1. DANILO PÉREZ
“Panama 500” Pianist, composer, and Berklee prof Pérez commemorated the 500th anniversary of Balboa’s “discovery” of the Pacific Ocean on Panama’s west coast, as well as the 100th anniversary of the Panama Canal, with this vibrant exploration of varied musical languages, from ancient dance rhythms to modern jazz. Deploying various ensembles, Pérez conveyed history as living memory.
2. MARK TURNER
“Lathe of Heaven” Turner matched the soaring lyricism and beguiling unpredictability of his tenor saxophone lines with an equally alluring collection of original pieces that pushed the tension between composition and improvisation. These were beautifully balanced four-way conversations among Turner, trumpeter Avishai Cohen (see also #10), bassist Joe Martin, and drummer Marcus Gilmore.
3. MELISSA ALDANA
“Melissa Aldana & Crash Trio” Berklee grad Aldana, 26, the first-ever female winner of the Thelonious Monk International Tenor Saxophone Competition, is a disciplined, patient student of her horn. Working with bassist Pablo Menares and drummer Francisco Mela, she transformed technical acumen into soul.
4. NELS CLINE/JULIAN LAGE
“Room” Cline, 58, best known for his work with Wilco, and Lage, at 26 a veteran of Gary Burton’s bands, stuck with a restricted palette of effects-free electric and acoustic guitars for this exciting collection of freewheeling back-and-forth exchanges.
5. MATT WILSON QUARTET + JOHN MEDESKI
“Gathering Call” Pianist and longtime Wilson pal Medeski (from their days in Boston’s Either/Orchestra) joined the quartet (with trumpeter Kirk Knuffke, saxophonist Jeff Lederer, and bassist Chris Lightcap) for this exuberant mix of hard-driving bop, well-chosen jazz covers (including a couple by Ellington), and open-ended Wilson originals.
6. MIGUEL ZENÓN
“Identities Are Changeable” Working with a 16-piece band, alto saxophonist, composer, New England Conservatory professor, and MacArthur “genius” fellow Zénon created this 75-minute mosaic of music with snippets of spoken-word interviews that explored the nature of Puerto Rican identity — rhythmically complex orchestral pieces that never lost their body-moving connection to folkloric dance.
7. JEROME SABBAGH
“The Turn” Tenor saxophonist Sabbagh’s quartet — with guitarist Ben Monder, bassist Joe Martin, and drummer Ted Poor — used their 10 years of playing together to maintain unity and flow as they moved from free-form mood pieces through jazz swing and heavy rock backbeat to no beat at all.
8. BOB STEWART CONNECTIONS
“Connections: Mind the Gap” The veteran tubist drew on his association with the likes of Frank Foster, Arthur Blythe, Astor Piazzolla, Taj Mahal, and Charles Mingus, alternating his thumping First Line Band with sections for tuba and string quartet, creating what is in essence a deep musical autobiography.
9. PETER EPSTEIN
“Polarities” Alto saxophonist Epstein, a former New Yorker who now runs the jazz studies program at the University of Nevada, Reno, mixes form and freedom with an intuitive rhythm team (bassist Sam Minaie and drummer Mark Ferber) who know how to make the beat felt even when they’re not playing it, and trumpeter Ralph Alessi, who shares Epstein’s knack for creating varied lines that coil and relax with flowing eloquence.
10. AVISHAI COHEN
“Dark Nights” Trumpeter Cohen here augments his Triveni trio (bassist Omer Avital, drummer Nasheet Waits) on various tracks with his sister Anat on clarinet, pianist Gerald Clayton, and (on the standard “I Fall in Love Too Easily”) singer Keren Ann. Among these 10, dark, simmering beauties, the trumpeter’s take on Charles Mingus’s “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” is a standout.
“My Coma Dreams”
The surprise here is that this “jazz theater” piece really is theater — moving, provocative theater — not just a song cycle with visuals, as is made clear on this DVD. The piece recounts pianist Hersch’s 2008 two-month coma and recovery, in a scenario written by composer/librettist Herschel Garfein, with Hersch’s 11-piece ensemble and a brilliant performance by singing actor Michael Winther, playing both Hersch and Hersch’s partner/caregiver Scott Morgan.