Last year when I sat down to think about my favorite jazz recordings, there was an elephant in the room: Kamasi Washington and his colossal, triple-CD The Epic. While PopMatters honored it as top-five on its overall best recordings list, I and my collaborator on last year’s jazz list, John Garratt, didn’t boost it to the top. I wrote a column about why this was the case, and I still feel that excluding the Washington phenom was justified if a bit cheeky. It was a terrific record that, to my ears, was more a throwback to some cool records from the ‘70s than the daring jazz/hip-hop fusion that Washington’s association with Kendrick Lamar may have implied. Innovation isn’t everything, several readers responded. Fair enough. This year’s list includes both innovation and some tradition too.
This year didn’t produce another recording like The Epic that focused popular attention on jazz or that is likely to be a consensus pick. Existing popular trends continued: Robert Glasper contributed music to the Miles Davis film by Don Cheadle and released something new by his “Experiment” project, but the results didn’t knock me out. Some jazz heavy-hitters came out with new work that was strong—guitarist John Scofield’s album of country covers was a delight, singer Kurt Elling and Branford Marsalis’s Quartet joined forces on something cool, and The Bad Plus created yet another session covering pop songs through a smart, sly new jazz lens—but these fine records were not my favorites of the year. Some other great artists made records I tried to call out this year as wonderful: the under-sung trumpeter Ralph Alessi made yet another gem in Quiver on ECM, singer Rene Marie produced a brave and singular album that reflects life in middle age, veteran pianist Denny Zeitlin made a solo piano recording of Wayne Shorter tunes that I can’t stop listening to, and drummer Ches Smith devised a jazz trio recording with piano and viola.
But even excluding that music, I had trouble getting down to a “top ten” for 2016, yet another year in which the dire economic situation for creative musicians did not dampen their astonishing output. I found that my favorites were traveling in pairs, and so I’m going all Noah on the list this year: 20 “best” jazz records identified in stylistic diads, ranked loosely from most sublime to merely breathtaking.
10. TWO PIANO TRIOS
Piano/bass/drums still tells the story of jazz each year with elegance and surprise. Uri Caine is as likely to be working with rappers, opera singers, turntablists or orchestras as he is with a simple trio. Why, then, was his Blue Wail (1999) one of his best records. Calibrated Thickness is just as good, 15 relatively short essays that cover every style from hard bop to abstraction, from the lyrical to the moody. When cornetist Kirk Knuffke joins up with Mark Helias (bass) and Clarence Penn (drums), it’s all the more intriguing.
Blues and Ballads is from one of the best and most longstanding contemporary trios, that of Brad Mehldau. They cover two Paul McCartney tunes, a Charlie Parker blues, and four old standards, leaving expressive space at the center of every performance. This is subtle brilliance from beginning to end, as Mehldau, Jeff Ballard, and Larry Grenadier play mostly within our expectations but add exceptional imagination every minute or so: a freakish cadenza, a soulful vamp where you don’t expect it, a pair of counter-melodies, a set of cymbal pulses that push you even at a slow tempo. Tradition still works in jazz, and here it is, sounding fresh.
“Jazz Singing” remains a complicated notion. The field was so thoroughly defined by the iconic singers of the Billie/Ella/Sarah/Sinatra generation—and those singers made such a huge impression on all subsequent pop singers—that it has been hard to hear new styles emerge that, in turn, are the product of influence from the great pop styles since 1960. Two very different singers made fresh and wonderful records in 2016, each of which can almost sound like a pop form. Gregory Porter’s huge slab of soul singing (as much Stevie Wonder as it is Billy Eckstine or Joe Williams) is once again irresistible on Take Me to the Alley. His original songs are catchy, interesting, and moving. His band is tight. He’s a jazz star.
Camila Meza, from Santiago, Chile, is less well-known, but I see her as a star on the rise. Traces is her first record made in New York, and she sings and plays guitar with a fleet, fluent directness. As a player, she is one part Metheny and another part Pat Martino—pretty amazing. As a singer, she mashes Brazilian and Latin styles with a dose of Joni Mitchell. But mainly her songs are driving and hooky, with the gleam of pop but the complexity of jazz. Maybe more charming are her covers: a lilting “Greenfinch and Linnet Bird” from Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd and a plaintive version of Jon Brion’s “Little Person”. (That Meza also sings with Ryan Keberle’s Catharsis and on that band’s almost-on-this-list Azul Infinito just reinforces 2016 as her year.)
