Allow me to make the most obvious statement in the history of music journalism right up front: Jazz has changed!
There may be plenty of bands and musicians maintaining the “classic” hard bop driven jazz form, but many others have taken that style and enhanced it with electronics and added the influence of 90’s and early 2000’s musical styles, creating a fascinating hybrid. Jazz has truly made strides.
I make no guarantees that my choices for favorite albums of the year are the best out there. I only know they knocked me out the most. So take them for what they are.
Branford Marsalis Quartet, The Secret Between the Shadow and the Soul. Probably the most “conventional” album on my list, and this band still stretches the straight-ahead jazz form to abstract limits, often with brilliant results. Like the best rock bands, Marsalis’s quartet (featuring Joey Calderazzo on piano, Eric Reavis on bass, and Justin Faulkner on drums) have become musically intimate, allowing their leader’s saxophones to soar while they rumble away underneath, or for any of them to shine individually at any given time without running over one another. In other words, this band knows how to listen as well as they know how to play.
The Comet is Coming, Trust in the Lifeforce of the Deep Mystery. Jazz gets electronically augmented and flipped on its ear. I’m sure more than one critic would decry this album has nothing to do with jazz as we know it. To which I reply, “Who gives a damn?” This is fiercely inventive music, custom made for the 21st century.
Snarky Puppy, Immigrance. There’s something to be said for consistency. Snarky Puppy is consistent. They’ve found what works, and they’re making the most of it. This is not to say the band is boring, because they most certainly are not. And the secret is getting out. The concert supporting this album was played in a venue three times the size of the last place I saw them. And while that is hardly the gauge I use to determine musical quality, a band’s good work tends to draw a larger audience. This album definitely helps.
Rymden, Reflections and Odysseys. A lovely bit of European jazz, which is something of a revelation to me these days. What separates Europeans from Americans in this arena? A marked absence of the blues. Euro-jazz draws wonderfully on other sources, culminating in an other-worldly sound that I can’t get enough of. Rymden is a gloriously atmospheric trio taking us on a fascinating journey. I want to hear much, much more from them. They are a favorite Bandcamp find this year.
Jaimie Branch, Fly or Die II: Bird Dogs of Paradise. Meanwhile, back in America, FutureJazz takes a huge leap forward in the person of trumpeter Jaimie “Breezy” Branch, who’s new effort serves wonderfully as both musical and social statement. The combination of trumpet, cello, bass, and drums (to say nothing of Branch’s vocal stylings) brings forth an almost “beatnik” quality for the band’s sound. Gil Scott-Heron would have dug it.
Brad Mehldau, Finding Gabriel. I wasn’t ready for this one. I learned about pianist Brad Mehldau through author Nate Chinen, who’s book Playing Changes has helped guide me into 21st century jazz. My first Mehldau experiences were very acoustic , and occasionally avant-garde. Finding Gabriel is a headfirst dive into the electronic, culminating in a lovely bit of fusion showing another interesting side of a multi-faceted modern musician.
Sirkis/Bialas IQ, Our New Earth. European jazz at its finest. I was positively stunned by the beauty of this album. Drummer Asaf Sirkis is a favorite of none other than legendary drummer Bill Bruford, and with good reason. His touch is the perfect compliment for the vocals of his partner Sylwia Bialis. The fact that I can’t understand a word she’s singing (her vocals are in Croatian) couldn’t possibly matter less. Beauty rings true, regardless.
GoGo Penguin, Ocean in a Drop. My love for the music of this British trio is no secret. And while this release is merely a five-song EP, a little GoGo Penguin will always be ten times better than no GoGo Penguin. Few trios fill a room with sound like this band. And now they have the audacity to add electric bass to the mix! The phrase “next level” comes to mind. Maybe I’m over selling things a bit. But somehow, I don’t think so.
Yazz Ahmed, Polyhymnia. The #metoo movement scores a mighty victory thanks to the brilliant efforts of Yazz Ahmed and her new album, named after the Greek Muse of music, poetry and dance. Joined by a brilliant cast of female musicians, Ahmed’s trumpet and flugelhorn is a classic voice in a deeply talented instrumental choir.
Yes, Jazz has changed in a big way. I, for one, couldn’t be happier about it. The future of this art form should be very interesting indeed.
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