The 20 Best Jazz Albums of 2016

Esperanza Spalding.

Esperanza Spalding. Holy Andres

If there is any way to imagine a positive outcome to David Bowie’s death in January, we can take comfort in the fresh light he shined on jazz music in 2016.

From David Sanborn’s sweet sax solo on “Young Americans” to AACM trumpet great Lester Bowie’s appearance on nearly half of Black Tie, White Noise to renowned avant-garde drummer Joey Baron’s role on Outside, the dearly departed Thin White Duke always had a keen ear for musicianship in this community for the majority of his career.

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But the kick in the pants he gave jazz with by employing the lineup of New York City sax master Donny McCaslin’s group and ECM guitarist Ben Monder was an inspiration for the genre in a similar sense of transcendence to its conscious recoupling with hip-hop the year before through To Pimp A Butterfly.

Who knows whether Bowie would have continued to work with McCaslin and his band—the core of which is rounded out by drummer Mark Guiliana, bassist Tim Lefebvre and keyboardist Jason Lindner—had he not died of liver cancer two days after the album came out (on his 69th birthday, no less). But while The Magic Shop—the downtown NYC studio where ★ was recorded—closed its doors shortly after Bowie’s death, the magic of what the Starman and his charges conspired inside those walls can be heard across the entire scope of our list of the best jazz albums of the year, be it intentional or otherwise.

20) Logan Richardson, Shift (Blue Note)

Pat Metheny has only appeared on two Blue Note albums over the course of his career: Once in 1994 on a stunning duet album with fellow guitarist John Scofield (I Can See Your House From Here), and again in 1999 when he was one of the guests on Cassandra Wilson’s homage to Miles Davis, Traveling Miles.

That is, however, until this past winter when the guitar legend was placed in a starring role in the label debut of saxophonist Logan Richardson, performing alongside an A-list squad rounded out by the magnificent Harish Raghavan on bass, Jason Moran on piano and his drummer Nasheet Waits. For many fans of modern jazz, this lineup is something of a dream band and they do not disappoint in the least on Shift. 

Richardson pays homage to his Kansas City roots with a sense of unconventional daring that goes from the chamber jazz stylings of “Slow” to a moody rendition of Bruno Mars’ Police-jacking “Locked Out Of Heaven” with seamless ease.

19) Yusef KamaalBlack Focus (Brownswood Recording)

Yusef Kamaal isn’t a person, but rather a working jazz duo from South London comprised of drummer Yusef Dayes and keyboardist Kamaal Williams who British music impresario Gilles Peterson signed to his Brownsound Recording imprint after seeing them perform in concert for 20 minutes.

The BBC icon’s impulse served him quite well; the pair’s debut Black Focus takes British jazz into the realm of future funk spiritualism that’s helping transform such American abstract hip-hop imprints as Stones Throw and Brainfeeder into the best new sources for jazz today.

Rounded out by fellow South Londoners such as saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings, trumpeter Yelfris Valdes, bassists Tom Driessler and Kareem Dayes, and guitarist Mansur Brown and getting Malcolm Catto of the Heliocentrics to produce, Yusef Kamaal makes exactly the kind of music their label boss loves to spin on his celebrated show on BBC Radio 6.

18) Marquis Hill, The Way We Play (Concord Jazz)

From Louis Armstrong’s famous Hot Fives and Hot Sevens recordings in the late ’20s to the third-eye modality of Lester Bowie, Chicago has always enjoyed a solid rep as one of the great cities for jazz trumpet. At 29, Marquis Hill continues this lineage with a sound that embodies the history of his city while also pushing its legacy into the 21st century with his esteemed Blacktet: saxophonist Christopher McBride, Justin Thomas on the vibes, bassist Joshua Ramos and drummer Makaya McCraven.

On his Concord Jazz debut, this native son of the Windy City pays homage to his town, first and foremost, by opening up The Way We Play with a soulful reading of the Chicago Bulls theme music from the Michael Jordan era.

