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With all acknowledgements that the idea of designating "the best" music is silly, and with full admission that I didn't get around to every good record released in the last 12 months, and that this process is entirely subjective, yadda yadda yadda: Here is a list of my favorite jazz albums of 2011.
When I stare at this list, I see a lot of interpretation. I see four albums dedicated to imagining new settings for sources as disparate as Latin crooner anthems (Miguel Zenón), American patriotic songs (René Marie), forgotten jazz of the 1920s (Brian Carpenter) and PJ Harvey (Ben Allison). There's a sort of radical creativity here, unmooring material from its original context and digging up its hidden lessons; it feels natural to our age.
I also see original visions of composition worth underscoring. There are the rollicking intensities from the James Farm collective, the juicy nuggets of the JD Allen Trio, the wandering wonder of Bill McHenry's pen. This, too, is a sort of radical creativity, this search for new ways to express beauty.
And, as always, there are albums that just are, that frustrate attempts at category. Records from Gretchen Parlato and Noah Preminger listen to music of innovators like Wayne Shorter and Ornette Coleman with new ears; they also express two disparate personal aesthetics of what it means to play jazz today. The incredible diversity of what's out there, even within a list which is necessarily missing so much else worth recognizing, is one of the great things about following this stuff in 2011.
I'd be happy if you told us your picks, and told us why. But, me first: