• ESPERANZA SPALDING
After her pop-leaning major-label debut, this year's Chamber Music Society (Heads Up) was supposed to be bassist/vocalist/composer Spalding's "difficult" album. Yet despite its contrapuntal writing for voice and string quartet, it's no more inaccessible than 2008's Esperanza was callow. And like that first album, it has traction: Jobim's "Inútil Paisagem" (for just bass and the vocals of Spalding and Gretchen Parlato), an ardent take on Dimitri Tiomkin & Ned Washington's "Wild Is the Wind," her own setting of William Blake's "Little Fly," and exploratory originals like "Knowledge of Good and Evil" all reward multiple listens. A sold-out Sanders Theatre concert in October proved that Spalding's audience is willing to move along with her.
• IDEAL BREAD
It shouldn't be a secret after all these years that one way to get my attention is to cover Steve Lacy. The composer and soprano-saxophonist was a master of thorny, witty, passionate compositions that distilled the music of life-long inspiration Thelonious Monk and the many poets he loved. The quartet Ideal Bread play the music of Lacy exclusively. In place of Lacy's soprano, we have bandleader and former Lacy student Josh Sinton's baritone, and he's joined by trumpeter Kurt Knuffke, bassist Reuben Radding, and drummer Tomas Fujiwara. On their second CD, Transmit (Cuneiform), they showed that Lacy — like all the great jazz composers — can be a source of individual expression.
• MIKE REED
Reed's Stories & Negotiations (482 Music), with his project People, Places & Things, concluded a trilogy dedicated to their home town of Chicago in which the band juxtaposed their own tunes with repertoire of progressive hard bop that flourished in that city between roughly 1954 and 1960. For this album, they brought in some of the players from that era: 75-year-old trombonist Julian Priester, 79-year-old trumpeter/saxophonist Ira Sullivan, and 81-year-old trumpeter Art Hoyle. So they play "Urnack" — the Priester tune that he and Hoyle recorded with Sun Ra in Chicago in 1960 — as well as a handful of others that stretch everybody on the date and make the whole thing sound like the coolest of young avant-garde bands. In October, Reed brought the core quartet — saxophonists Greg Ward and Tim Haldeman and bassist Jason Roebke — to the Lily Pad.
• TED ROSENTHAL
Pianist Rosenthal's Impromptu (Playscape) was one of the most ridiculously entertaining CDs of the year. A piano-trio record (with bassist Noriko Ueda and drummer Quincy Davis), it could easily pass for a collection of superbly well-played jazz standards — until you realize that that beautiful ballad whose words you can almost remember is Chopin's F-minor Nocturne. But Impromptu is more than a parlor-game blindfold test. Rosenthal has a feel for the right groove and the right streamlined arrangement to retain the musical interest of the originals by Chopin, Bach, Brahms, Mozart, Puccini, Schubert, Schumann, and Tchaikovsky while allowing his band to take flight.
• BENNY SHARONI
Tenor-saxophonist Sharoni's Eternal Elixir (Papaya) snuck up on me like the great lost hard-bop album of 1962 — and with good reason. Here were Donald Byrd's "French Spice" and "Pentecostal Feelin' " and Blue Mitchell's "The Thing You Do." Even the Fiddler on the Roof chestnut "To Life" (a natural for this kibbutz-raised Israeli-American Boston resident) was inspired by the classic 1964 Cannonball Adderley recording of the score. None of which would matter a whit if we didn't have Sharoni's expressive playing, his crushed-felt tone, his feeling for boogaloos and bossa, and his own sturdy originals to round out the program.