From there on, this incredible ensemble delivers futuristic reimaginings of such jazz standards as Horace Silver’s “Moon Rays”, fellow Chicagoan Herbie Hancock’s “Maiden Voyage”, Donald Byrd’s “Fly Little Bird Fly” and “Straight, No Chaser” by Thelonious Monk, whose International Trumpet Competition founded in his name Hill won in 2014. And his steamy rendition of Victor Young and Ned Washington’s “My Foolish Heart” with vocals by singer Christie Dashiell, is indeed more KING than Nat “King” Cole.

The Way We Play is more than an album; it’s a calling card assuring that classic Chicago jazz is alive and well in the hands of one of its most talented young lions.

17) Anat Fort Trio with Gianluigi Trovesi, Birdwatching (ECM)

Ornithology has always been on the of the more intriguing thematic points of interest within the context of jazz music. Ornette Coleman, Dave Holland, Donald Byrd and, of course the original Birdman of jazz, Charlie Parker, have all paid sonic homage to birds and birdwatching throughout the years. For her third LP for ECM, Israeli pianist Anat Fort follows along this inspirational trajectory in her art, not only naming her new album after her favorite pastime, but spreading her proverbial wingspan as well with some of her most expansive compositions yet.

On Birdwatching, Fort returned home to Tel Aviv, where she performed a series of concerts with one of the pianist’s favorite artists, Italian horn player Gianluigi Trovesi. The successes of these performances inspired the trio, rounded out by her longtime rhythm section of bassist Gary Wang and drummer Roland Schneider, to head into the studio with Trovesi and record this exceptional collection of 12 compositions.

This is a classic blend of Hebrew and Mediterranean sounds that intersect one another like the delicious fragrances coming from a marketplace in old Brooklyn, creating a listening experience as colorful and calming as the hobby it was named after.

16) Bobby Kapp/Matthew Shipp, Cactus (Northern Spy)

Drummer Bobby Kapp has been a criminally underappreciated fixture of New York’s jazz underground since the ’60s. He has appeared on such key freeform LPs as Marion Brown’s 1967 deep Impulse! gem Three For Shepp as well as pianist and longtime collaborator Dave Burrell’s crucial 1969 trio album High (with Norris Jones on bass).

But this magnificent showdown with fellow downtown dweller Matthew Shipp on the excellent Cactus makes for perhaps the most feral duel between piano and drums the likes of which I honestly don’t think jazz music has ever quite experienced before.

15) Craig Hartley, Books On Tape Vol. II – Standard Edition (self-released)

“By studying, reflecting, arranging, juxtaposing and interpreting songs and artists that have come before us, I believe that we can be better able to understand ourselves and the world in which we live,” opines pianist Craig Hartley in a public statement announcing the release of the brilliant second volume of his Books On Tape.

With a nimble rhythm section comprised of bassist Carlo De Rosa and The Bean, Mr. Jeremy Clemons, on the drums, the 2006 graduate from the Manhattan School of Music puts that statement to the test with imaginative mashups of Bach’s “Prelude No. 2” and Miles Davis’ “Solar” (“Sinclair”) and John Lennon’s “Imagine” and “Peace Piece” by Bill Evans (“Imagine Peace Piece”), as well as luminous readings of Duke Ellington’s “Mood Indigo” and Paul McCartney’s “Junk”.

14) Brain Tentacles, Brain Tentacles (Relapse)

For those who discovered jazz through John Zorn and his affiliations with Mr. Bungle and Cannibal Corpse, the metal element of the genre has been prevalent for well over 25 years now (even longer, if you are among those of us who count Bill Ward’s drumming in Black Sabbath as the first true fusion of the two arts).

On their blistering debut, Chicago’s Brain Tentacles picks up the baton abandoned by such groups as Dillinger Escape Plan and Candiria by incorporating heavy elements of free bop into their spastic breakdowns, recalling the halcyon days of Naked City when Yamantaka Eye of the Boredoms was singing with them, crafting pure evisceration through improvisation.

13) Theo Croker, Escape Velocity (O’Keh)

As the grandson of legendary Dixieland trumpeter Doc Cheatham, it was natural for Oberlin Conservatory graduate Theo Croker to pick up the horn. However, what this young man has created on Escape Velocity goes far beyond his Big Easy pedigree as he and his group DVRK FUNK, comprised of reedist that is equal parts Mac Rebennack and Mark Morrison’s “Return of the Mack”. This is headphone bop of the highest order.

12) Wolfgang Muthspiel, Rising Grace (ECM)

The idea of the “great quintet” is alive and well on the second ECM LP as leader from Austrian guitarist Wolfgang Muthspiel.

Recorded in the South of France with a jaw-dropping combo consisting of pianist Brad Mehldau and his longtime compatriot Larry Grenadier on double bass, drummer Brian Blade and the mighty Ambrose Akinmusire on trumpet, Rising Grace is beautifully deep, melodic modal jazz that focuses around Muthspiel’s graceful work on the fretboard in the keys of Jim Hall and Ralph Towner. Essential late-night listening.

11) Henry Threadgill, Old Locks and Irregular Verbs (Pi Recordings)

Since joining the esteemed Chicago freeform fraternity The Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians upon its conception in the early ’60s, sax great Henry Threadgill has been an essential player in the evolution of creative jazz in the United States, a thread that helped earn him the Pulitzer Prize in music.

Some of his best work appears on the Brooklyn imprint Pi Recordings, where he’s been making albums for the last 15 years and released one of his most intriguing works yet this year with Old Locks and Irregular Verbs, a record that doesn’t feature Threadgill the musician but rather the composer, putting together a new group called Ensemble Double Up comprised of two pianists (current ECM heroes David Vrellis and Craig Taborn), two alto saxophonists (Curtis MacDonald and Roman Filiu) and a rhythm section for tuba, drums and cello to bring to life a six-part suite written in tribute to his fallen compatriot and fellow composer Butch Morris, who died of lung cancer in 2013.

Whether he’s wielding the big brass or a conductor’s wand, Henry Threadgill continues to apply new languages to the jazz conversation with a sense of adventure that sounds just as fresh and challenging as it was with the AACM or the New York City loft scene or for Bill Laswell’s Axiom label or with his sensational chamber group Zooid. We can only hope he doubles down on recording further compositions with this Ensemble Double Up.

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10) John Scofield, Country for Old Men (Impulse!)

Country and jazz don’t blend themselves together all that much these days. But in those rare instances where these two worlds collide, the results can bring about some serious magic.

For Sco’s second album on the revitalized Impulse! imprint, he joins forces with old friends and fellow creative legends Steve Swallow on bass and drummer Bill Stewart to embellish in the guitarist’s pure love for such legendary country axes as Buck Owens and Leon McAuliffe of Bob Wills’ Texas Playboys across imaginative interpretations of such faves as Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”, Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” and the recently departed Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried”.

The trio even transform Shania Twain’s mom-jeans standard “You’re Still The One” into a serious jam.

9) The Robert Glasper Experiment, ArtScience (Blue Note)

After two albums teeming with high-profile guest spots, the best way for Robert Glasper to revive his group The Experiment was to keep the new album a family affair. And that is exactly what they did with ArtScience, which imagines how a ’70s fusion group might have entered into the R&B game in the present day instead of the disco era.

The best part of the record, actually, is how much we get to hear saxophonist/keyboardist Casey Benjamin sing, his processed voice being of a more tuneful variety of Gil-Scott Heron-esque earnestness and Stevie Wonder sweetness that can be felt most potently on the beautiful cover of The Human League’s new wave slow jam “Human”.

