Friday, December 21, 2012

Top Five Jazz (?) Songs of 2012

It's hard to talk about what is and isn't jazz in 2012.  The classic quartets of the 50s and 60s are a thing of the past now, only to be reminisced about.  Gone, too, are the swing and bebop grooves that were second nature when John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk were in their prime.  You won't hear a drummer play swing on any of these five songs.  In fact, it's plausible that someone could listen to any one of these five songs and disagree completely with my calling them jazz.  Hence the (?) in the title of this post.  I could have put "Top Five Non-Non-Jazz Songs of 2012," but that sounded too cluttered.  Nevertheless, you should listen and love each of these songs.

5. "Choosing Sides" - ERIMAJ

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The final track of ERIMAJ's 2012 release is certainly the most climactic.  Most of the album presents a hushed, intimate variety of jazz.  The vocals are mellow and soothing.  But on the last song, the accompaniment stomps through as the tenor saxophone soloist riffs and builds.  The piano and bass play a repeating bassline as Jamire Williams' pocket drumming moves the music forward.  The wordless vocals let the instrumentalists take the reins, and the whole band plays its best on this track out of the entire album.  Yet the track retains some of the softer elements of the album, using acoustic guitar and bass as the track simmers to a close.

4. "When Marissa Stands Her Ground" - Christian Scott

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Jamire Williams appears on this track for the second time on this list, and for the second time it is his playing that makes the song so excellent.  His groove on "When Marissa Stands Her Ground" is the most exciting on Christian Scott's expansive 2012 release, Christian a Tunde Adjuah. He plays the same beat for the whole song, which opens up the music for the other instruments, including Scott's excellent trumpet and Matt Stevens'  brilliant guitar sound.  Characteristic of most of Scott's music is the lackadaisical melody of this track, but during the second part of the melody, it speeds up with funk-swung eighth notes.  The straight snare hits that Williams plays complement the syncopated trumpet line perfectly.  Williams knows what to play to bring out the best in his fellow bandmates.

3. "Why Do We Try" - Robert Glasper Experiment

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Robert Glasper's music on Black Radio takes more cues from funk and soul music than it does from the world of jazz.  Most notable is the influence of the Soulquarian movement of the late 1990s and early 2000s, some of which (Bilal, Erykah Badu, yasiin bey) appear on the album.  On "Why Do We Try," the Experiment back up R&B singer Stokley Williams, who guest stars on the track.  Chris Dave's drumming is perfectly in the pocket as Glasper noodles around on piano.  Ever-present in the track and much of the entire album is Casey Benjamin's keytar, which is distorted and manipulated.  Its counterpoint balances out Williams' melody.

2. "Sunshower" - Rafiq Bhatia

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It's unlikely that you've ever heard anything like the first track on guitarist Rafiq Bhatia's debut EP.  "Sunshower" is a true marvel of playing, as Bhatia's frantic finger-picking anchors the track.  Jeremy Viner's abrasive tenor sax runs all over the chord structure.  But even more marvelous is the production.  Icelandic producer Valgeir Sigurdsson adds many layers to Bhatia's music, and "Sunshower" is complex.  In addition to the band are multiple tracks of strings and keyboards, which add a sonic depth to the song unlike any other music today.  Bhatia has fully realized the possibilities of production work in jazz, and it allows him to make astonishing music.

1. "Thing of Gold" - Snarky Puppy

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It's also unlikely that you'll hear anything as delightful as "Thing of Gold," the opener from Snarky Puppy's 2012 release groundUP.  The music borrows heavily from African and worldbeat music, with high guitar lines which use 2nds and 4ths rather than the typically western 3rds and 5ths.  But central to the track is Shaun Martin's mini-Moog synth.  Martin soars over his keyboard, handling the chord changes of "Thing of Gold," which move key center about every 20 seconds.  There's only one four-bar phrase of melody for the entire song, but Michael League's songwriting method here is to take a small piece of music and put it through as many keys as possible.  This song is one of the most energetic and uplifting songs I've ever heard.  The 15-plus musicians on the recording all play wonderfully together.  "Thing of Gold" is sure to put a smile on your face.

Thanks for reading, everyone! Stay tuned for more best of 2012 lists, including the best non-jazz tracks of the year and the best albums of the year.

--Jacob

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