Top 10 Jazz LPs of 2017

 

This is a collection of our favorite jazz albums from this year. To be considered, the recording had to be released on vinyl during this calendar year. Without a doubt, Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah’s Centennial Trilogy would be the album of the year if it had been pressed onto LPs. I wouldn’t be surprised if it made top spot next year (if a late release were to be made available). It was very difficult narrowing this list down to what’s represented. The 4-5-6 split could really be considered a three way tie for fourth but I already cheated twice by combining multiple releases into one entry. 2017 really has been a stellar year for new and exciting jazz records. Purchase links are included wherever available. Spotify users can hear a playlist of selections from these releases here.

Honorable Mentions:

Holophonor – Light Magnet

 

Produced by Wayne Shorter, the premiere release by this LA septet generated a lot of buzz through the video for the first single “Zirma” A frenetic splash of 70’s flavored post-bop, the brief flash of genius promised unique voicings and strong improvisational work. While there are other songs that carry a similar vibe, none are quite able to live up to the intensity of that first single. There are still some moments of inspiration within. In a different year, this record might have been worthy of a top 5. 2017 is just overflowing with strong performances. Ballad “I Miss You” is definitely worth checking out for its lusciously layered horn arrangements if you can’t find time to check in with this whole record. https://worldgalaxyrecords.bandcamp.com/album/light-magnet

Jamie Saft – Loneliness Road

This is a great piano trio record. The songs are dark and moody. The production and the physical LP are both really top notch. Two of the songs feature vocals by Iggy Pop, which I’m sure is going to sell a bunch of extra copies, but it just doesn’t do it for me. Tonally, he sounds like he is trying to channel the Johnny Cash American Sessions, but it lacks the vulnerability that made Cash so powerful. The trio does their best to support, but the instrumental tracks are definitely the reason this LP made my list. https://www.rarenoiserecords.com/loneliness-road-double-lp

Irreversible Entanglements – s/t

Intense music combined with INTENSE poetry. If you plan on checking this one out, block out the time to sit and listen to the whole thing without distractions. The interaction between the band members is impressive but not as impressive as the interaction between the band as a unit and the poet Camae Ayewa. https://intlanthem.bandcamp.com/album/irreversible-entanglements

Christian McBride Big Band – Bringin it

McBride has a good ear for horn arrangements. This is big band in the tradition of George Russell or Oliver Nelson. Would like to hear more from McBride’s bass on these tracks. https://www.mackavenue.com/store/mac1115

The Big 10

10.) Nick Culp – Culprits Blues

Pianist Nick Culp started his label Gutbucket Records with the goal of making the most authentic 50’s style jazz records possible. He collected the gear to outfit a recording studio with period correct tube microphones and amplifiers. All sessions are recorded to 2” magnetic tape, as was the practice at Van Gelder’s Hackensack studio. Culprit’s Blues, the first release on Gutbucket, is also as authentic as possible. Played in a straight hard bop style, this recording could be confused for a lost session led by Horace Silver or Art Blakey. https://gutbucketrecords.com/155-2/

9.) Blue Note All Stars – Our Point of View

This is neither the first nor the last “Super Group” to sit down together and record a jazz album. As with almost all examples, the group gels better on some songs than on others. Stylistically, this album is a bit divergent, with space for both modern hip-hop influenced production and long provocative improvisations. a good example of the former is the single Second Light. Driven by the nimble piano work of Robert Glasper, Kendrick Scott keeps a light touch on the snare but pushes the song forward with an aggressive kick. Marcus Strickland and Ambrose Akinmusire dance around the melody, joined by bassist Derrick Hodge in an interesting tonal choice. The stand out track on the album is as much characterized by impressive solo work as group collaboration. At nearly 18 minutes, their cover of the Wayne Shorter classic “Witch Hunt” allows each of the musicians time to contemplate Shorter’s ideas in a supportive setting. [Editor’s note: I played this track at a concert with two jazz bands performing and over the course of the song, 7 of the 8 performing musicians came to the booth to ask what was playing. I considered giving the album a ranking bump based on this alone.] https://store.bluenote.com/collections/new-releases/products/blue-note-all-stars-our-point-of-view?variant=37727397313

8.) Binker & Moses – Journey to the Mountain of Forever

Binker & Moses’ 2015 debut LP ‘Dem Ones’ was a groundbreaking release. The drum/sax duo played big, open improvisations with lots of experimentation with rhythm and tonality. However, the songs were often too long and could feel incohesive with the different ideas that were being roped into the same improvisation. “Journey…” manages to capture the raw energy of “Dem Ones” while cutting the songs into more digestible fragments and tightening the focus of the melodic improvisation. Although some drummers’ sounds showcase tonality more than others, it is scarcely more important than in a duo setting. Moses Boyd has done an excellent job in this regard, his toms standing in for the sound of a bass in the spectrum. The pair has really taken a leap forward on this LP, both in concept and in execution. The second disc in this set adds guitar and harp for increased sonic variety. These more meandering tracks do explore interesting avenues, but the pair really shines when they are on their own. http://gearboxrecords.wazala.com

