Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Halftime report: 10 strong 2011 jazz releases

Last week, several top jazz writers took a minute to survey the year in recorded jazz thus far. (The Undead Jazzfest, which starts tonight—TONY preview here, full schedule here—serves as a handy peg, dividing the calendar more or less in half.) Here's a 25-strong list from Jim Macnie, and 25 plus change from Patrick Jarenwattananon.

To some, these midyear round-ups might seem like overkill; you may even question the value of the ubiquitous year-end polls. But I'm with Jim, who defended the practice in his own wry way ("We all love our horse races and we all love our listicles."). As for me, I'm just really happy that so much jazz is still being recorded and released on albums, and I'm doubly happy that so much of it is being sent to me. As a fan, it's only natural to want to celebrate the bounty and take stock, whether that's yearly, biyearly or daily.

In that spirit, here's an alphabetical list of 10 2011 jazz releases I'm digging. (For reference, here's my 2010 midyear list.) I try to get into a zen frame of mind re: such lists, i.e., not to choose but to be chosen. Great records exude a subtle magnetism and they keep pulling you back. You can't always identify them on the first spin, but they call to you. Playing them, there's a perpetual sense of unfinished business. They are unknowable or at least elusive. That doesn't rule out straightforward appeal, but there has to be something drawing you back. These have all had that effect on me.

Ben Allison Action-Refraction
This is a record of covers (plus one original). Most of the pieces are new to me (or, like Monk's "Jackie-ing," only vaguely familiar), so I came to them fresh. I just love the sound of the band: funky and sassy and full, and with a rock edge (e.g., on P.J. Harvey's "Missed"), though not trying too hard to mimic rock, which can be a major red flag. My favorite tune is a reading of Samuel Barber's "St. Ita's Vision," which has a psych-happy, retro-synth sheen that—as I suggested in a Time Out NY preview—puts me in a Clockwork Orange frame of mind. You can stream the whole album on Allison's site.

Gerald Cleaver's Uncle June Be It As I See It (Fresh Sound)
If I remember correctly, I received this album right after I finished compiling my best-of-2010 lists. I recall liking it then, but I was worried it would get lost in the shuffle as the year wore on. Fortunately, that hasn't come to pass; this one is a keeper. Don't let the noisy opener, "To Love," throw you: This a sensitive, gently colorful record. The second piece, "Charles Street Sunrise," absolutely knocks me down with its chamberish beauty—like something off Andrew Hill's A Beautiful Day. Some tracks thrive on chaotic vocal overdubs and other programmatic content (alluding to Cleaver's family history), but the sweet ones are the ones that grab me. Like the Allison, the whole disc is streaming online via Cleaver's Bandcamp page. Check out "Fence & Post: Statues/UmbRa," which features a breathtaking Craig Taborn piano solo. (I should also nod respectfully to Out of This World's Distortions, a deep new Aum Fidelity effort from Farmers by Nature, Cleaver and Taborn's trio with William Parker.) I caught a nice live set by this band at Cornelia Street Café a few months back; hope Cleaver takes Uncle June to the stage again soon.

Eric Harland Voyager, Live by Night
This one originally came out last year, but apparently Sunnyside is reissuing it in July. The disc showed up in the mail a few days ago and it instantly caught my ear: fiery, chops-forward postbop (in the second-great-Miles-quintet vein) with a great sense of pacing (check out the solo "intermezzos" from pianist Taylor Eigsti). Lots of swagger here and a whiff of hotshot fusion, via Julian Lage's guitarwork. Hadn't heard too much of Harland before (I remember seeing him with Don Byron's Ivey-Divey trio a few years back, subbing for Billy Hart, who in turn subbed for him during the second half of the set), but he's been front and center this year, via this record and the cool James Farm collective. Wish I could've caught that latter group live this past weekend.

Ari Hoenig Lines of Oppression (Naive)
Speaking of hotshot fusion… I saw this band live at Smalls this past Monday and was floored, as I have been by Hoenig & Co. in the past. You should go hear them (Hoenig, bassist Orlando Le Flemming and guitarist Gilad Hekselman, with one of several pianists—the other night it was the marvelous Shai Maestro) in the flesh, but this record gives you a good taste. This band plays tricky, unapologetically flashy daredevil jazz that brims over with the joy of challenge. (I think of my math-rock survey, and the idea of the obstacle course.) Each player always goosing the other. This isn't really about subtlety as much as high-wire interactivity, and I can see it turning some people off, but for me it feels like watching great college basketball or something—a constant rush. Very catchy tunes too, most of them Hoenig originals. Check out some samples at Amazon ("Arrows and Loops" will not leave my brain) and a recent live set via Soundcheck.

Honey Ear Trio Steampunk Serenade
Another one that blindsided me. Had heard of drummer Allison Miller before, but had not checked out much of her work. Saxist Erik Lawrence and bassist Rene Hart were totally new to me, though. This cooperative trio plays like a dream, subcategories be damned. Something about the way they operate reminds me of Old and New Dreams, not that there's anything Ornette-ish about the music, but I get a sense of free-jazz-informed players working in a kind of autumnal mode, embracing that tradition as well as meat-and-potatoes swing and soul, all at once. They groove when they want (hinting at reggae, electronica, rock), fray at the seams when they want, always exuding a loose, gracious vibe. I get a strong Dewey Redman sensation from Lawrence (apparently a longtime sideman type dude who works with Levon Helm, among others)—tender yet never too far from a grizzly-bear outburst. I can't imagine a debut record sounding more assured than this. Stream here. (Let me say that it's great to see jazz artists embracing the excellent Bandcamp platform—it's the best way to go.)

