JAZZ IN SPACE

JAZZ IN SPACE: December 2011

Saturday, December 3, 2011

TOP JAZZ RELEASES OF 2011


There was an Autobot named "Jazz?"
He's got nothing on this year's Best Of winners.

Last year, author, journalist and jazz critic, Francis Davis invited me to submit my top ten favorite jazz recordings in his annual compendium for The Village Voice. It was an honor for me (and for ICON) to be regarded in a group that included roughly 100 of the best music writers in print, radio and new media. The invite came again this year along with a new venue.  Given the evolution of the music biz and the way one listens to music, 2011’s list will be featured on Rhapsody’s website (www.rhapsody.com) -- which is wonderful since Rhapsody’s reach is way greater than the Voice.


If you don’t see your favorite (or “best”) record listed, it’s because there will always be recordings I didn’t hear or have time to. But generally, 2011 was a great year for jazz with a crop of marvelous debuts and scintillating work from both established vocalists and instrumentalist.

1.  Joe Lovano/Us Five, Bird Songs (Blue Note)
Saxophonist Lovano has made many records for Blue Note as a leader and “Bird Songs” is his 22nd.  Us Five is his current group, a cross-generational collective which includes two drummers, a great pianist, James Weidman, and the remarkable bassist Esperanza Spalding. Sure, there have been a thousand tributes to Charlie Parker but Us Five has a canny ability to take tunes that once defined bebop and render them anew through deft interplay and joyous creativity.

2.  Ambrose Akinmusire, When The Heart Emerges Glistening (Blue Note)
Trumpeter Akinmusire keeps getting a lot of good press and that’s for a good reason. He’s young but you’ll be astounded by his facility and maturity of tone and tempo. Akinmusire’s original tunes are gnarled and seared with his lightning bolts of sound; they crackle with invention thanks to saxophonist Walter Smith III and the music is probably meant to be played as loud as you can stand it. You’ll think of 60’s Miles and Freddie Hubbard, too, but the leader ricochets back to the future with a righteous sincerity. The rhythm section is the dream team of pianist Gerald Clayton, bassist Harish Raghavan and drummer Justin Brown and this amazing effort was co-produced by Jason Moran.

3.  Ben Allison, Action-Refraction (Palmetto)
Bassist Allison gives his 10th recording a twist by offering up an album of covers – songs by PJ Harvey, Neil Young and “We’ve Only Just Begun,” a tune that’s owned by The Carpenters.  Except here he reboots them in wild and wonderful ways with his “electro-acoustic orchestra” – saxophonist Michael Blake, guitarists Steve Cardenas and Brandon Seabrook, drummer Rudy Royston and pianist Jason Lindner who rocks the sonic trance arrangement of Donny Hathaway’s “Someday We’ll All Be Free.” At a trim 40 minutes, Allison’s team beautifully networks the concept and its aural pleasures sustain multiple spins.

4. Gilad Hekselman, Hearts Wide Open (le Chant du Monde)
Guitarist Hekselman arrays eight seriously great originals that gracefully expand the horizons of jazz guitar with melodious folk and rock influences. Saxophonist Mark Turner, bassist Joe Martin and the powerful drummer Marcus Gilmore do justice to Hekselman’s silky arrangements with nimble bass notes, percussive rhythms and a dexterous sense of swing. A nice surprise, the guitarist adds a power ballad (“Understanding”) that heaves under a sturdy backbeat and emotive melody that signifies the leader’s cool confidence.

5. Noah Preminger, Before The Rain (Palmetto)
Casting aside any doubt about his ambition and strength as a composer, the young saxophonist Noah Preminger devotes his sophomore recording (and first for the Palmetto label) to the ballad form. The lead track is the beloved standard, “Where Or When,” and Preminger blows low notes with a honeyed edge over a lush rhythm conjured by pianist Frank Kimbrough, bassist John Hébert and drummer Matt Wilson, a team of top flight musicians. The recording itself is sumptuous and spot-on, and it pulls you into the music as if Preminger and company is playing exclusively for you.

6. Giacomo Gates, The Revolution Will Be Jazz, The Songs Of Gil Scott-Heron (Savant)
For a singer, Giacomo Gates’ baritone is unmistakable, like blue label scotch and just as fine. His terrific concept album, “The Revolution Will Be Jazz: The Songs Of Gil Scott-Heron” (Savant Records) risks a bittersweet listen since Scott-Heron passed away during Gates’ recording of the album, but with Gates at the helm the experience proves to be willfully celebratory. “Revolution” is this singer’s tour-de-force, a self-assured combination of words and music that Gates treats like lost classics, permeating them with verve. With potent musicians in tow – pianist John Di Martino, guitarist Tony Lombardozzi, bassist Lonnie Plaxico, drummer Vincent Ector and a fine Clare Daly on baritone sax – Gates swings (“Show Bizness”,) croons (“This Is A Prayer For Everybody To Be Free”) and gets his groove on (“Lady Day and John Coltrane.”)

