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The Best Jazz of 2016

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

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

5 - 1

Artist: Wynton Marsalis and JALC Orchestra

Album: The Abyssinian Mass

Label: Blue Engine

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/news_art/t/the_abyssinian_mass.jpg

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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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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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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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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

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/news_art/g/greg_ward_and_10_tongues.jpg

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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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