Monday, December 19, 2011

Best of 2011, part I: Jazz

Since I didn't annotate the 2011 top 10 I submitted to the Jazz Journalists Association (and Francis Davis's annual Jazz Critics Poll), I thought I'd provide some commentary here. For each entry, I've either linked to a purchase page or embedded a streaming player that allows you to click through and buy MP3s. Thank you to the publicists and musicians who have submitted music to me this year; I've done my best to keep tabs on it all, and as usual, I've had a blast.

1.Branford Marsalis/Joey Calderazzo Songs of Mirth and Melancholy (Marsalis Music)

As you can see from my 2011 jazz halftime report, published back in June, this one grabbed me early on. Now that the year is winding down, I'm happy to report that it didn't let go. There's no embeddable stream of this record, but I implore you to sample it here, especially the tracks "Endymion," "Face on the Barroom Floor" and "La Valse Kendall." When mentioning my interest in this album to friends, I've received a few raised eyebrows, which pains me. As I discuss in a Time Out NY preview of Marsalis January 9, 2012 "A Duo of Duos" gig at Jazz at Lincoln Center (during which he'll perform with both Calderazzo and Harry Connick, Jr., the latter of whom won't be singing), Marsalis's celebrity still overshadows his art. It's a trite point at this stage, but the prejudices persist: He's the saxophone player your mom likes.

And I'm not trying to say that moms wouldn't love Songs of Mirth and Melancholy. But what I am trying to say is that this is an extremely deep record. There's so much grace and poetry to this session. I don't know enough about the connections between jazz and chamber music (or chamber music itself) to know how unprecedented Songs is, but I can't think of another jazz recording I've heard that mixes raw beauty and virtuosic refinement the way this album does. I like Marsalis's quartet with Calderazzo just fine, but in the end, it is an updating of a known quantity (post-Coltrane small-group jazz); this, on the other hand, feels like new terrain to me, or at least extremely underexplored terrain. Again, if you're a Branford skeptic, please spend some time with this album and let me know what you think. I can't imagine you won't be at least a little surprised and impressed with what you hear.

Three quick notes:

A) Strangely, the opening track on here, "One Way," a whimsical, rompy, bluesy type piece, does very little for me; if it weren't for this quibble, Songs might have beat out Anthrax for the No. 2 spot on my TONY all-genres-in-play top 10 list.

B) Purchasing this record digitally from Amazon is a good idea, because you get a meaty 16-plus-minute bonus track, "Eternal."

C) The Marsalis Music YouTube channel is streaming a series of making-of vids.

2. Gerald Cleaver's Uncle June Be It as I See It (Fresh Sound New Talent)

Again, I kept coming back to this record. There's a tenderness and a lushness to Clever's writing that I just adore.—at times, the colors and emotions remind me of Andrew Hill's big-band classic, A Beautiful Day. I've always enjoyed Cleaver's drumming, but after spending time with this record, I'm most excited by him as a bandleader. (As I witnessed a little over a week ago, there's more where this came from!) He's writing rich, painterly music and putting it before improvisational geniuses like Craig Taborn. Don't miss this one. Here's one of my favorite tracks:

I should note here that as with the Marsalis disc, the opening track of Be It as I See It, the noisy, backbeat-driven stomp "To Love," doesn't grab me. I like the contrast between this and the more delicate material that makes up the bulk of the session, but I found myself wanting to skip it on repeated listens (and believe me, there were many).

3. New Zion Trio Fight Against Babylon (Veal)

This one came out of nowhere and knocked me on my ass. The idea—a jazz/reggae hybrid—did not entice, and I'd never quite clicked with the work of bandleader Jamie Saft before. I never imagined that this record could be so patient or mysterious. As I indicated in my TONY top 10, there's a methodical languidness here that could slow your metabolism. Listening to this album, and I recommend playing it in its entirety while driving or cooking or engaging in some other focused activity, is like going swimming in a murky ocean filled with jellyfish, both gorgeously iridescent and subtly menacing. It's such a trip to hear jazz bass pro Larry Grenadier get all trancey on the riffs, and drummer Craig Santiago blows me away with his taste and precision. As for Saft, all I can say is that this record is an absolute piano feast. He isn't playing jazz and he isn't playing reggae; this one is closer to classical music, but really he's just playing wide-open music, flowing in the moment. The track below isn't my favorite from the record, but it's the only one streaming on Bandcamp. Go to the Veal site to order MP3s or a CD.

