Year’s Best Jazz Albums, 2017 Edition

The year’s best new jazz albums, and more. At least until I hear more new albums.



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 ate your book.”

Bernhard Lang

“I dig the jacket!”

Kurt Elling

2010 Year’s Best Jazz

This is my official ballot, as submitted to the Village Voice Jazz Critics Poll:

10 Best Releases

1. Radif Suite – Amir ElSaffar and Hafez Modirzadeh: What makes this one so special is the incredible emotional power and depth of expression. The style of the music, in the legacy of the Ornette Coleman Quartet, is still relatively unique and under-explored, but it how they are making the music is secondary to what they are saying and doing, musically. Beautiful, gut-wrenching and haunting in a way that is rare in jazz. More here.

2. Apex -Rudresh Mahanthappa & Bunky Green: One of the best pure listens of the year. More extensive review here.

3. Transmit – Ideal Bread: One of the smartest groups around playing some of the smartest, and best, music in contemporary jazz. More here.

4. Ten – Jason Moran: It’s pretty much a default that a Jason Moran CD will end up on such a list, arguably the most important musician currently in jazz. More here.

5. Reunited – Jazz Passengers: Like Moran, a Jazz Passengers release is an event. Also like Moran, what they are doing is a known quantity, and also like him, that quantity itself is still so fresh and exceptional. The fundamental tie that binds them all is unselfconsciousness. For the Passengers, the mix of genres, styles and the generous humor and essential mocking of the conventions of jazz are a natural way to make music, not an argument to make or a point to prove.

The title track says it all, a brilliant vocal arrangement of the slow-dancing pop ballad of the early 1980s. It’s funny, hip, musically accomplished, and rather than say something about jazz or pop music it says something about those who might look down from the supposedly lofty heights of non-pop. The same is true for their version of Radiohead’s “National Anthem,” which is one of the more inventively musical covers of that band I’ve heard in jazz. But the meat is the original music and sound of Roy Nathanson and band, the way they constantly and creatively undermine the very premises of jazz gestures and playing, the way they show clichés what they are, essential components of the music that still need to be questioned every time jazz gets played. One of the essential ensembles in jazz.

6.   Dual Identity – Rudresh Mahanthappa & Steve Lehman: Burning intensity and overwhelming excitement. More here.

7. siLENT Z Live – Pete Robbins: Accomplished, understatedly sophisticated, subtly daring, a top-level example of the promise, possibilities and fulfillment of contemporary jazz. More here.

8. Timshel – Dan Weiss: Quiet and very involving. Beautiful playing from Weiss’ group, and a set of music that has a wonderful quality of integration. More here.

9. Finally Out of My Hands – Ches Smith and These Arches: A knotty, challenging, pulsating disc. The band – Smith on drums, Mary Halvorson on guitar, Andrea Parkins playing accordion and organ and Tony Malaby on tenor – has a great sound that adds to the possibilities Henry Threadgill laid out in his first Make A Move ensemble. Just scoring on the basis of adding to the jazz tradition, that would make this a notable release. But this list is about the music, and this is some of the strongest music of the year.

The concepts of “good” and of “liking” something are the least important aspects of true criticism, and Finally Out of My Hands is an ideal example of this. There’s little in the way of ingratiating tunes and structures, there’s no concession to satisfying conventional ideas (and jazz has a deeply conventional streak) about being a jazz band. There’s also no concessions to the usual poles of free playing, either evocatively pointillistic or aggressive and full of existential angst. Instead, there’s a complex balance of organizing the music in terms of the sound of the instruments and in setting contrasting events along a time frame. There’s also, and I think this is the greatest strength of the CD, the feeling that Smith and musicians don’t have any answers, but they are interested in the questions of what can be done, and how it can be done. It’s not conceptual, it’s practical – they are looking for possibilities in praxis, and that gives this recording real bite and a compelling quality. You want to go where they are leading, even though there’s no particular destination involved, nor even signposts on the way.

