1. David S. Ware, Cooper-Moore, William Parker, Muhammad Ali, “Planetary Unknown”
“Planetary Unknown” is the perfect example of an album that combines a deep knowledge of jazz tradition with a burning passion for innovation. The album is entirely improvised yet contains obvious references to jazz history, including its frequent use of swing and its homage to John Coltrane’s landmark recording “Interstellar Space.” Ware, Cooper-Moore, Parker and Ali led the charge during the 1970s “loft-scene” in downtown Manhattan; “Planetary Unknown” shows that they are still making captivating, swinging and provocative music today.
2. Jeff Lederer, “Sunwatcher”
Channeling the spirits of legendary saxophonist Albert Ayler can be a difficult task, given Ayler’s extremely personalized approach to improvisation. However, Jeff Lederer’s album “Sunwatcher,” named after an Ayler composition, handles this challenge beautifully. Lederer’s robust and authoritative tone allows him to reference Ayler quite explicitly — as he does in the opening four notes of “Albert’s Sun” — and the album itself often verges on Ayler-grade avant-garde. But “Sunwatcher” is not merely a tribute album. Instead, Lederer, drummer Matt Wilson, pianist and organist Jamie Saft and veteran bassist Buster Williams used Ayler’s inspiration to create one of the most distinctive jazz albums of 2011.
3. BassDrumBone, “The Other Parade”
One of the highlights of “The Other Parade,” or really any other BassDrumBone album or performance, is the uncanny interaction between drummer Gerry Hemingway, bassist Mark Helias and trombonist Ray Anderson. The band has now been together for 34 years, and “The Other Parade” show signs of telepathic communication: Helias and Hemingway are locked whenever they launch into unthinkable rhythmic variations and always predict Anderson’s virtuosic yet tasty trombone lines. Although this interaction would be impressive by itself — say, in a completely improvised setting — “The Other Parade” features nine original and deliciously grooving compositions. As a result, this relatively accessible album is sure to floor free-jazz nerds, straight-ahead fans and novice jazz listeners.
4. Tyshawn Sorey, “Oblique”
Sorey is one of the most exciting up-and-coming drummers to watch, largely because of his physical and intense style. This is certainly on display throughout “Oblique”; Sorey’s quintet channels a disparate mix of influences, and Sorey plays great drums throughout. Yet, “Oblique” also showcases Sorey’s sensitive compositional voice. There are 10 distinct originals on “Oblique,” and each tune has a slightly different vibe; some are abrasive and angular, and others, like a solo alto saxophone composition dedicated to Anthony Braxton, one of Sorey’s teachers, are quiet and haunting. “Oblique” proves that Sorey is one of the most dynamic younger jazz musicians and suggests great things to come in 2012.
5. The Dreamers, “A Dreamer’s Christmas”
While I usually loathe Christmas music, “A Dreamer’s Christmas” is so good that it not only tops my all-time favorite Christmas albums list — Vince Guaraldi’s “A Charlie Brown Christmas” is a close second — but also makes the cut for my top five of the year. The Dreamers are a band led by John Zorn, and they intersperse his compositions with often-dissonant improvisations. However, on this album they opt for a much more traditional approach, clearly stating the melodies to seven standard Christmas songs and two originals. While these cutting-edge improvisers do play straight-ahead solos, the album retains an unmistakable Dreamers sound. Guest vocalist and well-known screamer Mike Patton sings a beautiful and crooning rendition of “The Christmas Song.”