Best Jazz Albums 2015

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This list is built around the ballot I sent to Francis Davis for his 10th Jazz Critic’s Poll, which (UPDATE) is posted at NPR. As someone who grew up reading and admiring (and learning a good deal about thinking and writing from) Davis’ criticism, I’m always thrilled to be a part of this.

There’s only one hard and fast thing about this list—I feel Epicenter, from Chris Lightcap’s Bigmouth, is absolutely the best jazz album of the year, and have thought that since my first listen. The rest can change from day to day, hour to hour, minute to minute …

This ballot is always frustrating to fill out. I listened to around 200 jazz recordings that were released in 2015, and that number is only a (substantial) portion of the total jazz recordings that came out this year. And the flow never stops, there are recordings that are coming out every week (like the new Kneedelus album and Robin Eubanks’ big band record) that due to the limits of time and a hard deadline, I simply cannot listen to prior to making this list (I’ll get to them eventually).

When I pick what I feel are the year’s best recordings, it’s a gut reaction. I’ve been doing the critical listening thing for long enough now that I trust my ears to tell me if something succeeds, then later I can go back and analyze the why, what, and how of it. The best music to me is the music that feels completely satisfying, and I take things on their own terms, so playing free can be as satisfying as playing a standard. There are more than ten records that were completely satisfying to me this year, but this list is limited to “10 Best New Releases,” so my choices are both arbitrary and calculated: I’ve tried to spread it across styles within a broad definition of jazz as a genre, and in some cases it’s been a bit of a coin toss to fit the album on the list. Please note that my picks for vocal, debut, and latin jazz albums are all excellent and belong in the top ten.

I’ve augmented this with additional titles that will not count in this poll. Everything you see under “The Elevens” are all worthy of top ten inclusion, I just ran out of chairs. Below that is the honorable mention category, which is recordings that are packed full of excellent music but just don’t quite work as complete albums; often the issue is that they’re just too long, e.g. seventy minutes when fifty-five would have been ideal. Since that’s an album issue, less a musical one, I’ve put them in that category. They are recommended nonetheless, and your mileage will surely vary.

Now, a couple arguments. Kamasi Washington’s The Epic and the A Love Supreme: The Complete Masters are likely going to come up big this year, at least from what I see from the Jazz Journalists Association chatter (I am not currently a member because I remain unemployed and cannot afford the annual dues). I have reservations about both:

The Epic is played and produced to the nth degree, a complete pleasure to listen to and fulfilling throughout it’s entire duration. It’s also a stillborn recreation of an era that passed over forty years ago. Jazz has moved on quite far from the Coltrane/modal/spiritual era, and critically I can never recommend historical recreations (re-imagining and re-contextualization are another matter) when there is so much fine jazz being made that reflects the present and pushes into the future. For a more detailed argument, I recommend you read Ryan Meehan’s review which we published in the Rail.

It is no criticism of John Coltrane nor of A Love Supreme to say that the Complete Masters release is disappointing and unessential. The only meaningful difference between this and the 2002 Deluxe Edition are several alternate tracks that show Coltrane initially thought of the work as a sextet, with Archie Shepp and Richard Davis in the group. Those show the idea was unworkable, that it moved the music towards absolute music when the goal was Coltrane’s personal spiritual expression: Shepp and Davis just don’t get what’s going on. It’s musicologically interesting to see that detail, but it’s a distraction from the actual music and the album, and in my opinion did not merit rerelease. I detect the cynical whiff of profiteering, and I’m sorry I spent what little money I have on it.

