Every jazz year-in-review piece seems to lead with the obituaries—and, sure enough, in 2012 the art form lost the legendary pianist Dave Brubeck, the free jazz powerhouse David Ware and, closer to home, the wonderful pianist Jodie Christian and Von Freeman, the longtime bedrock of the Chicago tenor sound. But 2012 also offered plenty to be hopeful about. Here’s just a sliver of what was good about jazz this past year.
1. Brad Mehldau Trio, Ode and Where Do You Start
Together, the group’s two releases in 2012—one made up of all original compositions (Ode) and the other a collection of well-chosen covers (Where Do You Start)—paint a portrait of a modern piano trio at the top of its collective game.
2. Ravi Coltrane, Spirit Fiction
When your pops is one of the marquee names of genre, it seems odd to garner praise for not sounding like him. But more than anything else, the veteran saxophonist’s first record with the iconic Blue Note label cemented the notion that Trane’s son is his most definitely his own man.
3. Esperanza Spalding, Radio Music Society
The Bieber-beater (yes, Grammys, everyone still remembers) was a familiar presence in Chicago this year, playing to overflow crowds in places both too big (Ravinia) and just right (City Winery) for her intimate sound. Spaulding also released this beguiling follow-up to 2010’s Chamber Music Society.
4. Vijay Iyer Trio, Accelerando
This group locks a spot on the best-of list every year it releases an album. Along with Jason Moran, the ever-searching Iyer is at the vanguard what a piano trio can be in the 21st century.
5. Matt Ulery, By A Little Light
Double albums tend to elicit eye-rolls from many listeners, but the Chicago bassist wasn’t being self-indulgent in spreading his amalgam of classical, jazz, and Eastern European folk music over two discs. There isn’t anything here that doesn’t enrich the experience.
1. Wynton Marsalis at Symphony Center
Just days after Von Freeman died (the night of his memorial service, in fact), the trumpeter and his quintet eschewed any grand statements or new compositions in favor of honoring Vonski. They did what Freeman would have done and just “played some tunes,” as Marsalis explained. The show was a reminder that Marsalis isn’t only impressive for his high-concept suites and powerhouse Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, he’s also a soloist who can still take hold in a simple group setting.
2. Fred Hersch at the Jazz Showcase
An infrequent visitor to the Midwest, the pianist actually hit Chicago twice this past fall, giving local listeners a chance to hear his delicate touch and keen sensibility on the keys.
3. Hyde Park Jazz Festival
It wasn’t one individual performance that made this year’s two-day extravaganza a real standout, but rather the unified event as a whole. This year’s eighth edition continued to build upon the successful formula of solid talent in a myriad of interesting spaces and solidified the fest as one of the year’s best.
Loehrke is a contributing music critic for Chicago.
Photograph: Johann Sauty