Jan 6 2019
At some point during the Best of 2018 festivities, you’ll be reading about Makaya McCraven’s Universal Beings. It is a construct of live performance inspiration and studio editing innovation, and it is a product of four different ensembles performing in four different cities and expressing four different perspectives on the modern sound. As much as any recording of recent vintage, it symbolizes the jazz scene today: A diversity of sounds reflecting the diversity of the planet. It’s where we’re at.
The introduction to last year’s Best Of 2017 list summed up the credo of this site. It also encapsulates the struggle writers and musicians alike encounter as they try to put words to all of this magic spun into existence right there before us. If you haven’t read that intro, do so now, and if you need a refresher, then follow that link. Because it’s time to move past this exercise of figuring out what to call this music. Sure, it might be useful if someone came up with a clever tag to apply to the modern jazz scene, a be-bop for the present day, but to focus on that confounding endeavor has the inadvertent consequence of diminishing the modern scene’s strongest trait… its diversity. The ephemeral nature of the modern sound is evidence of the limitless opportunities to surprise, and with it, an inherent quality almost impervious to naming.
And that’s where the focus should be trained. It matters less what it is and far more where it’s at. Because the diversity of the modern scene, though as difficult to corral as capturing clouds in one’s embrace, can be represented by a tangle of roots planted as firmly in the earth and the soil beneath our feet. The language of jazz remains a constant even under the forces of creative evolution, but the creativity that informs the approach to those constants is inevitably influenced by where the musicians are from… the folk and popular musics specific to their spot on the earth, the languages they communicate by, the common forms of dance and labor, the economic and social and political vagaries that shape things around them, the places they’ve been and the places they dream of going, and, perhaps most notably, the artists in their orbit. As part of a larger discussion about the volume of attention focused on New York City jazz, Vijay Iyer makes an insightful observation about why New York City remains the jazz capital of the world. The idea that NYC behaves as a convergence point for many creative perspectives is about as inarguable a fact as you’ll encounter in a debate about jazz. But in the same way that jazz is no longer framed by a few large music labels, the importance of New York City as a landmark for the Sound Of Jazz Today has greatly diminished.
The internet has opened up a world to us. We can live anywhere, in the middle of a big city or a remote location ignored by mapmakers, and as long as we can get a signal, a world of music is right there in front of us. Same goes for the musicians attempting to reach us. And that access pulls back the veil on the vast range of expressions that signify the modern jazz scene, and brings to light those roots that tie the artists to the sphere of influences that shape their expressionism… even as they assimilate the foundations of jazz into their own language. How many languages exist on this planet? How many different instruments are there to channel our creativity? And in combination, is there any ceiling on the ways in which artists may express themselves? As it becomes increasingly evident how these influences affect the vagaries of the modern jazz sound, it becomes obvious that the word Jazz is as all-encompassing, and usefully vague, as the concept of Earth, and perhaps the best direction to take in encapsulating the modern jazz scene is view it through the roots of the artists themselves.
In 2017, I spoke of the music comprising the Best Of list as being some of it jazz and some of it not-jazz, but all of it being created by musicians of the tradition. In 2018, as Makaya McCraven’s four-city-four-ensemble-four-perspectives recording illustrates, it is more important to view those traditions through the foundations of the artists and not the art, of the roots of the musicians and not so much by the roots of the music. Because while the latter is the basis for so much sonic joy, it’s the former that is ultimately the source of the inspiration and surprise and evolution that will keep jazz alive and heading down a path into the future, one generation after the next, like a golden age with no end.
Bird is the Worm is a catalog of that evolution. This site documents music from all corners of the globe, and from all types of people. The Best of 2018 list is a snapshot of a year in albums. But, truly, these lists never end.
As in previous years, I’m looking for albums that deliver an impact across the board… cerebral, physical and emotional aka head, heart and soul. It’s not enough that they’re simply a very good album. They have to possess gravitas or offer something a little bit different, or, conversely, present the familiar better than anybody else on the scene. Bonus points are awarded for wild creativity and experimentalism. These are albums, released approximately between November of last year and November of this year, that make a statement of who the individual artists and ensembles are at that point in time, and, when the list is taken as a whole, a reflection of the rich diversity and immense strength of the modern jazz and improvised music scene.
And so, with the preamble out of the way… Let’s begin.
Bird is the Worm 2018 Album of the Year: Bobby Previte – “Rhapsody”
Every year, without fail, one of the top albums of the year will be in possession of a lyricism that is positively epic, as if existing in some primal state of mythology. It’s the kind of things one can imagine viewed by an ancient community sitting on rock ledges in a makeshift theater on the edge of the forest, as actors orate timeless tales of the gods and their impact on humanity on an otherwise ordinary day. This particular album will hint strongly of a narrative arc. Despite the odds against it, the album will attain a cohesion in the face of its wild nature. A sharp intelligence will act as an undercurrent to implausible plot twists and otherworldly conflicts. The album will conjure up the uncommon magic that lies at the heart of mundane events and seemingly ordinary times.
In recent years, we’ve seen John Ellis’s 2014 release MOBRO and Michael Blake’s 2016 release Fulfillment fill this role. They are recordings that put their imprint on their respective years of release, but more importantly, they belong to a lineage of music projects that possess the wild abandon and creative courage required of epic tales. It’s no small thing, and it can never be overvalued in the context of any art form, any life. For 2018, the album to achieve these heights is Rhapsody by Bobby Previte.
