Onstage Memories: Concert Highs of 2011

Recordings are forever. Concerts—even in the era of YouTube and the tour-documentary DVD—are fleeting experiences, subject to many nonmusical variables. But they can transform reputations and careers. Here the pop and jazz critics of The New York Times recap their most memorable performances of 2011, in order of importance.

SADE Nassau Coliseum, Uniondale, N.Y., June 21. Plenty of artists can drive a whole stadium mad, but Sade Adu is maybe the only one who can hold an entire arena still, hanging on her every utterance as if she were playing a tiny club with terrible sound.

The arena became an island of elegant melancholy in Sade's first world tour since 2001. Moving imperturbably through a dreamlike production, Ms. Adu was no longer the nonchalant singer of her early hits; there was a new, bluesy cry in her voice, matched by the band's deeper rhythmic undertow.

BJORK Campfield Market Hall, Manchester, England, June 27. Strange contraptions—a pendulum playing a harp, a Tesla coil to zap bass tones—were arrayed around Bjork, her band and an Icelandic early-music choir. It was her high-tech/low-tech ensemble performing “Biophilia," songs musing on science and linked to iPhone and iPad apps. In concert those eerie new songs were grounded by radically reworked oldies.

ALABAMA SHAKES Bowery Ballroom, Oct. 20. Brittany Howard and her band made their New York City debut during the CMJ Music Marathon: a brief set of dynamic, raging, despondent, resolute, triumphant Southern rock and soul with more than a hint of Janis Joplin. It left the crowd shouting for joy.

AFRO LATIN JAZZ ORCHESTRA Symphony Space, Feb. 26. In a concert named “CubaNola," the pianist Arturo O'Farrill and his Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra were joined by the New Orleans saxophonist Donald Harrison, not only for tunes from Cuba and New Orleans but also for new, far-reaching big-band works that mingled both heritages and swung like mad.

A CELEBRATION OF KATE MCGARRIGLE Town Hall, May 13. Kate McGarrigle, who died in 2010, wrote songs that sounded homey while making sly musical turns, with lyrics that could be as flinty as they were compassionate. Her children, Rufus and Martha Wainwright, paid tribute with a concert that also included Norah Jones, Emmylou Harris and Antony Hegarty, savoring a catalog that deserves to endure.

PAUL MOTIAN QUARTET Village Vanguard, May 18. A loose and powerful band convened for a week by the great drummer Paul Motian, who died last month, as a sort-of tribute to the Modern Jazz Quartet, with the pianist Craig Taborn, the vibraphonist Steve Nelson and bassist Thomas Morgan. The night I went I heard a few songs from a single Modern Jazz Quartet record ("Django"), played with no particular obligation to copy them.

TARBABY Le Poisson Rouge, June 23. With the 69-year old saxophonist Oliver Lake and a much younger rhythm section—the pianist Orrin Evans, the bassist Eric Revis and the drummer Nasheet Waits—Tarbaby's set went off like a flare during this year's Undead Jazz Festival, loud and authoritative and elastic within composed boundaries.

THE FATS WALLER DANCE PARTY Harlem Stage Gatehouse, May 15. Jason Moran and Meshell Ndegeocello played Fats Waller music for the dance floor, reinventing tunes from the inside out with a jazz and funk band. That's it; no explicit teaching, just joy.

PAUL SIMON Beacon Theater, May 10. A highlight reel of old and new songs, with loose but meticulous singing, an ace band and an overwhelming sense of purpose: in short, everything you want from Paul Simon, who still doesn't behave like a guy with nothing left to prove.

CRAIG TABORN Rubin Museum of Art, June 17. As on his masterly solo-piano album, “Avenging Angel" (ECM), Mr. Taborn made this recital a tense interrogation, rigorously open-ended, an epiphany from one moment to the next.

RADIOHEAD Roseland, Sept. 28. Stripped-down by Radiohead's standards, this was a triumphal stand, not least for the life breathed into some coolly diffuse new songs. Polyrhythm formed a latticework for Thom Yorke's voice, a source of steady luminosity.

STEVE COLEMAN AND FIVE ELEMENTS Newport Jazz Festival, Newport, R.I., Aug. 6. Steve Coleman, an alto saxophonist and composer given to complex systems, has honed his flagship band like a steel blade, and here was a set that capitalized on all of its flexible slippery strengths.

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