Year in Review: Critics’ Picks

JazzTimes' critics pick the Top 50 jazz albums of 2017

VijaySextetRhodes

Vijay Iyer (photo by Lynne Harty/ECM Records)

We calculated our top 40 new releases and top 10 historical/reissue recordings of 2017 based on year-end lists by our writers. They were asked to choose the 10 best new releases and five best historical titles—i.e., albums and box sets consisting primarily of music recorded 10 or more years ago. Albums and box sets released between Nov. 9, 2016, and Nov. 7, 2017, were eligible. Some discs may have slipped through the cracks, however, as official release dates shifted or weren’t available.

(Blurbs by David R. Adler, Philip Booth, Shaun Brady, Thomas Conrad, Evan Haga, Geoffrey Himes, Willard Jenkins, Aidan Levy, Britt Robson, Jeff Tamarkin and Michael J. West.)

Top 40 New Releases

Cover of Vijay Iyer Sextet album Far From Over on ECM
Cover of Vijay Iyer Sextet album Far From Over on ECM
  1. Vijay Iyer Sextet
    Far From Over (ECM)
    Iyer first presented Far From Over as a suite-in-progress at the Chicago Jazz Festival in 2008. Barack Obama’s election was imminent. The music reflected faith and hope. But the suite did not get recorded until April of 2017, four months into the Trump presidency. The pain, anger and confusion of a very different moment got into this searing album.

Iyer’s huge reputation is based primarily on his work in trios. But a sextet may be his best format. Very few pianists possess his polyrhythmic prowess. Here, surrounded by badasses, liberated from primary melodic responsibilities, his piano can serve as a relentless groove engine. Then his horn orchestrations, with all their serrated edges, open for lethal solos. Alto saxophonist Steve Lehman and drummer Tyshawn Sorey are leaders of their own award-winning projects. When they function as sidemen and concentrate their offerings into tight spaces, what happens is intense. Lehman is riveting on “Threnody.” Sorey is measured, then eruptive on “Down to the Wire.” But the revelation is tenor saxophonist Mark Shim. His solos are onslaughts and strivings. They rasp as if ripped out of him.

Far From Over, corrosive in its defiance and lyrical in its call for unity, is a grueling, uplifting listening experience. T.C.

 

Cover of Charles Lloyd New Quartet album Passin' Thru
Cover of Charles Lloyd New Quartet album Passin’ Thru
  1. Charles Lloyd New Quartet
    Passin’ Thru (Blue Note)
    These last few years have found Lloyd enjoying a remarkable winning streak of recordings. In this case he’s enveloped in a stellar quartet with pianist Jason Moran, bassist Reuben Rogers and drummer Eric Harland, three fellow travelers who’ve previously navigated assorted terrain with the saxophonist-flutist. Besides a 21st-century update to his “Dream Weaver,” other exceptional Lloyd work includes “Nu Blues,” “How Can I Tell You” and the absorbing title track. W.J.
Cover of Steve Coleman's Natal Eclipse album Morphogenesis
Cover of Steve Coleman’s Natal Eclipse album Morphogenesis

3. Steve Coleman’s Natal Eclipse
Morphogenesis (Pi)
It’s uncanny how Coleman removes the drum set and somehow increases the rhythmic focus and strength of his music. Trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson and vocalist Jen Shyu, familiar from Coleman’s Five Elements, take on new roles alongside pianist Matt Mitchell, tenor saxophonist Maria Grand and the leader on alto, with clarinet, violin, bass and percussion creating a chamber-like, multi-textured sonority. D.A.

