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2017: The Year in Jazz

The year 2017 was a thrilling one in jazz, bursting with new ideas, original voices, and irreverence. Jazz, for lack of a better word, is never in any one place at any one time — there are always many things happening within various mini-scenes, with talent coming from every direction—and from every generation (Roscoe Mitchell, at 77, is just as vital now as when he made his debut a half-century ago).

This year about four dozen records could’ve cracked any “best of” ranking, but here are 15 that had special resonance in 2017.

1. Nicole Mitchell: Mandorla Awakening II Emerging Worlds (FPE Records)

Mitchell released two albums in 2017: Liberation Narratives, a collaboration with the poet and founder of Third World Press Haki R. Madhubuti, and this Afrofuturist suite recorded live at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago two years ago during the 50th anniversary celebrations for the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. Mitchell, on flute and electronics, composed and arranged all the music, and her Black Earth Ensemble—which includes the always compelling Tomeka Reid on cello—is electrifying. Alex Wing on guitar and avery r. young on vocals are revelations. A mesmerizing work and, to these ears, the record of the year. (Mitchell was the artist-in-residence earlier this month at NYC Winter Jazzfest.)

2. Roscoe Mitchell: Bells for the South Side (ECM)

Like Nicole Mitchell, the saxophonist and composer Roscoe Mitchell (no relation) presented the four trios here at the Museum of Contemporary Art in 2015. (He was one of the original members of the AACM.) It includes long-time collaborators like Jaribu Shahid and Tani Tabbal, and new ones like the celebrated drummer Tyshawn Sorey (see below), who also plays piano and trombone on this outing. The overall effect is both ominous and joyous.

3. The Heliocentrics: A World of Masks (Soundway)

So many of Gil Scott-Heron’s lyrics seem as if they were written for today — “Winter in America,” “We Beg Your Pardon” — and none more so than “Is That Jazz?” This eclectic East London collective, which fuses jazz and funk with a wink to Sun Ra, is aided here by rising saxophone star Shabaka Hutchings (was also in town for Winter Jazzfest) and the ethereal vocalist Barbora Patkova. Is that jazz? I don’t know, and I don’t care. It’s an enthralling, unforgettable 45 minutes of music.

4. Trio Heinz Herbert: The Willisau Concert (Intakt)

Dominic Landolt (guitar), his brother, Ramon (keyboards, samples), and Mario Hänni (drums) are about as far away as you can get from a traditional trio. Their telepathic excursions, from quietly intense to out-and-out raucous, are best appreciated live. This album was recorded in Willisau, Switzerland, at one of the premier festivals for free and experimental jazz, famous also for the poster art by the festival’s founder, Niklaus Troxler. Rousing and unforgettable.

5. Tomas Fujiwara: Triple Double (Firehouse 12)

The 40-year-old drummer drifts from background to foreground with regular colleagues (and all-stars) Gerald Cleaver, Mary Halvorson, Brandon Seabrook, Ralph Alessi, and Taylor Ho Bynum. The results are electrifying and relentless. Brainy new-fusion that takes the roof off. One of the most exciting releases of this year.

6. Matthew Shipp: Piano Song (Thirsty Ear)

Shipp told this publication in early 2017 that he was going to stop recording. Blah, blah, blah. The East Village pianist can’t not record. His latest, on the label that cleared new paths within jazz under his leadership in the early 2000s, is one of his very best. That’s saying a lot. With the untrendy partners Michael Bisio on bass and Newman Taylor Baker on drums, the results are rich, emotional, smart, and witty.

7. Craig Taborn: Daylight Ghosts (ECM)

One of the most admired pianists of this — or any — generation, Taborn has been on hundreds of recording sessions (including Roscoe Mitchell’s Bells for the South Side) but has never recorded prolifically as a leader, which makes this all the more special. Accompanied by the likes of Chris Speed, Chris Lightcap, and his fellow Minnesotan Dave King of the Bad Plus, Taborn conjures eerie, beautiful soundscapes, especially on electronics, in one of the year’s essential albums.

8. Irène Schweizer – Joey Baron: Live! (Intakt)

The veteran Swiss free-jazz pianist has made her reputation, in part, working in the unloved duo format with drummers like Han Bennink and Andrew Cyrille. On her latest, a live date in Zurich, she conspires with none other than Joey Baron. Her percussive attack, informed as much by pre-War stylings than of Cecil Taylor, artfully maneuvers around Baron, and she’s unafraid to clash toe-to-toe with him.

