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Nextbop's Best Albums of 2011: Anthony Dean-Harris' Jazz Picks

Anthony Dean-Harris
Editor-in-Chief / @retronius

The Nextbop staff is compiling its lists of the best albums of 2011 in jazz and all other genres. We’ll release our mass lists during the last week of December but we want to make sure everyone’s individual lists have the chance to shine.

10) Terri Lyne Carrington - The Mosaic Project (Concord Jazz)

I think of drummer Terri Lyne Carrington’s The Mosaic Project like a convivial pot luck dinner. There are more guest spots here than in a Kanye West album, altogether working out to make a collectively great piece of work. It’s almost impossible not to when Carrington put the likes of Geri Allen, Gretchen Parlato, Esperanza Spalding, Patrice Rushen, Tineke Postma, Cassanrda Wilson, Dee Dee Bridgewater, and so many more. It’s refreshing to have so much feminine energy in jazz en masse, even moreso when this is the kind of work such a collaboration produces.

9) Ben Williams - State of Art (Concord Jazz)

Bassist Ben Williams has made the jazz album that could seemingly solve the jazz industry’s problems-- he made a jazz album that young people could conceivably love while still holding to the genre’s conventions close enough that conservatives wouldn’t try to disqualify him outright. Williams’ album holds the necessary steady (re: danceable) beat that holds true in R&B and soul music tied to the black convention, the ease of play in the band made up of Gerald Clayton on keys, Matt Stevens on guitar, Marcus Strickland on saxophones, Jamire Williams on drums, and Etienne Charles on percussion, and a Michael Jackson cover (but a little known one so things don’t get obvious). It’s mostly straight-ahead and altogether cool.

[Listen to Ben Williams in the Nextplayer]

8) Jean-Michel Pilc / François Moutin / Ari Hoenig - Threedom (Motema Music)

Spend long enough listening to jazz and you'll learn about the conventions of the genre-- namely the standards. To some, jazz standards, especially if they're coming from The Real Book, feel like a warm blanket. To others, they're a crutch. However, much like everthing else in the genre, jazz standards work best when they're approached with a newness and freshness. Threedom featuring the longstanding trio of Jean-Michel Pilc on piano, François Moutin on bass, and Ari Hoenig on drums has that different feel for he familiar that takes what could have been a throwaway album and makes it into something really special. It at times deconstructs, and at others reforms altogether. It's a bigger, more exploratory album than meets the eye.

7) Vijay Iyer feat. Prasanna and Nitin Mitta - Tirtha (ACT)

Every year, Vijay Iyer seems to top himself. The man is a genius, applying his brilliance and unique perspective onto everything he touches, whether it’s teaching students, spreadinng wisdom through his Twitter, or making a new, brilliant album every year that continually breaks every preconceived notion one might have about jazz music. This year’s foray in breaking boundaries comes in tow with Prasanna on guitar and vocals and Nitin Mitta on tabla. Iyer and crew seem intent on making jazz music that’s most overtly calling back Indian culture but making sure that the umbrella of the genre and the conventions of the region resound equally, thus scrubbing the educational, world music, “a little culture is good for you”-feel from the music and leaving just great compositions. The album is at times dizzying, but always in a good way.

6) Ben Allison - Action-Refraction (Palmetto Records)

Everything about what Jason Lindner, Steve Cardenas, and Brandon Seabrook do in the tonal whirlwind that is Allison’s cover of Donny Hathaway’s “Some Day We’ll All Be Free” is more than enough for Action-Refraction to secure a spot on my list; everything else here is just icing on the cake. Actually, “Some Day We’ll All Be Free” is a great example of what Allison and crew accomplish on this album-- six covers from various artists like the aforementioned Hathaway, the Carpenters, and Thelonius Monk, and an original composition-- not deconstructing these songs but certainly expanding on songs of varying types in an effort to take them to grand new heights. It shows a kind of restraint that some jazz reformers have yet to grasp. It’s a forward-thinking album that proves Allison is confident in what he’s doing without insisting on how clever it is to rework “We’ve Only Just Begun”.

