Jazz Triumphs of 2011 That Only a Fool Could Miss

To be a critic is to risk being a boob. Those who dare to open their blabbermouths and spout an opinion are going to get called on the carpet. As they should.

And in the arts, with matters of judgment being highly subjective, getting it “wrong” is essentially guaranteed. Not everyone can agree with you.

And often enough, a critic can’t even agree with himself. For me, as a jazz critic, the music is in constant motion, evolving. Just as a jazz musician plays a different solo every night on the same tune, my ear takes in the music in varying ways over time.

And so it is that, with the ‘ink barely dry’ on the PopMatters Best Jazz of 2011 list, I feel the need to come back with some amendments or additions—five recordings that I realize are so good that, well, how dare I have left them out?

Here they are; here’s why they’re so fine; and here’s why I may have missed them the first time around.

Artist: Tyshawn Sorey

Album: Oblique – 1

Label: Pi

US Release Date: 2011-09-27

UK Release Date: 2011-10-03

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/news_art/l/layman-oblique-cvr.jpgTyshawn Sorey, Oblique – 1

A while back I decided to take my son, then just 15, to hear some challenging jazz in New York while we were in town to watch baseball. Needless to say, he’s heard plenty of jazz, but I’d never taken him to anything adventurous, and so we went to The Stone to hear drummer Tyshawn Sorey’s guitar group. I knew that Sorey was incredible: with a feel for the pocket and a dancing sense of time even as he mostly played with the more challenging and advanced bands in town. But that band, on that hot summer night in the non-air conditioned Stone, was a chore.

And that’s my excuse for being lazy about listening to this stunning disc from Sorey’s quintet featuring Loren Stillman on alto sax, Todd Neufeld on guitar, John Escreet’s piano or electric piano, and bassist Chris Tordini. I feared more abstraction without satisfaction. But the truth is, Oblique – 1, despite its title, makes for a filling and tasty musical meal.

Not that this is “easy” jazz in any respect. It’s complex and modern in every sense, with clashing or complementary rhythms, non-standard chord progressions, dissonances as well as sweetness, and improvisations that follow a variety of different patterns—neither “free” blowing nor standard post-bop playing. On some tunes, you can almost convince yourself it’s the ’60s and you have a new Blue Note record by, say, Andrew Hill.

“Forty” starts with a lickety-split unison line between alto and guitar that skitters atop a lurching but precise rhythmic pattern. The piano solo that follows the theme seems composed rather than improvised, at least at first, with the bass and drums working in a funky but strange pattern. Escreet is compelling, moving from helter-skelter single-note lines to block chords to an exciting combination. This is highly thoughtful, structured music even as it feels like a thrill ride.

There’s a remarkable range of moods on Oblique – 1. If I was initially jazzed by the clattering excitement of many of these Mingus-ish tracks (such as the grooving “Fifteen”—yup, all the tunes have numbers for names), then I was ultimately seduced by the more gentle, hypnotic tunes. “Twenty-Five” provides the guitar and sax with a lovely if strange unison melody requiring frequent intervallic leaps, but it’s set over a throbbing chill of a pulse, featuring a Fender Rhodes piano. The guitar solo is actually sweet and lovely, even if this music requires a certainly steely willingness to engage the mind.

Is there a better record from 2011, one that pushes jazz forward boldly while still connecting to its past? Let’s just say that I would listen to this in a non-air conditioned jazz club any night of the week.

Artist: Miguel Zenón

Album: Alma Adentro, The Puerto Rican Songbook

Label: Marsalis Music

US Release Date: 2011-08-30

UK Release Date: 2011-11-28

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/news_art/l/layman-miguelzenon-cvr.jpgMiguel Zenón, Alma Adentro, The Puerto Rican Songbook

Miguel Zenón is a swinging and tuneful alto saxophonist from Puerto Rico by way of New York City. He has years of work with a great quartet, not to mention a MacArthur “Genius” Grant, under his belt. Alma Adentro is his latest recording for Marsalis Music, and it again approaches material native to Zenón’s home.

In this case, Zenón has chosen five Puerto Rican writers of classic popular songs, and he has interpreted the work with energy from his brilliant quartet, with beautifully integrated arrangements from a ten-piece woodwind group, and with the sure soulfulness of his alto sound. The woodwind group is brilliantly deployed (and is conducted by the superb composer, Guillermo Klein). There are notated set-piece introductions and codas for the woodwinds alone, which give Alma Adentro a slightly “third stream” feeling at times but, more often, the large group is woven gently into the quartet arrangements so that the two units become seamlessly one.

