The Top 50 Releases of 2011
Our critics pick the best new and historical recordings of the year
We compiled our top 40 new releases and top 10 historical/reissue recordings of 2011 using yearend lists by our writers. (They were asked to submit ranked lists of 10 new releases and five historical/reissues.) Only CDs and box sets released between Nov. 1, 2010 and Nov. 1, 2011 were eligible. Some albums may have slipped through the cracks, however, as official release dates shifted or weren’t available.
Blurbs constructed from editorial excerpts by Philip Booth, Thomas Conrad, Owen Cordle, Colin Fleming, Steve Greenlee, Evan Haga, Geoffrey Himes, Ashley Kahn, John Murph, Jeff Tamarkin, George Varga and Michael J. West.
1. SONNY ROLLINS
Road Shows Vol. 2 (Doxy/Emarcy)
Capturing performances in Japan and at Rollins’ 80th birthday concert in New York, all in 2010, the second volume of Road Shows finds the Saxophone Colossus joined by a parade of high-profile guests—most notably Ornette Coleman. But even in all this illustrious company, the player here with the most ideas, the most muscle, the most stamina, the most juice, is Sonny Rollins. T.C.
2. JOE LOVANO US FIVE
Bird Songs (Blue Note)
On Bird Songs, the challenge facing Lovano—and it’s a formidable one—is to tastefully approach Charlie Parker’s iconic repertoire and his impeccably crafted alto saxophone playing as building blocks for previously unexplored possibilities. Lovano’s Us Five, a unique quintet with two drummers, hits its ambitious marks without ever sounding contrived. G.V.
3. AMBROSE AKINMUSIRE
When the Heart Emerges Glistening (Blue Note)
Akinmusire is staking his claim as the next important voice on the jazz trumpet with this disc, only his second album as a leader. He has chops, but he submerges his technique in a greater goal: creating powerful moods, then shattering and replacing them with different colors until an emotional narrative emerges. G.H.
4. LEE KONITZ/BRAD MEHLDAU/CHARLIE HADEN/PAUL MOTIAN
Live at Birdland (ECM)
Saxophonist Konitz, pianist Mehldau and bassist Haden had traveled this road before, in the ’90s for the Blue Note trio albums Alone Together and Another Shade of Blue. With the addition of the famously elastic drummer Motian, this collection of six patiently rendered standards finds their chemistry working at ethereal new heights. E.H.
5. MIGUEL ZENÓN
Alma Adentro: The Puerto Rican Songbook (Marsalis)
Zenón’s Alma Adentro, featuring his quartet and a 10-piece wind ensemble conducted and arranged by Guillermo Klein, is the alto saxophonist’s most ambitious exploration yet of Puerto Rico’s music. It is also his best. Zenón assumes command of each composition with a balance of domination and restraint, as the winds lend subtlety and color. M.J.W.
6. CHARLES LLOYD/MARIA FARANTOURI
Athens Concert (ECM)
On this double-disc set recorded live at the base of the Acropolis, Lloyd’s New Quartet and Greek vocal icon Maria Farantouri deliver a stunning set of 18 starkly rendered songs in which simple melodic lines morph into full, sweeping gestures of emotion. Moody and minor-keyed for the most part, the performances vary in texture and mode: instrumental and vocal, with English, Greek and Byzantine lyrics. A.K.
7. JD ALLEN TRIO
Similar to Allen’s previous two albums, Victory! focuses on the saxophonist’s etude-like compositions and on the astonishing accord he’s forged with drummer Rudy Royston and bassist Gregg August. But Victory! is also Allen’s most relaxed-sounding effort yet, with 12 pieces that deliberately take on the form of a sonata suite in three movements: exposition, development and recapitulation. J.M.
8. CRAIG TABORN
Avenging Angel (ECM)
This solo performance (and ECM debut) from the always in-demand pianist is an experiment in sound and silence. While brief melodic ideas underpin many of the pieces, equally central to the aesthetic is the actual sound—the reverberations of hammered strings, the oscillations, the durations of sustains. This is delicacy taken to new levels. S.G.
9. KEITH JARRETT
With few exceptions, Jarrett now makes two kinds of albums: recordings of standards with his trio, and improvised live solo concerts. They are very different formats. The first begins with known form and opens it outward. The second chooses from infinite options and evolves spontaneous form. Everything at this solo concert in Brazil was pulled from free air, but it immediately sounds permanent. It is private emotion discovered as it is shared, and it resolves into acceptance. T.C.
10. ROY HAYNES
Roy-alty (Dreyfus Jazz)
Roy-alty isn’t so much a showcase for the iconic drummer as it is the new recording by an exceptional band that just happens to have one of the all-time sticksmen keeping time. The album falls squarely into a well-defined postbop box, and Haynes is sharp enough to allow his much younger crew to direct the proceedings as often as he calls the shots himself. J.T.