8) AZIZA, Aziza (Dare2)

The Aziza is a small woodland creature who serves as the God of Inspiration for the former kingdom of guitarist Lionel Loueke’s African homeland of Benin. Its powers come from the ability to lend its magic to both hunters and gatherers who enter the woods. It’s also the name of the latest working supergroup of legendary jazz bassist Dave Holland.

Featuring Loueke and rounded out by saxophonist Chris Potter and drummer Eric Harland, to say Aziza the band grooves harder than its 2013 predecessor Prism (with pianist Craig Taborn and former Tonight Show musical director Kevin Eubanks on guitar) is indeed an understatement.

Holland and Potter have been working together for 20 years appearing together on some of the bassist’s best work for ECM in the early 2000s, while Loueke toured with Potter and Harland as part of Herbie Hancock’s Joni Letters. That sense of familiarity plays a key role in this record’s cool cohesion—the kinship between these men reaches a fever pitch on Aziza with a cross-continental fusion of hi-life rhythms and kinetic interplay born from a rare perfect storm of professional admiration and genuine friendship.

7) Donny McCaslin, Beyond Now (Motema Music)

Donny and the group were very much in the throes of the grieving process when they began work on Beyond Now, recorded only three months following the passing of David Bowie, who shot their careers into the stratosphere when he brought them aboard to record .

With the help of guitarist Nate Wood and producer David Binney, the band channeled their sorrow into pushing themselves to keep merging innovative EDM production and jazz improvisation with a wild interpretation of “Coelacanth 1” by Deadmau5 and the freq’d out McCaslin original “Faceplant”.

Meanwhile, the group pays sublime homage to their old boss in the form of imaginative renditions of the Outside highlight “A Small Plot of Land” (featuring vocals by Jeff Taylor) and a transcendent translation of the Low centerpiece “Warszawa”.

Whether or not this band will record with another pop icon remains to be seen. But seeing how they made the most of the time they spent in the company of our beloved Ziggy is truly inspirational.

6) Kris Davis, Duopoly (Pyroclastic)

If there is one thing pianist Kris Davis has inherently displayed since emerging from the New York City jazz scene in the 2000s it was her ability to pick up and play with some of the most advanced minds on the local circuit, be it Trevor Dunn or John Zorn or Michael Formanek or fellow glass shatterer Mary Halvorson, and have a conversation filled with finesse and daring.

For her latest full-length as leader, the Vancouver-born Davis brings this intrinsic interpersonal compatibility with her colleagues to a new sense of intimacy with the brilliant Duopoly, an album comprised of a series of duets with friends she’s never recorded with before, including clarinet great Don Byron, alto saxophonist Tim Berne, drummers Billy Drummond and Marcus Gilmore of the Vijay Iyer Trio, pianists Angelica Sanchez and Craig Taborn and guitarists Julian Lage and Bill Frisell.

A set comprised of originals, covers and improvisations, Davis beautifully showcases the intelligent interplay that’searned her rightful comparisons to the great Cecil Taylor.

5) Esperanza Spalding, Emily’s D+Evolution (Concord)

It was tricky to decide whether to put the second or third Esperanza LP on this year’s jazz list or the upcoming R&B list on account of the bold way she interweaves the two here. But at its root, the bassist’s sonic reinvention is based in her initial craft.

As her extroverted alter-ego Emily (which is also her middle name), she shatters the divide between Janelle Monae and Joni Mitchell with the help of an incredible ensemble highlighted by three of the hottest names in modern jazz: guitarist Matthew Stevens, keyboardist Corey King and drummer Karreim Riggins, a group who surely enthralled fusion fans with some of the funky Return to Forever-isms partaken on artier, rockier songs like “Funk the Fear” and “I Want It Now”.

Spalding is to jazz what FKA Twigs is to R&B, a wholly unique entity pushing the boundaries of her craft into the future.