7. Miguel Zenon, Alma Adentro, The Puerto Rican Songbook (Marsalis Music)
A 2008 MacArthur Fellow and founding member of The SF Jazz Collective, saxophonist Miguel Zenon’s 6th recording pairs his longtime group – pianist Luis Perdomo, bassist Hans Glawischnig and drummer Henry Cole – with a 10-piece woodwind ensemble conducted by Guillermo Klein for a sterling set of passionate tunes from his native Puerto Rico. The recording is deeply authentic and engages with its polyrhythmic and melodic hooks. There’s a sweep of emotion that accompanies the woodwinds but Zenon plays front and center, reflecting on the music he’s heard all his life and giving it new wings to make it fly high.

8.Sonny Rollins, Road Shows, Vol. 2 (Doxy/Emarcy)
Words are flimsy when describing saxophonist Sonny Rollins, now 80 years old yet listening to him continues to evoke great joy. His discography charts a musician full of ideas but it’s the concert stage where Rollins’ alchemy speaks truth to power. It’s a fact that Rollins can play for two hours and never repeat a phrase or lick and the second edition of “Road Shows” makes for a transfixing experience, since most of the recording docs his 80th Birthday concert at the Beacon Theater with Ornette Coleman, Roy Haynes, Roy Hargrove, Russell Malone and Christian McBride.  A recipient of the 2010 Medal of Arts, terms like colossus, titan and legendary don’t fit this one-of-a-kind man either, but they will come to mind when listening to this classic date.  

9. Marcin Wasilewski Trio, Faithful (ECM)
As an acoustic trio, pianist Marcin Wasilewski, bassist Slawomir Kurkiewicz and drummer Michal Miskiewicz choose harmony over conflict, cultivating endless possibilities as they improvise their way through lyrical passages and peaceful interludes. The group doesn’t abandon the atmospherics or the indelible rapport for which they are acclaimed, and the title track (written by Ornette Coleman) sums up what the MW trio does best, which is to coerce sophisticated improvisations out of the subtlest of melodies, sometimes a note at a time. 

10. Jake Saslow, Crosby Street (14th Street)
Saxophonist Jake Saslow does a terrific job on his debut album, “Crosby Street” (14th Street Records) which sounds like the work of a confident veteran. He has a relaxed sound, tuneful yet conversational and the recording spotlights a leader with an extraordinarily empathetic band. Saslow doesn’t play loud, never showboats by reaching for the high notes or confuses proficiency with theatrics, which in the end defines his playing as grounded and self-assured. Saslow’s also a persuasive balladeer, closing the album with “Until Next Time,” a heartfelt track that begins with Trane-like licks over a gentle groove and carries you out under a blanket of swing courtesy of Martin’s walking bass, Gilmore’s sleek beats and Moreno’s gorgeous licks.




11. Dominick Farinacci, Dawn Of Goodbye (Eone Music)

Artful and beautifully played

12. John Escreet, Exception To The Rule (Criss Cross) +  John Escreet, The Age We Live In (Mythology)  


13. Bruce Barth Trio, Live At Smalls (Smalls Records)



14. Sam Yahel, From Sun To Sun (Origin Records)


15.  3 Cohens, Family (Anzic Records)





16. J.D. Allen, Victory (Sunnyside)
17. Gretchen Parlato, The Lost and Found (ObliqSound)
18. Tierney Sutton, American Road (BFM Jazz)
19. Stefon Harris/David Sanchez/Christian Scott, Ninety Miles (Concord)
20. Deep Blue Organ Trio, Wonderful! (Origin Records)
21. Jim Snidero, Interface (Savant)
22. Ben Williams, State Of Art (Concord Jazz)
23. Marcus Strickland, Triumph Of The Heavy (Strick Records)
24. Chick Corea, Stanley Clarke and Lenny White, Forever (Concord)
25. Lee Konetz/Brad Mehldau/Charlie Haden/Jason Moran, Live At Birdland (ECM)
26. Opus 5, Introducing Opus 5 (Criss Cross)
27. Aaron Goldberg/Guillermo Klein, Bienestan (Sunnyside)
28. Terri Lyne Carrington, The Mosaic Project (Concord)
29. Karrin Allyson, ‘Round Midnight (Concord)
30. Gerald Clayton, Bond: The Paris Sessions (Emarcy)

BEST REISSUES OF 2011:
Stan Getz, “Quartets: The Clef and Norgran Studio Albums" (Hipo-Select/Verve)
Ron Carter, “All Blues” (CTI/Sony Masterworks)
Miles Davis Quintet, “Live In Europe 1967” CD/DVD set (Columbia/Legacy)

