Thanks for visiting and happy new year, friends and blog-readers! For years I’ve been intending to make a “best musical finds of the year” CD to give out, and I’m happy to have realized the first actualization of what I hope will be an annual tradition. Please note that this is not necessarily a wrap-up of songs coming from albums released in 2010 – as I’m not a credentialed reviewer I don’t get boxloads of free samples – but something a bit more individually crafted: a wide-ranging, genre-crossing compendium of recorded music, most of it unfamiliar to mainstream channels, all of which came across my radar over this past year. 2010 was one of the most fulfilling years of my life, loaded with thrilling travel, new friends and experiences, and in tribute to it I’m quite jazzed to present…

(the inaugural edition of a yearly tradition!)

Track 1: Jo Lawry – Lôro
I first saw rising Australian jazz singer Jo Lawry’s name on Fred Hersch’s wonderful record Live at the Jazz Standard, an album which also featured my former trumpet teacher Ralph Alessi, mentioned below. Browsing in one of my favorite crackdens used CD haunts, Academy Records in NYC, earlier in the year, I happened upon a copy of Lawry’s debut CD, and it’s a really well-put-together string of jazz-inflected singing with an easy virtuosity that just makes me… happy? (Considering the title, this seems appropriate.) In this track, Lawry’s band submits a rather mind-bending performance of Egberto Gismonti’s makes-you-glad-to-be-alive melody – and if you don’t know the brilliance of the Brazilian guitarist/pianist/genius Gismonti, you’re missing out. This record makes me want to dance til the sun comes down. And maybe even after.

Track 2: Deep River – Hudson River Ohboywhattafind. Being involved in the arts sometimes means that your friends are your creative inspiration, and this is certainly this case with my soon-to-be-rehearsing-and-traveling-through-Ireland buddy Rachel, whose DC-based roots band, together for a mere six months (!), is growing a fan base exponentially in this area. Super catchy stuff which runs the gamut from raise-the roof singalongs to poignant ballads with gorgeous Americana-inspired harmony vocals. (I was torn between this track and the gorgeous Virginia. I saved 26 seconds in the choice.) Click here for a few videos of them I shot at a wonderfully intimate house concert in Capitol Hill in early December. Paste Magazine has already called them “the best of what’s next” in their list of Top 20 new American bands. Get on the ground floor for this one, folks.

Track 3: Iarla Ó Lionáird – Cu-Cu-In
This wins my unexpected, voice-from-above award find of the year. This past summer I took a fascinating 6-week crash course in Gaelic through Solas Nua, the wonderful DC-based Irish arts organization I’m proud to be a company member with, and I learned how difficult the Irish language can be to someone with no background. Yet when Irish is sung, I find the common language of my ancestors (on both sides of my family!) absolutely mesmerizing, and have been spending time schooling myself on clips of great trad singers like Nioclás Tóibín, Darach Ó Catháin, and Joe Heaney. I took a chance on my first Iarla Ó Lionáird CD, released under Peter Gabriel’s “Real World” label, in a clearance bin at Newbury Comics, and boy was that a winning gambit. From West Cork, Iarla is known as one of the best modern practitioners of the traditional Sean nós style, and I’d describe his records as being a cross between powerful vocals, completely (and unapologetically!) in Irish, and the soothing, electro side of Radiohead. I’m enamored with his music and I hope you will be too.

Track 4: Pietro Tonolo – Your Song
I’d been intrigued by this record for a while, and really, who wouldn’t be? European jazz musicians playing an entire album of Elton John covers? (Okay, maybe just me.) It’s a bold move which could easily have failed miserably but I think quite the opposite is true. I don’t know much about the saxophonist leader of the session, but with the always compelling Steve Swallow on bass, jazz legend Paul Motian on drums, and the smooth Gil Goldstein on piano, you’re talking about a terrific lineup of players. Given its fairly simple harmonic foundations, Elton’s music lends itself surprisingly well to improvisation, and I find their take on this classic 70s ballad just stunning. And heck, it’s my parents wedding song, and with their 40th anniversary coming up, how could I not include it?

