Music Diary Notes: My ‘Baker’s Dozen’ Best New Jazz Albums of 2011

For as long as I can recall something about music has been dying – I remember hearing ‘Long Live Rock’ as a kid on the radio when rock was more vibrant than ever; lived through the death of disco and the crash & burn of punk, new wave, new age, retro-50’s, retro-60’s, retro-70’s and now retro-80’s, grunge, glam-rock, hair-metal, screamo, and on and on and on. Yet music never really dies – listening to Skrillex I hear so many of the traditions of techno and dance music from well before Sonny Moore was born reflected through his creations. The same is true for many artists today – at some level there is a push to be a ‘true original’, but in reality people connect much better with a song that brings together components that are new and old.

Recent years have brought news of the death of the music business – and in the last decade we have seen the resurgence of the single, digital music stores, and streaming music services. But while the music business has certainly gone through loads of changes, that doesn’t mean that music itself is ‘dying’. Quite the contrary – the last few years has seen tons of creative music coming from all over the place! And with the internet and social media we now have more ways to spread and discover music than ever.

How good was 2011? Well, to put it in context I started writing this up right after the New Year … but had a really hard time narrowing things down. My initial intent was to do a list of ’11 best of 2011′ across pop, rock, jazz, and rap and assorted subgenres, and also put in my top 3 reissues and collections. I failed.

So the first thing I decided was to only have two re-issues: one for a remastered re-release and another for a ‘deep dive’ new release including previously unheard material. Even there I needed to make some tough choices – the remastered Pink Floyd recordings are simply stunning and all fans should grab them, as is the remastered ‘Nevermind’ from Nirvana, ‘Quadrophenia’ from The Who, The Smiths Complete set, Jimi Hendrix’s Winterland live set, and more.

Then I had to ditch plans to include genres other than jazz and improvised music. I mean, we had solid releases from Manchester Orchestra and Wilco amongst others, epic returns from the Beastie Boys and Paul Simon and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and other great rock and pop music. We had stuff on many ‘top album lists’ like Lady Gaga and Lil Wayne that I thought were disappointing at best, as well as the rise of dubstep with Skrillex’s excellent Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites. Even with all of that I knew there was loads of other great music I just didn’t know enough about … so I had to set it aside.

So I settled on Jazz and improvised music, started making a mental list of the best stuff I had heard, consulted my reviews from early in the year and … realized that two of my favorites were 2010 releases! So with apologies to the great albums from Shimrit Shoshan and Sam Trapchak (both of which you should REALLY check out, they would have made my 2010 list had I known about them!), they weren’t eligible.

And yet even with all of those exclusions I had over 40 recordings that made my ‘I love this’ list. And at some of the music I started to cut away: Mary Halvorson (whose ‘Saturn Sings’ was perhaps the best album of 2010) got cut; Vijay Iyer (whose ‘Historicity’ was perhaps the best album of 2009) got cut; BOTH of Bill Frisell‘s excellent recordings got cut; the great collaborative effort by Terry Lynn Carrington got a Grammy but couldn’t stay on my list; We3 – the collaboration of Dave Liebman, Steve Swallow and Adam Nussbaum whose album is aptly titled ‘Amazing’, got cut; the Charles Lloyd Athens Concert live record got cut; a great live set from legend Lee Konitz got cut; the final release from drummer and bandleader Paul Motian gut cut; the amazing 50th birthday double CD from Matthew Shipp got left behind; Keith Jarrett’s Rio didn’t make the mark; my favorite album in years from Gary Burton got cut; a bunch of favorites that I have seen featured on other ‘best of’ lists such as Medeski, Scofield Martin & Wood, John Scofield, Joe Lovano, Ben Allison, Miguel Zenon, Denny Zeitlin and many more didn’t make the list; and the debut recording of reinvented standards from Carol Morgan was the last to go. All of those recordings are excellently made and played and deserve to be heard.

So … what I am saying is that there was a TON of amazing music released in 2011 – but a ‘Top 72 Albums’ doesn’t make much sense! Now let’s get to the great music that DID make my ‘Top 13’!

