2016 In Review

The 10 Best Jazz Albums Of 2016

Jazz had no breakout star on the scale of Kamasi Washington in 2016. Of course, the burly LA-based saxophonist who dominated 2015’s press coverage, even getting mainstream outlets to write about him, was the kind of story that comes along once in a generation, so expecting there to be a “next” one would be absurd. So what were the big events of the year? Well, Henry Threadgill winning a Pulitzer Prize was one, for sure. While I’m personally hot and cold on the guy’s work, he’s been making extraordinarily high-level and yet viscerally charged music for four decades or so, with enough variety that there’s almost certainly something in his catalog you’ll like, especially if you’re a fan of guitars and tubas, two instruments he’s tended to favor in recent years.

Piano god Cecil Taylor was the subject of a two-week “artist in residence” show at the Whitney Museum in April. He played with three different ensembles during that time, ending a serious NYC performance drought. Other than a brief appearance at Ornette Coleman’s 2015 memorial service, he hadn’t played in the city since 2012. I spent two days hanging out with Taylor, writing a story for The Wire. He’s impossible to interview in the conventional sense — if you ask him a question, he’ll likely as not respond by telling you a story that may have something, or absolutely nothing, to do with the subject at hand. Still, it was one of the most thrilling experiences of my life. The man is a national treasure. (If you’ve never heard his music, I recommend starting with solo piano albums: Air Above Mountains, the two volumes of Garden, and The Willisau Concert are my personal favorites.)

The big crossover story of the year came wrapped in tragedy, as David Bowie recruited saxophonist Donny McCaslin’s band (keyboardist Jason Lindner, bassist Tim Lefebvre, and drummer Mark Giuliana) for his brilliant final album, Blackstar. McCaslin released his own album, Beyond Now, in October; it included two Bowie compositions, and you’ll find it on the list below.

Traditional jazz players continued to quietly do awesome work, too, of course. One of the best shows I saw this year was 82-year-old tenor saxophonist Houston Person at the Village Vanguard, backed by Bad Plus pianist Ethan Iverson, bassist Ben Street, and legendary drummer Billy Hart. Person played like he should have been wearing a ruffled tuxedo; he talked to the audience between songs (particularly the ladies up front); and every song, most of them standards, had a beginning, a middle, an end, and a melody you could hum. He’s made over 75 albums; I own and endorse The Art & Soul Of Houston Person, a three-CD compilation of lush, beautiful recent-ish work.

Stereogum’s never run a year-end jazz list before, so here’s some advice if you’re dipping into the genre for the first time: When you hear an album you like, make a list of the band members. Chances are some or all of them will have made albums under their own names, maybe with some of the folks you’ve already heard and probably with others. Check those albums out, and if you like what you hear, keep making connections. Jazz is like a globe-spanning spiderweb; everyone’s constantly trying to learn something new from their peers. Elder statesmen stock their bands with players half their age, young upstarts come out of nowhere and become in-demand sidemen, scenes that have been bubbling in one city (or one country) for years all of a sudden become subjects of national/global attention. Just follow the lines, and don’t limit yourself to records. Get out to shows. Jazz is a live music above all, and almost any night at a club, you can hear something you’ll never hear again.

That said, here are the 10 best jazz albums of 2016, and recommendations from the year that I encourage you to check out if it moves you.

Vijay Iyer & Wadada Leo Smith

10 Vijay Iyer & Ishmael Wadada Leo Smith – A Cosmic Rhythm With Each Stroke (ECM)

Trumpeter Ishmael Wadada Leo Smith’s relationship with pianist Vijay Iyer goes back several years, to the albums Tabligh and Spiritual Dimensions. And while Smith has composed for large ensembles, recorded solo albums, and done everything in between, the stark and atmospheric duos here are unique in both men’s catalogs. Most of the album consists of a seven-movement, 52-minute title suite. Smith shifts between muted and open horn, wandering to and fro and letting his long, wavering notes smear slightly (though always maintaining strict control). Iyer adds electronic hums and rumbles behind and beneath his piano; one piece, “A Divine Courage,” features a slow, rumbling bass line like something from a John Carpenter movie soundtrack. His actual piano playing is frequently dark and melancholy, almost recalling Matthew Shipp’s thunderous, liturgical sound. At other times, the music is so delicate it’s nearly silent. It’s always beautiful, though, and unmistakably heartfelt and human.
STREAM IT: Apple Music

If you like this, check out: Nate Wooley Quintet – (Dance To) The Early Music (Clean Feed)

