Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Best of 2017: Jazz

[Updated 12/26/17: Added Harriet Tubman's Araminta, which I recently went back to and loved, to the albums list below. Also added Brad Cohan and the Free Jazz Blog to the shout-outs at the top.]

I always look forward to the results of Francis Davis's annual Jazz Critics Poll. I admire the way he's kept it going for years now, despite several shifts in the hosting outlet and the constant uncertainty that faces any arts-media endeavor. And I look forward to participating for years to come, even if I don't feel like I can currently claim any full-time jazz beat beyond my own native enthusiasms.

In that regard, I'd like to send a shout-out to fellow scribes/podcasters/etc. like Nate Chinen, now holding it down with customary authority and class at WBGO; Seth Colter Walls, who's been doing exemplary work for Pitchfork and many other outlets; Phil Freeman, who launched a vital new monthly jazz column at Stereogum this year, as well as a smartly curated, often jazz-oriented podcast; all the folks at The New York City Jazz Record, which remains a joy to pick up and peruse each month; Clifford Allen, who in addition to his typically strong NYCJR work co-produced a lovingly researched new reissue of a pair of private-press '70s albums by Michael Cosmic and the Phill Musra Group; Natalie Weiner, whose tweets, takes and live coverage for various outlets offer a refreshing perspective on the scene in NYC and beyond; Jeremiah Cymerman's profound, singular 5049 Podcast; Evan Haga and the consistently engaging, comprehensive JazzTimes; Marcus J. Moore and the open-eared, deeply committed crew at Bandcamp Daily; Peter Margasak, a passionate fixture at the Chicago Reader; Giovanni Russonello, who's been churning out sharp, opinionated pieces for the Times; Adam Shatz, who wrote that incredible Craig Taborn profile for the NYT magazine; Ben Remsen, who hosts the thoughtful Now Is Podcast; Brad Cohan, whose new Jamie Saft conversation at Burning Ambulance is one of the better interviews I've read this year, and who has been doing solid work over at Bandcamp as well (including comprehensive catalog features like this one on Damon Smith); plus Ethan Iverson's ever-stimulating Do the Math (can't wait for sister site Do the Gig, launching next year); Steve Smith's robust, illuminating Log Journal (don't miss Lara Pellegrinelli's recent piece on women in jazz); everyone at Downbeat, The Wire and the indefatigable Free Jazz Collective; and others I'm surely forgetting.

And cheers as well to Brad Farberman, who contributed excellent, historically minded features on Sun Ra and Alice Coltrane to this year, as well as an authoritative review of the new Pharoah Sanders reissues.

And to behind-the-scenes folks like Matt Merewitz, Stephen Buono, Seth Rosner, Yulun Wang, Steven Joerg, Tina Pelikan, Ann Braithwaite, Patricia and Todd Nicholson, and others who ensure that the work (and the good word) gets heard.

In terms of my own jazz-related work this year, I had a blast putting these together:

*An Interstellar Space deep dive.

*The latest installment of Heavy Metal Bebop, featuring Matt Mitchell (whose new album you'll see on my year-end list below).

*An in-depth feature on the immortal John McLaughlin.

So, yeah, that aforementioned 2017 jazz poll! I did submit a ballot (you'll find it sorted w/ the others here), which I assembled and then hastily revised roughly 15 times in the week or so leading up to the deadline. I enjoyed all the records I voted for, but looking back at the list now, I don't feel a terribly strong allegiance to the order I settled on. Here are those 10 records, plus a couple more near-misses or titles I just plain overlooked when assembling my "official" top 10, presented in Ratliff-ian alphabetical order. (I only link to Bandcamp, always my preferred source for trying and buying.)

Tony Allen, The Source (Blue Note)
A gorgeous jazz-meets-hardbop showcase for one of the most potent rhythmatists alive. Pure buoyancy.

Borderlands Trio, Asteroidea (Intakt)
The latest flight of obsessive, texture-minded, new-piano insanity from Kris Davis, heard here as part of a brilliant collective trio.

Jaimie Branch, Fly or Die (International Anthem)
Immersive ambient-jazz textures meet sprightly avant-funk. Really hope to catch this band live soon.

Ornette Coleman, Celebrate Ornette (Song X)
Thoughts here and here. A commemorative feast for the master.

Kate Gentile, Mannequins (Skirl)
Sprawling, dauntingly complex and, approached with the right focus, completely enthralling. Don't feel like I have my head even halfway around this one yet, but that's part of the appeal.

Harriet Tubman, Araminta (Sunnyside)
Not explicitly a tribute, but I hear this an enveloping spiritual sequel to Electric Miles in all its depth and splendor, from "He Loved Him Madly" to "Rated X" and beyond. A murky jazzdubfunkrock sprawl that feels expansive but not indulgent. Guest Wadada Leo Smith sounds as at-home and inspired here as he does in his own bands.

Vijay Iyer Sextet, Far From Over (ECM)
Review here. Some of these pieces already feel like standards.

Matt Mitchell, A Pouting Grimace (Pi)
Some thoughts in HMB 13 here. One of the year's wildest, most colorful rides.

Roscoe Mitchell, Discussions (Wide Hive)
Free improv turned exacting orchestral translation. A map of Mitchell's never-back-down ambition and continued cutting-edge aesthetic quest. (See also: that Art Ensemble gig.)

Jason Moran, Thanksgiving at the Vanguard (Yes)
Write-up here (scroll down). This band remains absolutely thrilling. No other jazz musician on earth combines avant-garde and populist impulses as seamlessly as Moran.

Chris Pitsiokos Unit, Before the Heat Death (Clean Feed)
Write-up here. Electrifying and insane. Don't miss this.

Charles Rumback, Threes / Tag Book (eyes and ears)
A drummer and Chicago scene fixture who leads a poetic and understated "inside/outside" piano trio with Jim Baker on keys and John Tate on bass. No obvious "angle" here other than an air of patience, intrigue and faint melancholy, clearly informed by DFSBP favorites Andrew Hill (one of his pieces, "Erato," appears on Threes) and Paul Motian. A band that invites you to lean in for a closer listen.

Chris Speed Trio, Platinum on Tap (Intakt)
Speed's oaky tenor: probably the most appealing and distinctive instrumental texture I heard on any record this year. A sly retro-meets-now sound that doesn't sound like anything else out there.

Craig Taborn, Daylight Ghosts (ECM)
Two thirds of the Platinum on Tap band is here too (Speed and drummer Dave King), helping Taborn to realize his latest set of stealthily advanced progressive jazz. "New Glory" has been lodged in my head semi-permanently since I saw a Taborn-led quintet perform it in September.

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