If being slightly off-balance and challenged is what you crave from jazz, then pianist Kris Davis’s set of duets with eight different partners (two guitarists, two drummers, two pianists, and two reed players—including prominent names like Bill Frisell, Craig Taborn, and Don Byron), half improvised and half composed—is for you. Davis rarely plays chords as she accompanies other musicians in telepathic fashion. She is constantly inventing either lines or textural clusters and swirls that work ingeniously with what her partners are discovering. These performances include a couple of reimagined standards but mostly are as fresh as a spring morning.
Old friends Brad Mehldau (piano) and Joshua Redman (tenor and soprano saxophone) played their duets live on a European tour, and half are standards: “The Nearness of You”, “Ornithology”, “In Walked Bud”. But the playing itself, while more tonal and conventionally beautiful than Davis’s, is also breathtaking in its originality. These masterful mainstream artists leave plenty of space inside these performances for surprise and flashes of invention. Just one example: as Redman plays the sleepily beautiful melody of the title track, Mehldau finds little places to crinkle up the beautiful harmonies and make them ragged and, therefore, more astonishing. That keeps happening, and the result is a subtle surprise every bit as thrilling as it is shining.
Today in jazz, even small band are attentive to arrangement and a kind of textural complexity. Both of these recordings feature quartets of trumpet, tenor saxophone, bass, and drums, eschewing the sweet chording of a piano or guitar that typically binds together and even “sweetens” the sound of a modern jazz group. These bands, however, are plenty full and plenty sweet still, using wonderful arranging and composition to avoid a monotony of texture. Rather than default to melody-string of solos-melody, bassist Stephan Crump and trumpeter Adam O’Farrill (with young O’Farrill appearing in Crump’s quartet) have built sets of compositions that tell a series of stories, with the individual instruments seeming like characters is a long narrative. Everything is dynamic on both these records. Tenor saxophonist Ellery Eskelin plays with gravity and a combination of freedom and classicism in Crump’s band; he is always saying something interesting. The trumpeter plays with punish charm and snap on both records. There is groove and balladry, here are melodies and counter-melodies, there is swing and funk and punch.
Smoke Sessions Records is doing yeoman’s work recording vital mainstream jazz these days (also check out George Coleman’s recent A Master Speaks for a good example), and the collective the Cookers is as good as it gets. Led by trumpeter David Weiss, this band collects tunes and playing by tenor master Billy Harper, alto saxophonist Donald Harrison, Dr. Eddie Henderson on trumpet, pianist George Cables, bassist Cecil McBee, and drummer Billy Hart. Harper’s tunes dominate this set, and they are earthy and unusual, blues-drenched but not just the usual post-bop. This is music as “current” and modern as anything else on this list—dramatically honest and complex—but still seated within the classic and soulful sound that defined jazz in the late ‘50s, ‘60s, and beyond. Harper has always deserved a more prominent platform for his lavalike solos. Here is is, surrounded by the very best musicians of his generation.
The pleasures of Dream Deferred, a new recording from a new band led by drummer Ralph Peterson, are multiple and joyous. First, it’s always great to hear Peterson himself, who is an ebullient musician who mixes the pure, exuberant swing of Art Blakey with a decent dose of sneaky, puckish Roy Haynes snap. Peterson made so many great records about 20 years ago that I started to take him for granted. This is his best outing since the ‘90s, and it features another talent who I’ve been missing: the volcanic Gary Thomas on tenor and flute, a player whose early hip-hop/MBASE experiments weren’t perfect but thrived on energy. Mark Whitfield shares the front line on guitar, sounding more fired up than ever before, distorted a bit, pushing to the front because the pianist in the band is Vijay Iyer, challenging each bopping line with darkened harmonies. What a band, unafraid to start the album with Eric Dolphy’s “Iron Man” and then take it from there.