Year’s Best Jazz Albums, 2017 Edition


Once again, I’ve voted in Francis Davis’ Jazz Critics Poll (results will be forthcoming at NPR, thanks again to Francis for continuing to include me in some impressive company).

Below is my ballot, which should be taken with two important caveats: 1) this goes from Thanksgiving to Thanksgiving; and 2) I still have more 2017 releases to listen to. That means there will be a follow-up list once the year changes (subscribe now to be able to read that!), but in no way should what’s on the ballot be discounted, they are all excellent albums that every jazz fan should pay attention to, and they are a relatively arbitrary culling of at least a couple dozen really fine things I’ve heard so far this year.

This Year’s 10 best New Releases

  1. Nicole Mitchell, Mandorla Awakening II: Emerging Worlds (FPE) – So brilliant it eludes full categorization and understanding. Afro-futurism, yes, but also testifying, social ritual, dance, and simply tremendous group playing that balances freedom and organization with perfect timing.
  2. Vijay Iyer Sextet, Far From Over (ECM) – A concise collection of the state of the art in jazz musicians, with Iyer, Graham Haynes, Mark Shim, Stephan Crump, Steve Lehman, and Tyshawn Sorey. Nice to hear Vijay getting back over to tough jazz.
  3. Sam Newsome/Jean Michel-Pilc, Magic Circle – Might make you think of the Steve Lacy/Mal Waldron duos, because it’s on that level. Intimacy, intelligence, imagination, and wonderful musicality.
  4. Nicholas Payton, Afro-Carribean Mixtape (Pay-tone) – Rivals Mandorla Awakening for musicality, meaning, and sheer hipness. If it was just a little shorter, would have split the #1 rank.
  5. Colin Valon Trio, Danse (ECM) – Minimalist jazz of grace and power.
  6. Tomasz Stanko New York Quartet, December Avenue (ECM) – Stanko’s usual urbane beauty, and a cooking rhythm section. The trumpeter sounds stronger and more focussed than in recent years.
  7. Harriet Tubman Band, Araminta (Sunnyside) – Fierce and grooving. Anger and pride mixed together to make some fantastic music.
  8. Lisa Mezzacappa, Glorious Ravage (New World)  – The only big band record on this list, and rousing large-scale composition from Mezzacappa that is also a showcase for the great singer Fay Victor.
  9. Roots Magic, Last Kind Words (Clean Feed) – This Italian band is becoming one of my favorites with their dedication to old blues and Henry Threadgill.
  10. Greg Saunier/Mary Halvorson/Ron Miles, New American Songbook Vol I (Sound American) – This is an exciting new project from this trio, not just in their transformation of material into the avant-garde, but their sensibility that ranges from Fiona Apple to Vincent Persichetti, and that’s just in the first two tracks.

Top-Three Reissues or Historical albums

  1. Sun Ra, Singles: The Definitive Collection 1952-1991 (Strut) – Anyone who cares about American music needs the Sun Ra singles.
  2. Billy Bang, Distinction Without a Difference, (Corbett vs Dempsey) – While Bang’s discography is crying out for organization and collection, this reissue of one of the great recordings from Hat Hut’s early years is more than welcome.
  3. Jaco Pastorius, Truth, Liberty & Soul (Resonance) – Jaco and the Word of Mouth big band, live in (now David Geffen) Hall. That’s all you need to know.

Year’s Best Vocal album

Dominique Eade/Ran Blake, Town and Country (Sunnyside) – A rather amazing record. The originals are excellent, and the covers come at you from an acute angle. At first you’re not sure what’s happening, and then you are seduced.

Year’s Best Debut album

Endless Field, Endless Field (Biophilia Records) – Sincerity and beauty, a gentle surface and a quietly earth shaking power underneath.

Year’s Best Latin jazz album

Miguel Zenon, Tipico (Miguel Zenon/CD Baby) – The note below explains why this pick is where it is. Some of the hippest playing I’ve heard in years.

Here’s a mix out of what’s available to stream:


  • Yes there are three ECM titles on the list, and I could have added more. The label put out so many fine records this year, not just in jazz but in the New series, and I would recommend them all. For the additional ECM jazz titles, look in the #11s below.
  • The best Latin jazz album is a bit of a cheat; Tipico is flat out one of the best jazz albums of the year, easily in my top 10, but this way I can squeeze it in.
  • Some may wonder why I don’t have the Mosaic Savoy Be-Bop set in historical albums. Not that it isn’t excellent—it is—or that I don’t love it—I do. I went with Bang and Jaco because with the former the music would simply have been missing (the Mosaic box does duplicate other available releases), and with the latter, this is a true historic unearthing of never before heard recordings.

11s-excellent albums that deserve your attention

  • Maciej Obara Quartet, Unloved (ECM)
  • Ralph Towner, My Foolish Heart (ECM)
  • AMP Trio, Three
  • Anouar Brahem, Blue Maqams (ECM)
  • Ferenc Snétberger, Titok (ECM)
  • Gary Peacock Trio, Tangents (ECM)
  • Dan Tepfer Trio, Eleven Cages (Sunnyside)
  • Diego Barber, One Minute Later (Sunnyside)
  • Brooklyn Raga Massive, John Coltrane Raga Tribute
  • Amir ElSaffar Rivers of Sound, Not Two (New Amsterdam)
  • Martial Solal & Dave Liebman, Masters in Bordeaux (Sunnyside)
  • Samo Salamon Sextet, The Colours Suite (Clean Feed)
  • Nate Woolley, Knknighgh 3 (Clean Feed)

Good listening to all

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I'm a composer and musician, and I write about music—I do that here, for the New York Classical Review, at the Brooklyn Rail (I edit the music section there) and any place else that will have me, like New Music Box and Music & Literature. I also wrote the Miles Davis' Bitches Brew book in the 33 1/3 series.

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