What's most striking about this year's crop of jazz releases is the sheer abundance of impressive work. I could easily double this list and the creative bar wouldn't drop an inch. Most painfully, I had to overlook several releases for which I wrote the liner notes (curse you, conflict of interest rules!). Ultimately I selected the albums I found myself returning to for repeat listening. There's no overarching pattern or stylistic trend, but considering that I'm not generally drawn to solo piano sessions it's notable that they constitute almost a third of my picks.
East Bay trumpeter Ian Carey isn't letting the CD slip into obsolescence without a fight. From his eye-catching cover art to his equally intricate arrangements, he's created an album that adds up to more than the sum of its impressive parts. Alternating unexpected material like Neil Young's film theme "Dead Man" and Stravinsky's "Andante" with his evocative originals, Carey investigates a series of sweeping soundscapes with his long-time quintet, a highly cohesive ensemble expanded by the ever incisive altoist Kasey Knudsen.
Ben Goldberg, Unfold Ordinary Mind
Unleashing the bassist within, brilliant Berkeley reed explorer Ben Goldberg offers a program of subversively funky jazz on Unfold Ordinary Mind. While he occupies the lower registers on a rumbling contra alto clarinet, Wilco guitarist Nels Cline shreds, drummer Ches Smith erupts, and tenor saxophonists Rob Sudduth and Ellery Eskelin lay down slinky, impossibly beautiful melodies. Unfold's companion release, Subatomic Particle Homesick Blues with tenor sax star Joshua Redman, is equally compelling.
Geoffrey Keezer, Heart of the Piano
San Diego's Geoffrey Keezer has inspired awe ever since he took over the piano chair in Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers at 18 back in 1989. This solo session captures him at his most emotionally naked, transforming a disparate program into a series of gorgeous soul-bearing excursions, from pop tunes like Rush's "Limelight" and Peter Gabriel's "Come Talk to Me" and Robert Burns' "My Love Is Like A Red Red Rose" to lovingly rendered jazz tunes by piano mentors James Williams and Donald Brown.
María Márquez, Tonada
With her floating sense of time and throaty cello-like tone there's simply no mistaking María Márquez's voice for anyone else's. Her first new album in a decade features a program of haunting melodies, most of which hail from her native Venezuela. Working closely with Oakland percussionist John Santos and Venezuelan quatro master Hernán Gamboa, the North Bay singer renders each song with the quiet intensity of a foxhole prayer.
Myra Melford, Life Carries Me This Way
(Firehouse 12 Records)
Berkeley pianist/composer Myra Melford made her name as the leader of a series of high energy, talent-laden bands, performing music often inspired by mystical poetry. On her first album of solo piano she introduces a gorgeous new set of original compositions inspired by the paintings of a family friend, the late Sacramento-based artist Don Reich. Spacious and inviting, her melodies unspool with understated eloquence, revealing a new, becalmed corner of Melford's roiling creative realm.
Nicole Mitchell's Ice Crystals, Aquarius
Southern California flutist/composer Nicole Mitchell fully blossomed as an artist in Chicago, and her music is deeply marked by the city's tremendously rich avant garde jazz legacy. Featuring vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz, bassist Joshua Abrams and drummer Frank Rosaly, her Ice Crystals quartet features three Chicago stalwarts, and as suggested by the band's name the instrumentation lends itself to a translucent, elemental sonic palette that's striking in its purity.
Barbara Morrison, A Sunday Kind of Love
Despite a series of health setbacks in recent years, vocalist Barbara Morrison sounds ageless on her new album, a delectable selection of standards. A mainstay on the LA jazz scene for nearly four decades, she infuses everything she sings with a subtle blues sensibility. Joined by the brawny-toned tenor saxophonist Houston Person, who also co-produced the album, Morrison turns even the most familiar songs into remarkably intimate experiences.
Ed Reed, I'm A Shy Guy
(Blue Shorts Records)
East Bay vocalist Ed Reed adds another chapter to his remarkable late-blooming career with this suave and heartfelt tribute to the Nat "King" Cole Trio, his fourth release since turning 78. Covering hits ("It's Only a Paper Moon" and "Straighten Up and Fly Right") and undeserved obscurities ("'Tis Autumn" and the title track), he adds a welcome dose of vulnerability to Cole's impeccably urbane style of crooning. With a taut but relaxed delivery unlike anyone else on the scene, Reed is once again accompanied by a stellar band led by pianist Randy Porter.
Jackie Ryan, Listen Here
Since the release of her first CD in 2000, San Rafael singer Jackie Ryan has earned a national following with a series of increasingly confident albums showcasing her lustrous voice, deft sense of swing, and polyglot repertoire. Arranged and produced by bass maestro John Clayton, Listen Here ranks among her best work. Supported by a superlative cast, including piano star Gerald Clayton (John's son), San Diego trumpeter Gilbert Castellanos, and LA saxophonist Rickey Woodard, Ryan can dazzle with her power ("Gypsy In My Soul") and mesmerize with blue flame sensuality ("I Loves You Porgy").
Mike Wofford, It's Personal
With a career stretching back to the early 1960s, Mike Wofford has steadily burnished his reputation as a pianist's pianist. His latest solo album seems to encompass a lifetime of inspiration, with one revelatory piece after another. Nothing better captures his fierce intelligence and improvisational wit than his "Once In A Lifetime" medley, which weaves together Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse's anthem from "Stop the World – I Want to Get Off" with the Talking Heads song of the same name.