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As heard on a vast range of memorable music released in the past year, the definition of “jazz” continues to expand exponentially. We realize, of course, that in a world where so many once-unfamiliar music styles and cultures are now easily accessed and intermixed by curious and technologically savvy artists, the genre might be all-but-unrecognizable to, say, a 19-year-old Louis Armstrong. So, as inadequate as the term may be, we nonetheless asked a handful of our contributors to weigh in on the year’s best jazz releases.
Yes, it’s that time once again — Critics’ Picks. We do it in every Winter issue: ask our editors and writers to assess the new releases they’ve heard during the previous 12 months and send us a list of the 10 best they’ve encountered. On the following pages you’ll see a dozen of those lists, each a carefully considered reflection of the author’s tastes and preferences. The first title in every list is the author’s top pick. The nine titles that follow are listed in no particular order of preference.
As always, we hope you enjoy perusing the lists and that they lead you to check out some worthwhile albums that you might not have otherwise considered.
Michael Faigen - Eddie Daniels Heart of Brazil: A Tribute to Egberto Gismonti (Resonance)
While he’s best-known as one of the world’s most talented clarinetists, Eddie Daniels is also an accomplished flutist and saxophonist whose work frequently blurs the lines between jazz and classical repertoire. On Heart of Brazil, at the request of producer and Resonance Records’ owner George Klabin, Daniels pays tribute to Brazilian composer and multi-instrumentalist Egberto Gismonti. The album features 12 Gismonti compositions along with one new original from Daniels, who, at the helm of a first-rate backing band, plays brilliantly throughout on clarinet and tenor sax. Highlighted by Ted Nash, Juno Schmidt and Josh Nelson’s fresh arrangements of Gismonti’s complex tunes, Heart of Brazil amounts to yet another historically significant release from a label with an increasingly well-earned reputation for producing albums worth collecting.
Kenny Barron Quintet,Concentric Circles (Blue Note); Al Di Meola Opus (earMUSIC); Troy Roberts, Nu-Jive Perspective (Inner Circle Music); Wolfgang Muthspiel, Where the River Goes (ECM); Gilad Hekselman, Ask for Chaos (Motéma); Julian Lage, Modern Lore (Mack Avenue); Lars Danielsson and Paolo Fresu, Summerwind (ACT Music); Chris Stranding Sunlight (Ultimate Vibe); Eddie Henderson Be Cool (Smoke Sessions).
Bob Weinberg -Roswell Rudd, Embrace (RareNoise)
A giant of the avant-garde jazz world, trombonist Rudd returned to the Great American Songbook for what proved to be his final recording. In the intimate setting of a quartet, Rudd utilized a library of boozy slurs, guttural growls and raucous guffaws, all suffused with great joie de vivre and deep reserves of emotion. Elevating the album further is his conversational rapport with vocalist Fay Victor, and their back-and-forth on a spry “Can’t We Be Friends” is one for the ages. Pianist Lafayette Harris supplies spare and lovely backing, as does bassist Ken Filiano. Gorgeous renditions of “Something to Live For” and “Pannonica” bookend the recording, which is less an elegy than a celebration of Rudd’s deep jazz roots. The trombonist, who had been battling cancer, died on December 21, 2017, a month after his 82nd birthday.
Michael Musillami/Rich Syracuse, Bird Calls (Playscape); Eddie Henderson, Be Cool (Smoke Sessions); Marta Sánchez Quinte, Danza Imposible (Fresh Sound New Talent); Tia Fuller, Diamond Cut (Mack Avenue); Daniel Carter/William Parker/Matthew Shipp, Seraphic Light, Live at Tufts University (AUM Fidelity); Eva Novoa’s Ditmas Quartet, Live at IBeam (Fresh Sound New Talent); Ingrid Jensen/Steve Treseler, Invisible Sounds: For Kenny Wheeler (Whirlwind); Michael Moss, Incidental Orchestra Helix (4th Stream); Matthew Shipp, Zero (ESP-Disk)
Larry Blumenfeld - Wadada Leo Smith Solo: Reflections and Meditations on Monk (Tumi)
The least likely of the musical gestures marking the centennial of Thelonious Monk’s birth — an album of solo trumpet pieces — perhaps captures the late, great pianist’s spirit best, and pushes Smith, an elder master, to his declarative and ruminative best.
