Best Jazz/Improvised Albums of 2015

1. William Parker: For Those Who Are, Still (AUM Fidelity/Centering)

I have been an admirer and observer of William Parker for a quarter century, but nothing prepared me for the impact of this three-disc set's final CD, which features an orchestral composition, Ceremonies for Those Who Are Still, which ranks high among the best orchestral music of the 21st century, and I'm including classical composers. In other words, don't cringe while imagining the usual jazz-with-strings hack job. There are moments in Ceremonies for Those Who Are Still -- particularly when the choir is singing Parker's poems of life and loss and creation -- when the grandeur of the year's most fashionable jazz album, Kamasi Washington's The Epic (also a three-CD set) comes to mind, but the difference -- the reason Parker's set ranks much higher -- is that his orchestrations are vastly more contrapuntal, colorful, individual, and just plain daring. 

The NFM Symphony Orchestra and soloists of the NFM Choir, conducted by Jan Jakub Bokun, is deployed masterfully; even if Parker's trio with saxophonist/pianist Charles Gayle and drummer Mike Reed were not integrated into the textures at times, this would still be a stunningly imaginative piece. (The trio is also heard in a 25-minute improvisation, "Escapade for Sonny," dedicated to Sonny Rollins, played before the premiere of Ceremonies in this 2013 concert, but here placed after it.)

The other discs contain similarly ambitious commissions: For Fannie Lou Hamer, premiered at The Kitchen in 2000; Vermeer, a 2011 studio recording; and the 2012 work Red Giraffe with Dreadlocks. The latter is a six-movement work performed by regular Parker collaborators Rob Brown (alto sax), Cooper-Moore (piano), and Hamid Drake (drums) joined by Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay (voice, electronic shruti box), Mola Sylla (voice, m'bira, ngoni), Bill Cole (double-reed instruments), and Klaas Hekman (bass saxophone, flute). The instrumentation and musical style vary from section to section, ranging from the droney brooding of "Villages, Greetings and Prayer" to the exuberantly swinging drive of "Where Do You Send the Poem." For Fannie Lou Hamer, a single-movement piece of 28 minutes in tribute to the great civil rights activist of its title. It was written for The Kitchen's house band (Todd Reynolds, violin; Shiau-Shu Yu, cello; J.D. Parran and Sam Furnace "various winds"; Ravi Best, trumpet; Masahiko Kono, trombone; Kathleen Supove, piano; Nicki Parrot, bass; J.T. Lewis, drums; Jim Pugliese, percussion; Leena Conquest, vocals), which sounds like a Parker group. Conquest sings Parker's profound and touching lyrics, and speaks of Hamer's history, with mesmerizing tenderness and power. Conquest also features on Vermeer, an eight- or nine-movement suite (here, it includes two takes of "Flower Song," thus my qualification regarding the number of movements; oddly, Philip Clark's notes say nearly nothing about Vermeer), with saxophonist Darryl Foster, pianist Eri Yamamoto, and Parker on bass and, on one track, hocchiku (Japanese flute). Four of the tracks have lyrics; elsewhere, Conquest scats. Vermeer is more low-key than the other works in this set, but does fit in by virtue of being composed in advance. All of these works are jazz; all of them are more than jazz; all of them say things that need to be heard.

