A good year for Minnesota jazz

With the end of the year comes the season of lists, among them expert recommendations for the best of jazz.

I’m not sure I listened to enough music in the last 12 months to offer my picks for the most worthy jazz recordings nationwide, though I will say that saxophonist Wayne Shorter, singer Gregory Porter and the Pedrito Martinez Group made remarkable contributions.

But I did hear a lot of excellent releases, especially by Minnesota artists. So, knowing full well that I may be omitting someone’s choice for the year’s top jazz albums by Minnesotans, here are my favorites:

Nancy Harms, “Dreams in Apartments”

(Photo by Lisa Venticinque. Courtesy of Nancy Harms)

While some singers might try to win an audience with power and technique, Nancy Harms disarms listeners with honest emotion and feeling.

After delivering an impressive album of standards with her 2008 debut “In the Indigo,” she returned with a lovely mix of traditional numbers and originals. Co-produced by singer Arne Fogel, “Dreams in Apartments” reflects how life in New York City has changed Harms, who grew up in Clara City, Minn. It opens a window into her gentle, but increasingly strong persona. She is ever so graceful on the classic tune “Never Let Me Go,” but shows how she has grown tougher and streetwise on her composition “Weight of the World.”

Craig Taborn Trio, “Chants”

When Craig Taborn sits down at the piano to improvise, he definitely knows where he’s going. With a compositional approach that builds on a few musical elements, the pianist can hook listeners on a groove and then take them on a journey through multiple flights of fancy. It’s an approach that lends itself to cohesive tunes in which Taborn, drummer Gerald Cleaver and bassist Thomas Morgan improvise together in real time, focusing on their eventual destination.

The Illicit Sextet, “Chapter Eleven”

In an inspiring story of personal and musical redemption, trumpeter Steve Kenny overcame drug addiction and regained his chops to return to the Illicit Sextet, two decades after the band’s strong debut, “Chapter One.” The result, “Chapter Eleven,” was an impressive collection of tunes by Kenny, guitarist David Roos; pianist Chris Lomheim; bassist Tom Pieper; drummer Nathan Norman and saxophonist Paul Harper. Exploring a variety of moods – from bebop, ballads and blues – the musicians soared. It was as if they had never missed a beat.

Atlantis Quartet, “Expansion”

Expansion coverThe new album by the Atlantis Quartet was one of the most anticipated of the year, and the ensemble didn’t disappoint its fans, delivering an imaginative release. Guitarist Zacc Harris, saxophonist Brandon Wozniak, bassist Chris Bates and drummer Pete Hennig appealed to a variety of musical tastes with a mix of rock-influenced tunes to free jazz, swinging post-bop and songs with odd meters. Rhythmic and thematically expansive, the tunes sparked with electricity.

Foreign Motion, “In Flight”

Funk doesn’t get the respect it deserves. But that isn’t the case when Foreign Motion, a jazz fusion ensemble with a diverse and international cast, takes the stage. Guitarist Cory Wong, bassist Yohannes Tona, pianist Kevin Gastonguay and drummer Petar Janjic know how to ride the beat while also delivering an eclectic mix of musical stories. As I’ve said before, their music is out of this world.

Foreign Motion: Pianist Kevin Gastonguay, drummer Petar Janjic, guitarist Cory Wong and bassist Yohannes Tona. (Photo by Chris Bartels)