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We polled contributors Albert Brooks, J Hunter, Rudy Lu, Brian Patneaude, Tom Pierce, Andrzej Pilarczyk, Randy Treece and Jeff Waggoner on their favorite jazz releases of 2011 ...

photography, concert reviews

1. Steve Coleman - The Mancy of Sound (Pi)
Steve Coleman and Five Elements' The Mancy of Sound is my choice as the best cd of the year! It serves up such a rich melange of folkloric, rhythmic, spiritual and creative elements that each listening brings new discovery and fresh joy. Admittedly, it may not be for the faint of heart who prefer their musical treats presented in easy, familiar cloth but rather the more seasoned and intrepid jazz fan who appreciates his or her traditional musical art framed in new meaningful, substantive fashion.

2. Eric Alexander - Don't Follow the Crowd (Highnote)
Eric Alexander in all his prolific workmanship never fails to layer his masterful creative output in a cushion of tasteful choices. On Don't Follow the Crowd, in typical fashion he demonstrates his chops to spare with passionate, soulful playing. I particularly like this cd for its interesting mix of selections, ranging from MJ's "She's Out of My Life" to "Charade" to "Cavatina" (from the Deerhunter), serving as launching pads for the improvisatory musical trips bestowed by Alexander and his cohort: Harold Mabern, Nat Reeves and Joe Farnsworth. Eric Alexander is a modern day heavy duty throwback to the greats of yesteryear, but in no way derivative. As some wise sage has said: "be your own best friend" and get Don't Follow the Crowd.

3. Gerald Wilson - Legacy (Mack Avenue)
Gerald Wilson's Legacy should be held up as the template for all who would aspire to craft big band jazz of both immediacy and enduring quality. This cd has it all: exciting compositions, entrancing arrangements, rich harmonic substance, dynamic excitement, virtuosic ensemble and solo playing, and s-s-swing! This man at 92 is a global (if not galactic) treasure and Legacy is a must have cd.

4. Terrell Stafford - This Side of Strayhorn (MaxJazz)
Terrell Stafford, in company with Tim Warfield, Bruce Barth, Peter Washington and Dana Hall, adds a sublime burnish to some gems from the scintillating Strayhorn songbook on This Side of Strayhorn. "Smada", "Little Brown Book" and "Lana Turner" are some of the classic and lesser known jewels that Stafford and crew spin into new magic on this cd. Another very strong showing from the Terrell Stafford/Tim Warfield combine, one of my all-time favorite trumpet/saxophone front lines.

5. Sachal Vasandani - Hi-Fly (Mack Avenue)
While I love a great vocal as well as the next person, it is not common for me to include a vocalist's cd in my annual top five given the always strong contingent of instrumental offerings from which to choose. However, Sachal Vasandani can flat-out chirp and, candidly, his Hi-Fly just bogarded its way in at number 5. Armed with a strong repertoire of songs, an enviable coterie of sidemen and Jon Hendricks to boot in duet on two of the songs (a hilarious "One Mint Julep" and a scat-laden "Hi-Fly"), Sachal brings it with no holds barred crooning for real. Folks, if your significant other puts this cd on, watch out!

Honorable mention:
Nicole Mitchell - Awakening (Delmark)
Maraca & His Latin Jazz All Stars - Reencuentros
(Descarga Sarl)
Sammy Figueroa & His Latin Jazz Explosion - Urban Nature
Arturo O'Farrill & The Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra - 40 Acres and a Burro (Zoho)

CD & concert reviews

1. Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey - Race Riot Suite (Royal Potato Family)
This one isn't easy or painless, but it is utterly magnificent. Inspired by the Greenwood, OK riots of 1921, Tulsa's gift to modern-day fusion sheds blinding light on some home-state history that was buried about a minute after it happened. A superstar horn section featuring Sex Mob founder Steve Bernstein and super-bad multi-instrumentalist Jeff Coffin starts out setting the scene Jazz Age style, but soon they become both hammer and anvil, voicing the terror and rage of the dead and the living. JFJO can finally be categorized: They're musical historians! Hear the disc, and then go read the history, and wonder how events this horrific could simply be "disappeared."

