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

The Best Jazz of 2016

These are the 20 "best" jazz records of 2016 identified in stylistic diads, ranked loosely from most sublime to merely breathtaking.

Last year when I sat down to think about my favorite jazz recordings, there was an elephant in the room: Kamasi Washington and his colossal, triple-CD The Epic. While PopMatters honored it as top-five on its overall best recordings list, I and my collaborator on last year’s jazz list, John Garratt, didn’t boost it to the top. I wrote a column about why this was the case, and I still feel that excluding the Washington phenom was justified if a bit cheeky. It was a terrific record that, to my ears, was more a throwback to some cool records from the ’70s than the daring jazz/hip-hop fusion that Washington’s association with Kendrick Lamar may have implied. Innovation isn’t everything, several readers responded. Fair enough. This year’s list includes both innovation and some tradition too.

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This year didn’t produce another recording like The Epic that focused popular attention on jazz or that is likely to be a consensus pick. Existing popular trends continued: Robert Glasper contributed music to the Miles Davis film by Don Cheadle and released something new by his “Experiment” project, but the results didn’t knock me out. Some jazz heavy-hitters came out with new work that was strong — guitarist John Scofield’s album of country covers was a delight, singer Kurt Elling and Branford Marsalis’s Quartet joined forces on something cool, and The Bad Plus created yet another session covering pop songs through a smart, sly new jazz lens — but these fine records were not my favorites of the year. Some other great artists made records I tried to call out this year as wonderful: the under-sung trumpeter Ralph Alessi made yet another gem in Quiver on ECM, singer Rene Marie produced a brave and singular album that reflects life in middle age, veteran pianist Denny Zeitlin made a solo piano recording of Wayne Shorter tunes that I can’t stop listening to, and drummer Ches Smith devised a jazz trio recording with piano and viola.

But even excluding that music, I had trouble getting down to a “top ten” for 2016, yet another year in which the dire economic situation for creative musicians did not dampen their astonishing output. I found that my favorites were traveling in pairs, and so I’m going all Noah on the list this year: 20 “best” jazz records identified in stylistic diads, ranked loosely from most sublime to merely breathtaking.

 

Artist: Uri Caine

Album: Calibrated Thickness

Label: CD Baby

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10. TWO PIANO TRIOS

Piano/bass/drums still tells the story of jazz each year with elegance and surprise. Uri Caine is as likely to be working with rappers, opera singers, turntablists or orchestras as he is with a simple trio. Why, then, was his Blue Wail (1999) one of his best records. Calibrated Thickness is just as good, 15 relatively short essays that cover every style from hard bop to abstraction, from the lyrical to the moody. When cornetist Kirk Knuffke joins up with Mark Helias (bass) and Clarence Penn (drums), it’s all the more intriguing.

Artist: Brad Mehldau Trio

Album: Blues and Ballads

Label: Nonesuch

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Display Width: 200Blues and Ballads is from one of the best and most longstanding contemporary trios, that of Brad Mehldau. They cover two Paul McCartney tunes, a Charlie Parker blues, and four old standards, leaving expressive space at the center of every performance. This is subtle brilliance from beginning to end, as Mehldau, Jeff Ballard, and Larry Grenadier play mostly within our expectations but add exceptional imagination every minute or so: a freakish cadenza, a soulful vamp where you don’t expect it, a pair of counter-melodies, a set of cymbal pulses that push you even at a slow tempo. Tradition still works in jazz, and here it is, sounding fresh.

 

Artist: Gregory Porter

Album: Take Me to the Alley

Label: Blue Note

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9. TWO SINGERS

“Jazz Singing” remains a complicated notion. The field was so thoroughly defined by the iconic singers of the Billie/Ella/Sarah/Sinatra generation — and those singers made such a huge impression on all subsequent pop singers — that it has been hard to hear new styles emerge that, in turn, are the product of influence from the great pop styles since 1960. Two very different singers made fresh and wonderful records in 2016, each of which can almost sound like a pop form. Gregory Porter’s huge slab of soul singing (as much Stevie Wonder as it is Billy Eckstine or Joe Williams) is once again irresistible on Take Me to the Alley. His original songs are catchy, interesting, and moving. His band is tight. He’s a jazz star.

