Best of 2013: Jazz


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It's difficult, if not impossible, to compare what are essentially different schools of jazz, in part because of the way they're presented -- acoustic jazz is focused more on the music while "electric" jazz uses more theatrics. I decided to do something different and break them down by genre. I couldn't get to every show, so if your favorite didn't make this list I may not have attended.

Acoustic

1. Dianne Reeves (Manchester Craftsmen's Guild Jazz Concert Hall, May 4): The vocalist lived up to her reputation as a diva on this night; I haven't heard a more powerful yet evocative female voice in a long time, if ever. I salute her for her opening number, Fleetwood Mac's "Dreams," which certainly isn't a jazz standard, because she and her band made it work.

2. Randy Weston (The New Hazlett Theater, Oct. 25): The pianist, composer and bandleader has always tried to bring African sensibilities into his music; listening to the show I never even noticed the degree to which jazz was influenced from that part of the world -- which was his point. I especially loved "Hi-Fly," which was one of his best-known tunes but I had never heard it before. Part of the Kente Arts Alliance's "Africa Calling" series.

3. Pitt Jazz Seminar Concert (Carnegie Music Hall, Nov. 2): Of course you'll get good playing all around; trumpeter/flugelhornist Marcus Belgrave and saxophonist Ernie Watts made sure of that. But pianist Geri Allen, who is replacing Nathan Davis as head of the University of Pittsburgh's jazz studies department and will be on campus next month, wasted no time in putting her stamp on the annual event, bringing in vocalist Carmen Lundy and tap dancer Brinae Ali.

4. Joshua Redman (MCG, Nov. 23): The Bay Area tenor saxophonist displayed amazing range on the horn, taking acoustic jazz in a direction its progenitors probably never envisioned. You don't know ahead of time just where he will go, which is part of the deal.

5. The Cynthia Sayer Quartet (Valley High School, Oct. 13): If you're an aficionado of early jazz banjo, this would have been the concert for you, with humor and fun all around. Aussie woodwind master Adrian Cunningham, switching between clarinet and alto saxophone, pretty much stole this show. The kickoff of the Allegheny Valley Concert Association's 59th season.

Electric

1. Dave Koz & Friends (Sewall Center, Robert Morris University, July 12): Touring behind their "Summer Horns" album, Mr. Koz and fellow saxophonists Mindi Abair, Gerald Albright and Richard Elliot paid tribute to the great horn bands of the 1970s with Swiss-watch precision throughout. The jaw-dropping medley of songs at the close represented the most impressive display of arranging combined with showmanship that I've ever seen. Ms. Abair told me afterward that they rehearsed for eight days -- and the work showed.

2. Marcus Miller (JazzLive International Festival, Cultural District, June 9): There was a lot of Duquesne University flavor from the master electric bassist, with recent graduate Brett Williams joining him on keyboards and professor Sean Jones blowing his trumpet. Mr. Miller simply kills every time out anyway, and this was no exception.

3. Rayse Biggs (JT's @ the Club, May 18): I had never heard of the Detroit-based trumpeter until just before I talked with him, but his performance was worth twice the price. Whether playing two horns, including a flugelhorn, at once or switching from old-school to bebop, clearly this guy's got it; I especially appreciated his rendition of Gino Vannelli's underrated "Keep on Walking." A shout-out to N-Motion Entertainment for bringing him in.

4. Acoustic Alchemy (MCG, Nov. 14): It's not entirely "acoustic" anymore, as steel-string guitarist Miles Gilderdale strapped on an electric for a few numbers, but such is its repertoire that, if you're a regular listener to smooth-jazz radio, you don't realize how much music that it has recorded in over a quarter-century. Nylon-string guitarist Greg Carmichael said beforehand that the band was mixing a live album, and if it sounds like this you're in for a treat. Keyboardist Fred White was especially outstanding.

5. Elan Trotman & Marcus Anderson (Latitude 40, Dec. 8): The two saxmen combined hearty playing with a definite party vibe, Mr. Anderson even doing some Michael Jackson dance steps, including his classic "Moonwalk," during his solo set. They invited members of the South Fayette High School Jazz Ensemble, which had performed earlier, to sit in on "Mister Magic" toward the end.

Honorable Mention: Take 6 (MCG, Oct. 11): I'm putting this show here because the gospel group that nevertheless ranges from bebop to hip-hop doesn't fit neatly into either category.


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