There’s no universal theme or overall consensus in jazz this year. No overblown hype machine, no clamoring for a seemingly agreed upon savior, no important trendsetting bucking of past conventions to take on new ones. Artists made art this year, as they do every year, and in the realm of jazz, they made art together. Collaborators collaborated, improvisors improvised. We, observers and fans, observed and celebrated. This is what art is for, like this year, and in some cases moreso this year, as any other.
10 tie. Gregory Porter – Take Me to the Alley (Blue Note)
Often times, what Porter writes and sings on Take Me to the Alley is satisfyingly expected, but knowing that his vocal abilities are seemingly limitless excites each moment with anticipation. The track “Don’t Lose Your Steam” definitely became my summer 2016 jam, and “More Than a Woman” quickly landed on my Tracks To Set The Mood playlist. Overall, Porter’s sultry pipes and succinct compositions remind you that he’s been here before and that he’s masterful in his execution.
10 tie. Terrace Martin – Velvet Portraits (Ropeadope)
Let’s be honest, Velvet Portraits is probably the album you give to your elders who “just don’t understand hip hop” before you introduce them to rap of a similar composition. In a year of banner producer-as-artist albums, Velvet Portraits is high on the list. Pop music fans will recognize the sound as basis for Kendrick Lamar’s oeuvre, especially To Pimp A Butterfly, but the album is much more than a beat CD. Songs play off R&B, funk, and hip hop to create one of modern jazz’s most essential records.
10 tie. George Burton – The Truth of What I Am > The Narcissist (Inner Circle Music)
Burton’s debut, a pseudo ode to Charles Mingus, is an absolute joy to experience. Burton is at his most exciting when he is pushing the boundaries of the already limitless genre of jazz. He approaches jazz with the same vigor and boldness he applies to the exploration of genres as diverse as ambient, drone, and tape music. This open-mindedness is clearly apparent throughout every track on the record. The band here is absolutely top-notch, allowing Burton to to expand and constrict his compositional tendencies to adhere to his vision. A very impressive debut.
6 tie. Matt Ulery’s Loom/Large – Festival
When it comes to distinct and distinguished Chicago composers, bassist Matt Ulery’s name is always near the top of the list. On Festival, The first quarter of the album is his large group, and the middle tracks are his small group. The last quarter is his all-new brass band with Ulery making the leap to tuba, which is, apparently, no problem for him to switch to from strings. The music Ulery typically writes doesn’t immediately sound like it’d be well suited to a brass band, but as that statement holds true with Ulery’s writing and any jazz group, so it holds for the brass band. This album seems like it wouldn’t work conceptually, but Ulery’s relentless aesthetic ties the whole album together nicely.
6 tie. Stephan Crump – Rhombal (Papillion Sounds)
Stephan Crump always seems to sound like my sadness. Sure, the bassist always seems like he’s having a ball when he’s performing, with an extremely expressive face for someone playing the upright. Yet his own albums always seem to be softened by snowfall and wintry contemplation, even in the summer. His music captures the fullness and roundness of sadness, even in its chirpier moments. This feels even more true with his latest release with his group Rhombal featuring trumpeter Adam O’Farrill, saxophonist Ellery Eskelin, and drummer Tyshawn Sorey. The collection of songs written while and after Crump’s brother passed away due to cancer has not only a solemnity but also a fire. It’s an album of vibrancy and breath and this group is able to soar, lack of a chordal instrument be damned (which is rather the point). It’s an utterly beautiful album, kind of like sadness in the right light.
6 tie. Logan Richardson – Shift (Blue Note)
Sometimes a group comes together and it seemingly cannot fail. The group on saxophonist Logan Richardson’s album Shift features guitarist Pat Metheny, pianist Jason Moran, bassist Harish Raghavan, and drummer Nasheet Waits and no, they do not fail. Richardson’s compositions and arrangements exhibit a sweetness and a smoothness as well as a dirtiness and a heaviness when the times are right, yet it’s this group who brings everything over the edge. Pat Metheny appeared prominently on at least three albums this year, and this one may possibly be the best of them.
6 tie. Derrick Hodge – The Second (Blue Note)
Whether it is his intention or not, Derrick Hodge is creating music perfectly suited for the most dramatic moments in life. Hodge’s stunningly beautiful cinematic jazz is large in scope in the most ironically minimalist fashion. His ear for melody and his fearless examination of what it is to be a human in modern society make this an incredibly emotional album. This is a record that you can expect to continually come back to when dealing with life’s more introspective moments. A must listen.
4. Corey King – Lashes (Ropeadope)
Genres form barriers only for the sake of awards and easy streaming classification and Lashes is no exception to this. King’s debut album, in a freer world, would be loved for what it is: a tremendous offering of slick songwriting and producing marking King as one of the most promising solo artists to come out this year. There’s only eight tracks in this initial offering, but the album doesn’t suffer for it. King does more with less than most solo artists do with veritable all-star teams of session musicians and producers. Lashes may have roots in a cool jazz atmosphere, but the sound is universally amazing.
2 tie. Ben Wendel – What We Bring (Motéma)
Ben Wendel’s work has been a constant source of beautiful music, and What We Bring is definitely a highlight. Featuring a top-notch band with Gerald Clayton on piano, Joe Sanders on bass, and Henry Cole on drums (plus some additional percussion from Nate Wood on a couple of tunes), the quartet here navigate a set of originals from Wendel (including a couple of tunes from his “Seasons” series of duets, repurposed for quartet here) and an arrangement of the standard “Solar”. Not a weak track or a weak performance to be found on this – Sanders and Cole are locked together to provide the foundation, with Clayton both joining the rhythm section and also turning out some incredible solos (including a head-turner on “Fall”) as Wendel’s sax leads the charge.
2 tie. Takuya Kuroda – Zigzagger (Concord)
Following up from 2014’s excellent Rising Son, Kuroda ups the ante here with a synth-heavy, hard-grooving album featuring his quintet. The musicians are excellent, including Kuroda on trumpet, Corey King on trombone and vocals, Takeshi Ohbayashi on keys, Rashaan Carter on bass, Adam Jackson on drums (and Keita Ogawa on percussion for three tracks, plus the Antibalas horns for the closer “Think Twice”). Not surprisingly, then, the playing on this is great, but the solos are almost beside the point as the band establishes a groove that draws fairly heavily on Afrobeat. Highlights include the lead single, “RSBD”, the title track, “Do They Know” (with a great vocal turn from Corey King), and “Little Words” (with a woozy keyboard solo from Ohbayashi).
1. Jaimeo Brown Transcendence – Work Songs (Motéma)
Jaimeo Brown Transcendence made one of the most important records of not just the year, but of this time in history. By utilizing and remixing field recordings, old gospel songs, and classic blues, the group transports listeners to a different time and place, one more socially and politically relevant now than in years past. Work Songs is a tribute and lesson in the history of labor in this land, both compensated and coerced. The record is a reminder that much of what we think of as popular music had its origins farther back than when work was tied to employment, when people were using culture not just as entertainment, but as a means to directly improve the quality of life.
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.