The Best Jazz Albums Of 2017
Jazz had an amazing 2017. It was the music’s centennial—the Original Dixieland Jass Band’s “Dixie Jass Band One Step” and “Livery Stable Blues” were recorded on February 26, 1917 and released in May of that year. Several major figures in jazz history were born in 1917, most notably pianist Thelonious Monk, trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, drummer Buddy Rich, and vocalist Ella Fitzgerald. But while all this history was being celebrated (OK, maybe not the ODJB so much, since they’re often viewed as white exploiters and their leader, cornetist Nick LaRocca, was known to make racist remarks and claim that he invented jazz), living musicians had their eyes on the future.
Trumpeter Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah released three full albums this year, under the collective heading The Centennial Trilogy, but the music wasn’t a journey through jazz’s past—there were no bebop tunes or rollicking Dixieland numbers. Instead, he continued down the path he’s been exploring for several years now, creating what he calls “stretch music”—a hybrid of jazz, hip-hop, electronic music and New Orleans parade music (he’s a native of the city, which is acknowledged as the music’s birthplace). Another trumpeter, Keyon Harrold, did something similar, and even slightly more mainstream, on his album The Mugician, a lush jazz/funk/hip-hop/R&B hybrid which featured guest appearances by Bilal, Big K.R.I.T., Pharoahe Monche, Gary Clark Jr. and others.
A surprising number of the most exciting jazz records of the year came not from the US, though, but from England. A whole crop of young players and singers seemed to arrive from the UK this year, including saxophonists Nubya Garcia, Camilla George, Binker Golding, and Shabaka Hutchings, trumpeter Yazz Ahmed, drummer Moses Boyd, and vocalist Zara McFarlane. Most of them had been around a few years already, but they rushed the spotlight as one, appearing on each other’s albums and generally insisting that their art would not be denied.
It’s also worth mentioning, in light of recent developments in society generally, that this was a fantastic year, artistically speaking, for women in jazz. Eight of the 20 albums below are led or fronted by women (two vocalists and six instrumentalists), and others whose work is very much worth your time include pianists Kris Davis, Champian Fulton, Lisa Hilton, and Simona Premazzi, saxophonists Roxy Coss, Lauren Sevian (who’s got an album coming early next year), and Camille Thurman, cellist Tomeka Reid…the list goes on and on.
There were some excellent reissues and archival releases to absorb this year, too. If I had to choose just one, I’d say to grab the single-disc reissue of two late-’60s/early-’70s Ornette Coleman albums, Ornette At 12 and Crisis, neither of which had ever been on CD before this year. But you should also pick up Alice Coltrane’s World Spirituality Classics 1: The Ecstatic Music Of Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda, which anthologizes her latter-day devotional recordings; Thelonious Monk’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses 1960, a never-before-released soundtrack to a French film; and the more obscure but still great Complete Parisian Small Group Sessions 1956-1959, a four-CD set by bluesy hard bop saxophonist Lucky Thompson.
And now, the 20 best jazz albums of 2017.
20 Zara McFarlane – Arise (Brownswood)
British singer Zara McFarlane, born to Jamaican parents, has always added a splash of reggae to her work, but Arise is more of a jazzy reggae album than a jazz album with some reggae to it. The production is bass-heavy and laced with dubby production techniques, courtesy of hot UK drummer Moses Boyd (of Binker & Moses). McFarlane’s voice is soft and keening, and she overdubs cooing, sighing harmonies; you can almost picture her swaying back and forth like Rita Marley as she sings. Behind her, organ, bass and Boyd’s ticking, skittering drums surge like a storm, and horns—saxophonist Binker Golding, trombonist Nathaniel Cross, and clarinetist Shabaka Hutchings—add forceful solos.
19 Tony Allen – The Source (Blue Note)
Legendary drummer Tony Allen signed to Blue Note this year, and released two records: a four-song EP, A Tribute To Art Blakey And The Jazz Messengers, that laid tunes like “Moanin’” and “A Night In Tunisia” atop shuffling Afro-funk grooves, and this, a strutting, explosive album that features three saxophones, trumpet, trombone, piano, keyboards, guitar, and bass. The solos are hot, but the collective sound of an absolutely ripping band is what makes The Source so amazing. Allen’s all over the kit, setting up polyrhythms and accents and seeming to comment to himself as he goes, but never losing forward drive. Around his crushing rhythms, the horns stab and wail, and the piano and guitar interject in ways that combine hard bop with reggae and West African funk. This is a strutting, hard-charging hour of pure excitement.