Battle Trance

9 Battle Trance – Blade Of Love (New Amsterdam)

Battle Trance is a unique quartet made up of four tenor saxophonists: leader Travis Laplante, and Patrick Breiner, Matthew Nelson, and Jeremy Viner. They make incredibly intense, abstract but rigorously disciplined music, all composed by Laplante and rehearsed to an insane degree. Every note and sonic gesture here is composed and memorized, so when they sing through their horns, gasp into them, harmonize, explode in shrieking storms, or hiss with almost imperceptible softness, it’s all part of a larger, carefully organized whole. This isn’t really “jazz” in the traditional sense — with no rhythm instruments, it doesn’t really swing, and the horns’ high-tension harmonies can be unsettling. Solos are rare, and when one does appear, the other horns surround the leader, maniacally repeating a single phrase. But there are passages of incredible, transporting beauty that will make your spirit soar, and when the album’s over, you’ll feel like you’re awakening from a week-long nap.
STREAM IT: Apple Music

If you like this, check out: Borbetomagus – The Eastcote Studios Session (Dancing Wayang)

Tyshawn Sorey

8 Tyshawn Sorey – The Inner Spectrum Of Variables (Pi)

Drummer Tyshawn Sorey is a first-call sideman and collaborator for mainstream hard bop players and avant-gardists alike; he can swing hard, or delve deep into abstract exploration. When he leads his own ensembles, the resulting music frequently has a meditative quality that owes as much to modern classical as jazz. He really considers each component of the kit, using them to create unexpected combinations of sounds that draw the listener in, demanding and rewarding focus. This two-CD set, composed for piano trio and string trio (violin, viola and cello), is a perfect example of his blending of classical and jazz, and it’s both ambitious as hell and breathtakingly beautiful. The first disc begins with solo piano from Cory Smythe, moves through solo cello, piano-and-strings, and ends with an ominous, mournful soundscape. The second disc is just as dark and harsh, but light breaks through sometimes; this is a genuine masterwork, something entirely new.
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If you like this, check out: Le Boeuf Brothers + JACK Quartet’s Imaginist (New Focus Recordings)

Jeremy Pelt

7 Jeremy Pelt – #jiveculture (HighNote)

Trumpeter Jeremy Pelt makes an album a year, each one different from its predecessor. For a few years, he’d been allowing electric instruments into his bands, but no more. Here, he’s backed by pianist Danny Grissett, legendary bassist Ron Carter, and drummer Billy Drummond, for a hard-swinging set of melodic hard bop tunes (five of which Pelt wrote). Since he’s the only horn, Pelt solos a lot on this album; his tone is full, somewhere in the middle of the trumpet’s range most of the time, and the notes fall out like drops of melted butter. Carter takes a booming solo on his composition “Einbahnstrasse,” and Drummond opens “The Haunting” with a 90-second drum fanfare more like a statement of purpose than a solo. “Dream Dancing” is a highlight, a swinging Cole Porter ballad that would be fantastic to dance to at a wedding, if you’re into that kind of thing.
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If you like this, check out: DE3 – Live At Maxwell’s (Sunnyside)

Freddie Hendrix

6 Freddie Hendrix – Jersey Cat (Sunnyside)

Trumpeter Freddie Hendrix has played with the Count Basie Orchestra, the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, and even backed Alicia Keys, but he waited 20 years to make his debut as a leader. Jersey Cat features saxophonists Bruce Williams and Abraham Burton, trombonist David Gibson, pianist Brandon McCune, bassist Corcoran Holt, and drummer Cecil Brooks III, who also produced. The tunes mix ferocious, Art Blakey-esque hard bop with a few funk and R&B grooves, and the solos are like fireworks displays; all the music is performed with a wild, infectious energy. Five of the pieces are Hendrix originals; the disc also includes versions of “You Don’t Know What Love Is,” Freddie Hubbard‘s “Hubtones” and Horace Silver‘s “Peace.” When all four horns are harmonizing, the orchestrations have a lushness that recalls Duke Ellington, but also salutes the rich mahogany-and-leather sound of 1970s Woody Shaw albums like Rosewood. This band tears shit up.
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If you like this, check out: Doug Webb – Bright Side (Posi-Tone)

John Raymond

5 John Raymond – Real Feels (Shifting Paradigm)

Trumpeter John Raymond formed the Real Feels trio with guitarist Gilad Hekselman and drummer Colin Stranahan in order to interpret well-known standards and popular songs, and in the process turn them into new music that could communicate directly to almost any audience, because of the familiarity of the melodies. They tackle tunes ranging from “Scarborough Fair” and the gospel songs “Amazing Grace” and “I’ll Fly Away” to the Beatles’ “Blackbird,” and bring things into the present tense with a version of Thom Yorke’s “Atoms For Peace.” No matter the source material, though, the music has a vivid, joyous feeling that’s highly infectious. Stranahan sets up foot-tapping rhythms, Hekselman’s guitar has both reverberation and bite, and Raymond’s sound on the horn is rich and full. He’s got an almost New Orleans-style flair that keeps the blues front and center at all times, and focuses on melody rather than explosions of virtuoso technique.
STREAM IT: Spotify | Apple Music

If you like this, check out: Lean – Lean (Music Wizards Inc.)