Track 5: Sarah Siskind – Say It Louder
I discovered this Nashville-based country singer-songwriter by way of the excellent newsletter of fellow “Americana” songwriter Jennifer Kimball, discussed below. Now. Listen to this song, and ask yourself the following question: Why in God’s name is Taylor Swift famous when talent like this exists and goes under-recognized?! Kill corporate radio! And buy Sarah’s records, they’re terrific; her songwriting belies the myth that country-folk songwriting can’t be harmonically daring and catchy. And absolutely no one sounds like her. Thankfully a few Nashville insiders like Alison Krauss realize this woman’s abilities (she recorded Sarah’s song Goodbye Is All We Have), but to the mainstream she seems completely unknown. Let’s change this, hmm’kay?

Track 6: Session Americana (feat. Ry Cavanaugh & Jennifer Kimball) – Lighthouse Light
Those who know my musical tastes well know I’ve been following the career of Boston-based singer-songwriter Jennifer Kimball for years. Formerly of the terrific 1990s duo The Story with Jonatha Brooke, Jennifer is one of those hidden gems in the American musical landscape who humbly goes about her business just happening to own an extraordinary gift for singing, and seems content to perform for her regular fans at the Lizard Lounge in Cambridge. I originally heard this track when it was used as a very brief tag on the end of a song on Jenn’s brilliant, must-own, stupid-music-industry-slept-on-it, 1998 debut Veering From The Wave, and the simple melody always intrigued me, as did the distinctive, cottony voice of Ry Cavanaugh, now otherwise known as “Mr. Jennifer Kimball.” A recent stroke of luck took me to a YouTube clip of Ry singing this song in its entirety in someone’s living room (!), so I researched further and ended up finding the original recording of Ry and Jennifer singing what sounds for all the world like an old, melancholy sea chanty. I think it takes a special gift to write a song this direct, and by including it, I wish everyone could appreciate the thrill of great, simple harmony singing.

Track 7: Ralph Alessi – Buying, Selling
It’s great to see my former Eastman trumpet mentor Ralph finally getting some props within the jazz community, though overall his music is still shockingly overlooked by most mainstream critic’s polls. This is demanding modern jazz, to be sure, but there’s something in his approach which is so off-the-cuff, freewheeling, and fun, and in an art form which sometimes takes itself way too seriously, I think these are much desired qualities. Excellent band as well, including the prolific Jason Moran on piano. Ralph’s virtuosity is never used for empty showboating, but always serves to supplant his highly original, highly dedicated musical voice. And unlike so many retread, heard-it-all-before artists in modern jazz, he always has something to say.

Track 8: Laura Veirs – Freight Train
Laura comes out of Portland, OR, that hotbed of great coffee, smooth wine, and folky hipsters. Something about that town aligns itself with beautiful, simple music – the late, lamented Elliott Smith comes quickly to mind. I kept hearing Laura’s name and downloaded the 5-song EP Two Beers Veirs which contained this song. (And really, with a title like that, how could you not love the music inside?) This is an unadorned, emotionally direct cover of an old and once popular folk song by the great American roots artist Elizabeth Cotton, whose music I also happily discovered this year.

Track 9: Eef Barzelay – Take Me
I discovered this unorthodox, goes-down-easy artist while surfing through video podcasts presented on the NPR Tiny Desk Concerts. (The Tiny Desk is a terrific showcase for emerging artists, and all the shows are available as free podcasts. What’s that, you don’t know what a podcast is? Aw, don’t tell me that!) Barzelay is a quirky singer-songwriter with a voice like a thin sprinkle of sawdust, and he’s branching out from the equally intriguing alt-country band Clem Snide which he formally headed.

Track 10: Scala and Kolacny Brothers – Colorblind
Weird name + unorthodox group (a Belgian girl’s choir?) + consistently chill-inducing sound = major find for me. And I know, I know, they sung Radiohead’s Creep on the trailor for The Social Network, but I still haven’t seen that movie and I knew about them before anyway. If you can get past the borderline schmaltz factor, I think the pop arrangements these guys sing are really soothing and beautiful; this Counting Crows song (doesn’t it sound like Philip Glass?) was also a discovery for me, and it sounds quite nice on my bedroom piano.

