The last few years have been a wild time to be a jazz fan. On the one hand, legendary players and crucial figures in the music’s history continue to pass away. This year we lost pianists Henry Butler, Cecil Taylor and Randy Weston; trumpeters Jerry González, Roy Hargrove, Hugh Masekela, and Tomasz Stanko; saxophonists Hamiet Bluiett, Sonny Fortune, and Big Jay McNeely; bassist Buell Neidlinger; violinist Didier Lockwood; drummer Leon Ndugu Chancler; and Village Vanguard owner Lorraine Gordon, among others. But on the other hand, there’s an incredibly vibrant new generation of musicians coming up, making records that display an awareness of what came before, but avoid blind loyalty to the past.
Many of the artists listed below are great examples of this negotiation between past and future. Kamasi Washington gets tagged for his retro sound, but his work doesn’t actually sound that much like Alice Coltrane or Pharoah Sanders. His choirs, string arrangements and mix of jazz, rock, funk and hip-hop rhythms are entirely his own, and the way Brandon Coleman’s proggy synths blend with Miles Mosley’s thick-as-tar bass is a sound nobody in the ’70s ever imagined. Drummer Makaya McCraven takes live recordings and chops them up into wild collages, sampling his own work and that of his collaborators until he’s created a swirling, dreamlike world where the sounds continuously run backward and forward, allowing individual moments to shine like diamonds in the bed of a constantly flowing river. The artists on the We Out Here compilation play jazz, but mix it with the sounds of London dancefloors, music from their (or their parents’) home countries, and whatever else will get the audience up and moving—the stately supper-club atmosphere of traditional jazz clubs is of no interest to them. Tyshawn Sorey, meanwhile, is a composer who recognizes no boundaries at all: conventional ideas of instrumentation, structure, and acceptable running time for a piece are all to be discarded at will.
Several of the albums below are studio creations, effectively impossible to reproduce onstage. Others are live recordings, though, and jazz remains a performance-based art form at its heart. I saw some amazing shows this year, from Kamasi Washington and company rocking an outdoor stadium, to legendary Afrobeat drummer Tony Allen leading a hard bop quintet, to a band featuring saxophonists Tim Berne and Chris Speed and The Bad Plus’s rhythm section tearing into compositions by Ornette Coleman and Julius Hemphill. The latter group, Broken Shadows, hasn’t made a studio recording, and I doubt they ever will. They existed while we were all in the room watching them, and that’s when jazz is often at its best, when it’s existing right in front of you for a miraculous hour, never to be repeated.
Still, the ten albums below are some of the best music made by anyone this year, regardless of genre, and they show that jazz is as strong and expansive and life-altering as it’s ever been. In my December Ugly Beauty column, I’ll share some runners-up, the best reissues of the year, and more, but for now, here are the ten best jazz albums of 2018.
10 Henry Threadgill – Dirt…And More Dirt (Pi Recordings)
Henry Threadgill released two albums this year, each very different from the other. Dirt…And More Dirt features a 15-member ensemble including three alto saxophones, two trumpets, two trombones, tuba, guitar, two pianos, cello, two basses, and drums. With that many horns and woodwinds at his disposal, Threadgill is able to get deep into complex melodic forms, counterpoint and polyphony, while the rhythm section does its own intricate dances in the background. He himself only solos once during “Dirt,” but when he does it’s like a ray of sunlight lancing through the room. Symphonic and pulsingly alive, this is a masterpiece.
9 Tyshawn Sorey – Pillars (Firehouse 12)
Drummer/composer Tyshawn Sorey’s latest album is a true epic: a three-CD set, where each disc contains a single long track. An eight-member ensemble featuring trumpet, trombone, two guitars, three basses, and a ton of percussion takes you on a near-four-hour journey that rewards close listening, but can also be experienced like installation art: You can just put it on and walk around in it, letting different sections catch your attention and absorbing what you can. A breathtaking work, Pillars could be filed alongside Bill Dixon, Sunn O))), or Anna Thorvaldsdottir. You won’t hear anything else like it anytime soon.
8 Nicole Mitchell – Maroon Cloud (Firehouse 12)
Maroon Cloud is an eight-part suite recorded live at National Sawdust in Brooklyn by a group featuring composer Mitchell on flute, Tomeka Reid on cello, Aruán Ortiz on piano, and Fay Victor on vocals. Despite the absence of drums, this is hardly chamber music; it pulses with vivid energy. Mitchell’s flute is extraordinarily expressive, Reid’s cello is the music’s heart, and Victor’s singing is part gospel, part poetic declamation. When she digs into a phrase like “no one can stop us,” she turns it into a mantra that will have your fist rising in the air before you know it.