Cover of Rudresh Mahanthappa's Indo-Pak Coalition album Agrima
Cover of Rudresh Mahanthappa’s Indo-Pak Coalition album Agrima
  1. Rudresh Mahanthappa’s Indo-Pak Coalition
    Agrima (rudreshm.com)
    Mahanthappa uses his knife-like alto saxophone in many different contexts, but on this project he returns to that of an immigrant’s son trying to integrate his South Asian heritage into his beloved American jazz and rock. Working with guitarist Rez Abbasi and percussionist Dan Weiss, Mahanthappa employs his Charlie Parker-like speed, a tasteful dose of electronica and chameleonic themes that could thrive on either continent to fashion a triumphant fusion. G.H.
Cover of Cécile McLorin Salvant album Dreams and Daggers
Cover of Cécile McLorin Salvant album Dreams and Daggers
  1. Cécile McLorin Salvant
    Dreams and Daggers (Mack Avenue)
    All of the “new Ella/Sarah/Billie/etc.” plaudits might make one skeptical of the not-yet-30 vocalist, if she wasn’t earning them. On her fourth full-length, first live and first double album, Salvant’s dizzying command and range are matched only by her winsome storytelling expertise—whether a standard, a blues or an original, she digs in deep and embodies a lyric, delivering each song with non-stop thrills and surprises. J.T.
Cover of Matt Wilson's album Honey and Salt: Music Inspired by the Poetry of Carl Sandburg
Cover of Matt Wilson’s album Honey and Salt: Music Inspired by the Poetry of Carl Sandburg

6. Matt Wilson’s
Honey and Salt: Music Inspired by the Poetry of Carl Sandburg (Palmetto)
Drummer-composer Wilson grew up in the same Illinois county as Carl Sandburg, and his music acutely complements the famed poet’s homespun wisdom, dry wit and ongoing political relevance. New Orleans parades, noir-like drama and folk music are all in the mix, along with celebrity readers from inside and outside of jazz. But the highlight is Wilson’s solo accompaniment to a recording of Sandburg reading his most famous poem, “Fog.” B.R.

Cover of Hudson album
Cover of Hudson album
  1. Hudson (DeJohnette/Grenadier/Medeski/Scofield)
    Hudson (Motéma)
    This upstate-themed supergroup—guitarist John Scofield, key- boardist John Medeski, bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jack DeJohnette—toured hard in 2017, sweeping festival season and playing from this self-titled debut, which locates a perfect balance between the top-level postbop these musicians are capable of and the ’60s rock and folk that shaped their spirits. The results are fusion with fire but not the nerd factor. E.H.
Cover of Linda May Han Oh album Walk Against Wind
Cover of Linda May Han Oh album Walk Against Wind

8. Linda May Han Oh
Walk Against Wind (Biophilia)
Oh’s muscular, melodic bass playing behind Pat Metheny, Dave Douglas and others is well established, but her considerable gift for composition receives its best showcase yet on this, her fourth album as a leader. Announced on bass, her potent themes get tied up in knots with Ben Wendel’s tenor, Matthew Stevens’ guitar and Justin Brown’s drums, but find a liberating release that’s as much emotional as musical. G.H.

Cover of Craig Taborn album Daylight Ghosts
Cover of Craig Taborn album Daylight Ghosts
  1. Craig Taborn
    Daylight Ghosts (ECM)
    Daylight Ghosts establishes the undersung 47-year-old keyboardist as a major artist. Influenced by Cecil Taylor, Monk, Roscoe Mitchell and George Russell, Taborn crafts impressionistic quartet music with unexpected voicings, sinuous rhythms and earthy melodies that feel both diaphanous and richly textured—the kind of ghostly experience that conjures an elusive and uncanny familiarity. A.L.
Cover of Ambrose Akinmusire album A Rfit in Decorum
Cover of Ambrose Akinmusire album A Rfit in Decorum

10. Ambrose Akinmusire
A Rift in Decorum – Live at the Village Vanguard (Blue Note)
This album is by the preeminent trumpet player of his generation, whose previous two releases were among the most important of the new millennium, and it was recorded at the world’s best place to make live jazz albums. That it is Akinmusire’s first double album and the first with no other horns makes it the deepest immersion to date in the bottomless pit of his radical trumpet ideas. T.C.