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GILAD HEKSELMAN, HEARTS WIDE OPEN


The prologue and epilogue of “Hearts Wide Open” (Chant du Monde Records) may be dusted with carefree whistling but in between the guitarist Gilad Hekselman arrays eight seriously great originals that gracefully expand the horizons of jazz guitar with melodious rock and folk influences. His phrasing has a satisfying fullness while his solos have a way of connecting deeply. Songs like “Hazelnut Eyes” and “The Bucket Kicker” match the guitarist with bassist Joe Martin and drummer Marcus Gilmore and the musical effect is that of a larger band where Hekselman’s silky arrangements and orderly runs are skillfully underscored by nimble bass notes and percussive rhythms. Other tracks add saxophonist Mark Turner to the mix, most effectively on “One More Song,” a whirling folk-inspired narrative with a melodic hook that the saxophonist turns over and over on the chorus. Drummer Gilmore invokes the usual awe with his profound timekeeping. His fills and dexterous sense of swing is starkly evident on “Brooze,” a slow blues with a lazy gait and a hot center that’s set afire by Hekselman’s electrifying solo. Somewhat unusual for a jazz record, the guitarist makes room for a power ballad called “Understanding” that heaves under a sturdy backbeat and emotive melody that signifies the guitarist’s cool confidence. An Israeli native and New Yorker since 2004, Hekselman successfully plumbs the zeitgeist of his peers, striking a perfect balance on “Hearts Wide Open” between accessibility and the improvised go-anywhere storytelling that is progressive jazz. (10 tracks; 60:14 minutes)

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JAKE SASLOW, CROSBY STREET


Saxophonist Jake Saslow does a terrific job on his debut album, “Crosby Street” (14th Street Records) which sounds like the work of a confident veteran. He has a relaxed sound, tuneful yet conversational and the recording spotlights a leader with an extraordinarily empathetic band. And Saslow gives these musicians plenty of space to bring his compositions to life. The group includes guitarist Mike Moreno whose fragrant solos provide smooth grooves (“Early Riser”) and jangly punctuation (“Lucky 13”). Pianist Fabian Almazan also impresses with harmonic invention (“Taiga Forest”) and a gift for clustering notes that bloom with understated beauty. The saxophonist has a radio-ready cover in Horace Silver’s “Lonely Woman” that pares the band to a dazzling trio with bassist Joe Martin and the drummer Marcus Gilmore. Saslow doesn’t play loud, never showboats by reaching for the high notes or confuses proficiency with theatrics, which in the end defines his playing as grounded and self-assured. Saslow’s also a persuasive balladeer, closing the album with “Until Next Time,” a heartfelt track that begins with Trane-like licks over a gentle groove and carries you out under a blanket of swing courtesy of Martin’s walking bass, Gilmore’s sleek beats and Moreno’s gorgeous licks. (7 tracks; 52:07 minutes)

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WAYMAN TISDALE, THE WAYMAN TISDALE STORY


 “If you want to stand out, go to where the ground is fertile and where there are not many flowers.” That’s the home brewed wisdom that Wayman Tisdale’s father passed on to his son and exactly what Tisdale did, first as a record-breaking college athlete, Olympic gold medalist and 12-year career player in the NBA then later, beginning in 1997, as an accomplished and beloved smooth jazz musician. Fittingly, “The Wayman Tisdale Story” (Rendezvous Records)  celebrates his life in two ways. A 13-track retrospective culls the most infectious tunes from Tisdale’s eight R&B-based jazz albums featuring collaborations with keyboardist George Duke, saxophonist Dave Koz and, surprisingly, country star Toby Keith. Though it’s a fine sampler and includes an unreleased cut with Jeff Lorber, “Slam Dunk,” these Tisdale albums can be heartily recommended in full – “Way Up” (2006), “Rebound” (2008) and his last recording, “The Fonk Record” (2010), a delirious smorgasbord of Prince-like funk and hard-partying beats.

There’s also an affecting documentary that comes alive whenever Tisdale is on screen. He was musically gifted from childhood, perhaps a prodigy, who taught himself to play bass guitar and turn it into a successful lead instrument. Fellow bassist Marcus Miller reveals that Tisdale was left-handed and because bass guitars were designed for right-handed players, Tisdale simply turned his around and learned to play chords and phrases upside down. Written and directed with affection by Brian Schodorf and with testimonials from peers like Michael Jordan, the film profiles a man whose shining smile and positive attitude instilled good feelings to those around him.

