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JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

The 25 Best Jazz Albums of 2011

If there’s one thing this page tries to avoid, it’s redundancy: if you’ve been here before, you’ve noticed that coverage here typically focuses on talent flying under the radar. That’s not to imply that the Marsalises, Vijay Iyers and Christian McBrides of the world aren’t valid artists, only that you probably already know about them. And there’s actually an album by a Marsalis (although not one who might immediately spring to mind) on this list.

Another thing to keep in mind is that even the most dedicated listener only has the opportunity to hear, at the most, a few hundred out of the thousands of jazz albums released every year. Then there’s the big can of worms that spills over with every attempt to rank them. How do you compare a big band with a stark bass-and-voice duo? How does a recording of sepulchral flute-and-percussion improvisations weigh up against a collection of intricate, politically fueled, narrative compositions? Isn’t all that just apples and oranges? Consider this a perhaps misguided stab at tackling all of the above, keeping in mind that the difference quality-wise between #1 and #25 here is infinitesimally small – all the albums here are worth your time.

Most years, trying to decide just which jazz album is the year’s best is a crapshoot. This year, however, there’s one that stands out over the rest of a very strong crop, and that’s the Curtis Brothers’ Completion of Proof. Written by pianist Zaccai Curtis as the Bush regime was finally coming to an end, it’s a towering, sometimes wrathful, cruelly sarcastic concept album that explores the effects of fascism and those who perpetrate it, from the school hall monitor to heads of state. As political art, it ranks with Mingus and Shostakovich for its insight and bleak, ironic wit: as music, it’s hard-hitting, ambitious but searingly melodic, as political music has to be. Drummer Ralph Peterson (who also put out a dynamite album of his own this year, Outer Reaches, a Larry Young tribute) gets special mention for propelling this monster: the rest of the cast includes Luques Curtis, Jimmy Greene, Brian Lynch, Donald Harrison and Pedrito Martinez.

JD Allen, who topped the charts here with I Am I Am in 2007, gets the #2 spot for VICTORY!, his elegant and equally hard-hitting trio sonata album with Gregg August and Rudy Royston. The tenor saxophonist’s laser-beam sense of melody, his majestic and fearlessly brooding, chromatically-charged themes, his artful use of his rhythm section and imaginative employment of duo arrangements have never been more impactful than they are here. There’s no other composer in jazz who’s ahead of this guy right now.

#3 goes to a group you may have never heard of, the self-titled debut by Beninghove’s Hangmen, who take Marc Ribot-style noir themes to all sorts of genuinely menacing places. Noir can become a cliche, but not with this band – veering from Mingus bustle to noisy, macabre surf rock, they breathe fresh air into every dark cinematic style you’ve ever heard. With Bryan Beninghove, Rick Parker, Eyal Maoz, Dane Johnson, Kellen Harrison and Shawn Baltazor.

4. Ran Blake and Dominique Eade – Whirlpool. To put the definitive noir pianist of our time anywhere other than #1 is hubris: at 76, he’s never been more counterintuitive or moodily interesting. Eade brings her equally restless chops to a mix of vocal standards, all of which they radically reinvent – and the best song here might be Eade’s original.

5. Ralph Bowen – Power Play. The tenor saxophonist is just as much about precision as he is power, but where he excels most is as a composer. Leading a quartet with Orrin Evans, Kenny Davis and Donald Edwards, his fiery, vividly uneasy melodicism was unsurpassed by anyone else this year.

6. Billy Bang Bill Cole. A 2009 concert performance with the late, great violinist/improviser – whom we sadly lost this year – inventing new elements with the noted multi-reedman. It’s essentially a series of tone poems, some rising with an astringent airiness, sometimes uncoiling with an unrestrained ferocity. There are some scary albums on this list: this is probably the scariest.

7. Delfeayo Marsalis – Suite Thunder. As with the Mingus Orchestra’s Live at Jazz Standard album last year, it probably isn’t even fair to include this album, which has the trombonist leading a big band that revisits the legendary Ellington suite with an A-list of players including but not limited to Branford Marsalis, Red Atkins, Victor Goines, Jason Marshall, Mark Gross, Tiger Okoshi and Mulgrew Miller.

8. Sara Serpa – Mobile. Serpa’s claim to fame is vocalese – imagine the purest, most crystalline soprano sax that could possibly exist, then add mega-amounts of soul, determination, originality and frequent existential angst along with moody, intense, counterintuitively crescendoing, sometimes third-stream themes inspired by writing about travel and migration. With Kris Davis, Andre Matos, Ben Street and Ted Poor.

