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).
11 tie) Kiefer – Happysad (Stones Throw)
An instrumentally dense record, Happysad is one that crate-diggers in particular will find especially fascinating. Like the best modern jazz albums, this record’s appeal is wide. There is a not-so-subtle intensity to emotionally dramatic instrumental works such as this one, which at its brightest moments is incredibly moving. Kiefer is a student of music, and his appreciation for multiple genres of music is readily apparent from the first minute of the first track. This is also an album with clear therapeutic qualities, and one that Kiefer has managed to make both culturally relevant and classic in the purest sense of the word.
11 tie) Kamasi Washington – Heaven and Earth (Young Turks)
Heaven and Earth works as another exceedingly long album in a world where most artists try to keep their output stream friendly because Washington is so focused. Detractors will say this album is too safe, when they really mean widely accessible. True the album doesn’t vary from the fun and soul fusion themes, but there’s nothing wrong with an album being comfortable when it is this good.
11 tie) Esperanza Spalding – 12 Little Spells (Concord)
Spalding again shares her growing mysticism in album form and whips together notes and sounds that should be in competition with each other. Like most of the best albums she creates a whole soundscape that defies easy classification but still does not shy away from the awesome rhythms and lush vocals that Spalding is loved for. Going along this magical journey is a winding path, but the result is nothing if not fun.
11 tie) Adam O’Farrill’s Stranger Days – El Maquech (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.
10) Rafiq Bhatia – Breaking English (Anti-)
Breaking English is one of the rare guitar driven albums where the point of the main instrument is to show off mastery and not just pure technical prowess. While the album deserves notice for it’s overt political messaging Bhatia’s real accomplishment is in creating an instrumental album that explores sound rather than settling on one.
7 tie) Binker and Moses – Alive in the East? (Gearbox Records)
Alive in The East? is a live recording that showcases musicians who are among the best of the vibrant London jazz scene. It’s a record that can build bridges with its interesting connection of the more abstract notions of jazz to those that are more based in groove. The duo of Binker Golding (tenor sax) and Moses Boyd (drums) is joined by Yussef Dayes (drums), Tori Handsley (harp), Byron Wallen (trumpet) and Evan Parker (tenor and soprano sax). With performances as strong as “Children of The Ultra Blacks” and “How Land Learnt To Be”, hopefully Binker and Moses will be able to come stateside soon.
7 tie) R+R=NOW – Collagically Speaking (Blue Note)
With Robert Glasper on keyboards, Terrace Martin on synthesizer and vocoder, Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah on trumpet, Derrick Hodge on bass, Taylor McFerrin on synth and beatbox, and Justin Tyson on drums, it was clear that R+R=Now, a group that originally took shape during 2017’s SXSW was going to be a melting pot of musical influences. Collagically Speaking is a wild trip, with tracks eliciting a profound sense of peace to those with a persistent stream of rage and indignation in describing what it like living as an African American in Trump’s America. As overtly political as an album as this is, it also does a tremendous job of attempting to open dialogue; something that partisan politics often stifles.
7 tie) Thumbscrew – Ours and Theirs (Cuneiform)
Mary Halvorson (guitar), Michael Formanek (bass) and Tomas Fujiwara (drums) record under the moniker Thumbscrew and Ours is easily their best record to date. Entirely made up of original compositions, three from each band member, there is a good amount of stylistic variety throughout the records’ 56 minutes. Highlights include the surprisingly catchy “Snarling Joys” (Halvorson), the atmospheric “Saturn Way” (Fujiwara) and the heavy “Cruel Heartless Bastards” (Formanek). The trio also released Theirs this year, a fine record of covers.
6) Mary Halvorson – Code Girl (Firehouse 12 Records)
Code Girl stands out in jazz in general and in the Mary Halvorson discography. The album presented a unique challenge to the guitarist, who started working on the compositions after having written lyrics for each of the tunes. Aided by the versatile vocals of Amirtha Kidambi and the rest of the band, which includes Tomas Fujiwara (drums), Michael Formanek (bass) and Ambrose Akinmusire (trumpet), Halvorson has created a double album that is frequently brilliant and occasionally makes genre classifications useless. “Pretty Mountain” and “The Unexpected Natural Phenomenon” are great examples of the chaotic beauty found in Halvorson’s unique style.
4 tie) Jonathan Finlayson – 3 Times Round (Pi Recordings)
The interaction between the horns is often key in the formidable sextet that trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson has assembled for 3 Times Round. The second half of “Feints” has Finlayson, Steve Lehman (alto saxophone) and Brian Settles (tenor saxophone) in an engaging call of response of short, imaginative solos. The horns blend beautifully during the opening minute of “Grass” before Lehman and Settles begin rapidly exchanging the spotlight. Finlayson’s comes in after the dust settles, at times more interested in space and elongated notes, giving a nice juxtaposition to the pace of the saxes. It’s not only the horns that are brilliant though, the whole band is top quality. Drummer Craig Weinrib and bassist John Hebert combine to create an interesting off kilter groove on the relatively brief “Refined Strut”. Matt Mitchell’s piano playing, whether he is comping or soloing, is spellbinding throughout the entire album. The ominous rumbling of the piano, combined with the Hebert’s arco and Finlayson’s dirge-like notes, makes “A Stone, a Pond, a Thought” a captivating piece.
4 tie) Ben Wendel – The Seasons (Motéma)
Inspired by Tchaikovsky’s The Seasons, Ben Wendel, one of the driving forces behind modern jazz masters Kneebody, has created an undeniably multi-dimensional album of duets. It is clear that the musical partner chosen for each track was given much thought, as these tunes come across as extremely resolute in their interpretations. Because of this, there is a level of sophistication here that normally is not seen within the duet format. At times, the music can be seen as a stark contrast to Wendel’s work in Kneebody, which, with a record as good as this one, it is clear that his talents are boundless.
3) 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.
2) Cécile McLorin Salvant – The Window (Mack Avenue Records)
The album that proudly and openly show cases virtuosity at every track, The Window is an all-time great album by an all-time great singer. Salvant gives us a stripped down record with a great deal of complexity. With most records, especially pop records, keeping it’s the “more is more” approach, an album that is minimalist but not austere or ambient shows not just a mastery of form, but of music in general.
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.
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.