The Claudia Quintet's Super Petite cover

Overlooked Jazz Gems of 2016

No matter how much music I listen to every year, I miss some great records, somehow. Here are a half-dozen albums from 2016 that deserve our attention.
Nasheet Waits Equality
Between Nothingness and Infinity
Laborie Jazz

Is there anyone else out there feeling regrets about the late months of 2016?

Yeah, the US presidential election was pretty depressing. But I’m talking about the music I wasn’t able to absorb and appreciate before the year was out. You get to making your “Best of” list in early December, as I did here, and you quickly realize how much music just passed you by, or you didn’t find time to listen to it. Some of it turns out to be great. And so the early weeks of January can be a time of atonement.

In 2016 I was particularly naughty, missing out on writing about or praising at least six recordings that are currently lighting up my life with pleasure. While I don’t know that these six albums all would have made my “Best of” picks, they sure might have been close.

Between Nothingness and Infinity, Nasheet Waits’ Equality (Laborie Jazz)

I’m starting with a recording that certainly would have been in my top ten. There is vast power and nuance in Between Nothingness and Infinity, the second recording by Nasheet Waits’ Equality quartet. Waits has long powered the innovative Bandwagon, helmed by pianist Jason Moran, and this group is just as formally inventive and rhythmically subtle. On this, their second recording, the band is slightly different but protean: Darius Jones proclaims on alto saxophone, Mark Helias is on bass, and Aruan Ortiz is the pianist.

The orientation of this band is clear from the songs that Waits chooses to cover: one each by Andrew Hill, Sam Rivers, and Charlie Parker, with the rest being original to the leader or Helias. “Koko” is, perhaps, the boldest choice possible, the iconic virtuoso vehicle that was part of bebop’s boldest sessions. The quartet approaches it with exuberance but originality: Waits and Ortiz start it as a duet of daring fragments before the famous head is stated, supersonic swing bolstering from below. What, you’re wondering, will Jones do with it on his solo? How do you try to stack up to Charlie Parker?

The band starts by dropping back to half-time and letting Jones build his solo in a leisurely stroll, starting with swung, bop phrasing, then moving into swirls of harmony that trace the chords more loosely as Helias moves back into regular tempo. From there, Jones replaces clear-toned intervallic leaps with long tones that he leans into with growling overtones. You might hear it the way I do: as a little lesson in jazz history from 1947 to the present.

Elsewhere, the band is more likely to dance than to dwell in too much abstraction. “Korean Bounce” struts and flows in a variety of time shifts from military to a slow drag, and Andrew Hill’s “Snake Hip Waltz” skips and saunters to a raggedy-three that sounds half-drunk in certain moments and crisply perfect in all-of-a-sudden points of focus. Waits’s “Kush” is a classic jazz ballad that the band investigates with sensual patience. Each of these performances is deeply connected to the history of the music but brings something new as well.

Much like the recording by J.D. Allen, discussed below, Between Nothingness and Infinity has a weight and power that comes from looking directly at elements of jazz that have mattered most over the years. By focusing on the beautiful, aching seam in jazz that opened up at the time of Andrew Hill and Sam Rivers, that line between tonal and atonal playing that Charlie Parker first hinted at with his radical harmonic reinventions, Waits’s Equality band sits atop a sweet spot in the music.

Each musician in this band thrills: Helias with his sound and time, Jones with his fascinating, complex tone, Ortiz’s blend of abstraction and sensuousness, and Waits — always stirring the pot to provoke more conversation. What a great record, one to listen to for years to come.