2012 was a characteristically plentiful year in jazz performance, Chicagoans hearing a tremendous range of music.
The best concerts, in chronological order:
March 1: Tammy McCann at the Jazz Showcase. The majestic Chicago singer designed her four-night run as a tribute to the late tenor-saxophone giant Von Freeman. An exalted goal, to be sure, but McCann fulfilled it, partnering with a different tenorist every evening. On opening night, she duetted poetically with Chicago tenor man Ari Brown, bringing languorous phrasing to "'S Wonderful," luxuriant tone to Arthur Hamilton's "Strayhorn" and a seeming inexhaustible array of colors to ballads, blues and bebop. When McCann unreeled her original lyrics to Sonny Rollins' "Pent-Up House," there was no doubt she stands among the most creative and accomplished vocalists in jazz today.
March 9: Nicholas Payton at Symphony Center. Music lovers already know that New Orleans trumpeter Payton commands an outsized tone and technique, but the range of his gifts became more apparent during this performance with his whimsically titled Television Studio Orchestra. Payton's periodically active big band, after all, works in no television studio, but it draws inspiration from the versatility of the vintage Hollywood ensembles that accompanied everything from period epics to contemporary series. Better still, Payton's scores and arrangements addressed practically the entire sweep of Western art music, from arialike melodies evoking George Frideric Handel to trancelike accompaniments that served as backdrop for Payton's sometimes whirring, sometimes slithery solos. No one is going to call Payton's vocals impressive (or even above average), but the daring of this venture, as well as the breadth of Payton's musical thought, reaffirmed his stature as both jazz visionary and top-flight writer.
April 7: Arturo Sandoval at Pick-Staiger Concert Hall. The trumpet super-virtuoso can dazzle audiences and also can become overbearing. But in the company of the Chicago Jazz Orchestra, Sandoval played one of the most inspired concerts he has given Chicago. During Sandoval's portion of the program, CJO artistic director Jeff Lindberg mostly (and graciously) stepped aside, allowing Sandoval to transform the evening and the sound of the CJO itself. All at once, the band became an Afro-Cuban powerhouse, fundamentally recalibrating its approach to color, phrase and rhythm. At last, Sandoval — a larger-than-life presence — had met his match: a sumptuous, well-trained big band that gave him precisely the full-bodied accompaniment he deserves.
May 13: Rembrandt Chamber Players at Nichols Concert Hall. This apparently fearless organization dared to take on both Wynton Marsalis' "A Fiddler's Tale" and the work that inspired it, Stravinsky's "L'Histoire du Soldat" ("The Soldier's Tale"). Rare is the ensemble that can finesse both the blues-inflected lines of Marsalis' score and the brittle, neo-classical flavor of Stravinsky's. The Rembrandt Chamber Players, augmented by musicians from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, sounded compelling in both works, CSO violinist Yuan-Qing Yu shattering barriers that typically separate jazz and classical idioms. If actor Barbara Robertson sounded tentative during portions of the Stravinsky, humorist Aaron Freeman gave a full-blooded account of Stanley Crouch's text to Marsalis' opus. A rare, stylistically free-ranging double-bill.
May 24: Gerald Clayton at the Jazz Showcase. Fresh voices on any instrument don't emerge very often, which made pianist Clayton's appearance at the Showcase a signal event. Ignoring the usual orthodoxies of modern-day jazz pianism, Clayton offered an evening's worth of daring original compositions and oft-bizarre but intriguing arrangements of standards — or, as he fittingly called them, "derangements." If you didn't know better, you might have sworn that several different pianists were responsible for the jagged lines and austere textures Clayton produced in his "Trapped in a Dream," the fragile sound and cerebral musings he conjured in his "Sunny Day Go" and the layers of themes and counter-themes he wove into "If I Were a Bell." Leading a trio, Clayton — the son of bassist-bandleader John Clayton — produced some of the most provocative mainstream pianism of the year.
