[7 December 2011]
Jazz is ready to go just about anywhere these days, with experiments that intersect with classical music (Graham Reynolds/Golden Arm Trio, Duke! Three Portraits of Ellington), classic rock (Bill Frisell, All We Are Saying), a huge variety of world music traditions (Erik Charlston JazzBrasil, Essentially Hermeto), not to mention a plethora of traditional historical forms available to today’s best players.
That’s part of why it’s hard to say that there was a single trend in jazz over the last 12 months. Our list travels a good distance from free playing to fusion, controlled singing to daring solo piano. In the best music this year, the variety and breadth of imagination is present in a single recording or even a single musician’s performance.
Here, alphabetically, are the dozen jazz recordings of 2011 that we adored. John Garratt and Will Layman
Guitarist Rez Abbasi has been succeeding with all sorts of styles and fusions in recent years, but Suno Suno sounds a heck of a lot like jazz fusion in the 1970s sense—but in the best ‘70s sense. Vijay Iyer and Rudresh Mahanthappa are on hand to provide knotty, challenging improvisations, but drummer Dan Weiss doesn’t skimp on the backbeat of rock. With complex interlocking lines, tricky and shifting grooves, and even some overdriven electric guitar, this is a kind of fusion, but the compositions are based on Pakistani Qawwaki music, making Suno Suno a wonderful, surprising fusion on multiple levels.
This major label debut by a brilliant, young(ish—28) trumpeter is breathtaking. Akinmusere uses not only speed and melodic inventiveness, but also a new way of thinking about the trumpet sound. “The Walls of Lechuguilla” begins with an unaccompanied statement that brings to mind Armstrong, Lester Bowie, and Dizzy Gillespie at once. In addition, he is leading a fluent young band that should remind folks of the gush of fresh talent that came along in Wynton Marsalis’s wake 30 years ago. That is the promise of this young trumpeter and this stunning debut.
Drummers tend to make for pretty adventurous bandleaders. For one thing, they aren’t bound to a limited number of musical genres dictated by their instrument. Secondly, their position of power gives them license to drive the thing rhythmically in their own happy way. Gerald Cleaver is one drummer that has made the rounds within modern jazz again and again, soaking up all of the accessible and challenging aspects that bridge this already tricky genre to post-rock and sampling. Be It As I See It is a masterpiece of screwing around at no one’s expense; Cleaver’s compositions never take the easy route, yet there is no obtuse distancing kept between the composer, musicians, and listener like there are with more brainy forms of jazz cross-pollination.
Kurt Elling may never make a bad album. He is certainly the most accomplished jazz singer in an age. The Gate features a set of songs split between jazz classics and classic rock and soul. Miles Davis’ “Blue and Green” is given an adventurous reading, and so is “Norwegian Wood”. As usual, Elling gets brilliant support from pianist Lawrence Hobgood and a team of strong jazz players, but this album finds Elling overdubbing vocals to create chilling harmony effects at critical moments. In essence, The Gate slyly applies a few narrow pop tactics to its songs, while still being a daring jazz record.
Japanese pianist Satoko Fujii and her husband trumpeter Natsuki Tamura, as a team, have always delivered the avant-garde goods in dense amounts. In 2010, they gave us two exceptional albums through two different kinds of bands. Now, they have buried us in three albums, again with three different kinds of ensembles, all of surprisingly consistent quality. Of the three the one that probably pays off with the most repeated listens is Rafale. KAZE is the combination of Fujii and Tamura with drummer Peter Orins and trumpeter Christian Pruvost. That’s right, two trumpet players—and both are already prone to wild experimentation as it is. Rafale is very much an east-meets-west endeavor, but in more of a Godzilla vs. King Kong kind of way as opposed to an orderly summit. Fujii herself hopes to keep the KAZE project rolling in the future, and if this album is any indication of things to come, it’s an adventure on which worth embarking.