18 Roots Magic – Last Kind Words (Clean Feed)
Roots Magic are an Italian quartet who draw strong lines between deep blues and free jazz by reworking tunes by Blind Willie Johnson, Charley Patton, and Geeshie Wiley alongside works by Marion Brown, Julius Hemphill, Roscoe Mitchell, Henry Threadgill, and others. There’s always been plenty of blues in free jazz; check the catalogs of David Murray and Archie Shepp, not to mention the Art Ensemble Of Chicago. But Roots Magic also blend the fierce and hypnotic cry of their horns with tight funk rhythms, and add elements of dub once in a while. This is their second album, and it’s a strong demonstration that their core concept is one that gives players this talented and imaginative a lot of room to run.
17 Nicole Johänntgen – Henry (Hofa)
Saxophonist Nicole Johänntgen’s album Henry features trombone, sousaphone and drums for a raucous, high-energy storm of New Orleans jazz. Johänntgen’s alto sound is heavily influenced by Arthur Blythe, who also gave her the inspiration to record with tuba, as he did for years. Drummer Paul Thibodeaux creates complex parade-ground polyrhythms behind, beneath, and around the horns as they converse and challenge one another. The uptempo numbers alternate with slow, churning blues tunes, the sousaphone providing both bass and melody, as the alto and trombone wail and shout. Whether they’re playing fast or slow, this band always sounds like they’re having a blast, and you will, too.
16 Preservation Hall Jazz Band – So It Is (Legacy)
This is another New Orleans-style album, but one made by natives rather than visitors. The Preservation Hall Jazz Band is an umbrella name under which literally dozens of musicians have gathered to honor that city’s jazz tradition since the mid ’60s. One of their current members, saxophonist Charlie Gabriel, is 84, while several others are in their twenties; the age differences allow players to work with and learn from each other, keeping the music from turning into a museum piece. This album, produced by Dave Sitek of TV On The Radio, is only 34 minutes long but it doesn’t waste a second of the listener’s time. The front line of trumpet, two saxophones, and trombone will blow your hair back, while the rhythm section (tuba and/or upright bass, keyboard, and drums) keeps the party going at all times, laying down churning grooves that combine jazz, Cuban music, funk, and Afrobeat.
15 Amir ElSaffar’s Rivers Of Sound Orchestra – Not Two (New Amsterdam)
Amir ElSaffar is an Iraqi-American trumpeter and composer whose work blends jazz and Middle Eastern music in fascinating, non-clichéd ways. On this double disc, he’s leading a 17-piece orchestra that includes musicians from wildly varied backgrounds including classical, jazz, and traditional Middle Eastern music. The tracks are composed in order to take each player’s style and approach into account and allow them to contribute to the broader whole. It’s similar to the way Duke Ellington didn’t just write a trumpet part or a saxophone part; he wrote a trumpet part for Bubber Miley or a saxophone part for Johnny Hodges. It’s an epic, two-hour suite that incorporates melodies and rhythms from across the planet into something that is undeniably jazz.
14 Akua Dixon - Akua’s Dance (Akua’s Music)
Cellist Akua Dixon has recorded with jazz legends like Brother Ah, Don Cherry, Max Roach, Woody Shaw, and Archie Shepp. She created the string arrangements for Lauryn Hill’s The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill. She even worked as part of the Apollo Theatre pit band, getting to back Barry White and James Brown. On her latest album as a leader, she puts down the cello and picks up a new-to-her instrument, the baritone violin, for six out of 10 tracks. Even when she’s playing the violin, though, she still thinks like a cellist, emphasizing long, slow lines and never going for pyrotechnic solos. The compositions, which also feature guitar, bass and drums, have a stately quality that could almost sound like chamber music if the rhythm wasn’t so swinging.
13 Nicole Mitchell – Mandorla Awakening II: Emerging Worlds (FPE)
Flautist and composer Nicole Mitchell’s album, one of two she released this year, features a revamped lineup of her long-running Black Earth Ensemble that includes shakuhachi (a Japanese wood flute), violin, cello, electric guitar, banjo, oud, bass, shamisen (a three-stringed Japanese instrument), and percussion, including taiko drums. Two tracksfeature poet avery r young. The music may be partly inspired by Mitchell’s longtime interest in science fiction (she cites Octavia Butler as an influence), but the way the Japanese instruments interact looks to the past rather than the future. When the entire ensemble is cooking, though, the combination of elements eliminates thoughts of any one tradition or territory. If that’s Mitchell’s vision of the future—philosophically egalitarian and culturally omnivorous—that would be pretty awesome.
