Mark Bacon’s Top Albums of 2011

1) Live In Europe 1967: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 1 — Miles Davis Quintet
Miles Davis always wielded his musical acumen as precisely as a diamond cutter uses tools. In this latest set from Miles’ archives, there are three brilliant CDs of previously previously only bootlegged or unreleased  material, and a gem of a DVD. The genius is that, unlike many box sets where an overwhelming all-encompassing attitude prevails as to the content selection process, Live in Europe is a specifically defined moment-in-Miles Davis-time, with similar set lists from recording to recording. Presented here is Davis’ “second great Quintet,” featuring Herbie Hancock (piano), Wayne Shorter (tenor sax), Ron Carter (bass) and a young Tony Williams (drums), on George Wein’s Newport Jazz Festival in Europe tour. There are no breaks between songs; in 1967 Davis instituted the format of playing sets as a continuous jam. It is very much like a filmmaker utilizing one continuous shot. The effect is progressive, often dream-like, and demonstrates dazzling virtuosity throughout.

2) Smile — The Beach Boys
The Beach Boys’ “Smile” is the album that haunted Brian Wilson for four decades. The unfinished Beach Boys work devastated Wilson even though it later confirmed his legend as a musical visionary. He abandoned it in 1967 amid doubts from his record company and even his own bandmates about its orchestrated whimsy. “Smile” follows the template of Wilson’s 2004 re-recording to sequence 19 songs and snippets from the 1966-67 sessions into as close to a definitive “Smile” as we’re likely to ever get, followed by voluminous fragments, outtakes and snippets of studio dialogue. With lyricist Van Dyke Parks,  Wilson turned “Smile” into a compact history of America – or at least the idea of what America once represented in its naïve optimism. It traces a journey to that begins at Plymouth Rock and makes its way west to the Promised Land, a montage of historical references and mystical reveries (the eternal “Surf’s Up”). The music embraces the epic and the fanciful, evoking a prairie church service in one sequence (“Cabin Essence”), while providing a soundtrack for an acid trip in another (“Vega-Tables”). A must for Brian Wilson fans.

3) Fugazi Live Series — Fugazi
From dischord.com: “Between 1987 and 2003, Fugazi played over 1000 concerts in all 50 states and all over the world. Over 800 of these shows were recorded by the band’s sound engineers. This project makes each of these recordings available to download for a small fee. The project starts with 130 shows and will release more monthly until they’re done.” There never was, or will ever be anything like a Fugazi live show. They were simply one of the most powerful and dynamic live bands ever, both sonically and visually. I know lots of people who never got to see them live. Here’s the chance to remedy that. The quality ranges from cassette sources to board recordings. Here’s a chance to hear one of the greatest bands of all time the way they should be experienced: live.

4) Captain Black Big Band — Captain Black Big Band
The Captain Black Big Band is a group of musicians displaying a range of skill, experience, and sound to create what is one of the most progressive sounds of late—progressive not because of a particular moment of conspicuous ingenuity or some easily discernible avant-garde approach, unless you consider the audacity to embrace big band music at this point novel enough to come off as that. The Captain Black Big Band succeeds at pushing the limitations of the very distinct tradition of sound from which it is born, because it preserves the elements of classic big band music in a brand new way. Instead of shunning everything except the mold, Leader and pianist Orrin Evans opts to break it and meld that nostalgia laden style of playing with the sensibilities of Big Band era rebels who usually struck out at tender ages to form the more memorable trios, quartets, and other small experimental groups. Simply put, this will blow you away.

5) Red Hot + Rio 2 — Various
For the last 20 years, the “Red Hot” organization has curated impeccably cast, all-star compilation albums mining every genre from freak folk to jazz to alterna-rock to Afro-pop to American standards – all to raise money in the fight against AIDS. But there’s one musical nexus they keep returning to: Brazil. It’s no surprise Brazil has become Red Hot’s default mode. Not only is it tempting to promote safe sex with the sexiest music on the planet, it’s hard to resist the chance to re-expose the movement the music references: Tropicalia (Brazil’s late ’60s/early ’70s equivalent of classic rock). The set can be faulted for over-representing Veloso and Gil at the expense of other Brazilian standard-bearers like Chico Buarque and Jorge Ben. The quality of the songs and recordings is extremely high. Beirut’s “O Leãozinho” is a rhythmic stunner. Alice Smith and Aloe Blacc’s “Baby” is a sweet and gentle jaunt. Jorge’s assist on Beck’s “Tropicália” gives the song an added groove. This record is easy to like. And it’s even easier to dance along to.

