Music

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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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Satoko Fujii and KAZE
Rafale

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

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Harriet Tubman
Ascension

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.

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