One of my goals with this column is to highlight the diversity and sonic richness of the modern jazz scene. As far as who makes the cut for inclusion here, the musicians make that part easy. This month’s column is a case in point. No two albums on this list belong to the same jazz subgenre, and all of them illuminate the limitless expressionism in the modern scene’s musicians.
Could We Be More
Vinyl LP, Cassette, Compact Disc (CD)
Kokoroko drove modern jazz fans bonkers with the single, “Abusey Junction,” which was included on the Brownswood Recordings compilation We Out Here. An EP followed, which only temporarily abated the intense anticipation for the septet’s proper debut. And so, here we are. Could We Be More delivers on the group’s initial promise of melodic sunshine and infectious grooves, and takes advantage of the freedom of a full-length recording to explore all of its different facets. A little bit modern space jazz, a little bit 70’s soul jazz, and healthy doses of Afro-beat come together for a recording that will snap right into place with the summer season.
Gaston de la Cruz Quinteto
Much in the same way that the strongest moonbeams can penetrate an overcast sky, the melodies of Constelaciones shine through with great impact. This effect is just as strong on a dissonant piece like opening track “Hamal” as it is on the gorgeous languor of “Aldebarán.” The Argentinian quintet of guitarist Gastón de la Cruz, contrabassist Martín de Lassaletta, drummer Nahuel Flores-Catino, pianist Javier Caire Paulino, and saxophonist Federico Viceconte (plus guests, José Marín and Valentín Garvie) have really put something special together here—a straight-forward recording that delivers countless moments of exhilaration and beauty.
Kalaha + Hilal Kaya With Aarhus Jazz Orchestra
Vinyl LP, Compact Disc (CD)
Tutku is both cheerful and enchanting, as likely to actively engage the listener as it is to hypnotize them. This convergence of Turkish psych, modern jazz, electronic pop, and orchestral jazz brings a bold sound to every harmonic burst, with cadences designed to make you move move move. Vocalist Hilal Kaya, guitarist Niclas Knudsen, drummer-percussionist Emil de Waal, keyboardist Jens “Rumpistol” B. Christiansen, synthesizer player Mikael “Spejderrobot” Elkjær, and the Aarhus Jazz Orchestra have put together one of the funnest recordings of 2022.
I hesitate to mention the specific dynamic interplay between vibraphonist Sasha Berliner and drummer Marcus Gilmore for fear it might deflect from how tight this group sounds as a whole. The seamless unity of melody and rhythm on Berliner’s latest is an absolute joy to experience, and the strength of the quartet is perhaps best illustrated in the way they effortlessly incorporate guest artists like saxophonist Jaleel Shaw, synthesizer player Julius Rodriguez, and vocalist Thana Alexa, as if they’ve been part of the working unit for years. But, yeah: I could’ve listened to a multi-volume recording of Berliner and Gilmore doing their thing, and still complained that the end came too soon.
Xaybu: The Unseen Out
Vinyl LP, Compact Disc (CD)
If I had to compile a list of the ten most iconic tracks in the modern jazz scene, I’d be hard-pressed not to include “Are You In Peace?” from Sélébéyone‘s debut. The ensemble’s confluence of modern jazz, hip-hop, and electronic music has a gravitas that is undeniably riveting. The saxophone lines from Steve Lehman and Maciek Lasserrre are lessons in precision, cutting paths between and around the vocals, both in Wolof and English, from Gaston Bandimic and HPrizm, while drummer Damion Reid is both the sky and the floor, giving them dimension and context. Their sophomore release is no less dramatic, no less intriguing, and amplifies the statement made by their debut.
Compact Disc (CD)
You can’t go wrong with this old-school recording from jazz legend Al Foster. The drummer—joined here by trumpeter Nicholas Payton, saxophonist Chris Potter, pianist Kevin Hays, and bassist Vicente Archer—selects compositions that are ideal for allowing each musician’s personality to emerge within the framework of familiar melodies. The album comes to us courtesy of Smoke Sessions, which has done an admirable job of featuring jazz legends like Foster with the all-stars of the modern scene.
Heart of the Ghost
Sounding as if they’re powered by rocket fuel, the trio of saxophonist Jarrett Gilgore, drummer-percussionist Ian McColm, and bassist Luke Stewart offer up a blistering set of music. It flows freely, wild and untamed, yet retains a focus and cohesion that ups the melodic intensity. The Washington DC-based trio eases off just a little bit as they approach the album’s conclusion, and the simmering moodiness that ensues is positively electric.
Side-Eye & Grace
The chamber-jazz quartet Side-Eye & Grace tosses a little bit of folk and a little bit of ambient electronica into their music, and ends up sounding like it shares a lineage with Bill Frisell’s Ghost Town. It’s a heady dose of tranquility, with just a little agitation now and then for some welcome surges of tension. Violinist Erik Johnson-Scherger, guitarists Kyle Jordan and Garrett Warner, and bassist (and pianist) Chris Pond comprise the Ottawa-based outfit.
Face to Face
Compact Disc (CD), Vinyl LP
In the context of a modern jazz landscape increasingly defined by its willingness to journey far beyond the music’s roots, it’s always refreshing to encounter a straight-ahead recording that provides no fewer thrills and breathless excitement than its more experimental counterparts. This quartet session from saxophonist Jeremy Rose, pianist Steve Barry, bassist Noel Mason, and drummer Alex Hirlian keeps to a simple formula of vibrant melodies and a riveting conversationalist rhythmic style, and the arithmetic yields an exquisite gem. Most of the album tracks have an upbeat personality, but when the quartet gets moody on a track like “All About KB,” a certain charisma emerges that is undeniably magnetic. Face to Face is a nice window into the Sydney, Australia scene.
Darren Pickering Small Worlds
Compact Disc (CD)
Here’s something for those peaceful moments when softly falling rain instills a serenity upon the world you hope will never end. Pianist Darren Pickering, guitarist Mitch Dwyer, bassist Pete Fleming, and drummer Mitch Thomas keep to crisp, clear melodies, and utilize them as the guiding principle to steer the rhythmic conversation. A few pieces raise the pulse a tiny bit and a few others dip into ambient jazz territory, but by and large, this Christchurch, New Zealand-based quartet sticks to a straight-ahead sound that moves at the pace of clouds drifting across the horizon.
Compact Disc (CD)
The Forest Chorus quintet splashes rocks through the surface of their tunes and rides the waves and ripples as far as they’ll go. Sometimes they offer a vivid image of a straight-ahead piece, something with a blues or old-school jazz feel, and those expressions resonate that much stronger because they’re so fleeting. It won’t be long before it all comes crashing down again, but it’s the musicality of the chaos that elevates this recording to another level, where the emphasis isn’t the sonic differences between cohesion and collision, but the transitory nature of the melodies that occur in between those states. It’s the idea that even in a state of flux, beauty can be held in sharp relief. Forest Chorus is saxophonist Mikko Innanen, trumpeter Seba Saenz, guitarist Caleb Veazey, double bassist Miller Wrenn, and drummer Joonas Leppänenn.
The Temple Within
Compact Disc (CD), Vinyl LP, T-Shirt/Shirt
Here’s a Matthew Halsall fix to tide you over until his next proper release. From the same creative jag that gave us 2020’s excellent Salute to the Sun, this EP provides additional textures from the Manchester-based trumpeter’s modern perspective on spiritual jazz. There’s some darker tones and some get-up grooves, but overall it has that same ethereal melodicism that makes Halsall’s music so damn enchanting. If this is your intro to Halsall’s music, then let me take the opportunity to mention that any list of modern jazz classics would have to include his 2009 sophomore release Colour Yes (reissued recently in deluxe edition).