How did I miss this superb disc? Zenón is a passionate and swinging player, making flights of excitement when he rips a solo. But he plays well within the post-bop rules on most tunes here. And the tunes themselves, which I did not already know, also follow the standard chord patterns of Tin Pan Alley. Mostly. With the slight frosting of the woodwind section layered on top of Alma Adentro, I first heard it as a nice but slightly “safe” adventure—pleasing to the ear but nothing daring.

A deeper listen let me hear not just the swinging excitement of Zenón (and the great solos from pianist Luis Perdomo) but also the brilliance of how Zenón and Klein have deployed the woodwind group. And, while it’s not the main point of this record, the arrangements do feature certain Afro-Cuba elements that are keenly blended with these more conventional pop song structures.

Alma Adentro is a winning blend and Zenón’s best record. It deserves year-end propers.

Artist: Gretchen Parlato

Album: The Lost and Found

Label: ObliqueSound

US Release Date: 2011-04-05

UK Release Date: 2011-06-27

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/news_art/l/layman-gretchenpariato-cvr.jpgGretchen Parlato, The Lost and Found

My first listen to this sophomore release from the rising jazz singer was mixed. It is undeniable that Gretchen Parlato is ambitious and artistic, decidedly not another Young Voice trying to sing either standards or pop in an attempt to cash in on a Norah Jones/Diana Krall tip. But I heard Parlato’s oddly muted, highly stylized purr of a voice as affected. Cute, maybe? Some kind of indie-jazz effort that couldn’t hold up to multiple listens?

But the more I listened, the better The Lost and Found got. Sure, Parlato buries her vocal sound in the mix, and there’s no question that she sings with a unique turn to her sound—bringing a coy subtlety to every performance that fits into the bossa nova tradition (reminiscent, perhaps, of Flora Purim) but also has some roots in Blossom Dearie and even Bobby McFerrin. Hers is an idiosyncratic vocal style, and it’s understandable that some ears just won’t dig it, just as some people find Cassandra Wilson’s “mannish” contralto off-putting. But Parlato clearly has her own sound, the first true mission of a jazz musician. And a close listen lets this record open up like a flower, a beautiful and innovative one.

On her first collection, Parlato collaborated closely with guitarist Lionel Louke, making that recording an intimate conversation. The Lost and Found enlists pianist Robert Glasper as co-producer and uses the trio of Taylor Eigsti on piano and Glasper’s rhythm section of bassist Derrick Hodge and drummer Kendrick Scott. And the results are similarly intimate, as Parlato blends her sneaky, sinuous style into the pulsing hip-hop-meets-jazz groove that is Glasper’s signature.

Among Parlato’s dramatic strengths as a jazz singer is her ability to create and forge a repertoire that is unique and challenging. She writes four appealing tunes here, she adapts the post-bop classics “Juju” and “Blue in Green” to her style, and she finds other obscure tunes that absolutely work: “Henya” by trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusere, “All That I Can Say” by Lauryn Hill, “Still” by guest singer and guitarist Alan Hampton, and “The Lost and the Found” by guest tenor saxophonist Dana Stephens. No Tin Pan Alley, not a predominance of current pop songs turned “jazz”—just fresh material that suits the artist and that will sound almost wholly new to a listener who bothers to open his or her ears.

It took me too long, but I’m glad I did.

The Brad Shepik Quartet & Steven Bernstein’s Millennial Territory Orchestra

Brad Shepik Quartet, Across the Way

Brad Shepik is a versatile guitarist from the Pacific Northwest who arrived in New York to make a creative impact with Dave Douglas, Jim Black and others in a generation of jazz players who easily ignored divisions—playing jazz based on Eastern European melodies, for example, and certainly not giving a hoot about notions of “in” and “out” playing. His last several solo releases (2006’s Places You’ll Go and 2009’s Human Activity Suite) have seemed increasingly charming and easy on the ears—in the best way.