7 Ingrid Laubrock – Contemporary Chaos Practices (Intakt)
This album’s music is described as “Two Works For Orchestra With Soloists,” but if you’re expecting some kind of classical/jazz fusion project, forget it. The soloists are guitarist Mary Halvorson, pianist Kris Davis, trumpeter Nate Wooley, and Laubrock herself on saxophone, and each of them goes deep into the improvisational weeds, while also remaining a part of the ensemble. There are two conductors working here, one guiding the large ensemble through the emotive and theatrical score while the other counsels the soloists, and the result of all that collective effort is some of the most thrilling large-scale music of the year, regardless of genre.
6 Andrew Cyrille/Wadada Leo Smith/Bill Frisell – Lebroba (ECM)
Drummer Andrew Cyrille, trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith, and guitarist Bill Frisell team up for this stunningly beautiful album. It’s astonishing to think that Smith and Cyrille have never played together before, but it’s true. The drummer is free jazz’s great minimalist, keeping even the most volcanic collaborators (Cecil Taylor, David S. Ware, Peter Brötzmann) on track with a steady hand and the perfect interjection or counterpoint; here, his silences say as much as his precise ticks and booms. Frisell’s guitar rings out in shimmering waves, with bluesy bite when that’s called for. Smith’s trumpet soars, his lines precise and soul-piercing.
5 Camilla George – The People Could Fly (Ubuntu)
Alto saxophonist Camilla George builds on the strengths of 2016’s Isang with this follow-up. Guests abound (vocalists Cherise Adams-Burnett and Omar Lye-Fook, guitarist Shirley Tetteh, and trumpeter Quentin Collins), and drummer Winston Clifford replaces Femi Koleoso on most tracks, but pianist Sarah Tandy and bassist Daniel Casimir anchor the music. George’s compositions mix the hard bop of Cannonball Adderley and Jackie McLean with rhythms and structures from across the African diaspora, including her native Nigeria. The album, inspired by a children’s book of slavery-related folk tales, ends with a stunningly soulful version of Curtis Mayfield’s “Here But I’m Gone.”
4 Various Artists – We Out Here (Brownswood)
This compilation, produced by Shabaka Hutchings, serves as an easy introduction to the booming London jazz scene circa 2018. Apparently, the linchpin of the whole operation is not Hutchings himself, but fellow saxophonist Nubya Garcia, who plays on five of its nine tracks. The music spans a wide range from the gentle, shimmering spiritual jazz of Maisha’s “Inside The Acorn” to Moses Boyd’s “The Balance,” a throbbing pileup of electronics, beats and heavily treated horns. Tuba player Theon Cross’s “Brockley” will split your skull with low end, and the Afrobeat-inspired Kokoroko’s “Abusey Junction” shows that they need to release an album, like, yesterday.
3 Kamasi Washington – Heaven And Earth (Young Turks)
Kamasi Washington’s second full-length is actually nine minutes longer than 2015’s sprawling The Epic. It’s also more complex and ambitious, and a better album. Leave his own playing aside; he’s a seriously talented arranger, and the music here demonstrates real growth, from the opening reworking of the Bruce Lee theme song “Fists Of Fury,” which has the lushness of a peak-era Rick Ross track, to the closing “Will You Sing,” which pairs oozing synths and clarinet with the massed choir and strings that are Washington’s trademark. The title’s accurate; this album builds a whole world, and lets you live there.
2 Sons Of Kemet – Your Queen Is A Reptile (Impulse!)
The third album and major-label debut from Shabaka Hutchings’ rhythm-driven, bottom-heavy (two drummers and a tuba) is their most hard-charging yet. It’s also packed with guest stars, including poet Joshua Idehen, jungle vocalist Congo Natty, saxophonists Nubya Garcia and Pete Wareham, and on four of its nine tracks, drummer Moses Boyd, for a triple-kit attack. Hutchings prefers raw passion to highly technical musical exercises, and this album is meant to get the listener’s heart pumping, hips winding, and feet stomping. It’s a studio recording, but this is one of the most thrillingly alive albums of the year.
1 Makaya McCraven – Universal Beings (International Anthem)
Four live shows in unorthodox venues between August 2017 and January 2018. Four different bands, including major names like saxophonists Shabaka Hutchings and Nubya Garcia, harpist Brandee Younger, guitarist Jeff Parker, cellist Tomeka Reid, bassists Junius Paul and Dezron Douglas. Drummer Makaya McCraven took the raw live tapes and, as he’s done on previous releases like In The Moment, Highly Rare, and Where We Come From, edited them into moody suites of beat-driven jazz that swirl and roar, setting up looping grooves (that sometimes incorporate crowd noise as a rhythmic element) and then allowing them to rise to howling crescendos.