The first paragraph of a year-end list is traditionally supposed to be a summary pointing at trends. Sorry, I've done too many of those. You want a trend? It's harder every year to make money from music, and five times as hard (at least) to make money from jazz, yet people still keep making great jazz albums. Hooray for them! These were the best of 2018.
[Notes: (BT) at the end of a review means it's reprinted from The Big Takeover, where I am the jazz editor. Also: It gets harder and harder for me to avoid conflicts of interest when reviewing jazz releases, as each year running the ESP-Disk' label (which I've done since December 2012) finds me dealing with more artists from a business angle. In 2018 ESP-Disk' released albums by Matthew Shipp and Thollem, and William Parker plays on one of them, and those three artists are on this list.]
1. Dave Holland: Uncharted Territories (Dare2)
A double album by a half English (bassist Holland, tenor saxophonist Evan Parker) and half American (keyboardist Craig Taborn, drummer Ches Smith) quartet -- though Holland has lived in the U.S. for decades. He and Parker were friends and collaborators in their youth in England, however. Taborn has separately played with Parker and Holland before, and Taborn and Smith have played together in New York. All four have released albums on ECM, but this is not an ECM-style release, often much more aggressive and free than ECM's cool norm. By using not only the quartet formation but also every possible duo and trio combination, and adding electronics (by Taborn) at times, and having Smith play vibes in addition to drums, the group is able to offer a wide variety of timbres and textures, which helps make the two-hours-and-twelve-minutes length bearable in one sitting of concentrated listening. But that could seem like damning with faint praise; better to say that these four masters of improvisation make every track a fresh and new experience. It's worth noting that much of this seems at least partly composed; this is not just four guys getting together and blowing, though some of it could be entirely spontaneous, and that too adds to the variety. But in a way the most interesting aspect here is that, dropping in on the middle of the album with no idea who was playing, one would be hard pressed to recognize the players' sounds even though they are some of the most distinctive players around. They are prioritizing what the music demands in the moment over their own styles. This is one of the most selfless collaborative albums I've ever heard.
2. William Parker: Flower in a Stained Flass Window/The Blinking of the Ear (Centering)
Bassist William Parker's monumental three-CD set Voices Fall from the Sky, a mix of previously released material and newly released tracks that all find him working with a wide range of vocalists, has gotten most of the love on year-end lists. This two-CD set, by contrast, no doubt partly because it was released in mid-November and didn't have as much time to make an impression on reviewers, has received relatively little attention, but I prefer it. The first disk is a collaboration with singer Leena Conquest, with whom Parker has worked on several notable projects; it is highly political (which may also have affected its reception) but says things that need to be said at this point in time. The band consists of veterans Dave Sewelson (alto sax) and trombonist Steve Swell plus a number of newer players: pianist Isaiah Parker, tenor saxophoist Abraham Mennen, alto saxist Nick Lyons, and drummer Kesivan Naidoo. The following disc is also, in its titles ("Meditation on Freedom"; "Without Love Everything Will Fail"; etc.) political, but from a more philosophical perspective, and singer AnnMarie Sandy has an entirely different style from Conquest; Sandy's mezzo-soprano voice, with its stentorian projection and big vibrato, sounds more operatic. But the focus on the second disc is more instrumental, with Swell, saxophonist/trumpeter Daniel Carter, pianist Eri Yamamoto, and drummer Leonid Galaganov, getting to stretch out more. The music on both disc, though adventurous as always, is more tonal and composed than what some listeners may expect from Parker, but of course he has always embraced a wide range of styles and, as he has released more albums this decade, that range naturally gets displayed more, and to excellent effect here.
3. Marilyn Crispell/Tanya Kalmanovitch/Richard Teitelbaum: Dream Libretto (Leo)
The booklet includes an excerpt from a Robert Gibbons poem; the last line is "If only silence could climb to a whisper..." Well, here's the embodiment of that (at least, at times), moving far from Crispell's early style. We hear two suites: Memoria/For Pessa Malka, five movements for piano (Crispell), violin (Kalmanovitch), and electronics (Teitelbaum), and The River, seven violin/piano improvisations. Memoria could be composed, and integrates the electronics (including processing of Crispell's piano sound) very smoothly. Is it jazz? Perhaps not, but that's the tradition Crispell comes out of, so here it is. It is absolutely beautiful in a reserved but occasionally unsettling way. The River is purely acoustic, indeed revels in the natural timbres of the instruments, especially the violin's granular sound. Some parts here are busier, less silence (notably "Dark Reflection), but still full of intimacy. This is an absolutely striking release, starkly standing out from everything else I heard in 2018.
