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As I do every year, I have to preface this by saying that I make no pretence of having heard anything like all of the jazz albums which came out in 2011. Looking at a list like Birmingham Post jazz critic and Jazz Breakfast blogger Peter Bacon’s Festive 50, I realise just how few of the albums released this year I’ve actually heard (yet). I sometimes think a better time to do looking back on 2011 features would late 2012.

Nevertheless, here are my three favourite albums out of the year’s releases I have had time to have a good listen to. They’re in alphabetical order rather than any preferential ranking.

Farmers By Nature: Out of This World’s Distortions.

Free jazz trio of Gerald Cleaver (drums), William Parker (bass) and Craig Taborn (piano). Taborn’s playing on this stands out because of his use of the different sonorities the piano can produce. At times he’s playing percussive staccato lines, at others he uses the sustain pedal to let the sound hang in the air between phrases. There’s a wide range of moods in the music, from an elegaic tribute to saxophonist Fred Anderson, who died the day before the album was recorded, to fiercely swinging uptempo music. Not always the easiest of listens, but a very rewarding one.

The Impossible Gentleman: The Impossible Gentleman.

What I particularly like about this record is the splendid sweet-and-sour contrast between the romantic playing of Gwilym Simcock on piano and Mike Walker in full-on fusion mode on guitar. They’re backed by a top class rhythm section in Steve Swallow on bass and Adam Nussbaum on drums. First-rate improvisation on a well above average set of original tunes.

Tommy Smith: Karma.

Like the Impossible Gentleman album, there’s more than a hint of jazz-rock about this. It’s Weather Report and Return to Forever crossed with a Celtic version of Jan Garbarek’s Nordic folk-jazz. But it works, and it creates a soundworld all its own. Smith’s joined by Steve Hamilton (splitting his time between piano and synthesizer), Kevin Glasgow on bass guitar (which he makes sound like a lower pitched guitar rather than a double bass substitute), and Alyn Cosker on drums. In the wrong hands, this type of music can too easily degenerate into a sterile demonstration of licks, but there’s a vim and joie de vivre to the playing here which makes it great fun to listen to. I reckon this is one of the most enjoyable albums Tommy Smith’s put out.

So that’s my top three. I’ll also give honourable mentions to Ambrose Akinmusire’s The Heart Emerges Glistening, Alex Garnett’s Serpent and Courtney Pine’s Europa. Out of this world’s distortions grow aspens and other beautiful things. These albums are all among those beautiful things.

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