It’s a story about traveling. It’s about a life in motion, and about the state of existence in between. When you’re no longer in the place you were and not yet in the place you are headed, you exist in a perpetual state of transition, where what was old is being shed and what will be new has not yet been embraced. These changes may only be momentary and impermanent, but it’s during a state of flux that all of the rules of expectations and understanding may be warped and broken and bled. It is during these moments that the greatest upheavals may occur and the most sublime segues. Bobby Previte’s ensemble of guitarist Nels Cline, pianist John Medeski, harpist Zeena Parkins, vocalist Jen Shyu, and alto saxophonist Fabian Rucker exploit every instance of those opportunities for the most dramatic, thrilling, expressive and fun recording of 2018. This is what it sounds like when a creative vision is completely unleashed. Music from NYC.
Rhapsody is The Bird is the Worm 2018 Album of the Year.
The Top 50
#2: Walking Distance – “Freebird” (Sunnyside Records)
It’s not unlike experiencing Charlie Parker again for the first time. Not necessarily the sound per se, but that highly charged reaction to high voltage music. As I wrote for The Bandcamp Daily about Freebird, “There’s a giddy euphoria that comes with the discovery of the music of Charlie Parker- the thrilling experience of hearing crisp melodies formed under the pressure of high speeds of swing. That same response is the best proof of Freebird’s success.” As if taking a clipping and planting it into new soil, the Walking Distance quartet (along with a superb guest spot from Jason Moran) embrace passages from Parker’s tunes and then release them as something quite new. But the newness isn’t a measure of the jazz age the music most sounds like. It’s about capturing that joyful spirit of Parker’s music, and the power and grace it possesses to launch a person’s heart and soul into space. It’s also about music’s ability to inspire, a timelessness that continues to affect minds and hearts long after the creator has passed, and to ignite in future generations a desire of their own to take that spark and create fires of their own, burning bright. Everything about this album is representative of everything that is great about jazz. Music from NYC.
#3: Quin Kirchner – “The Other Side of Time” (Astral Spirits Records)
When this album was released, a year ago January, I wrote for The Bandcamp Daily that “it’s way too early to be saying things like this is the best thing I’ve heard all year,” and then naturally went on and declared, “but this is the best thing I’ve heard all year.” As it turned out, too soon was predicative of now’s the time. The Other Side of Time is both a throwback to a past era of spiritual and free jazz and a symbolic proclamation of the pounding heartbeat of the modern scene. In that way Quin Kirchner achieves a communion between his own modern pieces and renditions of past works by Mingus, Sun Ra, Cohran and Motian, the seamless flow of thoughts and theory and imagery between jazz eras brings to mind that of blood through the circulatory system, and the inescapable sense that there is no past and present eras, but simply a common language that perpetually reveals more of itself in coordination with our changing perception of time. Music from Chicago.
#4: Thumbscrew – “Ours” and “Theirs” (Cuneiform Records)
The Thumbscrew trio of guitarist Mary Halvorson, drummer Tomas Fujiwara, and double bassist Michael Formanek had two simultaneous releases in 2018, but for all intents and purposes, they should be viewed as a single recording. Ours consists solely of compositions from the trio members, while Theirs features compositions by jazz giants Wayne Shorter, Herbie Nichols, Jimmy Rowles, and Misha Mengelberg. However, Theirs is Ours, too, because these three musicians, each with their own striking personal voice, bring that same individuality as a trio to that music from a past jazz age and make it sound as brand new as tomorrow’s sunrise. The language of jazz is passed on down through the generations, and in that way each successive generation is shaped by the environment they are born to, they give new shape to the music language they’ve inherited. Thumbscrew is a priceless example of how old and new can sound nothing alike and yet still exist in a state of unity like one slow exhalation of the most enchanting sound ever. Jazz never dies. It evolves. And then there are those instances, like Theirs and Ours, when sometimes, instead, it is an act of reincarnation. These are the tiny miracles that music can convey upon our lives. Be sure to celebrate them. Music from NYC.
#5: Makaya McCraven – “Universal Beings” (International Anthem)
I’m not sure how much more I can say about this recording. I originally included Makaya McCraven‘s Universal Beings in my Best Jazz on Bandcamp column, in which I explained how “Four concerts in four different cities [and] four casts of collaborators lead to four different perspectives on the expressionistic range of modern jazz.” Later, for the Best Bandcamp Jazz in 2018 column, I added that his “cohesive vision of the strength and diversity of today’s talent pool… is a statement, and that statement is: This is jazz today.” And then, finally, for its inclusion on The Best Albums of 2018, which included music for all genres, I summed up that “Universal Beings reveals the wealth of riches right there in front of us. You don’t need to hold onto 1959; Makaya McCraven can give you today.” McCraven captures four different takes on the modern jazz sound with four different ensembles performing in four different cities, further cementing the fact that this music is everywhere and that its potential for expression is limited only by the space on the planet and how that affects the space within artists heads and hearts and souls. Music from Chicago, NYC, London and L.A.
