- 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.
- Cannonball Adderley & Milt Jackson – Things Are Getting Better. A classic straightahead jazz session from two masters of blues feeling. Also available as part of this compilation.
I listened to roughly 200 recordings for the first time this year; here are my favorites. As with previous iterations, 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 recent reissues. 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.
- Johnny Dodds – Blue Clarinet Stomp. Dodds was the clarinetist in Louis Armstrong’s classic Hot Fives sessions, and these 1928-29 recordings on his own capture some of that same powerful early jazz magic. Particularly wonderful are the trios with just piano and bass; bassist Bill Johnson plays out front and melodically in a way that would not become the norm for jazz bassists for another generation.
- Vijay Iyer & Wadada Leo Smith – A Cosmic Rhythm With Each Stroke. An absolutely entrancing duet. Iyer is a great partner for Smith’s gorgeous long tones and masterful use of space. I find Smith’s music hard to describe but increasingly rewarding.
- Don Ellis – Essence. Ellis is best known for his 1970s big-band work which featured odd time signatures, but this stuff is, justifiably, “receding from historical view,” as Ethan Iverson put it. More enduring are Ellis’ first recordings in the early 1960s with some adventurous small groups. So far this one with Paul Bley and Gary Peacock is my favorite of the lot: Ellis really rips into some well-chosen standards and modern compositions.
- Jakob Bro – Balladeering. I first heard this one in, of all places, that London bookshop on a boat by King’s Cross. It stood out then, as it should have, given the caliber of the bandmates the Danish guitarist found: Lee Konitz, Paul Motian, Bill Frisell. All of them excel at creating a spacious, almost ambient sound.
- Jimmie Rowles – The Peacocks. A really lovely recording with Stan Getz; there are quartet and vocal numbers, but the real standouts are the duets, including the title track. Discovered via the amazing Ted Gioia, who is a Rowles advocate.
- Benny Goodman – The Complete RCA Victor Small Group Recordings. Small-group swing is one of the best sounds in jazz in my book, much more listenable today than most big-band music from the same era. The sound that Goodman’s quartet with Teddy Wilson on piano and Lionel Hamptom on vibes generates is just lovely.
- Kitsos Harisiadis – Lament in a Deep Style 1929-1931. I discovered this recording thanks to Andrew Katzenstein’s fascinating article in the New York Review of Books on the music produced in Epirus in the 1920s and 1930s. Harisiadis is a clarinetist and near-contemporary of Goodman but his sound ventures into territory jazz would not explore until the 1960s.
- John Coltrane – Both Directions At Once. This will probably outsell any jazz recording by a living musician, so I don’t need to give it more publicity. But who could pass up more recordings from the Coltrane quarter’s classic period? While it did not surprise me, I certainly enjoyed this, especially the untitled original compositions.
- Herbie Hancock – Sextant. Another one of those records I just didn’t hear right the first time: the goofy cover and synthesizer bleeps were apparently not serious enough for this young jazz fan. But with this passage of time, I find I do really like it: an excellent extension of the moody, complex Bitches Brew sound.
- Ergo – If Not Inertia. The prepared piano pieces of John Cage are some of my favorite music outside the jazz idiom, mostly because of the lovely spooky sound. So I really enjoyed the incorporation of the prepared piano, along with electronics and other noises, into a more jazz-like context on this recording.
- Miles Davis – Big Fun. Sometimes you just don’t hear things the first time. When back in the day I first heard Big Fun and a lot of other 70s electric Miles, it all seemed noodly and pointless. Returning to it today, I find it has become one of my favorite examples of this era of Miles: beautiful, gentle, almost ambient.
- Nina Simone – Let It Be Me. A live set from very late in her career. She does not (of course) sound like she did in the 1960s, and her voice shows a lot of wear. But it’s still a stunning performance; I particularly liked the title track and “Baltimore.” Is there a reason her version wasn’t the theme song for The Wire? Too obvious?
- Sun Ra – The Cymbals/Symbols Sessions. Some of my favorite small-band Sun Ra recordings; keyboard-heavy workouts from 1973 with ripping horn solos and grooving bass work from Ronnie Boykins. The 16-minute “Thoughts Under a Dark Blue Light” is a stone-cold late-night classic. Five tracks from these sessions were reissued in the 1990s as part of the “The Great Lost Sun Ra Albums” collection, but the heroic work of the Sun Ra Archive has improved the sound and unearthed another six tracks in similar style, which are very much worth hearing.
- Orchestra Baobab – Tribute To Ndiouga Dieng. A new album from Orchestra Baobab is a cause for celebration, even if the occasion was the death of one of their original vocalists in 2016. But the Afro-Cuban rhythms and liquid guitar work sound as good as ever. Irresistible.
- Joe Venuti & Earl Hines – Hot Sonatas. Violinist Joe Venuti recorded some of the first and most famous duets in jazz in the 1920s in partnership with guitarist Eddie Lang. Pianist Earl Hines also recorded “Weather Bird,” a great duet with Louis Armstrong, in the same decade. The two played together for the first time on this delightful 1975 recording, showing just how full of life the 1920s chamber-jazz style could still be.
- Wadada Leo Smith – America’s National Parks. Smith’s trumpet and Ashley Waters’ cello lead the quintet through a series of pieces that are as extended and spacious as the parks they celebrate. Adam Shatz’s recent profile of Smith is a great primer on his work and quiet aesthetic.
- Albert King – I’ll Play The Blues For You. Blues purists criticize this 1972 live album for being too funky (the backing band is the Bar-Kays, who were also working with Isaac Hayes at the time), while for funk aficionados it is too much blues guitar. For the rest of us, the mix is just right–absolutely ripping.
- Freddie Hubbard & Stanley Turrentine – In Concert. Jazz-funk fusion is mostly not really my thing, but an old friend recently reminded of this 1973 album, which is a classic of the genre. Ron Carter’s bassline on “Povo” in particular is unbelievably groovy.
- Ernest Ranglin – Guitar In Ernest. This reissue of a 1965 recording gives us a rare chance to hear the reggae guitar master in a more straightahead jazz context; his virtuosity is always astounding.
- Clark Terry – Color Changes. This is an old favorite that recently popped up on the playlist again. Terry’s octet emphasizes tone color and ensemble work, creating a sound something like a straightahead Sun Ra Arkestra, or a modernized version of Ellington’s small bands. I could listen to 20 more albums like this, but sadly there is only the one.
- Pierre Fournier – Bach: Six Suites for Solo Cello. I have enjoyed rediscovering these mindblowing, heartbreaking compositions in this classic 1961 recording; I have no educated opinion on the merits of Fournier’s version versus the many other recordings, but it is widely praised and sounds very good to me.
- Nicole Mitchell – Ice Crystals. Mitchell has been a frequent appearance on these lists in recent months, and so far I have not found a dud recording from this master of the flute. This one is a lovely, spare quartet with Jason Adasiewciz on vibes.
- Errol Brown – Orthodox Dub. It seems like brilliant-but-obscure reggae albums should be a finite resource close to exhaustion, yet somehow those crate-digging reissue mavens continue to unearth new gems for the rest of us to enjoy, like this 1978 instrumental masterpiece.
- Charlie Haden – Time / Life. This posthumous release combines two live recordings by Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra, with three tributes arranged by Carla Bley and recorded in 2015, a year after his passing. All are truly beautiful examples of large-ensemble jazz.
- Alice Coltrane – The Ecstatic Music of Turiyasangitananda. One of the more interesting reissues to come down the pike in a while, these self-produced pieces were never released commercially. Those who, like myself, are fans of Alice Coltrane’s 1970s recordings will find a lot to like here, though they can get pretty far from the jazz idiom.
The next rehearsal was Friday, the day before the show. Surprise, surprise: Sun Ra opened more musical cans of worms. Songs he’d written hours before—or made up on the spot.
Don surely sensed our collective nervous anger, and his anxiety must’ve dwarfed ours. Ticket sales were beyond any previous concert (by show time, the hall would be sold out), and we had virtually no charts prepared. Diplomatically, Don suggested we work on tunes we’d tried before, and Sun Ra, without much fuss, agreed. But even when we summoned forth the riffs as we remembered them, something inevitably wasn’t to his liking. The closer we came to repeating what we’d learned in previous sessions, the faster Sun Ra switched what he was doing.
“Y’all seem so worried,” he said, “about playing the notes. But you can play more than just notes on a page, you know. You can play the wind or the river. You can play the sun rays.”
A cop-out, I thought. If anything goes, nothing needs perfecting.
But fine. He was the visionary.
And so when, with a toss of his hand, as if scattering birdseed, he signaled for the next song to start, I decided to play precisely nothing the way we’d learned it. I’d find a novel way to mutate every note: coming in a millisecond ahead of or behind the beat, tonguing hard or slurring through a half-valve. I’d like to say I did this out of open-minded virtue, but cussedness was closer to the truth. If he was hell-bent on undermining our book-learned perseverance, it seemed only fair to try to beat him at his game.
But, strangely, my mischief-making failed to wreck the music. Sun Ra was accompanying us, as usual, on piano, and for every note I sabotaged, he seemed to change his playing, widening the song’s sidelines so I always stayed in bounds. Could it be? I tried again—a purposely sharpened note—and Sun Ra’s fingers danced into a new configuration, his chord seemingly built on my suggestion. Back and forth we went in our loony musical leapfrog, till I was convoluted with amusement.
Sun Ra flashed a smile at me—not gloating but in gratitude—and now I saw this kind of sport was the goal. You’re right, it’s a game, I imagined him saying, but all of us are on the same team. I couldn’t say we sounded great, or that I fully “got” it; I still searched for handholds in the din. But now I was attuned to, not tuning out, his whimsies.
That is from Michael Lowenthal’s Face the Music: My Improbable Trip to Saturn (or Close Enough) with Sun Ra, a charming set of anecdotes about Sun Ra’s 1990 visit to Dartmouth College (it is a magazine-article-length Kindle Single published in 2016). His recollections are particularly poignant, and perhaps particularly insightful, because he gave up trumpet playing for writing not long after this encounter.