Considering the quantity of recordings released in a year’s time, attempting to compile an end of the year list mentioning every first-rate session would be difficult at best. The ten titles included below are among the most exceptional new jazz albums I’ve heard in 2012.
Jason Robinson – Tiresian Symmetry (Cuneiform Records)
Multi-instrumentalist Jason Robinson’s second Cuneiform release is once again inspired by Greek mythology. Despite the esoteric foundations of Robinson’s sophisticated writing, his nonet’s spectacularly creative interpretations evoke a far broader contemporary influence, ranging from thorny AACM-inspired creative orchestra music to evocative pre-war Ellingtonia.
Living By Lanterns – New Myth/Old Science (Cuneiform Records)
Working from practice tapes culled from Sun Ra’s El Saturn Audio Archive, drummer Mike Reed conceived new arrangements for an expanded version of his Loose Assembly quintet. This impressive summit meeting between Chicago and New York’s finest young improvisers transcends mere repertory, creating strikingly original new music from another artist’s unfinished material.
Mary Halvorson Quintet – Bending Bridges (Firehouse 12 Records)
The widely celebrated 2010 premier of Mary Halvorson’s Quintet confirmed the young guitarist’s growing reputation with a selection of urbane compositions as impressive as her idiosyncratic improvisations. This date offers further proof of Halvorson’s talent as leader of an eclectic ensemble whose efforts are as challenging as they are appealing.
Fred Lonberg-Holm’s Fast Citizens – Gather (Delmark Records)
Chicago’s current generation of creative improvising musicians draws pertinent parallels to the AACM’s polystylistic innovations, best exemplified by the collective Fast Citizens. Vanguard cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm serves as leader for their third album, ushering the group into brave new worlds that encapsulate the entire spectrum of the Windy City’s storied jazz history.
Darius Jones Quartet – The Book of Mae’bul (AUM Fidelity)
The third release from alto saxophonist Darius Jones to document his extraordinary growth as a bandleader delves into rarefied territory. Other than a few spirited numbers, languorous mid-tempo ballad fare dominates the session, providing another view of Jones’ expansive artistry in a more traditionally lyrical quartet setting.
Ross Hammond Quartet – Adored (Prescott Recordings)
The debut of Sacramento-based guitarist Ross Hammond’s Quartet is among the most impressive in his growing discography. Leading a stellar quartet of respected veterans, Hammond strikes a considered balance between the accessible and the avant-garde, making this a perfect introduction to the work of an artist deserving greater recognition.
Michael Formanek – Small Places (ECM Records)
Michael Formanek’s follow-up to his critically acclaimed 2009 ECM debut as a leader seamlessly blends the composed and improvised, effortlessly segueing from ethereal impressionism to earthy expressionism. His all-star quartet’s near clairvoyant interplay makes this one of the bassist’s finest albums.
Matthew Shipp Trio – Elastic Aspects (Thirsty Ear Recordings)
Pianist Matthew Shipp’s varied efforts over nearly three decades have increasingly focused attention on the venerable acoustic piano trio format. The second release by this particular lineup offers a bold reinterpretation of the tradition and a compelling reminder of Shipp’s singular mastery of the jazz idiom.
Angelica Sanchez Quintet – Wires & Moss (Clean Feed Records)
Despite her relatively low profile, pianist Angelica Sanchez’s sophomore Quintet effort expands upon its predecessor’s deft equipoise, gracefully shifting between open forms and taut written sections, conjuring vivid sonic panoramas that are among the most satisfying of her burgeoning career.
Ravi Coltrane – Spirit Fiction (ue Note Records)
Saxophonist Ravi Coltrane’s sixth record as a leader presents multiple facets of his diverse artistry in varied settings ranging from duo to quintet. Gracefully alternating between arcane post M-Base rhythmic experiments and more lyrical excursions, this is Coltrane’s most mature and engaging statement to date.