#6: Ambrose Akinmusire – “Origami Harvest” (Blue Note Records)
This album is stunning. It’s stunning, and it comes from all directions, in all contexts. Ambrose Akinmusire brings together an exquisite unity of modern jazz, hip hop, chamber music, R&B, pop, rap and spoken word that is unlike anything else out there. The influences are like swirling tides in a single body of water, entering confluences and then breaking apart and colliding. The themes of racism, political divides, and societal barriers possess an immediacy that never goes away even as you drift away to the beauty of the music. The motion of the music incites the image of dance, elicits it from the listener. Rarely does spoken word and rap merge so well in a jazz setting as it does here, where the powerful meaning of the words melts lovingly into the flow of the instruments, one not taking a dominant role over the other, while also allowing the cadence of the vocal delivery to behave, too, as an additional percussive instrument. This album is stunning in that way it brings classic forms of expression into the fold with those modern, as if attempting to prove that the passing of time is merely a device of perception and that all music of all ages truly exists all in the same breath. Origami Harvest is stunning, and it is sublime, and with the passing of time and opportunity for contemplation, those qualities are likely to resonate with ever increasing strength. Music from New York City.
#7: Marike van Dijk – “The Stereography Project feat. Jeff Taylor and Katell Keineg” (Hert Records)
“A remarkable example of diverse aspirations attaining a cohesive vision,” is how I described the 2018 release from Marike van Dijk for The Bandcamp Daily in my round-up of the Best Jazz of 2018. What the statement refers to is two-fold. First, the alto saxophonist adds to the challenge of her 2015 Stereography Project release of bringing improvisational elements to a chamber jazz environment by adding an additional layer of difficulty by composing for vocalists. Furthermore, as a reflection of her time spent living in New York City and her native Amsterdam, van Dijk brings together two different ensembles and two different vocalists from those locales. That’s a lot of variables to incorporate, and van Dijk makes it seem as simple as taking your next breath. But it’s more than just overcoming a great challenge; it’s that this music is bursting with life and awash in nuance and the tiny details that make the difference between a pretty song and one possessing the emotional charge to melt hearts and move mountains. In my original write-up of this album for The Bandcamp Daily, I said “[These] aren’t proper love songs per se, but they sure do evoke euphoria, heartbreak, and all of the ineffable emotions that fall between those extremes.” This music is timeless. Music from NYC and Amsterdam.
#8: Roller Trio – “New Devices” (Edition Records)
There are a very great many things to adore about the 2018 release from Roller Trio, but the most significant development is best viewed from the context of the band’s timeline. As I stated about this exciting electro-acoustic project when I first wrote about it for The Bandcamp Daily, “The mad experiments of the Roller Trio’s previous two recordings manifested a new kind of Frankenstein’s monster.” Roller Trio’s previous recordings were warmly received by this site, and each were enjoyable in their own way, but looking back on them now as stages that led up to the magnificent New Devices, there’s a certain post-excitement about the earlier works because of the hints and signs of what was yet to come. When I included this album in my Best Jazz Albums of 2018 column for The Bandcamp Daily, I believe I summed things up best when I concluded, “This is the sound of a band coming into their own.” It’s one of the most rewarding benefits of following the creative trajectory of an artist, to experience that growth in their work and the achievement of new plateaus as we go about living our own lives, and manifesting our own individual growth and achievements. This is how music becomes intertwined with our timelines, and becomes personal to us in the most ineffable ways. It is how art becomes timeless. Music from Leeds, UK.
#9: Myra Melford’s Snowy Egret – “The Other Side of Air” (Firehouse 12 Records)
Typically, the albums that make this site’s Best Of list top ten are those that have made a statement. That statement could come in any form… a social or political commentary, a picture of what jazz can become or the bounty that jazz past can yet provide, a personal artistic plateau achieved or a state of perfection on an existing vein of exploration… anything, really, where the significance of the recording rivals what makes it special. But without fail, there’s always an album that scores a top ten ranking that is there just because of what it is… beautiful music crafted with exquisite taste and expertise. Myra Melford’s The Other Side of Air is 2018’s iteration. Alongside cornetist Ron Miles, guitarist Liberty Ellman, drummer Tyshawn Sorey and bassist Stomu Takeishi, the Bay-area pianist has created something that exists as a snapshot, of timeless music captured in one brief moment of the music continuum she and her collaborators have, and will continue to create over the course of their lives. This music represents itself- its beautiful melodies and its jagged edges, its warped shapes and vivid imagery- and that’s all the statement that needed be made. This album is what it’s all about. Music from Berkeley, CA.
#10: Juan Ibarra – “NauMay” (Self-Produced)
“This kind of melodic drama would leave the Brian Blade Fellowship awestruck” is how I concluded my synopsis of Juan Ibarra‘s NauMay for The Bandcamp Daily, adding that “arguably no other album in 2018 took melodies to euphoric levels” as did the drummer on his 2018 release. I’m still left awestruck, myself, at this intensely beautiful recording. I just adore when musicians take a lovely, well-crafted melody and ride it all the way out to the horizon and beyond, giving the sensation of a long, eventful journey, before finally returning to that opening melody, and, appropriately, a feeling of finally returning to a familiar and welcoming home. This is not groundbreaking or experimental music. It is an excellent example of how much freedom and power can still be generated by the established modern sound of today, and how the personality of musicians and their combined vision can weave magic from the common tools of their trade. Music from Montevideo, Uruguay.
#11: Dos Santos – “Logos” (International Anthem)
Quite often, when an album does something a little bit different, it stops me in place. I’m forced to come to terms with what I’m hearing and develop an interface with it that (eventually) evolves into something more than a cerebral reaction, where it becomes not just an art piece, but a living communication between artist and listener, transmitting a dialog of thoughts and ideas and epiphanies. What I esteem quite highly of the 2018 release from Chicago outfit Dos Santos is how they quickly shepherd things right past that first stage of interaction. What I wrote for The Bandcamp Daily about Logos still sums up my feelings about this quality:
What’s remarkable about Logos is that it has a magnetic charm, and finds endless ways of channeling it. Sometimes it’s with the seductive groove of cumbia, and sometimes it’s with the electrical charge of salsa. Then, there are moments it sizzles with a rock ‘n’ roll edge before slipping into a soul jazz sway that sounds like gospel for the dance floor.