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10 Best New Releases

  1. Chris Lightcap’s Bigmouth, Epicenter
  2. Myra Melford, Snowy Egret
  3. Rudresh Mahanthappa, Bird Calls
  4. Mary Halvorson, Meltframe
  5. Noah Preminger, Live at the 55 Bar
  6. William Parker/Raining on the Moon, Great Spirit
  7. Stephen Haynes, Pomegranate
  8. Mike Reed’s People Places & Things, A New Kind of Dance
  9. Aarhus Jazz Orchestra, featuring David Liebman and Marilyn Mazur, Lars Møller’s ReWrite of Spring
  10. Erik Friedlander, Oscalypso

The 11s:

  • Darius Jones Quartet, Le bébé de Brigitte
  • Nicole Mitchell/Tomeka Reid/Mike Reed, Artifacts
  • Liberty Ellman, Radiate
  • Avisha Cohen Trio, From Darkness
  • Jason Roebke, Every Sunday
  • Chicago Reed Quartet, Western Automatic
  • Pascal Niggenkemper, ‘‘look with thine ears’
  • Mario Pavone/Matt Mitchell/Tyshawn Sorey, Blue Dialect
  • Jack DeJohnette, Made in Chicago
  • Cristina Pato, Latino
  • Joey Calderozzo Trio, Going Home
  • Power Trio, Di Lontan
  • John Hébert, Rambling Confessions
  • PRISM Quartet, Heritage/Evolution Volume 1
  • Eve Risser, des pas sur la neige
  • Rempis Percussion Quartet, Cash and Carry
  • Ran Blake/Sara Serpa, Kitano Noir
  • Tim Berne’s Snakeoil, You’ve Been Watching Me
  • Wooley/Rempis/Niggenkemper/Corsano, From Wolves to Whales
  • Zs, Xe
  • Dre Hocevar Trio, Coding of Eventuality
  • Food, This is not a miracle
  • Hypercolor, Hypercolor
  • Nate Wooley Quintet, (Dance to) The Early Music
  • J.D. Allen, Graffiti
  • Frank Carlberg, big enigmas
  • Ross Hammond, Flight
  • Steve Coleman and the Council of Balance, Synovial Joints
  • Rez Abbasi Acoustic Quartet, Intents and Purposes
  • Marta Sánchez Quintet, partenika
  • Bjørn Solli, Aglow: The Lyngøe Project, Volume 1
  • Andrew Bishop, De Profundis

Honorable Mention:

  • James Brandon Lewis, Days of FreeMan
  • Jean-Michel Pic, What is this Thing Called?
  • Chris Potter Underground, Imaginary Cities
  • Matt Mitchell, Vista Accumulation
  • Enrico Rava Quartet, Wild Man Dance
  • Jon Irabagon, Behind the Sky
  • Mike Osborne, Dawn
  • Sal Mosca, The Talk of the Town
  • Amir El-Saffar, Crisis
  • Kenny Wheeler, Songs for Quintet
  • Makaya McCraven, In the Moment
  • Christian Howes, American Spirit
  • Chris Dingman, The Subliminal and the Sublime
  • Robert Sabin, Humanity Part II
  • Saxophone Quartet Dicke Luft, Carillon
  • Fresh Cut Orchestra, From the Vine
  • Louis Belgonis, Blue Buddha
  • Ozo, A Kind of Zo
  • Brian Landrus Trio, The Deep Below
  • Frantz Loriot/Manuel Perovic Notebook Large Ensemble, Urban Furrow
  • Vijay Iyer Trio, Break Stuff
  • Ochion Jewell Quartet, Volk
  • Shareef Clayton, North & South
  • Andrew Drury, Content Provider
  • Jeff Denson Trio + Lee Konitz, Jeff Denson Trio + Lee Konitz
  • Mike Sopko, Bill Laswell, Thomas Pridgen, Sopko Laswell Pridgin

Top Three Reissues or Historical Albums:

  1. Cecil Taylor, The Complete in Berlin ‘88
  2. Sonny Rollins Quartet with Don Cherry, Complete Live at the Village Gate 1962
  3. Steve Lacy Quintet, Last Tour

Honorable Mention:

Best Vocal Album

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Frank Lacy and the Mingus Big Band, Mingus Sings

Best Debut Album

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Roots Magic, Hoodoo Blues

Best Latin jazz Album

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Paquito D’Rivera & Quinteto Cimarron, Aires Tropicales

Good listening to all

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