9. The Captain Black Big Band. This was ticket that everybody wanted, and nobody could get this year, pianist Orrin Evans’ mighty, swinging steamroller. Evans is a cerebral guy, but this group is a pure raw adrenaline rush. With a huge cast frequently including Rob Landham, Gianluca Renzi, Todd Marcus, Ralph Bowen, Jim Holton, Anwar Marshall, Tatum Greenblatt, Mark Allen, Jaleel Shaw and Neil Podgurski.

10. Brian Carpenter’s Ghost Train Orchestra – Hothouse Stomp. The trumpeter resurrects blazing, barely three-minute gems from Harlem and Chicago in the 20s by Tiny Parham, Charles Johnson and Fess Williams. With Dennis Lichtman, Andy Laster, Matt Bauder, Curtis Hasselbring, Jordan Voelker, Mazz Swift, Brandon Seabrook and Rob Garcia.

11. Iconoclast – Dirty Jazz. Technically, this came out at the very tail end of 2010, but who’s counting? Julie Joslyn’s liquid mercury alto sax (and snarling violin) and Leo Ciesa’s slasher drums (and icily melodic piano) are in full noir effect on this uncompromising, smartly aware, assaultively lurid effort.

12. Brian Landrus – Traverse. Much like Gerry Mulligan fifty years ago, the baritone saxophonist pushes the limits of where his instrument can go, with a warm melodicism to match, over grooves that range from latin to reggae to a jazz waltz to hypnotic ambience. With Michael Cain, Lonnie Plaxico and Billy Hart.

13. Rich Halley – Requiem for a Viper. A raw, powerhouse, sometimes explosive, sometimes deviously witty improvisationally-driven collection of intense originals, more of a party than a funeral, the saxophonist backed by a mighty rhythm section of bassist Clyde Reed and drummer Carson Halley along with trombonist Michael Vlatkovich.

14. Jen Shyu and Mark Dresser – Synastry. Just bass and vocals have never sounded more interesting than they do here on these two improvisers’ stunningly diverse, sometimes unexpectedly amusing and tuneful duos.

15. Monty Alexander – Harlem-Kingston Express Live. Where the preeminent Jamaican pianist of our era lyrically, genially and triumphantly explores both his jazz and reggae roots: it’s only a tad less exhilarating than his 1995 Yard Movement effort. With Hassan Shakur, Obed Calvaire,Yotam Silberstein, Andy Bassford, Hoova Simpson, Karl Wright and Robert Thomas.

16. Bad Luck – Two. Like Iconoclast, this is basically sax and percussion, with electronic effects that add a creepy edge to the compositions and improvisations on this white-knuckle-intense double-disc set from drummer/percussionist Christopher Icasiano and saxophonist Neil Welch.

17. Michel Camilo – Mano a Mano. Where the Dominican pianist teams up with his longtime bassist Charles Flores and percussionist Giovanni Hidalgo for an intimate but often exhilarating blend of third-stream and Afro-Cuban themes.

18. Patrick Cornelius – Maybe Steps. The alto saxophonist’s artful, shapeshifting compositions mine rich veins of modalities, murky noir themes and nocturnal melody: although this is a studio recording, it has the unleashed energy of a stage show. With Gerald Clayton, Peter Slavov, Kendrick Scott, Miles Okazaki and Assen Doykin.

19. The Phil Dwyer Orchestra – Changing Seasons. The Canadian saxophonist/bandleader’s take on a four-seasons suite is lushly tuneful and sweepingly orchestrated, and ends on a surprisingly effective, upbeat note. With a huge cast of characters including a full string section as well as contributions from Mark Fewer, Chris Gestrin, Jon Wikan and Ingrid Jensen.

20. Benjamin Drazen – Inner Flights. The saxophonist has speed and power, and even more impressively, a restless intensity when it comes to songwriting. Alternating between pensive, edgy modes and big swing anthems, he leads a first-class band featuring Jon Davis in particularly scorching mode on piano along with Carlo De Rosa on bass and Eric McPherson on drums.

21. Amir ElSaffar’s Two Rivers Ensemble – Inana. This time out, the innovative Iraqi-American quartertone trumpeter brings Middle Eastern themes into American jazz rather than the other way around in this bracing, fascinating suite inspired by the Mesopotamian goddess of love and war. With Tareq Abboushi, Zafer Tawil, Ole Mathisen, Carlo DeRosa and Nasheet Waits.

22. David Gibson – End of the Tunnel. The trombonist’s late-night Memphis style 60s soul groove album that imaginatively adds rhythmic complexity to Booker T. and Stax/Volt B3 organ vamps. With Julius Tolentino, Jared Gold and Quincy Davis.

