Best jazz albums of 2019: A year rife with invention and resistance
With new ideas continuing to burst at the seams connecting genres and artists, jazz enjoyed a fertile, far-reaching renaissance in 2019. In these recordings, familiar instruments extended their capacity for taking listeners to unexpected places while providing a timeless reminder that the boldest creative expression sounds like freedom — and, as such, resistance.
1. Tomeka Reid Quartet, “Old New” (Cuneiform)
Also heard as part of the Art Ensemble’s arresting new album, cellist Tomeka Reid continues to explore new reaches for her instrument. Again teamed with her ideal foil in the slippery, shape-shifting guitar tone of recent MacArthur fellow Mary Halvorson, Reid alternately spirals, saws and tiptoes through a sweeping array of arresting solos and inviting compositions.
2. Joel Ross, “KingMaker” (Blue Note)
At just 23 years old, this vibraphonist has already gained a sterling reputation as a sideman, providing a chiming counterpoint to recordings by drummer Makaya McCraven and trumpeter Marquis Hill. Here, he proves himself as a singular voice in his own right, teaming with a nimble quartet on a lushly drawn record full of empathetic interplay that carries echoes of vibes master Bobby Hutcherson while still reaching toward new ground.
3. Kris Davis, “Diatom Ribbons” (Pyroclastic)
A proud descendant of the inside-out piano ventures of Cecil Taylor, Davis has long shown a dazzling facility with deconstructing a melody, but here she applies the same approach to the groove. She’s backed by a band that at various points includes turntablist Val Jeanty, guitarist Nels Cline, bassist Esperanza Spalding (heard only as a vocalist) and drummer Terri Lynn Carrington, who provides a steady yet supple anchor to a record that’s as unpredictable as it is approachable.
4. Jenny Scheinman & Allison Miller, “Parlour Game” (Royal Potato Family)
A spinoff of Miller’s hard-hitting Boom Tic Boom project, this quartet works a rich seam connecting jazz and Americana led by Sheinman’s dynamic violin and Miller, who in recent years has cemented her reputation as one of the most vital drummers in jazz. But the secret weapon here may be pianist Carmen Staaf, whose flickering excursions provide a bright counterweight to the album’s sweeping melodic drive.
5. Matana Roberts, “Coin Coin Chapter Four: Memphis” (Constellation)
“I am a child of the wind,” Roberts intones at various points on the latest installment of her exploration of personal and social history began in 2011. On one hand, the admission is a defining quality for an artist capable of conjuring a storm whether on saxophone or through spoken word, but it also defines Roberts’ restless, holistic approach to musical storytelling, which here conjures the nightmares of the slavery era in a way that’s haunting, challenging and consistently engrossing.
6. Steve Lehman, “The People I Love” (Pi Recordings)
There may be no tidier way to encapsulate the far-reaching approach of this saxophonist than in considering this album’s selection of covers, which treats music from Jeff “Tain” Watts, Kurt Rosenwinkel and Autechre with the same sense of reverence and adventure. But space must be made for Lehman’s taut, immediately recognizable sound, regardless of its source material, which here takes on new dimension with the addition of like-minded pianist Craig Taborn.
7. Art Ensemble of Chicago, “We Are on the Edge: A 50th Anniversary Celebration” (Pi Recordings)
Led by its last two surviving members in Roscoe Mitchell and Famoudou Don Moye, one of the leading lights of creative music looks back on its dynamic history assisted by over a dozen like-minded collaborators across two discs of music old and new that includes a live performance from 2018. Come to hear a celebration of a timeless, genre-defying legacy that has shaped many of the musicians listed here (and elsewhere); stay to hear that legacy in vibrant motion.
8. Theon Cross, “Fyah” (Gearbox)
Part of a booming London jazz scene led in part by rising star saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings (who features Cross in his band Sons of Kemet), this tuba player propels the low end of that boom. Here, on his first album as a leader, Cross delivers a standout showcase for his often-overlooked instrument, rumbling through elements of New Orleans funk, soul-jazz and Afrobeat with the help of two more essential U.K. figures in saxophonist Nubya Garcia and drummer Moses Boyd.
9. Fabian Almazan Trio, “This Land Abounds With Life” (Biophilia)
A longtime collaborator with Terence Blanchard, this Cuban-born jazz pianist evokes the natural splendor of his home country with occasional field recordings of birdcalls, distant orchestras and spoken word (most vividly on “Songs of the Forgotten”). But the real stars remain Almazan and a rhythm section of Linda May Han Oh and Henry Cole, who shift through styles and standout turns with grace.
10. Damon Locks Black Monument Ensemble, “Where Future Unfolds” (International Anthem)
“Some things never change like monuments,” goes one passionate, agitated refrain in this performance, which was recorded live in Chicago last year. Delivering a feverish mix of jazz, gospel and hip-hop that at various points evokes Pharaoh Sanders and Public Enemy, Locks clearly has his eye on the future but in harnessing a swirling sound of uplift and activism has created an album that feels engineered for this moment.
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