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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.

Keith Jarrett and more...

Artist: Keith Jarrett

Album: Rio

Label: ECM

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Keith Jarrett
Rio

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.

 
Artist: Travis Laplante

Album: Heart Protector

Label: Skirl

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Travis Laplante
Heart Protector

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.

 
Artist: John Scofield

Album: A Moment’s Peace

Label: Emarcy

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John Scofield
A Moment’s Peace

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.

 
Artist: Matthew Shipp

Album: Art of the Improviser

Label: Thirsty Ear

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Matthew Shipp
Art of the Improviser

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?

 
Artist: Jamaaladeen Tacuma

Album: For the Love of Ornette

Label: Jazzwerkstatt

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Jamaaladeen Tacuma
For the Love of Ornette

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.

 
Artist: Greg Ward

Album: Greg Ward’s Phonic Juggernaut

Label: Thirsty Ear

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Greg Ward
Greg Ward’s Phonic Juggernaut

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.

Phonic Juggernaut by Thirsty Ear Recordings

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