2. Delfeayo Marsalis - Sweet Thunder (Troubadour Jass)
Hardcore, dyed-in-the-wool jazz purists may wax apoplectic at the impertinence of Marsalis' attempt to re-sculpt one of Duke Ellington's late-career suites, and you know what? Those folks need to hit the after-Christmas sales and buy themselves a life. Thunder swaggers in like the fastest gun in the West, packing a high-caliber octet featuring Mulgrew Miller, Tiger Okoshi, Mark Shim, and Marsalis' brothers Branford and Jason. (No Wynton, though. Quelle surprise! ) This is one of the best trad-jazz recordings of the last ten years, as well as a stirring tribute to Ellington (and the suite's muse, William Shakespeare), and the hardcore can just suck it up and deal.

3. Marcus Strickland - Triumph of the Heavy (Strick Muzik)
For those fans of the box-imploding sax-trio jazz Strickland has been laying down with drummer/brother E.J. Strickland and bassist Ben Williams, you literally get two for the price of one here. Disc 2 has the trio setting New Haven on fire with a mammoth live set, some of which comes off their ground-shaking previous disc Idiosyncrasies. But then the band takes a chance on Disc One by adding pianist David Bryant into the mix. Rather than spoil the band's immaculate chemistry, Bryant allows all three players to find new & different ways to blow our minds. The music is still stripped down, but the detail work is phenomenal. Triumph is an epic effort that categorically proves Marcus Strickland refuses to stand still.

4. Rudresh Mananthappa - Samdhi (ACT)
If you survived Apex' volcanic Jazz at the Lake performance, then you know what kind of musical nirvana altoist Mahanthappa can achieve. Now imagine that mashup of Eastern and Western musical aesthetics and pumping them through an electric matrix. We're talking Weather Report to the power of ten! The muscular foundation is reminiscent of Mahanthappa's brilliant discs Kinsmen and Apti. But Samdhi deletes the acoustic foils from those discs and rams in computer-driven effects and guitar-shredder David Gilmore. The effect is like being spun in a clothes dryer and then launched from a catapult. "Intense" doesn't cover it, and "amazing" isn't even a start!

5. Julian Lage Group - Gladwell (eMarcy)
To paraphrase a Pink Floyd album title, Gladwell is a saucerful of styles -- jazz, folk, bluegrass, Latin, and even classical music. Add sound effects and not-so-subliminal tape loops, and you have a wonderfully nuanced portrait of an imaginary town that everyone will recognize when they "see" it through the ornate compositions of this singular group. From the hustle and bustle of the train station to the beauty (and loneliness) of the church, Lage's concept is made wondrous flesh as this unique guitarist makes us part of a travelogue we'd never have seen if he hadn't thought it up first.

Honorable mention:
Pilc Moutin Hoenig - Threedom (Motema)
James Farm - James Farm: Joshua Redman, Aaron Parks, Matt Penman, Eric Harland (Nonesuch)
SFJAZZ Collective - Music of Stevie Wonder and New Compositions (SFJAZZ)
3 Cohens -- Family (Anzic Records)
Bruce Barth Trio -- Live at Smalls (smallsLIVE)

Local Hero Award:
This was an absolute watershed year for local discs: Joe Barna & Sketches of Influence's Blowin' it Out was everything the recording dates at Bread & Jam hinted it would be; Together Again -- Lee Shaw's reunion with former student John Medeski -- was an absolute knockout; Michael Benedict & Bopitude followed their sizzling debut disc with a barn-burner set at Albany Riverfront Jazz Festival; and Sensemaya set themselves apart from any other Capital Region purveyors of Latin jazz with the Afro-Cuban party disc Havana Before Dawn. But at the end of the day, there was only one real choice:

