2016 produced some strong music. 10 of the most successful albums are highlighted here.
Aziza: Quartet of Dave Holland on bass, Chris Potter on saxophone, Lionel Loueke on guitar and Eric Harland. A band of equals as far as songwriting duties and time in the spotlight, though to my ears it sounds like a natural extension of Loeke’s beautifully knotty-yet-soulful-and-melodic work (perhaps because his compositions bookend the album). Holland and Harland are the perfect rhythmic compliments. Potter matches him in soaring lead improvisation.
Ben Wendel – What We Bring: Saxophonist best known as a member of Kneebody. As in that band, here he brings his prodigious chops to bear in tight, groove forward package, but in an acoustic setting owing something to post-bop. Sound is organic. Pianist Gerald Clayton is a perfect sideman.
Geri Allen, David Murray, Terri Lynne Carrington – Perfection: Geri Allen’s last released studio album and an incredible final legacy. Three distinctive voices as one cohesive unit, playing forceful, fearless music (including a previously unrecorded Ornette Coleman melody). Free and hard swinging. Album of the year.
Donny McCaslin – Beyond Now: Donny McCaslin’s quartet got more press than the typical jazz outfit in early 2016 for being the backing band (along with guitarist Ben Monder) on David Bowie’s beautiful, moody and triumphant final album, Blackstar, so there might be a tendency to view this album as something of a tribute to Bowie (two Bowie covers lend to this feeling, including a brilliant take on the deep cut “A Small Plot of Land” with guest vocalist Jeff Taylor). Better would be to read this as the proper expression of the power and electronic fascination that led Bowie to invite them into the studio: just listen to the punk-electric mosh of a song like “Faceplant”.
Jack Dejohnnete, Ravi Coltrane, Matt Garrison – In Movement: At times this collaboration, of master drummer Jack Dejohnnete with saxophonist Ravi Coltrane and Matt Garrison on electric bass and electronics, can sound airy, almost to fault: the album opens with twenty seconds of light rattle on the cymbals at the start of their take of John Coltrane’s “Alabama”. The understatement masks a real intensity of purpose which keeps me coming back to this album again and again, always finding new interactions. It all comes to a head in “Rashied”, a drums and soprano duet harkening back to the classic John Coltrane album Interstellar Space of duets with drummer Rashied Ali.
Joe Lovano – Classic!: Saxophonist Joe Lovano graces us with an archival live release from about ten years ago, with a band including the late, great Hank Jones on piano. Along with bassist George Mraz and drummer Lewis Nash, Jones is heading what might be the most swinging rhythm section on record. Version here of the Thad Jones composition “Kids are Pretty People” is life affirming.
John Zorn – Book of Angels Vol. 27: Flaga: Of all the bands to take on the Zorn’s expansive Masada songbook compositions, I find this one the most satisfying. Pianist Craig Taborn has the sort of free ranging sensibilities that make him a perfect complement to Zorn and bassist Christian McBride and drummer Tyshawn Sorey swing hard. Manages to capture what made the original Masada band so exciting while finding a totally distinct sound: the Hebrew melodies blended into serious, improvisatory jazz.
Kevin Hays – North: Pianist Kevin Hays brings back the trio behind his album New Day with the same focus on melodicism and lyrcal thing but without the singers this time. Found myself revisiting the bass work on “Sweet Caroline” (no relation to the Neil Diamond song) and the swinging 5/4 vamp at the end of “Violetta” many times.
Logan Richardson – Shift: Up and coming saxophonist, backed in stupendous manner by Jason Moran on piano and Rhodes, Nasheet Waits on drums and Pat Metheny on guitar. Exemplifies the best of the modern sort of electrified, groove forward strand of jazz: driving backbeat in service of real improvisatory exploration.
Mulgrew Miller, Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen – The Duo Live: Piano and bass duet album takes the form of two long, medley sets of standards, played about as well as is possible. Highlight is a burning “Caravan” to cap off the second set.