I’ve been thinking more and more about rotation lately, about the boundary that music must get through in order to find its way into my phone where I listen to everything primarily, the phone an extension of myself like these devices are for us all for better and for worse. I eschew the predatory Spotify and rather connect myself to the artist savvy enough to digitize himself and herself for those who want the possession but need the space. I think about access and presentation and ease as much as I think about the beauty of musical decisions made in the moment around forms familiar and yet to be. It all matters, and my living with the music — having it in my life, in bike and bus rides, in my workday, playing at art gallery openings — involves passing barriers. I know I’ll be thinking about this for quite some time more as I continue on this path in music. Nevertheless, here, now, at this point of the year, I know that my rotation, flawed a system as it may be, is part of my life, as all our lives have their own respective flaws. These are the albums that made it through the gauntlet, never failed to impress, and kept me moving in my life as they went through my rotation.
10) Lionel Loueke – Gaïa (Blue Note Records)
On the guitar, Lionel Loueke has always been playful. It’s not just that he’s almost supernaturally dexterous with an inventiveness that seems from some higher consciousness, he truly sounds like he’s having a ball each and every time he’s strumming the strings. This sounds even more apparent in his latest foray with his friends Ferenc Nemeth on drums and Massimo Biolcati on bass. Loueke puts the throttle down, rocks hard, and still has more fun than you can imagine.
9) Aidan Carroll – Original Vision (Truth Revolution Records)
It’s not just that bassist Aidan Carroll debut album is infectious. Plenty of albums have earworms. It’s not just that the album is beautiful. Plenty of albums go for lushness, or the picturesque, almost insisting on themselves. What’s remarkable about Carroll’s album is how subtle it does so, and stays on your mind, and welcomes revisiting without you even realizing it.
8) Kendrick Scott Oracle – We Are The Drum (Blue Note Records)
I could say this album is one of my favorites for “Mantra” alone, an absolute jam clipping along in 5/4, but there’s so much more. Oracle is a spectacular band with range that Scott crafts together so naturally. Lizz Wright on “This Song in Me” melts. Their cover of Flying Lotus’ “Never Catch Me” for a moment makes you think only of this Kendrick. There’s so much here, because Kendrick Scott always brings it.
7) Act – Act II (Self Released)
Ben Wendel is my favorite saxophonist this year. His monthly The Seasons videos are marvelous. His band Kneebody finally released an album with Daedelus after so many years of glancing collaborations. However, it’s the album he released with his Kneebody compatriot drummer Nate Wood and bassist Harish Raghavan that has been most impressive. This trio has muscle and spunk and apparently appears as frequently as some meteor showers, making their energy especially precious. They’re busy guys and sound spectacular together, for this to be their sophomore album and be so strong speaks to how great they are individually. But these guys really are dynamite in the trio format.
6) Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah – Stretch Music (Ropeadope Music)
Trumpeter Christian Scott aTunde adjuah has a new band. His Facebook page still refers to his group as a quintet but it’s for some time functioned mostly as a nontet (he should probably change that), a larger ensemble with a larger sound that’s still so certainly him. Despite this, it’s a leaner release than 2012’s Christian aTunde Adjuah. It’s not an album where he reinvents the wheel, he’s patented his own design long ago. If anything, this is the more streamlined 2.0 version– fleeter, refined, zippy, and more tricked out than one could imagine for such less space.
Christian and I have talked about the nature of nomenclature and expectations. He may call his music “stretch music”, moving beyond the typical boundaries of jazz. I have disagreed with him, knowing that jazz has always had room and ability for growth without shedding its name and history. While he and I may disagree on this music’s name and its placement under the jazz umbrella, I most certainly cannot deny, nor would I even want to, deny its brilliance.
5) Jeremy Pelt – Tales, Musings, and Other Reveries (High Note Records)
Jeremy Pelt has always been captivating, interesting, boundary-breaking, an avatar of the post-bop sound. However, what he pulls off with his latest album, incorporating Billy Drummond and Victor Lewis to play off one another on drums in his group, keeping all the cool and all the tension in these songs, crafting brilliance yet again, is what makes him downright exceptional. I mean, “Harlem Thoroughfare”? “Nephthys”? “I Only Miss Her When I Think”? New classics, all of them.
4) Rotem Sivan – A New Dance (Fresh Sound Records)
Many different guitarists dropped albums this year that I’ve liked or are really up to snuff– Gilad Hekselman’s Homes, Matthew Stevens’ Woodwork, the duo Sun Speak’s Sacred Rubble, the soon to be mentioned Liberty Ellman’s Radiate. However, nothing quite scratched every itch on every track like Sivan. He’s angular, and yes, that’s a word typically reserved for the avant-garde, as if notes were geometry stabbing at your ears sometimes, but the angles here are the bends one makes when into it, into it, those moments, and there are many moments on this album, when Colin Stranahan (who is having a hell of a year) blows you away, when Haggai Cohen Milo reminds you so well how good the head is, when Sivan takes originals and standards to places never fathomed, that perhaps the elegance of mathematics and geometry is the best thing to consider. I’m all in on Rotem Sivan.
3) Vijay Iyer Trio – Break Stuff (ECM Records)
Vijay done did it again. Stephan done did it again. Marcus done did it again. They’re a force as a trio, as always, growing stronger as the years go by uncovering new places to go together in a joyous sync. On this debut foray for ECM, they uncover what Iyer says are the interesting things one finds in the breaks. These are things in the breaks, but yes, they’re awesome and they break things. Yes, Iyer knows there’s a double meaning.
2) Liberty Ellman – Radiate (Pi Recordings)
When I reviewed this album when it released some months back, I referred to Ellman as “like salt– seasoning and improving anything he’s added to”. For his latest album as a leader in eight years after stints with so many innovators as a guitarist and as an engineer, most notably with Henry Threadgill Zooid, Ellman is back with his own vision, heightened by the influence of his previous and current collaborators — the ebullient pop of bassist Stephan Crump, the pulsing bombast of drummer Damion Reid, the skipping skronk of saxophonist Steve Lehman — he has crafted an album filled with clever compositions, thriving improvisations, and innovative jazz that has real soul, even in the midst of complexity that some may say has anything but.
1) Makaya McCraven – In the Moment (International Anthem)
Back in January, this Chicago drummer dropped an album meticulously pored over– sifting through months of recorded performances, editing together the most appropriate spontaneous compositions, rifling through what would move the people, yet the people were moved in the moments these songs first sprung forth, clearly. They had to be. You come correct in Chicago. What resulted was a collection of songs, real songs, with dynamism and tension and groove and focus, and so many other elements one wouldn’t see coming. His interchanging bandmates — bassist Matt Ulery, vibraphonist Justefan, trumpeter Marquis Hill, guitarist Jeff Parker, and numerous others — are running on all cylinders. These months of sets brought about a collection of music with endless replay value. These songs are a constant delight and will stay in your head, your feet, your hips, and your heart. They can get lodged that deep.
Rez Abbasi Acoustic Quartet – Intents and Purposes (ENJA Records)
Steve Coleman and the Council of Balance – Synovial Joints (Pi Recordings)
Donny McCaslin – Fast Future (Greenleaf Music)
Henry Threadgill Zooid – In For a Penny, In For A Pound (Pi Recordings)
ARK – ARK (Self Released)
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.