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J Hunter's 2013 Top 10 Countdown

J Hunter By

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"Tis the season to do countdowns Fa la la la lahhh, la lahh lahh lahhhhhhh..."

Okay, okay, not one of the most original openings ever written. But don't worry: There's plenty of originality to be had on the ten bundles of fabulousness listed below:


Etienne Charles
Creole Soul
(Culture Shock Music)

Still in his 20's, Charles has been racking up Mozart-like career accomplishments since he left Juilliard, and his latest release kicks open a whole new door. Armed with the Afro-Caribbean beats of his native Trinidad, Charles serves up a tantalizing mix of originals and standards that put serious muscle on his assertion that "Jazz is creole music." Thelonious Monk's "Green Chimneys" gets the liveliest reading it's received in quite some time, and Bo Diddley's "You Don't Love Me (no no no)" enters the jazz idiom in fine style. If Charles is this good now, imagine how amazing he'll be when he's grown up!


Antonio Sanchez
New Life

Debuting as a leader can make longtime sidemen try to "prove themselves" by doing too much, and usually the results are not pretty. Antonio Sanchez shows he's learned from his various past leaders by ramrodding this simple quintet—as if anything David Binney, Donny McCaslin and John Escreet does is simple—in spectacular style. But Sanchez doesn't stop there, composing eight monstrous originals that make the brain bubble without boiling over. Drummers have been leading this genre's creative charge for decades, and Sanchez looks like he's ready to add his name to that list.


Linda Oh
Sun Pictures
(Greenleaf Music)

Dave Douglas deserves big love for using his label Greenleaf Music as a launch pad for bright young players like Oh, whose second Greenleaf release tells Sophomore Slump to take a flying leap. The Douglas Quintet bassist both tightens and sharpens her sound by recruiting Kneebody saxman Ben Wendel and trading Fabian Almazan's lyrical keyboards for James Muller's taut guitar. The result is a razor-sharp set of originals crafted entirely from carbon fiber: Light enough to make any creative move Oh demands, but strong enough to handle the boundary- stretching heights Oh visits on each exemplary piece. Sophomore Slump? PAH!!


Arturo O'Farrill and the Chico O'Farrill Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra
Final Night at Birdland
(Zoho Music)

Some traditions should be kept up, and that's what Arturo O'Farrill did by maintaining the weekly Birdland residency of his father Chico's big band. The bad news is all good things must come to an end; the good news is, on the night THIS good thing ended in 2011, Arturo was rolling tape. There's an undeniable majesty to the multi- chapter Chico pieces "Tanga Suite"—co-written with the legendary Mario Bauza—and "Three Afro Cuban Jazz Moods," while the only thing blue in "Havana Blues" is the title. Arturo's expansive love letter "Fathers and Sons, From Havana to New York and Back Again" combines past and present to put a terrific cap on both the residency and this release.


Dave Holland

With the volcanic fusion opener "The Watcher," Holland delivers a LeBron James-quality head fake: It gives the impression that Prism is just an all-star reboot of Holland's days with the post-Bitches Brew Miles Davis. As it turns out, Prism offers sterling modern jazz in both electric and acoustic, as well as an honest-to-Miles "band" with a watertight sense of unity and purpose. The writing credits are as evenly distributed as the solos, and Kevin Eubanks cooks up more of the startling chops he served on his 2013 Mack Avenue disc The Messenger. Hopefully, Prism bucks the trend of outings like this turning out to be one-off affairs.


Ryan Cohan
The River

Before the internet or the telephone, the river was how people connected with each other— and in some countries, it's still done that way today. Cohan's State Department- sponsored tour of East Africa inspired a riveting "song cycle" that mixes regional rhythms and musical styles with Cohan's uncompromising writing and arranging skills. The excited "Arrival," the awe-struck "Domboshava" and the celebratory "Last Night at the Mannenberg" communicate a real sense of the region without co-opting it. Ryan Cohan needs to be in the mix when the discussion turns to this generation's great composers—and besides, he's a great tour guide!


New Gary Burton Quartet
Guided Tour
(Mack Avenue)

"The New Gary Burton Quartet": Why add the qualifier? Why not pull a Brubeck and bring back the old band name? To Gary Burton's credit, the "New" designation acknowledges the septuagenarian mallet master has joined forces with members of a new generation. And "joined" is the proper term, because Guided Tour has a unity and direction that their first release Common Ground (Mack Avenue, 2011) sadly lacked. What's more, tracks like "The Lookout," "Jackalope" and "Sunday's Uncle" are muscular head-snappers that show the ghosts of quartets past do not trouble the NGBQ.


Chris Potter
The Sirens

Fairly or unfairly, ECM is best known for crystalline releases that emphasize studied introspection over unbridled passion. If there's anyone who could bridge that gap, Chris Potter is the guy: It's a big ask to find a tenor player in the current generation with sharper technique than this former disciple of Red Rodney; contrarywise, jazz' best ambassador to the jam-band universe is the formidable Chris Potter Underground. Potter transports the fire from the Underground to an acoustic format that showcases the expressive side of keyboardist Craig Taborn. Throw in a Hall of Fame rhythm section like Eric Harland and Larry Grenadier, and The Sirens closes all gaps with a resounding SLAM!


Terence Blanchard
(Blue Note)

While Blanchard can make revolutionary music anywhere, the redoubtable trumpeter's best moments in this century have come on Blue Note. Magnetic is more than just a return to the iconic label after an eight-year hejira; it's also something of a family reunion, as former Blanchard sidemen Brice Winston and Lionel Loueke help make the best free-standing work Blanchard's done since 2005's Flow. Keyboardist Fabian Almazan is truly blossoming as both player and composer, while Kendrick Scott remains one of the most inspiring drummers in the genre today. Blanchard is back, and Blue Note's got him. HUZZAH!


Rudresh Mahanthappa

While Mahanthappa has worked with death-defying guitarists like David Gilmore and Rez Abbasi, David Fiuczynski is a totally different animal—with an emphasis on "animal"! Pairing these two dominant soloists up should have been a disaster of Hindenburg proportions. Happily, Fuze's Monk-with-a- Stratocaster attack dovetails perfectly with the altoist' Eastern approach to Western music. Pieces like "Abhogi," "Lots of Interest" and "Majesty of the Blues" jump with a turbo-charged funk that sends Mahanthappa's next-level compositions right into orbit. The only answer to this head- spinning assault is, "More, please!"

It's both easy and understandable to worry about the future of jazz, what with the economy taking a hammer to the festival scene and the shrinkage of media outlets willing to give the genre a regular home. But these releases—and the many others that missed the cut, even though they were outstanding in their own right—show the last thing that needs to be worried about is the music itself. Here's to that, and here's to the future!

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