Voting for Debut of the Year is Gonna Be Tough

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Well shoot, it’s that time of the year again – time for me to start going through the numerous albums from 2013 I listened to and try to figure out how to rank them, an arduous task to be sure.  As a voter in the annual Rhapsody.com critics poll, I will have to figure out what album I will pick for best debut.  This is gonna be a hard one, as there are a bunch of good ones out there.  Making it particularly hard is that they are represent a diversity of styles – so any attempt to compare them is an exercise in pointlessness.  As of right now, here’s what I’m considering for debut of the year:

Derrick-Hodge-Live-Today-300x300Derrick Hodge, Live Today (Blue Note).  I’ll admit it, the first time I put this album on, I wasn’t feeling it.  At all.  And I almost didn’t give it another thought.  I don’t know if I was in the wrong frame of mind for it, if my ears were tired, if I was cranky that day or what.  But, I’m glad I gave it another listen, because Live Today is phenomenal.  I spent a good portion of the summer with this one on repeat.  Hodge, who plays bass in Robert Glasper’s band, has created a catchy, diverse, and rich album that traverses and/or is influenced by several genres: jazz, r&b, soul, hip hop, etc.  He somehow managed to create dense and layered textures, all played over tight grooves, without things getting cluttered or muddy.  There is a lot of hip shit happening, the complexity doesn’t sound complex, and there are new things to pick out with every spin.  The most ear-worm worthy cut is “Message of Hope,” which is built on a catchy pentatonic melody.  “Still the One” slowly builds over a slow groove, with a sparse Hodge solo before the repeated vocal line “You’re still the one for me” comes in.  It’s a chill and evocative cut.  “Solitude” sounds just like the title, with Hodge playing a pensive solo throughout the bittersweet piece.   The album features Glasper, a cameo from Common on the title track, drummer Chris Dave, saxophonist Marcus Strickland and others. Put Live Today on and vibe.

owlOWL Trio, S/T.  I reviewed this in a recent issue of Downbeat.  Tasty as hell alto, guitar and bass trio.  With Will Vinson, Lage Lund and Orlando le Fleming.  Their cover of Coltrane’s “Dear Lord” is especially gorgeous.

CACAW, Stellar Power (Skirl).  If you haven’t, read my review of it on this blog.

Steve-Owen-Stand-Up-Eight-L805552210026Steve Owen, Stand Up Eight (OA2 Records).  Owen, who directs the jazz studies program at the University of Oregon, is one of the top contemporary big band writers and arrangers going.  If you’re not familiar with his work, then listen to Stand Up Eight, which is easily one of the best big band albums of the last couple years.  In addition to the excellent writing and ensemble playing, it features a number of outstanding soloists.  Trumpeter Clay Jenkins’ playing is a standout on the haunting and dark “Still.”   Alto saxophonist Todd DelGiudice (who can be heard on several recent albums on the Origin/OA2 labels) is the featured soloist on Owen’s arrangement of Cole Porter’s “Everything I Love.”  After a lengthy intro/setup, DelGiudice enters backed by the full band.  His solo is full of forward energy and intensity, and his alto sound contains a nice mix of sweetness, heft and edge.  The other non-Owen composition is his arrangement of Radiohead’s “Kid A,” commissioned by the Frankfurt Radio Big Band and Lawrence University.  Owen’s chart – which features Jenkins and tenor saxophonist Peter Sommer – doesn’t stray too far from the original, and his use of marimba and woodwind doubles creates a wide array of timbres.  Stand Up Eight, which from an engineering and mastering standpoint sounds great, is an excellent album from a composer who should be heard by a wider audience.

parker worldsMatt Parker, Worlds Put Together (BYNK). Released in May, Worlds Put Together was a pleasant surprise.  Being unfamiliar with Parker, a Brooklyn based tenor saxophonist, and the rest of his band, save for drummer Reggie Quinerly, I had no idea what to expect.  But not having expectations can be a great thing, as there is nothing from which to prefigure and bias your thoughts.  The album opens with the waltz “Eye of Rico,” built on a raucous three note figure played by Parker and alto saxophonist Julio Monterrey.  It then moves into a gentler piano solo and includes a crunchy solo by guitarist Josh Mease.  Parker’s tone is fairly rough throughout – recalling to a small degree Ayler and Pharoah, although you can hear a little bit of the approach of folks like Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster in his playing.  The overall recording has a raw and dynamic quality; it really feels alive and vital.  Save for the 10 minute “Full Sun,” the cuts are all under five minutes in length, and a few are less than three.  The tunes’ brevity gives them a sort of character piece feel.  “Lists” is extremely dark and brooding.  “Up and Down,” another tune in triple meter, is more playful and celebratory, and with two drummers and with collective improvisation, there’s a somewhat unbridled vibe.  The only cover is “Darn that Dream,” a duet between Parker and Monterrey.  The pair give it a left of center, outward-leaning reading that is decidedly non-balladic.  The final third features Parker’s rapid runs, and the ending finds both men heading towards the upper ends of their horns, with Parker concluding with an altissimo squeal that’s perfectly in tune.  At the end of the “Up and Down,” you hear someone say “that was awesome.”  That phrase pretty much sums up Worlds Put Together, a stunning and stimulating recording.  It’s one of my favorite albums of the year – be it debut or otherwise.

In an era when just about anybody with minimal home recording equipment or a budget to hire musicians and studio time can make a record, and when so many musicians decide to record before they have found their own voice, these five albums stand head and shoulders above most of the debut recordings I heard this year.  They all represent different approaches to jazz, they work to move the music forward in several different vectors, and are worth your time.

I’m sure there’s a whole other heap of albums out there that deserve my vote (and the votes of others for that matter).  In fact I’m sure I have some more debut albums that I have either forgotten about, haven’t gotten to yet, or don’t realize are debut albums.  Time to go digging through my vaults and stack of one- sheets to make sure I haven’t missed anything.

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