It’s that time of year again. The time when everyone thinks up lists of the things they like to list for other people to read. Here at Foresight and Afterthought, the things we like to list are music, so that’s what we aim to do. After the jump, you’ll find my list for top ten jazz albums of the year, in no particular order, as well as three honorable mentions and biggest disappointments.
Vijay Iyer, Accelerando
A group that more than most creates and occupies an identity. It’s a far reaching identity, with snatches of influences as far flung as Duke Ellington, Henry Threadgill and electronic music, but the Vijay Iyer Trio with Stephan Crump and Marcus Gilmore brings it all together in a cohesive way. Accelerando is even better than their critically acclaimed last outing, Historicity; it is an even tighter, more coherent package than Historicity was, and the accessible experimentalism, as exemplified by the title track, shines. (we reviewed this album here)
Steve Lehman, Dialect Fluorescent
Alto saxophonist Steve Lehman’s trio release with Matt Brewer on bass and Damion Reid on drums apparently flew a bit under the radar, if other people’s best of lists are any indication, but I cannot fathom why. Dialect Fluorescent is an eminently enjoyable album that treads the line between the excitement of collective improvisation and song structure in a way that keeps it all pulsing along without ever losing direction. See the loose, energetic, swinging take on Coltrane’s ‘Moment’s Notice’. It’s not quite 4 minutes long, but it’s worth the price of admission alone.
John Abercrombie, Within a Song
An album that has only gotten better for me since I first reviewed it. A paean to the sixties with a dream band. It’s hard to do better than a front line with Abercrombie and Joe Lovano and the whole album grooves with grace.
Ron Miles, Quiver
On trumpet player Ron Miles’ album Quiver, with Bill Frisell and Brian Blade, there is a song called ‘Just Married’, a rollicking, country swinger that ebbs and flows as the musicians dance about each other, feeding off one another, calling and responding, interacting as only these three musicians can. Nothing quite comes where you would expect it, Brian Blade is absolutely impish behind the drums, but the song is imbued with such groove that the impulse is to get up and dance. On the strength of ‘Just Married’ alone, Quiver will go down in history. If the album had only that one song, I would have felt perfectly justified in paying full price for it. Full price would be a steal for that song. But, what luck, the album has another 7 tracks, all of which are almost as good.
Linda Oh, Initial Here
Another album that I love even more with each listen, and each member of the quartet shines somewhere, saxophonist Dayna Stephens, drummer Rudy Royston (just listen to that solo on ‘No. 1 Hit’, whew), pianist Fabian Almazan and particularly leader Linda Oh with both her bass playing and her spectacular compositions. And this is only Oh’s sophomore release as a leader. Good things are in store for us. (we reviewed this album here)
Lee Konitz, Bill Frisell, Gary Peacock, Joey Baron, Enfants Terribles
Perhaps my love for this album has been influenced by seeing this collective live, but I find I keep coming back to Enfants Terribles. It contains six well-tread standards, but with this band they sound dynamic and fresh. Loose and swinging collective improvisation means there is always something new to get, no matter how many times you listen. (we reviewed this album here)
Keith Jarrett, Sleeper
Archival release from the great Keith Jarrett “European Quartet”, powerful stuff. Every track a winner. It begs two questions: How much else of this material are they hiding from us unreleased? and Why doesn’t Keith make music like this anymore? (we reviewed this album here)
Christian Scott, Christian aTunde Adjuah
Follow up to an all time favorite album of mine, Yesterday You Said Tomorrow. Christian Scott returns with a new name but brings the same mix of tone and passion that made the last album so spectacular. There is one key difference: this one has two discs instead of only one. (we reviewed this album here)
Chick Corea, the Continents
Chick Corea had a productive year, it seems like every other month he came out with an album. A few of them have been getting some decent press as well, particularly Grammy nominated Further Explorations and Hot House. Funny, because to my ears, both of those albums did not live up to my expectations. The real stand out Chick album this year which seems to be completely absent from other year end best of lists is The Continents. Disc one is a suite of quintet and orchestra concertos after the continents. I am at best skeptical of ‘with strings’ type projects, but this stuff is great. The compositions are wonderful and the quintet is tight(Marcus Gilmore graces this list again as drummer). Disc two has the quintet by itself romping through some standards in an impromptu jam session as well as some Chick solo piano musings. Great from start to finish. Not just the best Chick album of the year but one of Chick’s all time bests.
Bad Plus, Made Possible
We do not hide out love for the Bad Plus around here at Foresight and Afterthought. Made Possible delivers some of the newer tracks we were fawning over a year ago this time when we saw them at the Vanguard. My only complaint with some of the previous Bad Plus releases is that they felt a bit under recorded. Not Made Possible, which, in addition to adding some electronic flourishes, just sounds good. I don’t know if it’s the recording or the mixing or what, but finally the sound on the album is catching up with feel live.
Fred Hersch, Alive at the Vanguard
Great trio release from Hersch that just barely gets pushed off the top ten list itself.
Esperanza Spaulding, Radio Music Society
I was torn whether to include Radio Music Society, an album I love desperately, but which doesn’t quite fit aesthetically with the rest of my choices. A fine album, even if it isn’t quite ‘jazz’. (we reviewed this album here)
Brad Mehldau, Ode/Where Do You Start
Brad Mehldau, Larry Grenadier and Jeff Ballard, predictably, deliver.
Robert Glasper, Black Radio
Never have I so anticipated an album and felt so let down by the results. Glasper’s brilliance and the possibilities his brand of jazz/hip hop fusion are often on display… just not on this album. Every track sounds the same, down tempo and subdued. The guest vocalists are clearly at the front, which would be fine if any one of them other than Yasiin Bey was interesting in the least. There isn’t a single noticeable solo on the whole album. The whole of Black Radio contains one song worth revisiting (again, thank you Yasiin for bringing something redeeming to this disaster). I don’t know what disappoints me more, this album or the fact that there seem to be countless people heralding this as a magnum opus and the future of jazz. (we reviewed this album here)
Return to Forever IV, The Mothership Returns
I’ve returned to this album once or twice since trashing it earlier in the year and, yes, there is a lot of really great stuff here. Chick can still bring it, as can Gambale and Clarke. Lenny White just gets better and better as time goes on. All that is why I’m so disappointed that this album didn’t quite reach the excellence right out in front of it. Chick phoning it in on ‘Spain’ is painful for me on nothing short of an existential level. Luckily, with the judicious use of the skip button, I can listen only to Lenny White’s phenomenal solo and not be subjected to the audience call and response. (we reviewed this album here)