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CurtJazz’s Best Jazz Albums of 2013 – The Final List

Posted in Best Jazz Albums of 2013 with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 25, 2013 by curtjazz

tim greenMerry Christmas everyone!

Here’s a compilation list of our choices for the Best Jazz Albums of 2013 from our three prior Best of the Year posts. A click on the links in each title will take you to the Amazon or CD Baby page for each album (a great way to spend those gift cards you may have gotten from Santa).

From Best Jazz Albums of 2013 (So Far)

From Best Jazz Albums of 2013 – The Second Half

From Best Jazz of 2013 – A Few More Good Things; Plus!

And 5 great 2012 albums that we missed until 2013:

Tracks from all of the albums listed here will be featured on Curt’s Café Noir WebJazz Radio, starting on December 27, 2013 and into January 2014 as part of our Year End / New Year programming. Click HERE to go to the station and listen. It’s Free!

May you all have a happy, prosperous and jazz filled 2014!

The Best Jazz Albums of 2013 (So Far)

Posted in Best Jazz Albums of 2013 with tags , , , , , , , , , , on August 7, 2013 by curtjazz

cecile mclorin salvantOver the last couple of years, I’ve noticed a small but insistent wave in jazz. We’re seeing artists in their twenties and thirties playing music that does nod to the traditions but also shows the influences of what a lot of these younger musicians grew up listening to; hip-hop; crunk and other related styles. This style has evolved from the confused mess that some of the early cross genre attempts were, into something that is fresh and stands on its own, apart from either of its main musical parents.  As a result, I’ve begun to see a number of today’s jazz writers (and a few musicians as well) rise up and take arms against the “interlopers”. They have written page after page on why what the young musicians are doing “isn’t jazz”.

Whatever else it is, “jazz” will always be about evolution, improvisation and change. What the young cats are now trying to do, could represent the first really new thing in jazz in 50 years. I may not like everything that’s a part of it but I embrace the fact that someone is doing something new.

You’ll see a couple of those albums among my mid-term favorites. Disagreements and agreements are always welcome but spam is not. The albums are in alphabetical order by title.

The Bespoke Man’s Narrative – Aaron Diehl (Mack Avenue)

This was the first album this year to “wow” me. Mr. Diehl’s third album is an unabashed tribute to the Modern Jazz Quartet, which was the first jazz group to “wow” me, over thirty years ago. Mr. Diehl is an outstanding pianist with a strong sense of swing, yet a light touch, reminiscent of course, of John Lewis. And when label mate Warren Wolf sits in on vibes, the transformation becomes complete.

Border Free – Chucho Valdes and the Afro-Cuban Messengers (Jazz Village)

The great Cuban pianist just gets better with age. This album  is a deeply personal statement, filled with tributes to his family members and others who have influenced his musical direction. But you never forget that this is a Chucho Valdés album, so these tributes are carried out in the midst of killer Afro-Cuban rhythms and piano statements of astonishing brilliance. You can read my full review HERE.

Grace – J.D. Allen (Savant)

After recording in the sax, bass, drums trio format for five years, J.D. brings a pianist back into the group on Grace. Not just any pianist but Russian-born wunderkind Eldar Djangirov. Instead of altering the group’s style, Djangirov blends in nicely adding a rich texture to Allen’s group that was missing in some of the previous outings. The pianist has made a good thing even better. You can read my full review HERE.

In A World of Mallets – Jason Marsalis (Basin Street Records)

The youngest of the musical Marsalis brothers, Jason made a committment to playing the vibes full-time a few years ago. While he was a world-class drummer, Marsalis struggled a bit on his first album after making the switch four years ago.  He seems to have put those troubles behind him on this album, which is a rich, quirky and mature musical statement. It also takes my award for the punniest album title so far this year,

Live Today – Derrick Hodge (Blue Note Records)

Derrick Hodge, who was a major presence on Robert Glasper’s Grammy Winning Black Radio in 2012, has made an even stronger musical statement on his debut as a leader. The big name guest stars are not here but the music is denser and more complex than Black Radio’s. Finally, an artist has nailed it in the search for a hip-hop/jazz hybrid. This is “Real Jazz” for the 21st Century. You can read my full review HERE.

