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2012: Derek Taylor

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Our Twin Cities authority on all things jazz and blues offers his take on the best music of the year, and yesteryear.

2012: Derek Taylor

Music fanatics are a fickle and voracious lot and I most certainly count myself among that number. This year though, the number of new releases that made it across my desk decreased rather drastically in comparison to the bumper crops of year’s past. Writing became even more of a part-time pastime as other obligations continued their encroachment on my free time. New obsessions sprouted too, most prominently through a trio of label catalogs that I set about exploring rigorously, and which I’ll get into at the close of this essay. But first up a rundown of some of the musicians/albums released in the annum that grabbed my ears and wouldn’t let go in no particular order except the first. Thanks for reading!

Ten Freedom Summers alone justifies Smith’s position at the top of this list. When asked to review this monumental set for this site I nervously wondered whether I could do it any semblance of justice. Whether I did is debatable, but the enduring significance of the music is certainly not subject to equivocation. My colleague Jason Bivins called it a “masterpiece” in the pages of another publication and I’m in complete agreement. Then factor that it’s just one of a handful of releases by the trumpeter/composer this year with Ancestors, his duos with drummer Louis Moholo-Moholo another stellar standout. Smith has managed the hat trick of matching quantity with quality more times than I can count.

I’ve been pretty much out of the loop regarding the new music of David S. Ware over the past few years and have visited his back catalog only infrequently at best over that same time frame. That “out of sight/out of mind” mentality didn’t make his passing this year any less hard to take; particularly when the optimistic circumstances prior made it seem as if he had gained a renewed lease on his time here. Departed though he may be, he’s far from forgotten as the waves of tributes and remembrances that continue to circulate make manifest. In the calm and beatific demeanor that was his trademark he repeatedly made it known that his corporeal form was a transitory one and that his spirit would live on. Whether one chooses to believe that or not his music certainly does and it’s a body of work that I look forward to reacquainting myself with in the months to come.

Over the course of this year, McPhee did what he’s been doing for years: touring, recording, teaching and in each of these activities communicating what makes him one of the most consistently engaging improvisers around. It’s been awhile since I’ve seen him in person, but thanks to the steady stream of projects both new and archival keeping up with his creative output isn’t difficult. Chief among those current conduits is the trio of releases on Corbett vs. Dempsey, particularly the reissues of Glasses and Variations on a Blue Line/’Round Midnight, his long out-of-circulation solo albums for Hat Hut. Loneliest Woman is interesting too, but frustratingly only fragment-length. Trio X: Tour 2010 keeps alive the tradition of tour-documenting box sets by his working trio with bassist Dominic Duval and drummer Jay Rosen while Clean Feed’s Brooklyn DNA celebrates his fertile collaboration with Austin-based bassist Ingebrigt Haker-Flaten. New York Quartet adds Joe Morris on guitar and trumpeter Nate Wooley to that equation for spacious chamber-to-free jazz.

Cornetist Kirk Knuffke’s been on my radar for awhile now, but this year further solidified my admiration for his work. Seeing him at a coffee house gig in the company of Twin Cities stalwarts Brian Roessler and Peter Henning revealed an amicable demeanor to go with his killer chops. Then there’s his continuing partnership with pianist Jesse Stacken. Their third release Like a Tree found them adding drummer Kenny Wolleson to the mix and switching gears to a broader songbook encompassing Ayler, Lacy, Mengelberg and others. Knuffke’s ears aren’t just fixated on the freer end of the jazz spectrum as Pound Cake, his quartet collaboration with Tristanoite tenorist Ted Brown made abundantly clear.

Label: AUM Fidelity | Release Date: July 10

An overdue debut record by long-standing colleagues who’ve worked together frequently, this disc is also an extended opportunity to hear guitarist Joe Morris in a setting that arguably best accents his many virtues as a collaborative improviser. Peers Parker and Cleaver meet him head on and though the shared journey is lengthy it never feels overstuffed or bereft of purpose or direction. This is the sort of no-nonsense forward-thinking free jazz album that AUM Fidelity pioneered and it’s a pleasure to see the label still going strong.

Label: Pi Recordings | Release Date: September 25

Reunions don’t get much more anticipated than this one and Pi’s two-disc document justifies the stacks of pre-release hype. Rivers passing last December makes it poignant, but it’s obvious that these three weren’t concerning themselves with the weight of mortality as their shared sounds soar over the duration. Rivers runs through his arsenal while Holland and Altschul keep foolproof pace. Tears in spilled milk or no, listening to music of this caliber it’s hard not to regret the absence of opportunities for them convene regularly for recordings in the decade prior.

