In a year in which I’ve repeatedly said, “This is one of the very best things to be released in 2019,” I keep finding new reasons to say it yet again. And as a testament to the enduring strength of the current generation of jazz musicians, two of this month’s featured artists (Yazz Ahmed and Jaimie Branch) were responsible for the two best albums of 2017, and Chris Lightcap released the best album of 2015. And that’s not even diving into the impact Matana Roberts, Matt Ulery, Tomeka Reid and the Bad Plus have had on the shape of jazz today. What I’m getting at here is that: Yes, 2019 is truly a special year in new releases, but the musicians who are cementing that designation have been putting their stamp on the scene for years now.
Yazz Ahmed made a statement with 2017’s La Saboteuse, an album that was as much a declaration of vision as it was an encapsulation of the influences that gave it shape.The trumpeter synthesized London’s modern jazz, Bahrain folk music, ambient drones, psychedelic rock and indie pop into something as warmly embraceable as it was beguiling and thought-provoking. Her newest builds on that foundation, using a thematic framework of women who exemplify the qualities of courage and strength essential to navigating a patriarchal society. And, much like its 2017 predecessor, Ahmed has created an album that is a standout listening experience, casting enchanting melodies and harmonic surges as thrilling as they are lovely.
Fly or Die II: Bird Dogs of Paradise
The trumpet of Jaimie Branch has a presence that commands the room. Her vision is no less riveting. There’s an argument to be made that Branch’s 2017 debut Fly or Die was the album of the year. It was an electro-acoustic recording that lived at the polar extremes of digital and organic sounds, and vacillated between pure aggression and raw melodicism. Her newest, Fly or Die, is no less riveting. It occupies the same general territory as the original installment, but displays an expansive use of textures and diversity. Spoken word, chamber, rock, Latin music influences, and bouquets of percussion become the focal points, dictating events as willfully as Branch’s typical punches-in-bunches style. Branch’s debut made a formidable impact—which makes the achievement of her sophomore release that much more impressive. Every bit of this music is outstanding.
Max Andrzejewski’s Hütte
Hütte & Guests Play the Music of Robert Wyatt
Some artists just can’t do anything normally. It’s as if it isn’t even a conscious choice, but some sort of biological imperative. Max Andrzejewski is one of those artists. He’s been responsible for creative phenomena like his Hütte ensemble, which morphs from a melodically spasmodic quartet into a choir for a sonic celebration of food. To say nothing of his dizzying transitions between free jazz collabs with Charles Gayle, synth-rock duo Pranke, and folk singer-songwriter Rachel Sermanni. His latest, a take on the Robert Wyatt songbook, is arguably his most thoroughly conceived project to date. It’s also one of the very best things to come out this year.
Pianist Carmen Sandim’s melodies hold the door wide open to the rest of the song. It frames each piece with a thematic device that contextualizes notes in real time. The Brazilian native and Denver resident has a quiet source of quality modern jazz recordings, delightful in their tunefulness, and thrilling for their volatility in the face of those melodies. This is arguably her best to date. Winter is on the way, and Play-Doh is a dose of springtime to see you through the colder months.
As a composer, one of Matt Ulery’s strengths is his talent for balancing a huge sound with an exquisite melodicism. In this way, he reveals an irresistible vulnerability in every show of strength. It’s why his big band and orchestral works have a clear intimacy, and his smaller ensemble pieces seem to roar up to the heavens. His latest falls more into the latter category. Working with familiar collaborators like pianist Rob Clearfield, drummer Quin Kirchner, violinist Zach Brock, and alto saxophonist Greg Ward, the bassist expands upon the inspirations and imagery of past works while nurturing something that sounds quite new.
Coin Coin Chapter Four: Memphis
Where Matana Roberts’ previous manifestations of her “panoramic sounds quilting” projects were a fascinating display of impressionism, her fourth installment in the Coin Coin series has a narrative clarity that is nothing short of stunning. The composer’s talent for nurturing the interplay between history and myth has resulted in one of the albums of the year.
Tomeka Reid Quartet
There’s nothing happenstance about the title of Tomeka Reid’s latest. There’s a kind of chronological elasticity that is pretty damn compelling. These are modern players with forward-thinking attitudes. Guitarist Mary Halvorson, bassist Jason Roebke, and drummer Tomas Fujiwara are responsible for some of the more experimental works on the modern scene. But the foundations of blues and jazz and folk bleed through the music, giving it a strong sense of something traditional and familiar.
What’s most appealing about the music of Chris Lightcap is the way he gives the jagged and rough post-bop form of expression an anthemic quality. Whether it’s washes of harmonic warmth, strategic melodic timing, or the way he instills an ephemeral presence on structured cadences, it all makes the music both intricate and intimate. On the bassist’s new release, he brings together his Bigmouth and Superette ensembles, and the best each group has to offer individually snaps into place as a collective.
At this point, just scoop up anything Kris Davis releases. The pianist is in one of those creative fugues where experimentalism becomes commonplace, and the conventional becomes transcendent. The latest gem (in a string of recent gems) was born through collaborations on a Geri Allen tribute project, which informed the album’s arresting mix of influences and perspectives. Terri Lyne Carrington, Esperanza Spalding, Marc Ribot, JD Allen, Nels Cline, Val Jeanty, Trevor Dunn and Ches Smith comprise the all-star line-up drawn into Davis’s creative orbit, and they have a presence that measures as planetary.
The Sky Below
This is the music of scattered marbles, where the intersections of motion are just as responsible for an enchantment as the kaleidoscopic bursts of color. This is also the music of myth, on which Miles Okazaki applys real symbolism to a fictional narrative. It’s a convergence of sources of fascination on the latest from the guitarist, which was never in short supply previously. Okazaki’s collaboration with pianist Matt Mitchell, bassist Anthony Tidd and drummer Sean Rickman continues to be a wellspring of creativity.
Laila and Smitty III
It’s as much about the inspiration as the execution on Kenny Warren’s Laila & Smitty project. It’s as an excellent example of what folk jazz has become in the modern era, but its impact comes from the unguarded and vulnerable liner notes that describe the motivation for the project. The first release in the series documented the end of his long-term relationship, and juxtaposed it with the idealized marriage of his aunt Laila and uncle Smitty, drawing parallels between the concurrence of their passing and the death of his own relationship. It infused powerful music with a poignancy that was impossible to ignore. But there was hope, too, in the development from the first chapter to the second and, now, part three, and the way the theme of rebuilding and starting over is captured by his life, and the music representing it. Warren puts himself out there.
The Bad Plus
The trio’s addition of Orrin Evans has led to an emergence in fluidity The Bad Plus never quite managed before. Perhaps it has something to do with the pianist’s ability to voice the blues effortlessly, and perhaps it’s also the result of Evans syncing up perfectly with the talkative, rhythmic quality of bassist Reid Anderson and drummer Dave King. Whatever the cause, these simple, yet poignant tunes reflect a new phase in the trio’s creative trajectory, and their second recording together is a signpost that things are falling right into place.
While Evgeny Sivtsov reveals all kinds of idiosyncracies in his lyrical style, its ultimate form is blending the breezy lightheartedness of Sonny Clark and the crisp harmonics of Fred Hersch. This trio work from pianist Sivtsov, bassist Dan Chmielinski, and drummer Shawn Baltazor is the kind of straight-ahead gem that reminds us of the roots of jazz in a year when the typical blossom is strange and new. This album is released on Rainy Day Records from Saint Petersburg, Russia… yet one more reminder that jazz is everywhere.
Go: Organic Orchestra & Brooklyn Raga Massive
Ragmala: A Garland of Ragas
Adam Rudolph has spent decades exploring the interstices of jazz and diverse folk musics from around the world. That he would collaborate with Brooklyn Raga Massive is about as logical a decision as it gets. The ensemble has taken a similar approach to that of Rudolph’s by exploring the connection points between Indian classical and music such as the spiritual jazz of Alice and John Coltrane, and the minimalism of Terry Riley’s “In C.” Their two orchestras amount to something of a supergroup- an assessment of the resulting music as much the esteem of the participating musicians.