  • Jason Parker – Five Leaves Left
    A good tribute album can stand alonside the source material, a truly great one can supplant it. Just as many look at Jimi Hendrix’ All Along the Watchtower or Whitney Houston’s ‘I Will Always Love You’ as the definitive versions, so too do I look to this recording whenever I think of Nick Drake. In my review I said “I bought the original Five Leaves Left from 1969. What I found was a bunch of well written but fairly simple tunes with touching, intimate and dark lyrics but with instrumental arrangements that tied them to their era and didn’t have them work too well with modern ears (i.e. my wife and kids). What Jason Parker and his Quartet plus Michele Khazak have done with these songs is nothing short of astounding. While Parker might disagree, I found every single song on his album improved upon the original in significant ways.” And the entire album truly IS astounding. It remains in heavy rotation on my iPod months later (and as you can guess from my ‘short list’ above, that is no mean feat!), and because of the buanced performances I always find something new to love.
  • Julian Lage – Gladwell
    I discovered Julian Lage due to his excellent work on Gary Burton’s 2011 CD, so I grabbed Gladwell. In my review I noted “most of all it is a joyous and uplifting experience that is just plain fun to listen to in any context. Julian Lage has already grabbed loads of attention as a phenomenal young guitarist, but by now that is transitioning into an appreciation of a fine and maturing composer and artist.” This is jazz, but like all great music it brings a much wider world view than that – Lage is young and his group has international roots, so there is rock and pop and classical and world music all present and given equal footing to the core jazz elements. The album tells a story theough sound, and that story is one of the most compelling of the year.
  • Kenny Burrell – Tenderly
    Kenny Burrell is one of the great guitarists of mainstream jazz to gain attention in the mid-50s and then gain prominence with a string of great late-50s and early-60s Blue Note recording. But unlike many others, he has just kept on going ever since! But one thing he never did was record a solo guitar album – which he has now remedied. A gorgeous collection of songs captured live shows his breadth and depth and love for the music and his audience. I also love the quantity of music – over an hour with no filler (well, him singing is filler for me but obviously a fan fave)!
  • Levin-Torn-White
    I absolutely loved this recording when I wrote my review, saying “the most fitting label is ‘collaboration’. This recording is about three great musicians working together to share a vision of music with each other and with their audience. To that end they have constructed a cohesive set of statements borne out of rhythm and harmony and a passion atmosphere that is instantly communicative yet reveals more with each listen. This is a glorious celebration of music and one of my favorite recordings of 2011!” It was true a few months ago, and it remains in heavy rotation on my iPod now. It is one of those recordings that will speak to rock fans, jazz fans, instrumentalists, and so on. It is just great uncompromising improvised music.
  • James Farm – James Farm
    The first rule of ‘James Farm’ is that there is no ‘James Farm’ – it is a collective nominally led by Joshua Redman, the ensemble also includes Aaron Parks, Matt Penman and Eric Harland, and for me represents finally seeing the promise of Joshua Redman realized. Extremely talented and the son of a legend, he got high accolades for what amounted to fairly average early efforts and has meandered ever since. The reason this succeeds so well is that rather than trying to be all about Redman, it is an amazing group effort that brings in rock, folks and other influences and perhaps with the leader label removed – allows Redman to loosen up and truly shine. It is great jazz, but by combining all of those influences, it is much more.
  • Ambrose Akinmusire – When the Heart Emerges Glistening
    I had never heard of Ambrose Akinmusire until a few months ago when I was told that there was a new album I simply HAD to check out – and they were right! I bristle at hearing someone called ‘an important voice’ in music without historical context, yet somehow it seems appropriate here. Joined by sax player Walter Smith III, pianist Gerald Clayton, Harish Raughavan on bass and Justin Brown on drums, the music made here transcends funk-jazz, post-bop, trad-jazz, smooth jazz or any of the other sub-genres that seem to dominate. It is avant garde at times while never drifting too far ‘out’ as to be inaccessible; it shows clear influences of pop and rock and funk without becoming trite to the point of having to try to redefine terms to justify itself (cough cough Nicholas Payton ‘BAM’cough cough) … but most of all it is powerful, it swings, and it communicates both broadly and intimately. And what is really great for the major label debut by a young talent, Ambrose puts his own voice second to ensuring that the music comes through perfectly. There is a load of talent here, but no showing off; the head-solo-head format is eschewed in favor of more through-composed sections with plenty of improvisation mixed with totally open elements. It is a great and rewarding listening experience every time I listen.
  • Marcin Wasilewski – Faithful
