Best of 2018: In jazz, powerful voices demand being heard
Though often associated with being a form that emphasizes the instrumental, some of my favorite recordings in jazz this year also include the human voice, though maybe not in a way that’s often associated with vocal jazz.
Maybe as a result of not wanting any mistakes made about musical intention at a time of upheaval, records such as “Origami Harvest,” “Your Queen Is a Reptile” and “Heaven & Earth” made their messages explicit or expand the reach of, say, a trumpet with phrases that lingered as strong as any melody.
“America, Americana. America, nah” was one weary refrain on Ambrose Akinmusire’s record, an album whose restless examination of race and identity lingered as much as his intricate compositions, while a voice from London’s Sons of Kemet answered the nationalist fervor dividing their country and ours with a defiant promise from the son of an immigrant, “I’ll be here when your cities are sediment, and only your borders and fences are left” before culminating with a repeated promise, “I’m still here.”
Whether in words or music, the best of 2018’s music all but demanded to be heard.
Ambrose Akinmusire, “Origami Harvest” (Blue Note). A trumpeter so in command of his voice that his instrument sometimes disappears on this album, Akinmusire created an arresting mix of hard-hitting rhythms, orchestral strings and plaintive rhymes (delivered by Kool A.D., formerly of Das Racist) about race, identity and police brutality. Few albums felt as immersive, haunting and timely.
Makaya McCraven, “Universal Beings” (Imaginational Anthem). Part lion-hearted percussionist, part conductor-composer, this Chicago-based drummer’s distinctive technique of harvesting live performances for seamless and invigorating splice-and-dice jazz-funk reached a new level with recordings from London, New York, Chicago and L.A. that featured a rotating cast but remained rooted to a nocturnal, head-bobbing sense of groove and atmosphere that indeed felt universal.
Sons of Kemet, “Your Queen Is a Reptile” (Impulse!). Part of a booming London jazz scene that’s combining long nights and young underground crowds, saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings leads this politically charged album with a propulsive, urgent tone amid hard-hitting rhythms (the group is girded by two drummers and, crucially, Theon Cross’ tuba) and barbed spoken word sections for a borderless sound that embraces Hutchings’ Caribbean roots as well as elements of U.K grime.
Kamasi Washington, “Heaven & Earth” (Young Turks). How do you follow a three-disc debut that brought jazz onto mainstream stages such as Coachella and Bonnaroo? With a double-album that ups the ante with a spiritually charged examination of the celestial and terrestrial with a mix of sweeping, soul-stirring orchestration and impassioned instrumental catharsis that confirms his tight-knit band’s arrival on those stages was no fluke.
Allison Miller and Carmen Staaf, “Science Fair” (Sunnyside). An open-ended meeting point between a graduate of the Thelonious Monk Institute for piano in Staaf and Miller — an inventive, elastic drummer who’s been heard on “Late Night with Seth Meyers” along with her own crackling band, Boom Tic Boom — this project also boasts standout turns by Akinmusire and saxophonist Dayna Stephens. But the focal point remains the interplay between the album’s dual leaders.
Walter Smith III “Twio” (Whirlwind Recordings). Born in Texas but now an L.A. resident, this saxophonist has been heard backing top-flight talent, including Eric Harland, Terence Blanchard and Jason Moran. Smith remains an under-the-radar bandleader and here, fronting a trio that occasionally expands to include bassist Christian McBride and fellow saxophonist Joshua Redman, he carries upbeat, inventive pieces with a swinging verve.
Sylvie Courvoisier Trio “D’Agala” (Intakt). Born in Switzerland and based in Brooklyn, this pianist proved there’s ample unexplored territory for a piano trio. Backed by downtown NYC specialists in Kenny Wollesen and Drew Gress, Courvoisier paid tribute to influences such as Geri Allen, Ornette Coleman and Louise Bourgeois, whose piece “Bourgeios’s Spiders” carries an inviting mix of menace and play that shines throughout.
Wayne Shorter, “Emanon” (Blue Note). In an interview years ago, Shorter defined jazz in three words: “I dare you.” Here, he presents a similar challenge with an 84-page graphic novel and a triple LP box set, a three-disc CD package and, not accidentally, no digital outlets. Drawn from live recordings with an orchestra, his free-flying quartet and, at one point, Esperanza Spalding, the 85-year-old Shorter continues to challenge listeners with an uncompromising listen.
Myra Melford’s Snowy Egret, “The Other Side of Air” (Firehouse 12). An expert navigator and illustrator of off-kilter angles, the Berkeley-based pianist leads the second edition of a quintet that includes trumpeter Ron Miles and drummer Tyshawn Sorey through pieces that invite ample exploration among its players but remain steadily anchored to a blend of groove and melody.
Andrew Cyrille “Lebroba” (ECM). In his second recording as a leader for the esteemed German label, this longtime collaborator of the late Cecil Taylor delivered a record rich with open spaces and like-minded explorers. One is trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith, who continues to mine the rich, resonant stream of free-flowing unpredictability of his rewarding recent output, and guitarist Bill Frisell, who weaves in and out of the edges with his trademark mix of electronics-shaded textures and bent tones.