1. Luciana Souza
“Speaking in Tongues” Brazilian-born singer and composer Souza described this project at a recent Regattabar show, with its mix of lyrics and wordless vocals, as being about “language and the absence of language.” Her all-star band — guitarist-vocalist Lionel Loueke, harmonica player Gregoire Maret, bassist Massimo Biolcati, and drummer Kendrick Scott — turns in riveting performances, with an international mix of musical and verbal languages.
2. Vijay Iyer Trio
“Break Stuff” Working with bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Marcus Gilmore, pianist-composer (and MacArthur “genius” and Harvard prof) Iyer has fully incorporated electronica and hip-hop into the jazz vocabulary. Despite the album’s odd, layered meters, you couldn’t ask for a more swinging version of Thelonious Monk’s “Work,” or a more delicate, moving solo-piano treatment of Billy Strayhorn’s “Blood Count.”
3. The Bad Plus Joshua Redman “The Bad Plus Joshua Redman” No walking-bass swing, no Afro-Latin groove, no blues. So what else is new? Jazz’s foremost unclassifiable, prog-damaged piano trio combined forces with one of its most charismatic saxophone soloists, exploring the trio’s gleaming, knotty structures, informed by Redman’s searing introspection, the occasional pop hook — even an affecting ballad with brushes.
4. Tom Harrell
“First Impressions” Six out of the eight tracks are credited either to Claude Debussy or Maurice Ravel, and there are strings. But this album by trumpeter-composer Harrell, working with his core quintet, is a triumph of jazz writing, detailed and challenging, with stellar solos all around, and a focused sense of the groove.
5. Joe Lovano & Dave Douglas SOUND PRINTS
“Live at Monterey Jazz Festival” Saxophonist Lovano and trumpeter Douglas were ostensibly “inspired by” the music of Wayne Shorter. But this is a showcase for the writing of the two leaders, and a great band (with pianist Lawrence Fields, bassist Linda Oh, and drummer Joey Baron), playing with a spontaneous, fluid sense of form. The one Shorter “cover” is a new piece written expressly for this group to perform at the 2013 Monterey Jazz Festival.
6. Mary Halvorson
“Meltframe” Encouraged by mentor Joe Morris, Halvorson has invented a unique language for jazz guitar (and for jazz composition). In this, her first solo-guitar CD, she dismantles and reassembles a collection of “standards” by a disparate group of composers: from Oliver Nelson and Duke Ellington to Roscoe Mitchell, as well as contemporaries like Chris Lightcap and Tomas Fujiwara.
7. Maria Schneider
“The Thompson Fields” Orchestra composer Schneider has become jazz’s nature poet, what with her lyrical, brightly textured musical ruminations on the natural world, informed by her interests as an ornithologist and ecologist. This is jazz with specific subject matter, but you don’t need to read the liner notes to appreciate its buoyant beauty.
8. Eden MacAdam-Somer
“My First Love Story” Appalachian folk provides the through-line, but Texas-born violinist, violist, singer, musical polymath, and New England Conservatory prof MacAdam-Somer ranges deep and wide on these 17 pieces for solo strings and voice, recorded live at NEC’s Jordan Hall, from Duke Ellington’s “Jump for Joy” to Ralph Vaughan Williams’s cycle “Along the Field.”
9. Ran Blake
“Ghost Tones” Earlier this year, pianist, composer, and New England Conservatory improv guru Blake released the second volume of his tribute to singer Abbey Lincoln with vocalist Christine Correa. Working here with a larger cast of characters, Blake, now 80, created this deeply felt memorial to his longtime friend and NEC colleague, the late composer George Russell.
10. Laszlo Gardony
“Life in Real Time” This Hungarian-born veteran of the Boston scene broke an unwritten rule by loading his sextet with three tenor saxophonists — Bill Pierce, Don Braden, and Stan Strickland (who doubles on bass clarinet). He got the right guys, including rhythm mates John Lockwood on bass and Yoron Israel on drums, and provided the right tunes: varied, exuberant, post-bop heaven.
“Pivot: Live at the 55 Bar” The 29-year-old tenor saxophonist eschewed his usual formal restraint for this disc and just let it rip: two half-hour blues with a pianoless quartet that recalls, by turns, early Ornette Coleman and the Sonny Rollins of “East Broadway Rundown.” Trumpeter Jason Palmer, bassist Kim Cass, and drummer Ian Froman (channeling the spirit of Elvin Jones) keep the train a-rollin’.