10. Observatories – Blue Cranes: The elements – rock, blues, big band – are familiar, but the way this group puts them together is unique, and the music is winning. More here.

3 Top Reissues

1. Complete Novus/Columbia Henry Threadgill and Air (Mosaic): Monumental and deserved. Threadgill’s extraordinary breakthroughs and creativity over the last ten years or so came from somewhere deep in both the roots of jazz and in contemporary improvisation and performance, and this set collects range of thinking and playing that have to be heard to be believed. It’s invaluable to have these recordings available again, especially the run of Sextett CDs on Novus. The usual great production from Mosaic, including a nice booklet from Hank Shteamer.

2. The Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra (ESP): Great music, of course, and great to have it collected and released. This is a superior reissue package, though, because of what comes with it when you put the discs into a computer; collected writing, collected photos, and a documentary film on the music and Sunny.

3. Django Reinhardt, Musette to Maestro 1928-1937 (JSP): A revelation. Hear how Django got his start in French popular music between the wars. Great examples of the wonderful café style of music that combined urban sophistication with rural nostalgia, but mainly hear is the evolution of one of the all time giants, from accompanying singers like Jean Sablon to the cusp of the Hot Club Quintet.

Top Vocal Album

Out of the Shadows Ran Blake/Christine Correa: Not just great singing but a great selection of material. My original review is here.

Best Debut CD

It Would Be Easier If– Ken Thomson & Slow/Fast: This could also be on the Top 10 list, but putting it in this category, where it belongs, allows the listing of one other excellent recording. Thomson is a musician’s musician, an important member of Gutbucket and the Asphalt Orchestra and seen in innumerable new and classical music concerts around town and the country. He’s also got his own band, a rich and beautiful bridge between jazz and new music.

The sound of this band is very much like that of a particularly lauded trumpeter of the past decade, a fine player who has been especially praised for his compositions. But writing some contrapuntal lines for a jazz quintet, while never organizing them into any particular form or structure and hoping improvisation carries the day is not much in the way of composition. What Thomson does here is simply great: writing homophonic and polyphonic (and polyrhythmic) lines within the structure of real compositions that are thought all the way through. He favors long, complex lines, jazz ‘endless melody,’ and they always move purposefully towards a point, even if in the moment that point seems distant and mysterious. The music is compositionally interesting in every moment. But this isn’t icy third-stream, Thomson’s style is laden with emotional force, and the band is just great (live they build up tremendous fire). The improvisations are terrific and fit seamlessly into the overall aesthetic. This is simply one of the best examples of a truly non-jazz compositional method applied to jazz that one will ever hear. Excellent, memorable and with a power that will grow with each listening.

Best Latin Jazz

Mood Music for Time Travellers – Either/Orchestra: Goes well beyond that standard idea of Latin Jazz. More here.

Happy Coltrane Day

John Coltrane’s legacy is eighty-four years young today, and the shame is that if he had survived his demons he could easily be going strong this very moment.  I can’t add much to what already is a mass of knowledge, ideas, experiences and viewpoints, except for perhaps this excellent animation of his solo on “Giant Steps” (I used to practice this so much that the muscle memory is still in my fingers, thirty years later), and after, a selection of my favorite recordings of his, with perhaps a surprise or two:

  • Coltrane’s Sound; underrated but I think the greatest of his Atlantic recordings, intense and tough-minded
  • Duke Ellington and John Coltrane; the enduring hit is the duet with Johnny Hartman, but Coltrane is so subdued on that one.  With the Duke, he’s understated but speaks fully, with an aching edge to “In A Sentimental Mood”
  • Live At Birdland; this is the one that Philip Larkin hated, IIRC
  • Coltrane; with “Out Of This World,” “Soul Eyes” and “Tunji,” the best of the straight-playing Impulse! albums

One final note, don’t check for any graphic tribute to Coltrane at Google today, jazz is too hip for corporate engineers.