9. Eskelin/Weber/Griener: Sensations of Tone (Intakt)

The tenor saxophonist Ellery Eskelin has a sound and approach all his own, sinewy and off-kilter. He’s been part of New York’s downtown scene but is steeped in history, too. (He’s done the Great American Songbook, for instance.) Call him an abstract traditionalist. Along with Christian Weber on bass and Michael Griener on drums, the trio goes from early standards like Jelly Roll Morton’s “Shreveport Stomp” to its own group improvisations. Disorientating, and totally delightful.

10. Dayna Stephens: Gratitude (Contagious Music)

Stephens, another tenor sax player, is a musicians’ musician, thoughtful and brainy, with a wonderful tone. On this understated but complex effort (released on his own label he just started) he’s backed by the esteemed rhythm section of pianist Brad Mehldau, bassist Larry Grenadier, and drummer Eric Harland. As gorgeous as he is on tenor, Stephens’ finest moment may be on baritone saxophone in the Strayhorn-Ellington tune “Isfahan.”

11. William Parker: Meditation/Resurrection (AUM Fidelity)

The East Village bassist and composer has been a beacon in the downtown and international scenes for more than 40 years. He’s making some of his most adventurous and engaging music now. On this double album, he leads two quartets, one that includes the underdocumented pianist Cooper-Moore. Parker also appears on another AUM Fidelity find, the unreleased David S. Ware Trio Live in New York, 2010, when Parker and his late colleague lit up the Blue Note, an atypical venue for them.

12. Linda May Han Oh: Walk Against Wind (Biophilia Records)

The workmanlike Australian has been one of the most sought-after bassists in New York the last ten years. In her new album as a leader, she eschews bass solo pyrotechnics and instead focuses on her composing and the group dynamic. And what a group: Ben Wendel, Justin Brown, and Matt Stevens, young stars all. It was released on the new label started by the fine keyboardist Fabian Almazan, who marries new jazz talent with an environmental mission. The Village Voice was with her in the studio in Brooklyn when she recorded it.

13. Tyshawn Sorey: Verisimilitude (Pi Recordings)

It was a big year for the 37-year-old drummer: He received his doctorate of musical arts from Columbia University; started an assistant professorship at Wesleyan University (where he replaced Anthony Braxton); and won the big one, a MacArthur Fellowship. On his sixth album as a leader, a quiet but transfixing one, he leads a trio with the exceptional Cory Smythe on piano and Chris Tordini on bass. Sorey, like so many musicians young and old, doesn’t like the word “jazz.” Who can blame him; it feels, as Miles Davis might say, “corny.” He plays, he said in a recent tweet, MUSIC (the caps his). As Miles might also say, “Call it anything.”

14. Jaimie Branch: Fly or Die (International Anthem)

This debut by the 33-year-old Chicagoan now living in Brooklyn mixes live recordings and studio-enhanced work with startling results. Her trumpet playing is influenced by Booker Little and the technical experiments of Axel Dörner. Her former Chicago colleagues Tomeka Reid (again), drummer Chad Taylor, and bassist Jason Ajemian only enhance her compositions.

15. Cécile McLorin Salvant: Dreams and Daggers (Mack Avenue)

The 28-year-old singer is mature beyond her years and enjoys mining jazz and its environs from the early 20th century, like Josephine Baker’s “Si J’étais Blanche” (“If I Were White”). On Dreams and Daggers, she leads her stellar (and dapper) trio of Aaron Diehl (piano), Lawrence Leathers (drums), and Paul Sikivie (bass) through a (mostly) live set at the Village Vanguard. She’s affecting on “Somehow I Never Could Believe,” a piece from Street Scene, the underappreciated opera by Kurt Weill and Langston Hughes.

And if, like me, you treasure and pore over reissues (and newly discovered unreleased material), so many gems were put back into circulation in 2017.

Thelonious Monk’s full soundtrack to the Roger Vadim film Les Liaisons Dangereuses, never released in full until this year, was beautifully presented by Saga and Sam Records. If you really want to geek out on vinyl (and Monk), Craft Records has just put out The Complete Prestige 10-Inch Collection, a limited-edition box set of LPs Monk recorded for the label from 1952 to 1954.

Bass god Jaco Pastorius is in top form leading a cracking big band at Avery Fisher Hall in Truth, Liberty & Soul Live in NYC: The Complete 1982 NPR Jazz Alive! Recording (Resonance Records).

Hard-bop pianist Sonny Clark lived fast and died tragically at just 31. Long associated with Blue Note in its heyday, his trio date on another label, The 1960 Time Sessions with George Duvivier and Max Roach, has just been reissued on double vinyl by Tompkins Square.

Ornette Coleman’s Crisis and Ornette at 12 were out of print for decades and have been released for the first time on CD from Real Gone Music.

Pharoah Sanders’ greatest phase, you could argue, were the series of albums he did for the Impulse! label in the late 1960s and early ’70s. Three of those—Tauhid (1967), Jewels of Thought (’69), and Deaf Dumb Blind Summun Bukmun Umyun (’70)—were reissued by Anthology Records on vinyl, which somehow feels right.

The Jazz Dispensary, meanwhile, reissued some fertile 1970s work with Joe Henderson & Alice Coltrane’s The Elements, Gary Bartz NTU Troop’s Harlem Bush Music—Uhuru, and Azar Lawrence’s Bridge Into the New Age. What a year.

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James Carney, Chris Lightcap, & Ted Poor

The curator of the ongoing Tuesday night Konceptions series in BK’s Green-Wood nabe is an incisive pianist, and though his horn bands have earned plenty of critical kudos, his trios are particularly arresting, especially when they boast rhythm sections as sweet as this Lightcap/Poor connection. Speaking of horn bands, a very hip foursome that finds saxophonist Ellery Eskelin and trumpeter Dave Ballou up front shares the evening’s bill.

Tue., July 17, 9 p.m., 2012

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Up-and-Coming Players from 2011, the Year of the Tenor

Much like pianists owned 2010, 2011 has proven to be the Year of the Tenor—even if by coincidence, rather than trend. Sonny Rollins remains the undisputed world champion, of course, with James Carter, Joe Lovano, David Murray, and David S. Ware the top-ranked contenders in their respective divisions. But the undercard has an abundance of talent as well. Although the following survey is hardly comprehensive—those CDs do keep piling up—it at least gives you some idea of this year’s bounty.

JD Allen Trio, Victory! (sunnyside)

Nine tracks clocking in at 36:51; only one longer than five minutes. That’s OK by me, because a streamlining of Allen’s turbocharged solos results in greater acuity and a stiffer punch than we expect from latter-day hard-bop. A semi-dirge early on recalls Ornette Coleman; two pieces toward the end (one fast, one slow) are based on Coltrane changes; and a pianoless trio helmed by a tenor inevitably begs comparison to late-’50s Rollins. Yet not a single chorus of Allen’s sounds remotely secondhand—bowing to tradition is merely step one in bending it to his own whims. Drummer Rudy Royston is as deft a colorist here as he was in a tamer setting with Bill Frisell, and the spin Gregg August puts on his walking fours calls to mind Martin Williams’s only-half-joking definition of swing as “any two consecutive notes played by Paul Chambers.”

Ellery Eskelin, Trio New York (prime source)

Although Eskelin might be familiar to song-poem aficionados as the son of Keith Rodd (of “I Died Today” notoriety), this one is dedicated to his late mom, once a journeyman organist on the Baltimore neighborhood-lounge circuit. But with drummer Gerald Cleaver eschewing the merest hint of propulsion and instead engaging the saxophonist leader in quarrelsome dialogue, and Gary Versace coming up with such an odd, disquieting assortment of sounds that you’re half-convinced he must be augmenting his Hammond B-3 with a synthesizer, this trio is about as far from your stereotypical organ combo as Boulez’s Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique was from Harlem. Five standards ranging from “How Deep Is the Ocean” to Monk’s “Off Minor” are probed for dark corners, their chord changes ignored and full statement of their melodies generally postponed to the end. Eskelin loves the hard-boiled tenor tradition once embodied by Gene Ammons and Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, though, and because he remains in touch with the combination of the tender and the brusque central to the code even at his most abstract, these interpretations are as moving as they are thought-provoking.

Rich Halley Quartet, Requiem for a Pit Viper (pine eagle)

Eugene, Oregon, is far off the jazz map, but that’s where Halley—by day a field biologist, no less—has established himself as a paradigm of structured free improvisation. Recorded in concert and typical of Halley’s strong work over the last 25 years or so, his bruising interplay with (the also scandalously overlooked) trombonist Michael Vlatkovich takes center stage here. And Halley’s son, Carson, who knows his Ed Blackwell and Max Roach, is a drummer worth keeping an ear on.