That snippet doesn’t go deep enough into the influences that inform this wonderful recording, but it does get to the heart of why the music’s source of fun doesn’t cause a need to differentiate between cerebral, emotional or physical reactions. It’s just felt, and every pathway of those reactions will lead to a smile. There’s a euphoric hit from this music and its got a heavy vibe of cool and is bound together with some thoughtful ingredients, and that combination of qualities, by and large, is what it’s all about, and the reason why we keep coming back for more. Music from Chicago.
#12: Peggy Lee Band – “Echo Painting” (Songlines Recordings)
For many years, Peggy Lee has been casting her spell of avant-garde, folk, modern jazz, chamber, and ambient musics, and with each successive occurrence, the enchantment gains even greater strength. There is an emphasis on orchestration in her works, and equal weight given to an improvisational approach that pulls the structure apart at the seams. But even with these given qualities that, under normal conditions, would seem to have conflicted interests at heart, the cellist is able to attain a fluidity that brings a focused perspective to bind it all together. Magic inspires a massive experience of wonderment; the Peggy Lee Band are magicians of the highest order. Music from Vancouver, Canada.
#13: Tim Haldeman – “Open Water As a Child” (Woolgathering Records)
Tim Haldeman‘s homage to Flint, Michigan was originally a project for the Ann Arbor Jazz Festival, and thankfully he shepherded it into the studio for a proper recording. It’s one of the more emotionally powerful albums of 2018. Haldeman’s sextet works from a foundation of introspection, which has its own appeal to be sure, but it’s when the ensemble builds up to a raging intensity that the stunning beauty of this album is truly unleashed. I like to drive around and listen to music, just as something I enjoy. Open Water As a Child forced me to pull to a stop on the side of the road repeatedly, just so I could fully interface with music that elicits an awed silence, remaining motionless and in reverence. Music from Ann Arbor, MI.
#14: Ryan Keberle & Frank Woeste – “Reverso: Suite Ravel” (Alternate Side Records)
The bullet point list of the components to Reverso: Suite Ravel is plenty intriguing on its own. But these arrangements of Ravel works for a chamber jazz session are so damn engrossing that the details found in the album’s liner notes just melt away. What remains is a stunning beauty matched with an engaging liveliness… a combination that lets the listener decided whether to sink into daydreams or move through life with the album’s prevailing motions. The combination of jazz improvisation and chamber structure don’t always make for the easiest convergence of influences, but the quartet of pianist Frank Woeste, trombonist Ryan Keberle, cellist Vincent Courtois and drummer Jeff Ballard bring it to life as if nurturing a flower to bloom from their personal mix of soil. This album sweeps me away every time I listen. Music from New York City.
#15: John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble – “All Can Work” (New Amsterdam Records)
A manifestation of John Hollenbeck‘s lyrical perspective inevitably takes on a curious form. The most obvious example is on full display with Claudia Quintet, an outfit that established a form of modern jazz expressionism and a tangential post-jazz escape route that has served as a guiding light for other birds-of-a-feather musicians. But this perspective also reveals itself in other Hollenbeck projects, like his rearrangements of classic songs for jazz orchestra or his 2018 large ensemble project that pays tribute to collaborators and teachers. When a musician is dedicated to finding a personal voice and channeling it through a singular vision, the immaculate music of All Can Work is what happens. Music from Binghamton, NY.
#16: Sarathy Korwar – “My East Is Your West” (Gearbox Records)
The question of influence is not just one of music theory, but also of perspectives. On his 2018 release My East Is Your West, Sarathy Korwar configures a new, more honest balance of how an Indian music influence upon jazz might sound, and it’s one of the strongest statements made this year. The timing couldn’t have been better. Even if the perspectives have been skewed at times, the branching out to other cultures is a good thing when done with sincerity. And with the resurgence of an Indian music influence in the jazz sphere, Korwar’s point of view is a welcome bit of guidance… and perspective. It’s also one of the more enjoyable recordings to hit the shelves this year. Music from London, UK.
#17: Trio HLK – “Standard Time” (Ubuntu Music)
There’s so many ways to utilize the music of the past as the source of inspiration for the music of today. Trio HLK (along with guests Evelyn Glennie and Steve Lehman) present a before-and-after comparative of deconstructed standards, where the original work serves as the seed for a massive transformation into something quite new. The before and after pictures are not always apparent. In fact, a certain level of disconnect should be expected going in. However, that’s the charm of the album, and its intelligence. In that same way a puzzle can be considered a source of entertainment even as it forces a brain to go into overdrive and the nervous system to persevere ’til the solution is found, Standard Time coaxes a deep dive into the memory banks for something familiar as it simultaneously keeps the attention focused on its playful expressionism of the new. Music from Edinburgh, Scotland.
