After a fractious election year that saw misogyny and bigotry woven into the political discourse, some took comfort in the hope for art becoming energized in the years ahead with the fire of resistance.
Some of the most memorable albums of 2016, however, offered magnetic expressions of a musician’s personal journey, whether via guitarist Jeff Parker finding inspiration in his homes of Los Angeles and Chicago in the “The New Breed” or JD Allen reexamining the broader significance of the blues with his trio album “Americana.” More topically, it was a 2011 recording of the late Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra released this year maybe spoke most passionately for the protection of the natural world with “Song for the Whales.”
Where will the voices behind these albums and others from this year take us going forward? Stay tuned.
Jack DeJohnette, Ravi Coltrane, Matthew Garrison “In Movement” (ECM) An unquestioned jazz master, DeJohnette offered a multi-generational summit meeting that reflected two of his early collaborators, John Coltrane and Jimmy Garrison. Teamed with the sons of the longtime bandmates, DeJohnette leads a lush survey that includes Coltrane’s “Alabama,” Miles Davis and Bill Evans’ “Blue in Green” and a stormy take on Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Serpentine Fire.”
Jeff Parker, “The New Breed” (International Anthem) Heard through his work in the post-rock ensemble Tortoise as well as across the Chicago jazz scene, this recent L.A. transplant was inspired by his new home city’s beat-centric musical hybrids for this album, which flirts with woozy, free-form funk and barbed soul-jazz with a mix of sampling and in-the-moment creation.
Jonathan Finlayson & Sicilian Defense, “Moving Still” (Pi Recordings”) A fixture in bands led by recent MacArthur winner Steve Coleman as well as Henry Threadgill, Finlayson’s sophomore album firmly establishes him as a composer to be reckoned with. Finlayson’s band takes its name from an chess maneuver, and with a sound full of swift moves, thoughtful parries and counterpoints, it’s easy to hear why.
Henry Threadgill and Ensemble Double-Up, “Old Locks and Irregular Verbs” (Pi Recordings) Winner of the Pulitzer Prize in April for his epic 2015 double-album, this influential composer continues forging a distinctive new language of jazze. Paying tribute to the late composer Butch Morris, Threadgill’s knotty compositions swell and recede like natural elements in the hands of a free-flowing group that includes cello, tuba, two saxophones and a pair of standout pianists in Jason Moran and David Virelles.
Mary Halvorson Octet, “Away With You” (Firehouse 12) One of the most distinctive voices in jazz for a number of years, this guitarist added a new one to her group in expressive pedal steel guitarist Susan Alcorn. Already possessing a slippery tone, Halvorson explores new melodic avenues within a nimble group that includes saxophonists Ingrid Laubrock and Jon Irabagon.
Greg Ward & 10 Tongues, “Touch My Beloved’s Thought” (Greenleaf) A tribute to the collective sound of Charles Mingus and his masterpiece “The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady,” this set from the prolific Chicago alto saxophonist calls on a raucous big band to build new, expressionist layers upon one of the richest legacies in jazz.
Vijay Iyer/Wadada Leo Smith, “A Cosmic Rhythm with Each Stroke” (ECM) An elusive, immersive duet between a pair of longtime collaborators, the bulk of this contemplative set looks to the works of Indian abstract artist Nasreen Mohamedi for its central suite. Though only composed of trumpet, keyboard and the occasional wash of electronics, Iyer and Smith are capable of summoning and exploring entire worlds.
JD Allen, “Americana: Musings on Jazz and Blues” (Savant) A saxophonist who started out backing vocalist Betty Carter, Allen examines the blues as the roots of jazz, folk and popular music, breaking the form out of any preconceptions of barriers and reclaiming it as the bedrock of musical creation. On one hand the record is a continuation of a generations-old tradition, but on the other it’s one of the most timely records of the year.
Brad Mehldau, “Blues and Ballads” (Nonesuch) It’s become easy to take Mehldau’s capacity for invention behind the piano for granted, but this contemplative venture is one of his trio’s loveliest, most immediate outings yet. In 2016 you could argue the last thing we needed was another jazz recast of the Beatles, but then Mehldau pulls at all the spaces and destinations within “And I Love Her” and proves you wrong.
Steve Lehman, “Sélébéyone” (Pi Recordings) Lines separating jazz and hip-hop have been eroding for years, if not decades, and here one of the most distinctive saxophonists working today erases them entirely with the help of HPrizm (formerly known as High Priest) from Anti-Pop Consortium and Senegalese rapper Gaston Bandimic. Intricately woven with crackling, complex rhythms and rhymes in both English and Wolof, Lehman conjures a world that walls can no longer divide -- and it’s the better for it.
Ten more also well worth a listen: Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra’s “Time/Life,” Kris Davis’ “Duopoly,” Andrew Cyrille’s “The Declaration of Musical Independence,” Yussef Kamaal’s “Black Focus,” Logan Richardson’s “Shift,” Donny McCaslin’s “Beyond Now,” Nels Cline’s “Lovers,” Marquis Hill’s “The Way We Play,” Jeremy Cunningham’s “Re: Dawn (From Afar),” and Stephan Crump’s “Rhombal.”
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