I wanted to write a year-in-review piece about jazz in 2012, so I looked through the archives of my recently ended show, The Jazz Session, to find a narrative thread that would tie the year together. I was looking for a sub-genre that had a good year, or a composer whose music appeared everywhere. But the more I looked back through the year’s episodes, the more I realized that something unexpected united most of my favorite albums of the past year — they were made by women. That’s also true of many of my favorite interviews from 2012. This list is by no means exhaustive, but it will give you the flavor of some of the music that made me sit up and take notice this year.
Nadje Noordhuis, Nadje Noordhuis
Nadje Noordhuis’s eponymous debut is one of my favorite records of 2012. Noorduis (”nord-house”) is a trumpeter from Australia now based in New York City. Her writing is ethereal and beautiful without a hint of fake sentimentality, and she backs it up with a full, lovely trumpet sound. Noorhuis is an in-demand player on the New York scene and an integral part of one of the most respected large ensembles around — Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society. (Interview)
Maria Neckam, Unison
Vocalist Maria Neckam is a Buddhist. I wouldn’t mention that except that she’s very open about it and I think it informs every aspect of her music. Her album Unison is a tour de force of powerful songwriting fused with an in-the-moment awareness of the interconnectedness of her music with her life and the lives of those around her. Take “I Miss You,” for example, which chronicles a hard life lived and pays homage to those who’ve made Neckam’s current career possible. In a perfect world, this would be pop music on the radio. (Interview)
Nicky Schrire, Freedom Flight
And so would this next album, by another singer whose work is hard to categorize, like so much good music. Nicky Schrire was born in London, grew up in Cape Town, and now lives in New York. Her debut album, Freedom Flight, features her own compositions and her arrangements of songs by other writers. I like that she’s never afraid to leave her voice out there, exposed and full of meaning. Sure the arrangements are interesting and smart, but it’s her voice that holds it all together and makes me go back again and again. On a personal note, one of my favorite NYC experiences this year was standing on a street corner in Manhattan while Nicky sang a solo version of the Bobby McFerrin version of “Blackbird.” Stunning. (Interview)
Jessica Lurie, Megaphone Heart
Jessica Lurie is a badass. Ever since The Jazz Session started back in 2007, I wanted to have her on the show. And right before it ended this year, I finally got my chance. First and foremost, she’s a supremely talented saxophonist. I’ve seen her silence a loud Lower East Side bar with a solo. But I’ve also seen her draw an entire room forward on their chairs with an unaccompanied song, sung with a haunting voice she’s only recently been putting at center stage. Her 2012 album Megaphone Heart is what you should give to all your friends who dig Americana but aren’t sure they like jazz. (Interview)
Janel & Anthony, Where Is Home
OK, now I need to sneak a man into this lineup, because I can’t talk about cellist Janel Leppin without talking about her musical partner, guitarist Anthony Pirog. As Janel & Anthony, they created one of this year’s best sonic experiences with their album Where Is Home. Their music is a mixture of raw acoustic beauty and crazed audio collage. Where Is Home hit me like a ton of bricks when I heard it — partly because my own concept of home was very much in flux at the time. They’re a blast to see live, too, as they don their mad scientist coats and attempt to control loops and effects and voices and instruments all at once. Somehow they pull it off and it’s a powerful experience. (Interview)
Natalie Cressman, Unfolding
The final interview I conducted for The Jazz Session was with trombonist and vocalist Natalie Cressman, who released her debut album this year. Cressman is far more self-aware and self-assured at 21 than I was … and probably more than I am now. She grew up around the music business (both her parents are professional musicians with impressive resumes) and it shows in her tendency to take her musical successes as seriously as necessary while keeping them in perspective. When not in school full-time or performing with her band, she tours the country as part of the Trey Anastasio Band (whom you may know from his other project — Phish). Cressman is a good writer who’s not afraid to tackle hard music. For example, she covers the Joni Mitchell/Charles Mingus version of “Goodbye Porkpie Hat” on Unfolding. She’s someone to keep an eye on. (Interview)
One More Person
Finally, I want to mention one other interview with someone who didn’t release an album this year, but who has been instrumental (sorry) in preserving the legacy of one of our most important composers. Earlier this year I had a chance to sit down with Sue Mingus, wife of the late bassist and composer Charles Mingus. (He wrote the tune in the video above.) Sue Mingus is a tireless champion for her husband’s music and a strong advocate for bringing the next generation of players and listeners into jazz. Her views on the digital distribution of music have changed radically since I first learned of her, something she talks about in our interview. It was an honor to speak with her.