7.) Chip Wickham – La Sombra

The title track of Chip Wickham’s new LP is a vast landscape of a ballad, with the piano and bass unifying to give the impression of a larger band than their simple quartet. Wickham’s flute drifts in and out on the melody, keeping the listener from noticing the nearly ten minutes that tick past. The other ballads are also lush and layered, floating as if on clouds. The real reason to buy this record, however, are the post bop/modal jams where Wickham really gets to shine. Tight drumming and crisp melody work on the piano set the stage for Wickham to cut loose and boy does he ever… The notes struggle to stay together as they exit his flute with astounding force. At points, Wickham is nearly scream-singing into his flute in the style of Roland Kirk or Yusef Lateef. On the tenor saxophone, Wickham has a bright tone and a lyrical style. Perhaps the only change I would consider making on this album would be to the track order. The ballads are so smooth and the boppers so snappy that the transitions between songs can be jarring. https://chipwickham.bandcamp.com/album/la-sombra

6.) Alfa Mist – Antiphon

Keyboardist/Producer Alfa Mist was joined by a gaggle of London’s best jazz musicians to assemble his first full length album Antiphon. The hotly anticipated first release of the album in June sold out almost immediately and traded hands on Discogs for more than three times the original $60 price tag. This is the sound of modern fusion. Slick 70’s Rhodes sounds and John McLaughlin licks are offset against modern hip hop style drumming. About half the tracks include support from trumpet, alto sax, or both. The production on these might be a bit jarring to the traditional jazz listener, as reverb and eq are applied to keep the soloist inside the fold of the band. Regardless of the horns, Alfa Mist keeps his big shimmering Rhodes at the forefront of the production (one is reminded of Chick Corea’s tone on his ECM release Return to Forever).
After last year’s Yussef Kamaal and this year’s release by Alfa Mist, the bar is set mighty high for the UK Jazz/Hip Hop scene in 2018 https://alfamist.bandcamp.com/album/antiphon

5.) Ruby Rushton – Trudy’s Songbook vol 1 & 2

Although they were released independently, both volumes of Trudy’s Songbook are being combined for the purposes of this list. Ruby Rushton is a London-based sextet, led by flautist and label chief (22a Recordings) Tenderlonious. They have been performing together since 2011, when they recorded their first LP Two For Joy (which wasn’t released to the public until 2015). The Trudy’s LPs shift from Two For Joy’s spiritual influenced sound into a more jazz-funk fusion type sound. That Ruby Rushton does a stellar job bringing that style unto the 21st century sound can be recognized most easily on the recording’s only cover track – a fully modern sounding yet faithful rendition of Herbie Hancock’s classic Butterfly. https://rubyrushton.bandcamp.com

4.) Nubya Garcia – Nubyas 5ive

One of the new faces on the UK jazz scene is tenor sax player Nubya Garcia. Although she has played and recorded with many different groups, her collaboration with Jazz Re:freshed marks her premiere as band leader. Musically, we’re treated to a little bit of this n that. On the opener, Moses Boyd (of Binker & Moses) sets the tempo on the drum kit and we get a nice jazzy golden era hip hop type tune. Nubya gives a taste of her spiritual side on Fly Free before back into more hip hop on Lost. This time the bass of Daniel Casimir is bolstered by a tuba courtesy of Theon Cross. The ballad, Contemplation, is my favorite on the album because Garcia really gets a chance to showcase her tone here. She has a lush lower register that brings to mind Sal Nistico, one of my favorite balladeers. On the top end she opens up and you can hear more of the air moving through the horn. At the song’s peak, her tone is so intoxicating that you barely notice Boyd and pianist Joe Armon-Jones beating the holy hell out of their instruments. The last original track is a trip back to the 70’s for a post-bop romp that wouldn’t be out of place on a Joe Henderson or Clifford Jordan LP. The sixth of Garcia’s five tracks is an alternate version of Lost, the hip hop tuba song, this time reinvented as an afrobeat march. The styles represented in this collection can be a bit disjointed, but Garcia’s rich tone makes for a unifying thread between the tracks. https://jazzrefreshed.bandcamp.com/album/nubyas-5ive

3.) Cameron Graves – Planetary Prince

Young Jazz Giants is a little known (at least at the time of its release) 2004 LP by five young promising LA jazz artists. They continued to play together in the years following, but did not receive wider attention until last year when they assembled a few additional musicians to realize the recording of tenor Kamasi Washington’s The Epic. Planetary Prince reassembles YJG (Graves, Washington, Ryan Porter, Thundercat, and Ronald Bruner Jr) to pursue some of Graves’ sonic ideas. Naturally, there is a strong influence of late 60s Shorter/Tyner modal spirituality. Graves is a lot more interested in rhythmic experimentation and repetition. Bruner’s odd meters and syncopations make for a difficult time head bopping, and yet a driving sense of melody and ample left hand dexterity from Graves implore the listener to try. The repetitive bits evoke a Reichian hypnosis (this fits in nicely with the overall theme of interstellar existence). Overall, this album carries on The Epic’s style of allowing the group to explore the theme outside of a standard verse/chorus/verse pattern while still leaving plenty of room for individual expression through extended soloing. Hands down, this is the best jazz record to come out of the US this year. [Editor’s note – space was tight this year so Kamasi Washington’s EP Truth did not make the cut. It is an enjoyable listen if you find this time. Melodically, I think Kamasi’s contributions here are as good or better than anything on the EP and so it was not included in addition to this] https://www.mackavenue.com/store/mac1123

