I’ve been listening to jazz since age 14, and here I am, 45 years later, feeling as mesmerized as ever. Over the past year, I’ve received scores of albums, listened with care to as many as I possibly could, and gradually boiled them down toward this Top 10 list. It includes names familiar (Miles Davis) and not so familiar (Jamie Baum), as well as names that you may find on the tip of your tongue (Cécile McLorin Salvant, a singer who’s been getting loads of media attention).
I’m continually struck by the virtuosity, imagination and heart of jazz musicians, by their ability to make sense of influences from far and wide. Yet to one degree or another, their music — even if they can’t stand Wynton Marsalis — tends to reflect a phrase coined by Marsalis years ago: “The Majesty of the Blues.” A breadth of feeling, an African-American rootedness.
1. Aaron Parks, “Alive in Japan” (free download)
This piano trio disc is my album of the year; I can’t stop listening. It sings, explores, bursts with Bud Powell joy. Put on your headphones, then stride down the street to the rhythms of “Con Alma.” You’ll feel restored. And, yes, the pianist (who recorded the album on his iPhone) is giving it away at http://aaronparks.bandcamp.com/album/alive-in-japan.
2. Clifford Jordan, “The Complete Clifford Jordan Strata-East Sessions” (Mosaic)
Jordan was a master of bebop and blues with a feathery touch; his saxophone sound can break your heart. This six-CD set is a time capsule from the late ’60s and early ’70s, a crackling and creative era for jazz. It includes Jordan’s classic albums for musician-owned Strata-East Records, along with rare sessions he produced by bebop saxophonist Cecil Payne as well as visionaries Pharoah Sanders, Ed Blackwell, Charles Brackeen and Wilbur Ware. My favorite track: “Vienna” (from “Clifford Jordan in the World”), a waltz that powerfully spills over with drama, thanks to its counterintuitive mix of players. They include Jordan, pianist Wynton Kelly and trumpeter Don Cherry, whose cascades and smears fall like tears.
3. Orrin Evans, —… It Was Beauty” (Criss Cross Jazz)
Pianist Evans has patiently moved his music to a point where influences converge: swing, free-form, R&B tunefulness and church-based soul. His trio, with bassist Eric Revis and drummer Donald Edwards, can swing with locomotive momentum. But this locomotive also has a stick shift; the trio glides through the smoothest change-ups in time and feel, taking curves, stripping things down so that the smallest gestures ring out. It’s a formidable album.
4. Cécile McLorin Salvant, “Woman Child” (Mack Avenue)
Only 24 years old? She echoes Bessie, Billie, Betty Carter and — who knows? — just may take it to the next step. Don’t miss this new singer, who brings humor, deep-felt understanding and some outrageousness to the tradition. “You can sit down with this music and intellectualize it, like the great European repertory,” she told me this past summer, “and then the next moment throw the table down and just dance to it — that’s something that I find absolutely brilliant.”
5. Charnett Moffett, “The Bridge: Solo Bass Works” (Motema)
From Duke to Mingus to spirituals to Sting: 20 tunes, nothing but solo acoustic bass. This album is a lesson in concentrated vision, in charisma, power and out-of-the-box thinking. You get a sense of why so many band leaders (Wynton Marsalis, McCoy Tyner, Ornette Coleman, Sting) have called on Moffett since he was a teenager.
6. Aaron Diehl, “The Bespoke Man’s Narrative” (Mack Avenue)
An impeccable pianist with deep roots in the tradition, Diehl’s a radical-retro young guy spearheading a quartet that bespeaks excellence. This music wouldn’t exist without Duke Ellington and Ahmad Jamal, the MJQ and Wynton Marsalis, but its elegance and precision, and its spontaneous combustions, are all its own.
7. Miles Davis, “Live in Europe 1969: The Bootleg Series Vol. 2” (Columbia Legacy)
This is the so-called “last great quintet,” with Wayne Shorter, Chick Corea, Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette. In hindsight, electric Davis and his bandmates were avant-gardists — with street cred. Crazy, churning, fantastic sounds on these three discs, plus DVD.
8. Eric Revis, “City of Asylum” (Clean Feed)
More than Branford Marsalis’ bassist, Revis is among the most broad-minded of jazz musicians. This date with pianist Kris Davis and drummer Andrew Cyrille is stunning; it quickly/quietly sucks you into its free-jazz vortex.
9. Nicholas Payton, “Sketches of Spain” (BMF)
The trumpeter reinterprets the Miles Davis/Gil Evans classic, performing the suite with his band and members of the Sinfonieorchester Basel, conducted by Dennis Russell Davies. Payton is the trumpeter of the day, a virtuoso and a risk-taker. You never know what he’ll do next — what mood he’ll conjure, what effect he’ll tease from his horn.
10. Jamie Baum, “In This Life” (Sunnyside)
You listen and sense the flutist/composer’s wide-ranging influences: music of North Africa and South Asia, Zappa, minimalism, funk, the impressionism of Gil Evans. She musters them into sleek and raucous new grooves, beautifully arranged for her septet (which expands on some tracks to as many as 11 players). The superb soloists include trumpeters Amir ElSaffar and Taylor Haskins, pianist John Escreet and Baum herself. There’s freshness and excitement here.