In alphabetical order:
Atlantis Quartet, “Lines in the Sand”
Recorded live at the Artists’ Quarter over two nights in May, 2011, the fourth CD by the Atlantis Quartet features five songs from earlier releases, but live is always fresher and edgier. The mix of instruments, the strength of the all-original compositions, and the skill and imagination of the players—Zacc Harris on electric guitar, Brandon Wozniak on tenor sax, Chris Bates on bass, Pete Hennig on drums—gives this group its own distinct sound. “Lines in the Sand” is stuck in my head, and “Ballad for Ray” haunts my dreams.
John Devine, “A Little o’ That”
A fixture on the Minneapolis music scene, co-founder with Michelle Kinney of the now-legendary IMP ORK improvisational ensemble, saxophonist/composer Devine gathered a few of his friends (Jon Pemberton, Michelle Kinney, Brock Thorson, Alden Ikeda, William Reed Lang, and others) for a joyous, sometimes ferocious exploration of 11 originals and a Monk cover. It’s jazzy, bluesy, funky, and free, with robust playing by a regional sax master. Devine recently suffered a stroke but is recovering sufficiently that he’s promised to play a benefit in February.
Doug Haining Quintet, “Last Man Swinging”
Put Doug Haining, Dave Graf, Rick Carlson, Steve Pikal, and Dick Bortolussi in a room, and this is what you get: jazz standards that swing coolly, effortlessly, light on their feet. All five men have played around the Twin Cities for years, part of the backbone of our jazz community and co-conspirators in Haining’s Twin Cities Seven. For their latest CD, they met at Wild Sound studio with a few sketches and a couple of lead sheets and laid down a bunch of first takes. From “It Ain’t Necessarily So” to “Jitterbug Waltz” to Ferde Grofé’s “On the Trail,” this is how it’s done.
Kip Jones, “Hallazgo”
Violinist/composer Kip Jones is a restless spirit; at this writing, he’s en route to Laos from Vietnam. Composed during a 14-month trek through South America, Hallazgo features Jones alone on voice (singing in English, Spanish, and Korean) and violin (strung with viola strings to better match his voice). He calls his music “traditional fiction”—music from people or regions that don’t exist. It defies categorization, but not in a self-conscious way. You get the feeling that he’s going wherever his mind and his heart are leading. From the opening track, the utterly unexpected “Darn That Dream,” Hallazgo (which means “finding” in Spanish) is a journey without boundaries.
Prudence Johnson, “A Girl Named Vincent”
I wrote a lengthy review of this CD in April and wouldn’t change a word, except to add that it gets even better on repeat listenings—and stays with you. Taking the water taxi from Wall Street’s Pier 11 to Brooklyn’s IKEA earlier this year, I found myself singing phrases from “Recuerdo,” about riding back and forth, back and forth all night on the ferry. Rich, expressive lyrics (all poems by Edna St. Vincent Millay), wonderful music (original compositions by Laura Caviani, Joan Griffith, Michelle Kinney, and Gary Rue), and gorgeous singing by Johnson add up to a CD that deserves to become a classic.
Dave King Trucking Company, “Good Old Light”
Given the band members—King on drums, Erik Fratzke on electric guitar, Adam Linz on bass, Chris Speed and Brandon Wozniak on saxophones—you'd expect a big, bashy outing, not this tuneful, thoughtful band that King describes as his “Americana group.” It begins with King on piano (you read that right), pairs two fine saxophonists, and ventures into swing, gospel, and rock in eight original compositions, seven by King and one by Fratzke. Listen once or twice and you can hum along. Don’t worry; King puts plenty of muscle into the sticks (and Fratzke breaks all hell loose in his “Hawk Over Traffic” solo). But there’s a lot of sweetness and melody here, and a sense of something weighty and new.
Mary Louise Knutson, “In the Bubble”
Pianist/composer Mary Louise Knutson is an admitted perfectionist, one reason she made us wait 10 years for her second CD as a leader. (Geez, Mary Louise!) Turns out it’s perfect, from the music (well-chosen standards and elegant, sometimes playful originals, including one based on her phone number) to the musicians (most often with her excellent trio mates Gordy Johnson on bass, Phil Hey on drums) and the recording (crystalline). Knutson’s playing has a carillon quality, clean and clear and true. This is timeless, classic piano trio music, right up there with Bill Evans and Bill Charlap.
