Where jazz is concerned, the 2010s could be divided almost precisely in half: BK (Before Kamasi) and AK (After Kamasi). The burly LA saxophonist’s triple album, The Epic, was released on May 5, 2015, almost exactly at the decade’s midpoint, and it changed everything. Not because he inspired a slew of imitators, but because all of a sudden people were paying attention to the genre in a way they hadn’t before. In the years that followed, his audience grew like a tumor — his August 2015 New York debut was at the Blue Note, a club that holds fewer than 200 people, and less than three years later, in June 2018, I saw him open for alt-j at Forest Hills Stadium in Queens.
His popularity came along with an overall shift toward populism. Musicians in their 20s and 30s like Robert Glasper, Esperanza Spalding (who won the Best New Artist Grammy in 2011, shocking Justin Bieber fans), Christian Scott, Keyon Harrold, Marcus Strickland, and others, who’d never known a world without hip-hop, began making records that reflected their own lives and experiences. They were the products of music schools, whether in New York and Boston or in North Texas, but they were also children of the internet, and they arrived in groups, preferring to work with their peers rather than serve as the young apprentices to elder statesmen. They were joined by a slew of equally young, equally exciting London players intent on bringing the music back to life by incorporating rhythms and hooks from across the Afro-Caribbean diaspora and blending them with the dancefloor sounds and looping structures of London nightclubs, though they could assemble classic post-bop arrangements, too.
Jazz’s veterans continued to impress and inspire, in performance and on record, and some seemed to catch a creative wave, like trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith, who released several multi-disc sets, one of which, Ten Freedom Summers, was a finalist for the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Music. Henry Threadgill actually won a Pulitzer in 2015, for his album In For A Penny, In For A Pound. And the music’s high-art side was strong in general, with labels like Pi and Firehouse 12 putting out critically acclaimed and genuinely impressive albums by a slew of talented player-composers, many of whom popped up again and again in each other’s ensembles.
The list that follows isn’t a strict “best-of,” although every album on it is genuinely great. It’s also (and maybe more) a list of 20 albums that moved jazz forward, recontextualizing its past and suggesting new possibilities for its future. With only a couple of exceptions, it’s a list of music by Americans, because jazz is a global music, but it’s from this country. And while there are a few players who’ve been active since the late ’60s or early ’70s, it’s a list mostly made by people who came on the scene in the 21st century, because they’re the generation of players and composers who will be leading the charge in the years to come.
20 Nicole Mitchell – Mandorla Awakening II: Emerging Worlds (FPE, 2017)
Flutist Nicole Mitchell is an avowed sci-fi fan, and cites the late Octavia Butler as an influence on her work. The music on this record combines ancient and modern instrumentation: shakuhachi (a Japanese wood flute), violin, cello, banjo, electric guitar, oud, bass, shamisen, Western percussion, and taiko drums. That blend of sounds — deployed here in patient, meditative compositions that shimmer and radiate — posits a future that’s culturally omnivorous and philosophically egalitarian, putting no one above anyone else and all in service to the whole. It’s extraordinarily beautiful and thoughtful music, a verdant rain forest of sound that inspires while it entertains.
19 Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society – Real Enemies (New Amsterdam, 2016)
Composer and arranger Darcy James Argue is just one of a small school of musicians who are revitalizing big band orchestration for the modern era. Each of the Secret Society’s three albums to date has been a conceptually unified large-scale work, and this is the ensemble’s darkest music to date. It tackles themes of Cold War paranoia, creating an alternate soundtrack to a spy thriller that plays out only in your mind. The rhythms are stealthy, the horns creep up like a tail you can’t quite shake; heard on headphones, this is music that’ll have you looking over your shoulder.
18 Branford Marsalis Quartet – Four MFs Playin’ Tunes (Marsalis Music, 2012)
Saxophonist Branford Marsalis keeps his long-running quartet — currently featuring pianist Joey Calderazzo, bassist Eric Revis, and drummer Justin Faulkner — busy on the road, and occasionally they stop into a recording studio. This album was Faulkner’s first with the group, after joining in 2009, and it lives up to its title. These are tuneful compositions, and they swing hard, because Revis is an absolutely masterful bassist who journeys back and forth between conventional post-bop and avant-garde experimentation without blinking, and Faulkner is one of the most thunderous drummers since Elvin Jones. These guys are monster players, and this album kicks ass.
17 Orrin Evans – Flip The Script (Posi-Tone, 2012)
Pianist Orrin Evans draws from the entirety of black music to turn his compositions and interpretations into music that blends the high-level improvisation and fierce swing of the purest jazz with the melody and richness of soul. On this trio disc, he, bassist Ben Wolfe, and drummer Donald Edwards work their way through six hard-driving originals and some surprising covers. Their sunset version of “Someday My Prince Will Come” is lonelier and more subdued than Miles Davis’s 1961 version, while their take on Luther Vandross’s “A Brand New Day” comes charging out of the gate and never pauses for breath.
16 Cécile McLorin Salvant – Dreams And Daggers (Mack Avenue, 2017)
On this Grammy-winning double disc, vocalist Salvant and her trio (pianist Aaron Diehl, bassist Paul Sikivie, and drummer Lawrence Leathers, who was murdered in June 2019) journeyed through nearly two dozen tracks exploring romance and heartbreak from multiple angles. The music was mostly recorded live at the Village Vanguard, with six studio tracks adding a string quartet. Salvant’s voice is light, with a Billie Holiday-ish ragged edge, but she delivers the lyrics with clarity and focus; these words mean something to her, and she wants them to mean something to you. This was the essential jazz vocal album of the decade.
15 Donny McCaslin – Beyond Now (Motéma, 2016)
The band on this release — McCaslin on saxophone, Jason Lindner on keyboards, Tim Lefebvre on bass, and Mark Guiliana on drums — had been together for four years before they were recruited by David Bowie for his final studio album, Blackstar. This was their follow-up, which blended hard-charging, synth-rock originals with versions of two Bowie pieces, “A Small Plot Of Land” and “Warszawa,” Deadmau5’s “Coelacanth1,” and Mutemath’s “Remain.” McCaslin’s playing was less about virtuoso technique and more about raw, emotive sound, Lindner and Lefebvre were a perfect team, and Guiliana’s precisely chopped-up beats kept things twitchy and exciting at all times.
14 Linda May Han Oh – Aventurine (Biophilia, 2019)
Recorded in 2017, this album combines a jazz quartet (saxophone, piano, Oh’s bass, drums, and occasional vibes) with a string quartet and five vocalists singing wordless melodies. The resulting music is a stunning vision of chamber jazz, something like a tornado striking a flowerbed — a mosaic of colors rises into the air and spins wildly, swirling around and around in a way that’s both mildly disorienting and utterly captivating. It’s a culmination for Oh, whose music has been getting more intricate with each release. Her blending of traditions is much more than a dry technical exercise, though; it’s almost swooningly romantic.
13 Esperanza Spalding – Radio Music Society (Heads Up, 2012)
This disc — jammed with high-profile guests and slinky, arty post-R&B songs — won bassist/vocalist Esperanza Spalding a Grammy for Best Jazz Vocal Album, two years after she beat both Justin Bieber and Drake to take Best New Artist. Her voice is soft and clear, never devolving into mannered breathiness, and her lyrics are sharp and perceptive. The music blends jazz, funk, soul, and a few pieces have a Brazilian lilt; “Hold On Me” is a lushly orchestrated big band ballad. This was the album that marked Spalding as a composer and performer whose talent could smash all arbitrary walls between genres.
12 Ambrose Akinmusire – The Imagined Savior Is Far Easier To Paint (Blue Note, 2014)
Trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire’s third album featured longtime collaborators — Walter Smith III on sax, Sam Harris on piano, Harish Raghavan on bass, Justin Brown on drums — plus guitarist Charles Altura, the OSSO String Quartet, and vocalists Becca Stevens, Theo Bleckmann, and Cold Specks. He’s not a fire-breathing trumpeter; he often seems to be murmuring to himself. And the lyrics seem like internal monologues even as they demand sympathy for suffering people, from homeless men to victims of gun violence to convicted murderers. This album may require several listens to fully sink in and reveal itself, but when it does it’s astonishingly powerful.
11 William Parker – Wood Flute Songs (AUM Fidelity, 2013)
In 1998, bassist William Parker premiered a new quartet featuring trumpeter Lewis “Flip” Barnes, alto saxophonist Rob Brown, and drummer Hamid Drake. That group has made multiple studio and live albums, all of them excellent, but this eight-CD box, which includes concerts by the quartet as well as expanded ensembles with those four musicians as the core, is just mind-blowing. Parker and Drake are one of the greatest rhythm teams in jazz, and the trance-like grooves they set up allow Barnes and Brown (and a stunning array of guests) to journey as far out as they like, the ground secure beneath them.
10 Matana Roberts – Coin Coin Chapter Two: Mississippi Moonchile (Constellation, 2013)
Alto saxophonist, composer, and multimedia artist Matana Roberts’ continuing series — projected to run 12 parts — tells the story of her family, but it’s the story of America as well. In this second volume, she assembles a fantastic group with trumpeter Jason Palmer, pianist Shoko Nagai, bassist Thomson Kneeland, and drummer Tomas Fujiwara to work through 18 linked pieces that blend jazz, gospel, and complex compositional gambits. Oh, and there’s an operatic tenor, Jeremiah Abiah, serving as a counterpoint to Roberts’ own singing and recitations of poems, Bible verses, and memories of her grandmother, who’s the primary subject of this album.
9 Sons Of Kemet – Your Queen Is A Reptile (Impulse!, 2018)
The rise of London’s insurgent jazz scene was one of the most exciting stories of the 2010s’ second half. Dozens of musicians, many the children of immigrants, worked together to create a vibrant music that blended hard bop and avant-garde rigor with the driving beats of the city’s dance clubs and street parties. This album by towering reeds player Shabaka Hutchings’ sax/tuba/two-drummers quartet featured multiple guests, including fellow saxophonists Nubya Garcia and Pete Wareham, vocalist Congo Natty, and poet Joshua Idehen. Together, they created a stomping, conscious party album laying raw skronk over deep, dubby grooves, with every track a tribute to an under-celebrated woman.
8 Irreversible Entanglements – Irreversible Entanglements (International Anthem, 2017)
Irreversible Entanglements is a quintet featuring saxophonist Keir Neuringer, bassist Luke Stewart, trumpeter Aquiles Navarro, and drummer Tcheser Holmes, joined by poet Camae Ayewa, better known as Moor Mother. It’s improvised free jazz in the 1960s tradition; Ayewa’s words are furious, but delivered with exquisite control. And behind her, the music surges up and down, the horns attacking and receding like she’s conducting them, as the bass and drums drive it all forward with a kind of marching swing. Albert Ayler’s music often sounded like a parade — Irreversible Entanglements pull a similar trick, but it’s a protest march.
7 Tyshawn Sorey – The Inner Spectrum Of Variables (Pi, 2016)
Tyshawn Sorey is much, much more than a jazz drummer. His own music frequently has a meditative quality that combines sounds in genuinely unexpected ways, drawing the listener in, demanding and rewarding focused listening. This two-CD set, composed for piano trio and string trio (violin, viola, and cello), is 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 ensemble soundscape. The second disc is just as dark and harsh, though light breaks through sometimes. Two hours long, this is a genuine masterwork, defiantly uncategorizable and as beautiful as anything by Cecil Taylor or Morton Feldman.
6 Nduduzo Makhathini – Ikhambi (Universal Music, 2017)
South African pianist/composer Nduduzo Makhathini released eight albums in the 2010s. He’s a spiritual jazz player in the vein of McCoy Tyner, Pharoah Sanders, and both John and Alice Coltrane; his compositions pulse and shimmer, trumpet and saxophone bolstered by harp, choirs and additional percussion. Ikhambi is a truly epic work, a 75-minute album that includes two different three-part suites, blues and gospel songs, and sprawling pieces that lay fierce free jazz solos atop meditative orchestration. Ikhambi, the album title, is a Zulu word for a blend of healing herbs. Makhathini clearly intends his music to offer healing to the listener.
5 Kamasi Washington – The Epic (Brainfeeder, 2015)
This three-disc, three-hour statement brought jazz to more new ears — fans and critics alike — than any record of the past decade. Washington is the best kind of populist; he makes big, sweeping musical gestures intended to reach as many people as possible. His solos have a high-energy, R&B feel that’s as indebted to King Curtis or Stanley Turrentine as to Pharoah Sanders or John Coltrane, and his band sets up grooves that funk as hard as they swing. Meanwhile, the string and choral arrangements launch the whole thing into the stratosphere. The Epic lives up to both the hype and its title.
4 Mary Halvorson Octet – Away With You (Firehouse 12, 2016)
Guitarist Mary Halvorson has reshaped jazz guitar in her own image. Her pinging, scraping, zinging lines and sudden squiggly warps (courtesy of her delay pedal) are instantly recognizable, and her slowly expanding band — a trio, then a quintet, a septet, and finally an octet — has allowed her to develop a compositional voice as unique as her playing style. On this album, four horns (trumpet, trombone, alto and tenor saxes) squabble and squall as Halvorson, bassist John Hébert, drummer Ches Smith, and pedal steel guitarist Susan Alcorn lurch, clatter, and sometimes soar. It’s avant-garde jazz with a strange prairie edge, and it’s stunning.
3 Henry Threadgill 14 Or 15 Kestra: Agg – Dirt… And More Dirt (Pi, 2018)
In 2015, Henry Threadgill won a Pulitzer Prize for his double CD In For A Penny, In For A Pound. Three years later, he gave the world this, two linked compositions played by a 15-member ensemble that included two pianists and two drummers alongside guitar, bass, cello, and eight horns. Some of the odd instrumental combinations Threadgill favors (like guitar/bass/tuba) get strong showcases, and there’s a great two-piano interlude before he takes his own solo. It’s the kind of album only a man who’s spent decades refining a very particular language, and years assembling a pool of trusted collaborators/acolytes, would even attempt. It’s a masterpiece.
2 Jaimie Branch – Fly Or Die (International Anthem, 2017)
Trumpeter Jaimie Branch comes out of Chicago, a city with a very different attitude toward creative music than the pool-of-sharks atmosphere of New York. She’s a DIY-ist and a collaborator, someone for whom the group sound is every bit as important as the sound of her own horn. The music on this album, scored for trumpet, cello, bass, and drums with a guitar or a three-horn chorale popping up as needed, has the organic blues feel of Julius Hemphill or William Parker, with a West African edge. The pieces are built from deceptively simple vamps that rise gradually to breathtaking crescendos, as the chugging rhythms keep your head nodding.
1 Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah – The Centennial Trilogy (Ropeadope, 2017)
Spreading two and a half hours of music across three albums — Ruler Rebel, Diaspora, and The Emancipation Procrastination — allowed trumpeter Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah to celebrate jazz’s centennial by radically expanding the music’s definition. His high-powered horn was surrounded by oceans of live and programmed rhythm, from thundering New Orleans polyrhythms to ice-cold trap beats, but he was never just soloing over loops; these were fully arranged compositions, creating and sustaining a range of moods, from seething to romantic to heart-crushingly bleak. He’s an absolute monster on the horn, capable of screaming high notes and incredible sustain, and he places his ferocious technique into a sonic landscape like nothing else out there. Whatever jazz’s future may be, Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah is going to be at the front of the pack.
Listen to a playlist with key tracks from every album (that’s available on Spotify) here.