The year 2011 was an inspirational year. I was privileged to listen to, and in some cases experience "live," some of the best and most varied musical performances that I have seen in many a year. With all the discussion of jazz dying and the graying and shrinking of the jazz audience, what I have personally witnessed is that this improvisational music that we paint with the expansive brush we call "jazz" is flourishing and experiencing a renaissance of creativity that is nothing short of breath-taking.
People love lists and fans often relish in picking their favorites. Often people revel in finding their choices being validated by inclusion in lists made by critics at the end of the year. But music is subjective and there will always be room for outliers in taste. I am going to list my picks for the best music I have heard this year, trying to be as inclusive as possible for the deserving music that has been created. I stress some very worthy albums will undoubtedly be missing from my list simply because I haven't had the opportunity to listen to them, but of the many I have listened to these are some of my favorites.
Contemporary big band music had a resurgence this year. Ninety-three year old Gerald Wilson had
an exquisite offering with his brilliant Legacy.(See video here)
Another big band album that could equally be placed in the best of Latin Jazz category was the cooking Manhattan School of Music Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra under the direction of Bobby Sanabria and their marvelous Tito Puente Masterworks Live. This band of young artists just keeps getting better and better.
The Westchester Jazz Orchestra under the direction of Mike Holber is certainly a seasoned group. This year they offered their take on the music of Herbie Hancock on their Maiden Voyage Suite. I was fortunate enough to catch this polished orchestra "live" this year, with the powerhouse tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano as a guest soloist. This is a talent packed group of professional musicians who take playing tight arrangements and turn it into an art form.
Another fine "live" performance was the spectacular multimedia show composed and conducted by the talented D'arcy James Argue and illustrated by the artist Danijel Zezelj titled Brooklyn Babylon. (See video here).
Trumpeters offered some compelling music this year. One of my favorites included the fresh sound of the young Ambrose Akinmusire and his quintet on his impressive When the Heart Emerges Glistening. (See video here)
The Talented Mr.Pelt was a showcase of fine contemporary music by trumpeter Jeremy Pelt and his fine quintet. Pelt has a matured tone that is wonderful to behold.
The electric Tim Hagans demonstrated his compositional acumen as well as his instrumental virtuosity on his The Moon is Waiting. Under appreciated guitarist Vic Juris was a standout on this outing. I caught Tim live at the WJO show where he was featured in a piece with saxophonist Joe Lovano on a song he arranged for the orchestra.
The trumpeter Tom Harrell came to the table with his own quintet on his ethereal The Time of The Sun.
With so many fine pianist offerings this year it was a daunting task to pick and choose a handful. In the solo category Denny Zeitlin's remarkable Labyrinth, brilliantly recorded live at Ernie Shelton's house in California, was a standout. Denny's performance with drummer Matt Wilson and bassist extraordinaire Buster Williams at the Kitano this fall was a wonderful display of mature but daring virtuosity that I was fortunate enough to attend.
The pianist Michael Cain's release, simply titled Solo, was a unique combination of solo acoustic piano and electronics that I found intriguing. His "Prayer" is an evocatively spiritual piece of music that is very meditative. (See video here)
A delicious duet was served in Italy by masters Chick Corea and Stefano Bollani. Titled Orvieto, this demonstration of magical interplay was recorded live at the Umbria Winter Jazz Festival in 2010.
The pianist Benny Green, who was schooled with stints in bands led by Ray Brown, Art Blakey and Freddie Hubbard to name a few, blew my socks off with his swinging album Source a pianistic joy.
Two terrific trio recordings by pianists Sam Yahel with his From Sun to Sunand Ted Rosenthal's Out of this World were both strong outings in a crowded field of exemplary performances. (See video here)
The pianists Aaron Goldberg and composer/pianist Guillermo Klein, ably assisted by drumming phenom Eric Harland and bassist Matt Penman,.produced one of my favorite albums of the year Bienestan, a musical trip to an imaginary country of the same name. I was able to see them perform this enchanting music "live" at the Jazz Standard with the fabulous altoist Miguel Zenon, who was also featured on the album.
The live performance did not disappoint with the hypnotic original composition "Human Nature" and the contemplative "Burrito" capturing my attention. (Listen here)
At the wonderful Caramoor festival this year Joshua Redman's new super group, which featured Aaron Parks on piano, Matt Penman on bass and the ubiquitous Eric Harland on drums, blew away the audience. There self titled album James Farm features original music composed by each of these talented players and is another must listen. (See video here)
Alto saxophonist David Binney composed an unusual suite of cinematic-like music titled Graylen Epicenter featuring some of today's most hip musicians on the New York jazz scene.
