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The Gig: 2012 in Gigs

Nate Chinen's most memorable shows of the past year

Marc Ribot
Craig Taborn

“I really quite honestly feel like there’s more happening in the music now than there ever has been,” Dave Douglas told me one recent afternoon. “It’s the richest period.”

We were talking about Be Still (Greenleaf), the exquisite album he made this year. But since Douglas, the prolific trumpeter-composer-bandleader, is a big-picture type, the conversation had drawn wide, and maybe a little charged. Could there really be a case for elevating this present moment in jazz’s creative evolution above all others? Well, sure, he seemed to be saying. Why not?

Take issue with the contention if you like, but it’s in that general spirit that I bring you the Year in Gigs, an accounting of standout jazz performances, now in its eighth edition. No disrespect to the worthy albums that jockey for position on the critics’ polls this time of year, but I’ll always look to the live experience as a bellwether and barometer for our music. And by that reckoning, I can only find reason for celebration here.

Consider for a moment the monumentally strong stuff that didn’t make this list. I caught the first public outing by the Pat Metheny Unity Band; I also saw the band months later, swinging for the fences at the Newport Jazz Festival. I witnessed Keith Jarrett’s solo piano concert at Carnegie Hall, the second half of which was so gorgeous that I’m tempted to reconsider its exclusion. Also at Carnegie, I saw Chucho Valdés and his Afro-Cuban Messengers with the dynamic singer Buika. On the first night after a five-day blackout, I was at the Blue Note for the premiere of Chick Corea and Stanley Clarke’s new band with saxophonist Ravi Coltrane and drummer Marcus Gilmore.

But enough preamble. Here’s what ultimately made the cut, Douglas and his new crew included. Jazz’s richest period? I don’t know, but I’ll take it.

FRED HERSCH TRIO, VILLAGE VANGUARD, FEB. 7: During the first set of the weeklong run that would yield Alive at the Vanguard (Palmetto), Hersch reconfirmed the hale elegance of his pianism and raised the possibility that this trio, with John Hébert on bass and Eric McPherson on drums, could be his finest yet.

CRAIG TABORN TRIO, VILLAGE VANGUARD, APRIL 4: An astonishingly good first hometown outing by a group we’ll soon be hearing more about, with Taborn on piano, Thomas Morgan on bass and Gerald Cleaver on drums. Exploratory at every turn, it covered a galactic range of style without once seeming calculated or false.

YOSVANY TERRY QUINTET, JAZZ STANDARD, APRIL 11: The sleek, shifting forms on Today’s Opinion (Criss Cross), an impressive release by Cuban saxophonist and percussionist Yosvany Terry, lent the framework for a set with bracing work all around but especially from trumpeter Mike Rodriguez and conguero Pedrito Martinez.


It’s no secret that Iyer, the imposingly perceptive pianist and composer, has one of the most dangerous bands in the game. During this late set, drawing from both of his recent trio releases, his playing sounded deeply enmeshed with that of drummer Marcus Gilmore and bassist Stephan Crump.

WAYNE SHORTER QUARTET, ROSE THEATER, APRIL 27: I can’t say for sure that this gripping concert offered an early taste of any compositions from Without a Net, due out on Blue Note in February. But I’m certain that Shorter, playing tenor and soprano saxophones, brought his most fearless game, and that his acclaimed cohorts danced along the tightrope with him.

CECIL TAYLOR, HARLEM STAGE GATEHOUSE, MAY 17: The natural pinnacle of a roughly weeklong celebration of free-improv titan Cecil Taylor was this solo recital by the man himself. Frail in physical stature now but with undiminished pianistic command, he cast a mesmerizing spell, calm and furious, with cheerfully cryptic spoken-word interjections.

PAUL DUNMALL, MATTHEW SHIPP, JOE MORRIS, GERALD CLEAVER; ROULETTE, JUNE 11: Somehow I had never seen Dunmall, the powerfully expressive British saxophonist, before this feat of spontaneous combustion at the Vision Festival. That’s my loss, given how marvelous he sounded leading a charge with several strong American partners.

MARC RIBOT TRIO, VILLAGE VANGUARD, JUNE 26: The clamant cry of Albert Ayler’s tenor saxophone hung over this engagement like a sense memory, and not just because Ribot, a prickly but adaptable guitarist, claims him as a totem. Ribot’s bandleading debut at the Vanguard was also bassist Henry Grimes’ first appearance there since backing Ayler in the ’60s. This set, with Chad Taylor on drums, made that legacy feel spookily real.

DAVE DOUGLAS QUINTET, 92YTRIBECA, SEPT. 19: Douglas’ new band, with Jon Irabagon on saxophones, Matt Mitchell on piano, Linda Oh on bass and Rudy Royston on drums, was scarily assured in its first proper performance-and Aoife O’Donovan, a folksinger unbound by idiom, met every twist with decisive grace.

MICHAEL FORMANEK QUARTET, PHILADELPHIA ART ALLIANCE, OCT. 7: Small Places (ECM), the second album by this chamberlike ensemble, formed a springboard for Formanek, steering from the bass, and his intrepid band: saxophonist Tim Berne, drummer Gerald Cleaver and especially pianist Craig Taborn, whose touch served as a lantern in the dark.

Originally Published