Label: CAM Jazz | Release Date: April 10

CAM Jazz’s contract with Black Saint/Soul Note continues to yield a series of box collections that are both conveniently complete and a steal in terms of price. Even if you’ve already got a few of the albums on a set, pulling the trigger is easy when it comes down to basically half-a-sawbuck a disc. The Pullen is my pick of the litter this year as it offers up some of his prime work in a diversity of settings including quintet, quartet, trio, duo and a pair of killer solo outings that amply and intimately illustrate his earthy piano genius. The sidemen, starting with Sam Rivers, Joseph Jarman and Fred Hopkins are all icing on a particularly satisfying cake.

Label: Steeplechase | Release Date: June 1

Riley’s sixth as a leader and a welcome return to the piano-less trio format where his fathomless feather-light tone and unerring melodic ingenuity seem to gain the greatest traction. He’s yet to let me down over the span of that entire run and this date, in addition to reuniting him with old confrere Neal Caine, makes a good team great with the addition of drum doyen Billy Hart. No originals, as is the Steeplechase standard, but classics by Coltrane, Joe Henderson and others serve as creative workouts and they even manage to make the soporific “Mr. Sandman” swing. My favorite under-40 saxophonist, full stop.

Label: ECM | Release Date: March 26

Speaking of Mr. Hart, the drummer’s first call rep when it comes to sideman duty has come at something of a cost to his discography in the driver’s seat. The infrequency of Hart-led sessions makes this ECM date all the more valuable, not to mention the top flight colleagues Hart tapped for the venture. His kit is front and center and rendered in the signature pristine spaciousness of the ECM studio sound, but Mark Turner, Ethan Iverson and Ben Street are full participants, proof again that long-time sidemen often make for the most obliging and attentive leaders.

Label: Nessa | Release Date: October 16

Hal Russell (drums, vibes, C melody sax, shenai, cornet, zither, etc.) never really built a catalog commensurate with the magnitude of his talent. Part of that was probably due to his peregrine personality and a preference for performance over worrying about whether it was all being preserved for posterity. That paucity takes a gratifying hit with this augmented reissue, which adds nearly a half-hour of contemporaneous music. The NRG were right in line with Russell’s precarious balance of free-leaning energy music and near-slapstick humor (the ghost of Spike Jones was just one spiritual totem) and band shot the graces the booklet shows them in all their early-80s music geek glory. Saxophonist Chuck Burdelik’s feathered mullet, beach shades and candy stripe muscle shirt takes the prize.

Label: Merge | Release Date: September 4

Roaring guitar-powered power pop from one of the pioneering poster boys of the idiom and Mould’s most thoroughly satisfying solo album… arguably ever. He’s building with familiar materials, but in fresh configurations and a lean LP-sized sequencing that work best at maximum volume. I shamefully missed their Copper Blue tour hit at First Avenue thanks to the paralyzing after-effects of the same-day Autumn Brew Review (I was over-served!), but the disc has delivered plenty of balm through recurring rotation. “Angels Rearrange” gets my nod as best cut, but I seem to be in the minority on that score.

Label: Soundway | Release Date: April 10

Truth in titling all the way. Funkees tracks popped up on a handful of Nigerian music compilations prior to this generously sequenced collection, but it’s here where the depth and breadth of their talents get the finest showing short of the nigh-impossible task of hunting down the original vinyl. In a time when Fela’s shadow loomed large over the country’s collective pop music scene, they managed a path of their own layering unstoppable grooves onto a rock-grounded foundation. The set straddles the band’s later years as expatriates in the UK as well, hitting a host of highlights and convincingly turning the title into a moral imperative.

Label: Savant | Release Date: June 29

Allen’s working trio with bassist Gregg August and drummer Rudy Royston remains the perfect gateway group for neophyte listeners interested in exploring adventurous small group jazz. Different label, same central investment strategy and resulting dividends paid. The overarching theme of the album title is a loose one and the disc’s dozen tracks work just as well as discrete entities, excised of any extraneous elements and ideal for radio play. In the trio’s collective hands precedence is a springboard, not a rut and even if Allen sticks to the same format moving forward it’s a proven winner.

Label: Vampisoul | Release Date: September 19

A second serving of classic Peruvian cumbia, slightly longer than the first but still quixotically short in comparison to most comps of this ilk. Still, what’s here is as killer and immersive as the documentation is colorful and edifying. The chief deviation from contemporaneous Colombian styles rests in the substitution of reverb-heavy guitars for customary accordion leads to create a sound that borrows as much from instrumental groups like The Ventures and The Fireballs as traditional song forms and rhythms. As party soundtrack discs go it’s near the top of this year’s stack.