Bill McHenry, Ghosts of the Sun (sunnyside)

The unsung McHenry is a harmonically advanced thinker with a lyrical bent; guitarist Ben Monder can summon up Hendrix or Jim Hall as needed; the late Paul Motian’s noninterventionist drumming could make a good soloist like McHenry sound great; and Reid Anderson from the Bad Plus is a supple bassist. I only wish this could have been a full-time band.

Tony Malaby’s Novela (clean feed) and Tony Malaby’s Tamarindo Live (clean feed)

In his late forties, Malaby is still commonly referred to as up-and-coming, which means that he has yet to receive the widespread attention he deserves—but also that his approach is still evolving, especially in terms of the musical settings he chooses for himself. Featuring a heavy-on-brass-and-low-pitched-reeds nine-piece band conducted and arranged by pianist Kris Davis, Novella amounts to a Malaby retrospective, but only in that it revisits pieces he has recorded previously with smaller configurations. Davis favors wide voicings and encourages instrumental clashes and collisions, and the speed with which the three soloists—Malaby (on soprano), trumpeter Ralph Alessi, and trombonist Ben Gerstein—rocket out of the stacked ensemble on “Floating Head” make it possibly the most invigorating piece of recorded music I’ve heard all year. The rest is almost as good. But for a better glimpse of Malaby as a soloist, catch him matching wits with Wadada Leo Smith on Tamarindo Live, released earlier this year.

Sam Rivers & the Rivbea Orchestra, Trilogy (mosaic select)

Not one of this label’s definitive reissue collections, but recent evidence of how a transitional figure once fired by Miles for being too far out has been as successful in creating his own scene in Florida as he was in jump-starting the New York loft scene in the early 1970s. The middle of three discs is a studio session given over to a nine-part suite whose individual movements are named for Rivers family members; it’s buoyant and appealing but surprisingly conventional, possible to mistake for the work of Gerald Wilson or Thad Jones. The real deal comes on the harder-hitting live discs, where Rivers’s strategy of solo after solo by every bandmember (most no longer than a half-chorus, and driven by a ruckus of other horns) blurs the line between composition and improvisation—or do I mean compulsion and improvisation?—in a way that leaves no room for monotony, or doubt as to whose big band this might be.

Trio, Pitch, Rhythm, and Consciousness (new artists)

Luckily, “consciousness” seems to refer to three instrumentalists tuned into one another’s thoughts, rather than anything cosmic. Tenor saxophonist Tony Jones—who stays rooted near his horn’s bottom register as if going higher would bring temptation to upset the conversational balance with a scream—is the band’s leader in all but name, and the collective improvisations that move along most purposefully are two for which he provides compositional road maps (the unabashedly lyrical, lonely-as-a-cloud “Dear Toy,” especially). But with percussionist Kenny Wollesen’s gongs and temple bells establishing a mood of intense contemplation and violinist Charles Burnham matching Jones, keen for keen and infinitesimal microtone for infinitesimal microtone (whether bowing or plucking), everything on this vinyl-only release is quietly riveting, and worth retrieving your old turntable from the basement for.

And, finally, an announcement. Although my byline might continue to appear in the Voice from time to time, this is my last regular (or semi-regular) column. Taking the reins from Gary Giddins was no easy feat, and I hope I’ve maintained the same high level of inquiry these past eight years. I’m especially proud of conducting this paper’s annual jazz critics’ poll; this year’s is already under way as you read this, and results will be posted on rhapsody.com soon after the new year.

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Harris Eisenstadt’s September Trio

Little snips of melody arrive at the most crucial moments in the drummer’s work. Recent discs for the Clean Feed label find tunefulness as central to the agenda as expressionism. And after a few spins through his new Woodblock Prints, it’s become easy to fall for his more refined side. This threesome with saxophonist Ellery Eskelin and pianist Angelica Sanchez could be an arms akimbo deal–each are skilled at pushing and stretching until something snaps–but they, too, might be in refinement mode. They’re cutting a disc a few days after the gig.