Artist: Camila Meza

Album: Traces

Label: Sunnyside

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Display Width: 200Camila Meza, from Santiago, Chile, is less well-known, but I see her as a star on the rise. Traces is her first record made in New York, and she sings and plays guitar with a fleet, fluent directness. As a player, she is one part Metheny and another part Pat Martino — pretty amazing. As a singer, she mashes Brazilian and Latin styles with a dose of Joni Mitchell. But mainly her songs are driving and hooky, with the gleam of pop but the complexity of jazz. Maybe more charming are her covers: a lilting “Greenfinch and Linnet Bird” from Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd and a plaintive version of Jon Brion’s “Little Person”. (That Meza also sings with Ryan Keberle’s Catharsis and on that band’s almost-on-this-list Azul Infinito just reinforces 2016 as her year.)

 

Artist: Kris Davis

Album: Duopoly

Label: CD Baby

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8. TWO DUETS

If being slightly off-balance and challenged is what you crave from jazz, then pianist Kris Davis’s set of duets with eight different partners (two guitarists, two drummers, two pianists, and two reed players—including prominent names like Bill Frisell, Craig Taborn, and Don Byron), half improvised and half composed — is for you. Davis rarely plays chords as she accompanies other musicians in telepathic fashion. She is constantly inventing either lines or textural clusters and swirls that work ingeniously with what her partners are discovering. These performances include a couple of reimagined standards but mostly are as fresh as a spring morning.

Artist: Brad Mehldau and Joshua Redman

Album: Nearness

Label: Nonesuch

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Display Width: 200Old friends Brad Mehldau (piano) and Joshua Redman (tenor and soprano saxophone) played their duets live on a European tour, and half are standards: “The Nearness of You”, “Ornithology”, “In Walked Bud”. But the playing itself, while more tonal and conventionally beautiful than Davis’s, is also breathtaking in its originality. These masterful mainstream artists leave plenty of space inside these performances for surprise and flashes of invention. Just one example: as Redman plays the sleepily beautiful melody of the title track, Mehldau finds little places to crinkle up the beautiful harmonies and make them ragged and, therefore, more astonishing. That keeps happening, and the result is a subtle surprise every bit as thrilling as it is shining.

 

Artist: Stephan Crump

Album: Rhombal

Label: Papillon Sounds

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Artist: Adam O’Farrill

Album: Stranger Days

Label: Sunnyside

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7. TWO PIANOLESS QUARTETS

Today in jazz, even small band are attentive to arrangement and a kind of textural complexity. Both of these recordings feature quartets of trumpet, tenor saxophone, bass, and drums, eschewing the sweet chording of a piano or guitar that typically binds together and even “sweetens” the sound of a modern jazz group. These bands, however, are plenty full and plenty sweet still, using wonderful arranging and composition to avoid a monotony of texture. Rather than default to melody-string of solos-melody, bassist Stephan Crump and trumpeter Adam O’Farrill (with young O’Farrill appearing in Crump’s quartet) have built sets of compositions that tell a series of stories, with the individual instruments seeming like characters is a long narrative. Everything is dynamic on both these records. Tenor saxophonist Ellery Eskelin plays with gravity and a combination of freedom and classicism in Crump’s band; he is always saying something interesting. The trumpeter plays with punish charm and snap on both records. There is groove and balladry, here are melodies and counter-melodies, there is swing and funk and punch.

 

Artist: The Cookers

Album: The Call of the Wild and Peaceful Heart

Label: Smoke Sessions

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6. TWO STILL SWINGING

Smoke Sessions Records is doing yeoman’s work recording vital mainstream jazz these days (also check out George Coleman’s recent A Master Speaks for a good example), and the collective the Cookers is as good as it gets. Led by trumpeter David Weiss, this band collects tunes and playing by tenor master Billy Harper, alto saxophonist Donald Harrison, Dr. Eddie Henderson on trumpet, pianist George Cables, bassist Cecil McBee, and drummer Billy Hart. Harper’s tunes dominate this set, and they are earthy and unusual, blues-drenched but not just the usual post-bop. This is music as “current” and modern as anything else on this list — dramatically honest and complex — but still seated within the classic and soulful sound that defined jazz in the late ’50s, ’60s, and beyond. Harper has always deserved a more prominent platform for his lavalike solos. Here is is, surrounded by the very best musicians of his generation.

Artist: Ralph Peterson and Aggregate Prime

Album: Dream Deferred

Label: Onyx

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Display Width: 200The pleasures of Dream Deferred, a new recording from a new band led by drummer Ralph Peterson, are multiple and joyous. First, it’s always great to hear Peterson himself, who is an ebullient musician who mixes the pure, exuberant swing of Art Blakey with a decent dose of sneaky, puckish Roy Haynes snap. Peterson made so many great records about 20 years ago that I started to take him for granted. This is his best outing since the ’90s, and it features another talent who I’ve been missing: the volcanic Gary Thomas on tenor and flute, a player whose early hip-hop/MBASE experiments weren’t perfect but thrived on energy. Mark Whitfield shares the front line on guitar, sounding more fired up than ever before, distorted a bit, pushing to the front because the pianist in the band is Vijay Iyer, challenging each bopping line with darkened harmonies. What a band, unafraid to start the album with Eric Dolphy’s “Iron Man” and then take it from there.

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Artist: Wynton Marsalis and JALC Orchestra

Album: The Abyssinian Mass

Label: Blue Engine

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Display Width: 2005. TWO THAT SING BEYOND CATEGORY

It may be fashionable these days to pass over the work that Wynton Marsalis is doing with his band, The Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. If you talk to musicians who are struggling to make a living, Marsalis’s uptown outfit is the one redwood in the forest, crowding out the other growth. But the truth is, his Abyssinian Mass, released on this year on CD, is a wide-ranging work of brilliance. If it’s easy to be lulled into familiarity by yet another Marsalis work that hunts down majesty and uses swing and blues structures to do it, it’s impossible to overlook the unique writing for voices that Marsalis achieves here, finding heavenly combinations of timbre and creating settings that let his musicians shine.

Artist: Bill Frisell

Album: When You Wish Upon a Star

Label: Okeh

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Display Width: 200Also potentially easy to dismiss is yet another clean, not-that-jazzy Americana ensemble from Bill Frisell, playing tunes associated with the movies. But this band, featuring Petra Haden’s singular vocals (sometimes singing lyrics, sometimes bonding with Frisell’s guitar tone), viola, and rhythm, finds ways to squeeze in noise-rock, frenetic rhythm, or Americana grace with its usually calm surface. I love both these records because, in 2016, the notion of singing in jazz is better represented by these gospel/pop/classical styles than by anyone who is still belting out standards like Ella Fitzgerald.

 

Artist: Steve Lehman

Album: Sélébéyone

Label: Pi

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4. TWO POWER BANDS

There are two jazz records from 2016 that use a surge of power to defy category. The restlessly inventive composer and alto saxophonist Steve Lehman created the year’s most authentic and successful hip-hop/jazz collaboration in Sélébéyone, featuring two saxophones, two rappers (Gaston Bandimic rapping in Wolof, an African language, and HPrizm from the Antipop Consortium), the great jazz-hop drummer Damion Reid, and bassist Drew Gress. This is not rapping over jazz or jazz with a hip-hop groove but a full integration of the rhythmic complexities found in the new jazz (with slapback funk and complex time signatures) with the rhythmic urgency of hip-hop, including rapping that has to carefully negotiate complex time patterns. At its best, it all comes together like a flash fire.

Artist: Cuong Vu

Album: Cuong Vu Trio Meets Pat Metheny

Label: Nonesuch

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Display Width: 200Cuong Vu Trio Meets Pat Metheny is just a killer — a record by a criminally underrated trio of trumpet, electric bass, and drums with a famous guest who sounds better here than on his own stuff. Vu’s band gets an orchestral sound on its own because bassist Stomu Takeishi uses pedals and other magic, drummer Ted Poor fuses Elvin Jones and Billy Cobham, and Vu is the most successful trumpeter in the post-Bitches Brew game. Metheny enters this world on their terms and is pushed to take his variety of sounds (including his guitar synth, finally sounding like it’s found its best setting) and use them for much more than joyful melody. “Tiny Little Pieces” is as good as any on any of the records on this list — caustic, lyrical, daring, everything.

 

Artist: Mary Halvorson Octet

Album: Away with You

Label: Firehouse 12

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3. TWO “NEW JAZZ” ENSEMBLES

I’ve been struggling recently to find a term that describes the new style of jazz that is so prevalent in New York today. Of course there is still “mainstream jazz”, the post-bebop music that extends from masters like McCoy Tyner and Gary Bartz to young musicians who use that vocabulary such as Brad Mehldau, (represented twice below), also called “modern jazz” for years to contrast it with swing or New Orleans-style jazz. “Contemporary jazz” is a term pretty well colonized by the smooth jazz folks. And, while “free jazz” meant something in the ’60s and ’70s when the newest, most experimental jazz was all about moving away from structures, the “new jazz” I’m talking about revels is structures, systems, and determined complexity. Guitarist Mary Halvorson has a “new jazz” recording that extends her quintet and septet bands further, incorporating pedal steel (Susan Alcorn) along with four horns in a set of fascinating compositions that use complex rhythms, many contrasting melodic movements, and a bevy of textural blends and contrasts.

Artist: Taylor Ho Bynum

Album: Enter the Plustet

Label: Firehouse 12

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Halvorson is also the guitarist on Enter the Plustet, a “new jazz” album for 14 pieces that works in a similar vein. Ho Bynum uses lush grooves and free, collective improvisation, both. He creates sections of Mingus romanticism and gives Halvorson the chance to rock out like Sonny Sharrock as well. Ho Bynum loves his Ellington for such of “Three”, for example, but begins “That Which Only… Never Before” with a gloriously expressionist free duet with bassist Ken Filiano. The music does not always “swing” in conventional terms but is the child of Threadgill and Braxton as well as Miles Davis or Max Roach. These two examples are rich, fascinating, challenging, all of it.

 

Artist: Michael Formanek

Album: The Distance

Label: ECM

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2. TWO LARGE ENSEMBLES

This year’s jazz seemed to thrive on a massing of great voices. A few large band records stood out this year. Baltimore-based bassist and composer Michael Formanek plays with the very best New York musicians, and The Distance gathers an all-star big band for music that defies every “big band” cliche. I saw this music — with this very band — played live in the leader’s hometown in a small space, and it whispers as much as it shouts, with every note perfectly audible in both situations. Formanek has created tone poems, grooves, zones of freedom, and curvalicious melodies all. This is new jazz that risks and rewards constantly.

Artist: Greg Ward and 10 Tongues

Album: My Beloved’s Thought

Label: Greenleaf

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Display Width: 200It is not, however, as purely fun and infectious as Greg Ward’s small-big-band tribute to Charles Mingus’s classic The Saint and the Sinner Lady. Ward uses lesser known musicians from his Chicago stomping grounds, and they stomp away, lifting this dancing, driving music into flight. Like its role model, this is explicitly music for dancing and was premiered with choreography. But this live recording from an actual dance performance in Millennium Park requires only your ears and a willingness to experience joy. The improvising is bracing and tough, the tunes are soulful, and yet the music owes as much to Oliver Lake or Anthony Braxton as it does to Mingus. In 2016, that’s fully in the center of the music as it should be. Both albums are celebrations of different kinds.

 

Artist: Jonathan Finlayson and Sicilian Defense

Album: Moving Still

Label: Pi

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Display Width: 2001. TWO TOO GOOD TO MISS

The best two jazz recordings of 2016 come from a new master and an old one. One is clean and cool while still ripping with adventure and the other is a jumble of wonder. Trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson’s second recording Moving Still, is driving, smart, lyrical, and adventurous. He is again composing for a quintet that pairs him with Miles Okazaki on guitar (his bandmate with Steve Coleman’s ensembles) but this time also featuring Matt Mitchell on piano. The array of complex but compelling music spans many styles, from new bop to nasty acoustic funk to long-line melodic invention. Finlayson displays tonal variety on his horn, and has a few tunes where he seems to be channeling late ’60s Miles Davis from the “Frelon Braun” and “In a Silent Way” period. Craig Weinrib and John Hebert on drums and bass are so pocket-amazing that they almost disappear into the weaving complexity of the three other players, each of whom has their moments.

Artist: Henry Threadgill Ensemble Double Up

Album: Old Locks and Irregular Verbs

Label: Pi

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Display Width: 200Moving Still is a perfect portrait of where jazz is — and ought to be — today. But then you compare it to Old Locks and Irregular Verbs, the latest from the venerable composer Henry Threadgill (clearly an inspiration for the likes of Finlayson) and you see that perfection can also be wooly and ragged and shambling. Threadgill doesn’t even play in this septet with two different alto saxophonists (Curtis Macdonald and Roman Filiu), tuba, cello, young Weinrib again on drums, and the impressive use of two gargantuan talents on piano — Jason Moran and David Virgules. A tribute to the late Butch Morris, Threadgill’s friend, the work explodes with precise and fascinating logic through three interwoven sections and then concludes with a somber piano duet and ensemble choral that is as moving and beautiful as anything I’ve heard in years. Like the works of genius, it is hard to describe and even to imagine, with the colliding beauty and showers of notes that all make sense as you are experiencing them. I consider it Threadgill’s best work.

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