As I’ve written before, compiling a yearly Top 10 is a damn near impossible task. In recent years I’ve tended to shy away from listing albums that generally don’t need my help getting any Top 10 love (Wayne Shorter doesn’t need my vote to win any prizes) in favor of choosing albums that are worthy but may not be on many people’s lists. This year’s list reflects a somewhat mixed approach. As I was filling out my dark horse Top 10 I realized that there were a couple of big name/major label/high profile albums that I could not justify leaving off any year end list. So once I added Jose James’ Billie Holiday tribute the door was opened to adding a couple other somewhat obvious choices: thus Maria Schneider and Vijay Iyer. But after that I went with my usual approach.
So here they are, in alphabetical order by last name, my Top 10 jazz albums of 2015:
Jacob Garchik, Ye Olde (self release) – I plan on writing a longer review of this album, so I’ll be brief: with its Rush/Zeppelin/prog meets Monty Python and the Holy Grail meets Brooklyn indie jazz, Ye Olde just might be the only album you’ll ever air trombone to.
Mette Henriette, Mette Henriette (ECM) – This two-disc album is also my debut album of the year. Many of the 35 tracks, which are spread across 100 minutes, are character pieces, each with their own colors, moods, and dispositions. Quiet and sparse, poignant and delicate, and occasionally raucous. Disc 1 features Henriette on saxophone in an intimate trio in which she is joined by cellist Katrine Schiott and pianist Johan Lindvall. The ensemble expands to 13 pieces on Disc 2 with the addition of brass, strings, piano, bandoneon, and drums. As one listens small narratives begin to develop as the personalities of each piece come to the fore. Captivating.
Jon Irabagon, Inaction is an Action (Irrabagast) – A solo sopranino album that listeners will either love or hate; in fact, most folks will likely hate it, or at the very least will be confounded by it. Irabagon doesn’t play a traditional saxophone sound until about the fourth track, and more than a few moments sound as if they could have been conjured out of a bank of modular analog synths by somebody like Morton Subotnik. It’s an absolute masterclass on extended techniques, and manipulating tone, timbre, and pitch. There are whole sections where I am at a loss for what Irabagon was doing or how he was doing it. Relentlessly inventive and virtuosic, Inaction is an Action is a stunning addition to the canon of seminal solo saxophone works.
Vijay Iyer, Break Stuff (ECM) – This was one of those albums I really couldn’t justify leaving off of this year’s list. This one has got plenty of media coverage and has appeared in just about every other best of list – regardless of genre – I’ve seen, so I won’t comment much on it. The trio’s groove is hypnotic throughout; their interlocking parts as tight, detailed, and solid as the most intricate masonry work one can imagine; and there’s plenty to satisfy both the intellect and the booty. Especially check out the rendition of Coltrane’s “Countdown.” Damn.
Jose James, Yesterday I had the Blues (Blue Note) – I can’t overstate just how good James’ tribute to Billie Holiday is. Accompanied by Jason Moran on piano, James Patitucci on bass, and Eric Harland on drums, Jose James performs nine songs either written or popularized by Billie Holiday, including “Body and Soul,” “Strange Fruit,” and “Fine and Mellow.” The performances – both vocal and instrumental – shine with nuance, subtlety, and consummate artistry.
Myra Melford, Snowy Egret (Enja) – No composer or pianist out there quite sounds like Myra Melford; this is especially so on Snowy Egret. Joining Melford on this dynamic album are cornetist Ron Miles, guitarist Liberty Ellman, bass guitarist Stomu Takeishi, and drummer Tyshawn Sorey. The combination of these forward-thinking musicians – all heavyweights on their respective instruments – with Melford’s writing and pianistic voice make Snowy Egret an album that is beyond category. Impossible to put into any particular stream or sub style of jazz – it’s not far out, not post-bop, nor straightahead and swinging; one hears those things, both implied and explicitly stated, and there’s elements of popular music – even a little gospel – mixed in. Melford and her band take all these things – and more – and filter them through their experience and worldview, making a unique and stimulating recording. Definitely check out “The Virgin of Guadalupe.”
Eddie Moore and the Outer Circle, Live in Kansas City (RIK) – see my review here.
Matana Roberts, Coin Coin Chapter 3: River Run Thee (Constellation) – The third installment in Matana Roberts’ twelve-part series exploring the African American experience and her family roots, River Run Thee is a solo album that features as much of Roberts’ spoken and singing voice as it does her saxophone. As with the first two chapters there is a ton to uncover, so much so that it may be impossible to completely sort through the collage of electronics, found sounds, drones, ambient atmospherics, loops, melodic fragments and saxophone flourishes, thickly layered stacks of recited text, etc. But that’s part of the difficulty of creating a genealogy: there too many overlapping stories, contrasting narratives, dead ends, fresh leads, forgotten memories, fabricated tales, and missing sources to ever fully comprehend. River Run Thee is about as heavy, intense (try listening to it in a dark room with headphones), and rich recording one will hear. With the Coin Coin series Roberts is creating a major artistic and cultural statement.
Maria Schneider, The Thompson Fields (Artist Share) – Schneider’s first album with her orchestra in several years, The Thompson Fields pays homage to the native prairie near her rural Minnesota hometown. Like much of her work the music is programmatic and pastoral, evocative and beautiful. As always her band is beyond compare, with solos featuring the likes of Donny McCaslin, Steve Wilson, Scott Robinson, Ryan Keberle, and Greg Gisbert. The Thompson Fields is as good as contemporary large ensemble writing and playing gets. For Schneider devotees, it was well worth the wait. Also, with a lot of photos, detailed liner notes, copies of Audubon’s bird drawings, and more, this might be the most lavishly packaged single CD I’ve seen.
(Since it can be hard to find a audio or video clip of Thompson’s music, here’s a teaser video she made to announce the album’s release)
Katharina Weber/Fred Frith/Fredy Studer, It Rolls (Intakt) – see my review here.
And a few – of the many more – albums that pained me not to be able to include:
Jakob Bro, Gefion (ECM)
Hayden Chisholm, Breve (Pirouet)
Charles Evans, On Beauty (More is More)
Jon Lundbom and Big V Chord, Jeremiah (Hot Cup)
Jonah Parzen-Johnson, Remember When Things Were Better Tomorrow
Tom Rainey Trio, Hotel Grief (Intakt)
Alexander von Schlippenbach, Features (Intakt)
Doug Webb, Triple Play (Posi-Tone)
And a couple that I didn’t hear in time to give a good listen, but could have very well ended up on this list:
Mary Halvorson, Meltframe (Firehouse 12)
Tomeka Reid Quartet, S/T (Thirsty Ear)