After listening to what is now close to 500 recordings with a 2016 release date, I feel like I’ve discovered some themes. Some of this is the elusive zeitgeist, what is on the minds of musical artists; some is longer term trends having to do with technology and pop culture; some may just be coincidence. But all were noticeable and satisfied my arbitrary criteria for a sample size.
Nothing sub rosa here, Parker has been around for a while and has been one of most interesting guitarists on the scene, creating his own niche in between jazz, rock, neo-soul, and improvised music. He’s living testament that there’s no real line between the popular and the avant-garde in African-American music, it’s all on a spectrum, and a pretty compact one at that.
His album The New Breed (International Anthem) made the most noise this year, and it is solid. I don’t love it though; the intentionally fragmented nature, while interesting, doesn’t really satisfy—the record wants to be both experimental and neatly controlled, and those are contradictory goals.
But there are two other recordings to his credit that are fine. One is a seemingly modest but actually deep solo record, Slight Freedom (Eremite), which has Parker exploring his own fascinating art. The other is drummer Matt Mayhall’s Tropes (Skirl), a tight, strong debut based around the trio of Mayhall, bassist Paul Bryan, and Parker (with various guests). Parker’s contributions are integral to the success of the disc, which is the best jazz debut of the year, and my regrets that I did not get this out of the pile for listening until after the deadline for Francis Davis’ Jazz Critics Poll. Both these are strongly recommended and on my extended list for best new releases.
There’s been a longer term trend in the proliferation of terrific guitarists—and please don’t think of just jazz. Many of them play jazz, but they are playing in every sort of style and tradition Some are relatively new on the scene, others are established, and they keep putting out one solid record after another (or, like Parker, are important sidemen on other musicians’ records). Here are recordings from guitarists that I enjoyed this year and recommend:
- Craig Brann, A Conversation Between Brothers
- Julia Lage, Arclight
- Ed Cherry, Soul Tree
- Zsofia Boros, Local Objects
- Will Bernard, Out and About
- Joshua Breakstone, The Cello Quartet, 88
- Wolfgang Muthspiel, Rising Grace
Ask me on a different day, and any and all of these could be on my list of 52.
First, I want to express some disappointment. As someone with a man-crush on Kurt Elling, his appearance on Branford Marsalis’ Upward Spiral never captured my attention, and I find his Christmas disc hard going. But there were other fine releases from singers that had the balance of artistry and creativity that I seek—I want my singers to be good musicians! Try these, they are all terrific:
- Sara Gazarek/Josh Nelson, Dream in the Blue
- Sara Serpa & André Matos, All the Dreams
- Camille Bertault, En Vie
- Mili Bermejo/Dan Greenspan, arte del duo
- Kendra Shank & Geoffrey Keezer, Half Moon
Seriously swinging, musical singing from all the above. Everyone should hear Bertault sing “The Peacocks“ in French.
This was a strong year for Sunnyside records. I have several of their releases in my top 52, and you’ll find a couple of the vocalists there. Other keepers are Andrew Cyrille and Bill McHenry’s duet album, Proximity, Dan Blake’s tough-as-nails The Digging, and two records with a south of the Trump wall flavor, Edward Simon’s Latin American Songbook, and Argentum from Carlos Franzetti.
ECM is by default one of the major labels, but their output this year took nothing for granted and was impressive even by their consistent standards. I do go against some of the consensus favorites, like Michael Formanek’s The Distance, which I found wan, but they had a run of fine records in that typical ECM style that carved out a space between improvisation and contemporary classical control. Along with the release on my best of list:
- Nik Bärtsch’s Mobile, Continuum
- Andrew Cyrille Quartet, The Declaration of Musical Indepence
- David Virelles, Antenna
- Iro Haarla Quintet, Norrlands Operans Symfoniorkester, Jukka Lisakkila, Ante Lucem
- Miroslav Vitous, Music of Weather Report
ECM also had several excellent classical and new music releases, those you will find in a forthcoming post.