Jazz was far from dead in 2018, but the usefulness of the word “jazz” is on life support. Over the last 12 months, the array of sounds contained on albums that could loosely be described as “jazz” was so vast, it practically rendered the term meaningless. That diversity is a sign of the scene’s strength; it reflects the visions of musicians who have been brought up in the jazz tradition, learning the languages and standards of the past to help them create the future. Almost across the board, the albums in this year’s list find inspiration in old compositions and composers, but give them new life in the sound and spirit of today.
The Other Side of Time
When I recommended Quin Kirchner’s new album back in January, I said, “It’s way too early to be saying things like ‘This is the best thing I’ve heard all year…’” As it turned out, this is pretty much the best thing I’ve heard all year. There’s a strong throwback sound to the drummer’s mix of hard bop, spiritual, and free jazz, but it’s channeled through the lens of today. A great album, and a nice document of the state of jazz on the Chicago scene.
There’s something remarkable about how Peggy Lee achieves a seamlessly orchestrated sound from a concoction of avant-garde, folk, modern jazz, chamber, and ambient musics. Even during moments of heavy dissonance, there’s a peaceful flow to Echo Painting that borders on enchantment. The cellist has been casting this kind of spell for years, and each time it emits a strength greater than what came before.
Marike van Dijk
The Stereography Project feat. Jeff Taylor and Katell Keineg
It’s not an easy task building a chamber jazz framework that allows improvisation to thrive, but Marike van Dijk’s Stereography Project does just that. On her project’s sophomore release, the alto saxophonist adds an extra layer of difficulty by composing for vocalists and for two separate ensembles, which took her to Amsterdam and NYC. That’s a hell of a lot to capture, and yet van Dijk delivers it with the simplicity of a tender love song. A remarkable example of diverse aspirations attaining a cohesive vision.
Cumbia and salsa, surf rock and Latin funk, brass section harmonies and dancefloor grooves… these are the ingredients that combine to create the liveliest musical personality of 2018. Chicago outfit Dos Santos show that the soul jazz and funk of the prior century can fuel the fun of the modern scene, and that music with a magnetic personality is no obstacle to producing the kind of joyfulness that sets bodies in motion.
Every year, without fail, there is one album that has a lyrical presence so massive it borders on the epic, and belongs to the ancient lineage of musicians and playwrights telling tales of the gods and their effect upon the mundane lives of humanity. For 2018, it’s Bobby Previte and his masterpiece, Rhapsody. It tells the stories of traveling, of existing in a state in between places—sometimes in perpetual motion, sometimes planted in one spot. The drummer’s own array of percussion creates a rich dialog all its own; but when you add in the guitars of Nels Cline, the exhilarating vocals of Jen Shyu, Zeena Parkins’s harp, John Medeski’s piano, and the alto sax of Fabian Rucker, it becomes a dizzying display of melodic expressiveness. This is what it sounds like when a creative vision is completely unleashed.
The idea of creating something new from something old is the fuel that runs the jazz engine. Walking Distance took a cerebral approach to that tradition, but its impact is delivered with an emotional punch. Using Charlie Parker compositions as their source material, the quartet (plus guest Jason Moran) reimagines them through the lens of the modern-day scene. And they’re successful. This ain’t no covers album—and thank God for that. But there isn’t a jazz fan out there who doesn’t recall the visceral thrill of hearing a Charlie Parker solo for the first time. That electric charge bleeds through every note of Freebird.
Proclamations that “jazz is dead” are more than tedious, they’re grossly misinformed, and Makaya McCraven’s Universal Beings is the new Exhibit A in the counterargument. Performing in four different cities with four different ensembles resulting in four different views on the modern jazz sound results in a cohesive vision of the strength and diversity of today’s talent pool. It may not have been offered up this way, but Universal Beings is a statement, and that statement is: This is jazz today.