5) Somi - Live at Jazz Standard (Palmetto Records)

Somi’s Live at Jazz Standard comes off to me as the littlest album that could. I don’t recall hearing a lot of fanfare about it (which doesn’t surprise me with jazz vocalists lately). The east African-influenced music doesn’t at face value seem like an easy draw to many. However, as I tend to say about genre-specific material, good art is about making the inaccessible accessible. This album does this immaculately. Somi proves to make the downright coolest album of the year, something that seems a given when you’re recording in the famed Jazz Standard. However, as astounding as Somi’s vocal acrobatics may be at times, it’s the backing back including the monstrous Liberty Ellman on guitar that really takes the cake. Add to the mix Toru Dodo on keys, Keith Witty on bass, and Steve Belvilus on drums, and you have a band that’s just as engrossing and awe-inspiring as the vocalist taking center stage. This is bringing the jazz vocal album back to basics, which is why you so desperately need to hear it.

Somi - Live at Jazz Standard by somimusic

4) Tigran Hamasyan- A Fable (Verve)

Making a solo piano album is precarious task. How does one showcase his/her talent with such sparseness. It’s rather difficult to hold a listener’s attention for the duration of an entire album with just a piano unless one is doing something really special. Tigran Hamasyan’s something special was redefining the “just” in “just a piano”. It seems Hamasyan’s presence adds something more to the bare essentials on this album. The humming, whistling, moaning, and groaning he adds to selections like the shimmering "What The Waves Brought" and “Carnival” eliminate the supposed sparseness to such a project without it becoming overbearing (or self-indulgent) like it does with Keith Jarrett. It’s more akin to the chanting on Pat Metheny albums without getting too out of control. The combination of the jazz tradition, the rolling rhythms and Hamasyan’s Armenian influences all shape this album into something quite extraordinary. Tigran Hamasyan made a different kind of solo piano album this year and that’s worthy of all sorts of fanfare.

Tigran Hamasyan - “What the Waves Brought”

3) Booker T. Jones - The Road from Memphis (Anti)

On some occasions, the "coming out of retirement" album makes a musician's subsequent work look more like a novelty rather than something substantive. It takes a rather extraordinary talent and confidence to surpass that hump of fan expectation. While it can be said that Jones may not have accomplished this with 2009's Potato Hole, he certainly made what ca be considered a shining point of his career with The Road from Memphis. It would seem having The Roots as his backing band may have been that spark needed for Jones to rev his engines up enough and truly play, making what may be the most jam-worthy album of the year. The Road from Memphis may be forgotten in The Roots' repertoire, likely overshadowed by their own dynamic album, undun, but this is more of a testament to how they are able to be spectacular sessionists, giving Jones everything he needs to shine, especially in Jones' own compositions as opposed to the covers of Gnarls Barkley’s "Crazy" and Lauryn Hill’s “Everything is Everything”. However, Booker T. Jones has all the tools necessary to shine and shine he most certainly does with the same aplomb that he has shown throughout his legendary career.

Booker T. Jones - “Harlem House”

2) Gretchen Parlato - The Lost and Found (ObliqSound)

Gretchen Parlato only continues to grow as a singer and artist, not only in talent but also in confidence. What began as a clamour of praise from the press about her less is more approach has only expanded on this thinking for The Lost and Found, Parlato's third album. The production by Robert Glasper seems to provide direction for all involved to excel (Taylor Eigsti on keys, Derrick Hodge on bass, Kendrick Scott on drums, Dayna Stephens on saxophone, and Alan Hampton on guitar). This is not to say that Parlato has a weak voice, far from it. If anything, Parlato seems to exercise even more of her vocal prowess in this endeavor, yet it’s her choice not to delve into full blown histrionics that makes this album just so plain cool. Time and again, whenever you think of this album, you’ll always return to that simple little descriptor: cool.

1) Thundercat - The Golden Age of Apocalypse (Brainfeeder)

Years from now, TGAoA will be the jazz album that people who think they don’t like jazz will own alongside Madlib’s 2003 album, Shades of Blue. It’s really quite genius-- Flying Lotus (y’know, Alice Coltrane’s nephew) produced an album for the bassist from Suicidal Tendencies along with his brother (the drummer on Stanley Clarke’s Grammy-winning album of last year, The Stanley Clarke Band) the son of an original Z-Boy, and somehow he tricked the world into listening to a 1970s George Duke album with no one being the wiser. Thundercat’s The Golden Age of Apocalypse isn’t just the best jazz album of the year because it’s such a preposterously strong debut from someone who is essentially a 26-year-old veteran bassist, this is the best jazz album of the year because it reframes the best part of a prior era while still making the work completely indicative of its time. It’s not just a jazz album and it’s not just a 70s revival album, it’s the strongest, most focused collection of work this year from a bunch of dudes just tooling around and having fun.


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