Yuko Kishimoto - Songbook (PlanetArts)
So let me get this straight: Orly ("THE PRESIDENT'S A KENYAN SLEEPER AGENT!")Taitz gets to stick around, but Kishimoto had to get out of town by sundown? Must have been Opposite Day at INS again. Happily, the knife-sharp Japanese pianist/composer left us with a sterling disc of music we've been hearing Keith Pray's Big Soul Ensemble and Michael Benedict Jazz Vibes play over the last few years. Big-band tunes usually suffer when they're broken down for a small unit, but the transition is glass-smooth thanks to elegant performances by Kishimoto, saxman Lee Russo, bassist John Menegon and drummer Conor Meehan. Come back soon, Yuko! We all miss you!

photography, concert reviews

1. Miles Espanol (Entertainment One)
Bob Belden conceived and produced this 2 CD reworking of the Miles Davis/Gil Evans classic “Sketches of Spain”.  It is more than a tribute; it is a reworking of the music by exploring its roots in Spanish music.  Flamenco, Moorish and other influences are explored with interesting instrumentation and combinations of musicians. There were over 30 participants including jazz musicians Chick Corea, Eddie Gomez, John Scofield, Jack DeJohnette, Gonzalo Rubalcaba as well as world musicians Rabil Abou Kahlil (oud) and Cristina Pato (on Galician bagpipes!!!!).

2.Yuko Kishimoto - Songbook (Planet Arts)
This CD with its melodic music is in frequent rotation my IPod when I am on the road. Yuko’s debut CD was a bittersweet farewell at least for now to the Capital District.  As well as featuring Yuko’s underrated piano playing, there is Lee Russo’s tuneful sax, NYC based Conor Meehan’s rhythmic drums and John Menegon’s melodic imaginative bass playing. And did I mention, the compositions are soulful and melodic?

3. Deep Organ Trio - Wonderful (Origin)
Stevie Wonder’s music was the soundtrack of many baby boomers lives in the late 60s and the 70s.  A Hammond B3 organ trio reinterprets the music.  The music really swings!!! Thank to Bill McCann @ WCDB for turning me on to this one!!

4. Eric Harland - Voyager : Live by Night (Sunnyside US)
Eric Harland’s debut project as a leader was originally supposed to be released last year and was available only as an import and on Itunes. It was domestically released in June of this year. Compositions of total joy and ecstasy with an amazing band including Taylor Eigsti, Julian Lage, Walter Smith III and Harish Ragavan recorded in France in 2008.  The Capital District got a chance to see this band minus Smith at Skidmore in 2008 before this recording was made. The band also made an appearance in 2011 playing not only the music from this project but also new music featuring vocalist Becca Stevens.

5. Giacomo Gates - The Revolution Will Be Jazz -The Songs of Gil Scott-Heron (Savant)
What originally was recorded as a CD of celebrating the songs of singer poet Gil Scott-Heron inadvertently became a tribute album as Scott- Heron passed away in June and the CD was released in July. Giacomo makes these songs his own, using his baritone voice and vocalese style.  The social commentary and lyrics of the songs themselves are as relevant today as they were when they were first written and performed in the 70s.

Honorable Mention
Charles Lloyd/Maria Farantouri - Athens Concert
Recorded at the foot of the Acropolis; Charles Lloyd’s spiritual music and improvisations coupled with Greek compositions and vocals make for a transcendent spiritual listening experience.


1. Mathias Eick - Skala (ECM)
Best known for his work with the ten-piece Norwegian band Jaga Jazzist, the trumpeter's second solo album is a collection of melodic, pop-influenced instumental compositions. If this is what jazz sounds like in Norway, I'm moving.

2. Le Boeuf Brothers - In Praise of Shadows (Nineteen-Eight Records)
Twin brothers Remy (saxophone/clarinet) and Pascal (piano/keyboards) have created an incredible hybrid recording that features an acoustic quintet + string quartet paired with an added layer of post-production electronics.