Magnetic – Terence Blanchard (Blue Note Records)

Hard to believe that Terence Blanchard has been on the jazz scene for over thirty years. While he has done everything from score films, to write operas, when you get right down to it, he is never better than he is when he fronting a group and reminding everyone that before all of the Hollywood accolades, Blanchard was one of the best jazz trumpet players around; period. He reminds us again here, with his working group and stellar guest spots from Ravi Coltrane, Lionel Loueke and the incomparable Ron Carter. You can read my full review HERE.

No Beginning, No End – Jose James (Blue Note Records)

The vocal love child of Al Green and Bill Henderson, Jose James struck pay dirt on this album, his Blue Note debut. It’s not as straight ahead jazzy as his Impulse! album from a couple of years back nor is it as club ready as some of his first efforts. It’s a blend of jazz, hip-hop and R&B that fits like a glove around James’ unique voice.  It is absolutely irresistible. No Beginning No End hasn’t left my CD Jukebox since its release and there’s a good chance that it will remain there until the end of the year.

Songs From This Season – Tim Green (True Melody Music)

This Baltimore native first drew attention with his second place finish in the 2008 Monk Saxophone Competition. He has recorded with a litany of jazz and Gospel artists from Warren Wolf to Andrae Crouch. But it’s Songs From This Season which has brought Mr. Green to the attention of most of the jazz world. It’s easy to see why. The album’s selections are mostly traditional post bop and Green is on fire throughout; be it on introspective ballads such as “Psalm 1” or burners such as his trio take on “Pinocchio”. This young man has musical ideas to spare. Something tells me that he will be on this list numerous times in the future.

That Nepenthetic Place – Dayna Stephens (Sunnyside Records)

A “nepenthe” is a fictional medicine for sorrow, a “drug of forgetfulness” mentioned in ancient Greek literature and Greek mythology. That ancient word is an apt description for the music performed by tenor saxophonist Dayna Stephens and his quartet on this album. Though the selections are not decidedly upbeat, when taken as a whole, they leave you feeling terrific when they are done. Add in contributions from Gretchen Parlato, trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire and alto saxophonist Jaleel Shaw and the third album proves to be the charm for Mr. Stephens. This is his best and most well-rounded recording to date.

Cecile McLorin Salvant – WomanChild (Mack Avenue Records)

This is the most talked about album from a female jazz singer this year. Why? Because it is also the best album by a jazz vocalist so far this year, hands down.  The requisite comparisons to Billie Holiday, Carmen McRae and a number of other vocal greats have already begun. Ignore them. For though this is only the second album from this Miami native, she has established enough of her own style already to make most of those comparisons unfair and fairly irrelevant. Cecile won the Monk vocal competition in 2010 and if you want to know why, listen to this album. It’s not the work of a neophyte finding herself but of an established vocalist who knows exactly where she is going.

Again, this list represents my favorites among the jazz albums released this year that I’ve heard to this point. There’s much more that I will hear, including the stack of new recordings on my desk now. In December we will post the final list for 2013, which will include these albums plus the ones that I will be privileged to hear over the next four months. Until then, The Jazz Continues…

Album Review: J.D. Allen – Grace

Posted in CD Reviews with tags , , , on July 8, 2013 by curtjazz

The following review first appeared in the July 2013 issue of Eric Nemeyer’s Jazz Inside Magazine.

J.D. Allen

j.d. allen

GRACE – Savant Records SCD 2130 www.jazzdepot.com  Mass; Load Star; Chagall; Luke Sky Walker; Grace; Detroit; Cross Damon; Pole Star; Papillion 1973; Selah (My Refuge); The Little Dipper

PERSONNEL: JD Allen, tenor saxophone; Eldar Djangirov, piano; Dezron Douglas, bass; Jonathan Barber, drums

By Curtis Davenport

On Grace, his seventh album as a leader, saxophonist J.D. Allen has made a few changes. He has a new bassist and drummer with Dezron Douglas and Jonathan Barber replacing longtime cohorts Gregg August and Rudy Royston. He also has expanded the group from a trio to a quartet with the addition of the celebrated young Russian-born pianist Eldar Djangirov. What thankfully, has not happened is a change in the quality and style of the music. Douglas and Barber have fallen right into place as if they had been playing alongside Allen for years. And Djangirov has done something that many pianists cannot, that is, blended with the group’s musical style rather than alter it.

