Jazz —or whatever term you prefer for this glorious music born of the creative brilliance of Black American culture, now wonderfully global—is passionately alive in 2022. In creating a “best of the year” list, I could have made several valid lists.
I might have focused only on music that has a legitimate connection to popular music of the last decade. Robert Glasper’s modern soul/hip-hop-oriented Black Radio III, Domi and JD Beck’s frenetically virtuosic Not Tight, and Shabaka Hutchings’ somewhat meditative Afrikan Culture are just three examples of music that could not have been made without the best elements of both jazz classicism and contemporary boundaries-be-damned fusion.
It’s equally valid that I could have made a sumptuous list of recordings by contemporary musicians working in a reasonably traditional “jazz” mode: Julian Lage’s A View with a Room is a modern guitar date that evokes classic sessions from the 1960s and 1970s but sounds hyper-fresh; The OGJB Quartet’s Ode to O features the great Oliver Lake, Graham Haynes, Joe Fonda, and Barry Altschul creating fresh music that nods to Ornette Coleman’s still-vibrant legacy; a concert recording of Wayne Shorter, Terri Lyne Carrington, Leo Genovese, Esperanza Spalding, Live at the Detroit Jazz Festival from 2017 is a stunning tapestry that nods to Shorter’s infinite greatness across six decades of history; and even the new record from the Bad Plus suggests that a vision for jazz that started a quarter century ago can be reimagined with electric guitar and saxophone where a piano used to be.
For me, however, the most arresting music has been neither consciously pop-modern nor plainly tradition-connected. My favorites are all recordings that blend composition and improvisation in ways that use those other approaches but, mainly, are formally innovative and individually expressive modern art music. I believe that listeners who love “classic jazz” can hear in these records the spirit that animated Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, and Miles Davis in their day, just as I think that fans of fresh popular sounds would be hard-pressed to find this music old-fashioned, even if it doesn’t offer many radio (or, well, download?)-friendly hooks.
In a year as rich as 2022, with so many musicians having spent the pandemic down-time dreaming up brilliant new concepts, I am giving each of my favorite recordings a twin or runner-up that echoes it in some way. It’s two lists in one. But here are 20 favorites in a single “top ten” list, in no particular order.
1: Timeless Saxophone
Jon Irabagon is a dizzying player whose imagination sees complexly structured bebop and boundary-less free playing as part of a whole. His new band (Matt Mitchell’s piano, Dan Weiss’ drums, and Chris Lightcap’s bass—plus guest spots for guitarist Miles Okazaki and trumpeter Adam O’Farrill) can play masterful free-bop, funk, and intricately structured New Jazz. Rising Sun demonstrates how lush beauty, breathtaking improvising, head-busting composition, soulful momentum, and sheer drama can coexist in our best music—and often in the same performance. Irabagon has created a set of melodies, motifs, and harmonic environments that let his tenor saxophone interact with the thrilling band. When they play Dizzy Gillespie’s “Bebop”, there is just as much adventure, palpable joy, and thrill as in the originals. It is a masterpiece, probably Irabagon’s best recording, and an adventure that summarizes decades of innovation.
Americana Vol. 2
JD Allen plays every note on his tenor like it is central to the composition and connected to his whole band. This new recording is the successor to 2016’s Americana: Musings on Jazz and Blues, and both explore older blues forms. This second chapter blossoms by adding guitarist Charlie Hunter to the previous trio. Hunter uses slide playing, reverb, and string-bending to make the ties between mid-century jazz and Mississippi delta roots music more explicit. The sound of the quartet is loose and open, expansive. The best music here fuses Sonny Rollins with Sonny Boy Williamson. It’s not a gimmick but more like the truth.
2: Personal Language
The daring but increasingly classic-sounding guitarist/composer Mary Halvorson is all over this list. As a solo artist, she has moved over to Nonesuch Records, which suggests a certain creative seriousness. Instead of taming the master of the weird-tone-bent axe, Nonesuch has clearly lifted Halvorson’s sense of purpose. Amaryllis extends the form of her previous quintet/octet recordings with a new sextet of brass (Jacob Garchik’s trombone and trumpeter Adam O’Farrill) and rhythm (Patricia Brennan’s vibes, guitar, bass, and drums).
Then she shakes a string quartet on several tracks. Is this too much? Nope. The vibes/bass/drums rhythm section has the open-but-contrapuntal effect that we all prize on Eric Dolphy’s Out to Lunch, with O’Farrill’s and Garchik’s improvisations riding above that clatter in a melodic but free way. The whole sound is fully integrated: like a Blue Note quintet date that happens to feature the new century’s hippest guitarist and a layer of lyrical complexity in strings. Unconventional but still accessible, Amaryllis is a stunner across boundaries.
Belladonna came out simultaneously, placing Mary Halvorson’s guitar in conversation only with the Mivos Quartet. Halvorson is at her most nuanced here on four through-written string quartet compositions that are some of the best chamber jazz ever. The string charts mix tonality and surprise freely. On the opener, “Nodding Yellow”, for example, Halvorson blends lyrical bowed cello lines with more edgy pizzicato percussion sounds like dominos tumbling off a shelf, weaving in her near-acoustic guitar. A viola-cello melody takes over that has an Americana vibe, only to be followed a slower “movement” and, eventually, a rising figure over which Halvorson improvises with bent-note glee. The date curves Halvorson’s sensibility toward tradition even as it launches outward.
