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The Top 50 Releases of 2016

Top 40 new releases and top 10 historical/reissue recordings per our writers

Henry Threadgill Ensemble Double Up: Old Locks and Irregular Verbs
Henry Threadgill Ensemble Double Up: Old Locks and Irregular Verbs
Jack DeJohnette/Ravi Coltrane/Matthew Garrison: In Movement
Jack DeJohnette/Ravi Coltrane/Matthew Garrison: In Movement
JD Allen: Americana: Musings on Jazz and Blues
JD Allen: Americana: Musings on Jazz and Blues
John Scofield: Country for Old Men
John Scofield: Country for Old Men
Charles Lloyd & the Marvels: I Long to See You
Charles Lloyd & the Marvels: I Long to See You
Charlie Haden Liberation Music Orchestra: Time/Life
Charlie Haden Liberation Music Orchestra: Time/Life
Kris Davis: Duopoly
Nels Cline: Lovers
Esperanza Spalding: Emily’s D+Evolution
Julian Lage: Arclight
Julian Lage: Arclight

We calculated our top 40 new releases and top 10 historical/reissue recordings of 2016 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. To see each voter’s ballot, log on to CDs and box sets released between Nov. 4, 2015 and Nov. 8, 2016 were eligible. Some discs may have slipped through the cracks, however, as official release dates shifted or weren’t available.

Album blurbs by Shaun Brady, Thomas Conrad, Evan Haga, Aidan Levy, Christopher Loudon, Mac Randall, Britt Robson, Jeff Tamarkin and Michael J. West.

1. Henry Threadgill Ensemble Double Up
Old Locks and Irregular Verbs (Pi)
Few jazz-rooted figures have made the transition into old-lion status while upping the audacity and integrity of their art, but the composer and musician Henry Threadgill, 72, continues to prove how complementary wisdom and daring can be. In April he was named the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for music, for 2015’s Pi release In for a Penny, In for a Pound, featuring  his vigilant working band, Zooid, though the award came off more like a painstakingly earned Lifetime Achievement nod.

Threadgill’s 2016 offering on Pi, Old Locks and Irregular Verbs, kicks open the door to more accolades. A momentous album that diverts from Threadgill’s patents as much as it encapsulates them, it features Ensemble Double Up, his first new band in well over a decade and the first to include piano (two, actually). The man himself composes and conducts but does not play—all the more fitting for an extended tribute to the late Butch Morris, who staked his claim initially as a cornet player but became one of the avant-garde’s most visionary bandleaders.


Parts One through Three of Old Locks are built for focused listening, full of the oblique counterpoint and upended concepts of interplay we expect from Threadgill, though largely without the funky thrust of Zooid. Then comes Part Four, a gorgeous benediction that proves Threadgill’s sense of consonant beauty is just as sharp as his knack for personal innovation. Catharsis this breathtaking rarely, if ever, occurs in jazz composition. E.H.

2. Jack DeJohnette/Ravi Coltrane/Matthew Garrison
In Movement (ECM)
A cross-generational lineup as gaudy as this has to contend with major historical baggage. But In Movement more than measures up to even the loftiest expectations that listeners may bring to it. That’s due in large part to Garrison’s inventive bass playing, which establishes a questing mood that Coltrane and DeJohnette are clearly happy to broaden and deepen. M.R.

3. JD Allen
Americana: Musings on Jazz and Blues (Savant)
The 44-year-old tenor titan mines the I-IV-V and the sax-bass-drums trio to find open corners for experimentation, reclaiming Americana as a genre with more capacious boundaries than the codified campfire harmonizing it has come to represent. Bright but with ballast, Allen’s singular sound embodies what Ralph Ellison called “blues-toned laughter.” A.L.


4. John Scofield
Country for Old Men (Impulse!)
Scofield’s brilliance rests in his ability to utilize both his soul-deep love of roots music and his mastery of modern-jazz harmony within the same tune—and often within the same solo. That interdependence defines this collection of C&W interpretations, which often feels as homey as a honky-tonk yet remains full of surprises. E.H.

5. Charles Lloyd & the Marvels
I Long to See You (Blue Note)
For his second recording on his new label, Lloyd dreamed of guitars. His tenor saxophone has always been the pure sound of spiritual aspiration, and now Bill Frisell and Greg Leisz (on pedal steel) surround it and bathe it in warmth and glittering light. It is ear candy of the highest order. “Shenandoah” may make you cry. T.C.

6. Charlie Haden Liberation Music Orchestra
Time/Life (Impulse!)
Haden’s sixth and final LMO album has the assets of its predecessors: arranger Carla Bley’s rich color and dark drama; vivid statements from committed soloists (Tony Malaby, Chris Cheek, Michael Rodriguez, Loren Stillman, Steve Cardenas); anger at injustice objectified and dignified by art. Bley’s title track, a eulogy for Haden recorded after his death, is sad and brave. T.C.


7. Kris Davis
Duopoly (Pyroclastic)
Davis proves herself to be an ideal dance partner throughout this wide-ranging set of duets. Pairing with eight very different instrumentalists for a composition and an improvisation each, the pianist always knows when to lead and when to follow, ensuring that each step falls with grace but into unexpected patterns. S.B.

8. Nels Cline
Lovers (Blue Note)
The realization of a long-cherished dream, Lovers finds Cline reimagining the vintage mood-music album—those martini-and-romance LPs designed to accompany lava-lit lust—as an orchestral noir that opens the genre up to the full panoply of erotic tastes. S.B.

9. Esperanza Spalding
Emily’s D+Evolution (Concord)
Her best album yet, Emily’s D+Evolution deftly combines influences we’ve heard before in Spalding—sun-kissed ’70s R&B; Wayne Shorter; Prince; world-jazz; the theatrical conceits of the concept album—with a few welcome new ones. To the point, Espy rocks hard, summoning the wide-open electricity of Cream and the compositional labyrinths of progressive and experimental rock. E.H.


10. Julian Lage
Arclight (Mack Avenue)
The former guitar prodigy’s first album on solidbody electric guitar—and first to feature a significant amount of other people’s compositions—has the kind of aggressively modest, whimsically self-deprecating tone that only the ultra-talented can get away with. And get away with it Lage does, balancing exquisite taste with occasional (and welcome) lapses into delightful excess. M.R.

11. Aziza
Aziza (Dare2)
Melodious, thrillingly energetic, effortlessly multi-cultural and not afraid of crazy time signatures, Aziza is everything you’d figure a band made up of Chris Potter, Lionel Loueke, Dave Holland and Eric Harland would be. Although its music is rooted in the fusion-minded ambitions of the ’70s, the unit’s unpretentious intelligence marks it as a true supergroup for our time. M.R.

12. Gregory Porter
Take Me to the Alley (Blue Note)
Four albums in, Porter’s genre-blurring brilliance shows no signs of abating, and the singer’s estimable songwriting chops are given their most vigorous workout yet, extending from the romantic disconnect of “In Fashion” and politicized rumble of “Fan the Flames” to the hushed, spiritual majesty of the title track. C.L.


13. Matt Wilson’s Big Happy Family
Beginning of a Memory (Palmetto)
Beginning of a Memory is a love letter to Wilson’s cherished late wife, Felicia, and to the musicians who’ve supported the warmly singular drummer-composer throughout his career. Traversing a vast range of styles and spirits—like life itself—the album both embodies and reinvents the concept of the jazz funeral. E.H.

14. Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society
Real Enemies
(New Amsterdam)
Taken separately (except for some soundbites) from its paranoia-charged multimedia production, Real Enemies is a major extension of the big-band jazz vocabulary. It brings the twelve-tone compositional tradition into contact with film music, minimalism, Latin and Afro-Caribbean jazz, electronics and even the blues. Composer-bandleader Argue’s vision is a vast one. M.W.

15. Tom Harrell
Something Gold, Something Blue (High Note)
Harrell adds kindred spirit Ambrose Akinmusire for a two-trumpet quintet, trading bold phrasing and a buffered tone over the complex changes on nine new, inimitable Harrell compositions, plus “Body and Soul.” He’s still refreshing—himself and his listeners—as he sidles into his 70s. B.R.


16. Jaimeo Brown Transcendence
Work Songs (Motéma)
On his follow-up to 2013’s Transcendence, drummer-composer Brown and collaborator/co-producer Chris Sholar—along with saxophonists Jaleel Shaw and JD Allen, a bevy of vocalists and deftly integrated electronics—tell stories of strength drawn from hardship. But the real stars are the sampled sounds of prisoners, miners and craftsmen, from which Brown constructs his elating tales. J.T.

17. Avishai Cohen
Into the Silence (ECM)

18. Dr. Lonnie Smith
(Blue Note)


19. Vijay Iyer/Wadada Leo Smith
A Cosmic Rhythm With Each Stroke 

20. Murray, Allen & Carrington Power Trio

21. Branford Marsalis Quartet, Special Guest Kurt Elling
Upward Spiral

22. Robert Glasper Experiment
(Blue Note)

23. Herlin Riley
New Direction
(Mack Avenue)


24. Mary Halvorson Octet
Away With You
(Firehouse 12)

25. Michael Formanek Ensemble Kolossus
The Distance 

26. Andrew Cyrille Quartet
The Declaration of Musical Independence

27. Wadada Leo Smith
America’s National Parks

28. Jason Moran
The Armory Concert

29. Donny McCaslin
Beyond Now 


30. Jeff Parker
The New Breed
(International Anthem)

31. Jane Ira Bloom
Early Americans 

32. Catherine Russell
Harlem on My Mind 
(Jazz Village)

33. Jonathan Finlayson & Sicilian Defense
Moving Still

34. Nolatet
(The Royal Potato Family)

35. Marquis Hill
The Way We Play 
(Concord Jazz)


36. Tyshawn Sorey
The Inner Spectrum of Variables

37. Steve Lehman

38. Rez Abbasi & Junction
Behind the Vibration

39. René Marie
Sound of Red 

40. Melissa Aldana
Back Home 

Top 10 Historical Releases

1. Bill Evans
Some Other Time: The Lost Session From the Black Forest
For Evans devotees, At the Montreux Jazz Festival, recorded on June 15, 1968, is a foundational document. Imagine the excitement when a previously unknown session, recorded five days later in a superb German studio, was discovered and published in a lavish two-CD or vinyl package, including a “Lover Man” for the ages. T.C.


2. Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra
All My Yesterdays (Resonance)
It was incredible luck for all of us that this legendary band’s debut gig at the Village Vanguard was recorded in such expert fashion, and that the tapes survived. Fifty years later, what we hear is the sound of brilliant musicians being given a chance to unleash their ideas on the world for the first time, and making the absolute most of it. A treasure. M.R.

3. Larry Young
In Paris
: The ORTF Recordings (Resonance)
In the first previously unreleased Larry Young recording in the four decades since his passing, history has almost caught up with the trail of B-3 organ grease left in his wake. From the ORTF studio in Paris, virtuosic trumpeter Woody Shaw stretches out for the kind of extended cuts that could never have fit on Young’s 1966 classic, Unity. A.L.

4. Sonny Rollins
Holding the Stage: Road Shows Vol. 4 (Doxy/OKeh)
Almost half of the latest installment in the epic Road Shows series comes from a concert in Boston, four days after 9/11. Rollins’ first choices from the Boston material were released in 2005 as Without a Song. Vol. 4 is the least essential entry, but “In a Sentimental Mood” is sublime. T.C.


5. Miles Davis Quintet
Freedom Jazz Dance: The Bootleg Series Vol. 5 (Columbia/Legacy)
Fun for fans and revelatory for researchers, this new installment in Legacy’s titanic Bootleg Series makes you a studio assistant to Teo Macero and the Second Great Quintet. The false starts and trash talk are all there for the savoring, but it’s the leader’s empathetic support and merciless self-criticism that make the most profound impression. E.H.

6. Various Artists
Savory Collection Vol. 1: Body and Soul – Coleman Hawkins & Friends (NJMIH/Apple Music)

7. Shirley Horn
Live at the 4 Queens (Resonance)


8. John Coltrane
The Atlantic Years—In Mono (Rhino)

9-11. [tied] John Coltrane A Love Supreme: The Complete Masters (Impulse!/Verve), Erroll Garner Ready Take One (Legacy), Sarah Vaughan Live at Rosy’s (Resonance)

Originally Published