This 2016 saw jazz continue its steady march into the mainstream. There might not have been a crossover jazz hit on the level of Kamasi Washington's The Epic, but David Bowie's Blackstar set new standards for pop's engagement with the genre.
Hiring saxophonist Donny McCaslin's band for this album was a masterstroke: the energy and invention they bring to Bowie's songs puts Blackstar light years ahead of The Next Day'ssession muso rock. Bowie’s Blackstar is a brilliant example of rock musicians drawing on jazz.
Who knows whether Bowie would have continued to work with McCaslin and his band—the core of which is rounded out by drummer Mark Guiliana, bassist Tim Lefebvre and keyboardist Jason Lindner—had he not died of liver cancer two days after the album came out (on his 69th birthday, no less). But while The Magic Shop—the downtown NYC studio where Blackstar was recorded—closed its doors shortly after Bowie’s death, the magic of what the Starman and his charges conspired inside those walls can be heard across the entire scope of our list of the best jazz albums of the year, be it intentional or otherwise.
This is our selection of the best Jazz albums that were released during the year 2016, a mixture of sounds, influences and nuances of known musicians and new generation.
Wolfgang Muthspiel, Rising Grace (ECM)
The idea of the “great quintet” is alive and well on the second ECM LP as leader from Austrian guitarist Wolfgang Muthspiel.
Recorded in the South of France with a jaw-dropping combo consisting of pianist Brad Mehldau and his longtime compatriot Larry Grenadier on double bass, drummer Brian Blade and the mighty Ambrose Akinmusire on trumpet, Rising Grace is beautifully deep, melodic modal jazz that focuses around Muthspiel’s graceful work on the fretboard in the keys of Jim Hall and Ralph Towner. Essential late-night listening.
Brain Tentacles, Brain Tentacles (Relapse)
For those who discovered jazz through John Zorn and his affiliations with Mr. Bungle and Cannibal Corpse, the metal element of the genre has been prevalent for well over 25 years now (even longer, if you are among those of us who count Bill Ward’s drumming in Black Sabbath as the first true fusion of the two arts).
On their blistering debut, Chicago’s Brain Tentacles picks up the baton abandoned by such groups as Dillinger Escape Plan and Candiria by incorporating heavy elements of free bop into their spastic breakdowns, recalling the halcyon days of Naked City when Yamantaka Eye of the Boredoms was singing with them, crafting pure evisceration through improvisation.
Donny McCaslin, Beyond Now (Motema Music)
Donny and the group were very much in the throes of the grieving process when they began work on Beyond Now, recorded only three months following the passing of David Bowie, who shot their careers into the stratosphere when he brought them aboard to record ★.
With the help of guitarist Nate Wood and producer David Binney, the band channeled their sorrow into pushing themselves to keep merging innovative EDM production and jazz improvisation with a wild interpretation of “Coelacanth 1” by Deadmau5 and the freq’d out McCaslin original “Faceplant”.
Meanwhile, the group pays sublime homage to their old boss in the form of imaginative renditions of the Outside highlight “A Small Plot of Land” (featuring vocals by Jeff Taylor) and a transcendent translation of the Low centerpiece “Warszawa”.
Kris Davis, Duopoly (Pyroclastic)
If there is one thing pianist Kris Davis has inherently displayed since emerging from the New York City jazz scene in the 2000s it was her ability to pick up and play with some of the most advanced minds on the local circuit, be it Trevor Dunn or John Zorn or Michael Formanek or fellow glass shatterer Mary Halvorson, and have a conversation filled with finesse and daring.
For her latest full-length as leader, the Vancouver-born Davis brings this intrinsic interpersonal compatibility with her colleagues to a new sense of intimacy with the brilliant Duopoly, an album comprised of a series of duets with friends she’s never recorded with before, including clarinet great Don Byron, alto saxophonist Tim Berne, drummers Billy Drummond and Marcus Gilmore of the Vijay Iyer Trio, pianists Angelica Sanchez and Craig Taborn and guitarists Julian Lage and Bill Frisell.
A set comprised of originals, covers and improvisations, Davis beautifully showcases the intelligent interplay that’searned her rightful comparisons to the great Cecil Taylor.
Magnet Animals, Butterfly Killer (RareNoise)
Magnet Animals can be polarizing; can attract and repel; can be sonically beastly; and can be as potent as a large magnetic force. Magnet Animals is the brainchild of guitarist/vocalist Todd Clouser, whose background includes the New York City downtown jazz/skronk scene. It’s there he met guitarist Eyal Maoz (who has worked with John Zorn and released solo albums on Zorn’s Tzadik label). Clouser also found his bassist, Shanir Ezra Blumenkranz, in the same NYC community. Clouser and Blumenkranz met at a John Lurie tribute show. Rounding out the group is drummer Jorge Servin. Clouser discovered Servin in Clouser’s new home, Mexico City.
Magnet Animals’ Butterfly Killer is not for all tastes. The hard rock attitude will turn off jazz/improvisational fans; the experimental edges may only appeal to those who appreciate outsiders like the Mars Volta or Mr. Bungle; and the incessant spoken word and cyclic lyrics also sometimes disrupt the instrumental flow of some songs.
RED Trio/John Butcher, Summer Skyshift (Clean Feed)
Portugal's avant jazz scene is among the strongest and most distinctive in Europe, perhaps due to the country's geographical isolation and relative lack of an improvised music tradition. RED Trio, featuring Rodrigo Pinheiro on piano, Hernani Faustino on bass, and Gabriel Ferrandini on drums are one of the country's finest units, revitalising the piano trio format. Taped at Lisbon's Jazz Em Agosto festival in 2015,Summer Skyshift sees them renew their vows with British master saxophonist John Butcher. From Pinheiro's right hand come luminous ripples of piano, as Faustino's bass evokes gathering stormclouds. Ferrandini is quite brilliant, circling an unfixed centre with fluttering polyrhythms and balletic cymbal moves. Butcher has great chemistry with this ensemble, and they accommodate his extended techniques beautifully, while also willing him to unleash some gutsy free jazz honks alongside the birdsong. Butcher-philes should also check outTangles, his head-turning session with piano genius Matthew Shipp and analogue synthesiser guru Thomas Lehn on Fataka. Members of RED Trio, meanwhile, have appeared on a host of fine releases. Ferrandini dazzles on Rodrigo Amado Motion Trio's excellentFreedom & Desire (Not Two), while he and Faustino both appear on splendid new albums from No Business.
Henry Threadgill, Old Locks and Irregular Verbs (Pi Recordings)
Henry Threadgill deservedly won a Pulitzer for his 2015 albumIn For A Penny, In For A Pound andOld Locks & Irregular Verbs is equally stunning. A tribute to the late great Butch Morris,Old Locks sees Threadgill putting his saxophone and flute aside to focus on conducting his Ensemble Double Up through a structured improvisation based on his unique interval-based system. 'Part 1' opens with an expressive dialogue for David Virelles and Jason Moran's pianos. The instrumental doubling extends to the twin alto saxophones of Roman Filiu and Curtis MacDonald, who enter after three minutes with a statement of gleaming, angular melodicism. Cellist Christopher Hoffman and tubaist Jose Davila bring unusual colour and movement to the mid-to-low registers, while Craig Weinrib's tightly wound drums maintain an underlying sense of propulsion and swing on even the knottiest of passages. This is ingenious music, but it has great emotional resonance, not least in 'Part 4', where Threadgill unveils a deeply uplifting gospel theme.
Esperanza Spalding, Emily’s D+Evolution (Concord)
It was tricky to decide whether to put the second or third Esperanza LP on this year’s jazz list or the upcoming R&B list on account of the bold way she interweaves the two here. But at its root, the bassist’s sonic reinvention is based in her initial craft.
As her extroverted alter-ego Emily (which is also her middle name), she shatters the divide between Janelle Monae and Joni Mitchell with the help of an incredible ensemble highlighted by three of the hottest names in modern jazz: guitarist Matthew Stevens, keyboardist Corey King and drummer Karreim Riggins, a group who surely enthralled fusion fans with some of the funky Return to Forever-isms partaken on artier, rockier songs like “Funk the Fear” and “I Want It Now”.
Spalding is to jazz what FKA Twigs is to R&B, a wholly unique entity pushing the boundaries of her craft into the future.
MAST, Love and War (Alpha Pup)
The concept of abstract beat production utilized to compose creative jazz has been taken to a whole new level on the Alpha Pup debut of MAST, the nom de plume of Los Angeles multi-instrumentalist Tim Conley, who plays in the Fresh Cut Orchestra, Icy Demons and a bunch of other projects you should hunt down on YouTube right now.
Mixed and mastered by L.A. beat scene veteran Daddy Kev and featuring guest turns from such fellow new school lions as Taylor McFerrin, Makaya McCraven and pals from Fresh Cut, Snarky Puppy and David Bowie’s ★ band, Love and War is a three-act suite for programmed breaks and live instrumentation that further tightens the knot uniting abstract urban culture and jazz musicianship into a cohesive, organic tangle of possibilities.
Jeff Parker, The New Breed (International Anthem, Ltd.)
No other musician in the modern era has moved so seamlessly between rock and jazz like Jeff Parker.
As guitarist for Chicago post-rock icons Tortoise, he’s taken the group in new and challenging directions that have kept them at the forefront of pop creativity for the last 20 years. As of late, however, Parker has established himself as one of the most formidable solo talents in modern jazz.
With The New Breed, Jeff Parker’s made such an incredible fusion of abstract beat science, post-rock aura and nuanced modality that it sounds custom made for those of us who dive in and out of these worlds as seamlessly as the composer himself.
Wadada Leo Smith – America's National Parks (Cuneiform)
Choosing between this album andA Cosmic Rhythm With Each Stroke, Wadada Leo Smith's sublime set with pianist Vijay Iyer on ECM, was no easy task, but ultimately it's the great trumpeter/composer's paean to the American landscape which has it. The six-movement suite is scored for the Golden Quintet, in which cellist Ashley Walters joins pianist Anthony Davis, bassist John Lindberg and drummer Pheeroan akLaff. The combination of Smith's trumpet and Walters' cello is inspired, opening up new melodic and colouristic possibilities, while the rhythm section plays with masterful sensitivity and grace. There is a beautiful sense of space and light to this music, but the exquisitely laconic Smith always surprises, never resorting to banal evocations of the rivers, forests and mountains that inspire him. At 75, Smith is a true master, and America's National Parks is one of his most visionary works: an environment to explore and cherish.
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