Henry Threadgill 14 or 15 Kestra: Agg Dirt … and More Dirt (Pi); Steve Coleman and Five Elements Live at the Village Vanguard, Vol. 1 (The Embedded Sets) (Pi); Marc Ribot Goodbye Beautiful: Songs of Resistance, 1942-2018 (Anti-); Dafnis Prieto Big Band Back to the Sunset (Dafnison); Jen Shyu Song of Silver Geese (Pi); Bill Frisell Music IS (Okeh/Sony Music Masterworks); Wayne Shorter Emanon (Blue Note); Daniel Carter/William Parker/Matthew Shipp Seraphic Light (AUM Fidelity); Randy Weston Sound (African Rhythms)
Scott Yanow - Anat Cohen Tentet, Happy Song (Anzic)
Anat Cohen is at the head of a tentet comprised of trumpet, trombone, baritone/bass sax, vibes, piano/accordion, guitar, cello, bass, drums and her clarinet, performing a suite mostly comprised of her originals and Oded Lev-Ari’s arrangements. Many styles are lovingly and authentically played including the beautiful “Valsa Para Alice”; a joyful “Oh Baby” (based on Benny Goodman’s recording of the mid-1940s); klezmer funeral and celebration pieces; the dramatic “Trills and Thrills,” which features bluesy guitar by Sheryl Bailey; and the spirited West African-flavored “Kenedougou Foly.” No matter the idiom, Cohen plays masterfully. —Scott Yanow
John Coltrane, Both Directions at Once: The Lost Album (Impulse!); Tia Fuller, Diamond Cut (Mack Avenue); Monika Herzig, Sheroes (Whaling City Sound); Dave Liebman & John Stowell, Petite Fleur: The Music of Sidney Bechet (Origin); Harold Mabern, To Love and Be Loved (Smoke Sessions); Don Menza, Sonny Daze (Alessa); Dave Tull, Texting and Driving (Toy Car); Mike Vax & Ron Romm, Collaboration (Summit); Michael White III, Tricentennial Rag (Basin Street)
Mark Holston - El Eco with Guillermo Nojechowicz, Puerto de Buenos Aires 1933 (Zoho)
Argentina-born drummer and composer Nojechowicz crafted one of the year’s most spellbinding releases by tapping into the experiences of his Polish grandmother’s flight from the Nazis to a new life in South America as a thematic point of reference. The performances are as compelling as the deeply personal storyline is gripping. Vocalist Kim Nazarian’s wordless forays add an eerie tension to the haunting character of some of the leader’s melodies. Tight ensemble playing and emotive soloing by Italian saxophonist Marco Pignataro, Brazilian pianist Helio Alves and North American trumpeter Brian Lynch are complemented by the presence of a string quartet and small Argentine rhythm section. The music is at times somber and delicate, elsewhere more rhythmically robust and groove-oriented.
Bobby Sanabria, West Side Story Reimagined (Jazzheads); Pedro Giraudo & The WDR Big Band, An Argentinian in New York (Zoho); Charles Pillow Large Ensemble, Electric Miles (MAMA); Jared Sims, The New York Sessions (Ropadope); Dave Anderson, Melting Pot (self-produced); Juan Andrés Ospina, Big Band Tramontana (self-produced); Stu Mindeman, Woven Threads (Sunnyside); Stacey Kent, I Know I Dream (Sony); The Verve Jazz Ensemble, Connect the Dots (LightGroove Media)
Neil Tesser - Wayne Shorter, Emanon (Blue Note)
Yes, it’s a three-disc gargantua, replete with a 75-page sci-fi graphic novel (conceived and co-written by Shorter himself). And, yes, the first disc comprises a major four-episode suite performed with the innovative Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. But for me the greater strength of Emanon rests in the remaining two discs, which feature Shorter’s acclaimed quartet in concert a couple years back. This band — Danilo Perez, John Patitucci and Bran Blade — moves with a unique mystery and abstract grandeur, and no recording has captured as thrilling a presentation as this one. Taken as a whole, Emanon could well be the 80-year-old Shorter’s valediction, the possible capstone to one of music’s most revered careers.
Steve Coleman and Five Elements, Live at the Village Vanguard, Vol. 1 (The Embedded Sets) (Pi); Kurt Elling, The Questions (OKeh); Michael Musillami Trio, + 2 Life Anthem (Playscape); Thumbscrew, Theirs (Cuneiform); El Eco with Guillermo Nojechowicz, Puerto de Buenos Aires 1933 (Zoho); Ken Vandermark’s Made To Break, Trébuchet (Trost); Pierre Dørge, Soundscapes (Steeplechase); Jon Irabagon Quartet w/Special Guest Tim Hagans, Dr. Quixotic’s Traveling Exotics (Irrabagast); Judy Niemack, New York Stories (Sunnyside)
Sacha Feinstein - Bill Charlap Trio, Uptown Downtown (Impulse!)
Pianist Bill Charlap has been recording with bassist Peter Washington and drummer Kenny Washington for 20 years, and this latest release epitomizes elegance. Charlap is the single malt of jazz piano, and hearing him explore such ballads as “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most” can inspire the language of a Scotch lover, from the sweetening wood of an old cask to the vaporous but fully memorable aftertaste.
Kenny Barron, Concentric Circles (Blue Note); Anat Cohen & Fred Hersch, Live in Healdsburg (Anzic); Michael Dease, Reaching Out (Posi-Tone); Eddie Henderson, Be Cool (Smoke Sessions); Christian McBride Big Band, Bringin’ It (Mack Avenue); Roberta Piket, West Coast Trio (13th Note); Cécile McLorin Salvant, The Window (Mack Avenue); Walter Smith III, Twio (self-released); John Coltrane, Both Directions at Once: The Lost Album (Impulse!); Henry Threadgill’s 14 or 15 Kestra: AGG, Dirt… And More Dirt (Pi)
John Frederick Moore - Henry Threadgill, Double Up, Plays Double Up Plus (Pi)
Recorded during the same sessions and released simultaneously, there’s no separating these two dazzling offerings from the master composer and multi-instrumentalist. The two suites on the Kestra record center around individual performances and group interaction, respectively. On Double Up, three pianists anchor an eight-piece unit on a set that is by turns contemplative and freewheeling. The common thread is Threadgill’s sui generis compositions, with their acrobatic intervals, unique instrumentation mix, and complex yet irresistible rhythms. Threadgill’s artistry continues to astound.
Steve Coleman and Five Elements, Live at the Village Vanguard, Vol. 1 (The Embedded Sets) (Pi); Tim Berne/Matt Mitchell Duo, Angel Dusk (Screwgun); Cécile McLorin Salvant, The Window (Mack Avenue); Dave Holland, Uncharted Territories (Dare2); Luciana Souza, The Book of Longing (Sunnyside); Ron Miles, I Am a Man (Enja/Yellowbird); Dan Weiss, Starebaby (Pi); Satoko Fujii, Solo (Libra); Matthew Shipp, Zero (ESP-Disk)
Jonathan Widran - Manhattan Transfer, The Junction (BMG)
Reaching a uniquely inspiring crossroads on their 45-plus-year musical journey, the 10-time Grammy-winning vocal quartet embraces a fresh group dynamic and new harmonic possibilities by welcoming to the fold bass vocalist Trist Curless — who began subbing on the road for band founder Tim Hauser in 2013 when he was ill and officially joined after Hauser’s passing in late 2014. In addition to hipster re-imaginings of “Cantaloop (Flip Fantasia),” “Tequila” and lesser-known gems by Rickie Lee Jones and XTC, the collection includes five songs written or co-written by members of the group, and one penned by the project’s producer, Mervyn Warren. —Jonathan Widran
Andrew Distel, It Only Takes Time (Jeru Jazz); Mark Winkler & Cheryl Bentyne, Eastern Standard Time (Café Pacific); Skinny Hightower, Retrospect (Trippin ‘N’ Rhythm); Paul Brown, Uptown Blues (Woodward Avenue); Bobby Sanabria/Multiverse Big Band, West Side Story Reimagined (Jazzheads); Randy Waldman, Superheroes (BFM Jazz); Antonio Adolfo, Orquestra Atlantica (AAM Music); Bob James, Espresso (Evosound); Dave Koz and Friends, Summer Horns II: From A to Z (Concord)
Hrayr Attarian - Kenny Barron Quintet Concentric Circles (Blue Note)
On his 52nd release as a leader, pianist Kenny Barron interprets eight refreshingly inventive compositions and three covers in his signature fluid and sophisticated style. In addition to his synergistic trio with bassist Kiyoshi Kitagawa and drummer Johnathan Blake, the group includes trumpeter Mike Rodriguez and saxophonist Dayna Stephens. The former’s warm and burnished tone graces Barron’s soulful “Blue Waters” and the latter’s eloquent improvisation is the highlight of the effervescent original “Baile.” Barron masterfully interweaves the individual voices of his sidemen into sublime, engaging pieces that are vibrant and dynamic. The result is this cohesive album that epitomizes modern mainstream jazz at its best.
Monika Herzig, Sheroes (Whaling City Sound); Roxy Coss, The Future Is Female (Posi-Tone); Sylvie Courvoisier, D'Agala (Intact); Satoko Fujii, Solo (Libra); Wadada Leo Smith, Najwa (Tum); Carol Liebowitz and Birgitta Flick, Malita-Malika (Leo); Henry Threadgill 14 or 15 Kestra: Agg, Dirt … and More Dirt (Pi); Steve Coleman, Live at the Village Vanguard, Vol. 1 (The Embedded Sets) (Pi); Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin, Awase (ECM)
Brian Zimmermann- Kurt Elling, The Questions (OKeh)
This is the perfect jazz soundtrack for this moment in history, as it seeks to both probe and pacify the anxieties, uncertainties and tensions of our time. Elling, one of today’s foremost male vocalists, offers a program of songs by iconic American composers and poets — from Rogers and Hammerstein and Bob Dylan to Rumi and Wallace Stevens — that cut to the heart of what it means to create art against a backdrop of politics. Conceptually, that’s a heavy premise, but the music on this disc is remarkably vivacious and light, and that’s largely due to Elling’s way with a lyric and his musical fearlessness, along with an ace ensemble that includes pianist Stu Mindeman, bassist Clark Sommers, drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts and soprano saxophonist Branford Marsalis. Hope in the face of adversity is a consistent theme on The Questions, and Elling’s message seems to be that constant questioning can serve as the wellspring of our collective wisdom. That Elling conveys such a profound message through such an elegant musical program is a testament to his vision as an artist.
Joshua Redman, Still Dreaming (Nonesuch); Sullivan Fortner, Moments Preserved (Impulse); Shamie Royston, Beautiful Liar (Sunnyside); Jamison Ross, All for One (Concord); R+R=Now, Collagically Speaking (Blue Note); Renee Rosnes, Beloved of the Sky (Smoke Sessions); Justin Brown, NYEUSI (Biophilia); Keith Jarrett/Gary Peacock/Jack DeJohnette, After the Fall (ECM); Harold López-Nussa, Un Dia Cualquiera (Mack Avenue)
Eric Snider - Noah Preminger, Genuinity (Criss Cross Jazz)
Two of the most exciting young horns players around — tenor man Preminger and trumpeter Jason Palmer — team up with the volcanic rhythm section of drummer Dan Weiss and bassist Kim Cass in a freewheeling, hour-long program of nine Preminger originals. The music strikes a sublime balance between angular composition, relentless groovesmanship and outré blowing.
JD Allen, Love Stone (Savant); Kandace Springs, Indigo (Blue Note); Andrew Cyrille, Lebroba (ECM); Charles Lloyd & the Marvels + Lucinda Williams, Vanished Gardens (Blue Note); Chris Lightcap, Superette (Royal Potato Family); John Coltrane, Both Directions at Once: The Lost Album (Impulse!); Keith Jarrett Trio, After the Fall (ECM); Miles Okazaki, Work: The Complete Compositions of Thelonious Monk (self-released); Onyx Collective, Lower East Side Suite Part 3 (Big Dada)