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Over the last year, a lot of memorable albums have been released. As we always do this time in this, our Winter issue, we’ve asked our editors and critics to assess the new releases they’ve heard during those last 12 months and send us a list of the 10 best they’ve encountered. As usual, 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.
Brad Mehldau, Finding Gabriel (Nonesuch)
This nine-track gem — akin to early Yes, Genesis and Jethro Tull — takes a page out of the quieter chapters of the progressive-rock playbook, with a team of new all-star jazz musicians playing an old game. Big in scope and theme, like a jazz version of a rock opera, Finding Gabriel is Mehldau’s Thick as a Brick, except that in Ian Anderson’s world the characters were blissfully imaginary. —Michael Fagien
Honorable mentions: Esperanza Spalding, 12 Little Spells (Concord); Bruce Hornsby, Absolute Zero (Zappo); Branly/Ruiz/Haslip, Elemental (Blue Canoe); Daniel Szabo, Visionary (Fuzzy Music); Dominic Miller, Absinthe (ECM); Tom Harrell, Infinity (HighNote); Paolo Fresu/Richard Galliano/Jan Lundgren, Mare Nostrum III (ACT); Jamie Cullum, Taller (Blue Note); Jacob Collier, Djesse Vol. 2 (Decca).
Andrew Cyrille, Lebroba (ECM)
Three masters of nuance and subtlety combine their distinctive voices in ways that produce plenty of drama on drummer-composer Andrew Cyrille’s Lebroba. Cyrille, who turned 80 in November, shades, colors and carves out architectural spaces for the textured tones of guitarist Bill Frisell and trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith. Mysterious, meditative and bluesy, the program shimmers like a fever dream, the veteran artists at their atmospheric best as they create sublime soundscapes that never lose touch with the human emotional element. The album’s title is a portmanteau of the artists’ birthplaces — Smith’s Leland, Mississippi; Cyrille’s Brooklyn; and Frisell’s Baltimore — but the terrain they cover here is truly universal. —Bob Weinberg
Honorable mentions: The OGJB Quartet, Bamako (TUM); Evan Parker and Kinetics, Chiasm (Clean Feed); Jazzmeia Horn, Love and Liberation (Concord Jazz); Fabian Almazan Trio, This Land Abounds With Life (Biophilia); Aruán Ortiz and Don Byron, Random Dances and (A)Tonalities (Intakt); Matthew Shipp Trio, Signature (ESP-Disk); Brian Lynch Big Band, The Omni-American Book Club (Hollistic MusicWorks); Mario Pavone Dialect Trio, Philosophy (Clean Feed); Steve Lehman Trio, The People I Love (Pi).
Paul Nedzela, Introducing Paul Nedzela (Outside In Music)
On this debut recording, baritone saxophonist and composer Paul Nedzela and his right-hand man, pianist Dan Nimmer, both members of The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, emerge as two young talents with a mature sound. The bari may be an especially difficult instrument to master, but Nedzela is in a comfort zone throughout the album’s 10 tracks. Whether skating nonchalantly through challenging bebop lines or relaxing in a ballad setting, he makes it all sound effortless. Further, he and the rhythm section — Nimmer, bassist David Wong and drummer Aaron Kimmel — sound like they’re having a ball. That attitude proves to be contagious. —Mark Holston
Honorable mentions: Nancy Kelly, Remembering Mark Murphy (Subcat); Oscar Hernández & Alma Libre, Love The Moment (Origin); Miguel Zenón, Sonero: The Music of Ismael Rivera (Miel); Camila Meza & The Nectar Orchestra, Ámbar (Masterworks); Josean Jacobo & Tumbao, Cimarron (E 7 Studios); Bob Sheppard, The Fine Line (Challenge Records Int.); Sofia Ribeiro, Lunga (self-released); Brian Lynch, The Omni-American Book Club: My Journey Through Literature in Music (Holistic Music Works); Jazz At Lincoln Center Orchestra With Wynton Marsalis, Una Noche con Rubén Blades (Blue Engine).
Joel Ross, KingMaker (Blue Note)
Even if you’re a casual jazz fan, it would be hard to ignore the buzz around Joel Ross. At just 23 years old, the vibraphonist turned heads this spring with the release of his debut album, KingMaker, which came across as a smart and self-assured statement, full of hypnotic grooves and intricate melodic structures. And in joining the prestigious Blue Note label, Ross became part of a storied lineage of vibraphone players that includes Milt Jackson, Bobby Hutcherson and Ross’ own mentor, Stefon Harris. Elite as that company may be, Ross proved eager and equipped to join it. KingMaker revealed a player possessed of boundless skill and imagination, the type of artist who can push the music forward from the inside, merging tradition with innovation in an effort to arrive at someplace new yet familiar. —Brian Zimmerman
Honorable mentions: Jazzmeia Horn, Love and Liberation (Concord Jazz); Jimmy Cobb, This I Dig of You (Smoke Sessions); The Comet Is Coming, Trust In the Lifeforce of the Deep Mystery (Impulse!); Chick Corea, Antidote (Concord Jazz); Flying Lotus, Flamagra (Warp); Veronica Swift, Confessions (Mack Avenue); Bill Frisell & Thomas Morgan, Epistrophy (ECM); Guillermo Klein y Los Guachos, Cristal (Sunnyside); Snarky Puppy, Immigrance (GroundUp).
Kirk Whalum, Humanité (Artistry Music)
Transcending his smooth-jazz roots, saxophonist Kirk Whalum reveals himself as a globally-minded musical visionary on this expansive collection, which finds him — in collaboration with producer James McMillan — channeling the ethos of civil rights, universal harmony and Martin Luther King’s “Beloved Community.” Pairing with renowned and upstart musicians from around the world and welcoming guest performances by Keiko Matsui and Marcus Miller, Whalum recorded sessions for Humanité in various locales, including Jakarta, Tokyo, Paris, Johannesberg and his own living room in Memphis. The compelling story of the recording is chronicled in director Jim Hanon’s companion documentary Humanité: The Beloved Community. —Jonathan Widran
Honorable mentions: FLOW, Promise (Lmb); Lisa Addeo, Listen to This (Little Black Dress); Mark Winkler, I’m With You: Mark Winkler Sings Bobby Troup (Café Pacific); Judy Wexler, Crowded Heart (Jewel City Jazz); Mindi Abair and The Boneshakers, No Good Deed (Pretty Good For A Girl); Tierney Sutton Band, Screenplay (BFM Jazz); Scott Wilkie, Brasil (BeachMusic Studios); David Benoit, David Benoit and Friends (Shanachie); The Rippingtons featuring Russ Freeman, Open Road (Peak Records/eOnemusic).
Chucho Valdés, Jazz Batá 2 (Mack Avenue)
With 1972’s Jazz Batá, Valdés announced a small-group approach that blended jazz and folkloric influences from Cuba and the United States in equal measures. For all his astounding gifts as a pianist, Valdés’ primary instruments have always been his bands. Here, his quartet — bassist Yelsy Heredia, percussionist Yaroldy Abreu Robles, and Dreiser Durruthy Bombalé on batá and vocals — is a wondrous vehicle, elegantly navigating the surprising twists and turns of demanding, intoxicating compositions that make the concept sound brand-new. —Larry Blumenfeld
Honorable mentions: Art Ensemble of Chicago We Are on the Edge: A 50th Anniversary Celebration (Pi); Rajna Swaminathan Of Agency and Abstraction (Biophilia); Tyshawn Sorey Pillars (Firehouse 12); Miguel Zenón Sonero: The Music of Ismael Rivera (Miel); Abdullah Ibrahim The Balance (Gearbox); Harriet Tubman The Terror End of Beauty (Sunnyside); Matthew Shipp/Mat Maneri Conference of the Mat/ts (Rogue Art); Taylor Ho Bynum Ambiguity Manifesto (Firehouse 12); Kassa Overall Go Get Ice Cream and Listen to Jazz (Kassa Overall LLC).
Branford Marsalis Quartet The Secret Between the Shadow and the Soul (OKeh)
This latest release led by the justly famous saxophonist presents an effervescent, memorable variety of performances by a deeply seasoned quartet. (Two of the band’s members, pianist Joey Calderazzo and bassist Eric Revis, have been with Marsalis for 20 years; the drummer, Justin Faulkner, has anchored the group for 10.) The cuts range from the album’s explosive opener, “Dance of the Evil Toys,” to the delicately nuanced “Life Filtering from the Water Flower,” yet the album never sounds unfocused because each tune — five originals, two covers — becomes a startling, individualized journey. With all respect to this quartet’s previous sessions, this is arguably their best. —Sascha Feinstein
Honorable Mentions: Melissa Aldana Visions (Motéma); Jerry Bergonzi The Seven Rays (Savant); George Cables I’m All Smiles (HighNote); Orrin Evans and the Captain Black Big Band Presence (Smoke); Larry Fuller Overjoyed (Capri); Luke Gillespie MovingMists (Patois); Joe Lovano Trio Tapestry (ECM); Ralph Peterson & the Messenger Legacy Legacy Alive (Onyx); Fumi Tomita The Elephant Vanishes (OA2).
Javier Colina and Pepe Rivero, El Pañuelo de Pepa (Cezanne Producciones)
On this exquisitely intimate session, Cuban pianist Pepe Rivero and Spanish contrabassist Javier Colina breathe new life into classic Cuban compositions from the 19th and 20th centuries, paying special attention to the late pianist/composer Bebo Valdés. The virtuosic duo infuse son, bolero and danzón of yore with crisp clarity, emotional depth, nuanced lyricism and palpable joie de vivre, all of which serves to highlight the music’s timelessness. Colina’s sound on bass violin oscillates between majestic and guttural, while Rivero summons entire generations of rich piano traditions with single strokes, especially on the album’s title track, a supple 19th-century contradanza composed by Manuel Saumell. With this captivating exchange, Colina and Rivero have created an album that is at once regal, dynamic, nostalgic and contemporary. —Lissette Corsa
Honorable mentions: Luis Muñoz featuring Lois Mahalia The Infinite Dream (Pelin); Daymé Arocena Sonocardiogram (Brownswood); Miguel Zenón Sonero: The Music of Ismael Rivera (Miel); Poncho Sanchez Trane’s Delight (Concord Picante); Carlos Barbosa-Lima Delicado (ZOHO); Jane Bunnett & Maqueque On Firm Ground/Tierra Firme (Linus Entertainment); Santana, featuring Buika Breaking Down the Door/Dolor de Rumba (Concord); Duduka da Fonseca & Helio Alves Samba Jazz and Tom Jobim (Sunnyside); Trio Elf with Marco Lobo & Maria Gadu The Brazilian Album (Yellowbird).
Steve Lehman Trio + Craig Taborn, The People I Love (Pi)
Alto saxophonist Steve Lehman has built a reputation as a conceptualist; on previous records, he’s explored the links between jazz and Senegalese hip-hop (Sélébéyone) and French spectral music (Mise en Abîme). This time around, he’s focused less on big ideas and more on the direct visceral allure of a classic saxophone quartet. Lehman’s sinewy lines twist and fold but also pack an emotional punch. Joined by pianist Craig Taborn, a fellow visionary, Lehman reworks some of his old material and interprets pieces from a few contemporary composers (Kurt Rosenwinkel, Jeff “Tain” Watts). Even when Lehman looks to the past, the end result sounds like jazz from the future. —John Frederick Moore
Honorable mentions: Matt Mitchell, Phalanx Ambassadors (Pi); Kassa Overall, Go Get Ice Cream and Listen to Jazz (Kassa Overall LLC); Patricia Barber, Higher (ArtistShare); The Art Ensemble of Chicago, We Are on the Edge: A 50th Anniversary Celebration (Pi); Miho Hazama, Dancer in Nowhere (Sunnyside); Damon Locks Black Monument Ensemble, Where Future Unfolds (International Anthem); Rajna Swaminathan, Of Agency and Abstraction (Biophilia); Melissa Aldana, Visions (Motéma); Angel Bat Dawid, The Oracle (International Anthem).
Ambrose Akinmusire, Origami Harvest (Blue Note)
From the time he won the Monk Competition in 20017, we knew Akinmusire’s technique was off the chart, and it’s evolved further over the years. But Origami Harvest ripples and sometimes roars with a new emotional urgency that rivals the musical fireworks. Combining a string quartet with his own rhythm section — and employing powerful rap from Kool A.D. (Victor Vazquez) on half the tracks — Akinmusire has constructed a musical mosaic of early 21st-century America, conflicted by power and politics (and always race), but still touched by beauty. Origami Harvest is multi-layered, sonically as well as contextually; as flexible as the dreamlike video that accompanied its release, it has a mesmerizing flow that belies the weight of the material. —Neil Tesser
Honorable mentions: Fabian Almazan, This Land Abounds With Life (Biophilia); Nature Work (Jason Stein, Greg Ward, Eric Revis), Nature Work (Sunnyside); Miguel Zenón, Sonero: The Music of Ismael Rivera (Miel); Stefon Harris & Blackout, Sonic Creed (Motema); Russ Lossing, Changes (SteepleChase); Nick Sanders Trio, Playtime (Sunnyside); Joel Ross, Kingmaker (Blue Note); Miho Hazama, Dancer in Nowhere (Sunnyside); Tom Harrell, Infinity (HighNote).
Art Ensemble of Chicago, We Are on the Edge: A 50th Anniversary Celebration (Pi)
This superb double-album celebrating the golden anniversary of the revolutionary Art Ensemble of Chicago documents a studio date and a live concert — both recorded in Ann Arbor, Michigan — and is dedicated to the memory of departed AEC founding members Lester Bowie, Malachi Favors and Joseph Jarman. The large orchestra assembled by saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell and percussionist Famoudou Don Moye consists of musicians connected in one way or another to Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. The music — at times cerebral and delightfully dissonant, at other times emotive and primal — brilliantly demonstrates that the Art Ensemble’s creative essence, both timely and timeless, remains strong in a new generation of artists. —Hrayr AttarianHonorable mentions: Marylin Mazur, Shamania (Rare Noise); Layale Chaker and Sarafand, Inner Rhyme (In A Circle); Wendy Eisenberg, The Machinic Unconscious (Tzadik); Ambrose Akinmusire, Origami Harvest (Blue Note); 1032K, The Law of Vibration (self-produced); The OGJB Quartet, Bamako (TUM Oy); Mark Dresser, Ain’t Nothing but a Cyber Coup & You (Clean Feed); Anna Webber, Clockwise (Pi); Ralph Alessi, Imaginary Friends (ECM).
Cochemea, All My Relations (Daptone)
Cochemea Gastelum of the Brooklyn-based Dap-Kings band plays his saxophone (and a bit of flute), most often with electronic effects, over a high-spirited percussion ensemble, along with a small coterie of guest instrumentalists and chanting vocalists. The music stirs in myriad influences — Native American, Afro-Cuban, South African, Mexican, R&B — evoking a rugged neo-primitivism with a nod to ’60s/’70s space-jazz. Cochemea has a knack for writing beautifully simple ear-catching melodies, each getting to shine over the course of the album’s concise 35 minutes. The organic production has the feel of a hi-fidelity field recording. This is honest, earthy music refreshingly free of pretense. —Eric Snider
Honorable mentions: Noah Preminger Group, Zigsaw: Music of Steve Lampert (Dry Bridge); Russ Lossing, Motian Music (Sunnyside); Abdullah Ibrahim, The Balance (Gearbox); Steve Lehman Trio + Craig Taborn, The People I Love (Pi); Andrew Cyrille, Lebroba (ECM); Jon Yao’s Triceratops, How We Do (See Tao); Chris Lightcap, SuperBigmouth (Pyroclastic); Jason Palmer, Rhyme and Reason (Giant Step Arts); Yonathan Avishai Trio, Joys and Solitudes (ECM).