Track 11: Luke Kelly – Raglan Road
This song wasn’t exactly a discovery of this year, as I remember hearing numerous singers tackle it in pubs on my first trip to Ireland in the summer of 2008, but it was only this year I got around to tracking down the song and the man who made it famous. Although he’s well known to many Irish trad fans, Luke Kelly was a major find for me, as was the music of his band, The Dubliners; go watch his live version of this song on YouTube (it’s after the poet Patrick Kavanaugh’s recitation) and I bet you’ll be as mesmerized as I was by the power of his voice and performance aesthetic. I’m happy to report I crossed off a “bucket list” item this year when I learned this song and sang it myself at the Monday night Irish session at Nanny O’Brien’s in DC, to the accompaniment of a few of the players who joined in. And now that I have one legitimate Irish pub song under my belt (sorry, lovely as it is, singing Danny Boy will get you instantly branded a tourist at most genuine Irish pubs), I’ll hopefully be on my way to learning a few more in 2011? IN ENGLISH.

Track 12: Yaron Herman – And the Rain
There’s a pretty terrific record store down the street from me in Silver Spring who gets a holy ton of new, hot-off-the-presses-from-NYC jazz CDs in for cheap. I’d heard Israeli pianist Yaron Herman’s name as a rising star in the jazz world so took a chance, and very much enjoy his approach. Obviously one of the countless young pianists influenced by Keith Jarrett – check out Baptiste Trotignon for another – I dig Herman’s easy virtuosity and catchy compositions.

Track 13: Caoimhín O’Raghallaigh – It’s All About the Rhythm of Her Toes
In addition to the theater work I get to be involved with while working with Solas Nua, I’ve found more than a few opportunities for musical discoveries via their concerts and podcasts. I originally heard this 26-year old star of the Irish fiddle world interviewed by Ronan Connolly on Solas’s wonderful Eist podcast, and earlier last fall I had the chance to hear him play live at a terrific duo concert with accordionist/vocalist Brendan Begley in Rockville, MD. After the show, I tipped Caoimhín (pronounced (“Kway-veen”) that the weekly Monday night Irish session at Nanny’s was taking place that night, and I was thrilled to be there later when he stopped by, borrowed someone’s fiddle, and played a few rousing impromptu pieces for the gaping-mouthed fans in the back room. Solas will be presenting him locally next March, so I look forward to hearing his music again.

Track 14: Sam Sadigursky – Love
This track was hands down one of my favorite finds of the year. Using the text of a poem by one of my favorite modern poets, Czesław Miłosz (and here’s why), NYC-based saxophonist/composer Sadigursky manages to write a melody both simple and flexible, and his band of young (and relatively unsung) NYC players and singers interact with inspiring improvisational chemistry. This track can be found on Vol. 1 of Sadigursky’s “Words Project,” a remarkably ambitious 3-CD undertaking, giving ample evidence that the NYC scene is still churning out relevant modern jazz. The way this piece builds I feel demonstrates the potential that “free” forms of modern jazz can offer which, at least to my ears, is much more rewarding than the heard-it-done-better-in-1957 retreads which clog up too much of the contemporary jazz scene. If it doesn’t stick the first time, relax into it and keep listening.

Track 15: Keith Jarrett/Charlie Haden – Don’t Ever Leave Me
When two of my all-time musical heroes get together on one record, you know I’m going to include something from their collaboration. There are some lovely tracks on this album, including the rarely played standards One Day I’ll Fly Away (perhaps familiar to Moulin Rouge fans) and Nat King Cole’s Where Can I Go Without You?, but this song has been one of my favorite under-recognized standards for a long time. (Keith’s too, as he’s recorded it more than a few times.) Keith and Charlie of course played together in Jarrett’s so-called “American Quartet” in the 1970s, but they haven’t recorded together since, so the release of this record was about as close to an event as the jazz world allows itself. This album is a master class for all jazz musicians – to all musicians, period – saying much about the subtle ways a life spent living in music can raise mere competence to the level of transcendence.

Track 16: David Lang – Have Mercy, My God (from “The Little Match Girl Passion”)
NYC-based composer (and Bang on a Can co-founder) David Lang won the Pulitzer Prize in 2008 for this brilliant, ambitious work for choir and percussion, based on a Hans Christian Andersen story about a poor match girl dying of hunger on the street, so although the contemporary classical music world might be familiar with his output, I’m guessing most listeners aren’t. Although the whole piece is quite moving, something about this particular movement struck me as particularly simple and profound. I suppose the highest compliment I can pay it is that I want to write music like this.

Track 17: Fred Hersch – A Wish (Valentine)
I might be cheating by including the singing of Jo Lawry twice in this list, but since this record is released under pianist Hersch’s name, I’m going to let myself off. I love just about everything about this gorgeous tune, composed by one of the great artists of modern jazz piano. If the musical theater and cabaret worlds allowed itself to incorporate more harmonic influences from the world of modern jazz, we might get more music which sounded this good.

Track 18: Patty Griffin (with Buddy Miller) – Never Grow Old
Patty Griffin’s music was a major discovery for me this year, and I now count her as one of my very favorite artists making music in America. She could sing a phone book and I’d be enraptured. This song, from her recent album Downtown Church, sounded familiar to me, and after looking it up I realized its because it’s the song which plays over the end credits of the film Brokeback Mountain. The day I first heard this version, I was shooting a short film in which I was playing a man who has only a few weeks to live, and the very first scene we shot was with me holding a delivering a monologue to a 4-month old baby. Couldn’t get this song out of my head. What’s also astonishing about it is that like Ry Cavanaugh’s song, it “feels” like an old American folk song, yet the composer is Gustavo Santaolalla, an Argentinian film composer! I love implausible backstories like that, and it speaks yet again to the international appeal of the American folk sound. and in fact it is one. (Check out Aretha!) Thanks to commenter Mark (see below) for the fix.

Track 19: Stefano Bollani – Maple Leaf Rag
On principle I try to buy every piano album that comes out on ECM Records, the German label most famous for presenting Keith Jarrett (my primary musical idol) to the world. I don’t know much about Bollani except that he’s young and Italian, and boy can he swing. I love how he stays far enough away from the famous Scott Joplin ragtime melody that you don’t really know what it is you’re hearing until he drops the melody clear as a bell about halfway through, then just as quickly runs away from it. The world needs more great improvisers like this, I think. And it’s one more example of the international reach of America’s greatest art form. That musical button at the end? I’m reminded of what the great Sinatra said after hearing the Basie band wrap up a particularly knotty swing piece: “Nothin’ to it, folks.”

Track 20: Stile Antico – Ave Maria (William Byrd)
Those who followed my Europe travel blog from last summer will recall my elation at hearing, befriending, and closing down a British pub with the great singers of the Grammy-nominated early music choir Stile Antico. I passed on their info to a friend of mine at NPR, and was thrilled to watch as my idea to have them perform on NPR’s terrific Tiny Desk came to fruition, and even more thrilled that I had the chance to go and watch them sing live in the corner of the NPR music office in DC! (They even made NPR’s Best New Music of 2010, available as a free download!) I strongly feel that the only thing limiting anyone living on Planet Earth from falling in love with the eternal sounds of Renaissance choral music is lack of exposure and silly socio-economic boxes. Listen and be transported. Then go buy their stunningly good records! These guys are also loads of fun and I’m happy to call them my friends.

Track 21: Kennedy Center Honors (with James Taylor & Mavis Staples) – Let It Be/Hey Jude
There’s only one track I could have picked to complete the inaugural edition of year-end finds. And when I say “I can hear myself” on this track, I mean that quite literally. Those who know me well heard plenty about the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity which was singing background at the Kennedy Center Honors in December, and having the chance to watch it live on television with my family was almost as moving as being there in person. Hey Jude was my high school jazz band’s theme song, so of course that was on my mind as the curtain came up and we sang out hearts out to the Obamas, Oprah, and Mr. Paul McCartney himself, fighting back tears as much as we were onstage. Being a part of this event reminded me how music can bring us together, and in a splintered, sectarian world, we need the healing power of music more than ever. What a way to end the year.

Honorable mentions:
It was a gargantuan task trimming this list down to fit onto an 80-minute CD, and a few contenders got left off. I’m pretty sure I first heard Gretchen Parlato and Darrell Scott in the last days of 2009, so sadly, that gave me justification for slicing them off. Also, quick plug for this new record which I just heard the other day, available to YOU as a free download, and it most likely represents everything you hate about pop music of the past five years getting beat up by everything you love about it times a thousand. And finally, this was very much a Mahler year for me; hearing the barnburning 5th Symphony conducted by Christoph Eschenbach in Prague last summer, and hearing the majestic, life-affirming 2nd Symphony in October (James Levine conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra) with friends and family, were without question two of the most profound live musical experiences of my life. As was going way out of my way to sit unaccompanied at his grave outside Vienna in July, pondering how one man and his obsession with music might have such an enormous impact on the world.

Hope you enjoyed. Here’s to 2011 and all its yet-unheard music which through the eternal laws of happenstance, will make itself known!