Branford Marsalis and Joey Calderazzo Songs of Mirth and Melancholy (Marsalis Music)
Darius Jones and Matthew Shipp released a killer classical-inflected duo disc, Cosmic Lieder, earlier this year, and they sounded even better live. But this sax/piano session, on which the classical element is an even bigger factor, is the one I can't stop playing. I'm not an expert on Branford's music (I will say that I've been digging Crazy People Music majorly of late), but I have some sense that it's the norm for him to be preoccupied with classical repertoire/vibe (see the Branford piece in Ben Ratliff's The Jazz Ear). This CD takes that and runs with it: There is a Brahms piece here, but moreover, the whole thing is dripping with stately elegance, way more reminiscent of chamber music than jazz. The poise and lyricism heard on pieces like "The Bard Lachrymose" and "Endymion" really gets me—it's pretty, yes, but it's something way more than that: almost prayerful. Simply put, I know of no other record that sounds like this. For me, it's one of the biggest surprises of 2011. Some samples here.

Jerome Sabbagh/Ben Monder/Daniel Humair I Will Follow You (Bee Jazz)
As with the Harland, this is another one whose release date is a bit vague. Apparently, it originally came out in 2010, but I definitely didn't receive it last year, and moreover, I remember a CD-release party (with Paul Motian in for Humair) going down only a month or so ago. (Speaking of, did anyone catch that show? I was dying to see it, but couldn't get there.) Anyway, a lot of what's here is free jazz. It isn't Free Jazz, however; it's lunar-landscape free jazz, WTF free jazz, free jazz that isn't afraid to get weird, without getting dense or loud or heated, or signifying "freedom" in any of the obvious ways. Ben Monder is a good person to have in your band if you want to go down this road (see Bloom, with Bill McHenry). So is Humair, a veteran French drummer who I only remember hearing alongside Steve Lacy, not to mention Sabbagh, a beautifully supple tenor player who often works in a boppier mode. If you like your improvisation textural and hear-a-pin-drop sensitive, with no conventions taken for granted—along those lines, the Frisell/Motian/Lovano trio isn't a bad reference point, though this might even venture deeper into innerspace—you will love this CD. Check out samples here.

Wadada Leo Smith's Organic Heart's Reflections
Speaking of the unfinished business mentioned above, I can't wait to get back to this one. This release is a monster: two robust CDs' worth of new music for a 14-piece band. Wadada has been on a serious roll in recent years; Tabligh from 2008 was a particular favorite. Heart's Reflections really ups the ante, though, re: its treatment of Wadada's patented current mode of marrying the funky and the meditative. In terms of those respective poles, two supporting players nearly steal the show: Drummer Pheeroan akLaff (sounding downright nasty) and keyboardist Angelica Sanchez (grabbing me even more here than she did on her recent solo album, A Little House). There's definitely some electric Miles here, as is often the case with Wadada, but he's busted into a whole new realm with this wide-spectrum project. Gorgeously recorded and every bit as essential as Tabligh or other great later-period Wadada efforts such as the self-titled Golden Quartet debut and the Jack DeJohnette duo America (both on Tzadik). Destination: Out has a preview; Amazon has samples of each track.

Craig Taborn Avenging Angel
It's probably best that I saved this for last, and maybe even that I didn't have access to it before I interviewed Mr. Taborn on the topic of metal a few months back. Simply put, this album is spellbinding and mystifying. Maybe it's that I just don't know the reference points that would unlock it, but I've noticed other reviewers regarding it with a kind of perplexed awe (check out Ratliff's take). By way of an illustration, here's a bit of my TONY preview: "At their best, these performances function like environments: Listening to 'This Voice Says So,' which builds gradually from an ethereal three-note theme, feels like stepping out of a spaceship onto an ice planet—vast and iridescent, but with a lurking malevolence. 'Glossolalia' takes elegant ascending lines and scrambles them into the sonic equivalent of Web-browser error code." What I'm trying to express is that you can't access this record via genre (jazz, classical, whatever); for me, it only made sense when I dropped the frameworks and just listened, when I let the sound pictures happen. I've spun it countless times, and it has retained an unknowable quality, as well as a powerful intrigue—the most I could really ask of a record. You really should hear it. Add Taborn's solo show at the Rubin last week to the list of gigs I was very bummed not to be able to attend. I read a few dropped-jaw accolades (Macnie, Panken), but I'm yearning for a fuller description. Anyone?


Five honorable mentions: Sir Roland Hanna Colors from a Giant's Kit (was planning on including this in the above, but it slipped my mind—you need this record; beyond masterful/gorgeous solo piano, again with a strong classical flavor); Matana Roberts Coin Coin Chapter One: Gens De Couleur Libres (some thoughts via TONY); Shane Endsley and the Music Band Then the Other (playful yet state-of-the-art 21st-century quartet jazz; Taborn also in great form here); Matthew Shipp Art of the Improviser (heavy-duty two-disc set, one trio and one solo); Tin/Bag Bridges (haven't spent good time with this trumpet/guitar duo set, but I love what I've heard; check it out on Bandcamp).

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