You can draw two conclusions from our list of the best 2012 “grown folks” albums: One, the lines between jazz, pop, rock and R&B are blurring. And two: A lot of Philadelphia-area artists are the reasons why. Call it a byproduct of the city’s incomparable music history, its tradition of fostering amazing sonic innovators. Whatever the case, seasoned adult music appetites got satiated in the one-two, thanks to these LPs.
Esperanza Spalding, Radio Music Society (Heads Up International)
This Angela Davis-afroed, Grammy-winning bassist/vocalist proved that she’s something like a phenomenon when she dropped this disc, where she flips Stevie Wonder’s “I Can’t Help It” and Wayne Shorter’s “Endangered Species” with equal dashes of ‘70s-style jazz fusion and sophisticated pop.
Robert Glasper, Black Radio (Blue Note)
The Houston-born Glasper is part Thelonious Monk and J. Dilla, and on this CD, he conjures up a sonically stirring pop brew. From Erykah Badu’s Billie Holiday-flavored vocals on “Afro-Blue” and Mos Def/Yasiin Bey’s Brooklyn-bouyed rap on the title track to the riveting recast of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Team Spirit,” Glasper kept his third eye on the prize.
Donald Fagen, Sunken Condos (Warner/Reprise)
Composer/pianist/vocalist Donald Fagen and his Steely Dan partner Walter Becker were the hippest white boys ever played on WDAS back in the day, with their swing-driven, multi- entendre classics like “Black Cow,” “Do It Again” and “Deacon Blues.” With Fagen’s fourth release as a solo artist, he laces his trademarked Brooklynese, soprano-syntaxed vocals over some intelligent, on-the-one tracks like the opener “Slinky Thing” and the straight- outta-Ray Charles number “The Weather in My Head.” Now, this is grown folks music.
Kurt Rosenwinkel, Star of Jupiter (WOMMUSIC)
Philly-born guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel’s spacey licks sound good in jazz clubs and on rapper Q-Tip’s The Renaissance and Kamaal the Abstract CDs. And on his latest project, an adventurous double-CD with his latest quartet, Rosenwinkel lays down some intoxicating twilight-toned jams like the anthemic “Gamma Band” and the electro-doo-wop ditty “Heavenly Bodies.” Rosenwinkel’s music is so 22nd-century, you almost believe that time travel is real.
Elew, Rockjazz Vol. 2 (Ninjazz Entertainment)
Eric Lewis is the Camden piano wizard who dropped enough keyboard science to win the Thelonious Monk Competition and gig with Wynton Marsalis. Then one day, he became Elew, a pianistic force of nature who plays with no bench, gigs with the Roots and summons the ghosts of James P. Johnson and Jelly Roll Morton. This man turns Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature” into a Chopinesque Carnegie Hall recital and the Doors’ “People Are Strange” into a musical backdrop for a Harlem rent party.
Wallace Roney, Home (High Note)
A lot of trumpeters win awards. Philly’s Wallace Roney has a trumpet given to him by Miles Davis, which, as they say, is priceless. If there is anyone who comes close to the dark-hued tones of the Prince of Darkness, its Roney—but make no mistake; he’s his own man. On this CD, he unveils a never-before-recorded track by Wayne Shorter and references Charlie Parker’s “Parker’s Mood” on “Evolution of the Blues.” Roney proves that slow and steady wins the race and swings the best.
Orrin Evans, Flip the Script (Posi-Tone)
Orrin Evans’ McCoy Tyner-ish, fleet-fingered pianism will definitely cause some soul-searching from would-be keyboard kings. Only a genius like Evans could turn MFSB’s classic Soul Train theme, “The Sound of Philadelphia,” into a Sunday church song and breathe new life into the old standard “Someday My Prince Will Come.” This is Philly piano at its best—a stone gas, honey.
Alvin Clayton Pope, Soul of Man (Choir Boy Productions)
Multi-instrumentalist/composer/arranger Alvin Clayton Pope hails from Wilmington, Del., grew up listening to black Philly radio in the ‘70s and absorbed the very best R&B, quiet storm, jazz-fusion of the day. His version of the Patrice Rushen classic “You Remind Me” and the bossa nova “One Note Samba” shows that he knows where the one is and is always right on time.
Alison Crockett, Mommy, What’s a Depression? (Crockett Gallery Music)
Mix Nina Simone’s urgency, Betty Carter’s chops and Jill Scott’s sass, and you’ll get the bold and bravura vocalist and Temple University alum Alison Crockett. Her songs about the system feature Philly’s Ursula Rucker, first on the Badu-bounced “Depression” and on a haunting solo rendition of Stevie Wonder’s “Come Back as a Flower.” Crockett’s jazz cred comes through loud and clear on the midtempo Shirley Horn favorite “The Old Country” and a futuristic take on Nat King Cole’s “Nature Boy.” Simply put: She’s the real deal.
Tony Bennett, Viva Duets (Columbia)
Tony Bennett’s six decade-seasoned pipes are just as fresh as they were when he left his heart in San Francisco. He goes south of the border on this one, his third round of duets, with the crème de la crème of Latin singers, from Christina Aguilera and Gloria Estefan to Chayanne and Marc Anthony. Bennett’s silken, jazzy tenor swings on a number of his hits, like “Steppin’ Out With My Baby” and “The Best is Yet to Come,” with elegant, octogenarian ease.
The Pack A.D. are built for the road
PW's Music Issue 2014