6: Structure Working with Openness
Myra Melford’s Fire and Water Quintet
For Love of Fire and Water
The light and dancing quality of Myra Melford’s music never means that it sounds hemmed in or excessively pretty. The utmost strength of this session is the range and adaptability of each daring and flexible musician. Percussionist Susie Ibarra is a “drummer”, but her tuned mallet percussion is essential to the ballad theme of part “IV”. Tomeka Reid’s cello is plucked and bowed, pure of sound and strident as she chooses, and saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock works more within ensembles (notated or improvised), matching sounds rather than bulldozing the band with wailing, Guitarist Mary Halvorson uses her various tonal tricks and pedal work like a surgeon or a sculptor. As you listen to the group improvisation of part “VI”, you hear five musicians sound like ripples on the surface of silence. Is it even worth mentioning anymore when a band is made up entirely of women? These are all-stars, gender whatever.
Ancient Songs of Burlap Heroes
Nate Wooley is a brass player with an atypical, compelling sound. This suite of three long tracks surrounded by shorter moody intros/outros is drenched in electronics of the most organic kind: Halvorson (again!) and her trippy effects, pedal steel wizard Susan Alcorn and her bent-note tension, and Wooley’s use of an amplifier with his horn. Composed sections are beautiful and precise, untethered to chord changes or an unwavering groove. The antecedent, perhaps, is the early 1970s electric music of Miles Davis but without the swamp groove. Violist Mat Maneri joins on one track and bassist Trevor Dunn on another. The result is slightly more impressionistic and modern, with the guitars crisscrossing with Ryan Sawyer’s drums and the other voices in open space. If Waiting for Godot were to be translated into instrumental music, this might be it: lonely and soulful, sad and amusing too.
7: Opening Vistas
Interpret It Well
This recording expands the trio led by drummer/mallet magician Ches Smith (with violist Matt Maneri and pianist Craig Taborn), adding guitarist Bill Frisell. Bridging free improvisation, composition, world music, and more, the band is exceptional, and the recording and production give the project both bite and beauty. Frisell plays with the attractive tones and ringing figures of his “Americana” style but also with gnarled distortion, as the moment requires. Smith chimes on vibraphone for beauty but can be merciless as a drummer. Taborn’s piano establishes harmonic boundaries and rhythmic patterns but never jams up conversations. This may be the best playing by Frisell in a decade and the best forum ever for Matt Maneri’s viola, which sounds purposeful, free, and balanced.
SAAM (Spanish-American Art Museum)
This fourth recording by a Marta Sanchez-led quintet (two saxophones, her piano, bass, and drums) is masterful and meticulous but with a center that aches. The music is intricate but inviting, with compositional details that can be complex (time signatures) or hook-like. Sanchez reflects on the influence of Guillermo Klein, the Argentine composer and pianist with whom she studied in Barcelona before her time in New York. She can use individual lines with a folk simplicity but then spin and rub against the clockwork of accompaniment to make something inspiring. The album is powerful without ever being loud, Spanish and American as its title suggests, complicated in its construction but clear as can be in its emotional power. All the dualities resolve.
8: Great Vibes, Bent to Exploration
Patricia Brennan is the most exciting player on her instrument to emerge in a half-century. She has plenty of rivals (and several on this list), but she is rethinking the vibes in the way that Mary Halvorson rethought the guitar. On her solo debut in 2021, you could hear the Veracruz-born Brennan using an array of effects to bend and refract her playing. That continues on More Touch, but in the company of a rhythmically advanced quartet, with percussion (Mauricio Herrera), drums (Marcus Gilmore), and bass (Kim Cass). There is freedom and form, swing and Afro-Cuban polyrhythms, melody, and cacophony, all balanced in a thrum of sounds. Brennan plays vibes and marimba, with swerves and textures that emerge from guitar pedals, effects, and—plainly—a musical imagination that draws from many different traditions and locales.
This collective trio (bassist Michael Formanek, drummer/vibist Tomas Fujiwara, and guitarist Mary Halvorson yet again) has been together for a decade, but this program of original tunes is among its best. Formanek’s bass anchors the band to solid ground even when the groove is not always straight-ahead 4/4. Fujiwara plays vibes rather than drums, making Multicolor Midnight the trio’s most delight-inducing document. For fans of Halvorson’s immediately-recognizable guitar style, this is also an ideal forum for her sharp chording, drunkenly detuned but beautiful melody playing, and precise interaction with bandmates.
9: New Jazz That Consolidates All Eras
The 7th Hand
Immanuel Wilkins’ impulse is to bring 21st-century creative music forward and reclaim the beating heart of its past without sounding retrospective. On only his second date as a leader, he runs together different flows of sound and blurs lines between genres—but he does it with a classic jazz quartet (plus some guests) as his vehicle. As a saxophonist, he can be precise and swirling but also a crying bluesman with plenty of Albert Ayler and John Coltrane in his soul. Pianist Micah Thomas is his most crucial partner, playing with rippling exactitude and crashing power.
The band plays extended freedom sessions but also peers through the lens of gospel music, bebop, and complexly structured New Jazz. Flutist Elena Pinderhughes and the Farafina Kan Percussion Ensemble add to the joy and the cry outward. For all the talk in recent years about new “spiritual jazz” (mostly Pharoah Sanders redux), this music is the real thing: art with searching energy at its core that lifts toward openness rather than just rerunning some hip grooves. Wilkins feels like the future as much as any musician on this list.
The Parable of the Poet
Vibraphonist Joel Ross is a Wilkins collaborator and contemporary, and his new Blue Note recording is also his best. It features a four-horn front line that includes Wilkins, as well as Marquis Hill (trumpet), Maria Grand (tenor saxophone), and Kalia Vandever (trombone). If that sounds like it might be a Jazz Messengers kind of outing, well, that is just one of this recording’s modes. The program of intricate composition/improvisation uses its colors as pastels as well as primaries.
10: Singing with Dramatic Purpose
Cecile McLorin Salvant
The album Linger Awhile by the young singer Samara Joy was a delight this year—one of those sessions where a musician proves that they have mastered the material of their predecessors. Cecile McLorin Salvant also did this, but what’s the ultimate point in being Ella, Billie, or Sarah redux? Salvant shows that she is entirely her own artist on Ghost Song, an idiosyncratic recording that combines Irish a cappella singing and quirky show tunes with soul music, pan-stylistic originals, and even some Kurt Weill. The idea to blend an Irish song with a Kate Bush cover is undeniable. Still, you might find the mash-up of “Optimistic Voices” (a munchkin song from The Wizard of Oz) with the ravishing Gregory Porter song “No Love Dying” harder to fathom. But nit-picking an artist this bold and utterly in command of her craft is silly. Ghost Song rewards deep listening and will make you appreciate Salvant and pianist Sullivan Fortner even more if that is possible.
Zenzile, The Reimagination of Miriam Makeba
Somi has also avoided becoming Just Another Jazz Singer, and her latest is a refraction of the music of Miriam Makeba, the iconic South African singer, actor, and activist. This brilliant collection draws from pan-African styles, mixing them with US soul, blues, jazz, you name it. She gets terrific guest spots, a murderers’ row of contemporaries, and the rhythm section works fluidly across every feel. Her long-time pianist, Taru Dodo, almost deserves co-billing; their duet ballad on “Ring Bell, Ring Bell” will take your breath away. But the groove-based tracks like “Milele” or “A Piece of Ground” also mix easily with more experimental arrangements such as the electronics-with-strings reimagination of “Pata Pata”. This album is dramatic, so it makes sense that it accompanies a theatrical piece Somi is developing about Makeba.