#18: Orquesta del Tiempo Perdido – “Stille” (Clean Feed Records)
This bizarre yet immaculately orchestrated session from Jeroen Kimman’s Orquesta del Tiempo Perdido is one of the most intriguing things I’ve heard all year. In the spirit of the diverse expressionism of the Kamikaze Ground Crew but with an emphasis on alien eccentricities rather than terrestrial oddities, Kimman’s ensemble finds a curious convergence between the whimsy of children songs and space-age effects and all of it balanced upon a slender, fluid melody that cuts down the heart of each of these fascinating tunes. Nothing here sounds normal, and, yet, by the time the album reaches its conclusion, there is something comfortingly, strangely familiar about it. Were I to create a Favorites of 2018 list, it’s quite likely that Stille would earn the top spot. Music from Amsterdam, Netherlands.
#19: Manu Pékar – “Pagan Panic” (dbMP(x) Projects)
The lyricism of this recording borders on the epic, which in itself makes Pagan Panic pretty damn special. But the casual ease in which it’s offered up makes for a contrast in expression that puts this recording on an entirely different plateau. Some albums have an emotional impact of such strength that it elicits the feeling of having undergone a journey, of experienced an arc not unlike a storybook character. The 2018 release from Manu Pékar is one such example, and one of the best to see the light of day in 2018. Music from: Paris, France.
#20: Mephiti – “Mephiti” (El Negocito Records)
When I made this album one of my Best Jazz on Bandcamp recommendations, I stated that the takeaway of this album is that there are countless ways to express a state of serenity. The Mephiti sextet possess a strong melodic perspective, and the substance of their vision is revealed in the nuanced way they allow each to emerge, slowly, patiently, like nurturing a small flame into a roaring fire. Four of the instruments are stringed, with two guitars, bass and a kantele, and the way they delicately weave melodic patterns is not unlike Bill Frisell’s masterful use of loops and effects. Just a gorgeous recording that kept getting better over time. Music from Antwerp, Belgium.
#21: Jakob Bro – “Bay of Rainbows” (ECM Records)
Jakob Bro‘s melodic perspective is nothing less than stunning, and it’s remarkable how he keeps finding new and inspired ways of presenting it. This live trio session with drummer Joey Baron and bassist Thomas Morgan is just the latest example of Bro’s limitless ability to craft beauty of out thin air. It’s been my personal preference when the guitarist works with a quartet or larger ensemble, but I could listen to this trio session every day for the rest of my life, and the first thing out of my mouth upon arriving in heaven would be, hey, send me back down, I need to go listen to Bay of Rainbows again. Music from Copenhagen, Denmark.
#22: Blast – “Drifting” (Label Pince-Oreilles)
In much the same way the duo Anteloper did on the #39 album of the year, the Blast trio of keyboardist Anne Quillier, bass clarinetist Pierre Horckmans, and drummer Guillaume Bertrand go big with every expression as they find their singularly perfect ratio of the electro-acoustic equation. But where Anteloper goes heavier with the electronics, Blast leans more toward an organic form of modern jazz, where the heartbeat of the blues thumps with clarity. Quillier’s sextet made an appearance on last year’s Best Of list, receiving the #7 slot with Dusty Shelters. At this point, anything Quillier releases should be considered must-listen. Music from Lyon, France.
#23: Christopher Ali Solidarity Quartet – “To Those Who Walked Before Us” (Self-Produced)
When I included this album as part of the Best of Bandcamp Jazz 2018 column, I stated that “sometimes, protest needs an anthem to focus its anger and fear and resolve.” It’s a quality that runs all the way through this exciting release from the Christopher Ali Solidarity Quartet recording. The heavy punch delivered by this music isn’t a bit blunted by way of the catchiness infused within its melodies. This in combination with its spellbinding mix of avant-garde, Swedish and Arabic folk musics and modern jazz makes for an arresting listening experience, and the kind of thing that makes it just as compelling in the context of protest music as it is in the absence of. Music from Gothenburg, Sweden.
#24: Jack Radsliff – “Migration Patterns” (Self-Produced)
I’m still not sure where this album came from. It popped up on my radar as 2017 came to a close, and its lovely blooms of melody and harmonic colors bold and bright made me want to include it as a last minute replacement on the Best of 2017 list. I’ve learned to hold back on that compulsion. Every album deserves time to fully reveal itself. Migration Patterns certainly has done that, and it speaks to how deep the talent pool is on the modern scene that this album doesn’t sit in a higher slot on the list. I listen to this album over and over and over, and I still can’t decide which song is my favorite. I guess it’s whichever one I’m listening to at the moment. An amazing debut from Jack Radsliff, and a promising sign of things to come. Music from Eugene, Oregon.
#25: Tim Stevens Double Trio – “with whom you can be who you are” (Rufus Records)
I really can’t get over how beautifully Tim Stevens unites the free flowing conversation of a piano trio with the soaring harmonies of a string trio. This isn’t your typical “jazz with strings” session. There’s a strong modern jazz perspective and an equally strong chamber music influence, and rather than switch roles in a dominant-accompaniment relationship, the pianist gets the two components to enter the same confluence, becoming as one. As a result, the melodic textures seem endless, and the dual personality of introspective and lively delivers a seriously magnetic charge. This is music for a lazy morning watching the snow fall and it’s music for the car stereo while speeding between destinations, and, ultimately, it’s music for when you require an infusion of loveliness in your life. Music from Melbourne, Australia.
#26: Wanja Slavin Lotus Eaters – “Salvation” (WhyPlayJazz)
I adore the balancing act Wanja Slavin‘s 11-piece ensemble Lotus Eaters pulls off along the very thin line that separates the modern post-bop sound with something more akin to post-jazz. The fuzziness at the edges where these two forms of music meet is something that Slavin explores like discovering an entire new universe. It’s where things that sound familiar bleed into expressions that sound new and vaguely alien, and the alto saxophonist exploits this sensation to present a vast sonic spectrum. Music from Berlin, Germany.