4. Ben Allison Action-Refraction (Palmetto)

I've largely slept on Ben Allison's work in the past; even though this one is a covers record, I can still say that it's converted me into a bona fide fan. Before hearing this, I wasn't familiar with any of the songs (aside from a Monk piece) that Allison and his band interpret here (including works by Donny Hathaway, Samuel Barber and PJ Harvey), but that turned out to matter very little. The band really savors these melodies, delivers them on silver platters, tweaking them a bit but never engaging in any sort of pat "deconstruction" or irreverence.

If there's a twist here, it's in the fascinating make-up of the band, which includes Jason Lindner on both piano and sci-fi synths, the wonderfully fluid guitarist Steve Cardenas (and on two tracks the noise-courting daredevil Brandon Seabrook), the grittily passionate reedist Michael Blake (a player I'd heard of for years without really checking out) and the alternately sensitive and pummeling drummer Rudy Royston (whom I knew from JD Allen's fine trio). The players really draw you into these songs, especially the Hathaway ("Someday We'll All Be Free"), which is like this swelling vortex of melody. Covers records are always in danger of feeling gimmicky, superfluous or just plain boring. This one holds my attention straight through, though, and keeps me coming back. It's a motley assemblage of pieces turned into something cohesive by the magic of meticulous arrangement and smart curation. Plus, the textures (keyboards, guitars, etc.) feel contemporary without giving you that pesky sense of jazz musicians trying too hard to convey that they're down with rock. You can stream (and buy!) the record via this handy embed:

5. Honey Ear Trio Steampunk Serenade (Foxhaven)

Like the New Zion disc, this one hit me pretty much out of nowhere. I'd heard a bit of drummer Allison Miller's work, but saxist Erik Lawrence and bassist Rene Hart were new names to me. This is a really special saxophone trio, brimming with guts and tension, but also with a love for the songfulness of jazz. The level of ambition isn't the same, but part of me wants to compare this to something like Henry Threadgill's Air—a more accessible version, let's say. But there's a similar drive to create a true group sound, to make variety a priority, to mingle the harsh with the pretty. As with the Allison, there's a contemporary sheen to this one, expressed via Hart's electronic effects and Miller's scrap-metal-style percussion, but again, it feels honest and ungimmicky. Overall, this album is just a very strong statement of purpose; Honey Ear Trio clearly wants to be a proper band, not just a steadily gigging saxophone trio. They're taking in rock, reggae, maybe a little electronica, freebop, Aylerish catharsis, Paul Motian Trio openness and producing something diverse but not scattershot. As with the aforementioned JD Allen Trio, there's also a welcome drive to make this music work on record—not just to play, but to edit, to make each track feel like a concise song rather than a meandering jam. I'm excited to hear more from this band. Here's a track:

6. Jeremy Udden's Plainville If the Past Seems So Bright (Sunnyside)

There seems to be a movement brewing of pastoral, song- and melody-driven jazz. Some of the tracks on the Allison get at that vibe, and in a TONY preview on saxist Jeremy Udden's Americana-infused Plainville band, I also cited projects by bassists Eivind Opsvik and Chris Lightcap. (Another group in this vein that intrigues me is Bryan and the Aardvarks.) For me, If the Past Seems So Bright crystallized this whole trend; in its own unassuming way, it seemed like a definitive statement. Some of the rockier, brasher material on here (the very Neil Young–ish "Leland") didn't gel for me, but when this band is speaking in its own voice, such as on the stunning opening track "Sad Eyes," I find it absolutely mesmerizing. As on the Allison record, Plainville is singing songs without words, in which the improvisational accents humbly serve the melody. The dreamy, rootsy prayers on here can really cut into you; again, we're talking about ungimmicky fusion, where the material and not the stylistic conventions are calling the shots. Here's "Sad Eyes" (though I'm having a hard time not embedding "Thomas," which gets me every time):

