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Homegrown jazz for under the tree

Haven’t quite finished your holiday shopping? Make someone happy and support our local music scene with homegrown, handcrafted jazz, performed, recorded, and mostly composed by artists who live, work, teach, and play right here in Minneapolis-St.

Haven’t quite finished your holiday shopping? Make someone happy and support our local music scene with homegrown, handcrafted jazz, performed, recorded, and mostly composed by artists who live, work, teach, and play right here in Minneapolis-St. Paul.

All of these CDs were or are about to be released this year. Many of the artists (if not, in some cases, the whole groups featured on the CDs) have live shows coming up soon. So you could treat someone to a night out and a CD to bring home. Can’t make the shows? Stop by the Electric Fetus, a stalwart supporter of area artists.

In alphabetical order by album name, here are some of my favorite CDs from 2009.

Atlantis Quartet: “Animal Progress.” From Pete Hennig’s opening salvo on the drums, this CD makes you sit up and smile. Atlantis has always had its own sound and it’s even more defined on the group’s second outing. Its music features unusual rhythms, melodic surprises, sharp turns, moments of sublime beauty and a technical tightness that can only come from hours of practice. The new CD is all originals by the group members: saxophonist Brandon Wozniak, guitarist Zacc Harris, bassist Chris Bates, and drummer Hennig. “Animal Progress” has its official release this weekend at the Artists’ Quarter, Friday and Saturday, Dec. 18-19, 9 p.m. ($10 cover).

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Reynold Philipsek: “East Side.” Guitar meets chromatic harmonica, acoustic bass, and percussion in six original tunes influenced by Astor Piazzolla, Miles Davis, the East Coast jazz of the 1950s and ’60s, and Philipsek’s vast knowledge of the repertoire. Sweet, swinging music, beautifully played and thoroughly enjoyable. You can catch Philipsek with singer Lee Engele at the Hat Trick Lounge in St. Paul’s Lowertown this Friday, Dec. 18, 9 p.m. ($5 cover). (And also with Nancy Harms later this month; see below.)

Jay Epstein with Bill Carrothers & Anthony Cox: “Easy Company.” This CD came out in June and has been one of my personal favorites ever since. I love everything about it, from the amazing arrangement of the “Imperial March” from “Star Wars” that opens the disc to the playful “N.R. Chi” (a Dean Magraw tune) to the big surprise of Cream’s “White Room,” a heartbreakingly gorgeous “Never Let Me Go,” and the four-part “Forgotten Soldier Suite” at the end, drummer Epstein’s homage to his father. With Carrothers on the keys and Cox on the upright bass. Carrothers returns to the Artists’ Quarter on Saturday, Dec. 26, 9 p.m. ($10 cover). 

Fantastic Merlins: “A Handful of Earth.” Dreamy, mysterious, haunting music. Jazz meets classical/chamber sounds in original and improvised pieces that spotlight Jacqueline Ultan’s rich, resonant cello. Nathan Hanson’s tenor saxophone, Brian Roessler’s bass, and Pete Hennig’s drums complete the Merlins’ sonic tapestry. Tip: Get this and the new Atlantis Quartet CD and you’ll have two different versions of Hennig’s “Bottles and Cans.” Hear Hanson and Roessler with Desdemona and Rahja Ren at the Black Dog in St. Paul on Friday, Dec. 18, eightish (no cover).

Paul Renz: “In My Own Hands.” Like Atlantis Quartet’s “Animal Progress,” this new CD is being released this weekend. All nine tunes were written by Renz, director of jazz studies at West Bank School of Music and a jazz instructor at MacPhail, and he has gathered an exceptional quintet to perform them: himself on guitar, East Coast artist Anders Bostrom on flute, and Renz’s regular Minneapolis rhythm section of Brian Ziemniak on piano and Hammond B-3, Eric Graham on bass, and Nathan Fryett on drums. I like this CD very much. The playing is on top, the tunes are interesting, there’s a lot of variety, and when the last song ends I want to push “Start” again. The group (minus Bostrom) will launch the CD at Brit’s Pub this Sunday, Dec. 20, 8 p.m. ($10 cover).

Nancy Harms: “In the Indigo.” This may be Harms’ first CD, and she may be new to the jazz scene (the former grade-school teacher moved to the Cities from Milaca in 2006), but she sings like a wise old soul. I’ve been watching her since she did a guest turn with Arne Fogel at the Times in early 2008 and all I can say is, get out of the way. Lush and sultry, “In the Indigo” is winning raves everywhere. See Harms live at Erte with the Twin Cities Hot Club (Robert Bell, Reynold Philipsek, Gary Schulte, Matt Senjem) on Tuesday, Dec. 30, 8 p.m. (no cover).

George Maurer: “Songs from the Wayward Journey: The Nicollet Island Compositions Vol. 1.” Eclectic, prolific, stylistically diverse, Maurer is a storyteller and seeker whose music ranges from jazz to musical theater, bebop to ballet, pop, settings for poems by Rainer Maria Rilke, and a hard-rock, heavy-metal anthem for the St. John’s University football team. Get a peek into Maurer’s hyperactive mind with this collection of 12 tracks written at his home on Nicollet Island. With vocalists Rachel Holder, Leslie Ball, Dieter Bierbrauer, and others. For a good time that won’t make your teeth hurt, Maurer brings his Big Band Holiday Show to the Dakota on Wednesday, Dec. 23, 7 p.m. ($12).

Pamela Espeland keeps a Twin Cities live jazz calendar, blogs about jazz at Bebopified  and tweets about jazz on Twitter.