#27: Marc Cuevas – “Carta Blanca” (Underpool Music)
Easily one of the most intriguing albums of 2018 is the electro-acoustic Carta Blanca from Marc Cuevas. It’s not a union of electronic and organic elements and it’s not a battle of the wills… instead it comes off more like peaceful cohabitation, as in that way a thick fog falls away as the ship cuts through it. Sometimes the electronics obscure a trumpet’s cry of melody until it suddenly breaks into view, and sometimes the motion of a modern piano work keeps the electronics in a perpetual state of dissipation… except for those moments that the quartet chooses for it to rise up within a brief moment of silence. I am endlessly fascinated with this recording. Music from Barcelona, Spain.
#28: SLUGish Ensemble – “An Eight Out Of Nine” (Slow & Steady Records)
Steven Lugerner really needs to be not so under-the-radar anymore. His audacious double-album debut in 2011 received mention on this site’s inaugural Best Of list, and since then, the multi-reedist has shown no limit to his expressionism, whether it be channeling a classic hard bop sound, creating avant-garde pieces based on religious text, exploring melodic possibilities with a dedication that rivals that of the Brian Blade Fellowship, instilling a pop tune approach to a modern jazz trio, experimenting at the crossroads of habit & improvisation, and, now, his SLUGish Ensemble and their fascinating rearrangements of modern pop tunes. The details reign supreme on this recording, because even though his ensemble unleashes a big sound that lets the melody ring clear, this sonic gem is best appreciated by the unending sparkle of its facets and how the melody reflects off each curve, bend, and sharp edge. Jazz has an interesting legacy of taking pop tunes, and by rearranging them for jazz performance, revealing aspects not even hinted at by the original compositions. Lugerner has made an excellent addition to that music legacy. Music from San Francisco, CA.
#29: Sons of Kemet – “Your Queen Is A Reptile” (Impulse Records)
No matter how you look at this album, you’ll see a statement. There’s the political context, of the idea of royalty and the fracture of racism cutting down the center of society. There’s the media context, and of who is presented to the public as role models and heroes. There’s the musical context, of the roots of folk music stretching across continents, of cross-pollination of influences, and of musicians stamping their mark on the present day scene. But in ascendance over all of those, the statement that rings most clear, is that a heavy message need not clip the wings of music that simply wants to go soaring. There is an unmissable sense of importance that radiates from every note of Sons of Kemet‘s Your Queen Is A Reptile; so are its expressions of joy. Music from London, UK.
#30: Get the Blessing – “Bristopia” (Kartel Music)
Get the Blessing is Exhibit A that the modern jazz sound remains in a perpetual state of metamorphosis. GTB have a fresh sound all their own. It’s not post-bop or avant-garde or really belonging to any particular school… just their own formula and their own sound, inventive and innovative and, yet, a cursory appraisal returns an opinion of, yeah, this is jazz. On their 2018 release Bristopia, the quartet of bassist Jim Barr, drummer Clive Deamer, saxophonist Jake McMurchie and trumpeter Pete Judge reveal that their own personal creative evolution is also still underway, as the melodic grooves of previous recordings gain a bit more edge, and, as a result, heavy electronic effects possess an immediacy all their own, frantic almost, as if the wings of a butterfly fresh out of the cocoon. This is one of the most original groups on the scene, and every note they play proves that assertion. Music from Bristol, UK.
#31: Anat Cohen & Fred Hersch – “Live in Healdsburg” (Anzic Records)
When I included this recording in my Best Jazz Albums of 2018 column on The Bandcamp Daily, I stated, “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.” Those words not only summed up my feelings as the year came to an end, but also represented the joy I felt the first time I heard the recording. The night Anat Cohen and Fred Hersch gave this performance at the 2016 Healdsburg Jazz Festival, it showed us at our best. Music from Healdsburg, CA.
#32: Anton Hunter – “Article XI” (Efpi Records)
There’s always the sense of a massive vision to this album, and it’s how Anton Hunter keeps the focus on the microcosm of the moment that cinches this recording as something special. In my original write-up, I state that traversing this album is like a journey through the funhouse. And while its lyricism, often absurd and capable of inciting tiny epiphanies, often does command center stage, the benefit of time slowly reveals that it’s the competing, complementary perspectives that is the true driving force… like watching simultaneous evolutions of worlds inside of worlds. Music from Manchester, UK.
#33: David Dominique – “Mask” (Orenda Records)
When I wrote about this album for The Bandcamp Daily, I stated “Much in the same, mind-bending way one could draw a short line from a what-even-was-that Charles Mingus to traditional jazz and blues, so it is with the latest from David Dominique.” And that, truly, sums up my fascination with this album. Stare at a common image with all you got while simultaneously drifting off into daydreams, and eventually there grows a disconnect between what you are staring at and how the waking dream state colors and warps it into something strangely alien yet still hauntingly familiar. That’s Dominique with jazz and blues. You might encounter a Best Of list that has Mask situated in their top ten. It’s a decision that should go without generating controversy. There is something unarguably special about this album. Music from Los Angeles, CA.