Juan Ibarra Quinteto
Arguably no other album in 2018 took melodies to euphoric levels more than Juan Ibarra did on NauMay. The melodies here are positively magnetic. They command attention, and don’t release their hold. But it’s the way the Quinteto takes those melodies off to the horizon, never losing what made them so absorbing in the first place, that cements this album as something truly special. They resonate with a strength that gives a song its structure long after the ensemble’s volatility has shattered it into a thousand pieces. This kind of melodic drama would leave the Brian Blade Fellowship awestruck, and when it comes to the modern jazz scene, that’s about the highest compliment there is.
Theirs is Ours, too, and that’s what makes the double release from Thumbscrew so remarkable. Both on their own and with their separate projects, guitarist Mary Halvorson, bassist Michael Formanek, and drummer Tomas Fujiwara each have their own distinct sound, and as a trio, this effect is amplified. But that they can honor the original compositions of jazz legends on Theirs while still applying an identical striking, individualistic style applied to their own compositions on Ours speaks as much to the evolution of jazz as any release in 2018, where musicians of the jazz tradition take it to places that sound only remotely like what the music once was.
Christopher Ali Solidarity Quartet
To Those Who Walked Before Us
Sometimes, protest needs an anthem to focus its anger and fear and resolve. Protest music has a long history in jazz, and it’s taken many different forms. The Christopher Ali Solidarity Quartet offer up some music to hold onto, the kind of catchiness that can be the lens to focus current events through and, also, the method of propulsion against them. The quartet of saxophonist Christopher Ali Thorén, oudist Filip Bagewitz, double bassist Alfred Lorinius, and drummer Anton Davidsson Norén find a meeting point between modern jazz, avant-garde, and Arabic and Swedish folk music, and the resulting unity of music influences reflects the way protest music can be the device to bring individuals together in a common purpose.
The Roller Trio were always a team of mad scientists, but it wasn’t until their 2018 release New Devices that the end result seemed to create a clap of thunder, streaks of lightning, and the cackling exclamation “It’s alive!” By most practical measures, not much has changed. The electronic effects, the surges of melodic intensity, the unpredictable hopscotch tempos, and an eccentric personality are as present now as they were before. But New Devices signals a stage in the trio’s development where the ratios between the elements are perfected. This is the sound of a band coming into their own.
An Eight Out Of Nine
From old-school Coltrane evoking a ferocity out of “My Favorite Things” to modern era Robert Glasper mashing up Radiohead’s “Everything in its Right Place” with Herbie Hancock’s “Maiden Voyage,” there’s an established tradition of jazz musicians bringing out bright new facets of pop music gems. 2018 saw an excellent addition to that lineage with Steven Lugerner’s SLUGish Ensemble. They infuse tracks by Wye Oak, Beach House, The Velvet Teen, and My Brightest Diamond with a lifeblood of modern jazz vibrancy, and bring out a potential the originals only hinted at.
Trio HLK created one of the more intriguing releases of 2018 with their before-and-after comparative of deconstructed standards transformed into something new. Sometimes, a bit of the original melody emerges; more often than not, a subtle touch keeps the identity of the original pieces just below the surface. It’s a captivating experience, like trying to make out the shapes hidden in swirling fog. Enough can’t be said about the cloak-and-dagger touch lent by guests, saxophonist Steve Lehman and vibraphonist Evelyn Glennie.
Anat Cohen & Fred Hersch
Live in Healdsburg
This album should inspire jealousy. It should make you resent the fact that you weren’t in Healdsburg, CA the night Anat Cohen and Fred Hersch gave this performance at the 2016 Healdsburg Jazz Festival. Because no matter how immaculately this music was rendered for a recorded medium, surely, the sympatico communication between the clarinetist and pianist resonated even stronger for those in attendance. This album should also inspire gratefulness—that somebody was there to hit a record button, and that the world includes musicians capable of creating a sublime beauty in the suddenness of a single moment in time.
John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble
All Can Work
It would be hard to mistake All Can Work as anything other than a tribute to former collaborators and teachers. The harmonic ebb and flow, the emotional upheavals, the sublime melodic reveries, these qualities all speak to the grand moments and indescribable nuance of relationships formed in creative conditions. John Hollenbeck has always wielded a curious lyricism (see: Claudia Quintet), but never has it crystalized quite as exquisitely as this.