Allen has been recording without a pianist since 2008. His output over that time period has been consistently good; marked by his inventive bursts on the tenor on tunes that averaged about 3 ½ minutes. His discs were high energy affairs that stretched the boundaries of tradition to their breaking point without bursting them. I find him to be the best sax player in the trio format since Sonny Rollins. But if you’ve got to add a pianist, young Mr. Djangirov proves to be the one for the job. I had my doubts since in his own recordings, Djangirov has so far shown a proclivity for playing long albeit technically impressive solos designed to display his speed and dexterity. Fortunately, he has brought those tendencies under control here. He gets where Allen is going and he then enhances what is happening. Djangirov solos are relatively brief and pointed but no less striking than those in his solo work. The pianist appreciates that less is often more and when he is not soloing, he is as likely to lay out as he is to comp behind Allen. The result is an exciting young group with a sound that recalls the Classic Coltrane Quartet circa 1965, just before their breakup. Allen, like Trane, is at times almost begging to go “out”. Djangirov, like Tyner, is helping to keep the saxman grounded and Douglas and Barber create incredible rhythms. The result is exhilarating for the listener, with very little excess. Tracks still clock in at an average of 5:30. There has been a little expansion for the additional instrument but Allen and company still manage to avoid the self-absorbed meandering that plagues many of today’s recordings.

The selections, all Allen originals, are divided into two “acts”, as if a play or musical. Though the liner notes explain the significance of each composition to the overall “narrative”, I never got the feeling that this “story” was essential to the performance or the subsequent enjoyment of the music. Grace is a fine piece of modern jazz, whatever the back story.

I did have a number of favorite tracks; “Chagall”, a piece which moves around skittishly as if it is one of its namesake’s paintings come to life. I love Djangirov’s comping here, which recalls McCoy behind Coltrane on “My Favorite Things”. “Luke Sky Walker” featuring some energetic playing from Allen as he is being “chased” by Djangirov is also strong.  “Cross Damon” which with its mournful beginning, suggests Coltrane’s “Alabama”, before Barber kicks it into high gear and Allen joyfully follows his lead; as if to say “the time for mourning is over, let’s celebrate”. Barber is a terrific young drummer. I had never heard him before this album but I will pay attention from now on. “Papillion 1973” is a favorite for two reasons: Djangirov’s solo which is one of his strongest on the album and also that it evoked memories of one of Steve McQueen’s finest performance on film. Finally, “Selah (My Refuge)”, is the most traditional piece on the album. Allen’s tenor is bluesy is gorgeous and Djangirov provides appropriately understated counterpoint. It’s a calming place to come and reflect after being taken on an exhilarating ride.

CurtJazz’s Best Jazz Albums of 2011 – The Final List

Posted in CD Reviews, The Jazz Continues... with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 13, 2011 by curtjazz

About six months ago, I posted a halftime 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 six months.  My original intent was to pare that list down to a final dozen or so, spanning the entire year…

Well, I changed my mind y’all. Instead, we’re going to add another ten to that first list, making it a Top 20.  And, like last year, there was an excellent 2010 disc that I completely missed until 2011. It will be included as well.

As a reminder, here are albums from the July post. You can see/read the entire July post HERE.

So here they are, in alpha order by album title – my favorite jazz discs from the second half of this year:

Alma Adentro: The Puerto Rican Songbook – Miguel Zenón (Marsalis Music) – He’s not prone to ostentatious self promotion, but this Guggenheim and MacArthur fellow has quietly become one of the most important saxophonists in jazz today.  Each of his albums has topped the previous one; taking his artistry to a new place and keeping us, the audience, on the edge of our seats. Alma Adentro, is the exploration of the music of five composers, who are unknown in the U.S. but very important in Puerto Rican musical lore. It’s not “Latin Jazz” in the sense that we’ve come to know it, but is outstanding music that broadened my horizons.

BitchesNicholas Payton (In + Out Records) – Yes, the title did make me wince a little, but the music made me smile, a lot.  This has been an interesting year for Mr. Payton, as his blunt, insightful and often profane musings have made him one of the more controversial and compelling figures in the world of jazz social media.  Not surprisingly, this album has also caused its share of controversy, raising eyebrows in the same way that In a Silent Way, another album with a dream-like vibe, did in 1969.  Payton composed every song, played every instrument and sings on many of the tracks (quite well, I might add), more than holding his own with some top-drawer guests, like Esperanza Spalding and Cassandra Wilson.  If you’re looking for “jazz” of the type that Payton played on his early Verve albums, you won’t find it here. Bitches has more in common with mid-70’s ballad driven R & B and with neo-soul. But as someone who grew up with the former and has developed a keen appreciation for the latter, I really dug this album.

Black Lace Freudian Slip – René Marie (Motema Music)

René Marie was very quiet for a while after her 2008 controversies, but she is back with a vengeance; releasing not one but two outstanding albums in 2011. The first; Voice of My Beautiful Country, (which was on our first “Best of” list) was a tribute to patriotic and traditional standards. Black Lace Freudian Slip is mostly comprised of Marie originals, including the title track, which is every bit as sly and sexy as the title suggests. The two discs may be lyrical opposites but the music on both is outstanding. Don’t try to choose between them, get them both.

For All Those Living – Sheryl Bailey (Pure Music Records)

Guitarist Sheryl Bailey gets better with every recording. She follows up last year’s impressive big band outing,  A New Promise, with a terrific quartet disc that displays her impressive chops and full-bodied swing to great advantage.  The Emily Remler comparisons are easy to make, but I think that that’s too limiting.  Sheryl Bailey has the potential to outshine her role model, whose untimely death halted her artistic growth. Bump the gender limitations; Ms. Bailey is one of the best jazz guitarists working today, period. This disc also has its heart in the right place as 20% of the proceeds from all sales will be donated to Ronald McDonald House.

The Mosaic Project – Terri Lyne Carrington (Concord Records)

As I stated in my earlier review of this album, The Mosaic Project is Terri Lyne Carrington’s most completely realized project, by a mile. It also is one of the best jazz works of the year by any artist. Click HERE to see my full post about it.

Pinnacle: Live and Unreleased from Keystone Korner – Freddie Hubbard (Resonance Records)

What a find this was by Resonance Records! Hubbard, at the top of his game in 1980 on performances compiled from summer and fall appearances at the legendary San Francisco club.  The version of “The Intrepid Fox” that opens the album, is jaw dropping. What follows is just as good, including the only known recording of Hub playing “Giant Steps”. The title says it all.

Road Shows Volume 2 – Sonny Rollins (Doxy/EmArcy)

I was one of the few who liked, but didn’t love Road Shows Volume 1; mostly because of the unevenness of the 30 years worth of performances. Volume 2’s tracks by contrast, were all recorded during 2010, most of them during Newk’s already legendary 80th birthday concert, the remaining two a month later in Japan.  Sonny is in very fine form and the guest stars, including Roy Haynes, Roy Hargrove, Jim Hall, Christian McBride and Ornette Coleman, in his first ever public performance with Rollins, all rise to the occasion. Sonny Rollins proves once again, that age ain’t nothin’ but a number.

Something Beautiful – Eric Reed (WJ3 Records)

Something Beautiful is Eric Reed doing what he does best; playing in a trio setting. It’s hard to believe that it’s been over twenty years since Reed first debuted with Wynton, but in those years he has grown from teenaged prodigy to one of the best pianists of his generation, with an impeccable melodic sense that accompanies his gospel influenced chord structure.  Something Beautiful consists mostly of songs by others, from Berlin to Brubeck to Billy Joel; all of them sounding as unsullied as if they were being played for the first time.

