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January 10, 2012

Learning From History: Discovering Jazz in 2011

by  |  January 10, 2012

Welcome to Rhapsody's first-annual Jazz Critics' Poll, wherein 100+ national writers voted on their favorite albums of the year in a tradition we're taking on from the Village Voice. In addition to the full results and an explanatory essay by guru Francis Davis, here's a complementary list from critic and poll cohort Tom Hull. Enjoy.

In 2011, the economy limped along while those who could tried to keep going about their business, and that included almost everyone involved with jazz. The same labels and pretty much the same musicians released roughly the same number of records this year as last. Jazz continues to build a surfeit of talent for its tiny sliver of the market. Those of us who get to listen to a lot of it--I sorted through my usual 600 records this year--are fortunate, and those who don't bother are missing a lot.

For example, consider my own picks in Rhapsody's 2011 Jazz Poll, just 10 out of 54 new A-list albums I found so far this year:

  1. Dan Raphael-Rich Halley-Carson Halley, Children of the Blue Supermarket (Pine Eagle)

  2. Avram Fefer-Eric Revis-Chad Taylor, Eliyahu (Not Two)

  3. Allen Lowe, Blues and the Empirical Truth (Music & Arts)

  4. Muhal Richard Abrams, SoundDance (Pi)

  5. Matt Lavelle, Goodbye New York, Hello World (Musicnow)

  6. Abdullah Ibrahim, Sotho Blue (Sunnyside)

  7. Sonny Rollins, Road Shows, Vol. 2 (Doxy/Emarcy)

  8. Ellery Eskelin, New York (Prime Source)

  9. Ted Rosenthal, Out of This World (Playscape)

  10. De Nazaten & James Carter, For Now (Strotbrocck)

Three ancient figures stand out. Sonny Rollins, of course, took his 80th-birthday bash and edited it into sheer joy: At one point he asserts that everybody loves guest Jim Hall, but as this poll shows, the one everyone really loves is Sonny Rollins.

The others, at 77 and 81, are Abdullah Ibrahim and Muhal Richard Abrams. The former was first presented to the world by Duke Ellington, and 48 years later the South African returns with his most purely Ellingtonian suite. AACM founder Abrams recapitulates history too, by continuing to find new angles. The disc with the age-mellowed saxophonist Fred Anderson gained a sentimental note after Anderson's death, while the one with trombonist George Lewis remains constantly challenging.

I originally had no intention of following the crowd and voting for Rollins, but in the cutting contest I ran he kept bumping off fine albums by some of the strongest tenor saxophonists I could find: James Carter, Tommy Smith, Ken Vandermark (Side A), David S. Ware. (David Murray arrived too late.) I did keep space for two trio albums that struck a personal chord: Avram Fefer's elegy for his late father, and Ellery Eskelin's thoroughly postmodern organ record (dedicated to his church-organist mother).

The other essential sax record is Rich Halley's poetry record. Dan Raphael is the poet, firing off line after line as Halley chases them with sax flourishes and his son accents them with drums. Seems simple, but I found myself hanging on every word and relishing every riff. Halley is an outsider, based in Oregon, who played on the side until he retired from his day job. The other outsider here is Allen Lowe (based in Maine), best known for his books and compilations of genre-crossing music history. He tends to do everything to excess, like his 36-CD jazz comp That Devilin' Tune. His new album is a three-disc set that distills much of what he knows about blues into original compositions that are both archetypal and surprising.

Matt Lavelle is the youngest and possibly the least well-known artist on the list, but even he is past 40. He plays trumpet and bass clarinet -- a difficult combo that gives the latter a unique sound -- and adds a little swing feel to the avant-garde. It takes time and huge effort to excel at jazz, and Lavelle's record is a breakthrough.

The other two records I slotted more tactically. Forgetting that I already had Abrams and Ibrahim, I thought I should include some piano, and Rosenthal's trio is as delightful as any I've heard this year. And I wanted to make the point that as much as I liked James Carter's Organ Trio, it's not nearly as much fun as his collaboration with the Dutch-Surinamese band De Nazaten -- indeed, given the Dutch penchant for avant-whimsy and a strong shot of third-world rhythm, how could it not be?

I was also glad to have accidentally worked at least one European group in. Given how much first-rate jazz is produced in Europe these days, I probably should have had more. Part of this problem is timing: I scratched ICP Orchestra's 049 (ICP) and Benjamin Herman's Hypochristmastreefuzz (Dox) from my list as 2010 releases, even though I didn't get to them until early in 2011. Part is that I don't get as much product from Europe as from the U.S. And part is dumb luck: Either by artist or by label, at least 10 more of my A-list records are non-American.

In fact, let's list the rest here, to give you a flavor:

Each of these records has an interesting story. To take one example, Stetson uses circular breathing to create rumbling sheets of sound on bass saxophone, against which he bounces  odd percussions, or in the case of New History Warfare Vol. 2, bits of Laurie Anderson performance speech. The record appeals more to experimental-rock fans than to jazzers, in part because it's deeply mechanical, and rock has been obsessed with machines as far back as "Rocket 88." (The Maïkotron Unit is based on another, even stranger machine.)

A few of these did well in the poll, but most barely got noticed, some not at all. Some people look at polls to join the winners, but I've always found them more interesting to help identify prospects buried in the noise. That's one reason why it pays to look at the individual ballots (available in full here): It's ultimately about matching up your individual taste with expertise that works for you, and in that quest settling for the average leaves much to be desired.

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