#34: OddAtlas – “OddAtlas” (Ropeadope Records)
I mean, damn, but do the quartet OddAtlas know how to make a melody simmer into a slow burn. And it’s not the heat generated that forges the connection, but the hypnotic effect of the melody’s flickering light. It transfixes the same whether the song smolders or shines bright. The quartet of guitarist Federico Casagrande, saxophonist Warren Walker, bassist Sam Minaie, and drummer Caleb Dolister aren’t shy about mixing in heavy infusions of post-rock to their modern jazz sound, and the willingness to stomp instead of swing provides that much richer environment for melodies thrive. This is a recording that I’ll be returning to for years to come. Music from New York City.
#35: Ledesma Angelillo Hurtado Brandán – “Gato Barbieri Revisitado” (Discos ICM)
It’s especially rewarding how the Buenos Aires quartet of saxophonist Pablo Ledesma, pianist Pepe Angelillo, bassist Mono Hurtado, and drummer Carto Brandán recognized the diverse niche of music expressions that comprised the creative arc of Leandro “Gato” Barbieri’s career, and then turned around and honored those influences with deft reinterpretations alongside some parallel visions of their own original works. There’s some brazen edginess, some Latin tempo groove, some lighthearted melodic reveries and, conversely, some that take on more serious tones. Sometimes they highlight the folk music aspect and other times the avant-garde leanings of their inspiration source. Add to that the concept of old vs. new vs. old made new again, and the intrigue just continues to build into something quite special. Music from Buenos Aires, Argentina.
#36: Christian Balvig 6tet – “Music For Humans” (AMP Music & Records)
Just on the basis of its sheer beauty, Music for Humans gets a slot on the Best Of list. Christian Balvig’s chamber jazz 2018 release is pure shot of harmonic joy. But how his 6tet is able to seamlessly weave incisive melodic statements and an absorbing rhythmic conversation into the fabric of those harmonies is what elevates this album up to an entirely new plateau. This is music you can just sink into and never come up for air or, instead, you can engage with it as if a contemplative chess match where there are no sides, only a graceful motion of pieces. Music from Oslo, Norway.
#37: Tim Daisy’s Fulcrum Ensemble – “Animation” (Relay Recordings)
This inside-out recording from Tim Daisy’s Fulcrum Ensemble possesses an enthusiasm that spreads like wildfire to anyone within listening distance. Sometimes it echoes the swinging affairs from New Orleans past and sometimes it explodes in an avant-garde fury reminiscent of New York City loft scene of the seventies. But in every instance, there’s a strong presence of the modern day, that the form of expression is always focused through the lens of musicians who know exactly where their feet stand and that they breathe the air of today. Back when I first wrote about this recording, I said not to be surprised if this album makes an appearance in a later column. The Best of 2018 is exactly what I had in mind then, and feel no less strongly about it now. Music from Chicago.
#38: Trio Untold – “Trio Untold” (PJCE Records)
This album is what happens when a melody is perpetually living in only the present moment. The Trio Untold of guitarist Mike Nord, pianist James Miley, and drummer Ryan Biesack conjure up a melodic presence that throws the door open wide and invites you into that world, and then goes about twisting it about, reshaping the melody’s form and distilling its substance down to its barest elements… all before bringing it back to a greater, but different fullness. And as it happens, the music is moody and alive and in possession of a strangely captivating beauty. Music from Portland, Oregon.
#39: Anteloper – “Kudu” (International Anthem)
Kudu really does come close. In a live setting, the Anteloper duo of trumpeter Jaimie Branch and drummer Jason Nazary are a hyperactive ball of melodic fragments, electronic turmoil, and hopscotch tempos, and the energy they generate from the stage does not allow for detached listening from the audience. It is an aggressive form of engagement that just so happens to occasionally give a warm melodic hug from time to time. On their 2018 release, the duo give a pretty close approximation of the live performance energy. This music is fun, inventive, and the boundless originality that fuels the modern scene today. Music from NYC.
#40: Maisha – “There Is A Place” (Brownswood Recordings)
This sounds nothing like the classic Pharoah Sanders Impulse Records releases of the 60s, and yet the sublime unity of peace and chaos emblematic of the saxophonist’s approach to spiritual jazz echoes strongly in the 2018 release from the ensemble Maisha. So does the potent imagery that becomes such an immersive experience that the totality of the recording feels like an epic journey through mystical lands and dream landscapes. The album ends with the title-track, and since I’ve already set the precedent for speaking of There Is A Place in reference to classic jazz recordings, then I might as well state that this tune has that same resonant tranquility as John Coltrane’s “After the Rain.” Music from London, UK.
#41: Saunier, Halvorson, Miles – “New American Songbooks, Volume 1” (Sound American)
This is a conceptual Great American Songbook. It is a collection of music that frames us as a country and defines our character in the same passing moments that it shapes us in return. It’s with that thought in mind that the trio of cornetist Ron Miles, guitarist Mary Halvorson, and drummer Greg Saunier reinterpret works by Elliott Smith, the Beach Boys, the Partridge Family, Fiona Apple, and John L. Williams, and give a present day voice to music that situates itself as the modern collection of Tin Pan Alley tunes. There isn’t a moment on this recording that doesn’t deal in fascination and reverence. Music from New York City & Denver, Colorado.
#42: Jessica Lurie – “Long Haul” (Chant Records)
Jessica Lurie exists in a very centered place on Long Haul. Her wry lyricism comes through strong as ever, but the fluid, almost casual way she navigates a transitive path between genres, while never having to shift her balance gives the impression of music orbiting an artist who sits at the center of all things creative. Previous Lurie recordings have expressed a more distinct point of view, but none to this point have so strongly reflected the cumulative assimilation of those perspectives. Music from NYC.
