Duke Ellington was a fascinating figure—so much so that quite a number of books and shorter profiles of the man came to be during his time, and well after his passing. Writers were always peering over his shoulder, trying to get a fix on how he operated his band and made it so successful; they even attempted to poke into his personal life, which the Duke managed to keep fairly secret.
For a jazz pianist, New York-based Helen Sung certainly fits into the “deserves to be better known” category. For those who do know and appreciate her art, Sung’s club gigs are adventurous, disarming, and always have an unexpected surprise or two. It was at one of these small club dates where I caught her during a late set in the summer of 2013 with much of the same band that accompany her on Anthem For A New Day, her glossy and rewarding debut record for Concord Jazz.
A Manhattan backdrop substitutes for prairie land and open sky on Jazz Country, the big-hearted hybrid album from singer Amy Cervini that’s as endearing and tender as a vocal recording can be in 2014. She smartly transcends genre boundaries or anything else that gets in the way of the purity of a song. The spare musical accompaniment by guitarist Jesse Lewis and bassist Matt Aranoff frame Cervini’s renditions of these classic American songs simply and earnestly, underscoring her candor and crystalline delivery.
ORGAN-IZING: In keeping with Philadelphia’s contribution to jazz through the years, it must be mentioned that the city and surrounding areas are also known for producing some of the finest jazz organ players in history. The most famous of them all, Jimmy Smith, was born in Norristown. Joey DeFrancesco, a native Philadelphian, helped put the Hammond B-3 organ back on the map. And who can forget area natives like Richard “Groove” Holmes and Trudy Pitts? Organist Dan Fogel has been at it for a long time, despite trends and ups and downs in jazz organ popularity.
This has been a swinging year, and a healthy one for jazz in these parts. The Kimmel Center is upping its commitment to jazz (see details below), non-profits like Jazz Bridge and The Jazz Sanctuary are presenting almost 100 concerts per season, museums have hosted jazz programs, mini-jazz fests are popping up all over, new and old jazz jam sessions are doing above average business, and restaurants and clubs that never used live music of any kind are now booking jazz. Destinations like The Prime Rib and Sullivan’s maintain a policy of booking jazz pianists seven nights a week.
Powerhouse records were released in 2013 from some of the most respected jazz musicians (Wayne Shorter, Tomasz Stanko and Chucho Valdes could take the top spots on an alternate list), but my choices for top jazz releases in 2013 were shaped by newer voices and rising stars, all of them uniquely notable for their artistry and leadership.
1. Terri Lyne Carrington, Money Jungle: Provocative In Blue (Concord Jazz)
Ever since he released his debut recording, Consequences, on Posi-Tone Records in 2008, British pianist John Escreet has persisted in pushing at boundaries. On his subsequent rhythmically adventurous recordings you can hear the influence of avant-pianist Andrew Hill and former teacher Jason Moran, but as beguiling as those recordings were, they were more like really good sketch books with one or two amazing tunes with ideas for days and musician line-ups where everyone, none more so than the pianist, played their ass off.
Blowing in from Chicago is the hot recording from trumpeter Marquis Hill, a rising regional star in Chicago whose third release, The Poet, is a skillfully played modern jazz record that’s steeped in retro styling.
Tommy Potter’s name wouldn’t get much attention in jazz circles these days...unless the gathering were comprised of musicians and jazz fans with high-mileage on their odometers. But there was a time when the mention of his name brought smiles and nods of recognition, along with enthusiastic approval.