2. Allen Lowe: In the Diaspora of the Diaspora (Constant Sorrow)

This is actually a series of four albums: We Will Gather When We Gather (Lowe, alto sax; Hamiet Bluiett, baritone sax; Ava Mendoza, guitar; Matt Lavelle, trumpet; Jake Millet, turntable and electronics; Kevin Ray, bass; Ras Moshe Burnett, tenor sax; Lou Grassi, drums),  Ballad for Albert (Lowe; Matthew Shipp, piano; Ray; Millett), Where a Cigarette is Smoked by Ten Men (Lowe, alto and tenor sax; Zoe Christiansen, clarinet; Kris Day, bass; Miki Matsuki, drums), and Man with Guitar: Where's Robert Johnson? (Lowe, alto and tenor sax and electronics; Gary Bartz, alto sax; DJ Logic, electronics and turntable; Brian Simontacchi, trombone; Lewis Porter, piano; Millett; Jeff Fuller, bass; Christopher Meeder, tuba). All were recorded in mid-2015 except the last-listed, from 2013. Each of these albums is a distinct session/event, of course, but Lowe's approach unifies them, that approach for these sessions being to compose new music in old (hence tonal) forms and styles -- he is a scholar of American music, with at least four books to his credit and a passel of fascinating essays online allenlowe.com/everything-else-is-postmodernism -- but then have it performed by the most modern players, allowing them the freedom, in their solos, to take it into "free jazz" territory should they so choose. He is not, of course, the only person to do this; folks ranging from the World Saxophone Quartet and Jaki Byard to trumpeter Steve Bernstein's various groups have been doing the same thing for several decades at this point. But he does it devotedly and prolifically and excellently. The result is fresh juxtapositions, such as, on the technological level, the distortion-laden guitar and electronic squibbles up against the Mingusesque gospel-influenced soul jazz on the title tracks of We Will Gather, and on a sonic level, composing a tribute to Albert Ayler, who made the taking of magnificent liberties with tuning and intonation an integral part of his music, but playing it on piano (the first time, at least; there's an alto sax/piano duo version as well), an instrument that allows no tuning liberties and relatively restricts intonational variety -- and, if I'm not mistaken, writing out most of it, which for me at least moves the focus onto its contrapuntal character, also a fruitful way of examining Ayler's legacy, but more overlooked. The results, always, are performances of earthy pungency that also function as intellectual observations and questions.

3. Frank Gratkowski/Achim Kaufmann/Wilbert de Joode/Okkyung Lee/Richard Barrett/Tony Buck: Skein (Leo)

The core of this group is the trio of Gratkowski (reeds), Kaufmann (piano), and de Joode (bass); they are joined here by Lee (cello), Barrett (electronics), and more frequent collaborator Buck (drums) for a free-form session. I was going to call it "abstract," but it is so sonically vivid and in-the-moment that in a way it is as far from abstraction as one could get. These are musicians who free timbre from the restrictions of harmony and form and let it gambol playfully; there is such creative joy at work here that the usual clichés -- "experimental," of course, but also more loaded ones such as "difficult" -- inhibit appreciation rather than engendering it. Come to this listening experience with no preconceptions or expectations and just revel in how Lee so often uses her cello as a pitched percussion instrument, how Barrett subverts jazz expectations with his electronics, how Gratkowski pulls angular melodies from the air, how Buck fills a role as much decorative as rhythmic, how Kaufmann spins kaleidoscopic sound sculptures into being, how de Joode provides the gravity that keeps them all grounded even as he also inserts conversational commentary, how everybody involved listens so well to what everybody else is doing, without ego, creating a whole greater than the sum of its parts. (Copyright date is 2014, but in the U.S. at least, this is a 2015 release.)

4. Matthew Shipp Trio: The Conduct of Jazz (Thirsty Ear Blue Series)

Shipp is always evolving, and almost every album he makes as a leader changes things up from what's come before. Sometimes it takes me a while to get my head around what he's doing, but this one's very easy to relate to. Not that he's repeating himself, though "Ball in Space" does include two of my favorite Shipp modes, opening with a contrapuntal theme (what I think of as his Bach/Two-Part Invention style) and then going into the big, rich, yet slightly alien chord progressions built on fourths rather than thirds (his self-professed Scriabin influence) that were what I first loved about his playing. But I'm getting ahead of myself, because the first two tracks had already knocked me out with a feeling of Monkishness I hadn't noticed before in his playing. Not that Shipp hasn't long proclaimed his love of Thelonious in interviews, but the puckish humor, squared-off swing, and angular tunes on "Instinctive Touch" and the title track display that influence in a fresh way. It might partly be because of his trio's new drummer, Newman Taylor Baker, one of the most technically gifted drummers around, who has spent decades working in a spiritual jazz/freebop hybrid style that's both more swinging and busier than the Shipp Trio's previous drummer, Whit Dickey, who was much freer and sparer, leaving more space. Bassist Michael Bisio also has the chops, physically and intellectually, to move as one with Shipp, whether matching or complementing his moods; this new group certainly gelled quickly. And the last time I interviewed Shipp, he spoke lovingly of McCoy Tyner, and "Blue Abyss" puts that love into sound with its booming chordal groove. It all makes me suspect, given the title of the album, that he's making a statement about incorporation of influences and how to do it while retaining one's own sense of originality and style. And then, on the solo "Stream of Light," he sounds like nobody but himself, and follows that by tying it all together on the concluding "The Bridge Across," the album's longest track, which seems to proclaim itself as his statement of purpose: this trio taking us from the masters to the future.

5. Blue Buddha: Blue Buddha (Tzadik)

This super-quartet of tenor saxophonist Louie Belogenis, trumpeter Dave Douglas, electric bassist Bill Laswell, and drummer Tyshawn Sorey executes free improvisation at the master level, creating coherent instant compositions. Laswell's electronic manipulations of his instrument's timbres fill out the sound in ways not generally heard in free jazz, giving this group a character of its own. onic density generally dominates, even on the Sorey/Belogenis duo "Double Dorje," but the quartet sometimes thins the textures for contrast, and there is a good balance of energy and beauty. Also, kudos to Tzadik designer Heung-Heung Chin, whose 2015 style is immediately distinctive and enhances every album.

6. Kamasi Washington: The Epic (Brainfeeder)

This is has gotten more publicity than any other jazz album this year thanks to Washington's connections, but that doesn't mean it's not good. It's a three-CD set of what's now become known as "spiritual jazz," and looks back to that style's heyday of the late '60s and early '70s, but with enough modern production touches (synthesizers, electric bass, drum mix) that it's not entirely a retro exercise. Yes, the main players' styles here are clearly recognizable as derived from earlier models (Washington, for instance, uses an amalgam of John Coltrane's and Pharoah Sanders's tenor styles), but they are wielded well and deliberately; if you like spiritual jazz, you will like this album. Washington's many originals are well-written and enjoyable, and the arrangements are expertly done; though they are a little over-the-top at times, that's part of the style. Similarly, though I kept thinking that three discs of this stuff would wear thin after a while, there's only a dud and a half ("Cherokee" complete with vocal the complete dud, a cheesy arrangement of Debussy's "Clair de Lune" half getting away with it). And if Thundercat's participation and Washington's Kendrick Lamar connection selling this album gets more people into jazz, I'm fine with that.

7. Phil Haynes: Sanctuary (Corner Store Jazz)

Ah, the solo album. So few are made, relatively speaking (not counting piano, of course); many fewer still are actually enjoyable. (And rarely do they sell well, which is perhaps why this one, recorded in 1999, had to wait so long for release.) Part of what makes this one work so well is that, though of course Haynes is a superb drummer, his approach here is often not one of drumming as a timekeeper so much as of deploying sounds for their own sakes -- rarely are there "beats" here. Listened to as (so-called) experimental music, as sculptured sound, it is mesmerizing for all 27 tracks over 54 minutes, my favorite solo drum album since  Masahiko Togashi's cult favorite Rings in 1976.

8. Vijay Iyer: Break Stuff (ECM)

If you're familiar with this pianist's work, it can be interesting to compare the larger-group versions of some of these tunes with what they sound like here, stripped down for performance in his usual trio with bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Marcus Gilmore. But that familiarity is not needed to enjoy how Iyer is stretching the language of jazz into a new dialect. Iyer is somewhat controversial among jazzers; he plays in an abstract, highly organized way that some find sterile or lacking in the supposed necessities of blues and swing. But I like the rhythmic weirdness of this group, the way Gilmore manages to incorporate the feeling of loop samples into live playing (thus bringing in very subtle influences of electronica and hip-hop without incorporating actual quotes), the way Iyer develops his motivic material in what sometimes seems like a sort of improvised minimalism built on cellular structures -- most prominent on the title track's moves through odd time signatures and additive processes. Yes, it is rather dry, but I have a certain taste for such geometric constructions in sound; they have an icy grandeur to them. For variety, Iyer sprinkles in jazz standards by Monk, Coltrane, and Strayhorn reworked in the trio's style.

9. Charles Gayle Trio: Christ Everlasting (For-tune)

Recorded last year at a club in Poland with Ksawery Wójciński on bass and Klaus Kugel on drums, this begins with "Joy in the Lord," a return to Gayle's style of when I first heard him a quarter-century ago: super-high-intensity, tenor-sax free improvisation with bass and drums laying down a roiling rhythm bed underneath. But unlike the old days, when Gayle plays Coltrane's "Giant Steps" later, the bassist keeps up. Other familiar tunes are Rollins's "Oleo," Monk's "Well You Needn't" (for which Gayle switches to piano), and a burning rendition of Ayler's "Ghosts" (which throws in a few brief quotes of other Ayler ditties). There is some welcome variety even in the originals; "His Grace" is a beautiful modal tune that sounds almost classical in its quiet poise. Gayle is not as well publicized or prolific this decade as he used to be, and at 75 years of age at the time of this concert not quite the unstoppable force of nature he once was (perhaps that's part of why he plays piano on four of the nine tracks), but he's still great.