4. Thollem/Clouser/Chase: Dub Narcotic Session vol. II (Personal Archives)
This trio consists of the prolific Thollem (Fender Rhodes), arguably best known in the jazz world, but also memberof an Italian agit-punk band; guitarist Todd Clouser of A Love Electric, who's also played with John Medeski; and drummer Brian Chase of Yeah Yeah Yeahs, also a presence on the NYC "experimental" scene. What they do here on the first two lengthy (12:47 and 1#:37) tracks sounds like it's probably free improvisation that's expressed through shadowy grooves that suggest mid-'70s Miles Davis minus horns and heads. The longest (14:36) and last track jumps, suite-like, through distinct sections that might have been pre-composed, at least to a degree. Both styles heard here are mentally stimulating and viscerally satisfying. (BT)
5. Andrew Cyrille: Lebroba (ECM)
This all-star session of the drummer/leader, trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith, and guitarist Bill Frisell is intimate and sui generis. Some tracks might be utterly spontaneous, some might have composed heads, but it's impossible to be sure, and that's a good thing -- these guys are such good listeners that anything is possible; this time they gave us a sparsely textured album, with Smith often using a mute, but it could just have easily been a screaming blowout (don't forget that Frisell used to be in John Zorn's Naked City), though only TGD occasionally hints at that side of these players. Smith gets as many textures out of a trumpet as anybody since the late Bill Dixon, and Frisell seems determined to match him at that, while Cyrille is, as always, the master of the perfectly placed subtle accent and less-is-more drumming.
6. Yuko Fujiyama: Night Wave (innova)
Fujiyama has been on the NYC free jazz scene since the '90s, but has a regrettably slim discography, so this is a welcome release. Joining her after the opening solo track are violinist Jennifer Choi, drummer Susie Ibarra (who played with Fujiyama on the sole album, in 1997, of the One World Ensemble), and cornetist/flugelhornist. Graham Haynes. Haynes, a great player in more structured settings, seems a tad uncomfortable in such a free context, and sounds generically avant-garde here, whereas Choi and Ibarra fit perfectly into Fujiyama's shifting moods while deploying their personal styles. It's still an excellent album, though, its textures and density varying drastically from Zen spareness ("Beyond the Sound") to frenzied action-energy ("Up Tempo"), showing how deserving of more recognition Fujiyama is. (BT)
7. Akira Sakata/Simon Nabotov/Takashi Seo/Darren Moore: Not Seeing Is a Flower (Leo)
After being underrecorded (based on discogs.com) as a leader/co-leader in the '80s (6) and '90s (2), and those mostly on Japanese labels, Japanese saxophonist/clarinetist Sakata had better luck in the '00s (9) and has been stunningly prolific in the '10s (22!). A free player of unceasing inspiration, he was captured here on a short Japanese tour in an international quartet with Japanese bassist Seo, Russian-born/Germany-based pianist Nabatov, and Australian drummer Moore. They masterfully vary textures, sliding from density to space within a blink yet doing so quite organically. Nabatov, a great "inside" player with a number of recordings on Leo, plays with as much unfettered imagination here as I have heard him display, while Seo and Moore are a most stimulating rhythm section. The first five tracks are a continuous improvisation that was their first set on 11/27/17; the boisterous final track is drawn from the second set.
8. Tim Berne/Matt Mitchell: Angel Dusk (Screwgun)
Mitchell has been the pianist in Berne's band Snakeoil since 2011. This duo is a different twist on their collaboration. One might expect it to be more intimate, but though that's true a few times here, mostly it's even more intense and dense. This is some 3D-chess-level composition/improvisation where thickly intertwining lines are layered into complex alternate worlds of sound. Or, if that sounds too cosmic, Rubik's Cubes of sound. And for an occasional change of pace, delicate piano harmonies underpin a lovely sax melody, because these guys are nothing if not versatile.
9. Andreas Varady: The Quest (Resonance)
Resonance gets lots of well-deserved attention for its reissues of big names from the past. I'm not going to say that's easy, because nothing is easy in the music biz nowadays. But Wes Montgomery and Eric Dolphy have built-in audiences thanks to their status as legends, and garnering accolades for releasing music by legends is easiER than getting attention for young, up-and-coming artists such as Slovakian guitarist Andreas Varady. So kudos to George Klabin and Zev Feldman of Resonance for taking a chance on him. And, really, on his band, because this is a very democratic-sounding group. Of course, Andreas Varady is the frontman for good reason; he's a whiz, compared in the booklet notes to George Benson by executive producer Quincy Jones (I'd say a cross between Montgomery, Metheny, and Frisell). But just as much sonic space is granted to saxophonist Radovan Tariska and pianist Benito Gonzalez, who are also superb, and bassist Bandi Varady (Andreas's father) and powerhouse drummer Adrian Varady (Andreas's 15(!)-year-old brother) excel as well. The harmonic vocabulary is peak '60s, including moments of exploratory daring, but there are rhythmic and production touches that modernize the sound with hip-hop and electronica flavors. And Andreas is a highly talented composer as well; all the tracks here are originals, and compelling ones as well.
