There’s been a ton of great modern and mainstream jazz albums released this year, coming from stalwarts and newcomers alike. It’s not just tradition being upheld with grace and passion, there were loads of creative spurts by newcomers and stalwarts alike who make the case that jazz is not some fossilized museum piece. Not hardly. Even the honorable mentions are bursting with vision, fervor and cohesion.
In order to include more of those records with those kinds of attributes, I expanded the definition of “modern” jazz to include some of the kind of music I would have previously put in the “whack jazz” slot. The music can get wild and adventurous, as long as it’s at least somewhat rooted in tradition.
Here’s a list of sixteen stellar releases and a handful of very good ones to stuff in Christmas stockings for the jazz lovers in your life. Not ranked — it’s all good — but there’s usually one that stands out over the others. This year, it came down to three big standouts it with a lot of agonizing over the final choice made, and by golly I’m sticking with it.
Click through the nested links for the full reviews.
ALBUM OF THE YEAR
Matt Parker – Worlds Put Together: Even given the expanded definition of what is “real” jazz, Worlds Put Together often comes right up to my imaginary fence that separates this music from the avant garde. Parker’s big, scary, emotional tone sometimes conjures up the spirit of Albert Ayler. And like Ayler, he’s unafraid to integrate simple, almost child-like melodies within advanced harmonics.
But Parker is more like Ayler without creating the urge to reach for Excedrin; there’s joy and fun in everything he does. That’s the kind of attitude that led me to also compare him to Rahsaan Roland Kirk in the original review, not to mention that his chops approach those of this imposing sax master. It’s Parker’s daredevil approach to his craft and the earnestness with which he takes those risks that puts this record over the top, ahead of some by some very highly regarded musicians.
All the more astonishing when considering that this is his debut album. Parker dutifully worships at the mantle of tradition (he sublimely covers “Darn That Dream”) but then turns it on its ear (as with “Eye of Rico”). Or is that “knocks it on its ass”? Either way, it’s a joy ride from one corner of the idiom to the opposite one.
THE BEST OF THE REST:
Mort Weiss – A Giant Step Out And Back: Nobody — and I mean nobody — can generate so much excitement from a solo clarinet like Mort Weiss.
Chris Potter – The Sirens: Chris Potter invested much into his compositions, his choice of supporting musicians and even his choice of production team to make a record of substance, emotion and refinement.
Kari Ikonen Trio – Bright: Inventive, spright and clever, Bright is not just a good Nordic jazz record, it’s world-class good.
Brian Landrus Kaleidoscope – Mirage: Resplendent with beautiful melodies, a small but smartly used string section and Landrus’ own unique appealing approach to the low reeds, this one’s both an artistic triumph and real listening pleasure.
Allison Miller’s Boom Tic Boom – No Morphine No Lilies: Allison Miller builds on the solid foundation she built with Boom Tic Boom, with more subtle artistry, measured risk-taking and varied moods that holds up together as a unified piece of work. No Morphine No Lilies is, in so many ways, imposing from beginning to end.
Next Collective – Cover Art: The Next Collective’s remarkable debut makes the statement that there are plenty of highly skilled, insightful revolutionaries to lead the charge to bring jazz into the next phase of its evolution.
Rudresh Mahanthappa – Gamak: The partnership with David Fiuczynski presented so many new possibilities and Mahanthappa might have exploited every single one of them on Gamak.
Antonio Sanchez – New Life: It’s difficult to think of Sanchez as “just” Pat Metheny’s drummer after listening to this, as good as he’s been in that role. But he is clearly destined for more than that.
Craig Taborn Trio – Chants: By focusing on the interactions among the performers and not the construction or parameters artificially imposed by composition, Craig Taborn had faith that the resulting music would take care of itself. Thanks to prime support by Thomas Morgan and Gerald Cleaver, it did.
Ryan Cohan – The River: Cohan has long attained a high artistic level with his last two releases, but that didn’t stop him from aiming higher for the East African-influenced The River.
Drew Gress – The Sky Inside: The Sky Inside is a title that implies the limitless potential on where the music can go and the collective ability of the musicians to carry the music to its potential. It’s potential fulfilled. A exhibit of the ingenuity of Gress’ compositions, his arrangements of them, and the deft way he leverages the full potential of his band to bolster the songs.
Pedro Martins – Dreaming High: Recalls the airy freshness and unforced complexity of a young Pat Metheny. Except that Martins was even younger when he recorded this than Metheny was when he made Bright Size Life.
John Abercrombie Quartet – 39 Steps: Having a pianist in his band for the first time in what seems like forever, this is one of the most mellifluously pleasing and esoteric records Abercrombie has made in a while, during a string of records when he’s already been in a particularly melodic state of mind.
Gavin Templeton – In Series: This is modern, 21at century jazz that neatly incorporates elements of contemporary popular forms of music without impinging on the integrity of the music. Templeton, however, keeps one important element of jazz strong and pervasive on this album: emotion.
Mostly Other People Do The Killing – Red Hot: By constantly jumping off from “hot” jazz to later styles, and jumping right back again, MOPDTK demonstrate how advanced, adventurous and audacious that old, pre-swing stuff really was. The new jazz subversives are paying tribute to the original jazz subversives.
Jonathan Finlayson & Sicilian Defense – Moment and the Message
Tim Green – Songs From This Season
David Ake – Bridges
Tim Berne’s Snakeoil – Shadow Man
Stranahad/Zaleski/Rosato – Limitless
Ahmad Jamal – Saturday Morning
The New Gary Burton Quartet – Guided Tour
Sunna Gunnlaugs – Distilled
Stan Killian – Evoke
Noah Preminger – Haymaker
Charles Lloyd and Jason Moran – Hagar’s Song
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