It Is In The Brewing Luminous

Soundcheck had a smackdown over which classic recording from Miles Davis was more influential, Kind of Blue or Bitches Brew? There’s really only one possible answer. Kind of Blue is a great, beautiful record, but it’s influence has been relatively slight. Miles’ introduction of modal playing didn’t even shift Coltrane and Cannonball, on the same record, away from their intense and joyous running of changes, and while pretty much every jazz musician who goes through any kind of organized pedagogy works with modal practice and playing (I did in the High School program at Eastman), it never really became a school or style, rather just another tool in the kit.

Fifty years later, Kind of Blue has become an object of popular worship, and that’s problematic. Yes, the music is great and gorgeous, but it seems that what has become more important is the style, the stance, the atmosphere. The record has become a symbol of a certain kind of hipness, a badge of the listener’s qualities, especially the ones (s)he imagines for her/himself. The actual music tends to get lost in the fog of echt-cool. No one seems to actually hear how Coltrane eschews the scales to produce his marvelous vertical solo on “Blue In Green,” perhaps the finest moment in the saxophonist’s career. It’s less an album today than an icon, and icons are made to be broken.

Bitches Brew is the iconoclastic answer, a recording that has had a profound influence on musical culture, from jazz to pop styles and, I believe on the broad range of improvised music that has been practiced across the world over the last forty years. It has none of the seductive style of the previous album, but it doesn’t confront the listener. It presents its powerful, uncompromising stance with an invigorating indifference, with such powerful yet lightly worn confidence in its own qualities that it feels itself beyond criticism, beyond hip, beyond cool. It doesn’t need you to like it, but it knows you need it to like you. It’s also, in its own way, a beautiful record. The question with the recording is not its influence but which package to buy?

There is the 2 CD standard set (and comparable download) that is the original recording along with the bonus track “Feio.” There is also the Complete Bitches Brew Sessions box set, which augments the original with separate tracks, comprising a total of 4 CDs, but those can also be found on Big Fun, although with the box you get a dense, detailed booklet. Unlike the Complete In A Silent Way Sessions, though, there is no material that gives any idea of how the tracks on the original release were actually put together, and the studio process, especially Teo Macero’s tape editing, was integral to the music, which is a combination of tremendous playing and tremendous after-the-fact musical construction.

This basic decision is now complicated by Sony’s production of two new and different editions, the Legacy one and the Collector’s Edition . The latter, an extravaganza priced in the three figures, is packed with a CD edition of the record plus a vinyl pressing of the record plus audio and DVD of the same material in concert plus a book, a “memorabilia envelope” and a poster! Okay! If you have the money to spend, you’re welcome to it, but I think the best choice is the Legacy edition. It’s a 2 CD/1 DVD collection, with the original recording plus material that has long been unavailable (and is on neither the standard edition or the Complete one), single-length edits of “Miles Runs The Voodoo Down,” “Spanish Key,” “Great Expectations” and “Little Blue Frog.” I wonder how often those were heard on jukeboxes? And although there’s no live audio, the DVD is a concert from Copenhagen in 1969, in excellent sound and vintage videotape, the band comprised of Miles, Wayne Shorter, Chick Corea, Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette burning darkly through some of the best of his late ’60s material. The only thing missing is a reprint of the original liner notes from Ralph J. Gleason in an otherwise fine booklet from Greg Tate. Overall, it’s fantastic.

That alone was worth the cost for me in duplicating my standard set and is certainly the one to get for anyone who doesn’t yet have this music (the iTunes download appears to include the video portion as well) and is highly recommended even for those who do, especially considering the price, at least at J&R last weekend, was $16.99. And for those who don’t yet have this music, why the hell not?