3: Standards to Launch the Future
The Tyshawn Sorey Trio +1 with Greg Osby
The Off-Off Broadway Guide to Synergism
Drummer, trombonist, and super-advanced New Jazz composer/conceptualist Tyshawn Sorey seemed to know this year that the world also just dug him as a drummer in a jazz group. He double/triple/quadruple delivered. This three-disc set on Pi features a new piano trio, with Aaron Diehl and bassist Matt Brewer, as well as special guest Greg Osby—the alto saxophonist who played a crucial role in New York’s downtown cauldron of creativity as far back as the 1980s (when he was a founding member of MBase and a key mentor to many younger players) and who has been under-recorded in the last decade.
The music, recorded in concert, is nearly all jazz standards (Cole Porter and other Tin Pan Alley composers, but also Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, and Ornette Coleman), but the tunes are treated with dazzling, elastic creativity. The musical language is jazz—swing, harmonic complexity (but not atonalism) and blues. But the structures of the standards are stated and then mutated as the band dissects the original and gets involved in the act of spontaneous (re?)composition. This exercise has been done before by musicians such as Jason Moran (a mentee of Osby) and Rudresh Mahanthappa, but this is the most masterful example I have ever heard.
Tyshawn Sorey Trio
Here is just the trio, in the studio rather than in concert, working the ground of Bill Evans, Horace Silver, Paul Motian, and Muhal Richard Abrams. Sorey’s instincts and skill at sculpting sound into purposeful auras are present in his compositions, but it is equally clear here in “Detour Ahead” and “Autumn Leaves”. Sorey adjusts these mostly well-known tunes in small ways that allow them, once again, to sound fresh. Even the most straight-ahead sounds are deep. “Two Over One”, by Abrams, burbles, lopes, and chimes in three-quarter time and there are simple blues themes too, but everything this band touches is enriched, elevated, and intimate.
4: Reimagining Ensembles
This is the most mind-bending and potent of all the “pandemic projects” that came out in the last 18 months. Trombonist and composer/arranger Jacob Garchik loves to play with form, and Assembly is a studio creation unlike any other. First, he brought together a band to jam on common forms. He took the results and then composed new music to be super-imposed over manipulations of the original tracks. The result boggles and thrills. “Pastiche” grooves then suddenly strolls, and “Collage” layers an improvisation beneath a written, mournful fanfare at a different tempo. In another key, “Bricolage” edits together moments from Thomas Morgan’s bass playing to create a loop for a new Sam Newsome soprano saxophone improvisation, and “Homage” uses overdubbing to build a wall of sound that has the band riffing over, and around, and in reaction to itself. What is a jazz group? What is improvisation? What is composing? Music has always asked these questions. Garchik now asks (and answers) them in wholly new ways.
Steven Bernstein’s Millennial Territory Orchestra
Good Time Music (Community Music, Volume 2)
(The Royal Potato Family)
This is undoubtedly the most “old-fashioned” recording on my list. Still, it belongs because Steven Bernstein’s longstanding ensemble has always been a postmodern experiment: take the format of a 1930s “territory” band and dare it to play funk by Sly Stone, for example. This second installment of “Community Music” albums puts the band side-by-side with singer Catherine Russell on blues-based tunes written mainly by artists we associate with New Orleans: Allen Toussaint, Earl King, Professor Longhair, and Percy Mayfield. The performances are neither “jazz”, as we narrowly think of that genre today, nor are they idiomatically “blues”, with the electric or acoustic guitar framing up 12-bar classics. The powerfully groove-oriented music is drenched in history and feeling, jazz arrangement deployed with a light touch by a band is small enough that it doesn’t sound like Count Basie as much as it sounds like the E Street Band or the Tedeschi-Trucks Band, which is to say, a rock band that still cares about soulful showmanship.
5: Guitar Heroes
Miles Okazaki’s Trickster
The third outing from this guitarist’s supernova quartet with Matt Mitchell on keyboards and the Sean Rickman (drums)/Anthony Tidd (bass) rhythm section is playing in longer, more open improvisations but still working in its signature style, making rhythmically complex New Jazz that sound less compositionally fancy-pants and more like an otherworldly jam band. Miles Okazaki’s sketch-like compositions are melodic atmospheres featuring written lines that intersect in each sketch’s town square.
The band moves between these locations with informal cues, creating a free-flowing sensation, a river journey. The musicians rarely take individual solos but improvise collectively, the guitar bobbing to the surface of “Years in Space”, for example, before Mitchell’s ripples of piano peak and crest. The give-and-take and harmonically vague counterpoint is usually lush but takes a dive or two into being jagged. Both are wonderful, and in the moments where piano and guitar lock into written melodies, the effect is a revelation. It can be a blend of the rapport and comfort of an old fusion date with the ambitions of today’s vanguard.
Saxophonist Melissa Aldana sounds brilliant throughout her best recording yet (and her debut on Blue Note). The compositions were co-written and co-produced by Aldana and guitarist Lage Lund, which is also my favorite recording of his. The music is beautiful and searching, like a modern refraction of the kind of writing that Wayne Shorter pioneered. Shorter is one model for Aldana, but hardly the only one. Lund is quirky and formidable as a soloist and accompanist, and the electro-acoustic arrangements make the argument, yet again, that the old debates about what instruments can be used in this kind of art music were silly from the very beginning. Like the Okazaki date, 12 Stars operates like a brilliant collective in which the guitar interweaves with other vital voices.