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The Top 50 Releases of 2012

Our critics pick the best new and historical recordings of the year

We compiled our top 40 new releases and top 10 historical/reissue recordings of 2012 using yearend lists by our writers. (They were asked to submit ranked lists of 10 new releases and five historical/reissues.) Only CDs and box sets released between Nov. 1, 2011 and Nov. 1, 2012 were eligible. Some albums may have slipped through the cracks, however, as official release dates shifted or weren’t available.

Blurbs constructed from editorial excerpts by Philip Booth, Shaun Brady, Thomas Conrad, Evan Haga, Aidan Levy, John Murph, Britt Robson, Giovani Russonello and Ron Wynn.

1. VIJAY IYER TRIO

Accelerando (ACT)

Few jazz musicians have received critical acclaim in the new millennium like Vijay Iyer. The jazz culture demands original versions of beauty, and Iyer has invented a proprietary piano language. Accelerando, his 16th album, is unmistakably an Iyer record. It has his unsettling kaleidoscopic shifts, his revelations of unfamiliar harmonic proximities and rhythmic tensions, his epiphanies of lyricism suddenly flowing from angular austerity. It evolves deeply personal concepts of songs by a disco group (Heatwave), a laptop musician (Flying Lotus), Michael Jackson, Henry Threadgill, Ellington and himself. But Accelerando also reveals new maturity. It is more organic, more refined, more wholly realized and more about the blossoming of a trio into an orchestral ensemble, with the erudite bassist Stephan Crump and the open-to-anything drummer Marcus Gilmore. T.C.

2. BRANFORD MARSALIS QUARTET

Four MFs Playin’ Tunes (MARSALIS MUSIC)

This year’s most chuckle-worthy album title proves undeniably accurate: This is simply one of jazz’s best working bands tracking live in the same room, balancing muscle and melody throughout a versatile program. The apexes include resolute swing, stirring ballads and some surprising challenges, like the rhythmically out “Endymion,” during which “new” drummer Justin Faulkner showcases fresh facets of his towering ability. E.H.

3. SAM RIVERS/DAVE HOLLAND/BARRY ALTSCHUL
Reunion: Live in New York (PI)

At their best, reunions bypass nostalgia and highlight the singular gifts we’d been missing. This momentous summit by the late Rivers’ durable ’70s trio, two improvised sets recorded live in New York and smartly placemarked by Pi, serves as a swinging reminder of how rewarding free jazz can be when propulsion and blues balance abstraction. E.H.

4. RYAN TRUESDELL

Centennial: Newly Discovered Works of Gil Evans (ARTISTSHARE)
Centennial contains 10 unknown Gil Evans arrangements and two new Evans compositions. Truesdell found them and recorded them with 35 of New York’s best players. The glorious ensemble soars or trembles. The soloists (Joe Locke, Steve Wilson, Frank Kimbrough, Donny McCaslin) kill. One of the essential jazz recordings of the new millennium. T.C.

5. RAVI COLTRANE

Spirit Fiction (BLUE NOTE)

On Spirit Fiction, Coltrane’s first album on Blue Note and his most fruitfully elusive, the saxophonist coaxes two distinct combos into quicksilver flights and contractions. With both bands, Coltrane is at once leader and subverter. The whole album exists in a viscous haze, simultaneously piercing and sunk in turbid waters. G.R.

6. GREGORY PORTER

Be Good (MOTÉMA)

Very few contemporary jazz singers are capable of enthralling with a songbook consisting mostly of originals. Porter established himself as one of those select few with this astonishing sophomore release. “On My Way to Harlem,” “Be Good” and “Real Good Hands” stand a chance of becoming 21st-century jazz classics. J.M.

7. HENRY THREADGILL ZOOID

Tomorrow Sunny/The Revelry, Spp (PI)

Listening to Threadgill in 2012 is not unlike hearing Ornette a half-century ago: While the challenged mind searches for purchase within his now somewhat familiar but still utterly unique musical configurations, the body mysteriously grooves along. It is the essence of jazz: The “sound of surprise” invested with a primal pulse. B.R.

8. WADADA LEO SMITH

Ten Freedom Summers (CUNEIFORM)

Thirty-four years in the making, the strings-heavy music on these four CDs is both rolling and conical, sliding from plainspoken to dissonant. It addresses the civil rights movement’s promises in terms of gravity and universality and inevitable exasperation, and is likely to speak to us long after most of Smith’s records have faded. G.R.

9. TIM BERNE

Snakeoil (ECM)


With a new quartet free of his usual collaborators and working, for the first time as a leader, under the supervision of Manfred Eicher, Berne’s latest is an evolution rather than a reinvention. His penchant for roaming widely over treacherous terrain is intact, but it leads him into darker, more mysterious corners. S.B.