Bitches Brew is one of the great archives of recorded music, a work that has one foot in popular styles, rock and funk, and the other in some of the most intellectually and aesthetically experimental music of the 20th century. It does the impossible, it brings together the strains of American popular musical culture – blues, rock, jazz, funk – parsed through the sieve of musique concrète into the ultimate Platonic emulsification. It’s enthralling and even a bit disturbing, it seems to spring from some ancient collective consciousness that Miles has directed all the musicians to tap into. There’s some secret language that they understand intuitively, they don’t translate it but let us listen in on their conversation. The sound, especially on the title track, can be shattering, Miles trumpet crying out from some far off, mysterious, even frightening land. The “B” disc of the old LP set is slightly more straightforward, with the rave-ups of “Spanish Key” and “John McLaughlin,” the slow burn of “Miles Runs The Voodoo Down” and the repose of “Sanctuary,” with its hints of “Stella By Starlight.” That’s as close as the album gets to song form, though, and that’s why it still sounds as fresh and daring as always. Musicians working in popular forms, even at the creative end of jazz, still have problems breaking loose of song form while maintaining some kind of clear organization. Bitches Brew manages that feat for its duration and that’s because of Miles as bandleader, filling the chairs with cats who can follow his principles. Holland and Harvey Brooks lay down geological bass lines, DeJohnette and Lenny White define the spaces in time, Chick and Joe Zawinul play some of the darkest electric piano on record, McLaughlin, Shorter and Bennie Maupin add smears of color and pithy solos to support the leader. There’s space, density, motion, the music never resolves, but instead of leaving us frustrated and unsatisfied, we just want to come back for more. Dig it.

Dig This, Continued


By 1979, John McLaughlin had either made or been an integral part of some of the greatest recordings of the previous ten years; In A Silent Way, Bitches Brew, Emergency!, Live/Evil, A Tribute to Jack Johnson, My Goals Beyond, The Inner Mounting Flame, Birds of Fire, Apocalypse and his previous years amazing Electric Guitarist.  Running through the titles on that list, it’s hard to comprehend the scope and meaning of it. Most musicians would be glad to leave one of those discs to posterity, an posterity will remember McLaughlin as one of the truly great musicians of the 20th century.

But the record I hear so often in my head, and that I’m compelled to play out loud, is the one he made with his One Truth Band, Electric Deams . As far as I can discover, this is a one-shot album/group. It really does cap his career up to that point in time, which in retrospect has also been the most innovative, fruitful period for McLaughlin. Electric Guitarist is a record that gives stunning examples of all the things he had done up to that point in time, touching on standards, electric post-bop, improvised rock with Santana, The Mahavishnu Orchestra and Lifetime. Electric Dreams synthesizes all that had come before into an integrated whole, a record with an accessible, at moments even commercial surface, underneath of which the music is tough-minded, searching, excellent.

The opening fragment “Guardian Angels” recalls both Shakti and the acoustic side of the Mahavishnu Orchestra, the following track, “Miles Davis,” is a tribute/response to Miles’ “John McLaughlin” from Bitches Brew and develops on from the innovations of Miles and Weather Report. It’s the kind of loose playing inside an expansive yet tightly organized structure that leads to the most exciting, satisfying playing; an opening riff leads to a heavy groove, Tony Smith laying it down on the drums, McLaughlin slashing in and out with short phrases, the great Fernando Saunders (one of the unsung heroes of the electric bass for the past thirty years) responding fluidly on the bass and holding down a melodic line, Stu Goldberg’s punchy comping. It seems free, but there are specific moments of modulation, the container in which this great band is jamming, then, with most of the track done, the melody comes in, a pithy hip riff, doubled in the bass, and then the jamming continues through the fade. The backward structure, the playing leading up to the statement, is great, and the playing itself even better.

There are moments that are dated, that are very much late-seventies post-fusion – Goldberg’s blooping Moog sound, L. Shankar’s electric violin on the title track, the simple soulful lyrics and vocals on “Love and Understanding,” the cold-war politics of “The Last Dissident” which features that era’s studio stalwart, David Sanborn – but it’s just a matter of the flavors that musicians favored at the time. Those tracks themselves are completely funky and hip, the playing supple, responsive and muscular – Sanborn in particular plays beautifully on his feature. There’s the obligatory feature, “The Dark Prince” (another Miles tribute?), that electric musicians of the time used to remind the listener that they could still play jazz, and it is great, burning, straight-ahead, post-bop jazz, and not even the best thing on the album. Dig it.