10. Various Artists: Winged Serpents: Six Encomiums for Cecil Taylor (Tzadik)
Cecil Taylor's passing last April at age 89 took from us an icon of avant-jazz piano. It has always been the case that pianists compared to him rarely actually sounded like him. Of course there's early Marilyn Crispell, and arguably Borah Bergman, but other than them (and they retained their own originality and evolved away from Taylor), who really adopted many aspects of his style? He was more a shining exemplar of creating a sound of one's own outside of both the mainstream and academia, and this tribute with one track each by pianists Craig Taborn, Sylvie Courvoisier, Brian Marsella, Kris Davis, Aruan Ortiz, and Anthony Coleman reflects that. There are no Taylor-penned compositions here, and aside from, to an extent, Brian Marsella's burly "Minor Magus," you wouldn't mistake them for Taylor's style-- making this tribute quite apt if you ask me. And I'm thankful to this album for introducing me to rising talent Aruan Ortiz.
11. Salim Washington: Dogon Revisited (Passin' Thru)
Purchased on the enthusiastic recommendation of Bruce Gallanter at Downtown Music Gallery. Yes, Julius Hemphill's 1972 classic "Dogon AD" is played, but so is Thelonious Monk's "Four in One." The rest of the program is originals fitting into the territory between those two signposts, with Washington (alto sax, oboe, flute, kalimba) reminding me of Yusef Lateef. Most of the album is a trio, with the superb rhythm section of bassist Hill Greene and star drummer Tyshawn Sorey. Melanie Dyer joins on viola on the boppish "Uh Oh!" and "Dogon AD" and recites Amiri Baraka's lyrics on "New Invasion of Africa."
12. Idris Ackamoor & the Pyramids: An Angel Fell (Strut)
The comeback of this '70s spiritual jazz outfit continues. At this point it's basically saxophonist Ackamoor and whoever he ropes in; only violinist Sandra Poindexter remains from 2016's acclaimed We Be All Africans. But the mix of mellow Afro-pop grooves, occasional Sun Ra-esque lyrics, and jazzy solos is relatively unchanged and still entrancing. Ackamoor's sax playing is fervid in the Pharoah Sanders style without being outright atonal. The California-based band went to London to record, produced by Heliocentrics drummer Malcolm Catto, who fully grasps this vibe. Though the aesthetic is retro, the references can be contemporary, as on the poignant "Soliloquy for Michael Brown" (the man murdered in cold blood by Ferguson, Missouri police). (BT)
13. Ivo Perelman/Matthew Shipp: Oneness (Leo)
These guys record together so much that one thinks they might be overdoing it, especially when this is a three-disc, 142-minute album of duos, with only four of the thirty-three tracks topping six minutes. Yet they have developed such a rapport (naturally, working together so much -- this is their thirtieth album together this decade) that this never wears out its welcome and is continually fresh, exploratory, and unpredictable.
14. Todd Marcus: On These Streets: A Baltimore Story (Sticker Street)
Marcus plays bass clarinet -- not as a "double," but as his main axe. Working in a modern straight-ahead jazz style with some top-notch collaborators (guitarist Paul Bollenbeck, pianist George Colligan, vibraphonist Warren Wolf, bassist Kris Funk, drummer Eric Kennedy), Marcus crafts a cool set of excellent compositions full of fetching melodies. But On These Streets: A Baltimore Story is more than just nice music; the Egyptian-American Marcus (who also runs an anti-poverty non-profit) portrays his neighborhood in Baltimore -- the neighborhood wherein resided the late Freddie Gray -- by including spoken-word tracks that explore a variety of Baltimore's cultural and sociopolitical facets.
15. Kamasi Washington: Heaven (Young Turks)
Yes, Washington's 2018 release is titled Heaven and Earth and consists of four slabs of vinyl, the first two under the Earth rubric and the last two dubbed Heaven, altogether sixteen tracks totaling two hours and twenty-four minutes. It wasn't going to make my list because the Earth half is inconsistent and often cheesy. Heaven, though, is everything Washington does well: late '60s/early '70s modal jazz infused with hip-hop rhythms, lush arrangements featuring choir (the debt to Alice Coltrane is unabashed), and plenty of hip solos -- and nothing seems extraneous. Perhaps the symbolism of Earth being flawed and Heaven being perfect is intentional, but even if that's true, it doesn't make me enjoy listening to Earth. Heaven, though, I will be listening to (and deejaying, because its rhythms work for that) for years to come. It's true that one cannot buy a physical release of just the Heaven half, but it can be streamed that way if you choose. And yes, it's arrogant for me to presume to improve upon Washington's plan.
