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?

Ron Miles: I Am a Man (Yellow Bird)

One might expect guitarist Bill Frisell, who has so often hired Miles for his own projects, to dominate this session. But it is the leader’s composing and playing that stands out, as well as the sympathetic but essential piano of Jason Moran. These performances are typically lyrical and singing, but the arrangements and performances create journeys of real drama so that this record seems also as knotty and complex as any other on this list.

Joe Fiedler: Like, Strange (Multiphonics)

There is a joyful wit to the music of trombonist Joe Fiedler, so it should surprise you that his day job is writing and arranging for folks at Sesame Street. His jazz, however, is seriously daring at the same time. He writes tunes that pop and chuckle, swing and strut. They aren’t mainstream, exactly, but the colors and drive of this superb quintet make Like, Strange Fiedler’s most appealing recording. He also highlights musicians deserving more attention: saxophonist Jeff Lederer (vocal and acrobatic throughout), guitarist Pete McCann (talk about a talent you need to hear more of), drummer Michael Sarin, and bassist Bob Jost. Like, great.

Craig Taborn: Daylight Ghosts (ECM)

Craig Taborn seems to be everyone’s favorite collaborator these days. His duets with pianist Kris Davis are free wonders, and his collaboration with Miles Okazaki are telepathic. His own music has been wonderful before, but Daylight Ghosts is the most mature of his own recordings. The quartet assembled is marvelously balanced: David King’s drums are melodic and gentle, Chris Speed’s ten sax and clarinet are always shot through the center of the mix, and Chris Lightcap’s bass doesn’t have to ride in the back sear. Even the leader keep himself balanced and moderate, and the result is a recording where great composing is the star: ballads and mood pieces as well as gospel grooves and looping funk.

Kate Gentile: Mannequins (Skirl)

The surprise of 2017 is this debut recording from drummer Kate Gentile. Gentile has been in New York for a while, and she seems to have a particularly fertile musical relationship with pianist Matt Mitchell (including playing on his 2017 masterpiece). But her own composing and band leading makes her debut shine. It is a robust, confident, and completely integrated example of the New Jazz at its most daring. Gentile is fascinated with structure, and the compositions on Mannequins work to shuffle and reshuffle her ideas so that we never hear her music as a series of “tunes” that set up solo on the chord changes. Instead, we get detailed musical environments into which the improvisations are vital elements. Wow, does it work.

Ryan Keberle and Catharsis: Find the Common, Shine a Light (Greenleaf)

Keberle is another trombonist/composer whose music is among the most accessible and warmhearted of the year. Catharsis started as a chord-less quartet (two brass plus rhythm), but then added the sinuous and limber voice of Chilean guitarist Camila Meza, turning it into a quintet capable of reimagining standards or playing tricky modern jazz or delving into music from South America. Find the Common is a protest album that does all this and more, adding Meza’s guitar, Keberle’s skills on electric keyboards, and a set of arrangements that make the band big or small, fleet or lush, depending on the need. Whether covering rock songs (Dylan, the Beatles, the Welcome Wagon), realizing shimmering originals, or improvising freely, the band sounds like a future that is very welcome.

Ambrose Akinmusire: A Rift in Decorum: Live at the Village Vanguard (Blue Note)

Akinmusire is the most arresting trumpet player of our time. There are many great ones, but he plays in a way that is adding to the great tradition. Take the composition “Moment in Between the Rest (to curve an ache)”, a lovely, elegiac theme in triple meter, where Akinmusire uses smears, atonal melodic choices, grunts, and breathy exhalations to craft a solo that is never off-putting but decidedly avant-garde. All while the sharp rhythm section (Sam Harris on piano, Justin Brown on drums, Harish Raghavan on bass) plays with precise purpose. This is a statement album — two discs recorded live at New York’s Village Vanguard — and it often reminds me of Wynton Marsalis’s early peak, Black Codes from the Underground. That’s a high bar to clear, and Decorum does.

Nate Smith: Kinfolk, Postcards from Everywhere (Ropeadope)

Smith has played the drums with Betty Carter, Dave Holland, Regina Carter, Chris Potter, and many more. Kinfolk is a “jazz” record, however, that probably wouldn’t have been possible until recently — a collection that has plenty of authentic, harmonically complex improvising but also uses soul grooves and vocals to forge a connection back to pop music. As on other recent records by Robert Glasper, Esperanza Spalding, Otis Brown III, and the Revive Music group, the pop/soul elements of Kinfolk are natural and flowing, not commercial calculations that seem grafted onto a jazz record to try to move units. Smith has made one of the best recordings of this kind. The vocals by Amma Whatt and Gretchen Parlato are top-notch, there is polyrhythmic funk and whip-sharp improvising from Potter, Adam Rogers, Jaleel Shaw, and Lionel Loueke. Put it on at a party or for your listening because it works either way. Which is to say, jazz to intellectual to be fun? Nu-uh.