Sat., Sept. 11, 9 p.m., 2010

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2009 Jazz Poll: Tom Hull’s Alternate, Unsettled Top 10

Hard-luck stories abound in the industry, but the flow of 2009 jazz records was scarcely dampened. I figure some 2,000 new releases appear each year, and I’ve managed to check out nearly 700. I wish that felt like more of an accomplishment, but I’m reminded that I missed Rova’s Juke Box Suite in 2007—it appeared as a Jazz Consumer Guide Pick Hit two years later. Before long, I’m sure I’ll find an outstanding 2009 release that simply slipped my net.

Of those 700 records, about 60 strike me as distinctive enough to A-list, another 100 to 120 are exemplary enough to consider as Honorable Mentions, and maybe 200 more are so expert and pleasurable that I can’t really say anything bad about them. With so much unsettled at year’s end, picking a top 10 seems rather arbitrary, but here goes:

1.The Matthew Shipp Trio, Harmonic Disorder (Thirsty Ear). His most definitive piano trio, moving beyond nods to Monk and Powell with dense harmonics and snappy rhythm.

2.The Fully Celebrated, Drunk on the Blood of the Holy Ones (AUM Fidelity). Drunk on Ornette Coleman, for starters, as Jim Hobbs lays simple sax figures on basic funk grooves.

3.Peter Brötzmann/Toshinori Kondo/Massimo Pupillo/Paal Nilssen-Love, Hairy Bones (Okka Disk). The horns twist into tight sonic wads, propelled by the rock-schooled rhythm section.

4.Brad Shepik, Human Activity Suite (Songlines). The new global cool, ushered in by a postbop band that meshes perfectly alongside a bit of Balkan beat.

5.Digital Primitives, Hum Crackle & Pop (Hopscotch). The new folk jazz, with homemade twinger and diddley-bow, hot sax, or blue bass clarinet.

6.Mulatu Astatke & the Heliocentrics, Inspiration Information, Vol. 3 (Strut). Ethio-jazz juiced and grooved by Sun Ra worshipers.

7.David S. Ware, Shakti (AUM Fidelity). A new quartet, a new lease on life.

8.Dennis González Jnaana Septet, The Gift of Discernment (Not Two). A vast river of percussion, sanctified by gospel voice, with piano and trumpet clearing the way.

9.Bill Frisell, Disfarmer (Nonesuch). Focuses his Americana as sharply as the rural Arkansas photographs that inspire him.

10.Andy Sheppard, Movements in Colour (ECM). Tabla, bass, and guitars provide the movement; the color is all saxophone, precise soprano, and rugged tenor.

Still, a top 10 barely scratches the surface of fascinating jazz now available. So here’s a bit more of the A-list: Roberto Rodriguez, Timba Talmud (Tzadik, and my pick for Best Latin); Wadada Leo Smith, Spiritual Dimensions (Cuneiform); Darren Johnston, The Edge of the Forest (Clean Feed); De Nazaten & James Carter, Skratyology (Strotbrock); Evan Parker, The Moment’s Energy (ECM); Steve Lehman Octet, Travail, Transformation, and Flow (Pi); Vijay Iyer Trio, Historicity (ACT); Ken Vandermark, Collected Fiction (Okka Disk); John Zorn, Alhambra Love Songs (Tzadik); Abdullah Ibrahim, Senzo (Sunnyside, and my Best Solo Piano); Lisa Sokolov, A Quiet Thing (Laughing Horse, and my Best Vocal); Gerald Wilson Orchestra, Detroit (Mack Avenue, and my Best Big Band); Vandermark 5, Annular Gift (Not Two); Jan Garbarek Group, Dresden (ECM); Michael Musillami Trio + 3, From Seeds (Playscape); Roy Nathanson, Subway Moon (Yellow Bird/Enja); Radio I-Ching, No Wave Au Go Go (Resonant Music); Ralph Carney‘s Serious Jass Project (Akron Cracker, and my Best Trad); Little Princess: Tim Sparks Plays Naftule Brandwein (Tzadik); Freddy Cole, The Dreamer in Me (HighNote); Joe Morris, Wildlife (AUM Fidelity); James Carter, Heaven on Earth (Half Note). For full accounting, see http://hullworks.net/vv/hull-09.php

I’d also like to point out that anything with Ralph Alessi on trumpet, Ellery Eskelin or Tony Malaby on tenor sax, Ken Filiano or John Hebert on bass, and/or Tom Rainey or Michael T.A. Thompson on drums is practically guaranteed to be superb.