Dig This

(First in a regularly occasional series) Turner Classic Movies has “The Essentials,” the BBC has their long-running “Desert Island Discs” program, and Alex Ross’ new book is titled “Listen To This; ” lists of things they consider the very best, the most special. I have my own, and this post inaugurates what will be an ongoing sub-series. As time passes, I’ll be accumulating an annotated list of recordings that are personally important. They are not necessarily all my favorites, or the ones I love and listen to the most, but they are ones that have some quality (which hopefully I’ll discern and explain) that makes them stick in my mind, recordings that have a powerful effect on me and that, if I were to have to choose discs to keep, would make up that list.

Now, in a particular order but in no particular rank . . . First is a recording I’ve been living with since it first came out in 1980, Jack DeJohnette’s Special Edition . The title is also the name of the ensemble that he led, off an on, for roughly a decade or more. On this debut recording, the group is made up of Arthur Blythe on alto sax, David Murray on tenor and bass clarinet, Peter Warren playing cello and bass and the leader playing piano and melodica, along with sitting behind the drum kit.

When the LP first came out, I was fascinated and baffled by it. As I wore down the grooves, I replaced it with the CD and find that through the years it’s grown on me to the extent that there are times when I have to listen to it out of an almost physical need. It’s great urban music. Things that sounded a little stiff and arty at the beginning are now fully rooted in my psyche as stylish and sincere sophistication.

What is it like? It’s explicitly Modernist, explicitly dedicate to certain musicians and certain styles, explicitly involved with playing around with existing ideas and teasing out new responses and possibilities. There’s only five tracks, and they are easy to break down; “One For Eric” and “Zoot Suite” have bi-modal structures, with the former alternating between a riff that could have been played by Dolphy, and a choppy but still flowing rhythmic structure supporting the solos, while the latter is a jump tune, distilled down to it’s densest essence, again alternating with a completely different and more modern solo structure. DeJohnette doesn’t try and synthesize these concepts, he merely juxtaposes them and offers the question, what do you think? “Central Park West” is a simple and lovely arrangement of the Coltrane tune, with the leader filling out the voices on melodica, and the burning “India” is more re-arranged Coltrane. The closing “Journey To The Twin Planet” is, like the first two cuts, a DeJohnette piece, and culminates in a peaking intensity before settling back into a literally composed, Minimalist repose.

What makes it special? One part is the tone, a combination of intellect, wit, and seriously intense playing. The music is committed and elusive, coherent but with an abstract expression that has one coming back to discover more. Another is the interesting and musically successful feature of DeJohnette himself playing multiple instruments, but without overdubbing. His piano intro to “India” drops out after the bass and horns enter, then the drums come in once he slides onto the stool. It’s the type of detail in a studio recording that makes it bracingly live. This is also one of the prototypes for what can be called the ECM sound; a balance of sharp transparency and just enough resonance – the music seems to jump off the surface, with the cymbals sizzling and shimmering. Ultimately, though, it’s about the horns. Blythe and Murray were young and relatively new to the scene when the recording was made, and they are great complements, each with a personal and unique combination in their sound of the past and the future. For each, this is some of their keenest, hottest playing. There’s also an involving retrospective sadness inescapable in listening to Special Edition, as their careers diverged drastically. Murray has become one of the Titans of contemporary jazz, a tremendous and tremendously prolific musician who has created a beautiful synthesis of Ben Webster and Albert Ayler, while Blythe somehow lost his chops and, when his wind returned, it could be heard that he lost his ambition. He made two LPs for Columbia that are exciting, great and important – Lennox Avenue Breakdown and Illusions – and that demonstrate some of the most fertile and successful post-fusion, post-avant jazz thinking, and then essentially fell off the face of the musical earth. His sound was one of the most beautiful ever produced on the alto sax, and his playing on this disc was his finest ever.