Guitarist Brandon Ross, bassist Melvin Gibbs, and drummer J.T. Lewis don’t share a particularly prolific history together (three albums in 13 years), but their collective Harriet Tubman proves that great things can come in small, infrequent doses. Galvanized by DJs Logic and Singe with trumpeter Ron Miles along for the ride, Harriet Tubman have made a masterstroke of scratchy, stabbing fusion with enough energy surplus to power a small city. One can’t hear Ascension with feeling optimistic about the music of tomorrow. Some may say that giving their album this name is sacrilege to the Gospel according to John (Coltrane, that is). But to yours truly, it is apt, even if they weren’t covering Coltrane. They elevate their sound, and their music, to a new height where music has no labels and no one is bothered by this.
The prospect of yet another solo recital—a fully improvised “jam” if you will—by the fussy but brilliant pianist Keith Jarrett may not seem like a headline in 2011, 36 years after The Koln Concert became a college dorm staple. But Rio is a glorious double disc of short and astonishing piano solos. Spanning ballads, free playing, blues, groove tunes, gospel, and classical structures, this concert is direct and breathtaking. Jarrett’s ability to spin arcing, soaring improvise melodies has never been more compelling or effective. It seems time to admit that Jarrett is one of the music’s most consistently great players.
Being a member of the indie-jazz outfit Little Women, Laplante is used to being on year-end lists. This, however, is a different beast altogether. The art of the solo album, in the tradition of only one person performing, is not new in jazz. Bill Evans, Thelonious Monk, Joe Pass, and many, many others have been there and done that. But as far as saxophonists go, those albums aren’t as prevalent. Travis Laplante has joined the ranks of David S. Ware and Anthony Braxton with Heart Protector, the main difference being that Laplante takes his time and lets the overtones do the talking. If Brian Eno or Harold Budd were to take up the sax, it would sound something like this. Heart Protector is proof positive that a lonesome saxophone can be an emotional performer in its own right.
John Scofield is probably the most legit “popular” jazz guitarist of the moment, thanks to some jam band fame that hasn’t always been the best friend to Sco’s art. But A Moment’s Peace is the most complete and nuanced recording by Scofield in years—and it’s neither a truly “traditional” record nor any kind of glance to the past. It is a bit quieter than his recent releases, but that doesn’t make it retrograde or safe. In fact, as lovely as it sounds, this is Scofield’s boldest statement in over a decade. Standards such as “I Loves You, Porgy” and “You Don’t Know What Love Is” get utterly fresh takes, with Larry Goldings (piano and organ), Scott Colley (acoustic bass), and Brian Blade (drums) forming a band of jazz musicians who play both within and beyond tradition.
When you are one of jazz’s most daring pianists and have proven yourself time and time again with a wide variety of circles, what do you do to commemorate your 50th birthday? You can do a variety of things, I suppose. You can abruptly switch styles, calmly stay the course, or ride out your sunset years playing alone at home. But the option that makes the most sense is to distill a little bit of everything you’ve done into a double album. This includes playing some original compositions, some brand new, and some kind of new, then split the music between a small jazz combo disc and a solo disc. Art of the Improviser is what you get, and it’s a cool, collected representation of Shipp’s strengths as a writer and performer. With albums like these, who needs compilations?
Tacuma is a deeply melodic electric bassist whose fame is tied to the time he spent playing in Ornette Coleman’s Prime Time band. Here, it’s Coleman playing in Tacuma’s band, even if it is a tribute to the great free pioneer of the alto saxophone. Coleman is joined by another saxophone player and by flute in the front line, while Tacuma makes room for a pianist and two percussionists. The result is not a copy of Coleman’s own sound, but something related and wonderful: funky freedom that is complex and layered. The addition of several strong soloists and some rich harmonic coloring makes For the Love of Ornette a stunner even among recent Coleman recordings, a recording that has joy at its very heart.
At a relatively young age, Greg Ward has created a synthesized form of jazz that most musicians are only able to hone after wandering through the trenches for many years. But somehow early on, Ward came to reconcile some pretty disparate elements with his straightforward approach to the saxophone—one shining example being the use of a (gulp) Manchester beat to propel Greg Ward’s Phonic Juggernaut’s final track “Sectionate City”. As a unit, the album is impressive in its ability to please and challenge the listener in equal measure, from start to finish in an hour, without dipping in quality. The road’s wide open for Ward, and we hope he takes it for all its worth.