3. Chris Tarry - Rest of the Story (Nineteen-Eight Records)
The latest collection of songs from the Canadian bassist and his working quintet was released as as a beautifully packaged book & CD set - complete with 100 pages of Tarry's original fiction - but the music easily stands on its own.

4. Magnus Öström - Thread of Life (ACT)
The drummer from the late Esbjorn Svenssen's trio has created the closest thing we'll ever get to a new EST album. If only his choice of cover art was as tasteful as the music.

5. Yellowjackets - Timeline (Mack Avenue)
Joyful, unpretentious contemporary jazz from a group that's been around for three decades.

Honorable mention:
James Farm - James Farm (Nonesuch)
An all-star quartet featuring saxophonist Joshua Redman, pianist Aaron Parks, bassist Matt Penman, and drummer Eric Harland.

CD & concert reviews

1. Etta Jones & Houston Person – The Way We Were (HighNote Records)
The 2011 release of this live date at the April 2000 Tri-C Jazz Festival in Cleveland was a wonderful surprise for Jones fans, given the absence of any other unreleased material since her 2001 demise.  The recording finds her very comfortable in this set of crowd-pleasing standards, ballads, & blues, as she was warmly supported by Person’s quartet (featuring Stan Hope on piano & Chip White on drums) that had worked with her for a quarter century. I was especially moved by her exuberant reading of “I Could Have Danced All Night” and a memorable version of her unforgettable signature song, “Don’t Go to Strangers”.

2. Vanguard Jazz Orchestra – Forever Lasting: Live in Tokyo (Planet Arts)
This title is enormously fitting, given the quantity, quality and longevity of this very special big band. The critical & popular demand that supported the cost of sending all these musicians and support personnel to Japan to perform six sets (55 songs) resulting in this impressive double CD, is a huge tribute to all the great instrumentalists, composers and arrangers that have been in this band since Thad Jones & Mel Lewis originated it in 1966. I found all 13 songs, whether composed by Thad Jones or one of the other 5 composers, to be formidable, exciting and most of all, swinging.

3. Freddy Cole – Talk to Me (HighNote Records)
This very warm and smoothly executed recording includes Cole’s long-time, regular touring quartet (himself on piano & vocals), Randy Napoleon on guitar, Elias Bailey on bass and Curtis Boyd on drums that excited the A Place For Jazz audience in Schenectady on Nov 11. But special added guests, Terell Stafford on trumpet, Harry Allen on saxophone, and pianist John DiMartino provide interestingly different dimensions to Cole’s consistently melodic, tasty and swinging interpretation of this timelessly romantic material.

4. Brian Lynch – Unsung Heroes (Hollistic MusicWorks)
The word that kept resonating in my head as I enjoyed listening to this excellent tribute to 8 extraordinary, but sadly somewhat obscure trumpeters was “commendable”. Lynch deserves all kinds of accolades for musically shining a light on the invigorating & original compositions of those fellow trumpeters who have clearly inspired him. But beyond this, the CD is definitely worthwhile to lovers of strong modern Jazz for the stimulating and excitingly played music. The musicians saluted include Tommy Turrentine, Howard McGhee, Joe Gordon and Idrees Sulieman, who have passed, and also Charles Tolliver, Claudio Roditi, Louis Smith and Kamau Adilifu (Charles Sullivan).

5. Mary Stallings – Dream (HighNote Records)
Although I already had several superb CD’s by this exemplary vocalist, who celebrates 50 years of  superb recordings with renowned musicians, I have Bill McCann on his “Saturday Morning Edition of Jazz” radio show to thank for bringing this heartfelt, but professionally polished CD to my attention. Wonderfully supported by the Eric Reed trio with whom she often works, Ms Stallings consistently shows she has the taste, chops and dramatic interpretation to select & deliver absorbing, yet not over-done material, in exciting and convincing fashion.