Wayman Tisdale passed away on May 15, 2009 at the age of 44 after a two-year battle with bone cancer. Remembering his friend, Koz says that Tisdale was always “driving the party bus and [being around him] was one great hang.” Thankfully, the sizzle that is Tisdale’s music will live on and if you listen – and you should – be sure to turn it up. Way up.  (CD: 13 tracks; 56:43 minutes/DVD: 66 minutes; 16:9 aspect ratio, 2-channel stereo)

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BOB JAMES, KEIKO MATSUI, ALTAIR & VEGA


Contempo jazz pianists Bob James and Keiko Matsui team up for an unexpected, highly personal project called “Altair & Vega” (E-One Entertainment) a one piano / four-hands date which plays up James’ affection for mixing classical motifs with softly funky melodies and Matsui’s flair for new age inflected tunes. The compositional duties are evenly divided with James carrying the title tune and “Divertimento,” the latter brushed with a playful Gershwin-like veneer. The concept works surprisingly well as each artist balances and complements each other’s playing style. Matsui’s musical career has mostly seemed inspired by James’ work of the last fifteen years – good-humored electronic codas and sparkling keyboard flourishes are a James staple. That’s mostly stripped out here and what’s left are strong performances, notably on “The Forever Variations,” which takes a Matsui original as its source and gives James room to layer in some keenly rendered solos.

The accompanying DVD documents their “4 Hands” piano gig at the Manchester Craftsman’s Guild in Pittsburgh on Valentine’s Day in 2010. The music brings us live (and livelier) versions of the studio mix and adds a Matsui solo (“Trees”) as well as a James solo (the Ray Noble standard, “The Touch Of Your Lips”) that proves he remains an ace pianist who frustratingly withholds that side of his ability too frequently. Overall, the date is relaxed, well performed and impresses with the duo’s technique and obvious fondness for one another’s talent. Doubtless, some listeners will pine for a bass bump or drum lick but the music stands all by itself. (CD: 7 tracks; 47:46 minutes/DVD: 45 minutes; 4:3 aspect ratio, 2-channel PCM)

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OPUS 5, INTRODUCING OPUS 5


Ad hoc collectives, the best of which are made up of like-minded jazz musicians who, when the flow is true, can produce some mighty sweet sounds and winning interplay. Opus 5 proves to be this capable on “Introducing Opus 5,” a debut dipped in soul-jazz for the Dutch-based Criss Cross Jazz label. As is customary for this label, the sonic flavor and you-are-there acoustics are stunningly realized.

The lead track, “Think Of Me,” is adorned with the crystalline sound of David Kikoski’s Fender Rhodes piano, and introduces a precision frontline to reckon with – trumpeter Alex Sipiagin and tenor saxophonist Seamus Blake, a pair touched by both tradition and modern jazz idioms. Bassist Boris Kozlov and Donald Edwards on drums provide potent assistance to round out this sleek quartet. Free wheeling yet rock steady, the band drills down on their all-original compositions like Kikoski’s “Baker’s Dozen,” an swaggering cut with a catchy hook that swings Crusaders-style and cuts deep with Sipiagin’s razor sharp solo. When they make room for a ballad, they cover a bossa nova tune by Toninho Horta highlighted by Blake’s stirring phrases while blowing over the lilting rhythm. Equality reigns supreme with this quartet as each brings a tune to the date but Kikoski, a lyrical pianist with a solid career of his own, gives these tunes a welcome rush and backbone, especially on “Nostalgia In Time” and the rambunctious groove of “Sokol.”

Overall, this is a group that pushes music not boundaries, and while the smart liner notes by Josef Woodard allude to Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers and Miles Davis’ mid-60s group as inspiration, Opus 5 is a confident outfit with plenty to say on its own. (7 tracks; 62:37 minutes)

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OSCAR PETERSON, UNMISTAKABLE


Pianist Oscar Peterson was a formidable leader, a masterful soloist and stride pianist, in whatever group configuration he chose whether by himself or fronting an orchestra. Legendary may be a word that’s tossed around freely, but it genuinely applied to OP.  “Unmistakable” (Sony Masterworks) has a unique distinction of being subjected to the Zenph re-mastering process. Combining algorithms with audio alchemy, Zenph Re-Performance took original audio recordings – solo recordings that Peterson made in the mid 80’s in his home studio – and turned them back into live performances through software that recreates the DNA of Peterson’s playing style in all its permutations (dynamic range, his physical imprint on the keys, his pedaling).

“Unmistakable” is a clever title, and the music is undeniably in the upper tier of the pianist’s body of work with glorious ruminations on “Body and Soul,” “In A Sentimental Mood,” “Con Alma” and a medley of Duke Ellington tunes.  The set of eight tunes is played twice, once in a two-channel stereo format and then repeated in sequence as a binaural stereo version, designed for listening on the best cans you have as the “ultimate headphone experience.” The recording is brilliant as if OP is playing in front of you, but that’s the idea and it’s awesome.  (16 tracks; 78 minutes)

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