10. BRAD MEHLDAU TRIO

Ode (NONESUCH)

Some of us wince when a new Mehldau Trio album is all originals, because he can derive breathtaking revelations from popular songs. Still, the trio is his best format, he has used it less in recent years, and Ode has stunning moments. Check out the maniacal, elegant two-handed unisons of “Stan the Man.” T.C.

11. BRAD MEHLDAU TRIO
Where Do You Start? (NONESUCH)

On this second Mehldau Trio release of 2012, the pianist and his cohorts brilliantly reimagine familiar fare ranging from Sonny Rollins’ “Airegin” to Nick Drake’s “Time Has Told Me” to Chico Buarque’s “Samba e Amor.” Especially unexpected and satisfying: the slow-building, bluesy take on the Jimi Hendrix hit “Hey Joe.” B.B.

12. STEVE LEHMAN TRIO
Dialect Fluorescent (PI)


A “take that” to those who see the cerebral and the swinging as inherently incompatible, Lehman leads his trio through tunes by the likes of Trane and Jackie McLean. The result is a postmodern reconfiguration of the lexicon, with discovery-not dissection-at its heart. S.B.

13. FRED HERSCH TRIO

Alive at the Vanguard (PALMETTO)


The title is both descriptor and declaration, as this two-disc set documents a week’s run at the Village Vanguard that also serves as the latest celebration of Hersch’s remarkable recovery from his 2008 coma. Through sensitive interplay with John Hébert and Eric McPherson, every note, every instant, is deeply charged with meaningful appreciation. S.B.

14. JOHN ABERCROMBIE

QUARTET

Within a Song (ECM)

Proof that a ’60s-homage concept can mean more than warmed-over psychedelia. Abercrombie, the most sensitive and selective jazz guitarist this side of Bill Frisell, nabs postbop classics from his youth and composes some new melodies in their spirit. With Joe Lovano, Drew Gress and Joey Baron in tow, and Manfred Eicher offering his usual dreamscape production, the results are largely hushed and entirely heavenly. E.H.

15. ANAT COHEN

Claroscuro (ANZIC)

Cohen’s deft touch on clarinet, bass clarinet and tenor and soprano saxes again informs a program of high-contrast shadows and light, a rich palette of textures and emotions. Her quartet and guests veer from early jazz to Ellington-style blues, balladry, choro music and jazz that’s thoroughly of the moment. P.B.

16. DAVE DOUGLAS

QUINTET
Be Still (GREENLEAF)

17. FLY
Year of the Snake (ECM)

18. KURT ELLING
1619 Broadway: The Brill Building Project (CONCORD JAZZ)

19. PAT METHENY
Unity Band (NONESUCH)

20. ROBERT GLASPER

EXPERIMENT
Black Radio (BLUE NOTE)

21. MATT WILSON’S ARTS & CRAFTS
An Attitude for Gratitude (PALMETTO)

22. JEFF COFFIN & THE MU’TET
Into the Air (EAR UP)

23. CHICK COREA & GARY BURTON
Hot House (CONCORD JAZZ)

24. CHRISTIAN SCOTT
Christian aTunde Adjuah (CONCORD JAZZ)

25. DARIUS JONES

QUARTET
Book Of Mæ’bul (Another Kind of Sunrise) (AUM FIDELITY)


26. STEVE KUHN/STEVE SWALLOW/JOEY BARON
Wisteria (ECM)

27. GUILLERMO KLEIN (WITH LOS GUACHOS)
Carrera (SUNNYSIDE)

28. OMER AVITAL
Suite of the East (ANZIC)

29. THEO BLECKMANN
Hello Earth! The Music of Kate Bush (WINTER & WINTER)

30. ORRIN EVANS
Flip the Script (POSI-TONE)

31. LINDA OH
Initial Here (GREENLEAF)

32. RON MILES
Quiver (ENJA YELLOWBIRD)

33. AHMAD JAMAL
Blue Moon (JAZZ VILLAGE)

34. BILLY HART/ETHAN IVERSON/MARK TURNER/BEN STREET
All Our Reasons (ECM)

35. KENNY GARRETT
Seeds From the Underground (MACK AVENUE)

36. JACK DEJOHNETTE
Sound Travels (GOLDEN BEAMS/EONE)

37. MARC JOHNSON/ELIANE ELIAS

Swept Away (ECM)

38. DANIEL FREEDMAN
Bamako by Bus (ANZIC)

39. LEE KONITZ/BILL FRISELL/GARY PEACOCK/JOEY BARON

Enfants Terribles: Live at the Blue Note (HALF NOTE)

40. BOBO STENSON TRIO

Indicum (ECM)

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