7. Bill McHenry Ghosts of the Sun (Sunnyside)

I'd be lying if I said I wasn't a tad disappointed by the fact that the first new Bill McHenry–led small-group album in four years (he has put out other records in the interim, including joint ventures with Ben Monder and John McNeil) was a collection of outtakes, pieces recorded during the same sessions that produced 2007's Roses. But after spending good time with this one, I realized that it would be pointless to resist its charms; Roses was such an enchanting record, and this is more of the same. The band is a dream: Monder, bassist Reid Anderson, and yes, the dearly departed Paul Motian. Crazily, the album came out one day before Motian's death. No one record could serve as a Motian epitaph, but there was a mystery and wonder about Ghosts that made it feel like a worthy final statement, a perfect summation of how he'd passed his strange, flickering, mirage-like torch to a younger generation. McHenry clearly got what Motian was about (and vice versa) just about as well as anybody, and this record's curious mixture of haunting beauty ("Ms. Polley") and insidious chaos ("William III") seemed as indicative of the drummer's aesthetic values as of the leader's. The track I haven't been able to get out of my head is "La Fuerza" (since I myself had to look this up, I might as well share that it means "power" or "might"):

8. Craig Taborn Avenging Angel (ECM)

Speaking of mystery… This is most definitely a major statement from a complicated, hard-to-pin-down artist, and that's likely what you're seeing it pop up on so many top 10 lists. (Steve Smith, Nate Chinen, Ben Ratliff and Seth Colter Walls all included it in their all-genres-in-play round-ups, and it topped David Adler's jazz list) I spent a ton of time with this album, both in the immediate wake of my Heavy Metal Bebop interview with Taborn, and beyond. At times, Avenging Angel seemed so daunting—like you would've have to intimately know every significant piano statement of the last several hundred years, and a lot more than that, to truly grasp it—that it exhausted me. And admittedly, there is a ton here to digest, but there's also an almost sacred kind of beauty here—lonely and remote. I'll defer to my TONY preview from June, in which I likened one track ("This Voice Says So") to "stepping out of a spaceship onto an ice planet." You always feel like you're grasping for another metaphor here, because the music is so vast-seeming, almost inhumanly patient and genre-impervious. Virtuosic, sure, but that's almost beside the point; Avenging Angel seems to go beyond mere virtuosity into some kind of alien realm of higher intelligence. It's not a record you'll pull out every day, or even every year, but you can't deny that it's some kind of awesome benchmark. No stream for this one, but you can hear some tracks at the ECM site.

9. Wadada Leo Smith's Organic Heart's Reflections (Cuneiform)

Another mammoth statement, though more in sheer length than in daunting-ness. As I've learned over the past few years, Leo Smith is by far the most accessible of the AACM giants, and maybe the most sheerly pleasurable. I loved the 2008 Golden Quartet disc, Tabligh, but this might be my favorite Wadada album yet, a sprawling set of avant-leaning funk, with an emphasis on the funk. I have never heard drummer Pheeroan akLaff drop such fat, greasy beats as he does here; right from the start of this two-disc behemoth, he's sliding and swaggering. Smith's electric work in this vein will always be indebted to Miles, but the vibrancy and clarity of the textures he conjures in his large-ensemble work are absolutely his own. This record is just swimming in swirls of guitar, keyboard, brass; it's a blissed-out soup of color. And it's got a real flow to it; balancing the backbeat passages are these rubato ruminations, free-floating texture pieces that show off the chamber-style improv know-how of players like keyboardist Angelica Sanchez and bassist John Lindberg. This is definitely one of those "Play it for a friend who's wary of avant-garde jazz" records. There's a lot of adventure here, but little abrasiveness; Wadada has been on a real roll lately (abetted by the stalwart Cuneiform label), and what he seems to be aiming for is the kind of experimentalism where you can shed the facade of stone-faced imposing-ness and just get down to feeling, moving, emoting. Your samples are at Amazon.

10. TIN/BAG Bridges (MabnotesMusic)

Like New Zion and Honey Ear, another very pleasant 2011 jazz surprise. I had heard the two members of TIN/BAG before (trumpeter Kris Tiner in Empty Cage Quartet, and guitarist Mike Baggetta at the head of his own bands), and I may have even sampled a bit of this duo in the past. But it was instantly clear to me that this one was going to make a stronger impression than anything I'd heard previously. As with Honey Ear Trio, TIN/BAG is taking pains to speak in its own language, and the tongue they've honed is a very subtle and distinctive one. You've only got trumpet and guitar here, and there's very little effort made to fill up the empty spaces. This is intimate music, more cozy than lonely—much more modest in scope than, say, the Marsalis/Calderazzo. The two play together beautiful, with Tiner's pillowy lines dancing over Baggetta's plush, chiming notes. Their work is almost unfailingly beautiful, but it's not merely polite; there's a sense of real daring to the project—stripping all distractions away and making the most of what's left. (There are references to yoga in the liner notes, which makes perfect sense when you hear the record.) There are no drums here, of course, but in a way, you could view this band as a descendant of the Frisell/Motian/Lovano trio. There's a similar willingness to step out into the abyss, with only the warm, beating heart of song to guide you. The quietude of Bridges can really pull you in if you let it. Hear for yourself:


In the interest of concision, and so as not to dilute the list of truly standout releases above, I'll name just four honorable mentions:

Jerome Sabbagh with Ben Monder and Daniel Humair I Will Follow You (Bee Jazz)

Some very focused and engaging freeform trioism. Some prior thoughts in the 2011 halftime report. (Interestingly, Paul Motian subbed for Humair at the NYC release party for this album in April, and subsequently hired Sabbagh and Monder for a week at the Vanguard in September; I'm kicking myself that I didn't make it out to hear them.) Stream it here.

Matana Roberts Coin Coin Chapter One: Gens de Couleur Libres (Constellation)

A deeply ambitious and at times straight-up harrowing statement. I've been following the Coin Coin project since around 2006, when I profiled Roberts for TONY (sadly, I can't locate the piece in the online archives at the moment), and I'm glad to see it finally starting to get a proper documentation. From Ellington to Roach to Mingus to the Sharrocks—Roberts is taking it all in. Stream it here.

Ellery Eskelin Trio New York (Prime Source)

Harris Eisenstadt September Trio (Clean Feed)

Two featuring the saxist Ellery Eskelin, a perpetual sleeper fave of mine, whom I never feel like I've investigated fully enough. I'm happy with my TONY preview of Trio New York, in which I contrasted this new group—featuring organist Gary Versace and none other than Gerald Cleaver on drums—with Eskelin's previous signature trio, the Andrea Parkins/Jim Black band. Hear some samples here.

Eisenstadt, who topped my 2008 jazz top 10 with Guewel and ranked again in 2010 with Woodblock Prints, made another strong showing with a disc featuring Eskelin and Angelica Sanchez (who might be the MVP of Wadada's aforementioned Heart's Reflections). As usual with Eisenstadt, you're getting something abstracted yet focused, something beauty-forward, settings that confer deep respect for his bandmates. I'm looking forward to spending more time with this one, and I hope the project continues. Hear samples at Amazon.


I listed just two reissues: the landmark Miles Bootleg Series set, which I reviewed for Pitchfork, and the exemplary International Phonograph, Inc., edition of Julius Hemphill's fun, raw, expansive, eclectic opus Dogon A.D.


And finally, here's my chronological list of best 2011 live shows (as with the list of recordings above, only jazz was in play), outfitted with links to coverage.

J.D. Allen's VisionFugitive, conducted by Butch Morris at Le Poisson Rouge
(Winter Jazzfest) - January 7
(feat. Gregg August, Rudy Royston)

Dan Weiss Trio at Cornelia Street Café - January 10
(Thomas Morgan, Jacob Sacks)

Wayne Shorter Quartet at the Town Hall - February 9
(Danilo Pérez, John Patitucci, Brian Blade)

Wynton Marsalis Quintet/Septet at Frederick P. Rose Hall - March 31
(Quintet: Walter Blanding Jr., Dan Nimmer, Carlos Henriquez, Ali Jackson; Septet: Victor Goines, Wessell Anderson, Vincent Gardner, Marcus Roberts, Reginald Veal, Herlin Riley)

The Bad Plus with Joshua Redman at the Blue Note - April 21

Matthew Shipp/Darius Jones at Jazz Standard - April 27

Ari Hoenig Group at Smalls - June 20
(Gilad Hekselman, Shai Maestro, Orlando Le Fleming)

Tarbaby with Oliver Lake at Le Poisson Rouge (Undead Jazzfest) - June 23

Bill McHenry Quartet at Village Vanguard - November 11
(Orrin Evans, Eric Revis, Andrew Cyrille)

Gerald Cleaver's Black Host at Cornelia Street Café - December 10
(Darius Jones, Cooper-Moore, Brandon Seabrook, Pascal Niggenkemper)

1 comment:

Jason Crane | said...

Great list, Hank.

For Hank's readers, here are interviews with many of the musicians mentioned above about the albums Hank likes:

Gerald Cleaver

Jamie Saft (New Zion Trio)

Ben Allison

Wadada Leo Smith

Mike Baggetta (TIN/BAG)

Jerome Sabbagh

Matana Roberts

Matt Shipp & Darius Jones