4) MAST, Love and War (Alpha Pup)

The concept of abstract beat production utilized to compose creative jazz has been taken to a whole new level on the Alpha Pup debut of MAST, the nom de plume of Los Angeles multi-instrumentalist Tim Conley, who plays in the Fresh Cut Orchestra, Icy Demons and a bunch of other projects you should hunt down on YouTube right now.

Mixed and mastered by L.A. beat scene veteran Daddy Kev and featuring guest turns from such fellow new school lions as Taylor McFerrin, Makaya McCraven and pals from Fresh Cut, Snarky Puppy and David Bowie’s ★ band, Love and War is a three-act suite for programmed breaks and live instrumentation that further tightens the knot uniting abstract urban culture and jazz musicianship into a cohesive, organic tangle of possibilities.

3) Jack DeJohnette/Ravi Coltrane/Matthew Garrison, In Movement (ECM)

Jack DeJohnette only played with John Coltrane once for three songs in the early ’60s. But a half century later, the iconic Chicago drummer finds himself leading a group comprised of Trane’s son Ravi on sax, as well as Matthew Garrison, the son of longtime Coltrane bassist Jimmy Garrison. All you have to do is listen to the opening strains of their version of Papa’s “Alabama” to get the gist of the futuristic modality these three men bring out here.

Together this incredible cross-generational trio ushers this great jazz legacy into the now with an incorporation of electronics that offers a nod to what the youngest member of the esteemed Coltrane/McLeod clan, Flying Lotus, thanks to the laptop knowhow of little Garrison.

The trio even does a beautiful meditation on Miles Davis’ “Blue In Green”, a loving homage to both Ravi’s pops and Jack’s old charge in the same cool breath. In Movement is, in a word, magnificent.

2) Julian Lage, Arclight / Live in Los Angeles (Mack Avenue)

For his official debut as a leader on the Mack Avenue imprint, former child prodigy Julian Lage continues to prove why he is the best guitar player in modern jazz with this dazzling tribute to his electric guitar heroes of the early 20th century.

If you are hearing aspects of Chet Atkins and Les Paul throughout the course of Arclight, that’s because Lage and his mind-blowing rhythm section of bassist Scott Colley and drummer Kenny Wollesen pay homage to the guys Chester and Lester were influenced by like Merle Travis and George Barnes, crafting a mood that is equally in step and out of time to brilliant effect.

Even better is the recently released digital EP Live in Los Angeles, which adds further weight to the stunning variation of early electric guitar jazz this trio takes in so many different directions across lengthy meditations on Sammy Cain and Irving Kahal’s 1938 standard “I’ll Be Seeing You” and the Arclight highlight “Stop Go Start” cut live at the Los Angeles jazz club The Blue Whale this past June.

1) Jeff Parker, The New Breed (International Anthem, Ltd.)

No other musician in the modern era has moved so seamlessly between rock and jazz like Jeff Parker.

As guitarist for Chicago post-rock icons Tortoise, he’s taken the group in new and challenging directions that have kept them at the forefront of pop creativity for the last 20 years. As of late, however, Parker has established himself as one of the most formidable solo talents in modern jazz.

The New Breed, Parker’s first release for the amazing International Anthem label, perhaps cuts closest to the cloth of the classic Tortoise sound many of us love and miss so much more than anything the band themselves has released since.

Rooted in old home recordings and beats that have been sitting on a hard drive or on his dormant MySpace page since the late 2000s, Parker revisited these relics with a killer ensemble comprised of cats who’ve worked with Me’Shell Ndegeocello (bassist Paul Bryan), Esperanza Spalding (saxophonist Josh Johnson) and Robert Glasper (drummer Jamire Williams), and updated them to fit his recent obsession with the Brainfeeder label and its accompanying Low End Theory movement.

With The New Breed, Jeff Parker’s made such an incredible fusion of abstract beat science, post-rock aura and nuanced modality that it sounds custom made for those of us who dive in and out of these worlds as seamlessly as the composer himself. What I’m trying to say is, he made the perfect jazz album just for me.

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