Label: Secret Stash | Release Date: October 16

As a Twin Cities resident for the past twelve years my local pride runs deep in this release and the label behind it. The guiding directive behind the project is comparable to that of sister crate-digging labels like Numero and NowAgain: Dig deep. And there’s even some inevitable overlap (cf. Wanda Davis’ “Save Me” also shows up on Jazzman/NowAgain’s “Midwest Funk” from years ago), but Secret Stash goes for broke in the annotation department with 34-page booklet that leaves no anecdotal stone unturned and crams in a wealth of vintage photos. The richness of the Cities’ musical history needs no defending, but it’s still immensely satisfying to see it recounted with such obvious love and dedication.

Label: Sublime Frequencies | Release Date: June 19

Technically a 2011 vinyl release, but this year’s expanded CD edition more than doubles the amount of music in the package. Comparisons to Dick Dale are convenient to make in Khorshid’s preferred reverb-saturated guitar sound, but as these tracks demonstrate his music-making moved far beyond any provincial surf music ghetto. Blending in batteries of hand percussion and vintage effects-heavy organ that would make Korla Pandit proud, his instrumental opuses regularly attained grand and sweeping scope. “Dance of Space” is probably my favorite example, particularly the break about two-and-half minutes in where he rolls out a vapor-trailing arpeggiated run that hits with the cosmic weight of a Sabbath riff.

Label: Labor | Release Date: October 30

Initially somewhat surprising to see Louisiana Red on a label with the recent jazz and classical-centric track record of Labor. In that latter vein, their pair of Heinz Stadler reissues is well worth checking out. Turns out the bluesman’s catalog there is actually pretty deep and this latest archival set of his 70s work is no outlier. It features Red in the sort of stripped down setting that speaks best to his strengths. Most are cuts are just him and his guitar running through familiar songs and themes that he manages to make sound fresh and apart from earlier incarnations. The irrepressible harmonica savant Peg Leg Sam guests on a handful of them and the studio sound is impeccable throughout.

Originally the brainchild of New Orleans impresario Bill Russell intended as a vehicle for preserving and releasing the twilight career work of trumpeter Bunk Johnson, American Music eventually encompassed the activities of dozens of traditional jazz musicians from the Big Easy region. It blossomed in the CD era into reissue catalog to be reckoned with. British drummer Barry Martyn took over for Russell and also had a hand in its sister label GHB, which is even more voluminous in terms of archives. What’s most fascinating is the fly-on-wall nature of the recordings capturing bands in their natural habitat of the crumbling concert halls where sexagenarian and septuagenarian participants were the norm rather than the exception. More often than not these old guys still had the spark and while the albums are riddled with raw and sometimes suspect displays of chops there’s an inexhaustible energy infusing them that’s often absent in the more polished performances sanctioned these days by the likes of Preservation Hall. Great starting points include The Mighty Four (pictured above), Barnes/Bocage Big Five and pretty much anything by the unsung king of gutbucket trumpet, Kid Thomas Valentine.

Talk about vast holdings, Ace Records’ Kent subsidiary has some of the deepest Soul coffers extant. And unlike most of their peers, they’re not restricted to single region or locale and range freely to the four points of the compass. This year’s second volume of unreleased George Jackson sides for the Fame label, Let the Best Man Win is nearly as good as the first and a follow-up to Clarence Carter’s first comp of Fame singles is still in the works and will no doubt be equally worth the wait. Doris Duke’s I’m a Loser reissues her 1969 Swamp Dogg-produced classic in full and adds entire other album and a handful of bonus tracks in the bargain. As good as those single artist collections are their variously-themed compilations are sometimes even better. When a Man Cries is probably my pick of the dozen or so litter that I’ve sampled with choice cuts from Lloyd Price, Charlie Whitehead and Jackie Moore among a host of others originally released on tiny regional labels like Scepter, Dynamo and Wand.

The Dragon imprint’s been around for a long while too and with access to voluminous radio archives as well as original vinyl pressings of Swedish jazz classics they’re masters of their purview. The cornerstone of the catalog is the 11-volume (to date) Lars Gullin series documenting the ill-fated baritone saxophonist’s checkered career trajectory from early sideman dates with European and American colleagues though his sporadic opportunities as a leader. Volume 8, Danny’s Dream, is probably the best place to start. Gullin’s compatriots are well represented too, among them piano prodigy Bengt Hallberg, clarinetist Putte Wickman and saxophonists Arne Domnerus and Rolf Billberg, the latter an intriguing Lee Konitz disciple and the former in a position of fame on par with the aforementioned Gullin. Given the source material fidelity predictably varies between releases, but the accompanying booklets are always thorough and paint a rich portrait of the country’s post-swing jazz history through detailed prose.

By Derek Taylor

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