Donny McCasin

4 Donny McCaslin – Beyond Now (Motema)

The band — McCaslin on saxophone, Jason Lindner on keyboards, Tim Lefebvre on bass, Mark Guiliana on drums — were also David Bowie’s collaborators on Blackstar. They’ve been together since 2012, though; this is their third album, and as on previous discs, they combine McCaslin originals with non-jazz covers, including Mutemath’s “Remain,” Deadmau5’s “Coelacanth 1,” and Bowie’s “A Small Plot Of Land” and “Warszawa.” McCaslin is a restrained and melodic saxophonist, and the band matches his tone and feel. Lindner’s keyboards sometimes get as hard as Dutch techno, while other times he opts for synth washes that recall ’80s Miles Davis. Very occasionally, he’ll switch it up and offer some genuinely beautiful piano playing. Guiliana is the band’s secret weapon, capable of mimicking perfectly the crispness and precision of electronic rhythms. His snare is a sharp smack that hits with pinpoint accuracy. Producer David Binney adds more synths, and wordless background vocals here and there. STREAM IT: Spotify | Apple Music

If you like this, check out: São Paulo Underground – Cantos Invisiveis (Cuneiform)

Michael Formanek

3 Michael Formanek’s Ensemble Kolossus – The Distance (ECM)

Big bands have been a rarity since the ’60s, but bassist Michael Formanek built a really impressive one for this album: five saxophones (with some players doubling on clarinet and flute), three trumpets and a cornet, four trombones, and a piano-bass-drums rhythm section augmented by guitar and marimba. Because it’s being led by a bassist, and it’s heavy on blaring horns, this album may remind some listeners of Charles Mingus discs like The Black Saint and The Sinner Lady or Mingus Ah Um. But it also incorporates long, complex melody lines, Latin rhythms, and impressively powerful stretches of collective free improvisation. The ensemble even shrinks down at times to showcase subgroups or individual musicians, like guitarist Mary Halvorson and cornetist Kirk Knuffke. This isn’t an attempt to revive big band swing; it’s an entirely new style of widescreen jazz composition, played by brilliant musicians and as exhilarating as it is ambitious.
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If you like this, check out: Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society – Real Enemies (New Amsterdam)

Black Bombaim & Peter Brötzmann

2 Black Bombaim & Peter Brötzmann – Black Bombaim & Peter Brötzmann (Shhpuma)

Peter Brötzmann is a legendary saxophonist from Wuppertal, Germany, who looks like a retired butcher and plays the saxophone like he’s trying to make it explode. (Jazz lore has it he once blew so hard he cracked a rib.) Black Bombaim are a Portuguese instrumental stoner-rock trio who’ve previously collaborated with guitarist Isaiah Mitchell from amp-frying psychedelic jam-metal superheroes Earthless, and Steve Mackay, the late saxophonist for the Stooges. So Black Bombaim are not exactly masters of subtlety, either. This disc contains five tracks, each of which is a full-force blowout on which the rockers set up a massive, stomping post-Sabbath groove, over which Brötzmann unloads like a cross between a howitzer and a blast furnace. It’s one of the most viscerally exciting records of the year. Frankly, unless you own speakers the size of walk-in freezers, your stereo probably can’t even do it justice. It’ll blow you away.
STREAM IT: Spotify | Apple Music

If you like this, check out: Hedvig Mollestad Trio – Black Stabat Mater (Rune Grammofon)

JD Allen

1 JD Allen – Americana (Savant)

Americana is tenor saxophonist JD Allen’s sixth album with bassist Gregg August and drummer Rudy Royston. They started out playing radically compressed pieces, some as short as 90 seconds. But this time out, they’re exploring the blues in depth and occasionally at length. Allen sets up tightly wound little melodic figures, then holds them up to the light to shift and shine, as August and Royston bounce and strut behind him. And they have a breathtaking, almost telepathic interplay, swinging as hard as any rhythm team in jazz, Royston’s snare cracking like a whip as August’s bass throbs and booms. Though Americana is described as a blues album, it’s not that radical a shift for the trio — the cry of the blues has always been a strong element of Allen’s sound, with a mournful edge drawn from John Coltrane circa Crescent. This is jazz at its most stripped-down and powerful.
STREAM IT: Apple Music

If you like this, check out: James Brandon Lewis – No Filter (BNS Sessions)