Artist: Brad Shepik Quartet

Album: Across the Way

Label: Songlines

US Release Date: 2011-02-08

UK Release Date: 2011-02-03

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/news_art/l/layman-acrossway-cvr.jpgLast year’s Across the Way is as sunny and melodic as jazz can be. Featuring a quartet with Mark Guiliana on drums, Jorge Roeder’s bass and—critically—the vibes of Tom Beckham, this recording seems to come from the sunshine-splashed tradition of Gary Burton or the 1970’s records from pianist Keith Jarrett. Each song features a strong and singing melody spun around cunning but open harmonies that paint a picture of open space and horizons being reached for.

So how could I miss an album this blazing and fun the first time around? My only excuse is that on first listen, I found it too easy to listen to. The combination of electric guitar and vibes, in a year when Burton himself released a fine disc in that high Burton-ian tradition, may have seemed too derivative on first listen. On a tune like “Xylo”, the tricky, jabbing melody is nearly as catchy as a pop song. Yet hearing it again, the playing itself is a huge standout, with Shepik infusing his lines with melting blues licks and witty post-bop pick-melting. “Garden” sounds enough like a stately Jarrett melody—angular while expressive—but is distinguished by focused group playing.

Many other tunes are fully Shepik’s own. “Marburg” is build around a lovely pair of weaving lines in contrary motion between guitar and vibes; “German Taco” plays on a subtle Latin groove; “Pfaffenhoffen” is a ballad that seems to break all the rules of standard harmonic movement with seeming odd; and “Train Home” is a shimmering slice of atmosphere set over a throbbing bass ostinato. The program as a whole stands up to listen after listen. Even in a year rich with great albums featuring the vibraphone, Across the Way turns out to be one of the very best.

Artist: Steven Bernstein’s Millennial Territory Orchestra

Album: MTO Plays Sly

Label: The Royal Potato Family

US Release Date: 2011-09-27

UK Release Date: 2011-09-27

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/news_art/l/layman-mtoplayssly-cvr.jpgSteven Bernstein, MTO Plays Sly

Finally there is possibly the most odd and most compelling “jazz” record of the year, inevitably from Steven Bernstein and his Millennial Territory Orchestra. The “MTO” is just such a wonderful band, a little big band of nine pieces—and what a line-up this time around: Curtis Fowlkes on trombone, Charlie Burnham on violin, Ben Allison on bass and Ben Perowsky’s drums, not to mention three reed players and the leader on trumpet. MTO plays jazz from the ’30s with zest and integrity, but it also covers tunes by Prince and—here—by the great Sly Stone, guest artists in tow.

But this is the farthest thing from a jazz band covering pop tunes. It’s just weirder and better than that in every respect. Bernstein has arranged ten classic Sly and the Family Stone tracks, enlisting the organ work of P-Funk master Bernie Worrell and guitarist Vernon Reid, plus five distinctive singers. There are healthy doses of MTO’s funky brass band meets Ellington vibe, but there is also a rich vein of early ‘70s funk, with Reid and Worrell (and a bit of Bill Laswell on electric bass) keeping things earthy in a different sense.

While you never lose track of these arrangements being built around a jazz band (check out the start of “M’Lady”, which has a wailing clarinet motif that recurs once the arrangement really gets going in several places), this is not a record full of saxophone solos. Indeed, there are relatively few “solo improvisations” of any kind here, as the tunes are dominated by vocal performances like the originals.

But still, the personality of Bernstein’s band comes through on every track. The slightest effort in listening to these arrangements reveals Burnham’s fiddle popping through the cracks, Doug Weiselman’s clarinet sounding like a synthesizer or a wah-wah guitar. The band growls when it’s right but doesn’t get in the way of the idiosyncratic singers who Bernstein (with help from the great Hal Wilner) chose: Martha Wainwright on a slippery cover of Sly’s own cover of “Que Sera Sera”; soul belter Sandra St. Victor; Antony Hagerty remaking “Family Affair”; Shilpa Ray being, er, sly on “Everyday People”; and jazz chameleon Dean Bowman too. You’ll recognize every tune, but they come at you, happily, from left field.

There are also a few original tracks here that find Bernstein putting some crazy banjo under a funk groove on “Sly Notions”, a brief workout for Worrell’s organ, and a Bill Laswell remix. But mainly this is a long-overdue rethinking of one of the great American musical originals. And it serves to remind us that Bernstein deserves to be thought of the same way.

Oh, and why did I forget about this disc when drawing up my “best of” list? Because it was in my car, jammed in the CD player from frequent spinnings. I liked it so much I just didn’t want it to stop.