Welcome to the Best of 2017


At some point during the Best of 2017 festivities, you will be reading about Nicole Mitchell’s Mandorla Awakening.

When I first began putting together this album’s synopsis for the Best of 2017 list, I wrote how, for all intents and purposes, Mandorla Awakening really isn’t a jazz album.  It, like other recent Mitchell recordings, transcends the jazz classification.  The music makes ineffective any attempt at categorization.  It’s as if a bird transformed into a phoenix mid-flight and headed out to the far horizon.  But that doesn’t mean we need forget that the music was once a bird, nor do we ignore that some of its feathers are woven into the Jazz nest.

In an interview I conducted with Donny McCaslin, he speaks of coming up through the jazz tradition.  It wasn’t some momentous declaration… more just an aside during a quick tour of his music background.  But it’s an important distinction, and one that I’d imagine McCaslin takes to heart.  Because he, too, has since transcended the jazz tag that was originally home turf tread earlier in his career.  The electro-acoustic heart that beats at the center of McCaslin’s sound today is something that becomes increasingly difficult to truly nail down as anything less vague than “his thing.”

And when it comes to exploring new creative vistas, that’s probably as it should be.  I gotta wrap my head around this is a normal, human reaction to accompany all of the joy and awe and happiness and contemplation from interacting with something new.  And, by extension, it’s understandable if the artist, as they follow new visions and, in a way, reinvent themselves, that they might not like to feel pigeonholed to what-came-before.  It’s not that Mitchell or McCaslin have turned their back on jazz or no longer play it or that it has stopped informing any new projects they embark upon.  It’s simply a recognition that things change, and a desire that current perception acknowledge the transformation in some small way.

So, even when it’s near impossible (and, by the way, not altogether essential) to give name to the new music these artists present in 2017, there’s a real benefit to simply recognizing the works as being of the tradition… that the music on this Best of 2017 list (and, really, pretty much throughout all of Bird is the Worm), while it might not sound like Jazz as it first became known, it is being created by musicians who came up through the jazz tradition, and those experiences inform the music as it’s created, even if nothing about the way it sounds necessarily points to those origins.  And that’s a good thing.  The point isn’t solely to cook up some good jazz.  The point is to nurture personal creativity, to have lofty aspirations and expand out toward those horizons.  If what comes out is rooted in the blues, maybe swings or bops a little or a lot, and has healthy doses of improvisation, then, great, we got ourselves a jazz album.  If not, then we’ve got ourselves a not-jazz album created by someone of the tradition.  If there’s one thing Bird is the Worm has illustrated in the six years the open sign has been on, it’s how insufficient the word jazz has become to describe the modern jazz scene.  This list, highlighting the Best of 2017, is a celebration of it.

Speaking of which, you’ll notice before long that the celebration has gotten a bit longer.  I’d originally planned to extend the Best Of list by ten.  You can thank Marta Sanchez for that.  There’s always going to be exceptional albums that don’t get a slot on any one year’s Best Of list.  That’s unavoidable.  It’s certainly true of 2017.  There will always be albums that haunt me, those that got left off a list, and over time, continue to prove the mistake of their exclusion.  There’s never enough time to listen to everything as much as it deserves, to give each album sufficient time to show everything it’s got.  Sanchez’s excellent 2015 release Partenika was one of the final cuts from that years Top 30 Best Of list, and it, as much as any album, exemplifies the difficultly of making these lists with available time and resources.  So, the simplest solution that presented itself was to expand the Best Of list by ten.  That was the intention for the Best of 2017 list.  What I didn’t anticipate was the depth of 2017’s talent pool.  There was just no algorithm I could devise that could justify leaving off certain albums while including equally deserving ones.  It just became easier to spare my sanity and expand the list to a Top 50.  There are still some amazing albums that didn’t make the list, but it was easier to justify.  In any event, that’s how this year’s changes came to be.  I might scale it back to forty in 2018, unless that also becomes impossible or if the feedback on 2017 suggests otherwise.  We’ll pretty much just have to see.

Ultimately, however, all that truly changed from previous years are the total number of albums included.  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 ensemble 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.

Welcome to the Bird is the Worm Best of 2017