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.
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.