12 Ambrose Akinmusire – A Rift In Decorum: Live At The Village Vanguard (Blue Note)
Trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire’s double disc, 14 brand-new compositions recorded live at New York’s Village Vanguard, is much more intense and visceral than his 2014 studio album, The Imagined Savior Is Far Easier To Paint, even though it features the same musicians. Akinmusire’s capable of great virtuosity and has ferocious lung-power, but he likes to let his lines waver and slide, slowly dissolving into leaky-balloon hisses. Most of the music here is slow and somewhat melancholy. But when things do get more uptempo, bassist Harish Raghavan in particular is a powerful force. When these guys lock into a groove, it’s relentless and builds to a level of intensity that’ll make your skull vibrate.
11 Binker & Moses - Journey To The Mountain Of Forever (Gearbox)
Saxophonist Binker Golding and drummer Moses Boyd came up through the British jazz scene together, and their first album as a duo, Dem Ones, came out in 2015. This follow-up is a double disc, the first of which is more duo work. But on the second disc they’re joined by avant-garde legend Evan Parker on second saxophone, plus trumpet, harp, tabla and a second drummer. The duet tracks are funky and forceful, with Golding blowing hard over stomping beats from Boyd. When the sonic palette expands on the second disc, though, the compositional parameters do, too. The music has a spiritual energy that’s both dreamy and fiery, bringing to mind Pharoah Sanders’ early ’70s albums, and the interaction between Golding and Parker is fascinating—two generations of British jazz coming together.
10 JD Allen – Radio Flyer (Savant)
Tenor saxophonist JD Allen’s seventh album with his regular trio—bassist Gregg August and drummer Rudy Royston—features a guest for the first time ever: guitarist Liberty Ellman, who’s probably best known for his work with Henry Threadgill, though he’s also recorded as a leader. The compositions are all minimal sketches, allowing the band to wander far afield, taking their ideas as far out as they want. Sometimes, that means high-energy hard bop like the group’s been doing all along, with Ellman’s guitar adding extra bite. But other times, they dive into almost free funk zones: the title track sounds like it could have come from a 1980s Ornette Coleman album.
9 Harriet Tubman – Araminta (Sunnyside)
Harriet Tubman’s music is difficult to describe. On their face, they’re an instrumental rock trio: electric guitar, electric bass, drums. And their collective sound has elements of rock, jazz, funk, and dub, but it’s all filtered together into something that’s more like a storm on the horizon than any kind of balls-out eruption. Even when they get loud, which they do often, it’s a moody kind of loudness. Which makes trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith, who loves space and silence as much as the sound of his horn, the perfect collaborator on this, their third studio album and fifth release overall. His horn rises out of the storm, piercing through and playing off Brandon Ross’s almost ambient guitar and Melvin Gibbs’ miles-deep bass with a kind of melancholy wisdom befitting a group with this name.
8 Kamasi Washington – Harmony Of Difference (Young Turks)
How do you follow up a three-CD, three-hour magnum opus that instantly jumps you from nobody-from-nowhere (L.A. having been basically nowhere, from a jazz perspective, for years) to headlining 1500-person clubs and appearing at major jazz festivals? With a low-key, six-song, half-hour EP, of course. Harmony Of Difference retains the soft-focus spirituality and hooky melodies of Washington’s The Epic, but adds the concision and earthy feel of early ’70s soul jazz (heavy doses of electric piano help). The five short tracks all work a single idea just long enough to make an impression, then fade away; the epic (sorry) 13:30 finale combines them all, and adds a string section and choir, to create a surging, mantralike tone poem that sweeps the listener away all over again.
7 Tyshawn Sorey – Verisimilitude (Pi Recordings)
Speaking of following up an epic…Tyshawn Sorey’s 2016 double CD The Inner Spectrum Of Variables combined a piano trio with a string trio (violin, viola, cello) for a marathon, multi-movement work that veered from thunderous bombast to near-silent meditation. This disc, like that one, features pianist Corey Smythe and bassist Chris Tordini, making music that owes as much to Morton Feldman as to jazz. On “Obsidian,” Sorey (who received a MacArthur “genius grant” this fall) creates soft tom rolls like distant thunder, and small percussive sounds like objects shifting in the next room. About 12 minutes into the 18-minute piece, he seems to suddenly erupt, but in a precisely thought-out and expertly controlled manner. Sorey doesn’t care much about boundaries between composition and improvisation, between jazz and modern composition, or anything else. He’s about shaping sound in new and compelling ways, and Verisimilitude is breathtaking.
6 Vijay Iyer Sextet – Far From Over (ECM)
Sorey plays on this album, too; in addition to pianist Iyer, it features Graham Haynes on cornet, Steve Lehman on alto sax, Mark Shim on tenor sax, and Stephan Crump on bass. It’s a fierce, pulsing collection of music, some of which reminds me of Andrew Hill’s Blue Note albums like Black Fire and Point Of Departure, particularly the aggressive tunes like “Down To The Wire” and the title track. Iyer shifts from piano to Fender Rhodes and back on “Nope,” with the horns playing a staccato, fanfare-like melody as Sorey sets up a strutting rhythm. And there are some atmospheric pieces that verge on ambient music, with Haynes’ cornet filtered through effects and shimmering in the air. This might be the most musically aggressive thing ECM put out all year, and if you’re not an Iyer devotee, it might well win you over.
