S. Victor Aaron's Top Albums for 2011, Part 4 of 4: Whack Jazz

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Tim Hagans' "The Moon Is Waiting" is a magnificent piece of work by the trumpeter/composer.

For the uninitiated here, “whack jazz” is a term of endearment. It’s jazz that is endearing to me because it’s brave, daring and breaks all the rules about what jazz is supposed to be, according to the those who don’t believe the music form should be allowed to develop past 1959. It’s the kind of the that keeps Stanley Crouch awake at night and gets Wynton Marsalis fuming. Avant garde, free jazz, punk jazz, modern creative … it’s all whack jazz to me. And I love it.

In surveying the field of whack jazz music for 2011, I’ve found so many great albums that, like the mainstream and modern list, I’m pruning away some damned good records to concentrate on the truly great ones. That means that as good as it is, Farmers By Nature’s Out Of This World’s Distortions is regulated to honorable mention. Same goes for Spacer by Jason Adasiewicz’s Sun Rooms. As is Darius Jones’ Big Gurl. Or Matthew Shipp’s Art Of The Improvisor. Although Jones and Shipp did get together on an album, and that one made the cut.

There’s fifteen more that made the cut, too, including a couple that are first at-bats for these artists. By my estimation, one of those two outperformed everyone else…

ALBUM OF THE YEAR: Harrison Bankhead – Morning Sun Harvest Moon

Chicago bassist Harrison Bankhead started out his career playing electric bass in James Brown and Jimi Hendrix cover bands and ended up playing acoustic bass in free jazz giant Fred Anderson’s band. But this self-effacing sideman has been so content in his supporting roles for Anderson and much of Chicago’s AACM crowd, he didn’t set out to lead a date of his own. Fortunately, he was persuaded to do so.

Morning Sun Harvest Moon was already going to be a good record due to Harrison’s consistent ability to articulate a groove, find the tonal center of any song and grab firmly to it, and make everyone around him sound better. What makes it so great is Harrison’s heretofore hidden talent as a leader, getting saxmen Ed Wilkerson, Jr. and Mars Williams, as well as violinist James Sanders and drummer Ernie Adams, to all talk the same conversation. The occurs whether they are playing a Afro-Cuban funk tune like “Chicago Señorita,” or the advanced bop morphing into a free-for-all that is “Over Under Inside Out.” That in itself is another thing going for the record: every song is an adventure of a different sort, and each in its own subtle way draws from Harrison’s rich experience and musical journey.

Bankhead doesn’t use the occasion of his own record to take a lot of solos, deferring mostly to Wilkerson, Williams and Sanders, but he makes his presence felt through his steadiness and keen sense of playing the right notes at the right times. It was way past time for him to make a record, but he makes for that by making one that’s on par with some of the best records by many veteran leaders he’s gigged with. For this year, at least, it beats ’em all.


Darius Jones and Matthew ShippCosmic Lieder: Jones has fully arrived with this fascinating duo set where he is every bit the equal of Shipp.

Laura KahleCircular: Mrs. Jeff Watts shows much sophistication and confidence as a composer and pocket trumpet player in the second most impressive debut album of the year.

Berne, Black and ClineThe Veil: The jazz of Armstrong, Parker and Davis informed with the harshness and directness of metal, grunge and ambient.

Wadada Leo SmithHeart’s Reflections: Mysterious, funky and threatening, Smith’s Organic ensemble picks up where Miles’ Agartha band left off.

KazeRafale: Satoko Fujii and Natsuki Tamura’s newest project adds French musicians Christian Pruvost on trumpet and Peter Orins on drums and electronics. This tribute to the composer Chopin looks as far ahead as it glances back.

Aram Bajakian’s KefAram Bajakian’s Kef: Kef plays Armenian-style songs with an American avant-rock flair and you know what? It sounds great.

Rich Halley QuartetRequiem For A Pit Viper: The fearless tenorman from Portland, Oregon teams up with equally wild trombonist Mike Vlatkovich and makes an “out” disc that tops some of the more highly touted records coming from New York or Chicago.

Ivo Perelman QuartetThe Hour Of The Star: Perelman just knew that throwing together a quartet with Gerald Cleaver, Joe Morris and Matthew Shipp would work. It did, too, probably better than he ever imagined.

NeoNeoclassico: The Italian trio experts of off-the-cliff jazz are at it again, benefitting from Steve Albini’s sharper production.

Tim HagansThe Moon Is Waiting: Hagans sets up challenging situations with fully developed ideas that cross liberally across the lines separating bop, fusion and avant garde.

Mikko Innanen and Innkvisitio – Clustrophy: Innanen’s “retro-futuristic” jazz is at once old school and sleekly modern. Every track feels innovative and imaginative.

Greg WardGreg Ward’s Phonic Juggernaut: On the first time out, Ward wins the fusion Album of the Year honors; the second time around, he’s on the Whack Jazz list. The man just excels at anything he decides to play.

Kidd JordanOn Fire: You’d expect that Kidd along with Bankhead and Warren Smith to play unrestrained, improvised music at its highest level, and that’s just what these three do on this record.

Jason SteinThe Story This Time: Stein & Co. tip their hats to the underappreciated genius of Lennie Tristano (and Thelonious Monk) in a rare, spirited and faithful homage to early avant garde jazz.

Dead Cat BounceChance Episodes: Close to what you might get if ROVA or World Saxophone Quartet had a wickedly funky rhythm section.


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S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SVictorAaron
S. Victor Aaron

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