N.O.S. Jazz Highlights of 2012: Guitars Up Front

If you happened to be listening to NPR’s Toast of the Nation on New Years Eve, you may have caught John Scofield’s set with the Uberband at the Berklee Performance Center. I was fortunate enough to be in the audience for the whole two-hour show. I have to admit that I previously felt lukewarm about Scofield’s 2002 album Uberjam, which was heavy on electronic beats and samples. Seeing the music performed live, however, gave me a new appreciation for the band and their creative interplay around a killer set of modern grooves. It was also cool to see Scofield tear through the entire set on a Fender Strat¬†(he’s almost always accompanied onstage by his trusty Ibanez Artstar). You can see a pic of the Strat and listen to most of the set at NPR music.

The show also reminded me of how I’ve largely neglected the year in jazz guitar listening, in part because of an Americana focus resulting from my cross-posting on No Depression. Nevertheless, it was a good year for jazz guitar albums, and here are five of the standouts where guitarists held the spotlight:

Star of Jupiter by Kurt Rosenwinkel

Star of Jupiter was a pleasant surprise from Rosenwinkel, who hadn’t hinted much at new material — 2 discs worth — until shortly before its release in the fall. This is a really solid and inventive set from beginning to end, and perhaps Kurt’s studio masterpiece to date. The 12 original tunes are thoroughly modern, with enough classic post-bop sensibility to appeal to more straight-ahead jazz fans. The superb band includes Aaron Parks on piano, Eric Revis on bass, and Justin Faulkner on drums.

Avila (feat Ernest Ranglin)

Ernest Ranglin is best recognized as a pioneering figure in ska and reggae, but his talents cut across many genres. This album places him in the company of a master rhythm section (Yossi Fine on bass, Inx Herman on drums, and Jonathan Korty on keys), allowing Ranglin to showcase his lyrical jazz chops through a diverse set of Caribbean, Latin, and African grooves. Highly recommended, especially for a musical pick-me-up in the dark winter months.

Unity Band by Pat Metheny

Another group that I caught at Berklee in 2012, the Unity Band features an all-star lineup of Chris Potter on saxophone, Ben Williams on bass, and Antonio Sanchez on drums. The band provides a solid foundation for Pat’s explorations on electric, acoustic, and synth guitars. The album even features a spot for the Orchestrion, a Rube Goldberg-esque mechanical orchestra engineered especially for Metheny. All of the guitar sounds and novel musical contraptions have the potential to overwhelm a listener, but Metheny manages to weave everything together in a cohesive and enjoyable set.

Within a Song by the John Abercrombie Quartet

As a listener, I haven’t dug very deep into the Abercrombie catalog yet. It’s partly careless oversight and partly a bias toward more traditional guitar jazz. Within a Song — a set of standards that have influenced John over the years — is a great place to start listening for those of a similar persuasion. Fans of understated virtuosity (think Jim Hall or Bill Frisell) will thoroughly enjoy this album, which begs for headphones in order to catch the subtle nuances of a tight but laid back band (including Joe Lovano on tenor sax, Joey Baron on drums, and Drew Gress on bass).

Test of Time by Mike Murley, Ed Bickert, and Steve Wallace

Retired Canadian Tele-picker Ed Bickert turned 80 in 2012. In celebration, this studio album of previously unreleased material (circa 1999) was dusted off by the fine folks at Cornerstone Records. Fans of the trio’s more well-known (and Juno Award-winning) 2001 recording, Live at the Senator, will find much to enjoy on this album of both lesser and better known standards. As usual, Bickert astounds with his piano-inspired comping and fluid leads. A welcome addition from a guitarist whose catalog is increasingly hard to come by in the States (this one is available on iTunes).

Stay tuned for my fav jazz picks of 2012 wherein killer guitar players played a supporting role.

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