Redwood Jazz Alliance

Top Picks for 2011

We're once again keeping our mixed feelings about year-end lists to ourselves. (We stand with New Yorker music writer Alex Ross, who figures that whatever their shortcomings, lists like these are "one more way to salute good work." You want hand-wringing and misgivings? See the preceding years...)

Our annual boilerplate: There are six of us on the RJA board, and we all have fairly eclectic, but not identical, tastes.  What follows is a sort of collective stock-taking of the discs released between November 1, 2010 and October 30, 2011 that at least some of us managed to listen to. (Some fantastic albums--like Trio M's The Guest House, for example, have dropped since then. We'll catch them next year.) The science: We put all of the contenders into a spreadsheet and each of us rated what we’d heard, on a five-point scale.  Then we weighted each disc’s average rating for total number of votes (i.e., the score for a disc with a greater number of ratings "weighed" more than one with a lesser number).  And that gave us our rankings.  We think all ten are equally worthy of repeated listening.  And so are the other seventy-five or so that didn’t make the final cut, not to speak of the who-knows-how-many great discs that none of us got to.  Anyway, here’s how it all shook out.

Steven Lugerner Septet, Narratives1. Steven Lugerner Septet, Narratives (self-released). The other half of the double-album debut by this talented young multi-reedist, These Are the Words, features some stellar sidemen (Darren Johnston, Myra Melford, Matt Wilson) playing knotty compositions that draw from the Torah.  We like this half even better.  With his working septet of Brooklyn-based up-and-comers, Lugerner weaves a tapestry of deep introspection and soaring lyricism.  An outstanding arrival.

Donny McCaslin, Perpetual Motion2. Donny McCaslin, Perpetual Motion (Greenleaf Music).  The tenor saxophonist and Friend of the RJA combines monster chops and a sophisticated compositional sense with his childhood love for the funk rhythms of Tower of Power. The result: music to move your head and your booty.
Buy from Greenleaf MusicGREENLEAF MUSIC
Allison Miller, Boom Tic Boom3. Ambrose Akinmusire, When the Heart Emerges Glistening (Blue Note). What you see is what you get: the album cover tells you this is fiery music from the heart. In April, Akinmusire rode a wave of hot reviews (and a big-time Blue Note contract) into town as the RJA's end-of-season offering.  Mix classic trumpet form with postmodern improvisational musing and voila! 2011's brightest young star.
Buy from Blue Note
Ben Allison, Action-Refraction4. Ben Allison, Action-Refraction (Palmetto). On his tenth album, the bassist-composer covers other people's tunes: Monk gets a cinematic makeover; Samuel Barber electronically deconstructs; Tom Waits fights Ann & Nancy Wilson for PJ Harvey.  Donny Hathaway's "Some Day We'll All Be Free" becomes a dreamy, stripped-down ballad, while a propulsive, odd-metered "We've Only Just Begun" renders the Carpenters sublime.  Jason Lindner's synths add atmosphere and texture, but Michael Blake's tenor sax—breathy or wheezy, as appropriate—is this album's soul.
Buy from Palmetto RecordsPALMETTO RECORDS
Rene Marie, Black Lace Freudian Slip5. Rene Marie, Black Lace Freudian Slip (Motéma Music). This terrific vocalist from Denver might have made our top ten with her earlier 2011 disc, Voice of My Beautiful Country, which featured personal reinterpretations of patriotic songs.  (Like Camus, Marie said, she "should like to be able to love my country and still love justice.") But then, in October, she gave us this sparkling set of thirteen originals.  The performances are intimate, shimmering, sly, tough and tender, with plenty of space for improvising from her excellent trio. In other words: some of the finest jazz artistry we heard this year.
Buy from Palmetto RecordsMOTEMA MUSIC
Verneri Pohjola, Aurora6. Verneri Pohjola, Aurora (ACT Music).  The new face of Finnish jazz arrives in the US with a heady mash of modern styles: Euro-pop high schmaltz; two or three kinds of Nordic strangeness (Stanko growling wail, Arve Henriksen flute-like breathiness, Edward Vesala desolation); fulsome string chamber jazz; stripped-down dubbish doodling; and even some in-your-face, straight-ahead blowing. Originally released in Finland in 2009, the album was picked up this year by Vijay Iyer's label, ACT, who gave it woldwide distribution. Look for something brand-new in early 2012.
ACT Musik
Arturo O'Farrill, 40 Acres and a Burro7. Arturo O'Farrill & the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra, 40 Acres and a Burro (Zoho Music). Although O’Farrill’s name is often linked with his father Chico, the great Cuban pianist and bandleader, O’Farrill fils has cut his own bright path, especially in the past decade.  Now, for this brilliant big band recording, he has created perhaps his finest music thus far. This is not just a Cuban band; it’s a band with music drawn from several “Latin” sources, and original compositions that are both blistering and moving. Once upon a time, jazz was music to dance to, and this fine CD keeps that tradition alive.
Buy from Palmetto RecordsZOHO MUSIC
Tunnel Six, Lake Superior8. Tunnel Six, Lake Superior (OA2). Six guys, mainly from Eastern Canada and the Pacific Northwest, met—and gelled—at the renowned Banff Jazz Workshop in 2009.  They formed a band (trumpet/sax/guitar, piano/bass/drums); they travelled across the continent.  And when they came off the road they made an album full of melodious, energetic, sometimes intricate compositions, tunes with appealing hooks and a tinge of Americana (Canadiana?), expansive in a way that evokes the wide-open spaces and the open road.  And the best thing?  This is a band that sounds like a band: nobody showboats, everybody listens.
Adam Cruz, Milestons9. Adam Cruz, Milestone (Sunnyside).  Culminating ten years of composing and twenty years as a first-call sideman, drummer Adam Cruz’s debut as a leader was well worth the wait. His fresh forms, his avowed "fascination with harmony and melody," and his unique melding of influences ("I’m Latino, I’m Jewish, Italian, black and white," he says) stand out in this thematically rich collection, crafted by a truly exceptional septet: saxophonists Miguel Zenón, Steve Wilson, and Chris Potter; guitarist Steve Cardenas; pianist Edward Simon; and bassist Ben Street.
David Binney, Graylen Epicenter10. David Binney, Graylen Epicenter (Mythology).  Binney has pursued his singular vision of what jazz can be for two decades. Graylen Epicenter feels like a culmination--or at least it will until he releases his next album. Unusual instrumentation (two drummers), unusual textures (Gretchen Parlato's wordless vocals; Binney's own short, repeated vocal phrases) and unusual structures (what other saxophonist has made the first improvised statement on his album a drum duet?) all contribute to the unique vibe of the record, but never at the expense of Binney's musical concept, which combines intricate compositions with strong blowing from the leader on alto sax--and from such stalwarts of today's scene as tenor saxophonist Chris Potter and trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire.

And here's another dozen honorable mentions:

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