2011 Year's Best Jazz

This list is adapted from the ballot I submitted to Francis Davis for the 6th Annual Jazz Critics poll, which will be hosted at Rhapsody this year. I’ve consolidated his categories into one, and since opinions change with greater knowledge, I’ve rearranged the rankings after a couple of additional weeks of experience. The first four selections in particular I want to separate out as meriting extra attention for their deep ambition, as well as their sheer musical accomplishment.

1. Goldberg Variations/Variations, Dan Tepfer: Beautiful Bach playing, beautiful improvising, beautiful musical thinking. The range of expression and ideas is thrilling. The album of the year, across all genres.

2. Art of the Improviser, Matthew Shipp: Deep, gnarly, brilliant. An exploration of what this music is all about, not just idiomatic jazz but improvising in general. Shipp has been arguing with the jazz tradition for quite awhile, and this feels like hearing an artist fighting for and experiencing enlightenment.

3. Heart’s Reflections, Wadada Leo Smith: What a year for Leo Smith, book-ended last week by the release of his new, terrific disc from his Mbira group and a two night celebration of his artistry at Roulette. Six ensembles played free and electric jazz, cross-genre improvisations and structured and notated works for both chamber ensemble and chamber orchestra. It says something good about Smith’s expression as an artist and his notational technique that the modern classical players seemed immediately comfortable with and excited by his idiom, while some of the jazz players seemed to have been tossed into the deep end and asked to swim. The sets grew in comfort and stature as the music went along and Smith led with confidence and played with imagination, sensitivity and the power of a lip that belied his age (his upper register and multiphonic playing on the flugelhorn was impressive).

This double-disc is music from Smith’s guitar-heavy, thuddingly funky band Organic, and it brings together two important parallel streams in jazz that have had, strangely, a greater influence across popular music than they have with their original families: Miles Davis electric period and Don Cherry as musical griot. Jazz still holds pointless arguments about these musics, especially Miles. It’s hard to believe the basic features of Bitches Brew — a direct connection to the blues, an abandonment of popular song structure for groove and vamp, an emphasis on improvisation and group interplay rather than on getting back to the head and hitting the last cadence — and beyond were ever controversial, but they still are. But jazz is not a set of tunes, it’s a complete style of playing music, and electric Miles was about as jazz as jazz ever gets. And so is Heart’s Reflections, the best so far of Smith’s exploration of Miles legacy (his Yo Miles! bands with Henry Kaiser are strong, and you can hear the music collected in two good reissues, but Organic has a rhythmic vitality that is frequently more supple and propulsive). As Smith explained to me, stitching together all his musical endeavors, it’s about a fundamental value in and connection to an expressive idea that comes out of the blues, but needs as little of strict form and genre as Skip James, Robert Johnson, Son House and Blind Lemon Jefferson did. And that’s where Don Cherry comes in. The sound of this music is full of the colors of Bitches Brew, In a Silent Way and Jack Johnson, but Smith’s wide-ranging phrasing, ear and ability to gather together what seem to be disparate musical elements into a natural sounding whole is straight out of Cherry’s gift for speaking in musical language across cultures and idioms. Smith incorporates that implicitly, making this a true ‘world-music’ record of freely played, strictly composed, traditional, open-ended electric jazz. Almost two hours of music, each second casting a spell. An awesome record.

4. What is the Beautiful, Claudia Quintet + 1: Jazz and poetry has been a better idea in theory than in practice. Although the theory is pretty damn good. On the poetry side, it’s motivated great work by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Bob Kaufman and others (there are two good collections of this style), but on the music side it’s mostly been the kind of flute-and-bongos-with-turtlenecks that is a cliché precisely because it’s true enough. Poets have loved jazz, and musicians have dug poetry, but more is needed to make the two work like chocolate and peanut butter. There’s a big difference between writing a pop song, even a sophisticated, complex song like “Lush Life” or “The Peacocks,” and an art song, and that’s what a composer does when they set the poetry of someone else to music. Pop song lyrics are crafted to work implicitly with music, poetry must be made to fit, and even more the composer must have an idea of what the poetry means to fit it in any way that has meaning.

That was Steve Lacy’s great breakthrough and contribution, above and beyond his great musicianship: he took poetry and made it into jazz art songs. With his pieces, there was the underlying quality of taste and judgment, the clarity that came from spending the time to read, sift, think, then make the music. His main compositional acolyte, Frank Carlberg, does the same, and his 2011 release Uncivilized Ruminations, a solid, enjoyable record but not quite as stimulating as some of his earlier discs, I think because the poetry he selects doesn’t have the same bite as Robert Creeley, et. al. A related disc is Nicholas Urie’s My Garden, big band jazz settings of poetry from Charles Bukowski. This is a strange puzzle of a record, and it leaves me wondering just where Urie stands as a reader and composer. Bukowski was never a major literary figure but remains a major cultural figure, with a large body of poetry. While he wasn’t always artful (he grew into the craft as he aged), he was always committed, and he is the great chronicler of the struggle to maintain autonomy while dealing with the necessary evil of work. He was also a tender misanthrope, an outside who wanted to be accepted on his own terms, which he eventually was.

