It’s been a while since I’ve done one of these, so a lot to catch up on:
The Savory Collection 1935-1940 – A huge pile of great jazz from the swing era, most of it unheard since it was first broadcast on the radio. Highlights for me so far are the tracks from John Kirby’s sextet, the jam sessions with Fats Waller, the solo piano tracks by Joe Sullivan (a rare example of extended improvisation from this period), and some sterling performances by Coleman Hawkins and Benny Carter. There’s also a lot of live Count Basie, with his band at its peak.
Dr. John – Bluesiana Triangle. I had never heard of this 1990 album until it was mentioned in a few of the obituaries after his passing in June. Of course I grabbed a copy immediately: who could pass up Dr. John playing with David Newman (who was in Ray Charles’ band back in the day) and Art Blakey! People seem to want to call it a jazz album because of the personnel, but it’s not really: as the title indicates, they are playing the blues, and wonderfully well. Rest in peace, Mac.
Allen Toussaint – American Tunes. Continuing on the theme of recordings by now-departed giants of New Orleans music, this posthumously released session is something of a follow-up to Toussaint’s jazz album The Bright Mississippi. This one is more deliberately wide-ranging but also brilliant. Would any other piano player — could any other piano player — move so easily from interpreting Bill Evans’ “Waltz for Debby” to Professor Longhair’s “Big Chief”? And his takes on two Ellington tunes, with guest vocals by Rhiannon Giddens, fulfill the promise of the title, magnificently pulling together a century of American musical tradition.
Ari Brown – Ultimate Frontier. A stalwart of the Chicago jazz scene who should be better known, and one of very few musicians to play both sax and piano at a high level. I originally encountered his sound in Kahil El’Zabar’s Ritual Trio. This 1995 recording was Brown’s first under his own name, and is a consistently excellent of set of soulful spiritual jazz.
Jacob Miller – Who Say Jah No Dread. One of the keystone recordings of dub reggae is Augustus Pablo’s King Tubbys Meets Rockers Uptown. Much of the raw material for that masterpiece came from these less well-known sessions that Pablo produced with vocalist Jacob Miller. The vocal tracks are powerful and compelling–it’s no surprise the dubs turned out so great as well.
Eric Dolphy – Musical Prophet: The Expanded 1963 New York Studio Sessions. A reissue with new material of two of Dolphy’s best albums, Conversations and Iron Man, that hopefully will draw more attention to these somewhat neglected recordings (see this appreciation by Richard Williams for more background). The arrangements for larger groups are quite interesting, but for me the real highlights are the more intimate pieces, especially the duets between Richard Davis on bass and Dolphy on bass clarinet.
Joe Lovano – Trio Tapestry. An unusual, minimalist outing for Lovano, a trio with just Marilyn Crispell on piano and Carmen Castaldi on drums. I first heard Crispell in the 1990s when she was a terror of aggressive free jazz; her recent ECM recordings, like this one, display a much gentler side.
Hearts & Minds – Electroradiance. Another oddball trio, featuring the Chicago-based bass clarinetist Jason Stein along with Paul Giallorenzo on synthesizer and Chad Taylor on drums. The instrumentation is like something Sun Ra would throw together over a weekend, and indeed the combination of avant-garde sounds with a backbeat is a little reminiscent of some of his 1970s experiments. But altogether it’s a completely original sound, and how often do you encounter that?
Matthew Shipp – Pastoral Composure. An excellent and almost-but-not-quite traditional quartet led by pianist Shipp and featuring super-bassist William Parker and Roy Campbell on trumpet. Every tune has a different feel and approach–a kind of variety surprisingly uncommon for jazz albums–making for a very satisfying listen.
Philip Cohran – Armageddon. Though a legend of the 1960s avant-garde, Cohran did not leave behind many recordings. All of them are worth hearing for their Afro-spiritual vibe and the powerful sound of his invented Frankiphone, sort of an amplified thumb piano. If this short concert recorded in 1968 does not quite rise to the level of his masterpiece On The Beach, it definitively has its moments.
Frank Kimbrough – Monk’s Dreams: The Complete Compositions of Thelonious Sphere Monk. Obviously, a lot of Monk: all 70 compositions are given full and respectful readings by a jazz quartet, for more than five hours of music. Less obviously, it’s also a lot of bass saxophone. Scott Robinson, who occupies the horn chair in the quartet, is almost as promiscuous in his multi-instrumentalism as Anthony Braxton, and like Braxton shares a love for the low-end instruments. Hearing the supposedly cumbersome bass sax lightly dance through the quirky angles of Monk’s tunes is one of the highlights of this tribute.
John Luther Adams – Four Thousand Holes. A gorgeous piece of minimalist composition, which is indeed built from very simple elements: piano, percussion, a bit of electronics. Adams is one of my favorite contemporary composers.
Melba Liston – Melba Liston And Her ‘Bones. The first (perhaps only?) prominent female trombonist in jazz, Liston was also a gifted arranger and in her later career worked extensively with the great Randy Weston. This package collects some of her work from the mid-50s, and her interesting arrangements lift the material above other mainstream jazz of the period.
Keith Hudson – Playing It Cool. An amazing piece of dark, rhythmic dub experimentalism from 1981. Almost everything I’ve heard by Hudson is absolutely essential, funky, compelling and strange in equal measures.
Charlie Haden – Not In Our Name. Haden’s 1968 Liberation Music Orchestrais one of the classics of radical 60s jazz, but (whisper it) I actually like this 2004 follow-up recording even better (the orchestra itself is entirely different, sharing only Haden and pianist/arranger Carla with the original incarnation). Jazz compositions are intermixed with Bley’s transformations of quintessential American musical pieces such as Amazing Grace and bits of Barber’s Adagio for Strings and Dvorak’s New World Symphony.
Paul Motian – On Broadway Vol. 1,2,3,4,5. A staggering musical accomplishment by the late, great Motian, one of the most distinctive drummers in jazz. His transformations of the old warhorses are startling and beautiful. My favorites so far are Vol. 3, where the addition of Lee Konitz to the group elevates it to a new level, and Vol. 4, where Rebecca Martin’s vocals manage to make the standards sound less rather than more traditional.
Andrew Cyrille – The Declaration of Musical Independence. Another drummer-led recording, and a surprisingly laid-back one for Cyrille. The real delight here is the rare appearance of Richard Teitelbaum, one of the only true master synthesizer players in jazz (along with, of course, Sun Ra).
Wayne Shorter – Emanon. The quartet tracks are vibrant and excellent, but I wanted to like the large-ensemble bits more than I actually did. Even before this won a Grammy, it was amusing to watch jazz reviewers try to avoid saying anything critical about the graphic novel that accompanies the music, since Shorter is after all a living legend. Indeed, the less said about it the better.
Exploding Star Orchestra – Galactic Parables Vol. 1. A powerful concert recording by Rob Mazurek’s great free-jazz big band. The space references are an obvious homage to Sun Ra, and his use of electronically manipulated voices achieves a similar effect to Ra’s chants and exhortations. But the band’s sound is all its own.
New Zion Trio – Fight Against Babylon. This piano trio led by Jamie Saft makes a serious and sustained attempt to combine jazz improvisation with Jamaican rhythms. The bass and drums indeed do an amazing job of channeling the minimal, trancelike repetitions of reggae. It’s not completely successful, but there are some transcendent moments here.
Bill Dixon – Intents and Purposes. This 1967 recording by trumpeter Dixon is easily lumped together with the free jazz of the era, but in fact it was mostly through-composed. And it really does not sound like much from that time, or since: a moody and often delicate piece of orchestral jazz.
Lucky Thompson – Tricotism. Thompson has one of the most gorgeous tones of any tenor saxophonist. In these 1956 sessions, his beautiful sound is displayed to full advantage in a drummerless trio.
Gamelan Pacifica – Nourishment. The Seattle-based gamelan ensemble’s 1994 recording Trance Gong was a landmark in combining Indonesian modernism with American new music; this 2015 has more excellent and intriguing work.
Nat Birchall – Sounds Almighty. Birchall is a British tenor saxophonist who usually plays jazz, but he is also a devotee of Jamaican music. For this 2018 session he joined up with trombone great Vin Gordon to record some instrumental reggae in the classic style.
I listened to roughly 200 recordings for the first time this year; here are my favorites. As with previousiterations, this list is a purely personal choice not restricted by what was commercially released in 2018. But more new and recent releases did make their way onto my list this year – perhaps I am starting to catch up?
Makaya McCraven – Universal Beings. Rarely have I heard music that from the first listen is both so immediately appealing and so obviously different from anything else. Groove-oriented free jazz would be one way to describe it; “organic beat music” is his preferred term. More background on this sprawling masterpiece is in Giovanni Russonello’s profile and Nate Chinen’s review.
Thumbscrew – Theirs. I can’t keep up with all of Mary Halvorson’s projects, but I really enjoyed her trio’s fresh takes on other people’s jazz compositions (not quite “standards”). The moody version of Jimmy Rowles The Peacocks is a highlight; by coincidence I also heard the original with Stan Getz for the first time this year, and it is well worth seeking out.
Alice Coltrane – Transfiguration. Her more spiritual 1970s work has been getting a well-deserved reassessment, thanks to some recentreissues. But this monstrous live album with Reggie Workman and Roy Haynes is my pick for her best from that era.
Wadada Leo Smith – A Cosmic Rhythm With Each Stroke. Smith’s music was one of my great discoveries this year. It’s hard to single out one recording in particular but this duet with Vijay Iyer is a perfect showcase for his gorgeous long tones and masterful use of space.
Ergo – If Not Inertia. A gorgeous jazz tapestry featuring trombone, electronics and prepared piano, as well as a couple of guest turns by Mary Halvorson.
Jeremy Steig, Flute Fever. On this 1963 recording, Steig seems like he is setting out to prove that the flute is just as powerful a jazz instrument as the tenor sax. He succeeds brilliantly.
Don Ellis – Essence. The modernist trumpeter spent most of his career fronting a big band, but for me his most interesting work was a series of small-group albums from the early 1960s. This quartet with Paul Bley and Gary Peacock is my favorite; their trio Out Of Nowhere is also worthwhile.
Joe Venuti & Earl Hines – Hot Sonatas. An absolutely delightful duet between two giants of early jazz. It was recorded in 1975, very late in both their careers, but you will hear nothing but tremendous vitality.
Johnny Dodds – Blue Clarinet Stomp and New Orleans Stomp. Dodds was the clarinetist in Louis Armstrong’s classic Hot Fives sessions. These small-group recordings, made under his own name from 1926-1929, capture some of that same primal jazz magic.
Bessie Smith – Empress of the Blues: Volume 2, 1926-33. Bessie Smith is part of the bedrock of American popular music. If like me you had somehow skipped that part of your musical education, this collection is an excellent way to hear her incredible voice.
Various Artists – The Keynote Jazz Collection 1941-1947. A massive and wonderful collection highlighting the transition from small-group swing to bop. There is some great Coleman Hawkins and Count Basie here, and some surprising early avant-gardism from Lennie Tristano, but mainly lots of work by less well-known journeymen.
Albert King – I’ll Play The Blues For You. An absolutely ripping live album, fusing King’s searing blues guitar with the funk of the Bar-Kays (at the time, Isaac Hayes’ backing band).
Errol Brown – Orthodox Dub & Yabby You – Beware Dub. Brilliant-yet-obscure reggae albums should in theory be a finite resource close to exhaustion, and yet somehow the crate diggers keep finding more to reissue. These are both masterpieces of dub and instrumental reggae.
Pierre Fournier – Bach: Six Suites for Solo Cello. I don’t listen to a lot of traditional classical music, but I do find myself often going back to Bach. This year I rediscovered these mindblowing, heartbreaking compositions through this classic 1961 recording.
Hank Mobley – And His All Stars. The perenially underrated tenor saxophonist Hank Mobley recorded a string of interchangeably-titled dates in the mid-50s, all of which have their moments. But this 1957 session is really a cut above thanks to the presence of Milt Jackson, who lifts the proceedings to another level. Just a sterling example of mainstream jazz.
Julian Lage – Live In Los Angeles. Lage is a virtuosic young jazz guitarist whose twangy sound pays homage to the country and rock traditions. He won my heart by tackling early jazz obscurities like “Persian Rug,” which I know from a 1928 recording with Fats Waller on organ. But he is not at all a moldy fig–these are modern, free-flowing improvisations. The extended live versions to me are better and more energetic than the ones on his studio album; the whole thing is free on Youtube.
Bessie Smith – Empress of the Blues: Volume 2, 1926-33. It turns out I have been a Bessie Smith fan for years without even knowing it. Many of my favorite classic blues tunes that I know from other singers–“Gimme A Pigfoot And A Bottle of Beer”, “Careless Love”, “I Need A Little Sugar In My Bowl”, “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out”–were made famous by her, but I had not sought out the original recordings until now. The sound on this JSP collection is quite impressive, Smith’s incredibly strong voice just punches through.
Harry Miller – 1941-1983: The Collection. It’s a bit unfair to put this on a list of recommendations since it is long out of print, but I felt compelled to share since it is by far the best music find I have ever made at a thrift store. Miller was a South African bassist who lived in London, and his work straddles British free jazz and the more groove-oriented South African scene. He has strong groups on Family Affair and Down South which are the most consistent albums, but his solo bass recording Children At Play is also interesting. A live recording from this period is available from the essential Cuneiform Records.
The Sun Ra Arkestra – Live At Babylon. The music produced by the current edition of the band, under the leadership of Marshall Allen, is perhaps not as complex and weird as it was under the master himself, but that is really just a quibble. This 2016 live recording captures the Arkestra’s ferocious groove and exuberant melding of the tonal and atonal; the long version of “Discipline 27” is just a monster.