Throughout the year our music critics offer up their take on notable new releases from California bands and musicians -- and inevitably they only scratch the surface. So much great music, so little time. So we've invited them in to chat about the year in music.
Andy Gilbert’s Best Releases of 2012
Mary Stallings “Don’t Look Back” (HighNote)
San Francisco jazz singer Mary Stallings has been rediscovered at least four times in a career stretching back to the 1950s. Her latest album “Don’t Look Back,” a collaboration with the great Los Angeles pianist Eric Reed, demonstrates why she keeps inspiring new generations.
“New Monsters” (Positone)
Inspired by rigorous but playful musical searchers like Sun Ra and Anthony Braxton, the dauntingly prolific East Bay saxophonist/composer Daniel Plonsey has a knack for writing tuneful, mercurial, and strangely affecting material. Bassist Steve Horowitz decided to reconfigure some of Plonsey’s music as post-bop jazz, resulting in “New Monsters,” a quintet session featuring Plonsey himself, ROVA saxophonist Steve Adams, pianist Scott Looney and drummer Jim Bove.
Wadada Leo Smith “Ten Freedom Summers” (Cuneiform)
Trumpeter/composer Wadada Leo Smith’s “Ten Freedom Summers” is a kaleidoscopic, spiritually charged opus inspired by the civil rights movement. Righteous but never polemical, the four-disc set evokes the turbulent era’s milestones while celebrating the civil rights movement’s heroes and martyrs. It’s an orchestral collaboration with the eight-piece ensemble Southwest Chamber Music (harp, clarinet, 2 violins, cello, flute, viola, bass, percussion) conducted by Jeff von der Schmidt and Smith’s Golden Quartet featuring pianist Anthony Davis, bassist John Lindberg, drummer Susie Ibarra and/or drummer Pheeroan akLaaf (who often expands the ensemble to a quintet).
Top 10 California Releases
1) Trio M, “The Guest House”
A protean triumvirate of master improvisers, Trio M features Berkeley pianist Myra Melford, San Diego bassist Mark Dresserfa and New York drummer Matt Wilson. With each player contributing compositions it’s a true collective ensemble defined by the music’s exhilarating, often playful push and pull.
2) Eric Reed “The Baddest Monk” (Savant)
Possessing an exquisite touch, exuberant sense of swing and boundless soul, Eric Reed is one of jazz’s most eloquent pianists. His new album features his unfussy quintet arrangements for seven classic Thelonious Monk compositions (and two Monk tributes of his own). Reed’s top-shelf New York band includes probing tenor saxophonist Seamus Blade and the ebullient Trinidadian trumpeter Etienne Charles.
3) Real Vocal String Quartet “Four Little Sisters” (Flower Note Records)
There’s no sophomore jinx for violinist Irene Sazer’s ridiculously talented Real Vocal String Quartet, which violinist Alisa Rose, violinist/violist Dina Maccabee, and cellist Jessica Ivry (all four all contribute vocals). From Regina Spektor’s “Machine” and Gilberto Gil’s “Copo Vazio” to David Byrne’s “Knotty Pine” and Duke Pearson’s “Sweet Honey Bee,” the band’s insistently engaging second album encompasses an astonishing array of traditions reconfigured by the quartet’s hardy mélange of conservatory chops, roots soul and sumptuous vocal harmonies, all laced with improvisational brio.
4) Erik Jekabson “Anti-Mass” (Jekab’s Music)
Berkeley-raised trumpeter Erik Jekabson’s startlingly beautiful CD “Anti-Mass” features his original pieces inspired by works in the permanent collection of the DeYoung Museum (compositions commissioned by SF Friends of Chamber Music and the museum itself with Intersection for the Arts). Exploring an array of textures and forms, he makes full use of the brass and strings sextet with violinist Anthony Blea, violist Charith Premawardhana, bassist John Wiitala, drummer/vibraphonist Smith Dobson and tenor saxophonist Dayna Stephens.
