Talk to a dozen jazz musicians and you are likely to get universal agreement on two things: a general discomfort with the word “jazz” and the undeniable truth that it is a tough go making a living as a creative musician these days. The record industry was never overly friendly to bold, improvised music, but now there is essentially no record industry at all.
On the other hand, ask a dozen serious jazz fans or critics, you will get universal agreement that the art itself (if not the financial ease for the artists) is thriving. In fact, we could easily have created a Best 20 or Best 25 list for this year without breaking a critical sweat. Best 50 was probably within reach.
These things are related, we argue. The death of the record industry also removed any significant incentive for jazz musicians to compromise their art. With no prospect of stardom or wealth as a creative musician, every player is an independent and an idealist, an artist seeking maximum expression. And the results are beautiful, thrilling, inspiring.
Of course, it makes sense that only two of our favorite baker’s dozen are on a “major label” (a vocal album celebrating Billie Holiday on Blue Note, owned by the Universal Music Group, and a remarkably fine “jazz supergroup” recording on Nonesuch, owned by the Warner Music Group). The remaining 11 are on intrepid independent labels such as ECM, Pi, and AUM Fidelity or artist-created imprints such as Greenleaf (Dave Douglas) or Tzadik (John Zorn). And what is being produced is brilliant and wonderfully varied. Indeed, the most compelling reason for us to go beyond a “top ten” (to 13) — and the best rationale for thinking in terms of a 50-best list — is to show the wide sweep of “jazz” in 2015, from electronica to classic “songbook” singing, from utterly free improvising to tightly composed music that may be as close to “new music” in the classical tradition as it is to Charlie Parker.
What narrowly missed the top 13? While you’ll find pianist Matt Mitchell referenced twice below, his double-disc Vista Accumulation (Pi) lingers for us as one of a dozen more discs at edge of our list. Dave Douglas was stunning in his electronic collaboration with Mark Guiliana and Shigeto (below), but his quintet with Joe Lovano, playing brand new tunes by and inspired by Wayne Shorter was also worthy. We hated leaving out a fabulous records by bassist Chris Lightcap (featuring Craig Taborn, Chris Cheek, Tony Malaby, and Gerald Cleaver) and vibraphonist Chris Dingman. And new and highly accessible soul-jazz from the folks at Revive Music (who put our this year’s gushingly fun Supreme Sonacy) has us thinking that — is it possible? — actually “popular” jazz that doesn’t pander is within reach. Veterans of the New York downtown scene made fabulous records this year (bassist William Parker’s For Those Who Are, Still and pianist Matthew Shipp’s The Conduct of Jazz), and recent denizens of this list, as sidemen or leaders, had good years too (Brad Mehldau with 10 Years Solo Live and Jon Irabagon’s twin releases Behind the Sky and Action is Inaction).
But the 13 recordings below, presented in artist-alphabetical order, are our favorite of 2015, a baker’s dozen that remind us that jazz remains alive, growing, thriving, and powerful. John Garratt and Will Layman
Songs for Quintet
Yes, it’s a bit of a cheap move to include the recently-deceased on a year-end list like this. But if we are being perfectly honest with ourselves and with you, the loss of trumpeter and flugelhornest Kenny Wheeler leaves a very unique cavity in the jazz world at large. This wasn’t just some guy who could blow really well. Kenny Wheeler was a consummate writer and a highly sensitive band leader. His contributions to the artform known as chamber jazz through the ECM label strongly carries on through those he has influenced. Songs for Quintet was his final album and he certainly made it count. His declining health barely registers as a factor through Quintet‘s nine gentle pieces, all adorned with performances from such reverant sidemen who understood that their boss never “clamored for attention”. Well, here’s the attention he never sought but still deserved; a top album for 2015.—John Garratt
Henry Threadgill and Zooid
In For a Penny, In For a Pound
After a lengthy hiatus from recording, Henry Threadgill’s latest ensemble Zooid hit the ground running at the close of the previous decade. Four albums into their resurrection, Threadgill has designed the double album In For a Penny, In For a Pound to be an extended showcase for each member of the band. Zooid is already an unusual band—Threadgill on saxophone and flute, Liberty Ellman on guitar, Jose Davilla on tuba and trombone, Christopher Hoffman on cello and violin, and Elliot Humberto Kavee on drums—and the compositions that Threadgill writes for them only further their unorthodox nature. Figures rarely repeat, beats groove in odd meters, and solos frequently wander between leads and sophisticated forms of shading. An album from Zooid is always a rare treat. But a double? What did we do to deserve that?—John Garratt
Antonio Sanchez & Migration
The Meridian Suite
When jazz drummer Antonio Sanchez failed to snag an Academy Award nomination for his soundtrack work on the feature film Birdman, he just let it roll off his back by rebounding with two new albums. The double album Three Times Three was an experiment in Sanchez rotating from one trio to another. He managed to outdo himself with an album by his fusion band Migration called The Meridian Suite. Written mostly while the composer was in transit, this five-movement work that explores an abstract sense of placement is best experienced as a 55-minute blob. Scope still counts for something, just ask a guy who composed a film’s score on a drumkit while watching the footage.—John Garratt
In the Moment
With names like Matt Ulrey and Jeff Parker along for the ride, you can bet on Makaya McCraven turning in a thoroughly smoothed blend of acid jazz , post-bop, post-rock, and a dash of hip-hop to go along with the subtly doctored beats on his triumphant sophomore album In the Moment. Dudes like trumpeter Marquis Hill and bassist Joshua Abrams give the music its acoustic element while Parker and vibraphonist Justin Thomas take the Tortoise route. McCraven is able to tie it all together in his own Hal Willnerian approach, though time may prove him to be a more modest version of Guru in the many splendored realm that is crossover jazz. It’s not the new Jazzmatazz, it’s just the next chapter. Flip the page and prepare to be dazzled.—John Garratt