I’m not quite sure what more I could say here about jazz in 2015. There may not have been some overarching narrative that guided how art was made and released. Some folks who have worked together for years finally released an album that said so. Some folks released large ensemble albums that made huge splashes, as sprawling debuts, par for the course, or as the muscular realization of what the artist was building to anyway. Some folks came back to us and others kept trodding along, growing constantly and impressively. Artists make art. Musicians make music. Lovers and listeners tend to some things more than others. Here’s what we clung to.
10 tie) Kamasi Washington – The Epic (Brainfeeder)
Plenty has been written on the scope of this record–the 3-hour runtime, the string section and choir overdubs–which is all fair given that it’s called The Epic. But it’s probably worth observing how saxophonist Kamasi Washington’s debut can be this ridiculously ostentatious as still be such a resounding success. How does “Re Run Home” or any of its fellow 10+ minute tracks earn that runtime? I’d point to Washington’s band — a ten-piece of LA-based players who’ve clearly developed a telepathic communication with each other — as The Epic‘s X-factor. No one takes center stage here, least of all Kamasi himself. Though he lays down some Wayne Shorter-worthy fire on “The Final Thought”, he works mostly as curator, tailoring the tunes and arrangements (which allude nicely to the early ‘70s CTI playbook) to fit his vision. Much has been made of Washington’s contributions to Kendrick Lamar and Flying Lotus’ recent projects, both of which set the stage nicely for Epic’s emergence. But here’s hoping he keeps plenty of his creative energy focused on his own projects in the future. Certainly Kamasi gave us plenty this year, but that shouldn’t stop us wanting more.
10 tie) Chinchano – Un Cambio (Skiptone Music)
In working with drummer, percussionist, and bandleader Juan Pastor on the press release for this album, I learned a lot about how this band really came together on Un Cambio. There are some very different experiences on this album: Marquis Hill (recent winner of the Thelonious Monk Award for trumpet) from Chicago, Stu Mindeman (just wrapped up a tour playing piano for Kurt Elling) who spent considerable time growing up in Chile, and Pastor from Peru. Rich Moore on saxophone and bassist Patrick Mulcahy round out a group that doesn’t mess around, as they tackle Peruvian folk songs and modern jazz in one fell swoop.
10 tie) Act – Act II (Self Released)
Act II is the sophomore album from Ben Wendel, Harish Raghavan, and Nate Wood. The chordless trio produces a full sound that comes from the rapport among the musicians and the obvious fun that they’re having with this music. Most of the music here comes from the in-the-moment trio playing, but some choice overdubs with added percussion, melodica, bassoon, and sax layers just add to the atmosphere. Not a weak moment to be found on this album of all original tunes.
8 tie) The Bad Plus Joshua Redman – The Bad Plus Joshua Redman (Nonesuch)
I believe I once said to my roommate in college, “Dude, wouldn’t it be sick if The Bad Plus and Joshua Redman did an album together?” Well, 20-year-old Alex, you were right; it was sick. For those unfamiliar with either The Bad Plus or Joshua Redman or both, this is a team-up of one of the most influential piano trios this side of Y2K and a would-be lawyer turned saxophonist who’s been defining what it means to be limitless and flexible for over two decades. Joshua Redman’s extreme musicality allowed him to float on top of and into The Bad Plus’ penchant for quirky and off-kilter grooves.
8 tie) Kendrick Scott Oracle – We Are The Drum (Blue Note Records)
If you’ve ever caught Kendrick Scott live with either Terence Blanchard’s band or his own outfit Oracle, he leaves little question as to his drumming prowess. But We Are the Drum, by its very title, suggests collective effort, a sort of simpatico drum circle set to post-bop jazz. Scott uses his band as a melodic extension of his kit– pushing and pulling his five piece between across the dynamic spectrum. Like the great rhythm section leaders past, Scott is careful never to let things fully boil over: check the Ellingtonian the slow-burn of “Touched By An Angel – For Maya” or the Blakey-esque intensity of the shape-shifting title track. We Are the Drum occasionally strays off-course, as on the overly corny Lizz Wright feature “The Song Is Me”. Taken as a whole, however, the record is as dynamic, focused and assured statement from one of jazz’s most powerful voices.
6) 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 Sound’ 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.
5) Gilad Hekselman – Homes (Jazz Village)
Homes is the fifth album led by Gilad Hekselman to feature Joe Martin on bass and the fourth with Marcus Gilmore on drums, and the maturity and growth of the group’s rapport is evident. This album features Hekselman’s fluid guitar lines and some of his most ear-catching compositions yet over rock-solid drums and bass. The core trio of Hekselman, Martin, and Gilmore is augmented by the addition of Jeff Ballard on “Kee Dee” for some exciting back-and-forth between Ballard and Gilmore, and Jeff Ballard takes the place of Gilmore on a cover of Pat Metheny’s “Last Train Home.” The album is tied together by some recurring melodic themes and a great mirror-image phrase that opens and closes the album.
4 tie) Lionel Loueke – Gaïa (Blue Note Records)
Loueke’s projects are consistently exciting, and his trio on Gaïa, featuring Ferenc Nemeth on drums and Massimo Biolcati on bass, has put together an exciting, high-energy album. Gaïa is perhaps as indebted to the jazz tradition as to guitar-led rock, and comparisons to Hendrix are pretty much inevitable when listening to Loueke killing it on tunes like “Wacko Loco” and “Procession.” The band sounds entirely comfortable in and excited by the complex rhythms and unexpected time signatures that are found on every song here.
4 tie) Vijay Iyer Trio – Break Stuff (ECM Records)
Full disclosure: I’m likely to love just about anything Vijay Iyer decides to come out with, be it the Rites of Spring reworking of the Radhe Radhe soundtrack, or the classical aspirations of Mutations. But holy hell is it great to hear him back with his trio. Break Stuff marks the pianist’s return to the studio with drummer Marcus Gilmore and bassist Stephan Crump for the first time since 2012’s brilliant Accelerando. As with the record with that record, Break Stuff follows a musical theme, in this case “breaks” or musical rests. “Hood” might be the record’s most representative track with this theme in mind. From the get, the track introduces six intersecting elements that seem in no hurry to intersect; that is until they do, gloriously so, at the five-and-a-half minute mark, locking in for a few glorious sections before cutting out abruptly. The remaining tracks follow a similar pattern of rhythms dancing around each other, leaving look at the spaces in between to figure out. It’s a musical puzzle that may take a few listens to solve, but, as with all of Iyer’s best work, it’s well worth the effort.
2) Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah – Stretch Music (Ropeadope Music)
It seems that every time Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah releases an album it’s always floating out there somewhere in the “best/favorite of” conversation, and this album was no different. What was different about this album was new hardware and new people. Scott played on three unique horns of his own design, and the release introduces flutist Elena Pinderhughes. The name Stretch Music tells you that he’s restless and will never settle for less than invention, and the acoustic underpinnings with the electronic lacquer give a sense of his music being stretched between the past and the present.
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.
Liberty Ellman’s Radiate, Kevin Hays’ New Day, Julian Lage’s World’s Fair, Jeremy Pelt’s Tales, Musings, and Other Reveries, Beats & Pieces Big Band’s All In, Geof Bradfield’s Our Roots, Yaron Herman’s Everyday
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.