Best of 2011: J Hunter’s Top 10 Jazz Albums

From my home office in Clifton Park, NY (“A Great Place to Live, Work and Play”), my 10 best jazz discs of 2011! Drum roll, please… NOTE: Readers without drums may bang on their desks – unless you’re at work, in which case you should try to restrain yourself:

Bruce Barth Trio: Live at Smalls
10. The Bruce Barth Trio’s “Live at Smalls” (smallsLIVE)
NYC’s aptly named Small’s Jazz Club is about as Downtown and experimental as it gets, while Barth is as trad as the day is long. However, this amazing pianist works like a charm in this on-the-edge space for one reason: Quality always wins! Barth’s compositions never fail to entrance, and his solos are absolutely knockout. This is how jazz moves forward – by respecting the past, but not being tied down to it.

3 Cohens: Family
9. 3 Cohens’ “Family” (Anzic Records)
Every family reunion should be this much fun! The Cohen kids – trumpeter Avishai and reed players Anat and Yuval – inject new life into standards like Ellington’s “The Mooch” and NOLA classic “Tiger Rag,” while bringing monster originals that leap out of the speakers and grab you by the mojo. Special-guest vocal icon Jon Hendricks drops in to put a glistening cherry on top of “On the Sunny Side of the Street.”

The SFJAZZ Collective: Music of Stevie Wonder and New Compositions
8. The SFJAZZ Collective’s “Music of Stevie Wonder and New Compositions” (SFJAZZ)
For the last eight years, this rotating cast of demons has proved you don’t have to treat tributes to jazz legends like High Mass at the Vatican. For this new 3-disc set (recorded live at NYC’s Jazz Standard), SFJAZZ steps outside the box to laud R&B stalwart Stevie Wonder, with the result being their most satisfying package to date. The originals are hot, but SFJAZZ’s takes on “Superstition” and “Sir Duke” just rock!

James Farm: Joshua Redman, Aaron Parks, Matt Penman, Eric Harland
7. James Farm’s “James Farm: Joshua Redman, Aaron Parks, Matt Penman, Eric Harland” (Nonesuch)
Four composers and three leaders on one CD should equal a monumental train wreck. But these four outstanding players have worked together – in various groups & combinations – for almost a decade, and chemistry overcomes math (or so I’ve heard). Every piece may have a single composer, but all the tracks have an undeniable air of collaboration. In the end, the whole IS greater than the sum of its parts.

6. Pilc Moutin Hoenig’s “Threedom” (Motema)
“Groupthink” usually entails a single direction without individuality or creativity. “Threedom” blows that definition up real good as pianist Jean-Michel Pilc, bassist Francois Moutin and drummer Ari Hoenig show you can act as one unit and still craft unique visions. The group improvisations are indescribable, and the trio’s listening skills are on a black-belt level as they re-work classics by Monk, Miles and Coltrane.

The Julian Lage Group: Gladwell
5. The Julian Lage Group’s “Gladwell” (eMarcy)
Lage is the most interesting guitarist since Pat Metheny, with a sound that is equal parts jazz, folk, Latin and blues. He and his stellar group use all these styles – with some bluegrass and classical thrown in – to create an ornate, nuanced soundscape for a woman’s return to her old home town. The imaginary town’s not a perfect place, but that just makes Lage’s concept more truthful – and more interesting.

Rudresh Mahanthappa: Samdhi
4. Rudresh Mahanthappa’s “Samdhi” (ACT)
Until now, Mahanthappa’s East-meets-West musical efforts have been (primarily) acoustic; for “Samdhi,” the altoist does the full Dylan-at-Newport and totally plugs in, complete with computer-driven effects and devastating guitar from shred-master David Gilmore. It’s Weather Report does World Music, and it brings new meaning to the word “intense!” If this is Mahanthappa’s new direction, I say, “Keep on going!”

Marcus Strickland: Triumph of the Heavy
3. Marcus Strickland’s “Triumph of the Heavy” (Strick Muzik)
Strickland and his partners – drummer/brother E.J. Strickland and bassist Ben Williams – have been re-defining what sax-trio jazz should sound like. You get plenty of that on “Heavy,” courtesy of a live disc recorded in New Haven last year. But that’s only half of “Heavy;” the trio becomes a quartet on Disc One, as pianist David Bryant lets the trio get even more interstellar while adding his own glowing “voice” to the mix.

Delfeayo Marsalis: Sweet Thunder
2. Delfeayo Marsalis’ “Sweet Thunder” (Troubadour Jass)
Some say it’s impossible to improve on Duke Ellington’s work; some say you shouldn’t even try. Well, some people should shut their pie holes and listen to the least-known Marsalis’ awesome re-working of Duke Ellington’s tribute to William Shakespeare. Cutting down Ellington’s suite from a big-band to an octet lets Marsalis present new insights into both the music and the Shakespeare characters that inspired Ellington. Sublime.

…and the Number One Jazz CD of 2011

Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey: Race Riot Suite
1. Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey’s “Race Riot Suite” (Royal Potato Family)
An African-American community in Tulsa was basically wiped out over two days in 1921, and then the riots were promptly wiped from state history books. JFJO slide guitarist Chris Combs’ epic suite harnesses every emotion that could come from such a horrific act. Jacob Fred’s unique neo-fusion gets more muscle from a heavyweight horn section featuring Jeff Coffin and Steve Bernstein. A required “history listen.”

There’s plenty more where this came from. See you next year!

by J Hunter, Nippertown contributor


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1 Comment
  1. Richard Brody says

    I know that reading this is going to cost me some $$$. Thanks for the list.

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