We saw our share of standout instrumentalists, from Julian Lage to Rudresh Mahanthappa to Pat Martino. But, as this lists attests, 2011 might rightly be called the Year of the Big Band. And not the stilted old cliched swingers, either — but rather a new kind of vibrant, challenging, vital jazz, played in large groups. From Orrin Evans to Vince Mendoza to Christian McBride to Delfeayo Marsalis to Gerald Wilson, we’re clearly in the midst of a rebirth for this long-maligned subgenre of jazz.
Click through the titles for expanded reviews …
PAT MARTINO – UNDENIABLE: Very straight ahead, very blues-based and a very dazzling display of Martino’s unmatched acumen as a bop guitarist. A group including Tony Monaco, Jeff ‘Tain’ Watts and Eric Alexander (a perfect choice; he’s one of the few saxophonists of his generation to be heavily influenced by the more soulful saxophonists who came before Coltrane) romp through a series of Martino originals — save for their cover of Thelonious Monk’s “Round Midnight.” The results, fiery and precise then soul-scorching and sparkling, make good on the album’s title: The sharply defined talents of 67-year-old Martino, now as much as ever, are undeniable.
SAMMY FIGUEROA – URBAN NATURE: Rock fans know him for his work with David Bowie and the Average White Band, jazz fans from moments alongside Miles Davis and Sonny Rollins (they toured this year), soul and pop fans from turns with Chaka Khan and Mariah Carey. But Figueroa’s real passion, this record makes clear, is Latin jazz. A move from New York City, where he was long a first-call percussionist, to South Florida sparked this career turn. Albums like Urban Nature make you wonder why he ever fooled around with rock and pop music at all. It’s a great ride — from the onomatopoeic cha-chas found on the title track and “Cha Cha Pa’ Ti”; to bouyant, funny asides like “Latin What?”; through to the curling journey that is “7th Door on Your Left,” performed in an intriguing 7/8 meter.
ENRICO RAVA – TRIBE: A jazz superstar in Europe, Rava used his first small combo release since 2007 to introduce a new-to-us voice in his all-Italian lineup: pianist Giovanni Guidi. The album included a bevy of new tracks, plus reworkings of five previously released Rava tunes — something that provided a terrific comparative showcase. Witness how Rava, a generous bandleader, ceded the floor to Guidi for a full-song spotlight on “Garbage Can Blues.” (Guidi’s thoughtful, measured but sensitive approach there called to mind Lyle Mays.) The result was very much a band recording. Rava, sounding as vibrant and vital as ever, seemed deeply enlivened by the fresh perspectives. Check out “F. Express,” a tremendous opportunity to experience both the trumpet master’s phrasing and technical proficiency.
ORRIN EVANS – CAPTAIN JACK BIG BAND: Turns out, it actually does mean a thing, even if it ain’t got that swing. For something like 80 years now, that old Duke Ellington cliche worked as the clarion call of big band music, but its mantra has also become its curse. Subsequent generations moved on to genres with more complexity, a challenge that Evans’ Captain Black Big Band accepted, and then inhabited. In fact, the album defiantly shucked off the bow-tied fox-trotting boilerplate of old. That’s best heard on “Jena 6,” something that was difficult to listen to but yet reflective of the disquiet surrounding racial injustice. It was perfectly unsettling, and a perfect example of what big band music can still be.
ANTHONY WILSON – SEASONS: LIVE AT THE METROPOLITAN MUSEUM: A showcase not just for four genius guitarists, but also for a genius luthier. At the center of Seasons were the exquisitely handcrafted guitars of John Monteleone, as played during the “Seasons” suite at the Met by Wilson, Julian Lage, Steve Cardenas and Chico Pinheiro. Wilson composed the set specially for this event, and shared the lead parts amongst each of the four participants, each of them leading a movement. Even the guitars themselves were shared throughout the performance. Mixing up roles and instruments engendered a spectacularly integrated and varied performance; the collective harmonics were also simply gorgeous. A special, one-off event, presented in both CD and DVD form, Seasons was an artistic treat for both eyes and ears.
