Kenny Burrell, Tenderly (HighNote)
Recorded in 2009 in Pasadena when he was 78, Los Angeles-based guitarist Kenny Burrell's solo recital sums up a lifetime of exquisite music making with elegantly rendered standards and tributes to the late guitar legend Wes Montgomery, Billie Holiday (with whom he recorded), and Duke Ellington, his most abiding musical passion.
Foxtails Brigade, The Bread and the Bait (Antenna Farm)
Mostly a brigade of two, Foxtails is a darkly alluring Bay Area band built upon the anxious partnership of fiddler Anton Patzner (a founding member of the string metal combo Judgment Day) and guitarist Laura Weinbach, who also contributes vocals of unsettlingly crystalline purity. Whether performing pop tunes, French chanson or dream-ridden originals, they create arresting music marked by unaffected whimsy, surreal imagery and insinuating melodies.
Alasdair Fraser and Natalie Haas, Highlander's Farewell (Culburnie)
After perfecting a stripped down duo that revolutionized the ancient idiom of traditional Scottish fiddle music, Scots-born Nevada City-based fiddler Alasdair Fraser and Menlo Park-raised cellist Natalie Haas invited about a dozen of their colleagues to join them on "Highlander's Farewell," including dazzling young string players like Tristan Clarridge, Emily Onderdonk and Brittany Haas.
The Jeff Gauthier Goatette, Open Source (Cryptogramophone)
Los Angeles violinist Jeff Gauthier writes luscious, lapidary melodies that unspool like sleek and uncommonly strong strands of silk. Featuring brothers Alex and Nels Cline (on drums/percussion and guitars, respectively), trumpeter John Fumo, bassist Joel Hamilton, and David Witham on piano, keyboards and accordion, the Goatette combines hair-trigger volatility with an expansive sense of space.
Nice Guy Trio, Sidewalks and Alleys/Waking Music (Porto Franco)
On their second album Bay Area Nice Guys (trumpeter Darren Johnston, accordionist Rob Reich and bassist Daniel Fabricant) explore two five-piece suites, Reich's picaresque metropolitan gadabout "Sidewalks and Alleys" and Johnston's evocatively dreamy "Waking Music." Joined by an all-star string quartet anchored by Turtle Island Quartet cellist Mark Summer, the trio combines jazz's improvisational imperative with the dynamic control of chamber music juiced by the rhythms and cadences of klezmer, tango, Balkan brass bands, ragtime, and Nino Rota scores.
Ed Reed, Born to Be Blue (Blue Shorts)
Since recording his first album at the age of 78, the long-time Richmond resident has taken his rightful place as one of jazz's most keenly observant singers, a stately balladeer with a fine-grained baritone who turns familiar standards into wrenching tales. His third CD possesses all the distilled emotion and narrative coherence of a jazz masterpiece, as he infuses standards like Nat Adderley's "Old Country" and Abbey Lincoln's "Throw It Away" with decades of regret, sorrow, and hard-won self-knowledge.
Eric Reed, Dancing Monk (Savant)
Rather than trying to channel Thelonious Monk's famously percussive keyboard style, with its splashing dissonances and freight train grooves, Los Angeles piano star Eric Reed reworks Monk's ingenious compositions in his own polished image, with consistently felicitous results. Backed by veteran bassist Ben Wolfe and twenty-something drummer McClenty Hunter, the trio swinging with an effortless buoyancy too rarely heard on the contemporary scene.
Marcus Shelby, Soul of the Movement (Porto Franco)
San Francisco bassist/composer Marcus Shelby explores both the sacred and the secular sides of civil rights movement, alternating between vivid original compositions and his arrangements of classic spirituals. His orchestra showcases some of the scene's most vivid improvisers, but the album is dominated by three sensational singers: soaring conservatory-trained soprano Jeannine Anderson, irrepressible jazz and blues singer Faye Carol, and the dynamic soul-jazz crooner Kenny Washington.
John Stowell/Michael Zilber Quartet, Shot Through With Beauty (Origin)
As the title suggests, East Bay saxophone master Mike Zilber and redoubtable Portland, Ore. guitarist John Stowell share an unabashed love of sumptuous melodies. Accompanied by the invaluable rhythm section tandem of bassist John Shifflett and drummer Jason Lewis, they investigate tunes like Kenny Wheeler's "Kayak" and Dizzy Gillespie's "Con Alma" and finely wrought originals (Zilber's deceptively pacific 10-minute title track is the album's thematic centerpiece).
Wadada Leo Smith's Organic, Heart's Reflections (Cuneiform)
A lion of the avant garde for more than four decades, Southern California trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith is sound sculpture who has absorbed a global array of musical traditions. From extended passages of crunching low down funk to a beatific suite dedicated to the 12th century Sufi mystic Abu al-Hasan al-Shadhili, this two disc album seems to distill a lifetime of musical and spiritual searching.
Ten Other Notable Releases of 2011
1) Cow Bop Too Hick For the Room (B4MAN-Music)
2) Debbie Poryes & Bruce Williamson Two and Fro (OA2)
3) Art Pepper Blues For the Fisherman (Widow's Taste)
4) The Tierney Sutton Band American Road (BFM Jazz)
5) The Lost Trio Mysterious Toboggan (Evander)
6) Larry Goldings In My Room ((BFM Jazz)
7) Zigaboo Modeliste New Life (JZM)
8) Josh Nelson Discoveries (Steel Bird)
9) Hristo Vitchev The Perperikon Suite
10) John Santos Filosofia Caribena (Machete)