 

Tirtha – Vijay Iyer (ACT)

Tirtha is the self titled debut of pianist Vijay Iyer’s latest trio, which also includes tabla player Nitin Mitta and guitarist Prasanna.  As expected, the album has a strong South Asian influence, but I feel that slapping a term such as “Indian Jazz” on this music is almost insulting in its limitations.  Their sound is alive and its intricacies grow with every hearing.   Iyer has never been afraid to challenge conventions and he usually creates something fresh in the process. He and his Tirtha band mates have done so here.  In a genre often chided for being stale, Tirtha is a welcome breath of fresh air.

 

Triumph of the Heavy Volumes 1 & 2 – Marcus Strickland (Strick Music/CDBY)

Strickland is another of those young saxophonists who give me hope for the future whenever I hear him blow.  On this two disc set (gutsy for a relatively unknown artist), he brings the goods on tenor, alto, soprano and clarinet.  Disc 2 is a live trio set with Marcus’ twin brother E.J. on drums and up and coming bassist Ben Williams. They push the boundaries of convention to the limits, with a hard-driving sound that is spare, but never thin.  On Disc 1, recorded eight months later, they add David Bryant, a young Tyner influenced pianist with mad promise, to the mix.  Bryant’s angular harmonies are the main reason I have a slight preference for the studio set but it doesn’t really matter, because neither disc has left heavy rotation in my iPod since I bought them.

And a 2010 disc that I missed…

Introducing Triveni – Avishai Cohen (Anzic)

I’m continuing the tradition that I started last year of recognizing an outstanding disc released in the previous year that managed to escape my ears until the current one.  Triveni was released in September 2010. It’s a trio session led by the trumpet playing brother of Anat Cohen, who has garnered renown for her work on sax and clarinet.  Avishai Cohen is one of two Israeli jazzmen working today who share the same name (the other plays bass) and as of now, he’s the lesser known of the two.  This strong outing should do something to change that. Trumpet/bass/drums trio sessions are rare but Cohen is more than up to the task, collaborating with bassist Omer Avital and drummer Nasheet Waits on originals and standards that mine the depths of hard bop, swing, funk with a nice dose of avant-garde as well.  Cohen is not going to bowl you over with flights into the upper register but the impressiveness of his facility and inventiveness in the mid range is worth a dozen high notes. Many thanks to Canadian journalist/pianist Peter Hum for pulling my coat about this one.

Notable Mentions

Here are a few more fine discs from 2011 that are worth a listen or ten. Don’t pass them up if you have a chance:

  • A Boy’s Journey Peter Hum Quintet (self-released) The knowledgeable and witty jazz journalist is also a very fine pianist. An impressive debut recording.
  • Parallel Lives Andrea Wolper (Jazzed Media) – This vocalist grows more impressive with each album.  Her coolly inviting mix of originals with rarely heard standards are a perfect tonic for a tough world. 
  • State of Art – Ben Williams (Concord Jazz) – The Monk Competition winner drops a formidable blend of the new and the traditional on his first disc.  It’s fresh, it’s exciting and I want to hear more.
  • Sweet Thunder (Duke & Shak) – Delfeayo Marsalis (Troubador Jass) – Delfeayo does The Duke proud on this hard-swinging octet version of Such Sweet Thunder. It’s the year’s best album from someone named Marsalis (Read the full review post HERE)
  • When the Heart Emerges Glistening  Ambrose Akinmusire (Blue Note) – A rare case of a much-hyped major label debut living up to expectations. Akinmusire is the real deal; and the greatest thing is that he’s nobody’s clone.

And that’s how things looked this year from my “plush” Charlotte studio/mancave.  Tracks from these albums and more will be heard on Curt’s Café WebJazz Radio, starting on December 27 and continuing on through the month of January.  Your thoughts, comments and criticisms are always welcome and your spam is always deleted.

Thanks for taking the time to read my thoughts this year. I don’t take your support for granted. I hope you’ll stick around for what I expect will be an interesting 2012.

A Happy and Healthy Holiday Season to all of you. 

Until the next time, the jazz continues…

Favorite Jazz Albums of 2011 (So Far)

Posted in CD Reviews, The Jazz Continues... with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 10, 2011 by curtjazz

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…