In a complex, often tragic year, jazz again proved itself an adept reflector and communicator, delivering messages of outrage, solace and hope while giving a voice to what lies beyond words. Below, a few recordings offering just that.
Kamasi Washington, "The Epic" (Brainfeeder)
On a long-anticipated debut from a protégé of the late Gerald Wilson released on a label run by local beat visionary Flying Lotus, saxophonist Kamasi Washington hunkered down with a tightknit group of friends and fellow bandleaders to create ecstatic jazz richly shaped by a proud local tradition but committed to pushing it forward. Sprawling and immersive, "The Epic" sounds like the best of Los Angeles — and vice versa.
Makaya McCraven, "In the Moment" (International Anthem)
One of the most in-demand drummers on the Chicago scene, McCraven recorded his performances with a rotating cast of bandmates over a weekly improvised residency. Capturing a sound informed by hip-hop's cut-and-paste beat constructions as much as Teo Macero, McCraven distilled the results into an album that forms an infectious, innovative celebration of creation and the almighty groove.
Vijay Iyer, "Break Stuff" (ECM)
Another year, another prime example of pianist Vijay Iyer expanding the piano trio's potential. Here, songs by Billy Strayhorn, Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane sit comfortably alongside Iyer's unique compositional voice, including the striking "Hood," which pays tribute to minimalist techno DJ and producer Robert Hood with a tangled valentine to the propulsive vitality of rhythm.
Amir ElSaffar, "Crisis" (Pi Recordings)
Jazz is the music of resistance and of transcending history. Here, this Chicago-born Iraqi American trumpeter intermingles jazz tradition with the folkloric structures of the Middle East using Sufi poetry, the lute-like buzuq and the oud. The rich combination of Arabic melodies with the bedrock swing of Jason Moran's drummer Nasheet Waits is a lush argument for understanding and the endurance of beauty.
Mary Halvorson, "Meltframe" (Firehouse 12)
Already beloved among jazz fans for a slippery, pitch-melting tone that sounds as comfortable in chamber jazz as bent noise-rock, Halvorson caught the ear of music publications like Pitchfork and Rolling Stone upon the release of this solo recording. With consistently surprising takes on songs by masters that include Carla Bley, Duke Ellington and Ornette Coleman, it's easy to hear why.
Ben Monder, "Amorphae" (ECM)
A textured, shape-shifting collection from an underrated guitar explorer, this inward-looking album combines duets between Monder and the late drum master Paul Motian with collaborative ventures with drums and synthesizer. It's not exactly a record that swings, but every listen reveals another detailed layer.
Chris Lightcap's Bigmouth, "Epicenter" (Clean Feed)
A bassist who has backed Matt Wilson, Regina Carter and even the Swell Season, Lightcap assembled a nimble band that includes keyboardist Craig Taborn and drummer Gerald Cleaver. If you're looking for a way to close out an upcoming New Year's party, this album's roiling take on the Velvet Underground's "All Tomorrow's Parties" will do nicely.
Myra Melford, "Snowy Egret" (Enja)
A monster improviser and composer, the Berkeley-based pianist drew from a written history of the colonization of the Americas by Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano in the making of this album. In addition to attempting to further examine the meaning of being an American through the lens of music, the record soars on the strength of an odd-angled yet immediate sound that draws from Africa and the East.
Mike Reed's People, Places & Things, "A New Kind of Dance" (482 Music)
Restless drummer-bandleader Mike Reed's quartet doubles down on an eclectic track record with hard-swinging, swerving tracks that include "Fear Not of Man" by the hip-hop MC formerly known as Mos Def as well as the buoyant Balkan folk of "Markovsko Horo."
Jose James, "Yesterday I Had the Blues: The Music of Billie Holiday" (Blue Note)
The music industry can't resist the sure-thing sales of a tribute recording, and one of the year's most moving came from this vocalist, who recovered from an uneven recent foray into rock with a release that transcends imitation and nostalgia. Helped by bandmates Jason Moran and Eric Harland, James peaks on this album with a take on "Strange Fruit" that's as haunting as it is distressingly timely.