    I heard someone say that if you want an illustration of the state of the art of beauty as told through music in 2011 … put on this album. It sounds cliche, but it is true. There are so many different things a piano trio can bring to music – the angular inventiveness of Vijay Iyer, the minimalist rhythmic nuances of Nik Bartsch, and so on. What Wasilewski brings is a gorgeous sense of thematic development, use of space, and portayal of themes in a way that is emotive and whimsical without ever being trite or ham-fisted. And the music is never boring, never falls into the ‘soundscape’ cliche that sank many New Age artists – it is fresh, engaging, inventive … and yes, the most absolutely beautiful music of 2011.
  • Dave Chisholm – Calligraphy
    The extent to which I loved Calligraphy surprised me, and that love spread to my kids as well. “Calligraphy’ surprised me by how much I liked the entire thing. With Radioactive I enjoyed the album, but only truly fell in love with one song that has stuck with me for more than 18 months and countless new releases crossing my iPod. ‘Calligraphy’ has a uniform excellence in composition, playing, and overall execution that will keep it on my iPod and recommended listening list for a long time to come. I can’t wait to see what Dave comes up with next.”
  • Pat Metheny – What’s It All About
    In my review of this album I said “Seldom have we heard Metheny as clear and concise in his thoughts – and he has little choice since is simultaneously providing lead, harmony, bass and rhythm sections in an expanded harmonic language he paints for each of these songs. This is one of my favorite 2011 albums so far and highly recommended.” I wasn’t as big a fan of his earlier solo guitar album, as it felt much more like noodling with a new toy (baritone guitar in this case). This time around he has structured songs of his developmental years to tell the tale of how much popular music has informed him as a jazz musician, and how rewarding these great songs really are to play and listen. Of course, for a music fan it is simply amazing to hear him take simple elements, rework and reharmonize them and hear them restated as simple themes with complex harmonic structures. It is yet another genre-defining album – is it jazz or folk or pop or rock or …? Apparently even the Grammy Awards didn’t know, awarding Metheny ‘Best New Age Album’ for the record! Whatever genre bucket you want to put it in … I just call it a great album.
  • Ochion Jewell – First Suite for Quartet
    I had one complaint with this recording, and it remains true a few months later – I just wish I could link to an iTunes or Amazon listing to get the word out! “I have been very fortunate in the last few years to have found people like Jason Parker, Sam Trapchak, Dave Chisholm and now Ochion Jewell who produce amazing music. For me, the test is pretty simple: I have a 32GB first-gen iPod Touch that is filled out of my iTunes Library randomly. When a song comes on that I love but can’t immediately place, I look at the artist and song. It has happened in recent weeks with Ochion Jewell where I am half-way into a song and an so engaged I want to switch to the full album – and realize it is Ochion!”
  • Greg Ward’s Phonic Juggernaut
    I found out about Greg Ward because I loved his stuff on Sam Tracpchak’s album,then found he had a 2010 release that was highly regarded so I bought it. Then late this year I came across ‘Phonic Juggernaut’ and bought it on the spot at Amazon without hesitation. Ward is an amazing musician whose ideas just tumble out in well-crafted phrases and jumbles and torrents – but each one is infectious and intriguing. This recording is a trio with saxophone, bass and drums, and everyone gets plenty of room but it is ultimately Ward’s show. I hate to use the buzzword synergy, but sometimes it is fitting.
  • Marcus Strickland – Triumph Of The Heavy, Volumes 1 & 2
    This set is rather an oddity and was another one of those ‘you just have to hear this’ records. I shuffled it all together on my iPod at first, but then had to stop because there was such a huge difference between tracks that I wanted to hear everything in context to better understand what was happening. Volume 1 is a live trio recording that simply cooks with invention and swing and an amazing group dynamic. On the second Volume, we find the group in the studio several months later augmented by a pianist and the results are very different but no less enjoyable. If you believe that young people are the future, with folks like Marcus Strickland and several others on this list … the future is in great hands. The above link is Volume 1, here is Volume 2.
  • Sonny Rollins – Road Shows Volume 2
    I didn’t want to put this record on my list, I really didn’t. In fact I held off buying it for a few months, assuming it was another collection of archival fan-made recordings – and while I liked the first set I found it a bit over-rated. When I discovered it was a new live recording made in late 2010 as part of the 80th birthday celebration for Rollins … I grabbed it. And it shows several things – that Sonny can play better than he can speak at this point for one. That both he and Ornette Coleman remain amazing forces of musical invention and innovation more than a half-century later for another. It is a tremendous performance, and despite my protestations wrangled itself into my iTunes library, into my heart and on to this list. And it really deserves to be here – it isn’t a tale of an 80 year old guy making great music … it is great music first and foremost, and the dude with the horn just happens to be 80!

