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The jazz musicians. Illustration by Eugene Ivanov. Via Shutterstock.

The Best Jazz of 2015

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

9 – 5

Artist: Rudresh Mahanthappa

Album: Bird Calls

Label: ACT Music & Vision

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Rudresh Mahanthappa
Bird Calls

On this simultaneously forward-thinking and historically aware recording, alto saxophone virtuoso Rudresh Mahanthappa has taken melodic and other elements from his greatest jazz inspiration, saxophonist Charlie Parker, and reworked them with the vocabulary of today’s jazz. Listening to Bird Calls, you will be hard pressed to find specific Parker tunes or licks, but the recording abounds with an abstract refraction of the quicksilver phrasing that made Parker so modern in 1945. The band (young and nimble Adam O’Farrill on trumpet, Matt Mitchell’s hyper-alert piano, Francois Moutin on bass, and Rudy Royston on drums) is with him at every step, an absolutely cracking group that helps Mahanthappa marry Bird’s quicksilver phrasing to some of the leader’s roots in Indian music. This record sounds utterly like 2015 in jazz: complex, rhythmically vital, free in spirit while still criss-crossed with mutating structures. And: exciting. — Will Layman

 

Artist: Darius Jones

Album: Le Bebe de Brigitte (Lost in Translation)

Label: AUM Fidelity

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Darius Jones
Le Bebe de Brigitte (Lost in Translation)

Jazz may be the world’s most mutable music, a style that can fruitfully and elegantly absorb just about any other style. A runner-up record this year, Amir Elscaffar’s Crises on Pi Records fuses free-bop and Iraqi maqam music, and brilliantly. So there’s no surprise in hearing alto saxophonist Darius Jones modify his quartet (with the ubiquitous Matt Mitchell on piano, Ches Smith on drums, and Sean Conly on bass) with French singer Emily Lesbros in adapting 21st century, heartfelt jazz to a tradition of French art songs. But what is dazzling is that Jones’s music is both beautiful and unsettling. This is theatrical music that explores the drama of contrasting voices, clashing textures. Lesbros sings in both French and English, Mitchell plays both acoustic and electric, Smith is on trap kit and vibraphone, both. Drawing inspiration from many different directions (from Stevie Wonder to Oliver Lake, to name just two), Darius Jones personifies the reach of jazz today and helps us to remember that some of the music takes work by the audience to catch up with. And that’s as it should be if the music is to continue to grow and change its listeners. — Will Layman

 

Artist: Jose James

Album: Yesterday I Had the Blues, The Music of Billie Holiday

Label: Blue Note

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Jose James
Yesterday I Had the Blues, The Music of Billie Holiday

Blue Note put out two Billie Holiday tributes in this, her centennial year. Cassandra Wilson’s much-anticipated tribute was overproduced and leaden, schmaltzy in a modern way. But the one my singer Jose James was a subtle triumph. Some reviewers found it too traditional, and sonically, yes, it sounds like a more “traditional” jazz tribute to Holiday featuring an acoustic piano trio and voice. But the pianist at the top of the trio is Jason Moran, and he (along with bassist John Patitucci and drummer Eric Harland) has transformed these songs harmonically and otherwise in a manner sly, fresh, open, and gut-pulling. “Fine and Mellow”, for example, becomes a slow-shuffle blues with a gutbucket feeling. “Body and Soul” is reharmonized by Moran on the piano-only introduction, and then the bridge picks up a rat-a-tat military groove on drums. The total effect is one of surprise: like you’re hearing a wholly new song emerging out of the classic you used to love but maybe lost interest in. James, throughout, sings with hip restraint and emotional power. — Will Layman

 

Artist: Vijay Iyer

Album: Break Stuff

Label: ECM

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Vijay Iyer
Break Stuff

Break Stuff is pianist Vijay Iyer’s first ECM outing for his core band, a trio rounded out by drummer Marcus Gilmore and bassist Stephan Crump. The band’s top concern is rhythm, and it finds countless fascinating ways to investigate pulse — in circling minimalist patterns, in grooving funk workouts, and in powerful, conversational swing. But it never feels stale. So powerful and interesting are the rhythmic investigations of this band that I keep having this jazz fan’s fantasy: much as the adventurous young folks who loved the exploratory rock of the 1960s (the Grateful Dead, the Velvet Underground) eventually found their way to the John Coltrane Quartet, so might today’s hip-hop fans eventually discover this band — as well as Matthew Shipp, Mary Halvorson, and others. Superficial differences aside, this music has the pulsing life of modern pop. — Will Layman

 

