John Sharpe's Best Releases of 2011

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Here are ten new releases and three reissues which stood out from those heard this year:


Wadada Leo Smith's Organic

Heart's Reflections

Cuneiform


String ensembles and fusion don't usually go together, but in AACM trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith
Wadada Leo Smith
Wadada Leo Smith
b.1941
trumpet
's universe anything is possible. His Organic ensemble made its first appearance on the second disc of his acclaimed Spiritual Dimensions (Cuneiform, 2009), and here it returns, with only slight changes to the lineup, for a whole two-CD set of their own. Passages of collective interplay explore color and texture as much as melodic or rhythmic development, merging into a seething hyperactive stew of up to four guitars, along with a brace of laptops and saxophones. Calm at the center of the storm, Smith is simply majestic.


Rob Brown

Unknown Skies

Rogue Art


Alto saxophonist Rob Brown
Rob Brown
Rob Brown
b.1962
saxophone
revels in the license to roam engendered by the intersecting lines of his well-chosen band mates—drummer Nasheet Waits
Nasheet Waits
Nasheet Waits
b.1971
drums
and in-demand pianist Craig Taborn
Craig Taborn
Craig Taborn
b.1970
keyboard
. One of that select band of instrumentalists whose soloing isn't dependent on repeated motifs as much as a constantly unfurling narrative, the reedman thrills with his sustained brilliance. By close of play everyone wins on this splendid disc, which ranks among Brown's finest.


Joe McPhee/Michael Zerang

Creole Gardens (A New Orleans Suite)

No Business


Multi-instrumentalist Joe McPhee
Joe McPhee
Joe McPhee
b.1939
reeds
's resume includes more than its fair share of twosomes, with drummers forming a prominent strand, but McPhee's encounter with Chicago-based Michael Zerang ranks among the most rewarding. It helps that both have a well of shared experience to draw upon. But it's not only about familiarity, a large degree of the success of this 60-minute live date recorded in New Orleans stems from how attuned they are to each other's intent.


Darius Jones

Big Gurl (Smell My Dream)

AUM Fidelity


In Man'ish Boy (A Raw & Beautiful Thing) (AUM Fidelity, 2009), alto saxophonist Darius Jones
Darius Jones
Darius Jones

sax, alto
scored a stunning debut that placed the newcomer firmly on the avant jazz map. Now in the company of bassist Adam Lane
Adam Lane
Adam Lane
b.1868
bass, acoustic
and drummer Jason Nazary, two further additions to the roll call of gorgeous widescreen ballads which so distinguished his debut stand out: "Michele Hearts Willie" entrances with searing intensity, while "I Wish I Had A Choice," soars on an aching melody line.


Peter Evans Quintet

Ghosts

More Is More


Trumpeter Peter Evans
Peter Evans
Peter Evans

trumpet
blasts the modern mainstream into the 21st century with live processing fully integrated into this five-piece ensemble, which tackles six originals loosely inspired by the tradition and Hoagy Carmichael
Hoagy Carmichael
Hoagy Carmichael
1899 - 1981
piano
's "Stardust," like you've never heard it before.


Tarfala Trio

Syzygy

No Business


Much of this sets strong appeal comes from the tension between the two opposing poles: the cerebral machinations of bassist Barry Guy
Barry Guy
Barry Guy
b.1947
bass
contrasting with the earthy visceral bite of reedman Mats Gustafsson
Mats Gustafsson
Mats Gustafsson
b.1964
reeds
. Spread over four expansive LP sides and a single-sided 7" EP, the three men cover an astonishing dynamic range, from blistering intensity to almost imperceptible timbral ping pong, wedding the passion of Albert Ayler
Albert Ayler
Albert Ayler
1936 - 1970
sax, tenor
to European improv.


Matthew Shipp

The Art of the Improviser

Thirsty Ear


Anyone who has witnessed Matthew Shipp
Matthew Shipp
Matthew Shipp
b.1960
piano
in action over the past few years will know that the pianist's bravura concert display often eclipses his studio output. So it proves here. Each disc manifests a continuous stream drawing deep from his repertoire along with a standard. Although free in the sense that there may be no predetermined course, the pianist references tunes as lucent beacons in the otherwise uncharted waters. Melodies ring out, periodically obscured by crashing depth charge chords or by an austere classicism, but nonetheless they still swing with verve.


Farmers By Nature

Out Of This Earth's Distortions

Aum Fidelity


The three protagonists share a joint history which begets an almost telepathic understanding, promoting exciting seat of the pants navigation and unfettered expression, safe in the knowledge that any unexpected turns will be spiritedly pursued. The egalitarian outlook ensures ample space for each, arising in unforced natural progressions. This disc acts as a wonderful showcase for bassist William Parker
William Parker
William Parker
b.1952
bass, acoustic
's skills as an improviser, an aspect of his playing that can paradoxically receive less emphasis in his own Quartet.


Taylor Ho Bynum / John Hébert / Gerald Cleaver

Book Of Three

Rogue Art


Though the chops are a given, the three collaborators don't flaunt their prowess. Indeed, the whole album could be characterized as understated, not only in its virtuosity but also in its melodies, with the four original compositions barely more explicit than the five group improvs. Taylor Ho Bynum
Taylor Ho Bynum
Taylor Ho Bynum
b.1975
cornet
demonstrates mastery of dynamics, color and timbre, waxing alternately puckish and world weary. Don't expect instant gratification. This set both demands and sustains the repeated listening needed to appreciate its latent charms.


Craig Taborn

Avenging Angel

ECM


Craig Taborn
Craig Taborn
Craig Taborn
b.1970
keyboard
's first solo disc unites his trademark interlocking two handed rhythms with a delicate ethereal sensibility across a baker's dozen of improvisations, all captured with ECM's pristine sound.


Reissues


Howard Riley

The Complete Short Stories 1998-2010

No Business


Veteran British pianist Howard Riley
Howard Riley
Howard Riley
b.1943
piano
revels in the exposed format: he already has at least 11 solo sets to his name, but this collection, comprising a brace of previously released solo double-disc sets along with a another two CDs worth of previously unreleased material, convinces as more than justified and deserves to elevate Riley to the upper echelons of the pianistic pantheon. Notwithstanding disparate recording dates, Riley sustains a remarkable focus throughout: his playing richly voiced and lucent, his technique audacious, whether shifting from bracing two handed independence to vibrant call-and-response or single note streams on dampened strings.


Bill Dixon

Intents and Purposes

International Phonograph


At last, the late Bill Dixon
Bill Dixon
Bill Dixon
1925 - 2010
trumpet
's almost mythical early masterpiece sees the light of day once again. Painstakingly transferred from the two track masters, the disc is lovingly presented as a facsimile of the original LP, with the album cover and liner notes duplicated. A number of traits which recur in Dixon's oeuvre are prefigured here: the use of two basses, careful deployment of overdubbing, and the written lines which emerge, seemingly unheralded, from what appears to be improvisation. This reissue constitutes essential listening.


Billy Bang's Survival Ensemble

Black Man's Blues / New York Collage

No Business


On another thrilling installment in the Lithuanian imprint's invaluable documentation of the New York loft jazz of the 1970s, violinist Billy Bang
Billy Bang
Billy Bang
1947 - 2011
violin
's rhythmic drive is much in evidence, though he had yet to unleash the soaring melodic swing which came to define his work over the years. Consequently, high energy is the most prominent aspect of his playing, with pyrotechnics and hypnotic dissonance never far away. Though raw and unvarnished, with some slightly raggedy unisons, Black Man's Blues in particular, confirms this set as both heady stuff and a real find.

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