5 Irreversible Entanglements – Irreversible Entanglements (International Anthem)
Irreversible Entanglements is a new group featuring saxophonist Keir Neuringer, bassist Luke Stewart, trumpeter Aquiles Navarro and drummer Tcheser Holmes, joined by poet Camae Ayewa, better known as Moor Mother. Their music is improvised free jazz in the 1960s tradition; the horns surge and flare like Ayewa’s conducting them, as the bass and drums drive it all forward with a kind of marching swing. It’s a modern equivalent to Archie Shepp’s Blasé or Poem For Malcolm, or the New York Art Quartet’s self-titled disc, on which Amiri Baraka appeared. This is jazz that sounds like it’s being played at the front of a parade of extremely pissed-off protesters. And Ayewa’s words—which are furious, but delivered with seething rage rather than showy howls—add to the intensity until it’s almost too much to take. This album will make you clench your fists.
4 Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah – The Centennial Trilogy (Ropeadope)
Trumpeter Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah is where you should put your money if you’re betting on who’ll be jazz’s future. He put out three full-length albums this year—Ruler Rebel, Diaspora, and The Emancipation Procrastination—then combined them into a single three-CD set, The Centennial Trilogy, because they really are all one big thing. The music is ice cold at times, with stark keyboards and trap beats layered beneath live percussion and Scott’s intense, high-flying solos. At other time, it erupts into thunder as multiple drummers and electric guitarists go wild. Scott also gives plenty of room, across the three CDs, to some of his favorite collaborators, including flautist Elena Pinderhughes and vocalist Sarah Elizabeth Charles, whose album he somehow also found time to produce and perform on this year.
3 Camilla George Quartet – Isang (Ubuntu Music)
Camilla George is a London-based alto saxophonist, born in Nigeria. Her quartet with pianist Sarah Tandy, bassist Daniel Casimir, and drummer Femi Koleoso has been together since 2014. Isang is their debut album, and on it, they explore various old-school jazz styles—modal numbers, a calypso (one of Sonny Rollins’ favorite forms), and plenty of blues—but they also throw in elements of Afrobeat and reggae. Vocalist Zara McFarlane guests on one track, a version of the Kenny Garrett composition “Ms. Baja.” Everything is performed with vitality and real joy, particularly the opening “Mami Wata” and the closing “Mami Wata Returns (Usoro),” which turns the hard bop of the first version into steamy Afrobeat.
2 Yazz Ahmed – La Saboteuse (Naim Audio)
Like Christian Scott’s trilogy on a smaller scale, British/Bahraini trumpeter Yazz Ahmed’s second album initially rolled out as a series of EPs, now combined into a single unified work. She and her collaborators—including noted British reeds player Shabaka Hutchings, of Sons Of Kemet and other groups—blend jazz and desert music atop a powerful rhythmic bed and substantial doses of electronics. There’s electric guitar, multiple electric pianos, vibes, two electric bassists, and two drummers: this is a heavily produced and carefully arranged album that frequently features multiple overdubbed Ahmeds playing with and against each other. The mantra-like melodies and the polyrhythmic complexity sometimes recall Miles Davis’s On The Corner, but a more meditative version with room for the listener to relax and just let the music float through the room.
1 Jaimie Branch – Fly Or Die (International Anthem)
Trumpeter Jaimie Branch took over a decade to make her first album. She spent that time earning her spot on the Chicago scene, playing with saxophonist Keefe Jackson, cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm, bassist Jason Ajemian, drummer Tim Daisy, and others. As far back as 2007, people already knew who she was; she was invited to perform in New York at the Festival Of New Trumpet Music. But personal problems kept her from fully focusing on music for quite a few years. Now that she’s emerged, though, there’s no denying her. Fly Or Die was primarily recorded with a quartet that features cellist Tomeka Reid, Ajemian on bass, and Chad Taylor on drums. Her playing is free and abstract, swirling around and wafting like a breeze through the storm created by the band. Taylor in particular never seems to let up on the groove, and Reid’s cello and Ajemian’s bass give the music an African/American throb like you hear on Julius Hemphill’s early albums Dogon A.D. and Coon Bid’ness. At times, extra instruments appear: a forcefully picked guitar serving as an interlude, or two cornets that join her for a foghorn-like brass trio segment. This isn’t just the best jazz album of the year, it’s one of the most amazing artistic statements I’ve heard in forever. An absolute must-hear.