The Best Jazz of 2017

The best and most exciting jazz of 2017 is increasingly happening at the intersection of different streams of music. Reveling in a diversity of influences and therefore a kind of complexity makes it "art music", inevitably.

The best and most exciting jazz of 2017 is increasingly happening at the intersection of different streams of music. Reveling in a diversity of influences and therefore a kind of complexity makes it "art music", inevitably. Hence the sense that jazz, for some time now, scratches by, barely, well outside of pop culture. But the dazzle of this form in 2017 is it that still draws deeply from popular music — particularly hip-hop and black American music of various styles — while still insisting on its own tradition of improvisation and radical freedoms.

There is still wonderful music being made by musicians who are less focused on what we might call the hybridity of jazz today. Those plumbing the tradition "straight ahead" jazz are still a joy to hear (Bobby Watson's Made in America). Those working old school fusion (Adam Rogers' DICE), and singers still finding adventure in Tin Pan Alley standards (Cecile McLorin Salvant's Dreams and Daggers) had good years. There was also a feast of recordings this year that made legitimate "jazz" that used soul, vocals, and pop forms in interesting ways (Keyon Harrold's The Mugician).

But the most provocative and beautiful music to my ears all sat at the junctions. Vijay Iyer's superb Far From Over, for example, dips into funk, New Jazz, impressionism, and bright swing but without seeming schizophrenic. Linda May Han Oh achieves a similar alchemy by mixing elements as well as tools, as she plays acoustic, electric, and sings. Ryan Keberle's band Catharsis has grown more impressive this year as well, and Find the Common, Shine the Light mixes Camila Meza's singing (and electric guitar) with rocks songs, collective improvisations, haunting horn arrangements, and political consciousness.

The most striking development of 2017 may be the dominance of the New Jazz — improvised music in the US tradition that is drawing from classical new music (complex forms, dazzling polyrhythms and shifting meters, formal complexity through arrangement, and freedom to alter sonority through extended instrumental technique) but not abandoning swing, groove, and jazz/blues traditions. The releases in my top 13 from Matt Mitchell, Kate Gentile, Vijay Iyer, Ambrose Akinmusire, Craig Taborn, Steve Coleman, and Miles Okazaki all fit this category well, but all in fairly different ways. You can hear it in Joe Fiedler's band too, though that date swings harder than most, and Ron Miles's sublime songfulness is not without its formal complexity.

The importance of independence — or maybe it is just the reality of independence in the current environment — is paramount. The only recording here on a "major label" is Akinmusire's Blue Note release. Iyer and Taborn are on ECM, which is perhaps a "major independent", but the rest were released on small or artist-managed imprints. Jazz is supremely DIY in 2017.

It's also interesting to look at the identity of the artists on my lists. And I am keenly self-aware that this may reflect my prejudices or preferences (I am middle-aged, white man) more than the state of the music. There are only two recordings among these 13 led by women. As with other parts of the culture in 2017, jazz has recently and properly been held to account for harassment, exclusion, objectification, and systemic prejudice against women. Critics are a very real part of that.

African-American artists — whose identity and heritage is in every respect responsible for the origin, history, and greatness of this music — were at the helm of five of these dates. Musicians of Asian or South Asian heritage created four of these records, as did white Americans. (Also worth noting: perhaps only Ron Miles, who lives in Denver, CO, is not based in New York.) When I listen, I try to forget about these matters of identity, but I also vow to pay more attention to this matter when I seek out music to begin with. It's all too easy to keep reaching for artists I already know or am already comfortable with.

Here are my baker's dozen favorite of 2017 in jazz, in some kind of order of their magic.

Matt Mitchell: A Pouting Grimace (Pi)

The New Jazz, with its tricky arrangements and its "you can't really dance or even tap your toe to it" rhythms can be a chore if the players aren't also masters who feel and express soulfulness at every turn. Matt Mitchell is that kind of player. Here, his organic compositions — for a band that incorporates diverse percussion and unusual woodwinds as well as more standard jazz instruments, but also for synthesizers — are captivating and the improvising feels perfectly meshed with the writing. To me, this is the closest the New Jazz has come to a manifesto: it ain't classical, it ain't just fancy jazz, it's something new. It is daring, rich in pocket, quirkly, smart, beautiful, cranky, funny. Check it out.

Rez Abbasi: Unfiltered Universe (Whirlwind)

There was great jazz this year drawing on musical cultures beyond the United States, as there always is. Unfiltered Universe seamlessly blends Carnatic music from India with jazz — and having Vijay Iyer, Rudresh Mahanthappa, and Dan Weiss in the band is huge. This is the third in a series of recordings, and listening to it is like getting toward the top of a mountain and feeling the treelike give away to a flood of light — it is brilliant and exhilarating. These musicians have been working territory like this for a while, and this is the apex to my ears. It's also true that Rez Abbasi is not celebrated enough as simply one of our best, most melodic, most thrilling guitarists. This is his best album and one of the best arguments ever for the power of jazz as an international ambassador, able to speak to other cultures with grace.

Miles Okazaki: Trickster (Pi)

Okazaki has been long associated with the great composer (and mentor) Steve Coleman, who is also on this list, but it's time to think of the guitarist as a master too. Trickster brings to mind some of Coleman's work, but it is also a brilliant individual statement that utilizes a unique band in fresh ways. Craig Taborn (probably 2017's most crucial musician) is a serially fascinating soloist, but he works in constant conversation with Okazaki's minimally amplified guitar and a rhythm section that knows its funk, pop, and "serious" music inside and out. There isn't another recording that sounds quite like this beauty, which will groove you and teach you simultaneously.

Linda May Han Oh: Walk Against Wind (Biofilia)

Bassist May Han Oh is a young superstar — she is playing with Pat Metheny and Dave Douglas, yet the best music she's making is her own. The quintet assembled for her fourth date is similarly young and thrilling, with Ben Wendel on saxophone, Matthew Stevens (recently with another astonishing bassist, Esperanza Spalding), Justin Brown on drums, and Fabian Almazan on piano. The composing featured here is mature and wide-ranging, and it leaves gaping spaces that make the music airy but wise. For pure appeal and warmth, Walk Against Wind is likely to be on heavy rotation for years.

Steve Coleman's Natal Eclipse: Morphogenesis (Pi)

Coleman is making some of the best music of his striking career lately, and this recital is fascinating: based on the motions of boxing yet recorded without a drummer. Despite this absence, the music grooves, swings, pulses, and jumps at every turn. Coleman's collaborators remain impressive: Jonathon Finlayson on trumpet, Matt Mitchell on piano, Jen Shyu on vocals, and many more. But the star is Coleman's ability to weave lines, textures, and rhythms into a tapestry that is always moving and reflecting back on itself. This is among Coleman's most beautiful records, full of melody and joy.

Vijay Iyer: Far From Over (ECM)

This is a record that we were waiting for from a musician who has done so much in the last 20 years. Finally, Iyer has recorded with horns, building a jazz sextet that occasionally reminds you of the Jazz Messengers but much more often follows in the footsteps of Herbie Hancock's too-little-lauded Mwandishi group. Graham Haynes is a revelation on cornet and flugelhorn, with Mark Shim playing tenor and Steve Lehman on alto. In the rhythm section Iyer leans on his trio-mates Stephan Crump (bass) and Tyshawn Sorey (drums). The result is funky, subtle, gorgeous, blues-drenched, electric, pastel, everything. My only wish is that we could hear these tunes stretched for longer improvisations. When's the tour, Professor Iyer?

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