Maybe 2011 was the year of the vibraphone. Or the year of the piano trio. Or the year of Brad Mehldau or Paul Motian. Or another year of Miles. The best jazz records of 2011 are a varied bunch, but there are certain strains that float through the year's favorite recordings. The sheer diversity and strength of the offerings prove that the genre continues to expand boundaries with creativity, vision and bold sonic experiments.
The most exciting trend might be the sudden maturation of a cadre of young vibraphone players -- Warren Wolf, Stefon Harris, Jason Adasiewicz -- who all led or had a hand in fantastic records. Elder jazz vibist Gary Burton's new group also put forth one of the year's best albums, and helped make the vibraphone one of the hippest sounds in contemporary jazz. It was an excellent year for the genre's fringes and fusions, with the saxophones of Steve Coleman and Colin Stetson and Iraqi composer Amir ElSaffar. Then there's pianist Brad Mehldau. Of his three records in 2011, two on the list demonstrate why he's among the most distinct players around: an elegant, unrehearsed live session at Birdland with Charlie Haden, Lee Konitz and Paul Motian, and an electrifying solo session that bristles with his head-spinning technique.
Strains of Mehldau are also heard in the crowning offering from Swiss pianist Colin Vallon, whose trio turned out the top record of the year, Rruga. The record's title is Albanian for "path," and it, like many other favorites of the year, is a wildly gratifying journey.