Dean Magraw’s Red Planet, “Space Dust”
This CD was due to come out in 2010, but the official release was delayed until May of this year when guitarist Dean Magraw became seriously ill, so I’m counting it for 2011. Magraw can be the tenderest of pluckers, but here he’s Rock God Dean, lighting Coltrane’s “Africa” on fire, channeling Hendrix’s “Little Wing,” blazing through several original compositions. Even the slower ones smolder. Chris Bates is marvelous on bass, ditto Jay Epstein on drums and cymbals. Nobody plays the cymbals like Epstein.
Bryan Nichols Quintet, “Bright Places”
Pianist/composer Bryan Nichols gets more intriguing with each new venture: forming bands small (the Bryan Nichols Trio) and large (We Are Many), backing out-of-the-box singers like Kendra Shank and Nancy Harms, going solo at MacPhail. His debut CD features his quintet—Michael Lewis and Brandon Wozniak on saxophones, James Buckley on bass, JT Bates on drums—on nine original compositions that share five qualities: improvisation, exploration, interaction, emotion, and a keen intelligence.
The ink is barely dry on this one, which came out about a minute ago and totally won me over. A tight big band, a terrific singer, and a track list chosen by fans who go to the Cinema Ballroom in St. Paul on Sundays to dance to this music live. (This is Volume 1 because the band has a big book.) Michelle is class and sass on songs including “Big Spender” and “That Old Black Magic.” Her voice is silky and sure; she lands the notes, even the high ones, the fast ones, and the far-apart ones.
Honorable mentions (because lists are supposed to stop at 10):
JazZen, “Bounce Off the Moon”
“Afro Blue” and “Footprints” played on dizi and xiao (Chinese flutes)? Add electric cello and drums and you could get New Age woo-woo, but that's not what happens in JazZen. Flutist and leader Bobb Fantauzzo (who also plays Native American flutes, bawu, and spring drum) keeps things jazzy for this collection of covers and originals.
JoAnn Funk, “Pick Yourself Up”
Here’s a review from March of this year. Soothing, teasing, up-close-and-personal songs by a pianist/vocalist who performs each weekend in the Lobby Bar at the St. Paul Hotel. With Jeff Brueske on bass, Nathan Norman on drums, and a taste of Greg Lewis’s trumpet.
The George Maurer Group, “Twisted”
I’m a little too close to this one—my husband, John Whiting, took the photographs for the CD booklet, and I helped with the liner notes—but I can say that a George Maurer Group recording is a party in a jewel box. “Twisted” captures the fun, camaraderie, eclecticism, and musicality of their live performances. What’s next for Maurer? An opera.
“Minnesota Beatle Project Vol. 3”
Not jazz, but I love these Minnesota Beatle Project CDs. I heard Tapes ‘n Tapes do “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” on the radio and called the Fetus to reserve my copy. I should have gotten vinyl.
The Jana Nyberg Group, “Fever”
Jana Nyberg has a big, elastic voice, and she knows how to use it—and when to bring it down to a sigh for songs like “The Nearness of You.” Her band includes her husband, the in-demand trumpeter Adam Meckler, whose arrangement of the title track shakes off the cobwebs and gives Janna room to play.
Reynold Philipsek, “Tales from the North Woods.” If it’s Tuesday, the tireless and prolific guitarist/composer Reynold Philipsek must be releasing another CD. “Tales” looks back to his childhood in northern Minnesota—songs he heard as a boy, a melody inspired by a painting that hung in the family home, tunes informed by his Czech and Polish heritage. Philipsek is a first-call accompanist for many singers around town; he deserves to be heard on his own, just a man and his acoustic guitar.
Joel Shapira Quartet, “Open Lines”
For their debut recording, this fine foursome—Joel Shapira on guitar, Pete Whitman on tenor sax, Tom Lewis on bass, Dave Schmalenberger on drums—delivers standards by Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Ornette Coleman, Bill Evans, Tom Jobim, and more. A swinging, sophisticated outing where everyone shines.
Irv Williams, “Duke’s Mixture”
At 92, saxophonist Irv Williams, a.k.a. “Mr. Smooth,” may be the Twin Cities’ most senior working musician. He still plays Friday happy hours at the Dakota, and he’s still recording, though he has stopped with the teaser titles (2004’s “That’s All?”, 2007’s “Finality”). His latest, an affectionate collection of standards and songs written for his kids (and his dog, Ditto), features longtime friends Peter Schimke on piano, Steve Blons on guitar, Billy Peterson on bass, and Jay Epstein on bass. It’s worth buying just to hear Williams sing “Until the Real Thing Comes Along.”