10. Spin Marvel: Infolding (Rare Noise)

Perhaps some will say this is not jazz. They may have a point. But hey, I had three albums on my best-rock-of-2015 list that could be classified as jazz, so cut me some slack; anyway, I think of Spin Marvel as a sort of 21st century fusion band. This boundary-smashing group features trumpeter Nils Petter Molvaer, who utilizes electronics to augment his instrument, more or less picking up where Jon Hassell left off, but in a sometimes more rhythmically turbulent musical context (or, looking back farther, Miles Davis circa Jack Johnson). This quintet has two drummers, Emre Ramazanoglu and leader Martin France, bassist Tim Harries (ex-Earthworks), and Terje Evensen on live electronics. Jazz mixes with electronica of both ambient and beat-oriented styles, occasionally quite edgy, often very beautiful, as Molvaer can be quite lyrical.

11. Frank Carlberg/Joe Morris/Pascal Niggenkemper/Luther Gray: Cosmopolitan Greetings (Red Piano)

Pianist Frank Carlberg threw together this session with (in order of billing) my favorite living jazz guitarist, a fine bassist, and a kickass drummer. Carlberg wrote themes for some tracks; the others are complete free improvisations by a bunch of players who have decades of experience creating in the moment. They can roil up dense storms of notes with their energy, as the title track immediately demonstrates, but they'll also lay back when the occasion demands, as on the quietly lovely "Now and Forever." Even when there are no preconceived structures or motifs, you can tell these guys all come from jazz backgrounds, and Gray provides a sense of swing even on the most far-out tracks.

12. Tiger Hatchery with Paul Flaherty: Live in New Haven (Ergot)

Fiery young trio Tiger Hatchery (saxophonist Mike Forbes, bassist Andrew Scott Young, drummer Ben Baker Billington) team up with an elder of the free jazz scene, saxophonist Paul Flaherty, for a wild blowing session caught onstage and only released on vinyl (so hurry up and get it). Flaherty is, inevitably, kind of the focus due to his complete mastery of all the subtleties of his instrument and the resultant wide range of effects he commands, but Forbes holds his own sharing the frontline, and the unique rhythm team of Young and Billington lifts them all up with heavy barrages of squalling sound and pounding pulsations. With or without Flaherty, this is a group to hear whenever you have the chance, but this collaboration's especially inspiring.

Best Historical Release:

David S. Ware/Apogee: Birth of a Being (AUM Fidelity)

Long out of print, tenor saxophonist Ware's first release as co-leader finally reappears in the wake of his passing in 2012. Recorded in a New York studio in April 1977 and issued by the great Swiss label hat Hut two years later, it finds Ware's powerful style already in place after a few years of dues-paying in the bands of Andrew Cyrille and Cecil Taylor. Apogee, with Cooper-Moore on piano and Marc Edwards on drums, had formed in Boston at Berklee in 1970; this recording was a reunion and also the last time the group played together. The original LP's contents are on disc 1, and it's great that those four tracks are on an official CD for the first time (also available via download), but serious Ware fans who had already tracked down either one of the rare copies of the LP or a ripped digital file will want this release anyway for the five tracks on disc 2, one alternate and four outtakes, including a solo track each by Ware and Cooper-Moore (the latter playing ashimba, his own hand-crafted xylophone variant). Further good news: this is announced as the first of a series of archival Ware releases.

Conflict of Interest Entry:

The Uppercut: Matthew Shipp - Mat Walerian Duo: Live at Okuden (ESP-Disk')

I signed this project in my A&R capacity at ESP-Disk', so obviously I'm biased. But I signed it for good reason; it is a strikingly intimate free-jazz duo that finds Shipp at the peak of his interactive powers and introduces an impressive young saxophonist/clarinetist/flutist in Walerian, who was still in his twenties when it was recorded. But don't take my word for it; read Paul Semel's review.

Honestly, at this point in my career, nearly anything I write about jazz is a potential conflict of interest. That said, choices 1, 4, 5, 9, and 12 also specifically involve artists whose music has been released on my employer ESP-Disk'. - Steve Holtje

Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based composer, poet, and editor. Earlier this year, his soundtrack for director Enrico Cullen's film A Man Full of Days was heard at the film's debut screening at Anthology Film Archives, and more recently at the Lausanne Underground Film & Music FestivalThe CD of the soundtrack  was releaseby MechaBenzaiten Records (distributed by Forced Exposure) on August 7.

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