5) Hafez Modirzadeh “Post-Chromodal Out!” (Pi)
Turning classical Persian scales into fertile fodder for jazz invention, “Post-Chromodal Out!” continues the enthralling dialogue that San Jose tenor saxophonist Hafez Modirzadeh started with Iraqi-American trumpeter Amir ElSaffar on their widely acclaimed 2010 album “Radif Suite.” The new CD opens mid-conversation with “Weft Facets,” the second half of an extended suite introduced on the earlier recording, though he and ElSaffar are joined by a different rhythm section, featuring pianist Vijay Iyer, bassist Ken Filiano and drummer Royal Hartigan. The album captures the two horn players engaged in thoughtful, occasionally roiling exchanges across 13 movements and four interludes.
6) Bob Mintzer Big Band “For the Moment” (MCG)
Though best known as a longtime member of the popular fusion band the Yellowjackets, Los Angeles tenor saxophonist, arranger and composer Bob Mintzer is a creative force who thrives in a wide array of settings. Over the years he’s show a particular affinity for the music of Brazil, and “For the Moment” features some of his most passionately lyrical work. Whether arranging classic tunes by departed Brazilian giants (Jobim and Baden Powell), collaborating with contemporary Brazilian master Chico Pinheiro (who contributes expert guitar work and vocals), or introducing his marvelously crafted originals, Mintzer isn’t exploring Brazilian music as much as distilling the essence of several Brazilian forms and rhythms for his own creative ends.
7) Kat Parra “Las Aventuras de Pasion” (JazzMa Records)
Over the past decade San Jose’s Kat Parra has evolved from a fine salsa singer into a Latin jazz visionary with a singular repertoire of medieval Sephardic melodies infused with a pan-Caribbean rhythmic palette. Exchanging her previous album’s horns for strings, “Las Aventuras de Pasion!” features spacious, translucent arrangements devised mostly in collaboration veteran trombonist/arranger Wayne Wallace, who co-produced the album.
8) Graham Dechter, “Takin’ It There” (Capri Records)
A blazing young Los Angeles guitarist who doesn’t allow his prodigious technique to overwhelm good taste, Graham Dechter shows that swinging hard never goes out of style. Accompanied by a superlative rhythm section with pianist Tamir Hendelman, bassist John Clayton and drummer Jeff Hamilton, he confidently establishes his own personality while paying tribute to fret forebears like Wes Montgomery and Barney Kessel.
9) Trio Garufa “El Rumor de Tus Tangos” (Garufa Records)
When it’s not dressed up with techno beats, tango can often be assertive, angular and erotically charged. But in the hands of the Bay Area’s Trio Garufa, the style sounds quietly insinuating, flowing with sensuous curves. Featuring bassist Sascha Jacobsen, guitarist Guillermo Garcia and Adrian Jost on bandoneon, “El Rumor de Tus Tangos” explores an array of traditional and nuevo-tango numbers as well as related Argentine styles.
10) Marty Krystall “Liquid Krystall Displayed” (K2B2 Records)
Los Angeles reed expert Marty Krystall is an unaccountably overlooked master who has a knack for collaborating with other neglected luminaries. “Liquid Krystall Displayed” will only enhance his reputation as a treasure hunter, as he joins forces with bass legend Buell Neidlinger, Bay Area guitar great Calvin Keys, versatile pianist/organist Jerry Peters, and drum star Peter Erskine. Mixing Monk and Strayhorn with Peters’ pop-inflected originals and Krystall’s blowing vehicles makes for a pleasingly disparate program.