Out of a slew of important books like “The Roominghouse Madrigals,” and “The Days Run Away Like Wild Horses Over the Hills,” Urie has selected a minor set of poetry and set it aphoristically. I have no idea what he thinks of Bukowski because I have no idea what he means. The stuff sounds good, but the words just come out of the great Christine Correa’s mouth as phonemes, as they seem to have no importance in the music. And the music itself is a problem. It’s not bad, although it’s pretty anodyne, but it sounds so much like the music of Carlberg, who handles the keyboards on the disc, that I’m not sure what Urie himself has done, other than orchestrate. I don’t think Carlberg ghost-wrote the disc, I think Urie follows the older man’s style so much that he doesn’t much exist himself as an artist.

The Claudia Quintet disc is entirely different, an important addition to the jazz art song, and completely satisfying. All the poetry comes from one source, Kenneth Patchen, an associate of the beats and of jazz poetry, perhaps most well known for his collaboration with John Cage on “The City Wears a Slouch Hat.” He was smart, irreverent, romantic, hip, and from the opening sound of the record, Kurt Elling’s dry baritone with it’s mordant edge, pronouncing the word “showtime,” you know this is going to be something special. The +1 in the title referes to Elling and Theo Bleckmann, who share the vocalist duties, with Elling only reading, and Bleckmann singing. It’s a creative, effective choice: Elling is the leading jazz singer on the planet, but he’s also an exceptional reader. Bleckmann, with his intimately insinuating tenor, conveys the poet’s cool warmth. And leader and composer John Hollenbeck has things to say about the poetry in the best way a composer can, by making the text clear, by meaning every note he sets under the words and by pushing the emphasis on certain phrases and passages. Since these are art songs, we don’t need to know a specific meaning, and that would cripple the pieces — we just need to know that they mean something to Hollenbeck. This is a key, subtle element. What does the metrically staggered beat for “Job” mean? Nothing, inherently, but it’s a way for the music to support the energy of the poem, which is an excoriation of the worst structural aspects of work, clothed in deranged absurdity. The music does not disguise, nor avoid, the poetry, but reveals it. The crafting of “Do Me That Love” is plangently beautiful, the music for the title track is a lesson in how simplicity is an essential value. This is modern jazz of the highest order, music that entertains and informs in equal, generous amounts. A gentle, thoughtful record, with great weight behind it. Special mention must be made for Elling, who is utterly masterful in his phrasing, his ability to use different colors and accents, his own comfort and confidence in what he is doing. It’s rare to hear poetry read at this high a level, not to mention, with jazz!

5. 1910, Les doigts de l’homme: This disc has grown for me throughout the year. Jazz is obsessed about its history but makes some odd value judgements about different eras, so it’s important to point our — and hear — how the era of the QHCF was so musically wonderful. In a music currently dominated by rhythm, it’s great to be reminded of how much fierce swing can be put out by hitting the downbeat. Tunes of the era and new music with period flavor, mixing joy with a rich sense of extended harmony. An absolute pleasure.

6. Steampunk Serenade, Honey Ear Trio: Creative, dynamic and totally kick-ass.

7. Blues and the Empirical Truth, Allen Lowe: This is a disc to either love or hate. Maybe both. It walks a deliberate, fine balance between primitivism and incompetence. I actually think it’s important to listen to the opening track on the first disc, “Blue Like Me Part One,” because it is both great and bad at once. With all-star support, Lowe has put together a massive project that is something like what Captain Beefheart might have done if he was a jazz musician, taking the most basic elements of the music and building it back up as some sort of alternative history, where Ornette Coleman, Robert Johnson, Otis Spann and Miles Davis formed a band, where there was no past or future, everything collapsed into the present. At times amazing, at times appalling, impossible to listen to straight through and completely necessary. Mind-cleansing and ear-opening.

8.There Was …, Aram Shelton’s Arrive: Brilliantly cool and sharp-edged take on the great legacies of Out To Lunch and Destination: Out!

9. Riptide, Gerry Hemingway Quintet: Hemingway is one of the premiere drummers, a great ensemble player and leader who at times tends to emphasize the style over the physical substance. This new disc has all his strengths and none of his weaknesses. A great band, great compositions and the indulgence in style is used as an excellent transitional device, leading the music from one concept into another. In some ways, this could be a big band record from sixty years ago, that’s the quality of Hemingway’s thinking. A crack, very hip big band. The new version of his standby, “Holler Up,” is a gem.

10. Words Beyond, Alon Nechustan: Top-shelf contemporary piano trio jazz, hitting all the notes from swing to free, with great tunes and great playing.

11. Chris Chris Parrello + Things I Wonder: On here as my debut of the year pick. Plenty of great music, but even more exciting is the sense of a young musician discovering his aesthetic values in the moment. Looking forward to a lot more from him.

12. Synastry, Jen Shyu and Mark Dresser: Underexplored territory, finely done. I wish there were more records like this, more singers doing what Shyu is doing. After Betty Carter, the next logical step is to take the voice entirely into instrumental territory, but there’s been so little of it (Lauren Newton?). Shyu is an extraordinary singer with sophisticated musicality, and the seemingly sparse setting of voice and bass is here colorful and rich (you can also hear her as an essential part of Steve Coleman’s band on The Mancy of Sound, a decent record but without the fire of last year’s release).

13. For honorable mentions: Akinmusire, Daniel Bennet Group, Endangered Blood, Mostly Other People Do the Killing, Nate Wooley Quintet, Rudresh Mahanthappa times two, BANN, Asif Kehati, Brian Landrus, Darren Johnston, Ben Kono

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