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FRED HERSCH – ALONE AT THE VANGUARD: Hersch’s fourth solo piano release might have just been his best yet. A career-defining mixture of four Hersch originals, another original by someone else and four standards, Alone reminds us why Hersch was the first solo pianist to earn a week-long engagement at the famed Village Vanguard. He plays with cerebral emotion, even while in the midst of a remarkable comeback from AIDS-induced dementia and eight months in a coma. Hersch’s triumphant return, already documented on 2010′s triple-disc Whirl, is further delineated here. Having stared down death, the pianist gave a summation of his vast talent and career that, if anything, was bolstered by that bump on the road.
JULIAN LAGE – GLADWELL: A guitarist with splashes of Django Reinhardt, Andres Segovia and Tony Rice in his playing, Lage takes an acoustic approach whether it’s plugged in or not: There are no effects getting in between his fingers and your ears. That’s best heard as Lage performs five pieces all by himself, moments that deftly highlight the intricacies of his style. Check out the little string bends on the old folkie standard “Freight Train.” Then, there’s “Autumn Leaves,” where Lage plays it straight just long enough to make the standard easily recognizable, but augments it creatively with both heavy strumming and the lightest plucking. Along the way, Lage pulls together so many disparate styles that he ultimately crafts a fluid, integrated style which is all his own.
CHRISTIAN McBRIDE BIG BAND – THE GOOD FEELING: The talented jazz bassist’s interest in this format began almost 20 years ago when he crafted the still-fonky “Bluesin’ in Alphabet City” for the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, under the direction of Wynton Marsalis. A new version — which, dare I say it, is fonkier still — can be heard here. Together with a brilliantly cohesive 17-piece band, McBride presents six originals to go with five standards, though none of them is so rote as to become a distraction from the album’s broader ebb and flow. They move with confidence and purpose from a brawny, Count Basie-ish bounce on “Broadway” through to McBride’s ambitious, nearly 12-minute tone-poem “Science Fiction.” A treat for anyone who still longs for challenging, forward-looking big band music.
RUDRESH MAHANTHAPPA – SAMDHI: The idea of mixing East Indian music with jazz isn’t a new one; it’s been with us at least since Dave Pike Set’s “Mathar” in 1969. But it takes someone with a deep understanding of both worlds to take it to an entirely different place. That person is the American alto saxophonist Mahanthappa. Using Indian melodies and rhythms, this electro/acoustic group rumbles along like the furious, whiplash fusion of the 1970s (especially the faster bands like Mahavishnu, Return To Forever and Billy Cobham’s early records), but building from a base of old Indian music, rather than newer Western textures. Like 2008′s Kinsmen, one of jazz’s most innovative records in recent years, the result is a crafty, unusual but very listenable hybrid of traditional East Indian music forms with jazz.
GERALD WILSON ORCHESTRA – LEGACY: The album opens with five ingeniously performed ensemble pieces, each boasting the coloring and dexterity of the best small-band jazz outings. That includes a trio of historical items, each of which has been transformed into a swinging variation that you’d never peg as classical. There’s Stravinsky’s “The Firebird,” presented as a rumbling introductory blast of brass; this greasy blues update of Debussy’s “Claire de Lune” and then a smooth and slinky rendition of Puccini’s “Nessun Dorma.” The heart and soul of the record, though, is a suite called “Yes Chicago Is …,” consisting of seven movements based on the same melody. Wilson’s insistent yet limber group manages to infuse each of them with indelible changes in tempo, harmony, tone and feel — until it becomes this stirring echo of his own changing relationship with the city.
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2011 MAINSTREAM AND MODERN JAZZ HONORABLE MENTIONS: Alphonse Mouzon’s Angel Face was a rangy triumph, testament to its decade-long journey. … The Curtis Brothers’ Completion of Proof gave new voice to the virile, confrontational jazz of the 1960s. … Robert Hurst, in a rare date as a leader, sizzled through a live acoustic-jazz trio performance on Unrehurst Vol. 2 … Delfeayo Marsalis’ Sweet Thunder impressed with its imaginative reformulation of a great old Duke Ellington song cycle. … And Vince Mendoza returned after a long stint with Joni Mitchell, shining brightly throughout Nights on Earth.
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