New York based tenor saxophonist Donnie McCaslin introduced the dynamic Perpetual Motion and caught my ear earlier this year.
Bassists were fully engaged this year with some creative outings.Ben Allison continues to show a rare ability to create new music by deconstructing contemporary songs from recent times and presenting them in new and exciting ways. Allison's Action-Refraction was inspired by the music of composers as varied as Neil Young, P.J.Harvey, Thelonious Monk and Donny Hathaway. (See video here)
Bassist Sean Smith had a quiet and joyful gem with his album Trust, with notable support from guitarist John Hart and a superb outing by the saxophonist John Ellis.
The ubiquitous Christian McBride had a busy year with his big band performance at the Caramoor festival being a real crowd pleaser. This big band music was released as The Good Feeling, but his recent release Conversations with Christian was the real McBride standout to me. It showcased his virtuoso playing in some really intimate musical conversations with various artists. His duets with the astute Dr. Billy Taylor on the composition "Spiritual" and the marvelous Hank Jones on the song "Alone Together," both recently passed giants of this music, were pure gold. A duet with the soulful guitarist Russell Malone on "Sister Rosa" demonstrated why Mr.Malone is a first call guitarist of exquisite taste.
Bassist Jay Anderson and fellow members of the band named BANN, drummer Adam Nussbaum , saxophonist Seamus Blake and guitarist Oz Noy, produced and played on a quirky but satisfying album from earlier in the year titled As you Like I especially enjoyed their re-creation of the David Crosby tune "Guinnevere." (See video here)
Guitarist Jonathan Kriesberg came out with a fusion infused album that I really grooved on titled Shadowless. It featured some impressive playing and composition by the talented guitarist and some penetrating saxophone by Will Vinson. Just listen to the lead track "Twenty-one" and you will be hooked. (See video here)
Gladwell by guitarist Julian Lage offers a musical journey, this time through a fictional town of the same name. Lage weaves a convincing picture of this place, its people and the vibes he experiences there. It is a fascinating musical trip worth taking the time to experience it through Lage's talented fingers.
The so-called "Third Stream" of music as described by Gunther Schuller was alive this year with a beautiful offering from Carlos Franzetti and his wife Allison Brewster Franzetti titled Alborada. It combined elements of classical and South American folk music with the music of contemporary jazz artists like Herbie Hancock, Bill Evans and Milton Nascimento.
Drummers had some important offerings this year with special mention of Eric Harland's work on Bienestan and James Farm. I was fortunate enough to see Mark Guiliana's kinetic drum work when he played an unrehearsed electronic set of pure improvisation with pianist Brad Mehldau at Tony Falco's club The Falcon in Marlboro, NY back in September. (See video here)
The drummer Ralph Peterson had a take no prisoners offering titled Outer Reaches that featured organist Pat Bianchi and absolutely shredding guitar solos by Dave Fiuczynski on Woody Shaw's "Zoltan" and John McLaughlin's "Spectrum." Also checkout Peterson's version of the Christmas classic "We Three Kings."
Drummer Adam Cruz had an auspicious year. I caught him recently with the talented saxophonist Chris Potter and the amazing John Patitucci at Smoke in NYC. Cruz released his latest Milestone and indeed it was just that. With a brilliant supporting cast that included the aforementioned Potter, along with fellow saxophonists Miguel Zenon and Steve Wilson, guitarist Steve Cardenas, pianist Edward Simon and bassist Ben Street this one packs a punch.
Vocalists that piqued my interest this year Giacomo Gates fine tribute to the late Gil Scott Heron titled The Revolution Will Be Jazz. With Gates successfully pulling off some of the poet's most poignant music.
Gretchen Parlatto was again impressive with her latest album The Lost and Found where her wispy voice continues to defy convention. Taylor Eigsti's piano work was inspired.
Two artists who were new to me this year were the violinist Majid Khaliq with his impressive Basilisk , a surprisingly stirring album from a rising talent. (See video here)
A second surprise was the discovery of the talented saxophonist from Utah, Chaise Baird on his impressive debut album Crosscurrent. For those who question Jazz in Utah? Check this kid out.
Two recently received albums that deserve honorable mentions are the baritone saxophonist Brian Landrus' Traverse and Canadian trombonist William Carn's Run Stop Run.
So there you have it, my exhaustive list of the best I've heard in jazz this year. I am sure some will scratch their heads in confusion, others will nod in agreement and others will be pleasantly surprised, but one thing is for sure, jazz is alive and thriving in 2011. Based on the trend, 2012 will be an even better year for this music we call "jazz."
You can follow more reviews by Ralph on www.notesonjazz.blogspot.com