When I sat down to think of all the standout mainstream and modern jazz records released in 2011 I could recommend without any hesitation whatsoever, I came up with 20 selections. Holy crap, 20! Then again, that long list must be put into perspective: there are literally thousands of jazz CD’s released every year and while I don’t pretend to have listened to them all, it’s definitely in the hundreds (yeah, I sorta like this kind of music). That also points up to another indication about the state of jazz: the number of skilled practitioners of the art may have never been higher than it is now, as jazz listenership sadly remains at an historic low.
There’s a lot of big names left out here such as Gary Burton, Bill Frisell, Pat Martino and Enrico Rava, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t put out great records this year, because they did. There was just something about this top twenty that kept demanding replay after replay. The top twenty, however, wasn’t as difficult to come up with as the top one. I kept going back and forth between Anthony Wilson’s Campo Belo and the Marcin Wasilewski Trio’s Faithful, and in a last minute, photo-finish decision, I went with…
ALBUM OF THE YEAR: Marcin Wasilewski Trio – Faithful
It’s easy to take an ECM recording for granted because of the consistency by which they sound and the contemplative, chamber-like way the music is performed on most of these recordings. And so it is with Marcin Wasilewski Trio’s Faithful. But as this record is more of a progression from the prior album January and not some huge leap, all the years since high school of pianist Wasilewski, bassist Slawomir Kurkiewicz and drummer Michal Miskiewicz playing together are paying off in all the little ways. The trio truly performs as a single unit, with Kurkiewicz and Miskiewicz amplifying every articulation the leader makes.
The now established signature of the Trio deftly balances beautiful melodies with loosely reined expressions that utilizes classical stylings, suspended notes and—an occasion—even light, effervescent grooves to wring genuine emotion from each song. Even on the one cover, Ornette Coleman’s song that was adopted as the album’s title, these qualities are clear. As good as the record sounds on casual listen, deeper listens reveal so much more. As deep as it’s ingratiating, these dual qualities make Faithful rise well above even most of the other superb albums listed below.
I opined back in April that “even with a whole eight months left in the year, I doubt there will be a better piano trio album released in 2011.” As it turns out, I was nearly right. Just replace the words “”piano trio” with “jazz.”
THE BEST OF THE REST:
: Wilson has inherited the knack for intelligent, delicately structured compositions from his father (whose own 2011 release is further down on this list) and adapt them to a guitar led small combo. For Campo Belo, he adds in the flavor of Brazil in a way that avoids the clichés and keeps his own sharp musical vision intact.
Shauli Einav – Opus One: A strong first step forward from this talented Israeli composer/saxophonist.
Roxy Coss – Roxy Coss: Contemporary sounding without ever sounding too smooth, Coss maintains a strong sense of swing and a sax sound at times evocative of Lucky Thompson.
Julian Lage – Gladwell: Avoiding the sophomore slump, Lage is quickly building a legacy as one of the freshest sounding guitarists to arrive in quite a while.
BANN – As You Like: Sounding so much like John Scofield’s Meant To Be is reason enough to love this record.
Monty Alexander – Uplift: This is as good of a representation of Alexander’s masterful piano trio attack as you’ll find anywhere in his massive discography.
Michael Feinberg – With Many Hands: Feinberg follows Mingus’ lead to create jazz from the bass chair that’s traditionally minded but forward thinking.
Fred Hersch – Alone At The Vanguard: That Hersch is performing at all is a small miracle; that he is performing at the highest levels of his craft, alone and in front of a live audience, is downright astounding.
Jared Gold – All Wrapped Up: Gold took Larry Young’s Unity as inspiration for this record, and it similarly stands out from nearly every other organ jazz record ever made.
Gerald Clayton – Bond – The Paris Sessions: A young pianist with pristine technique, highly advanced compositional skills and obvious leadership abilities, BondThe Paris Sessions justifies all the hype he’s been getting.
Gerald Wilson Orchestra – Legacy: Wilson’s brilliant compositions are performed with the coloring and dexterity of the best small-band jazz outings. Can it be possible that he is still peaking?
Anne Mette Iversen – Milo Songs: Some musicians see parenthood as a burden; Iversen sees it as an opportunity for creative expression.
Mace Hibbard – Time Gone By: Atlanta’s big man from Texas makes another big statement about his abilities as a sax performer and composer.
Brent Canter – Urgency Of Now: By a real up-and-comer at guitar, this is one of those organ jazz records that simultaneously soothes the soul and tingles the mind.
Stan Killian – Unified: Killian writes strong melodies and then gets Dave Binney, Jeremy Pelt and Roy Hargrove to play alongside his own full-toned, fluid horn.
Woody Witt – Pots & Kettles: Just the right mix of premium bop, soul-jazz and ballads from a major figure of Houston’s underrated jazz community.
Marcus Strickland – Triumph Of The Heavy, Vols. 1 & 2: A rare record that reaches out to a wider audience without making any compromises.
Dan Blake – Aquarian Suite: Blake has a knack for creating songs that start with a blues foundation, drags them through bebop and take them to very modern places.
Geoff Vidal – She Likes That: With the energy of rock and the intelligence and spontaneity of jazz, Vidal finds the right balance.