And here are my two reissues. As noted, I chose one ‘pure’ reissue, and another ‘deep dive’ containing never before heard material:

  • Impulse 2-on-1 Collection
    Sure, you can say that this is cheating and I will admit it. But the truth is that I bought and started reviewing the first collection of these great ‘two album sets’ … and suddenly there were more … and more and more! There are a few reasons I absolutely love this series. First you are able to dig deep into the awesome Impulse catalog, with many out-of-print records making a first-ever appearance on CD. Second, every double record includes at least one you will know if you are a jazz fan combined with a lesser known recording, which works great with recordings by Albrt Ayler and Alice Coltrane. Of course, in some cases (Duke Ellington and Sonny Rollins, for example) you will know BOTH recordings as they are all classics. Next, everything is cleaned up and remastered and sounds better than ever. So even with things I already had in my collection from ages ago, I found the new versions sounded much better. And finally – these were all released at single CD prices! By my last count there are over 40 albums in the series, and I have yet to hit something I regret buying.
  • Miles Davis Quintet – Live in Europe 1967, The Bootleg Series Vol. 1
    The second Miles Davis Quintet is perhaps my favorite ‘band’ of all time, producing such an amazing assortment of music that its influence weighed heavily on pop, rock, funk, jazz, fusion, and pretty much everything recorded since the late 60’s. In 1967 the group was concurrently solid and in total transition. Influences were coming form jazz and rock and soul and Motown and minimalism and free jazz and 20th century classical and pretty much anything you can think of … you have Miles dropping a half dozen noted over the course of a minute, Herbie Hancock laying down what sounds like a Chopin concerto on top of Tony Williams frenetic beat and Ron Carter sing-sing bass lines, and Wayne Shorter dishing out a lifetime supply of melodic inventions. This collection captures four concerts from their European tour – some known, some unknown, all awesome. If you want to know why this group is so often imitated, why so many consider this one of the pinnacles of improvised music, you simply need to listen to this. You will here the same songs played, the same melodies restated … but never the same music twice.

As I said, it is an amazing set of music, spanning youthful instrumentalists in their early 20s all the way through legendary grand masters with just about everything in between. The genres range from traditional jazz to the avant garde to funk to rock to fusion … but there is one constant: great music.

OK, that is MY list … now what is YOUR favorite music from 2011?

Categories: Music Diary, News, Reviews


7 replies

  1. Hey Michael, Sam Harris currently plays with Ambrose Akinmusire’s quintet, but on the album it’s Gerald Clayton. Gerald Clayton also released a great album (i think it was “The paris sessions” or something like that) last year as well

    • Thanks for the pointer – I am constantly frustrated at the dearth of albums that I get on iTunes or Amazon that come with decent liner notes!  I will update the post.

      And will definitely check out the Gerald Clayton album – loved the playing on Ambrose’s album!


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