Here, in no particular order, are some my favorite things from among the people, CDs, and performances I wrote about this year.
1 BRANFORD MARSALIS QUARTET | Braggtown |Marsalis Music
Bye-bye, Sting! So long, Jay! Maybe later, Buckshot Lefonque! For the time being, at least, Branford has dropped his crossover ambitions in favor of, among other things, deep Coltrane. And he’s been doing it for the past few years with one of the best — or maybe one of the only — working bands in jazz: pianist Joey Calderazzo, bassist Eric Revis, and drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts.
2 DOMINIQUE EADE + JED WILSON | Open | Jazz Project
DOMINIQUE EADE AND JED WILSON: A rip-roaring show at the Regattabar.
For her first album in six years, singer/composer and NEC prof Eade got together with the young pianist and NEC grad Wilson for this sublime, daring mix of jazz and “singer-songwriter” sensibilities. Wilson brought Leonard Cohen’s “In My Secret Life” to the table; Eade brought a couple of standards and a handful of originals that display her humor, honesty, lyric imagination, and vocal agility. And they got to cut loose with this material in a rip-roaring show at the Regattabar.
3 ORNETTE COLEMAN |Sound Grammar | Sound Grammar
This album (bearing the name of his new record label) is Ornette’s first in 10 years, and it brings to disc the quartet he’s been playing with at festivals the past few years: two basses (usually one bowed, one plucked, by Greg Cohen and Tony Falanga) and his son Denardo on drums. His alto playing has never sounded more pure or more beautiful. From the upward swoop into that vocal timbre on the first tune, you have to feel grateful that this is one giant who’s survived, and you’re lucky to be here with him.
4 ESPERANZA SPALDING | Junjo |Ayva
ESPERANZA SPALDING: What a musical community is all about.
Spalding is the only serious jazz bandleader I know of (except for maybe Dizzy Gillespie) who could lead an audience sing-along and get away with it. A triple threat as singer, composer, and virtuoso bassist, she has that kind of engaging charm on the bandstand. In her shows around town, the 22-year-old Berklee teacher sings along in a light soprano to her flowing bass lines — not easy. She’s constantly creating new bands, new combinations with which to try out new arrangements, sometimes with a second vocalist, mixing a bit of Brazil with bebop. She’s a reminder of what a musical community is all about.
5 FRANCISCO MELA | Melao | Ayva
The young Cuban drummer shows up on everyone else’s gigs in town, but this is his assured debut as a leader. He also has heavyweight guests — saxophonists George Garzone and Joe Lovano — and standout contributions from tenor-sax Anat Cohen, guitarists Lionel Loueke and Nir Felder, and pianist Leo Genovese. But what’s important here is the material he’s given them to play: original compositions that mix his Afro-Cuban roots with the loose, modern jazz style inspired by the Miles-Wayne-Herbie axis. He and bassist Peter Slavov balance tight and loose, beats that refresh the ear at every turn.
6 MONIKA H BAND | Bright |self-released
The opening track — “Organs” — hits you with rock-guitar rhythms, angular dueling vocals, a jazz-vibes solo, and jarring poetry (“I’ve got some friends who are living inside me. Organs and flesh. Bones bones!”). Which is one way of saying that this debut by NEC-to-Brooklyn transplant Monika Heidemann is surprising in every way. When she isn’t writing her own lyrics, she’s setting poetry by Allen Ginsberg or covering Steve Lacy’s settings of Herman Melville and Brion Gysin. The latter, “Somebody Special,” was my personal hit single of the year, with its droning bass, Jeremy Udden’s stunning slow-boil alto solo, and Heidemann’s ardent, comic vocals.
7 MORE VOCAL SAMPLING
Female vocalists could easily have overtaken the list this year. Heidemann’s vocal partner on “Organs” was SOFÍA KOUTSOVITIS. And Koutsovitis sang with Spalding on her own self-released Ojalá, where she set her vocals and pan-American approach (she’s from Buenos Aires, studied in Boston) against her dramatic arrangements for nonet. The intense, Czech-born singer/songwriter/cuatro player MARTA TOPFEROVA sings Spanish like a native; her latest CD, Flor Nocturna (World Village), and show at Scullers were highlights. And CASSANDRA WILSON released her most hip-hop-influenced album, Thunderbird (Blue Note), and sounded as if she were having more fun than she’s had in years. More fun for us, too.
8 JOHN TCHICAI–CHARLIE KOHLHASE–GARRISON FEWELL | Good Night Songs |Boxholder
Here’s the perfect balance of arranged and free material, and a compositional approach to even the free-est of it. Two reeds (Kohlhase and the great Afro-Dutch player Tchicai) and one guitar (Fewell) navigate synchronized entrances and exits as unison themes alternate with collective improv and a cappella arias all around. The writing gives each tune its own character: bebop romps, South American folk tune, misterioso Middle Eastern ballad — and Fewell’s “X-Ray Vision” could be “The Man I Love” as arranged and reharmonized by Mingus. I’m guilty of having missed two shows this year where Kohlhase brought Tchicai to town. Gimme another chance, Charlie?