23. Mr. Ho’s Orchestrotica – Third River Rangoon. It’s amazing how lush and hypnotic Brian O’Neill a.k.a. Mr. Ho gets a flute, marimba, bass and percussion to sound on this utterly narcotic collection of nocturnes, many of which playfully pilfer well-known classical themes. It’s by far the most psychedelic album on this list.

24. Carlo Costa – Crepuscular Activity. The drummer’s sepulchral duo improvisations with bass flutist Yukari make an excellent segue with #23 above, 27 whispery, creepy minutes of shadowy furtiveness and sometimes pure chill.

25. Dave Juarez – Round Red Light. Juarez is a guitarist who doesn’t play like one, favoring terseness and melody every time over flash and ostentation; this album’s nocturnes, boleros, waltzes and a couple of barn-burners have a vivid, sometimes wary European flavor. With Seamus Blake, John Escreet, Lauren Falls and Bastian Weinhold.

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December 18, 2011 Posted by | jazz, lists, Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Delfeayo Marsalis’ Sweet Thunder Matches the Transcendence of the Ellington Original

Funny, true story: trombonist Delfeayo Marsalis asks Gunther Schuller to write the liner notes for his brand-new octet arrangement of Duke Ellington’s Sweet Thunder. Schuller writes back and basically says, “This album is a mistake.” He’s a little more tactful than that, but there’s no mistaking how he feels about it (you can read the whole thing in its entirety in the cd booklet). In case you don’t know who Gunther Schuller is, he’s a composer – an interesting, entertaining one – and has been a pioneer in jazz education for decades (he established the first conservatory degree program in jazz studies, at New England Conservatory in the 1960s). He also sees himself as keeper of the Ellington flame, so in addition to being possessive, he’s on the side of the angels. What also comes out in his response to Marsalis is that he’s a bigger fan of the early Ellington than the post-1950 works including all the suites. No disrespect to Dr. Schuller, but those suites are transcendent, possibly Ellington’s greatest achievements. One critic has already singled out Marsalis’ new arrangements here as being better than the original, which is a matter of taste. Whatever yours might be, it’s inarguable that this new album is just as good as the original. Which makes it pretty amazing: this majestic, Shakespearean-themed tour de force is one of the most exhilarating pieces of music ever written. For anyone who might wonder, why on earth would anyone want (or dare) to remake this, here’s the answer: if you could play this, and you had the chance, wouldn’t you?

Delfeayo Marsalis created his charts using the original Ellington scores in the Library of Congress. As Schuller was very quick to point out, the sound is brighter and the new score noticeable more terse (as you’d expect from an octet doing the work of the whole Ellington Orchestra). And yet, the towering, epic grandeur is still here in full force, whether on the title track that opens the suite, the bustling Sonnet to Hank Cinq or the slyly tiptoeing, bluesy swing of Up & Down, Up & Down. As befits a composition inspired by Othello, there are Moorish interludes and these are the choicest among the literally dozens of potent solo spots here. Bass clarinetist Jason Marshall brings a somber gravitas to Sonnet for Sister Kate; Branford Marsalis swirls with chilly exhilaration on soprano sax on Half the Fun and Sonnet for Caesar; and Victor Goines brings the intensity to uneasy heights on sopranino sax on Madness in Great Ones. Pianist Victor “Red” Atkins’ rippling, slashing depiction of the murder scene in Sonnet for Caesar, as reminiscent of Liszt or Schumann as the blues, might be the single most adrenalizing moment of them all. And Delfeayo Marsalis’ considered, jeweled lines, with or without a mute, are plainly and simply deep: he gets this music. The rest of the band elevates to that same level: there may be more complicated composers than Ellington, but none more emotionally impactful. Mark Gross on alto sax, Tiger Okoshi on trumpet, Mulgrew Miller on piano, Reginald Veal, Charnett Moffett and David Pulphus on bass, Winard Harper and Jason Marsalis on drums join in singlemindedly, alternately triumphant and wisely restrained.

It’s also worth mentioning that this album, stylistically if not thematically, bears some resemblance to the Live at Jazz Standard album issued last year by the Mingus Big Band. In reviewing that one, we hedged that allowing it for consideration as a candidate for best album of the year was absurdly unfair, the equivalent of allowing the ghost of Babe Ruth to compete in a home run hitting contest. The same could be said for this one. In case you haven’ t heard, the Mingus Big Band album ended up winning a Grammy – so here’s predicting that this one will win one too. The night of the awards, don’t forget that we said it first.

February 28, 2011 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment