Cosmic Jazz enters its fourth year and our Best of 2011 features the same eclectic mix of music as the regular show. As most listeners know, during the show we don’t have a prearranged playlist and we have always played whatever we like. As for acclaimed critic Whitney Balliett, jazz for us is simply “the sound of surprise”. Each of these releases briefly reviewed below will feature tracks we’ll come back to in the coming months. There’s no particular order this year, just great music that we’ll continue to feature in the show.
Last year we featured Charles Lloyd’s career-defining Mirror as our best album and this year we’ve chosen another saxophonist whose album Sacred Dimension we have come back to again and again on the show. Tenor player Nat Birchall’s two previous releases on Gondwana Records were very firmly in the Coltrane quartet classic modal mould, but on this new release Birchall’s group has a broader soundbase, most notably through the use of Corey Mwamba’s vibes. Of course, the Coltrane influence is still a major factor but Birchall’s playing here reaches well beyond mere Coltrane-lite. The result is music you will come back to again and again. For me, this was the disc of choice during my most recent month in Beijing: I played it more than a dozen times then and I’ll be continuing to do so throughout 2012. As if this wasn’t enough, Gondwana also released another excellent album from Manchester stablemate Matthew Halsall. On the Go was a delight from start to finish with several standout tracks including Song for Charlie which captures one of Halsall’s strengths – dreamy ballads with insidious melodies that bear repeated listening.
2011 was undoubtedly Gregory Porter’s breakthrough year. His album Water topped many end of year polls (including that of the UK’s Jazzwise magazine) and we were pleased to be involved in an exclusive ICR interview with Porter earlier in the year. Although the stand out track 1960 What? achieved worldwide airplay and now has a handful of indifferent remixes to its name, Porter’s rich baritone carries conviction throughout the remaining tracks.
We played several tracks from another US singer’s latest album The Gate. Eclectic producer Don Was created some multi-tracking magic on reworkings of Norwegian Wood, Blue in Green and – most unusually – King Crimson’s Matte Kudasi. As always, Elling is served by a brilliant band including longtime pianist and musical arranger Laurence Hobgood.
UK pianist and Leeds College of Music graduate Leon Greening cut his new album Cookin’ in Brooklyn in NYC and produced a consistently good record in which his post-bebop credentials are enhanced on three tracks by American altoist Vincent Herring. We particularly liked the cut Waterloo but this is a consistently good set from a very underrated pianist. Still in the Big Apple, Still Life – the piano trio from drummer Sean Hutchinson –gave us a great self titled album which we returned to several times during the year. We loved the imaginative taken on Radiohead’s Planet Telex, another sign that this UK band are providing yet more contemporary standards for jazz artists to reinterpret.
Much has been made of Keith Jarrett’s new solo recording Rio. The story goes that Jarrett knew that the music was some of his best and on the flight back from Brazil he asked ECM producer Manfred Eicher to release as soon as possible. It is certainly a return to the straightforward lyricism of the Koln Concert and Bremen/Lausanne but certainly for this reviewer Rio is without the overwhelming emotional impact of the longer form so apparent on both those 1970s masterpieces. However, fellow sometime solo pianist Brad Mehldau also recorded a live double CD this year. Mehldau’s Live in Marciac is – I think – the real deal. Mehldau has a great way with the ballad standard and his take here on Secret Love is astonishingly assured. You’ll never need to listen to another version after this.
Two late 2011 great British releases that we haven’t had time to feature on the show will definitely start off the new year for us. Veteran Stan Tracey once again tackled the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas (remember his masterpiece Under Milk Wood?) and released A Child’s Christmas in Wales, this time including the lyrics spoken by grandson Ben Tracey. A quiet, unassuming and very British record, this pairing of Thomas’ quirky metaphors and Tracey’s Monkish tones made for delightful listening. Meanwhile Basho artist Kit Downes expanded his piano trio to great effect with tenor sax and cello on the excellent Quiet Tiger album. This subtle ambitious music even included a warm and bluesy tribute to Skip James.
