Favorite Jazz Albums of 2011 (So Far)

Since I was shamefully late with my best of list for 2010, I figured why wait ‘til the last minute this year…

But seriously, there has been some fine jazz released so far in 2011. We’ve had some great releases from reliable veterans as well as some surprises from relative newcomers.  Here are a few of the discs that have caught my ear during between January and June. They are listed in alphabetical order, by album title:

Bird Songs – Joe Lovano & Us Five (Blue Note) – Released in early January, this disc got the year off to a strong start. Yes, there are many Charlie Parker tribute albums, but Lovano and the band (James Weidman, Esperanza Spalding, Otis Brown III and Francisco Mela), have managed to find something fresh, new and exciting in these tunes that we have heard more times that we can count. In addition, in the two years since their last disc, their sound has grown more cohesive.  If Joe Lovano isn’t the best tenor player of his generation, then he’s definitely in the top two.

Campo Belo – Anthony Wilson (Goat Hill)Recorded in Sao Paulo, Brazil, last September, with three very gifted young Brazilian musicians; Campo Belo counts as one of the most pleasant surprises of the first half of the year.  It’s not a Brazilian record in the sense that we have come to know it, and therein lays a great deal of its charm.  It never sounds forced or self-conscious; it’s just a bunch of cats that dig each other’s style, sitting down to play. It’s a heady vibe that will grow on you with each listen.

 

Captain Black Big Band – Orrin Evans (Posi-Tone)Hold on to your hats on this one. Evans, the Philly bred pianist has dropped on us a band that’s as big, brash and badass as it wants to be.  It was born out of Evans’ regular gigging at Chris’ Jazz Café in Philadelphia.  The glorious result is 38 musicians,  from The Big Apple and The City of Brotherly Love, in various configurations; blowing their hearts out on seven tracks. Soloists include Wayne Escoffery, Tim Warfield, Jaleel Shaw and the great trombonist Frank Lacy. It may not be your father’s big band, but it should be yours.

Good and Bad Memories – Stacy Dillard (Criss Cross)Though people have pulled my coat about him in the past, I’d somehow managed to sleep on this Michigan native until this album, his fifth as a frontman.  It’s definitely my loss. His sound on tenor and soprano is restless, powerful and exciting as all hell.  With support from a band that includes Orrin Evans, and guitarist Craig Magnano anchoring a non-traditional front line, Stacy Dillard proves to be a force to be reckoned with, as a player and as a composer. When speaking of Mr. Dillard, Wynton Marsalis eloquently exclaims “This MF can PLAY!” I couldn’t have said it better myself.

 

The Lost and Found Gretchen Parlato (ObliqSound)Ms. Parlato is another artist who gets better with each successive release.  This album is a dreamy mix of gorgeous originals like “Winter Wind”, with inventive takes on jazz classics, like “Juju” and “Blue in Green”, with totally unexpected and effective uses of more recent works, including Mary J. Blige’s “All That I Can Say”. Not everyone digs her style, but I sure do. Gretchen Parlato is one of jazz singing’s best hopes for the future.

Ninety Miles – Stefon Harris; David Sanchez and Christian Scott (Concord Picante) – One of the most anticipated jazz releases of the first half of the year, lives up to the hype.  Harris, Sanchez, Scott and their Cuban sidemen have bridged the political nonsense to create some powerful and enduring music. They are a true collective, as all support each other as powerfully as they solo.  Grammys be damned, Ninety Miles is some award worthy Latin Jazz.

No Need for Words – Sean Jones (Mack Avenue) Trumpeter Sean Jones’ latest, is an album of love songs; not in the traditional romantic sense, but rather it’s about all of the different emotional aspects that visit us when we love, in any way. So, there are songs about a mother’s love, forgiveness for an absent father, spiritual love, physical passion, unhealthy obsession and yes, romance. His writing is very strong and his band is rock solid. On No Need for Words, Jones makes a statement that is personal, powerful and compelling.

This Side of Strayhorn – Terell Stafford (MaxJazz) The veteran trumpet man flat-out cooks from start to finish on this tribute to the works of one of jazz’s greatest composers.  He tackles the well-known (“Lush Life”) and the obscure (“Lana Turner”) parts of the Strayhorn catalog with creativity and gusto. His tone is as good as it has ever been as Stafford flutters, sings and growls his around Strayhorn’s music as if the songs were written just for him.  With stalwarts like Tim Warfield and Bruce Barth joining him, they manage to make great tunes even greater.

 

Victory J.D. Allen (Sunnyside) In general, I have not been a big fan of sax trios, outside of Sonny Rollins and Joe Henderson.  J.D. Allen is one of handful of relative newcomers who are causing me to reconsider.  Here’s what made me fall in love: first – Victory is stocked with short, powerful statements.  No one track exceeds five minutes in length, leaving less room for the self-indulgent rambling that often plagues trio projects. Second – J.D. Allen is a prodigiously gifted musician; adept at flirting outrageously with the avant-garde without going all the way.  Third – a delightful rendition of “Stairway to the Stars”, that appears out of nowhere. Kudos to Gregg August on bass and Rudy Royston on drums, who are just as important to this album’s success.

 

Voice of My Beautiful Country René Marie (Motema) By now, most jazz fans are familiar with the incident that birthed the concept for this album. Invited to sing the National Anthem at a 2008 Denver political event, Ms. Marie instead chose to sing the words of “The Star Spangled Banner”, to the melody of “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” (aka “The Black National Anthem”). Though the rendition was stunning, the fallout was immediate and harsh, on all sides of the political and racial spectrum. It nearly derailed Ms. Marie’s promising career.  Now in her first full album release since the incident, René Marie proves that she’s back with a vengeance. Voice of My Beautiful Country is a flat-out artistic triumph; as it covers the spectrum of great American songwriting, from homespun Americana, like “John Henry” to rock classics (“White Rabbit”) to a surprisingly effective medley of “Imagination” and “Just My Imagination” to the unforgettable “Voice of My Beautiful Country Suite”, which includes another “Star Spangled Banner”/”Lift Ev’ry Voice…” mashup. René Marie has been called the natural successor to Nina Simone, Abbey Lincoln and other socially conscious jazz singers. The comparison is fitting.

Honorable Mention must go to Brian Lynch’s Unsung Heroes, an album released on CD in 2011, which would be at the top of this list, except for the fact that it appeared on the 2010 year-end list, after it was released late last year in digital form only. Nevertheless, it’s so good that we’ve got to at least mention it again, just in case you’ve missed it.

I also need to remind everyone that this list represents releases that I’ve heard during the first six month of this year. All, some or none of these albums may be on the year-end list, as I hear newer releases, catch up with stuff from the first six months that I haven’t heard yet (such as Branford Marsalis & Joey Calderazzo’s Songs of Mirth and Melancholy, Ben Williams’ State of Art and Vijay Iyer’s Tirtha, all of which are at the top of my very long “to get to” list), or simply change my mind, which is a jazz geek’s prerogative.

I hope that you’ll use this list as an excuse to check out something that you haven’t heard. Agreements, disagreements and additional suggestions are always welcomed.

Until the next time, the jazz continues…

2 Responses to “Favorite Jazz Albums of 2011 (So Far)”

  1. Thanks for putting this together! Appreciate the work that went into it. Very helpful!

  2. […] six months ago, I posted a half time list of my favorite 2011 jazz recordings heard between January and July.  I promised to be back around now to fill out the list with what I experienced over the last […]

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