1) Jon Cleary & the Absolute Monster Gentlemen -- Jon Cleary & the Absolute Monster Gentlemen (Basin Street) The album that finally captures every facet of Cleary's talent: piano wizard, singer/songwriter, and bandleader of one of the best bands in the city. Revamping "So Damn Good" and the title track from his previous CD, Moonburn, were disappointing decisions, but when you've got the devastating one-two funk punch of "Mo' Hipper" and a monster cover of the Meters' "Just Kissed My Baby," it's easily forgiven.
2) Jesse Lewis Union -- Jesse Lewis Union (Lakefront Digital) A thoroughly beautiful and original artistic statement from the up-and-coming jazz guitarist, one that sounds completely different from anything else on the New Orleans scene. The compositions and overall ambience recall Pat Metheny's serene and brilliant early-80s albums for ECM Records.
3) Snooks Eaglin -- The Way It Is (Money Pit Records) Five years between Snooks Eaglin albums is too long, as this typically eclectic CD was a reminder of Eaglin's singular musical personality. Hard funk, Latin-tinged workouts, R&B classics, inspired instrumentals and the autobiographical closing track, "I've Been Around the World," showed that when it comes to irrepressible vocals and unconventionally dazzling guitar licks, Eaglin's still a bona fide New Orleans original.
4) Joe Krown Organ Combo -- Funk Yard (STR Digital) This is Krown's third CD in three years as leader of his Organ Combo, so while it doesn't offer the immediate surprise of a debut, it does pack the most memorable hooks and assured grooves of Krown's to date. From the title track to aptly named instrumentals like "Mud Flaps" and "The Wiggle," Krown's Hammond B-3 grooves grease the tracks for guitarist John Fohl and saxophonist Brent Rose to lay down some inspired solos of their own, sounding like a New Orleans-inspired version of Booker T. & the MGs.
5) John Rankin -- Guitar Gumbo (STR Digital) One of the long under-appreciated veteran players in New Orleans showcases his formidable guitar playing in this solo program stacked with New Orleans favorites. Whether he's playing the piano and horn of Earl King's "Big Chief" or taking "Iko Iko" back to the Caribbean with a chorus that sounds like steel drums, Rankin always sounds breezy and effortless, but never cliched. The album's centerpiece is his Jesse Fuller tribute "Mr. Fotdella," where Rankin's 12-string guitar workout sounds like the work of three guitarists.
6) Have Soul Will Travel -- Live at the Funky Butt (Independent) The cover choices on Have Soul Will Travel's live CD -- including Jimmy McGriff's "The Worm," Lonnie Smith's "Play it Back," and Roy Brooks' "The Free Slave" -- point to the band's sonic debt to Blue Note Records' eminently funky late-60s groove albums. Guitarist Bert Cotton's guitar playing deserves special mention, as Cotton uncorks an arsenal of gorgeous tones, precision comping, and judicious doses of wah-wah pedal.
7) Brotherhood of Groove -- Pocket Full of Funk (Independent) The brainchild of guitarist Brandon Tarricone and drummer Dan Caro travels similar musical paths as Have Soul Will Travel, bringing a spacier and more acidic edge. Sun Ra alumni Michael Ray on trumpet and saxophonist John Ellis contribute to the extraterrestrial sound; this young and formidable New Orleans ensemble continues to mostly fly under the radar, and this CD is proof that they're deserving of wider recognition.
8) Astral Project -- Big Shot (Independent) Pianist David Torkanowsky is a formidable talent, but his departure brought Astral Project renewed fire and a more focused sound on their first disc without Tork. In new compositions like saxophonist Tony Dagradi's lyrical "Heart of the Matter" and "Hymn," and guitarist Steve Masakowski's charged and passionate 9/11-inspired tracks "Vigil" and "Vengeance," the band sounds like a tight jazz ensemble more than ever before.
9) Tom McDermott & Evan Christopher -- Danza (STR Digital) Pianist (and occasional Gambit Weekly contributor) Tom McDermott found a perfect foil in dazzling clarinetist Christopher, and the two virtuoso players and musical scholars tear through a program of obscure compositions from the Brazilian and American songbooks. But McDermott isn't merely a revisionist; his spry choro "Estatico" shows he's taking his obsessions and creating artistic statements of his own.
10) Motorway -- Motorway (Independent) Motorway's self-titled sophomore CD was the most impressive local rock album of the year. Production assistance from Better Than Ezra's Tom Drummond and Ethan Allen (who's worked with Throwing Muses and Tricky) help give the album a decidedly major-label feel. Frontman Pete Winkler continues to blossom into a first-rate songwriter and vocalist, and the waves of guitar and effects on tracks like "Peace of Mind" recall the melody and attitude of vintage R.E.M.
- Jon Cleary's third CD, Jon Cleary & the Absolute Monster Gentlemen, finally captured every facet of his talent.