The Best Jazz of 2011

John Garratt and Will Layman
Keith Jarrett

Jazz is ready to go just about anywhere these days, and our list this year travels a good distance from free playing to fusion, controlled singing to daring solo piano.

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

Artist: Rez Abbasi's Invocation

Album: Suno Suno

Label: Enja


Display Width: 200

Display as: List

List number:

Rez Abbasi's Invocation
Suno Suno

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.

Artist: Ambrose Akinmusere

Album: When the Heart Emerges Glistening

Label: Blue Note


Display Width: 200

Display as: List

List number:

Ambrose Akinmusere
When the Heart Emerges Glistening When the Heart Emerges Glistening

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.

Artist: Gerald Cleaver’s Uncle June Ensemble

Album: Be It As I See It

Label: Fresh Sound New Talent


Display Width: 200

Display as: List

List number:

Gerald Cleaver’s Uncle June Ensemble
Be It As I See It

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.

Artist: Kurt Elling

Album: The Gate

Label: Concord


Display Width: 200

Display as: List

List number:

Kurt Elling
The Gate

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.

Artist: Satoko Fujii and KAZE

Album: Rafale

Label: Libra


Display Width: 200

Display as: List

List number:

Satoko Fujii and KAZE

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.

Artist: Harriet Tubman

Album: Ascension

Label: Sunnyside


Display Width: 200

Display as: List

List number:

Harriet Tubman

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.

Next Page

So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.