1. David S. Ware Trio: The Balance (AUM Fidelity)
The third and final album of this group with the leader on tenor sax and saxello, William Parker on bass, and Warren Smith on drums consists of the band's three-movement set at the 2010 Vision Festival, plus four outtakes from their 2009 studio session for Onecept. Freely improvised, this is master musicians operating at the highest level of spontaneous creation. Part of the second section of Vision Suite sounds like Ware paying tribute to his mentor Sonny Rollins; the other two sections are Fire Music at its freest; in total, it's forty minutes of nearly continuous soloing, a real tour de force. The studio tracks have more finely detailed sound and shorter, more tautly focused improvisations with Ware also playing saxello, including a great duo section on "Bodhisattva" as Parker bows. The loss of Ware is great, and makes every archival release such as this more precious; thanks to AUM Fidelity for its dedicated service to his memory.
2. John Coltrane: Both Directions at Once: The Lost Album (Impulse!)
This consists entirely of previously unreleased studio Coltrane with his classic quartet in 1963. Do I really need to go into more detail?
3. Eric Dolphy: Musical Prophet: The Expanded 1963 New York Studio Sessions (Resonance)
This is mono versions of the albums Iron Man and Conversations plus an abundance of alternate takes. So, yes, if you've already got those albums, you're thinking, do I really need this? Well, yeah, because there's twice as much stuff here plus, how can you resist mono? And the chance to hear alternate takes with greats Sonny Simmons, Prince Lasha, Clifford Jordan, Woody Shaw, Garvin Bushell, Bobby Hutcherson, Richard Davis (who is especially featured here thanks to two takes each of the duos "Alone Together" and "Muses for Richard Davis"), Eddie Kahn, J.C. Moses, and Charles Moffett? And the packaging is up to Resonance's legendary standards, with extensive interviews with those who played with Dolphy and learned from Dolphy, not least flutist/composer James Newton, to whom Dolphy friend and composer Hale Smith had given these tapes that Dolphy had left with him before going to Europe in 1964, from where, tragically, Dolphy never returned. Now, there is a bit of a catch, which is that the vinyl was released on Record Store Day and sold out, and the CD version doesn't come out until January 25, but hey, that's not so far away. You can already pre-order it.
4. Alan Braufman: Valley of Search (Valley of Search)
I can't quite say this came out of nowhere, because serious jazzheads knew about it and its original label, India Navigation, has cult status, but damn, this is a deep dive into the '70s loft scene. Though, contrary to what some have written, alto saxophonist/flutist Braufman did make more records after this 1975 release -- but under the name Alan Michael. The guy on this album who went on to the most subsequent fame also changed his name, from Gene Ashton to Cooper-Moore; his keyboard work here is fascinating for those familiar with his current work. Bassist Cecil McBee is also jazz-famous; drummer David Lee much less so, though he acquits himself well here. Before you shell out $60 for the latest Kamasi Washington vinyl, pick up this album re-released by the artist and his nephew; it's redolent of the loft vibe that inspires Washington.
5. Charles Mingus: Jazz in Detroit/Strata Concert Gallery/46 Selden (BBE)
A rare configuration of Mingus's band, with tenorman John Stubblefield and pianist Don Pullen the big attractions, captured in 1973. Sound (recorded by WDET public radio) is good, piano's not too out of tune to enjoy Pullen's inimitable playing, Roy Brooks (complete with a turn on musical saw!) is an surprisingly stimulating alternative to Mingus's longtime drummer Dannie Richmond, and trumpeter Joe Gardner is pretty good if not quite at the level of the other players (but few were!). The repertoire is not entirely classic, which is refreshing, and most of it gets extensive readings. I know vinyl is cool, and lord knows I'm happy to have it that way, but go for the CD box or at least stream it, because there's so much more in those less restricted formats.
6. Wes Montgomery: In Paris: The Definitive ORTF Recording (Resonance)
Recorded for French state radio on March 27, 1965 at Theatre des Champs-Elysees, this captures the famous guitarist at the peak of his powers with a superb band, joined for 33 minutes by tenor sax great Johnny Griffin, then living in France because jazz was more appreciated there than in the U.S. Resonance has done its usual excellent job in presentation, not only in remastering that makes this clearer than on old bootlegs, but also with booklet notes by multiple observers, including producer Zev Feldman's interviews with Harold Mabern, the pianist whose contributions on the recording make this much more than just a Wes album, and with Russell Malone, who delivers the perspective of a guitarist. (BT)
Here's a sampling of what's available on Spotify: