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Another challenging year in the jazz world has concluded, and once again, we’ve asked JAZZIZ writers and editors to list their top 10 recordings of the past 12 months (roughly from September 15, 2020 to October 15, 2021). As ever, it’s a highly subjective exercise, one limited by the albums we’ve had a chance to hear and digest during this time period, as well as by our own personal and critical biases. Our critics’ number-one selections appear at the top of their lists, accompanied by a brief explanation of why they chose it. Despite a second year of COVID restrictions, jazz artists responded brilliantly, as evidenced by the album titles below.
Anna Webber, Idiom (Pi)
Anna Webber showcases her innovative spirit and unique style on the brilliant two-disc Idiom. On the first disc, the saxophonist, flutist and composer performs in a trio with pianist Matt Mitchell and drummer John Hollenbeck. All three musicians push the creative boundaries of their respective instruments while improvising in sublime synergy. The second disc consists of a single piece interpreted by a 12-member ensemble. Webber deftly leads the large group in a dynamic and densely layered performance that crackles with spontaneity and exhilarates with its unexpected twists and turns. Idiom is the apogee of Webber’s singular and uniformly superlative output.
HONORABLE MENTIONS: Gustavo Cortinas, Desafío Candente (Woolgathering); Sons of Kemet, Black to the Future (Impulse!); Lonnie Smith, Breathe (Blue Note); Ivo Perelman, The Purity of Desire (Not Two); Flatland Quartet, Songs From the Urban Forest (Gold Lion); Kenny Garrett, Sounds From the Ancestors (Mack Avenue); William Parker, Migration of Silence Into and Out of the Tone World (AUM Fidelity); María Grand, Reciprocity (Biophilia); James Brandon Lewis Red Lily Quintet, Jesup Wagon (Tao Forms) — Hrayr Attarian
Hasaan Ibn Ali, Metaphysics: The Lost Atlantic Album (Omnivore)
Every now and then, forgotten music surfaces to fill in a gap in jazz history, highlight an overlooked name or showcase a key moment of transition. This release does all those things. Ali, a Philadelphia-based pianist, was influential to, among others, McCoy Tyner, and he extended the language of Thelonious Monk’s pianism in singular fashion. In 1964, the release of The Max Roach Trio Featuring the Legendary Hasaan brought him to broader attention. The drummer gave Ali featured billing to argue for the pianist’s own Atlantic Records contract. It worked, but Ali faded from the spotlight owing to personal problems. The master tapes of his planned debut, leading a quartet, were lost in a fire. He became little more than a footnote. The brilliance of this recently discovered copy of those tapes solves a historical mystery while opening our ears to fresh musical ones.
HONORABLE MENTIONS: James Brandon Lewis Red Lily Quintet, Jesup Wagon (Tao Forms); Roy Hargrove & Mulgrew Miller, In Harmony (Resonance); Anna Webber, Idiom (Pi); Steven Bernstein’s Millennial Territory Orchestra, Tinctures in Time (Community Music, Vol. 1) (Royal Potato Family); William Parker, Migration of Silence Into and Out of the Tone World (AUM Fidelity); Hank Roberts Sextet, Science of Love (Sunnyside); Jen Shyu, Zero Grasses: Ritual for the Losses (Pi); Nicholas Payton/Sasha Masakowski/Cliff Hines, Quarantined With Nick (Paytone); Henry Threadgill Zooid Poof (Pi) - Larry Blumenfeld
On his third release as a leader, Chicago-based drummer-composer Gustavo Cortiñas draws inspiration from Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano’s canonical anti-colonialism/capitalism tome Open Veins of Latin America in a two-disc opus as sprawling and fiery as the text itself. A vast array of instrumentalists and spoken-word artists from 11 countries accompanies Cortiñas’ supple sextet across 14 sublime originals. The ambitious instrumental narrative — divided in chapters and stitched together by horn-laced rhythms and words spoken in the staccato of Indigenous languages and the cadence of Spanish — is a resounding sonic condemnation of the exploitative power structure that has long held sway over Latin America since Europeans set foot.
HONORABLE MENTIONS: Lady Blackbird, Black Acid Soul (BMG); Makaya McCraven, Deciphering the Message (Blue Note); Malnoia, Hello Future (Outside in Music); Rob Mazurek Exploding Star Orchestra, Dimensional Stardust (International Anthem/Nonesuch); Esperanza Spalding, Triangle (Concord); Jahari Massamba Unit, Pardon My French (Madlib Invazion); Dafnis Prieto Sextet, Transparency (Dafnison Music); Roxana Amed, Ontology (Sony Music Latin); Antônio Neves, A Pegada Agora É Essa (Far Out) - Lissette Corsa
Carlos Henriquez, The South Bronx Story (Tiger Turn)
Bassist, composer and arranger Henriquez, a son of the New York City borough of the Bronx, explores culturally distinctive traits of the neighborhood’s Puerto Rican heritage through 10 rhythmically seething tracks.Sonero (vocalist) Jeremy Bosch is a revelation, and Henriquez makes a bold choice in personnel, staffing the small horn section with musicians not associated with the Latin jazz genre: saxophonist Melissa Aldana, trumpeter Terell Stafford, and trombonist Marshall Gilkes. They nail the ensemble turns while bringing fresh perspectives to their solo outings.
HONORABLE MENTIONS: Doug Beavers, Sol (Circle 9); Jon Gordon, Stranger Than Fiction (ArtistShare); Wayne Coniglio & Scott Whitfield, Faster Friends (Summit); Aaron Germain, Bell Projections (self-released); Gabriel Vicéns, The Way We Are Created (Inner Circle Music); Reggie Quinerly, New York Nowhere (Redefinition Music); Grant Richards, Ballyhoo (self-released); Gerry Gibbs Thrasher Dream Trios, Songs From My Father (Whaling City Sound); Victor Rendón & Bronx Conexión Latin Jazz Big Band, Mambo Boulevard (self-released) - Mark Holston
Milford Graves/Jason Moran, Live at Big Ears (YES)
This is one of those live recordings where you immediately think: I wish I could’ve been there. Pianist Jason Moran and drummer Milford Graves recorded this improvised performance in 2018. Graves, who died shortly before the record’s release, was devoted to studying the rhythms of the human heart. There’s plenty of blood flowing throughout these duets, and even the quieter moments radiate a warm intensity. It’s all about the vibrations Graves and Moran create, which, in this case, are singular and exhilarating.
HONORABLE MENTIONS: Vijay Iyer/Linda May Han Oh/Tyshawn Sorey, UnEasy (ECM); Hafez Modirzadeh, Facets (Pi); Floating Points & Pharoah Sanders (feat. The London Symphony Orchestra), Promises (Luaka Bop); Jason Moran, The Sound Will Tell You (YES); Thumbscrew, Never Is Enough (Cuneiform); Henry Threadgill Zooid, Poof (Pi); Alexa Tarantino, Firefly (Posi-Tone); Various artists, Kimbrough (Newvelle); María Grand, Reciprocity (Biophilia) - John Frederick Moore
Eric Hofbauer/Dylan Jack, Period Pieces (Creative Nation Music)
Think of this collection by the Boston-based quartet as free-ish jazz. The players — guitarist Hofbauer, drummer Jack, trumpeter Jerry Sabatini and Tony Leva on bass and electronics — weave together a polyglot flow of ideas, often working their way into tight grooves and melodies that seamlessly move in and out of free improvisation. The heady combination of sonic textures and feels — agile drumming, warped solo trumpet, scratchy acoustic guitar licks, out-of-the-blue synth eruptions, well-placed collective paroxysms — constantly delights the ear as the band travels down surprising avenues and alleys, not to mention sidewalks and backyards. A rewarding journey, indeed.
