In setting out my guidelines for choosing the best recorded jazz of 2011 (see part one of my year-end roundup), I alluded to the many albums that did not make the list. Stretching the Top Ten to a a Lucky 13 didn’t put a dent in the problem; I’d have needed a First Forty (or at least a Therapeutic Thirty) to do the job justice. And that’s just dumb. People want a summation, a recap, a manageable list to save or print out, and once that list starts to get above a dozen or so, it loses its cachet.
Nonetheless, and before we get to the middle portion of my “best of” list, I can’t just ignore the many other albums I found exceptionally listenable and/or important this year; nor would I be serving you, the reader, by giving no notice whatsoever to a ton of music you may not have heard but surely should consider. So in no special order, please peruse the slew of recordings that I had to winnow down to arrive at my top picks.
Joe Lovano’s Bird Songs (Blue Note), featuring bassist (and “it girl”) Esperanza Spalding got plenty of well-deserved love this year for its thoroughly modern take on Charlie Parker’s legacy – but it was hardly the only worthy album to revisit past geniuses. Eric Reed’s The Dancing Monk (Savant) paid homage to Thelonious Monk; Brian Lynch used Unsung Heroes (Holistic MusicWorks) to honor fellow trumpeters. Percussionist Bobby Sanabria scored with Tito Puente Masterworks Live (Jazzheads), featuring his Manhattan School of Music big band in a tribute to the legendary Puerto Rican bandleader, and David Murray garnered a bunch of mainstream publicity for Nat King Cole en Espanol (Motéma), which covered the Latin repertoire recorded by Nat King Cole in the 1950s and early 60s.
Excellent piano albums arrived in abundance this year. In alphabetical order, I’ll recommend Lynn Arriale’s Convergence (Motéma), Gerald Clayton’s Bond: The Paris Sessions (Emarcy), Fred Hersch’s Alone At The Vanguard (Palmetto), Jean-Michel Pilc’s solo album Essential (Motéma), Gonzalo Rubalcaba’s Fe – Faith (5 Pasion), Jessica Williams’s Freedom Trane (Origin), and Denny Zeitlin’s brainy Labyrinth (Sunnyside). Chick Corea teamed up with Stefano Bollani – his Italian counterpart in terms of Romantic technique and pixie humor – on the concert recording Orvieto (ECM), a pure gem; another duo, matching the underappreciated Kenny Drew Jr. with guitarist Larry Coryell, made the delightful Duality (Random Act). And Sam Yahel, better known for his organ work, returned to the piano for about half of his ear-opening From Sun To Sun (Origin).
For edgier listening, there’s pianist Muhal Richard Abrams’s Sounddance (Pi): one disc in duet with trombonist George Lewis, and the other with the late Fred Anderson (in what is believed to be his last recording). On Wingwalker (Outline), soprano saxist Jane Ira Bloom taught a refresher course on artfully combining acoustic and electric sounds. Pianist Matthew Shipp issued a strong double-disc of trio music with The Art Of The Improviser (Thirsty Ear), and also contributed mightily to The Hour of the Star (Leo) from tenor-sax whirlwind Ivo Perelman. On Mingus! (Jazzwerkstatt), German reedist Gebhard Ullman stretched his little big band Te Lam 11 to embrace the dedicatee’s songbook; if you can find a copy, grab it. I also liked the oddly titled quartet date Requiem for a Pit Viper (Pine Eagle) from the ruggedly individual Oregon saxist (and biologist) Rich Halley.
On Suno Suno (Enja), Pakistani-born guitarist Rez Abbasi offered his own take on Asian jazz fusion, borrowing Indian-American jazz avatars Vijay Iyer and Rudresh Mahanthappa to do so. Chicago cornetist Rob Mazurek and his Brazilian partners in the band São Paulo Underground created a masterpiece of exotica on Três Cabeças Loucuras (Cuneiform). And Both/And (Meta), from the Chicago-born globetrotting percussionist Adam Rudolph and his Moving Pictures octet, proffered a scintillating, optimistic world-jazz fusion.
Vocalists? You couldn’t do much better than this year’s GRAMMY® nominees in the jazz vocal category. They include Karrin Allyson’s ’Round Midnight (Concord), the Tierney Sutton Band’s American Road (BFM), Roseanna Vitro’s The Music Of Randy Newman (Motéma), and Terri Lynne Carrington’s all-female Mosaic Project (Concord), with a number of top-name guest singers. The fifth nominee is ex-Chicagoan Kurt Elling, whose The Gate (Concord) sought to expand his audience with conceptual smarts, sleek production, and his usual keen musicianship; meanwhile, Elling maintained his more adventurous bona fides on What Is The Beautiful? (Cuneiform) from drummer-composer John Hollenbeck’s engrossing Claudia Quintet. The important name missing from the GRAMMY list is 2010 Monk Competition winner Cyrille Aimée; check Live At Small’s (SmallsLIVE).
This trio of trumpeters had noteworthy discs: Tom Harrell with The Time Of The Sun (HighNote), Christian Scott with Ninety Miles (Concord), and Etienne Charles with Kaiso (Culture Shock). And finally, a few that don’t fit any of the above categories but belong in or near your collection, whether it resides on your desk or in the cloud: Monty Alexander’s trio album Uplift (JLP); Gary Burton’s Common Ground (Mack Ave.); the Fred Hess Big Band’s Into The Open (Alison); Satoki Fujii’s ETO (Libra) with her Orchestra New York; John Scofield’s ballads album A Moment’s Peace (Emarcy); Scottish saxophonist Tommy Smith’s Karma (Spartacus); the album VIA (Origin) from the trio called Storms/Nocturnes (vibist Joe Locke, pianist Geoffrey Keezer, saxist Tim Garland); and guitarist Anthony Wilson’s Campo Belo (Goat Hill).
And, of course, the middle four albums on my actual “Best of the Year” tally:
#8 – Jason Stein Quartet, The Story This Time (Delmark). Stein has bucked the odds in his decision to focus on the bass clarinet to the exclusion of other instruments; notoriously the most unwieldy of all the woodwinds, the bass clarinet is usually the third or fourth axe in a reedman’s woodshed – for those who dally with it at all. This album reaffirms the wisdom of Stein’s decision in spectacular fashion, debuting a wonderful new quartet that comprises tenor saxist Keefe Jackson and a dream rhythm team in bassist Josh Abrams and drummer Frank Rosaly. It’s an utter surprise. Stein begins and ends the album with tunes written by the Chicago-born pianist Lennie Tristano, an important influence on key jazz artists of the 40s and 50s. These tracks bookend an album filled with quicksilver interplay, updating the streamlined polyphony that Tristano presented in his own two-horn groups. For those who’ve followed Stein’s admirably abstract work on his previous discs, the title of this one says it all; while he still rocks out with extended technique, upper-register squeals, and bottom-feeding growls, the emphasis is on melody, narrative, and the garrulous conversation with Jackson.
#7 – René Marie, Black Lace Freudian Slip (Motéma). Among the most intrepid artists in vocal jazz, René Marie put out two albums this year. I spent most of the last six months expecting to place the first of them (Voice Of My Beautiful Country) on this list, and I would have – except that the second one, improbably, was even better. Marie wrote all 13 songs, and they traverse a chunk of adult territory that’s rare for jazz: sassy stomps about sexual politics and sensual double-entendres; lovely odes on longing and regret; lyric tone poems with the specific imagery of championship folk-rock. Even more than the Americana found on Beautiful Country, this repertoire forms the best canvas for Marie’s expansive stylistic range, which can take her from a kitteny whisper to a full-throated cry in nothing flat. Chicago audiences will appreciate the provenance of one song, written in response to a local clubowner who once advised her to ignore her own compositions and stick to standards: “I can’t compete / I can’t be a good girl and sing standards all nice and sweet . . . Please don’t compare me to Ella or Sarah / Magnolias won’t stay in this hair, ’cuz that was then, this is now. . . .” (The song’s title is “This For Joe.”)
#6 – KLANG, Other Doors (Allos Documents). In 2009, the Chicago Jazz Festival (which I help program) asked clarinetist James Falzone to produce a tribute for the centennial of Benny Goodman’s birth; we and the audience got much more than we’d even hoped for. Falzone’s versatile quartet KLANG spun through a program of Goodman classics – some played straight, others bent and folded – while integrating Falzone’s own compositions, honoring Goodman’s virtuosity and sometimes-forgotten innovations. Those who missed this unique exercise in time travel got a second chance with the release of Other Doors. It expands on the original concert by adding horns and cello to KLANG’s Goodman-esque lineup, which pairs clarinet with vibes (Jason Adasiewicz) in front of bass and drums (Jason Roebke and Tim Daisy). And those of us in attendance at this music’s debut got confirmation that the entire project was as savvy and durable as we remembered. The album brings Goodman’s swing-era magic into the 21st century without denying its nostalgic romance – a neat trick indeed.
#5 – Steve Coleman and Five Elements, The Mancy Of Sound (Pi). Five elements, eight musicians and as many tracks – all bursting with polytonal polyphony, a spiky palette, and layered cross-rhythms (cleanly delineated by two of the music’s most exciting young drummers, Marcus Gilmore and Tyshawn Sorey). Coleman is the Chicago-bred alto saxist who in the 80s shook up the music world with his M-Base concept, and whose bands continue to serve as fecund laboratories for research in new composition and improvisation. The Mancy Of Sound presents a selective overview of post-bop jazz history, transformed through the prism of Coleman’s innovations. Soul-jazz horn ensembles reference the soulful heyday of Art Blakey and Horace Silver; the dense intensity of Coleman’s solos suggests the 1970s Prime Time band of Ornette Coleman (no relation), while sweltering African accents recall Miles Davis’s electric bands; razor-cut themes, with their shifting tone centers, encroach on Henry Threadgill’s territory. Yet for all that, none of it sounds the least derivative – or “pretty,” or “swinging,” or “cool.” It’s hard music, thrillingly executed, and designed to re-arrange the world as we hear it.
THIS WEEKEND: Wrapping up the top jazz CDs of 2011.