Artist: Forro in the Dark

Album: Forro Zinho: Forro in the Dark Plays Zorn

Label: Tzadik

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Forro in the Dark
Forro Zinho: Forro in the Dark Plays Zorn

John Zorn is a prolific composer and 2015 was by no means a slack year for him and his various projects. Still, one of the strongest releases this year to be associated with Zorn is an album by the Brazilian band Forro in the Dark. Forro Zinho: Forro in the Dark Plays Zorn is packed with 11 rump-shaking covers of the downtown avant-gardist’s compositions. The album is not only a testament to the strength of John Zorn’s composing but also a breezy reminder that a new set of eyes, hands, and ears can have a near transformative effect on the compositions themselves. A case in point is the Naked City cover “Sunset Surfer”. You’ll see what happened to the punk on its way to the surf shop — it learned itself a Brazilian groove. There aren’t many “cover” projects like this lying around and it would be a shame if it flew under everyone’s radar. — John Garratt

4 – 1

Artist: Dave Douglas

Album: High Risk

Label: Greenleaf

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Dave Douglas
High Risk

The battle rages on: for every person who thinks that trumpeter Dave Douglas is a unique genius, there seems to be at least one person waiting to knock him down a peg in the presence of his fans. High Risk has garnered extremely mixed reviews this year, a collection of criticisms worthy of the album’s name. There is a reason that it stands out above so many other jazz albums this year and it’s not only because it sounds so different from Douglas’s usual quintet work. It’s not only its unique take on the role of electronic sounds in modern jazz, and it’s not just because Douglas and a room full of adventurous names like Mark Guiliana and Shigeto knocked out the music of High Risk in a matter of days. It’s because, in addition to all of the above being true, High Risk hangs together so well that it hardly feels like genre-bending. High Risk truly brings a high payoff. — John Garratt

 

Artist: Jack DeJohnette

Album: Made in Chicago

Label: ECM

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Jack DeJohnette
Made in Chicago

The first thing that is surprising about Made in Chicago is the lineup. Drummer Jack DeJohnette, pianist Muhal Richard Abrams, and saxophonists/flutists Henry Threadgill and Roscoe Mitchell may go back a long ways in their days together in the Windy City’s AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians), they haven’t set aside time to jam together since the early ’60s. So what do a bunch of old jazz buddies play when they finally find the time to put on a show together? Standards? Old originals? Here lies the other surprising thing about the live set Made in Chicago: the material. Mitchell brings two of his own originals, Abrams, DeJohnette, and Threadgill each bring one, and together with bassist Larry Gray they create the impromptu piece “Ten Minutes” to conclude their set at Millennium Park. “Ten Minutes” is actually six minutes in length, but who’s counting? No one should be fussing, not when you have names like DeJohnette, Mitchell, Abrams, and Threadgill together on a 77-minute CD. — John Garratt

 

Artist: Steve Coleman

Album: Synovial Joints

Label: Pi

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Steve Coleman
Synovial Joints

Even when is executing a flawless high-wire act, his music can sometimes feel technical or unmoving. But this year’s Synovial Joints is feeling and alive. It is a complex conversation that pairs his horns-plus-rhythm band with a small group of strings in a conversation that goes in many fascinating directions. The melodies are original but gripping. The improvisations are spirited and dramatic. At the center of the record is the four-part suite organized on principles related to the joints of the human body. I have no idea how this investigation played out in his composing, but there is certainly a sense that this music constantly shift and moves, flexing one set of instruments against another in a creative tension. Synovial Joints shares Charles Mingus’s genius for multi-voice complexity and rhythmic interest even if the texture is very different. Which is to say: it is a brilliant, endlessly gripping piece of music. — Will Layman

 

Artist: The Bad Plus Joshua Redman

Album: The Bad Plus Joshua Redman

Label: Nonesuch

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The Bad Plus Joshua Redman
The Bad Plus Joshua Redman

The most recent release from jazz’s popular-yet-still-peculiar piano trio adds saxophonist Joshua Redman to the band. Together, it turns out, the band is particularly wonderful, and somehow the addition of a horn makes it clear the way that the Bad Plus is perhaps the Dave Brubeck Quartet of its day: a quirky band based on wild rhythmic experiments, real popular appeal, and a flair for the dramatic. Of course, the Bad Plus sounds nothing like Brubeck, but with the addition of a cool saxophone voice, we hear tunes like “Faith Through Error” in a new way: as a complex winding melody that gets Redman’s tenor and Ethan Iverson’s piano coiling around each other like a pair of vines. Tunes by Reid Anderson on this outing are particularly hip and funky on this outing, and Redman’s songs are among the most intriguing, including “Friend or Foe”, with its long through-composed section, a highlight of jazz in 2015. — Will Layman

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