My aim with this year’s roundup was to assemble a list without regard to geography, so I’m either terribly biased or it was just a happy coincidence that Chicago players (past and present) appear on at least half of these albums. Then again, given the collaborative nature of the jazz world, there’s really only a degree or two of separation at most between any of these improvisers. Many (Dawkins, King, Malaby, Mazurek, Taborn) have performed here within the past year, and it’s safe to say the rest have passed through town in the year or so before that. Except Ambrose Akinmusire. Perhaps we can persuade Joe Segal, Michael Orlove or the Umbrella fellas to bring that guy out here in 2012.
1. Amir El Saffar Inana (Pi Recordings)
Chicago native El Saffar folds meditative improvisations into Middle Eastern modes, wedding Western music and Iraqi maqam in a cross-cultural exchange that’s hypnotic and utterly unique.
2. Ambrose Akinmusire When the Heart Emerges Glistening (Blue Note) The title suggests romance, but the breakout trumpeter aims instead for the stars on his Blue Note debut with heat-seaking chromatic flights.
3. Matana Roberts COIN COIN Chapter One: Gens de couleur libres Constellation) Former Velvet Lounge regular Roberts captures her concept-rooted narrative in a concert that’s more performance art than postbop, a powerful and provocative monument both to her ancestry and the jazz tradition.
4. Craig Taborn Avenging Angel (ECM)
The pianist turns in a delicate solo date for ECM that has him searching for answers under each of the 88 keys.
5. Peter Evans Quintet Ghosts (More Is More Records)
A joyous bop skewering that lives up to its name, filtered through an electronic prism. Sam Pluta’s real-time refractions haunt an album that would otherwise be surprisingly straight-ahead.
6. Matt Bauder Day in Pictures (Clean Feed)
Elegant originals from a former Chicagoan, whose dynamic quintet features some of NYC’s most daring players including pianist Angelica Sanchez and erstwhile rodan/Heaven Gallery fixture Jason Ajemian on bass.
7. Ernest Dawkins’ New Horizons Ensemble The Prairie Prophet (Delmark) A fond farewell to Fred Anderson that swings as fiercely and fearlessly as you’d expect of any group operating under the AACM credo.
8. Tony Malaby Novela (Clean Feed)
Rising pianist Kris Davis handles the ominous arrangements for this ambitious nonet, rooting through Malaby’s back catalogue and re-imagining it for multiple reeds and brass.
9. São Paulo Underground Tres Cabeças Loucuras (Cuneiform)
Rob Mazurek returns to Brazil and floats his cool blue cornet over a spellbinding collage of saturated textures, syncopated rhythms and sundry electronics.
10. Dave King Trucking Company Good Old Light (Sunnyside)
The name suggests weigh stations rather than woodshedding, but the Bad Plus drummer’s latest vehicle is a lot more nuanced than you might expect, thanks in part to an impressive twin sax front line.