1. Kurt Elling at the Dakota (Feb. 10). On tour for his latest CD, “The Gate,” Elling gave every song his all, filled the lyrics with meaning and emotion, explored the vast reaches of his resonant voice, did some scatting, and quoted Minnesota Poet Laureate Robert Bly.
2. Alisa Weilerstein and Gabriel Kahane at the Southern (Feb. 19). Weilerstein played killer Bach, after which pianist/composer Kahane gave us songs about Craig’s List and a Galway Kinnell poem set to original music. It was one of those brainy, engaging programs at which the Southern excelled.
3. Bill Frisell and Vinicius Cantuaria at the Cedar (Feb. 22). No introduction, no banter, just a long, dreamy set by two guitar virtuosi in the darkened Cedar before a pindrop-quiet crowd. On tour for their CD “Lagrimas Mexicanas,” they spun a sound and a mood that was celestial and seductive.
4. House of Mirrors Concert 2 at the Hamms Brewery (March 1). With Geoff Senn, trumpet, and Stefan Kac, tuba. Composer Ann Millikan created an interactive sound installation, then invited musicians to improvise and experiment, using musical suggestions contained in paintings hung on the walls. Locals told stories of life in Swede Hollow, a St. Paul immigrant community destroyed by the city in the late 1950s.
5. Greta Oglesby at the Capri (April 9). The Ivey-winning actor (for “Caroline, or Change”) lifted her voice in gospel and Broadway songs, told stories, and danced with a surprise guest, her husband, the Rev. Dennis Oglesby. Then together they sang “Bess, You Is My Woman Now” and “I Loves You, Porgy.”
6. The Bad Plus at the Loring (May 20). Like Jacob wrestling the angel, the prog-jazz trio of pianist Ethan Iverson, bassist Reid Anderson, and drummer Dave King tackled Stravinsky’s iconic “The Rite of Spring,” originally written for ginormous orchestra, and played it straight through.
7. John Patitucci and Billy Peterson at the Artists’ Quarter (June 26). After the Twin Cities Jazz Festival ended, Grammy-winning bassist John Patitucci (who had performed with pianist Danilo Perez) stayed over an extra day so he could play with his friend of 20 years, bassist Billy Peterson.
8. Theo Bleckmann at Macalester-Plymouth United Church (Sept. 23). Using toys, electronics, and other voice-altering gadgets, the eclectic jazz singer/composer gave an utterly absorbing, often otherworldly solo performance.
9. Bryan Nichols at MacPhail (Oct. 26). Alone on stage at Antonello Hall, pianist/composer Nichols played a diverse and elegant concert of original music and standards, including a delicate improvisation that blossomed into Billy Strayhorn’s “A Flower Is a Lovesome Thing.”
10. Milo Fine et al. at Homewood Studios (Nov. 14). Two hours of pure sound on the outer edges of improvisation. Six musicians, many instruments: drums, bowed cymbals, clarinets, an electric guitar sprouting wires, violin, cello, electric shelf (a wire shelf with electronics on which various objects were played, including a bicycle tire rim), percussion, and voice.
11. Boxcar at the Dakota (Dec. 13). The birth of a band. Pianist/composer Jeremy Walker, bassist Anthony Cox, drummer JT Bates, and alto saxophonist Wessell “Warmdaddy” Anderson, formerly of the Wynton Marsalis Septet, played in public for the first time in Kansas City on December 10, then drove to Minneapolis. Someday we’ll say we saw them almost first.
For a list of my top 10 Twin Cities jazz CDs of 2011, go to my Bebopified blog.
Three events in 2012 to get excited about:
March 1-2: Pianist Vijay Iyer at the Walker. Two nights, six sets, four different groups and two solo performances.
March 20: Belgian national treasure Toots Thielemans and pianist Kenny Werner at the Dakota.
May 26: A New Orleans funeral at Orchestra Hall, with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, New Orleans Jazz Orchestra, and trumpeter Irvin Mayfield. After the concert, the audience will second-line out the door.