As one of our most exciting times of year (which we refer to as the Season of Lists), the Nextbop staff relishes the end of the year to declare our favorite releases from the last twelve months, noting a moment in time and reminding folks (out there reading and amongst ourselves in the staff) of what great music was out there and maybe to catch up on what you may have missed, taking special appreciation for congruence as well as dissent, and realizing all of this means there’s just so much music out there to enjoy (and seemingly more and more of it every year).
10) Ben Wendel – The Seasons (Motéma)
It’s a concept that did it. To take a certain amount of discipline to be able to write such quality compositions for a sustained period of time, develop that idea, to gather together a group, and to fulfil that idea years later into something so magnificent as this which was even greater than the video series that begat it. Ben Wendel is ahead of the game by many accounts. Sure, he’s one of the most compelling reedists of our era and he still does it with only one lung and deep understanding of circular breathing, but as a bandleader with a mind for presenting his work to a modern audience, there just isn’t anyone out there with his holistic sense.
9) Thumbscrew – Ours and Theirs (Cuneiform)
There’s something about the weirdness of Mary Halvorson’s guitar. Oh, yes, Tomas Fujiwara is a fascinating drummer; of course, Michael Formanek is a compelling bassist. All three of these musicians have amazing ideas that are just riveting to listen to, but the swirls that go through Halverson’s guitar I would really bring this trio together, creating music so important, so riveting that they had the capacity to bring back a dormant record label with not only one but two albums.
8) Jonathan Finlayson – 3 Times Round (Pi Recordings)
3 Times Round works so well because trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson knows a great deal about arrangement. He’s always been a smart player with range and he usually works with extremely impressive collaborators, some of whom he tapped here with the challenge of expanding a quartet sound to include more horns is where this idea really sparkles. This is an album that’s bigger and bolder than 2016’s Moving Still while still maintaining that same sensibility.
7) Brad Mehldau Trio – Seymour Reads the Constitution! (Nonesuch)
Play the Brad Mehldau Trio do their thing, there are always a treat, and with Seymour Reads the Constitution!, they are most certainly doing their thing. The phrases are a bit familiar, so is the playing with odd times, the runaways with ostinatos, the appreciation of music past and present. It’s a well worn formula that truly just can’t quit.
6) Javier Santiago – Phoenix (Ropeadope)
Keyboardist Javier Santiago has made a fusion masterpiece, an album of its time but with respect to the smooth electric sprawl that is sheer psychedelic brilliance that floats above nature, sound, and the soul, and that’s just describing the vibe. The talent of the musicianship itself– a bombastic Corey Fonville, a rocking Nir Felder, a smooth Dayna Stephens, a lively John Raymond(!). Phoenix is bold and beautiful.
5) Julian Lage – Modern Lore (Mack Avenue Records)
Modern Lore is hands down one of the most charming albums of the year. What Lage, Scott Colley, and Kenny Wollesen (two-thirds of whom make up the Nels Cline 4 who also didn’t disappoint this year) craft together is an approach to jazz that’s a rollicking good time on the fringe of America, and they all make for a hell of a ride.
4) Adam O’Farrill’s Stranger Days – El Maquesh (Biophilia Records)
Though the 24-year-old trumpeter has actually been around a minute, I first noticed him playing in Stephan Crump’s Rhombal, another trumpet-alto sax-bass-drums quartet that knew how to play to all the moods. Thus, to hear O’Farrill to blow the doors off this music with his own quartet playing Mexican folk songs, original compositions, and a sneakily awesome Gabriel Garzón-Montano cover isn’t so much a surprise that this is happening, or that it would even be brilliant, but the level of brilliance that so far surpasses expectation that Walter Stinson, Chad Lefkowitz-Brown, and the brothers O’Farrill are practically reaching into your chest cavity an massaging all of the feelings of your heart directly.
3) Cécile McLorin Salvant – The Window (Mack Avenue Records)
This album is a two-hander. Not to pull from how Salvant reaches every nook and cranny of these songs all about love with her usual melding of vocal strength and delicacy, but she could find no greater accompanyist than pianist Sullivan Fortner. This pair find all the raw complexity of these songs and let it ripen on the vine for us all to bear the sweetest fruits of their labor.
2) Now Vs Now – The Buffering Cocoon (Jazzland Recordings)
This album is a straight up acid trip (and perfect to listen to on repeat when going through one, it should be noted). It’s Jason Lindner going even further on the synths than this trio has ever gone before, creating a mood you never want to leave.
1) Makaya McCraven – Universal Beings (International Anthem)
Recorded music is a document. It captures a time and a place; to some degree, it may be journalism. In his latest album, Makaya McCraven is not just a band leader, is not just an editor, he is a nucleus of boundless activity around wherever his travels take him. We may not know the fullness of the sound of the scene of Chicago, Los Angeles, London, and New York, but there’s something magical in the pocket that he gathers, and even moreso once the edges are sanded off to sheer recorded perfection for the rest of us. In Universal Beings, much like his 2015’s debut In the Moment and the assorted mixtapes and releases surrounding that work, McCraven continues to prove that he is a multi-faceted creator who is very much worth all the hype and has continued to be so, and with this album, he’s released not just one album that may stand the test of time, but four.
Honorable Mentions: Sun Speak with Sara Serpa; Miles Okazaki – Work (Complete, Vols. 1-6); Jeremy Pelt – Noir En Rouge: Live in Paris; In Common: Walter Smith III, Matthew Stevens, Joel Ross, Harish Raghavan, Marcus Gilmore; Aaron Parks Little Big; Phronesis – We Are All; Willie Nelson – My Way; John Coltrane – Both Directions At Once: The Lost Album; Braxton Cook – No Doubt; The Nels Cline 4 – Currents, Constellations
Nextbop Editor-in-Chief Anthony Dean-Harris hosts the modern jazz radio show, The Line-Up, Fridays at 9pm CST on 91.7 FM KRTU San Antonio and is also a contributing writer to DownBeat Magazine and the San Antonio Current.