#43: Rudy Royston – “Flatbed Buggy” (Greenleaf Music)
As the go-to drummer for an impressively diverse array of musicians, it’s always been a source of intrigue as to the influences Rudy Royston has absorbed along the way, and those he affected by way of his own perspective. The answer provided by his excellent 2018 release Flatbed Buggy is “a little bit of both, actually.” Before Bill Frisell’s recent trip down nostalgia lane, the guitarist was cementing his view of a modern Americana Jazz that incorporated healthy doses of chamber and folk. Royston was right there for much of that ride, and the sharp differences between his expression of that music from those of Frisell’s, while situating itself as a bird-of-a-feather recording, show that the forces being exerted upon the music were not a one-way conduit of creativity. The masterful balance of a light tunefulness and heady imagery makes for an intoxicating contrast in reactions, both emotional and cerebral… of complexity presented as simply as a well-crafted melody. Music from Denver, Colorado.
#44: Anthony Shadduck – “Quartet / Double Quartet” (Joyful Noise Recordings & Big Ego Records)
There’s an absorbing personality borne by the dual nature of Anthony Shadduck’s 2018 release. One half of the recording is a single quartet that utilizes an engaging melody to dive deep into contemplative territory, like in that way the phrase Once Upon a Time leads to lifetime memories of childhood tales. And then there’s the second half of the recording, with twice the personnel, and an abounding effusiveness. Aside from behaving as an emotional counterbalance to the album’s quieter half, it’s like a celebration that those childhood story memories still burn bright today. Music from Los Angeles, CA.
#45: Ill Considered – “Ill Considered 3” (Self-Produced)
It would be a grave oversight to omit the quartet Ill Considered from this year’s Best Of list. We’re going to recognize their album 3 as the official choice for the list, but it’s really a nod to their wonderful output over the last year. A band that is positively electric in the live setting got into the studio for a more focused current of hypnotic grooves, and showed that the voltage that charges their concerts translates nicely off stage, too. Be sure to check out their Bandcamp page and take time exploring this seriously exciting band. Music from London, UK.
#46: Chris Abelen – “Songs On the Eve Of Dismissal” (Self-Produced)
This gospel for a cubicle life captures the angst of the career employee, and it does it with a seriousness and sense of humor, both. And Chris Abelen doesn’t treat the subject like some superficial topic. There’s a sincerity throughout that is unmistakable. There’s also a series of catchy melodies and engaging grooves that makes this album very easy to like. It’s a little something different, but delivered in a way that feels comfortingly familiar. Lorena del Mar‘s vocal antics really cinch this album as a winner. Music from Haarlem, Netherlands.
#47: James Davis Quintet – “Disappearing Roads” (Whistler Records)
As this site illustrates day after day, there is no end to the wonderful studio recordings from the modern scene. That said, an essential element of jazz is improvisation, and how that expresses itself in a live setting. Sometimes we’re fortunate that someone is there to hit a record button. Such is the case with this excellent live session from trumpeter James Davis and his quintet’s performance at the Chicago venue, The Whistler. With pianist Rob Clearfield, guitarist Dave Miller, double bassist Matt Ulery, and drummer Quin Kirchner, the quintet embodies all the reasons why we should be sure to balance out our digital/CD listening routines with the simple act of buying a ticket to hear some of this magic occur in a live setting. This album is everything that’s great about the modern jazz scene. Music from Chicago, IL.
#48: Mia Dyberg Trio – “Ticket!” (Clean Feed Records)
It is one of the more compelling moments in jazz when a saxophonist spreads her instrument’s flames out wide in a way that transforms the ferocity into something bordering on hypnotic. On her 2018 release, Mia Dyberg lives in that moment. What makes Ticket! most special is that the shows of strength and power range along a wide spectrum of force and restraint. As such, Dyberg’s trio shows that modulations of intensity are merely different paths that lead to the same captivating destination. The fun is in following those different paths, and knowing exactly each time where they’ll lead. Music from Berlin, Germany.
#49: Alex Oliverio’s Sunshine Ensemble – “Sunshine Ensemble” (Self-Produced)
Sunshine Ensemble is the perfect name for Alex Oliverio‘s folk-jazz project. This music lifts the spirits with its friendly demeanor, and the tones are as warm as the sun’s touch on the skin after a long, dreary winter. The theme of his EP was a reminiscence upon the apartment complexes of his youth. It’s a quirky concept, fun even, but ultimately it’s eclipsed by the music’s immense effusiveness and addictive melodies. It’s just a breezy four track EP, but this is such an exemplary example of a modern folk-jazz recording, I had no choice but to give it a slot in this year’s Best Of list. Music from Seattle, Washington.
#50: Miles Okazaki – “Work” (Self-Produced)
Quite out of the blue and as casually as tossing a coin into a fountain, Miles Okazaki released a six-volume solo guitar interpretation of the Thelonious Monk songbook. It’s a hell of a statement, even if it wasn’t offered up that way. Okazaki has often displayed a whimsical demeanor to his wonkish music endeavors, which might explain why a project that might be a cerebral exercise for other musicians comes off as a heartfelt, thoughtful exercise, as if a puzzle enthusiast spent a lazy Sunday afternoon joyfully assembling one of the world’s most difficult puzzles. Music from NYC.