Honorable mention:
Special recognition is also due to the following group of 2011 recordings by especially talented Capitol District musicians we can be very proud of:

Joe Barna & Sketches of Influence – Blowin’ it Out
Michael Benedict & BopitudeBopitude (Planet Arts)
Yuko Kishimoto – Songbook (Planet Arts)


1. Medeski, Scofield, Martin & Wood - MSMW Live: In Case The World Changes It's Mind (Indirecto)
Medeski, Scofield, Martin & Wood are back again together with a blistering 2-CD set full of instrumental pyrotechnics and melodic interludes.

2. Kenny Warner - Balloons (Half Note)
With Randy Brecker (tp) and David Sanchez (ts) in the band, Werner is at his best penning and playing four long and solo-drenched compositions.

3.Joe Barna & Sketches Of Influence - Blowin' It Out
Barna's drum-lead original compositions are melodically driven by trumpeter Joe Magnarelli, saxophonist Jon Gordon, pianist Dave Solazzo and anchored solidly by bassist Lou Smaldone. A fantastic 50s hard-bop vibe permeates through out the whole live session.

4.Levin Torn White - Levin Torn White (Lazy Bones)
This trio outing with bassist Tony Levin, experimental guitarist David Torn and drummer Alan White has improvisational as well as structured qualities wrapped tight in a power-trio outing.

5.Freddy Cole - Talk To Me (High Note)
After seeing Cole perform at the APFJ 2011 season's final concert, I went back to this CD and all the band members that performed there in Schenectady are here on this recording plus Harry Allen (ts) & Terell Stafford (tp).

features, concert reviews

1. Brian Lynch - Unsung Heroes: A Tribute To Some Underappreciated Trumpet Masters (Holistic Music Works)
The CD title, ironically, may be applicable to Brian Lynch, whom I submit has been underrated and underappreciated for years, and hopefully, this extraordinary recording will vault him onto the perch next to the other jazz trumpet luminaries. Many tribute CDs fail to measure up to the anticipation but that cannot be said for Lynch’s elegant homage to some very fine jazz trumpeters and composers who never truly resonated with the jazz cognoscenti. Lynch carefully picked exceptional musical compositions and each selection is played prodigiously well. What an enjoyable and yet modern listening toast to the likes of Tommy Turrentine, Howard McGhee, Joe Gordon, Charles Tolliver, and Claudio Roditi, to name a few. Every aspect of this recording from the production, compositions, solos, and verve will probably make this everyone’s choice for the jazz CD of the year.

2. Maracca & His Latin Jazz All Stars - Reencuentros (Descarga Sarl)
All that Cuban flutist Maracca had to do in order to have one of the best recordings of this year and his professional career was to assemble a virtual international all star ensemble of some of the best Latin jazz musicians on the planet, support them with an equally prolific orchestra, and then have all of this talent showcased live at the Grand Theater in Havana, Cuba. Typical of excellent organic Latin jazz, there are pyrotechnic rhythms, intricate musical themes, robust sounds, and stellar solos. But make no mistake, this is a serious jazz album which will delight all.

3. Miguel Zenon - Alma Adentro - The Puerto Rican Songbook (Marsalis Music)
Zenon - may I first mention that he is a Guggenheim and MacArthur Scholar - never ceases to amaze me and listeners across the universe. I confess, whether as leader or playing with SF Jazz Collective or other musicians, I am convinced that he is an extraordinary artist who comes around only once every millennium. For the last three years, I have listed one of his CDs as one of the best recordings of the year, and I do not intend to halt now. Over the past three years, Zenon has been promoting the music of Puerto Rico laced with jazz notions and here he has given originality to a handful of his native country’s traditional songs, as well as a panoptic worldliness and heartfelt sophistication. A listener will not be able to resist being enthralled by the beauty and the serenity of these songs and being drawn head long into the attractiveness of the concept and the musicianship.