HONORABLE MENTIONS: Steven Bernstein’s Millennial Territory Orchestra, Tinctures in Time(Community Music, Vol. 1) (Royal Potato Family); Cochemea, Vol II: Baca Sewa (Daptone); Fire!, Defeat (Rune Grammofon); Jeff Lederer Sunwatcher Quartet, Eightfold Path (Little (i) Music); James Brandon Lewis Red Lily Quintet, Bandwagon (Tao Forms); Russ Lossing, Metamorphism (Sunnyside); Chuck Owen & Jazz Surge, Within Us (Summit); Ches Smith & We All Break, Path of Seven Colors (Pyroclastic); Tani Tabbal Trio, Now Then (Tao Forms) - Eric Snider
James Brandon Lewis Red Lily Quintet Lewis, Jesup Wagon (TAO Forms)
Echoes of Albert Ayler and Ornette Coleman resound through tenor saxophonist and composer James Brandon Lewis’ Jesup Wagon. A salute to Lewis’ lifelong hero, George Washington Carver, the song cycle celebrates the brilliant, multi-faceted man of science with impassioned performances that evoke a time (late-19th/early-20th century), a place (the Deep South) and a fierce intellect tempered by humanism. While Americana is woven throughout, the music sounds quite modern, thanks to Lewis’ on-the-same-page collaborators: cornetist Kirk Knuffke, bassist William Parker, cellist Chris Hoffman and drummer Chad Taylor. Lewis’ vision is vividly realized in this powerful, personal portrait of an extraordinary Black man who triumphed against the odds.
HONORABLE MENTIONS: Blue Reality Quartet, Love Exists Everywhere (Mahakala); Dopolarians, The Bond (Mahakala); George Cables, Too Close for Comfort (HighNote); Mehmet Ali Sanlikol, An Elegant Ritual (Dünya); Ches Smith & We All Break, Path of Seven Colors (Pyroclastic); Sachal Vasandani/Romain Collin, Midnight Shelter(Edition); Eliane Elias, Mirror Mirror (Candid); Jane Ira Bloom/Mark Helias, Some Kind of Tomorrow (self-released); Henry Threadgill Zooid, Poof (Pi) - Bob Weinberg
Mark Winkler/David Benoit, Old Friends (Café Pacific)
For jazz fans, the pandemic lockdown had its upside, none more hipster, engaging, elegant yet playfully swinging than Old Friends, the first full-on duet album in the 37-year personal and professional friendship of vocalist-songwriter Mark Winkler and pianist-composer David Benoit. In addition to finding socially distanced freshness in some well and lesser-known standards, the contemporary jazz vets engage in colorful re-workings of a few of their own gems — including a first time ever vocal twist on Benoit’s signature “Kei’s Song,” presented here as “In a Quiet Place.”
HONORABLE MENTIONS: Andy Snitzer, Higher (Goose Song Music); Brian Bromberg, A Little Driving Music (Artistry Music); Dave Koz/Cory Wong, The Golden Hour (Just Koz Entertainment); Mark Jaimes, Hear at Last (Trippin ’N’ Rhythm); Larry Carlton & Paul Brown, Soul Searchin’ (Shanachie); Jeff Ryan, Duality (Woodward Avenue); Judy Wexler, Back to the Garden (Jewel City Jazz); Cathy Segal-Garcia, Social Anthems, Volume 1 (Origin); Chris Standring Wonderful World (Ultimate Vibe) - Jonathan Widran
Kenny Garrett, Sounds From the Ancestors (Mack Avenue)
Saxophonist Kenny Garrett has long been praised as a premier architect of groove. As well he should be. Among his many musical gifts is his uncanny ability to expand the dimensions of a repeated phrase — working new harmonies into the crevices of a single chord, or using novel rhythmic patterns to change the shape of a recurring motif — until even the most confining musical space is suffused with new light. The former Miles Davis sideman, now 61, looks to musical frameworks past and present to buttress his latest disc, which neatly bridges the rhythms of West Africa (“It’s Time To Come Home” and the spirited title track) to the hard-bop swing of Art Blakey and Tony Allen (“For Art’s Sake”) and the neo-soul stylings of Roy Hargrove (“Hargrove”). It’s a marvel of complexity and nuance, but Garrett’s tone — full-throated and fearless — reminds us of this music’s great humanity.
HONORABLE MENTIONS: Roy Hargrove & Mulgrew Miller, In Harmony (Resonance); Julian Lage, Squint (Blue Note); Roxana Amed, Ontology (Sony Latin Music); Archie Shepp & Jason Moran, Let My People Go (Archieball); Yoko Miwa Trio, Songs of Joy (Ubuntu); Orrin Evans, The Magic of Now (Smoke Sessions); Chris Potter, Sunrise Reprise (Edition); Helen Sung, Quartet + (Sunnyside); Butcher Brown, #KingButch (Concord) - Brian Zimmerman