D.C.’s Best Records of 2011: The Top 5 (Part 2 of 2)

Compiled by Giovanni Russonello & Luke Stewart
Editorial board

Our list of the top five D.C. jazz albums of 2011 doesn’t have a hint of provinciality. Everything on here is a remarkable achievement that deserves renown nationally, and beyond; at the same time, these records are a testament to the strength of creativity in this town. Read on, pick out your favorites and support your local artists by picking up a Christmas gift or a treat for yourself.

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#5 | Butch Warren, French 5tet

Butch Warren is one of the most important bassists in the history of jazz, and in the early 1960s, almost none were more influential. But after a period as Blue Note Records’ house bassist and a sideman for Thelonious Monk, Warren faded from the public eye and disappeared from the studio. He had recorded definitive bass lines for Herbie Hancock, Dexter Gordon and Hank Mobley, among so many others, but he’d never led a recording session. Finally, this year, at 71, Warren released an album under his own name. Titled French 5tet, it was recorded in Paris last year with a team of four French musicians; it is a jaunty record, comprised of four sunny Warren originals and four of his favorite works from the jazz canon. If one complaint can be lodged, it is that the band falls fall short of the standard for fiery virtuosity that Warren’s former recording accomplices set, and this only serves to reinforce the sense of injustice at the fact that the bassist never recorded as a leader for Blue Note. But all told, French 5tet is a gratifying testimony to the overlooked greatness that is Butch Warren. (words by Giovanni Russonello)
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[audio:https://www.capitalbop.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/06-Eric-Walks.mp3|titles=”Eric Walks”|artists=Butch Warren|width=450]

#4 | Jolley Brothers, Memoirs Between Brothers

The Jolley Brothers’ Memoirs Between Brothers is more than a debut release from two of the D.C. jazz scene’s most reputable musicians. It is a powerful personal statement to the pair’s late father, guitarist Noble Jolley, Sr., who bestowed upon them the inspiration to create music. On this record, drummer Nate and keyboardist Noble are joined by bass phenom and childhood friend Ben Williams and, on two tracks, by vocalist Christie Dashiell, a recent star performer on NBC’s The Sing-Off. Memoirs Between Brothers contains all original material from the brothers, plus one tune composed by their father, and it presents a varied blend of styles. From burning post-bop to R&B balladry, the music is reflective and outright reverent. At the same time, the release is a first-class exhibition of originality, creativity and technical prowess. Noble, Sr. clearly did a spectacular job. (words by Luke Stewart)
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[audio:http://capitalbop.files.wordpress.com/2011/03/09-her-story-remembered.mp3|width=450|titles=”Her Story Remembered|artists=Jolley Brothers]

#3 | Victor Provost, Her Favorite Shade of Yellow

Her Favorite Shade of Yellow, the debut release from Victor Provost, marks a watershed in D.C. jazz: It is the scene’s first album produced by a steel pan player. Provost is known as one of the foremost practitioners of the instrument in a “non-traditional” style. Steel pan “rock star” Jonathan Scales even listed Provost as a major influence. His style lends itself to comparisons to vibraphonist Milt Jackson much more than to legendary steel pan player Andy Narell, which is a testament to Provost’s dedication to the tradition of jazz. Interspersed with original compositions are tastefully executed jazz standards, where his knowledge of the “jazz language” really shines — even as he maintains ties to the rhythms of his Caribbean homeland. Provost has also put together a stellar band for this release. Drummer Dion Parson, pianist Carlton Holmes and bassist Reuben Rogers are all veterans of the New York City jazz scene, appearing on numerous albums with some of the most notable musicians in jazz. As a straight-ahead album by a steel pan player, this record is almost one of a kind, but by force of its sheer quality, it transcends simple novelty. (LS)
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[audio:https://www.capitalbop.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/01-Her-Favorite-Shade-Of-Yellow.mp3|titles=Her Favorite Shade Of Yellow|artists=Victor Provost|width=400]

#2 | Donvonte McCoy Quintet, 3rd Floor

The cover art is pixelated and haphazard — not minimalist, just minimal. The mix begs for a remastering, and at a few points the sound quality can be utterly frustrating on bad speakers. The gaps between the songs are too long. Yet, for all its DIY idiosyncrasies, 3rd Floor hits the listener hard, square in the chest. This is an arresting, brimming effort from Donvonte McCoy, the city’s most agile trumpeter and probably its most contemporary-minded. McCoy leads his quintet every Friday and Saturday night in a late-night soul-jazz dance party on the top floor of Eighteenth Street Lounge. That gig gave this record its name, its inspiration and its obsession with movement. The most popular music of any given era has always been, with few exceptions, something people can dance to, and maybe that’s part of why McCoy’s gig at ESL is the most consistently packed jazz show in town. On the bumping and bouncing 3rd Floor, McCoy explores a range of songs, from Tin Pan Alley classics and bebop tunes to originals, and he’s backed by an all-star band that is held together by young buck bassist Eric Wheeler and the formidable drummer Jimmy “Junebug” Jackson, a longtime Jimmy Smith sideman and a regular at ESL. Through it all, McCoy delivers crisp, pithy solos that lace snugly into the band’s constantly shifting rhythms — which range from Afro-Latin to hip-hop to go-go to classic swing. (GR)
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[audio:https://www.capitalbop.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/1-07-Rough.mp3|artists=Donvonte McCoy Quintet|titles=Rough|width=450]

#1 | Brian Settles & Central Union, Secret Handshake

For most of the history of this revolutionary music called jazz, the tenor saxophone has been a lodestar of change. From Coleman Hawkins to John Coltrane, jazz’s turning points have hinged on heroes whose horns cast light on a new way forward. If the D.C. jazz scene is to follow the lead of Brian Settles, its latest greatest tenor man, then it’s in for one drastic change of direction. Granted, that is not likely to happen — too many sacred cows would need scorching.

But on Secret Handshake, the debut recording from Settles’ new Central Union quintet, the saxophonist makes a bold, manifold statement; he’s never sounded stronger, or more like himself. Anyone who’s spent a reasonable amount of time hearing live jazz in the District over the past few years knows Settles, whether by name or not, as the slight, quietly ubiquitous gentleman who’s always stepping out of the shadows at somebody else’s gig and knocking the audience out of its seats. His solos tend to be quick, 90-second cabochons that slither and whisper, never insisting on your attention so much as requiring it.

To hear Settles’ shivering, confessional voice supported by a sonic structure built on his own terms is a revelation. One of those terms is a dedication to repetition, the oldest and holiest of human rites; over the eight original compositions that comprise Secret Handshake, an almost hypnotic subtext emerges, as guileful and mystifying as the album’s title. Another term is Settles’ aversion to genre or category. His most apparent antecedents are in the free jazz tradition, and the improvisation herein is largely unbounded by harmonic or rhythmic gridlines (which is not to say patterns do not emerge). But ultimately, this album draws its lessons from all over the map: from Billie Holiday (its seventh track, “Gardenia,” is dedicated to her); West African drum rhythms (percussionist Jean Marie Collatin-Faye hails from Senegal); and the liberated, pan-global saxophone palette of Coltrane. All of this is put to judicious use in service of the vision of one man, D.C.’s new visionary, Brian Settles. (GR)
Read CapitalBop’s full review | Hear & buy CD
[audio:https://www.capitalbop.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/07-Gardenia.mp3|artists=Brian Settles and Central Union|titles=Gardenia|width=450] If you missed our list of the honorable mentions that didn’t quite make it onto the Top 5, click here.



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