4. Orrin Evans - Captain Black Big Band (Post-Tone Records)
Now here is an adventure to try: invite thirty-eight of your best musical friends, hold a giant jam session in a small and tight venue where columns of musicians move in and out, and let the music just flow. That is exactly what pianist Orrin Evans did; he rolled the proverbial dice on such a concept and hit sevens. What resulted from such risk is a festive and infectious big band collaboration. Evans’s arrangements are spectacular and vibrant; the solos are awe-inspiring and entertaining; and the sonic sound is all-encompassing. A listener will get the sense that he/she has been invited to a party, ripe with strokes of joy and exhilaration.

5. James Farm - James Farm (Nonesuch)
This is the most intelligent recording of the year. James Farm is a collaborative effort by four accomplished acoustic musicians (Joshua Redman, Matt Pennman, Eric Harland, and Aaron Parks) with each contributing both compositions and rarefied performances. Speaking of performances, and not to single out any one of these talented collaborators, but I can’t recall Redman being any better. Each composition is original, intricate, and convincing. Since they have played on each other’s previous recordings, they have developed an intuitive sense of each other’s ideas, and the music happens to be a mesmerizing crossbreed of each member’s contribution, whether sound or style, to the whole presentation. The recording is serious yet adventurous.

I would be remiss if I did not share my thoughts on vocalists. Both Karrin Allyson - Round Midnight, and Tierney Sutton - American Road, have delivered fantastic recordings, but I have to give the nod to Tierney.

In terms of reissues, the masses have been devoting too much reverence to the 40th Anniversary of Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew when Miles Davis’s best reissue this year is Miles Davis Quintet - Live In Europe 1967: Bootleg Series Volume 1.

CD & concert reviews

1. Colin Stetson - New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges (Constellation)
 Honking, snorting, growling, clanking and singing from the bell of a bass saxophone.  Stetson has redefined this monstrous instrument in a way no one has since Adrian Rollini.  Welcome back from the dead, you big beautiful mass of tubes.

2. Allen Lowe - Blues and the Empirical Truth (Music & Arts)
 Allen Lowe is the greatest living jazz composer/arranger who can’t get a gig up where he lives in Portland, Maine.  While many jazz fans have never heard of him, it didn’t prevent him from getting some of the greatest living practitioners of jazz, including Roswell Rudd, Marc Ribot, Matthew Shipp and Lewis Porter to help him deliver this 3CD/52-cut tour of the blues.

3. David S. Ware, Cooper-Moore, William Parker, Muhammad Ali - Planetary Unknown (AUM Fidelity)
Four magnificent free jazz icons, together again. Recorded in November 2010, after saxophonist Ware’s   kidney transplant.  Muhammad Ali isn’t the boxer. He’s the Philadelphia-born former drummer for Albert Ayler, and brother of Coltrane drummer Rashied Ali.  Ware is still forging along the paths first paved by Coltrane and Sun Ra, with pianist Cooper-Moore and bassist Parker keeping tempo.

4. Farmers By Nature - Out of This World's Distortions (AUM Fidelity)
Farmers By Nature is the trio of drummer Gerald Cleaver, bassist William Parker, and pianist Craig Taborn.  Cleaver, along with Han Bennink and Hamid Drake, is among a handful of brilliant free jazz drummers. Parker is to free jazz bass what Yo Yo Ma is to classical cello:  Ubiquitous. Craig Taborn, who first made a name with James Carter, has shown he can dazzle with the outsiders. While technically a piano trio, these are three equal musicians that make up something greater than three parts.

5. Uri Caine Trio - Siren (Winter and Winter)
Pianist Uri Caine is sui generis, one of the few who can sound both familiar and strange at once.  Caine does with melody and harmony what Stetson does with tone:  takes us out of our comfort zone without boring or estranging.  On Siren, pianist Caine leads drummer Ben Perowsky and bassist John Hébert in an homage to the straight-up piano trio.