Cover of JD Allen album Radio Flyer
Cover of JD Allen album Radio Flyer

 

  1. JD Allen
    Radio Flyer (Savant)
    The 45-year-old tenor saxophonist’s trio channels a combustible energy that has coalesced over a decade of collaboration. Adding guitarist Liberty Ellman, Allen articulates broken, conversational phrases reminiscent of a pithy style Miles Davis referred to as peckin’.
    A touchstone may be Sonny Rollins’ East Broadway Run Down, with a harmonic backdrop that recalls the intervallic system Ellman has explored with Henry Threadgill. A.L.
Cover of Bill Frisell/Thomas Morgan album Small Town
Cover of Bill Frisell/Thomas Morgan album Small Town

12. Bill Frisell/Thomas Morgan Small Town (ECM)
Evoking his hero Jim Hall, Frisell demon-strates his profound aptitude for the duo setting—and his ability to, as Hall used to say, “listen and react.” And compose gorgeous melodies (the Ry Cooder-worthy title track). And attack bebop without resorting to its rote moves (“Subconscious-Lee”). And make American folksong into a vehicle for elastic improvisation (“Wildwood Flower”). And choose a similarly and ideally nimble and emotive partner (bassist Thomas Morgan). E.H.

Cover of Jazzmeia Horn album Social Call
Cover of Jazzmeia Horn album Social Call

13. Jazzmeia Horn
A Social Call (Prestige/Concord)
The debut from the singer with the best jazz name ever—winner of both the prestigious Monk and Sarah Vaughan competitions—balances joyful, fearless experimentation with a knack for accessibility, making boundless elasticity sound easy. Bringing unorthodoxy to a standards-heavy set is a feat in itself, but Horn’s gutsy interpretations are ingenious. And her scatting is stupendous. J.T.

 

Cover of Jaimie Branch album Fly or Die
Cover of Jaimie Branch album Fly or Die

14. Jaimie Branch
Fly or Die (International Anthem)
Though she’s a Brooklynite now, Branch drew from her former comrades on the Chicago scene for her long-awaited debut. Leading a quartet with cellist Tomeka Reid, bassist Jason Ajemian and drummer Chad Taylor, the trumpeter weaves heedlessly between the composed and the improvised, blending live performance with post-production enhancements to create a striking 36-minute narrative that balances punk aggression with poignant vulnerability. S.B.

Cover of Kurt Rosenwinkel album Caipi
Cover of Kurt Rosenwinkel album Caipi

15. Kurt Rosenwinkel
Caipi (Heartcore/Razdaz)
While it’s a radical departure in that the famed guitarist sings on most of the album, Caipi is in fact consistent with the sound world he’s always strived to capture. The darkly elusive harmonies and soaring melodies are identifiably Rosenwinkel’s language, even if the more rock-like vocal aesthetic and Brazilian tinge come from left field. The new band, with young and relative unknowns, is extraordinary. D.A.

Cover of SFJAZZ Collective album Music of Miles Davis & Original Compositions
Cover of SFJAZZ Collective album Music of Miles Davis & Original Compositions

16. SFJAZZ Collective
Music of Miles Davis & Original Compositions (SFJAZZ)
The legacy of Miles Davis and this all-aces octet create boundless possibilities, but one still couldn’t anticipate such a near-perfect batting average on these 16 songs. Pick a moment—from drummer Obed Calvaire’s explosive arrangement of “Bitches Brew” to trumpeter Sean Jones’ exquisite ballad for former SFJC member Bobby Hutcherson, “Hutcherson Hug”—and you’ll feel the arc of jazz history pin-wheeling forward. B.R.

17. Miguel Zenón
Típico (Miel)

18. Various Artists
Celebrate Ornette (Song X)

19. Nate Smith
Kinfolk: Postcards From Everywhere (Ropeadope)

20. Dayna Stephens
Gratitude (Contagious)

21. Jason Moran
Thanksgiving at the Vanguard (Yes)

22. Tom Harrell
Moving Picture (HighNote)

23. Ron Miles
I Am a Man (Yellowbird)

24. Anat Cohen Tentet
Happy Song (Anzic)

25. Matt Mitchell
A Pouting Grimace (Pi)

26. Mike Reed
Flesh & Bone (482)

27. Amir ElSaffar Rivers of Sound
Not Two (New Amsterdam)

28. Eddie Palmieri
Sabiduría (Ropeadope)

29. John Beasley
MONK’estra Vol. 2 (Mack Avenue)

30. Harriet Tubman
Araminta (Sunnyside)

31. Brian Landrus Orchestra
Generations (BlueLand)

32. Kamasi Washington
Harmony of Difference (Young Turks)

33. William Parker Quartets
Meditation/Resurrection (AUM Fidelity)

34. Chris Potter
The Dreamer Is the Dream (ECM)

35. Christian McBride Big Band
Bringin’ It (Mack Avenue)

36. Billy Childs
Rebirth (Mack Avenue)

37. Chicago Edge Ensemble
Decaying Orbit (Lizard Breath)

38. Jason Stein Quartet
Lucille! (Delmark)

39. Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah
Ruler Rebel (Stretch/Ropeadope)

40. Nicole Mitchell
Mandorla Awakening II — Emerging Worlds (FPE)

 

Top 10 Historical Releases

Cover of Thelonious Monk album Les Liaisons Dangereuses 1960
Cover of Thelonious Monk album Les Liaisons Dangereuses 1960

1. Thelonious Monk
Les Liaisons Dangereuses 1960 (Sam/Saga)
Really, the words “lost Monk studio session” speak for themselves. That it also includes a previously unheard collaborator (French tenor saxophonist Barney Wilen, joining co-tenor Charlie Rouse, bassist Sam Jones and drummer Art Taylor) and cover tune (the gospel song “We’ll Understand It Better By and By”), plus a truly odd arrangement of Monk’s own “Light Blue,” is just the icing on the cake. M.W.

Cover of Bill Evans album Another Time: The Hilversum Concert
Cover of Bill Evans album Another Time: The Hilversum Concert

2. Bill Evans
Another Time: The Hilversum Concert (Resonance)
This is the Resonance label’s second release of previously unknown material from a legendary short-lived trio, recorded in 1968. (For 50 years, all we had was At the Montreux Jazz Festival.) Producer Zev Feldman calls Another Time “a gift for the world.” If this seems a little much, listen to “Alfie.” Together, pianist Bill Evans, bassist Eddie Gomez and drummer Jack DeJohnette could fly. T.C.

Cover of Jaco Pastorius album Truth, Liberty & Soul
Cover of Jaco Pastorius album Truth, Liberty & Soul

3. Jaco Pastorius
Truth, Liberty & Soul (Resonance)
Jaco’s brilliant work as a composer and large-ensemble arranger is impressively showcased on this archival radio recording by his Word of Mouth big band. The group, with soloists including saxophonist Bob Mintzer, trumpeter Randy Brecker, drummer Peter Erskine and harmonica virtuoso Toots Thielemans, airs out repertoire favorites—“The Chicken,” “Three Views of a Secret,” “Liberty City”—plus standards and off-brand picks like “I Shot the Sheriff.” P.B.

Cover of Wynton Kelly Trio/Wes Montgomery album Smokin' in Seattle
Cover of Wynton Kelly Trio/Wes Montgomery album Smokin’ in Seattle

4. Wynton Kelly Trio/Wes Montgomery
Smokin’ in Seattle: Live at the Penthouse (Resonance)
This recent treasure unearthed by the Resonance team is culled from a pair of 1966 dates that supplement 1965’s iconic Smokin’ at the Half Note. As Pat Metheny notes in the liners, this is “a set or two of many sets”—and the ease with which Montgomery and Kelly launch into bracing swing or harmonic profundity is both testament to those countless hours and a marvel to behold. S.B.

Cover of Alice Coltrane album The Ecstatic Music of Alice Coltrane
Cover of Alice Coltrane album The Ecstatic Music of Alice Coltrane

5. Alice Coltrane
The EcstaticMusic of Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda (Luaka Bop)
David Byrne’s Luaka Bop label has afforded us a deeper view of the late Alice Coltrane’s spiritual practice as it sounded in the 1980s and ’90s, when these recordings were made. At her California ashram, Coltrane put her fingerprint on sacred Hindu songs, leaving secular music behind but channeling the “ecstatic” vibrations that had informed her work all along. D.A.

6. Various Artists
The Savory Collection, Vol. 3 – Honeysuckle Rose: Fats Waller & Friends (Apple Music/National Jazz Museum in Harlem)

7. Thelonious Monk With John Coltrane
Complete 1957 Riverside Recordings (Craft)

8. Various Artists
Classic Savoy Be-Bop Sessions 1945-49 (Mosaic)

9. Sonny Rollins Trio & Horace Silver Quintet
Swiss Radio Days, Vol. 40: Zurich 1959 (TCB)

10. Joe Henderson Featuring Alice Coltrane
The Elements (Milestone/Concord)