a haze or fog. It speaks to his compositional aesthetic: pastoral and often slow to develop, like an early morning mist beginning to dissipate. But these atmospheres aren't static. His rhythm section (Thomas Morgan, bass; Kresten Osgood, drums) ticks steadily along, like the passage of so many hours, and bass clarinetist/tenor saxophonist Gebhard Ullman builds his solos deliberately, the human toil not pictured in the landscapes. It's music you could zone out to pleasantly, but when the fog lifts, you'll want to be there for the vistas.

Billy Hart, 'All Our Reasons'

Among the cooler things about learning to play jazz is that you can often call up your elders, and sometimes even your idols, and see if they will perform with you. That's what saxophonist Mark Turner, bassist Ben Street and The Bad Plus pianist Ethan Iverson did when they asked veteran drummer Billy Hart to sit with them. Now that it's officially Hart's band — it was a friendly takeover — and now that he's got a record deal, it turns out he's more modern than the modernists. On All Our Reasons, he gets a little breathing room to indulge all his percussive fancies and the rest of the band floats along for the ride. There's wisdom here: It seeps into every open space, and neat turn of phrase, and tapered ending, and unexpected fill. Occasionally, there's catharsis too.

Theo Bleckmann, 'Hello Earth: The Music Of Kate Bush'

Vocalist Theo Bleckmann possesses instincts to elevate any song to a different artistic plane. Here, he chooses Kate Bush songs, which have a quality of arty-otherness parallel to his own. So with four mostly jazz-trained musicians — drummer John Hollenbeck, a longtime collaborator, among them — Bleckmann re-hears and resculpts these tunes with humor and sensitivity. You won't hear much ding-ding-a-ling here, but the brains and guts in this stuff dovetails with the creative music tradition. And of course, it's finished by a squeaky-clean, precise delivery, a neutral palette for arrangements and an exquisite thing in itself.

Omer Avital, 'Suite Of The East'

The new record from bassist Omer Avital is actually an older record. It was made in 2006, just after Avital put the finishing touches on a book of tunes influenced by an intensive three-year study of Middle Eastern and North African music. It was also recorded the day after his quintet finished a month-long residency at the New York club Smalls. So not only was he working from an inspired repertoire, seamlessly melding the Sephardic with the swinging; his band had learned the material down pat. As you might imagine, the resulting recording is suffused with the ecstatic playfulness of new mastery. If Avital has any more of that bottled mojo, let's hope it takes him fewer than six years to release it.

Todd Marcus, 'Inheritance'

Here's a record with a lot of hidden layers. On the surface, it's a fairly straight-ahead collection where Baltimore reedman Todd Marcus fronts a piano-bass-drums quartet (two different lineups, to be precise). But Marcus' horn of choice is the bass clarinet, with its distinctive dark hue, the first tip-off. His compositions are unusually but sensibly organized; his other working band is an 8-10 piece ensemble, so he knows something about arranging. And his paternal Egyptian heritage has led him into study of music from the Arabic world, which manifests in colorful pieces like "Wahsouli" or "Blues for Tahrir." It's distinct and studied, but merges into the modern mainstream. Inheritance, implying a personal grappling with history, is a fitting title.

Most Popular