The Best Jazz of 2015

John Garratt and Will Layman
The jazz musicians. Illustration by Eugene Ivanov. Via Shutterstock.

A baker’s dozen albums that remind us that jazz remains alive, growing, thriving, and powerful.

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

Artist: Kenny Wheeler

Album: Songs for Quintet

Label: ECM


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Kenny Wheeler
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

Artist: Henry Threadgill and Zooid

Album: In For a Penny, In For a Pound

Label: Pi


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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

Artist: Antonio Sanchez & Migration

Album: The Meridian Suite

Label: CAM Jazz


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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

Artist: Makaya McCraven

Album: In the Moment

Label: International Anthem


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Makaya McCraven
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

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From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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