Not so the willfully dangerous US trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith, who recently celebrated his 70th birthday and produced the ambitious and noisy Heart’s Reflections. This veered wildly from all out deep grooves to dreamily reflective pieces all expansively trailed across two CDs. The unusual instrumentation includes four guitars, two saxophones, a violin, two basses (one electric, one acoustic), two laptop players, along with the more conventional rhythm section of drums and piano and the result is a demanding bur very rewarding listen. Similarly edgy was the first release from Loop Collective group Ma. Called The Last, this CD featured saxophonist Tom Challenger, here working with drummer Dave Smith, organist Ross Stanley and electronics wizard Matt Calvert. The result is music fed by dubstep as much as jazz. We liked the roaring freejazz meets bass music of Pipes and the big organ-driven sound world of the dark, dubby Noir.
With Michael Brecker gone, the most obvious inheritor of Coltrane’s mantle (aside from UK’s Nat Birchall of course) is the highly regarded Joe Lovano whose Us Five group released Bird Songs, an album which reflected on the legacy of Charlie Parker in a surprising and often highly original way. Lovano isn’t content just to have a go at some of the greatest standards in the jazz language but rather he imbues many with a wholly new spirit breathing new life into Ko Ko, Donna Lee and Loverman.
2011 was a great year for reissues and we championed several of our favourites over the year. The best of the bunch had to be the batch of 50 Impulse! Two on One releases, which paired up albums on one CD pack. Some of our favourites included the Pharoah Sanders twofer Village of the Pharoahs/Wisdom Through Music and Elvin Jones’ Illumination!/Dear John C but for me the best pairings are those from less well known artists including Gabor Szabo, Chico Hamilton and Marion Brown. The latter’s Geechee Recollections/Sweet Earth Flying is very highly recommended.
The British label Vocalion – more used to releasing classic UK jazz – delivered a CD album compilation of two long unavailable Bennie Maupin albums from the late 70s – Moonscapes and Slow Traffic to the Right. This is basically a refinement of the Herbie Hancock sound of classic albums like Crossings and Sextant (and indeed synth pioneer Dr. Patrick Gleeson produced these and the two Maupin albums). Whilst everyone will talk about the Miles Davis Quintet’s Live in Europe 3CD and DVD package, another great reissue was the Bitches Brew Live package which featured some previously unissued Newport Festival tracks from 1969 together the complete Isle of Wight performance from the following year. Whilst this has been available before it is good to have it here with an accurate track listing for the first time. Both of these reissues remind us that Davis generated two unequalled creative peaks just a few years apart. Who else in jazz has achieved this?
Soul Jazz Records delivered their usual high standard of beautifully packaged compilations and spiritual jazz reissues. Bossa Jazz: the Birth of Hard Bossa, Samba Jazz and Brazilian Fusion 1962-73 is the latest in their review of Brazilian music genres. Many of the tracks have been issued before but the usual authoritative notes are always a welcome addition. Soul Jazz is also on a mission to reissue some jazz rarities from the 70s, and we have particularly enjoyed reissues from Steve Colson’s Unity Troupe and the Lloyd McNeill Quintet. Although raised in New Jersey, Colson has links with the AACM in Chicago, and the Art Ensemble’s Joseph Jarman appears on Triumph!, a reissued album from 1980. Also on Soul Jazz and from ten years earlier was the excellent Washington Suite from flautist and composer, painter and photographer Lloyd McNeill. This reissue was featured on several Cosmic Jazz shows – and we will be coming back to it in 2012.
Recent years have seen a swathe of Coltrane reissues but late 2011 saw something special – a reissue of the Complete Stuttgart Concert from 1963. This double CD on Domino Records features extended versions of classic ‘trane tracks from the classic Quartet, including Impressions, My Favourite Things and a blistering version of Afro-Blue.
There’s just time to add four more recommendations in brief – on the fringes of jazz but great fun is the George Duke-influenced The Golden Age of Apocalypse from Thundercat, bass player to Flying Lotus while Austin Peralta’s Endless Planets is the third (and most fully realised) album from this teenage keyboard prodigy. Mercury award nominee Gwilym Simcock produced another excellent piano album – this time a solo performance for his new label ACT. Good Days at Schloss Elmau begins with These Are the Good Days and doesn’t let up. Meanwhile trumpeter Enrico Rava showcased a new quintet on his latest ECM album Tribe. On a recent show we played the uptempo Choctaw, surely a reference to fellow trumpeter Don Cherry.
It’s been a great year for new jazz but maybe even a better year for reissues. CJ looks forward to more great music in 2012. Join us on our musical journey through the spaceways of jazz.