Ten Other Albums I Wish I Reviewed
Bruce Forman Trio “Formanism” (B4Man Music)
Aram Shelton Quartet “Everything For Somebody” (Singlespeed Music)
Eric Vaughan “Minor Relocation”
Meklit Hadero and Quinn DeVeaux, “Meklit & Quinn” (Porto Franco Records)
Amikaeyla “Being In Love” (RootsJazz Records)
“Evie Laden Band” (Evil Diane Music)
Josh Nelson “Discoveries” (Steel Bird)
Joe Gilman “Relativity” (Capri Records)
Luciana Souza “The Book of Chet” (Sunnyside)
Clayton Brothers and Friends “The Gathering” (ArtistShare)
True Life Trio “Home”
Joel Behrman “Steppin Back”
Steve Hochman’s Top 10 California Releases
in alphabetical order
Julie Christensen “Weeds Like Us” (Stone Cupid Music)
Veteran Ojai-based singer Christensen — a mainstay in Southern California music for quite a while, singing with the post-punk band Divine Horsemen and, most famously, for some years in Leonard Cohen’s band — here turns rootsy in her music, with growling blues and country elements bumping around the songs, and grass-rootsy in her approach, funding the album via a Kickstarter campaign. Her solo albums are always gems, but this brings out an earthy quality that showcases her at her best.
The Coup “Sorry to Bother You” (Anti-)
A return from Oakland firebrand Boots Riley’s outfit will make your feet move and your face smile, but also make your brain think. This is the kind of stuff you’d put on a cool club mix alongside Prince, OutKast, Gnarls Barkley, some Beck and the Beastie Boys and Oakland’s Digital Underground. There’s rock, soul and hip-hop, but in organic combinations that stand as something of their own, with guests including Living Colour’s Vernon Reid and singer-songwriters (and Anti- Records label-mates) Jolie Holland and Joe Henry. But this is Boots Riley, the guy who a few months ago in a New York Times story detailing Oakland’s place as a radical refuge matter-of-factly declared himself an unapologetic, Capital C Communist. So you know there’s going to be a message. At one point he’s leading a school chorus a la Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” storming today’s Bastilles on “We’ve Got the Guillotine,” but with the Coup, while you’re storming, you’ll also be partying.
Lavender Diamond “Incorruptible Heart” (Parachute)
From the opening song “Everybody’s Heart is Breaking Now” to the closing “All the Stars,” singer Becky Stark and her L.A. band embrace, well, everything, with such a sense of love and joy as to melt even the most cynical, corruptible heart. In the latter song, her joy at all things in creation is so great that she ultimately can’t find the words, moving to a wordless soprano that soars through the expanse of the universe. The band, built around the partnership of Stark and composer-keyboardist Steve Gregoropolous, as often as not echoes ‘50s and ‘60s romantic pop, with more than a few bricks from Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound, with a few departures into danceable pop forms just for fun. Guileless and innocent in the best connotations of those words.
Rupa & the April Fishes “Build” (InGrooves)
Defying the conventional wisdom that if you try to be all things, you’ll wind up being nothing, Rupa Marya and her Pascal piscine friends keep expanding the realm in which they swim, here ramping up the reggae in places and ruminating on social conditions (fiery, but never pedantic, including a solid version of the Clash’s “Guns of Brixton) alongside border music (from several borders, both in geography and eras). Latin folk-rock, old-timey music and various boisterous melanges comport quite effectively, all summed up in the globe-embracing “Electric Gumbo Radio.” But what else would you expect from Marya, whose not only multi-cultural and multi-lingual, but who spends her non-musical times as a critical-care physician and teacher at UC San Francisco.
Wadada Leo Smith “Ten Freedom Summers” (Cuneiform)
An ambitious, unclassifiable musician with perhaps his most ambitious and unclassifiable work: a sprawling series of meditations on key episodes in the history (and pre-history) or the civil rights movement. Both personal and expansive, this is a work that could — and should — find a place in both jazz and classical repertoire for generations to come. (See Andrew Gilbert’s selections for the definitive description.)
Spain “The Soul of Spain” (Glitterhouse) and Dead Sea Scrolls “Dead Sea Scrolls” (available via Bandcamp)
Josh Haden, son of jazz bass great Charlie Haden, recently resurrected his band Spain with the gripping “The Soul of Spain,” its first album in a decade, the somber tones of the band’s old sound now enriched with some gospel/blues feel in places for an entrancing and enlivening listen. The gospel/blues is the explicit foundation of the companion album from his solo bass/vocals side-project, Dead Sea Scrolls, available only via the online digital site Bandcamp. As he explains there: “In 2007 Josh had a concept to record religious songs in a blues format, utilizing only electric bass and vocals. Dead Sea Scrolls is the result, and this is the debut Dead Sea Scrolls album.”
Very Be Careful “Remember Me From the Party?” (Downtown Pijao)
Opening for Colombian supergroup Ondatropica at the Mayan Theatre a few months ago, L.A. band Very Be Careful started out wearing rubber horse-head and other animal masks. Quite visual! But the music is the grabber: Led by brothers Ricardo and Arturo Guzman (on vocals/accordion and bass, respectively), VBC has been exploring the traditional Colombian style known as Vallenato since rifling through their parents’ record collection in the mid-‘90s. On this sixth album there’s a fresh sense of energy and even aggression, in an involving way, but this is not a hybrid a la such East L.A. icons as Los Lobos and multi-cultural Ozomatli, but rather the music, a relative to the cumbia, played pretty straight. And pretty great.
Neil Young & Crazy Horse "Psychedelic Pill" (Reprise)
Opening track “Driftin’ Back” — all 27 minutes of it! — is noteworthy enough, an extended fever dream flitting from hazy nostalgia to distress about sound fidelity in the digital age to, well, a bunch of stuff, a fitting companion to Young’s new autobiography Waging Heavy Peace. Other songs, if not quite that monumental, are also extended epics: “Ramada Inn” offers a sentimental portrait of a couple struggling to hold on, “Born in Ontario” is sepia-toned personal nostalgia, “Walk Like a Giant” offers resignation from a generation that failed to change the world and “Twisted Road” offers the lessons of songwriting simplicity with name-check nods to Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison and the Grateful Dead — all with Young and the Horse churning away with the combo of fiery intensity and sweeping lyricism that’s been at the heart of this collaboration, Young’s most consistently involved and involving, for more than four decades.
Various Artists “They All Played for Us” (Arhoolie)
In February, 2011, a three-day celebration took place in Berkeley marking the 50th anniversary of Arhoolie Records, the El Cerrito-based label that stands as one of the great advocates and repositories of great folk, blues and, pardon the term, “ethnic” music from North America and beyond, and the 80th birthday of label founder Christ Strachwitz. This just-released four-CD set, packaged with an elaborate book, documents that concert series, spotlighting such key Arhoolie artists as Tex-Mex star Santiago Jimenez Jr., steel guitar gospel aces the Campbell Brothers, Cajun greats the Savoy Family and Michael Doucet and local folk-protest icon Country Joe McDonald — as well as spirited apperances by Arhoolie devotees Ry Cooder and Taj Mahal. The set, as did the concerts, benefits the Arhoolie Foundation’s music preservation projects.
Various Artists “Listen, Whitey!: The Sounds of Black Power 1965-1975” (Light in the Attic)
Bay Area writer, curator, scholar Pat Thomas’ CD anthology, a companion and soundtrack to his definitive book of the same title, presents the music and words of the Black Power movement, much of it centered in the East Bay. Music from Gil Scott-Heron, the Last Poets, Eddie Harris and the Watts Prophets captures the moment and project ahead to hip-hop, while Bob Dylan (“George Jackson”) and John Lennon and Yoko Ono (“Angela”) tribute icons of the movement, interspersed with poetic rhetoric from Stokely Carmichael, Eldridge Cleaver, Amiri Baraka and others. Revolutionary politics has never been funkier. And most likely never will be again.