2.) Ill Considered s/t, WILDFLOWER s/t

Though they are independent bands, Ill Considered and WILDFLOWER have a whole lot in common. Both self released LPs on Bandcamp with hand written labels and white jackets. Both were met with such stunning response that several repressings were realized, each with an evolving level of professionalism added to the artwork on each subsequent pressing. Both groups share bassist Leon Brichard and saxophonist Idris Rahman (who also plays flute on WILDFLOWER). Competition was fierce this year, and as such I took the opportunity to consider these two releases as a sort of musical Yin and Yang, bound together by sharing half their individual members. WILDFLOWER is the best “spiritual” release of the year. From the first notes of Rahman’s [bamboo?] flute, the listener is transported to a different world. The drumkit is bolstered by a number of bells and chimes and deadened cymbals that carry the outdoor market feel across from the melodic choices Rahman is making. Prichard is repetitive and insistent on the bass, adding a stability to the interplay between the three. On Long Way Home, when Rahman finally brings out the saxophone, we are treated to the type of Sandersesque squonking that is so intrinsically tied to the genre. Here, Skinner weaves in the sort of ultra crisp modern drum style that is currently popular in modern jazz, and again Prichard just keeps repeating his phrase over and over. Without a piano to bolster the rhythm section, this technique does marvels at letting sax and drums talk back and forth without the structure or timing of the song getting lost in the shuffle. Ill Considered swaps out Skinner on drums for Emre Ramazanoglu and adds Yahael Camara-Onono on percussion. Right out of the gate, the difference is obvious. Drums and congo set a frenetic pace for Brichard and Rahman to work over. Even on the slower songs, the drums are constantly clicking and clacking and tapping to drive the motion forward instead of letting the song become listless. Brichard is still focused on laying the groove, but the Ill Considered session leaves more room for his part to evolve with the song. Here we see Rahman start to play with repetitive melodies, changing timbre or accents as a sort of evolution over the course of a phrase. It’s rather impressive how different this record sounds from the WILDFLOWER record while still sharing so much of same DNA, both musical and literal. https://illconsidered.bandcamp.com/album/ill-considered https://wildflowermusic.bandcamp.com/album/wildflower

1.) Tony Burkill – Work Money Death

The cover of this LP is a warning to the listener. Burkill is pictured in profile, with the mouthpiece of his sax pressed against his top teeth, but his mouth wide open and his face scrunched as though he is screaming into his saxophone. Immediately upon starting the LP, the listener is misdirected by a laid back 60’s style 3/4 time groove. Burkill starts in with a strong tone ala Stanley Turrentine, and we’re off. Throughout the track, Burkill dances on the edge of overblowing, but keeps it in check. We start to get a peek at Burkill’s dynamics, but for now it’s only just a peek. Next track stomps in with an Afrobeat style groove between drums and bass. Again, Burkill starts in with a nice, warm full tone. As the song builds, so does the saxophone. He starts to play a little looser on the trills, more and more notes slipped together with the legato runs. Just past halfway through the track, we start to get more of a taste of the sharp end of Burkill’s tone. More and more notes break the threshold into screeching and honking as the sheer volume of air moving through the horn hits a critical mass. The third track is a spiritual ballad that would be at home on either end of Pharoah Sanders’ iconic Karma session. The track starts with ~20 seconds of wild flute riffs before the drums and piano set a nice smooth modal base for Burkill to work on top of. Layered saxophone parts stay on the sweet side of the tonal spectrum while flute and bass clarinet parts are slowly introduced into the mix [didn’t get an answer to my email yet but I believe all of the wind parts here are Burkill overdubbing with himself]. Luscious reverb on the sax and flute only serve to further lull the listener into letting their guard down for what’s yet to come. The title track starts in on the same tonal spectrum, but with drums and piano adding a driving energy that will become a wind in Burkill’s sail. The first hint of what we’re about to get comes in the first pre-chorus, as Burkill allows a little bit of bite to sneak into his heretofore smooth tone. The rhythm section keeps this modal groove flowing while Burkill steadily builds intensity. Finally Burkill sheds his earlier restraint and it is MASSIVE. His saxophone is screaming “See? I tried to tell you on the cover what this album was about” The album ends with another Sanders style spiritual jam, but at 16 minutes, this one has a lot more real estate to allow Burkill to express his ideas. Having just finished another ripper, he prefers to jump right in on this one. The listener will be forgiven for assuming that we had already heard Tony set to 11. As the track slowly evolves underneath him, he just keeps finding more room to push air through his horn and more lungs to push it with. Burkill spent more than 30 years building his chops in the Leeds jazz circuit before finally releasing his first recording as leader. To listen to this record, you could believe that every minute of that time was spent storing up energy to blow through his horn.You probably wouldn’t be wrong. https://tonyburkill.bandcamp.com/album/work-money-death

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