June 1: Jason Moran at Symphony Center. Anyone who was expecting a lighthearted re-visitation of familiar tunes during this homage to Fats Waller was bound to be disappointed. But listeners with open ears, hearts and minds witnessed a bold re-assessment of Waller's work for the 21st century. In essence, Moran and the Bandwagon captured the ebullient spirit of Waller's music while dispensing with its mannerisms, the exact opposite of most tributes, which tend to exhume the old notes but miss the character of the original. The musicians took shards of Waller's "Handful of Keys" and James P. Johnson's "You've Got to Be Modernistic" and built utterly new structures with them. And Moran's jam-band approach to Waller classics such as "Honeysuckle Rose" and "Jitterbug Waltz" transformed vintage tunes into danceable set pieces, even if they droned on a bit too long. When Moran donned a larger-than-life Waller mask and strutted across the stage — while the band pumped backbeats relentlessly — it felt as if the old master was in the house. Maybe he was.
June 22: Jason Adasiewicz at the Green Mill. It's no exaggeration to observe that Chicagoan Adasiewicz is conceiving new ways of addressing the vibraphone. He reiterated the point when Sun Rooms — his trio with drummer Mike Reed and bassist Nate McBride — made its debut at the Green Mill. Adasiewicz's fearlessness in delivering fortissimo attacks, while holding down the vibraphone's pedal, produced oceans of color and overtones that the ear barely could absorb. By pulling a bow along the side of the keys, as if he were playing a cello, he similarly drew otherworldly sounds for which the nomenclature has not yet been coined.
June 30: Matt Ulery at the Green Mill. The bassist's double album "By a Little Light" (Greenleaf Music) already had been generating attention when Ulery celebrated its release at the Green Mill. This performance showed that the recording, though brashly original, was just the starting point for Ulery's unusual gathering of jazz and classical musicians. The dark, Eastern European character of many of these scores remained, but Ulery and friends traveled much farther afield harmonically and melodically than on the recording. Some selections took on operatic grandeur, with vocalist Grazyna Auguscik spinning wordless vocal lines that never seemed to end, while Ulery's band produced swelling instrumental accompaniment.
Sept. 29: Miguel Zenon at Rockefeller Memorial Chapel. The sixth annual Hyde Park Jazz Festival again showed Chicago — and the long-suffering Chicago Jazz Festival — how a 21st century music soiree looks, sounds and feels. Among the dozens of performances in venues across Hyde Park, alto saxophonist Zenon's solo set at Rockefeller Memorial Chapel surely will be remembered by anyone lucky enough to have attended it. For roughly an hour, Zenon built extended, profound essays in sound. He toyed with the heavily reverberant acoustics, allowing some long-held notes to linger while others echoed atop one another. His subtle command of rhythm made the absence of a drummer irrelevant; his exploration of Puerto Rican musical vernacular was an education in itself.
Oct. 20: Chicago Jazz Philharmonic at North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie. The term "Third Stream" is tossed off too liberally as convenient shorthand for jazz-meets-classical experiments. Trumpeter-conductor Orbert Davis and his one-of-a-kind ensemble reminded listeners that the term has many meanings and contexts, from William Russo's classic arrangement of Bix Beiderbecke's "Davenport Blues" to Davis' re-imagining of Isaac Albeniz's "El Albaicin" for string quartet to Davis' jazz fantasy on a movement of a Mozart String Quartet. In each instance, the balance between jazz and classical, composer and arranger, past and present shifted, to illuminating effect.
To read more from Howard Reich on jazz, go to chicagotribune.com/reich.
And the worst concerts of the year:
April 13: Joshua Redman and Brad Mehldau at Symphony Center. Two masters spoke different languages.
May 3: Spider Saloff's "The Roar of the Butterfly" at Victory Gardens' Richard Christiansen Theater. Not ready for prime time.
May 23: Cyrus Chestnut at Symphony Center. Better to learn "Rhapsody in Blue" before performing it publicly.
June 25: Esperanza Spalding at the Ravinia Festival. Diaphanous vocals cannot survive such over-amplification.
July 15: Barbara Cook at the Ravinia Festival. Uncounted memory slips and an overbearing orchestral accompaniment did not help.
Aug. 5: John Pizzarelli and Ann Hampton Callaway at the Ravinia Festival. Pizzarelli's pipsqueak vocals didn't stand a chance.
Sept. 2: Pierre Dorge's New Jungle Orchestra at the Petrillo Music Shell. Great music marred by awful acoustics and the semi-pro staging of the Chicago Jazz Festival.
Nov. 18: "Songs of a Dream" at the Auditorium Theatre's Katten/Landau Studio. More of a nightmare.