6) Ninety Miles — Christian Scott, David Sanchez & Stefon Harris
Ninety Miles is a collaboration among rising young trumpeter and native New Orleanian Christian Scott, frequent New Orleans visitor and vibraphonist Stefon Harris, and tenor saxophonist David Sanchez. The trio had not played together before traveling to Cuba in May 2010 to perform and record with Cuban musicians. It was a challenging session, but as Ninety Miles shows, a rewarding one. The songs have consistent energy, and the American and Cuban musicians gelled and sound like a group that had been playing together for years. As both a musical and geographic setting, Ninety Miles is a fine album from these three musicians.

7) Spacer — Jason Adaciewicz’s Sun Rooms
One of the most amazing players to ever pick up the vibes – an artist with the sort of boundless creativity that Bobby Hutcherson brought to the instrument in the 60s. Jason Adasiewicz has an amazing ear for both sound and music – and manages to balance the two perfectly – reaching for completely fresh sounds from the vibes, yet also with a sense of structure that’s never too free – really maintaining a musical, melodic approach that keeps us rapt and attentive all the way through. Jason’s music has always been great, but this recent set is even a cut above – proof that the new Chicago scene is a powerful force in 21st Century jazz.

8) Kaputt — Destroyer
Destroyer continue to map out unexpected territories with referential landmarks, with magnificent results. In a teaser paragraph that accompanied this releases’ information, Bejar cryptically described the album as,  “80’s Miles Davis…90’s Gil Evans…fretless bass,” exploring the “hopelessness of the future of music” and the, “pointlessness of writing songs for today.” Perhaps this is why he’s made an album that is so clearly steeped in traditions of modern music; music with smooth jazz, soft-rock disco, and 80’s new wave overtones throughout. Traditions that an individual talent has internalized, morselized, and grafted into an album that goes down smooth before tearing at your insides. It isn’t clever, it’s superb. Those genre tags listed above didn’t turn out to be volatile for Bejar and company. In fact it might be the first fully realized album, in all respects, of Destroyer’s history. This is a triumphantly singular album that explores a space that only this band could have made.

9) The Coimbra Concert — Mostly Other People Do The Killing
Noted post-bop quartet Mostly Other People Do The Killing (to be referred to by their initials for the rest of this review) have used their own CD covers to pay tribute to classic jazz releases for several years now.  This, their latest release, is easily the most audacious cover-cover yet, poking fun at Keith Jarrett‘s The Köln Concert, offering both front and gatefold photos of the four bandmembers (none of whom is a pianist) hunched grimacing over the keyboard. This two-CD set was recorded at a pair of shows the group performed at the 2010 Jazz ao Centro festival in Portugal. Describing MOPDTK’s music is difficult; simply playing it for someone, and watching a broad grin split their face, would be much easier. The quartet (trumpeter Peter Evans, saxophonist Jon Irabagon, bassist/composer Moppa Elliott, drummer Kevin Shea) combine hard bop’s melodic heads, the conversational, polyphonic interplay that characterizes the work of both Louis Armstrong and Albert Ayler, and an infectious spirit of fun, creating a music that swings ridiculously hard, displays wild technical skill without ever going so far out that a relative jazz neophyte couldn’t follow along, and is a joy to hear. Do yourself a favor, explore this release and this band.

10) James Farm — Joshua Redman, Matt Penman, Aaron Parks & Eric Harland
James Farm is a collective recording from four potent young jazz players that attempts—and utterly succeeds—at making instrumental jazz that is catchy and fun to hear while still offering serious pleasures in the originality of its compositions and the verve of its improvisations. The band consists of saxophonist Joshua Redman, pianist Aaron Parks, bassist Matt Penman, and drummer Eric Harland.  James Farm places Redman’s expressive tenor saxophone into this trio’s shimmering, exciting world.  Using compositions from all four members of the group, James Farm sounds like a leap in the right direction.  Each song establishes a scrambling, skittering rhythm that pushes and pulls in an exciting way.  Harland almost never plays a “swing” beat, but he infuses the backbeats a with a loose-limbed elasticity that is, nevertheless, pure jazz.  Penman plays with economy and melody, and Parks continues his ascent: sounding just a little like Keith Jarrett at times, but more often playing with a jittery freedom that is all his own. While the record is not a flatly innovative recording, it is just the kind of thing that modern instrumental jazz needs these days.  Continuing an arc of superb discs by relatively young players who are finding ways for jazz to rise above the merely accomplished to become something that is emotional and compelling for aficionados AND listeners who might not listen to jazz as a habit.

honorable mention–
COIN COIN Chapter One: Gens de couleur libres — Matana Roberts
Alma Adentro — Miguel Zenon
The Story This Time — Jason Stein Quartet
Smoke Ring For My Halo — Kurt Vile
Watch The Throne — Jay-Z & Kanye West

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