John Sharpe's Best Releases of 2011
String ensembles and fusion don't usually go together, but in AACM trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith'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.
Alto saxophonist Rob Brown revels in the license to roam engendered by the intersecting lines of his well-chosen band matesdrummer Nasheet Waits and in-demand pianist Craig Taborn. 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.
Multi-instrumentalist Joe McPhee'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.
In Man'ish Boy (A Raw & Beautiful Thing) (AUM Fidelity, 2009), alto saxophonist Darius Jones scored a stunning debut that placed the newcomer firmly on the avant jazz map. Now in the company of bassist Adam Lane 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.
Trumpeter Peter Evans 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's "Stardust," like you've never heard it before.
Much of this sets strong appeal comes from the tension between the two opposing poles: the cerebral machinations of bassist Barry Guy contrasting with the earthy visceral bite of reedman Mats Gustafsson. 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 to European improv.
Anyone who has witnessed Matthew Shipp 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.
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's skills as an improviser, an aspect of his playing that can paradoxically receive less emphasis in his own Quartet.
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 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'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.
Veteran British pianist Howard Riley 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.
At last, the late Bill Dixon'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.
On another thrilling installment in the Lithuanian imprint's invaluable documentation of the New York loft jazz of the 1970s, violinist Billy Bang'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.