11. RUDRESH MAHANTHAPPA
12. JOSHUA REDMAN/AARON PARKS/MATT PENMAN/ERIC HARLAND
James Farm (Nonesuch)
13. THE NEW GARY BURTON QUARTET
Common Ground (Mack Avenue)
14. TERRI LYNE CARRINGTON
The Mosaic Project (Concord Jazz)
15. VARIOUS ARTISTS
Miles Español: New Sketches of Spain (eONE)
16. GRETCHEN PARLATO
The Lost and Found (ObliqSound)
17. THE COOKERS
Cast the First Stone (Plus Loin)
18. KENNY WERNER
Balloons (Half Note)
19. KURT ELLING
The Gate (Concord Jazz)
20. BRAD MEHLDAU
Live in Marciac (Nonesuch)
21. THE CLAUDIA QUINTET +1 FEATURING KURT ELLING AND THEO BLECKMANN
What Is the Beautiful? (Cuneiform)
22. JOHN SCOFIELD
A Moment’s Peace (Emarcy)
23. MATANA ROBERTS
COIN COIN Chapter One: Gens de couleur libres (Constellation)
24. VIJAY IYER WITH PRASANNA & NITIN MITTA
25. RENÉ MARIE
Black Lace Freudian Slip (Motéma)
26. STEFON HARRIS/DAVID SÁNCHEZ/CHRISTIAN SCOTT
Ninety Miles (Concord Picante)
27. MATTHEW SHIPP
Art of the Improviser (Thirsty Ear)
28. LYNNE ARRIALE
29. TERELL STAFFORD
This Side of Strayhorn (MaxJazz)
30. DAVID MURRAY CUBAN ENSEMBLE
Plays Nat King Cole En Español (Motéma)
31. STEVE COLEMAN AND FIVE ELEMENTS
The Mancy of Sound (Pi)
32. CAPTAIN BLACK BIG BAND
Captain Black Big Band (Posi-Tone)
33. KENNY WHEELER
One of Many (Cam Jazz)
34. MUHAL RICHARD ABRAMS
35. BRANFORD MARSALIS/JOEY CALDERAZZO
Songs of Mirth and Melancholy (Marsalis)
Double Demon (Delmark)
37. BEN ALLISON
38. PILC MOUTIN HOENIG
39. JULIAN LAGE GROUP
40. CHRIS DINGMAN
Waking Dreams (Between Worlds)
TOP 10 HISTORICAL/REISSUES:
1. MILES DAVIS QUINTET
Live in Europe 1967: The Bootleg Series Vol. 1 (Columbia/Legacy)
This three-CD/DVD set captures the man with the horn’s fabled Second Great Quintet at the height of its breathtaking powers. The playing is so galvanizing in its emotional intensity, instrumental vigor and musical richness that some listeners may find the experience both exhilarating and draining. G.V.
2. FREDDIE HUBBARD
Pinnacle: Live and Unreleased From Keystone Korner
There are seven performances on this previously unreleased live set from 1980, and the 42-year-old Hubbard is positively combustible throughout, as fearsome and invincible as in his early Blue Note and Art Blakey days decades earlier. O.C.
3. JULIUS HEMPHILL
Dogon A.D. (International Phonograph)
At the risk of downplaying the music—a lean, mean, blues-and-grooves set from 1972, long out of print, that every avant fan needs to own—I’m going to home in on the product itself: a painstakingly detailed mini-LP gatefold with inserts that give Robert Palmer’s liner notes the size and space they deserve—a limited-run, bonus-track-bearing disc as “collectible” as they come. E.H.
4. MILES DAVIS
Bitches Brew Live (Columbia/Legacy)
These recordings from Newport (’69, previously unreleased) and the Isle of Wight (’70), featuring musicians heard on the landmark albums In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew, are a stunning reminder of the sheer intensity of the trumpeter’s early electric bands, and of the raw, rock-infused power Miles orchestrated. P.B.
5. DUKE ELLINGTON
The Complete 1930-1942 Brunswick, Columbia and Master Recordings of Duke Ellington and His Famous Orchestra (Mosaic)
Mosaic isn’t mucking around on this gargantuan 11-disc set that essentially distills the first grand age of Ellingtonia into the contents of one box. It represents the first full ripening of Ellington’s highly idiosyncratic and highly attuned big-band compositional style. As always, Mosaic has scraped away decades of grime, and most cuts are now eminently crankable. C.F.
6. THE BILL DIXON ORCHESTRA
Intents and Purposes (International Phonograph)
7. THE MODERN JAZZ QUARTET
The Complete Atlantic Studio Recordings of the Modern Jazz Quartet 1956-64 (Mosaic)
8. ART PEPPER
Blues for the Fisherman (Unreleased Art Pepper, Vol VI) (Widow’s Taste)
9. DINAH WASHINGTON
The Fabulous Miss D! The Keynote, Decca & Mercury Singles
1943-1953 (Verve/Hip-O Select)
10. VARIOUS ARTISTS
JAZZ: The Smithsonian Anthology (Smithsonian Folkways)