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There’s such diversity of sound, method and intent in this list that it’s hard to group it all under “jazz” and still have it make sense. And yet it does, because we say so. What ties these albums together is imagination, individuality, monster musicianship and communication on a high plane.
Needless to say there are many other titles richly deserving of recognition. This is not a fallow period in jazz–the idea is hilarious–and it seems that narrowing the important releases down to 10 only gets harder every year. In some sense the Top-10 list goes against the fluid and improvisatory nature of jazz, which can reveal successive secrets with every listen, years or even decades after the fact. Take this, then, not as some permanent and final verdict. All that said, these albums will seriously wreck you.
See also: The Best Jazz Shows in NYC This Month
10. Capricorn Climber
There’s something dark and elusive in the music of pianist Kris Davis, who tends toward the freer, more “outside” end of the spectrum. This quintet date finds her with Mat Maneri on viola, Ingrid Laubrock on tenor sax, Trevor Dunn on bass and Tom Rainey on drums. Together they create a kind of rough and logical elegance, identified by titles like “Too Tinkerbell” and “Pi Is Irrational.” It’s the sound of a close-knit community in dialogue, one of a few stirring appearances from Davis this year.
9. Guided Tour
The New Gary Burton Quartet
Vibraphone master Gary Burton, 70, once hired a new kid named Pat Metheny on guitar. Now Julian Lage, who began apprenticing with Burton at 15 and is now completely dangerous at 25, joins bassist Scott Colley and drummer Antonio Sanchez in a Burton-led group of uncommon power. Guided Tour is an improvement on the band’s 2011 debut Common Ground: more live connection, strong compositions from all members, and thanks to Lage, the best recorded guitar sound you could ask for.
Mike McGinnis + 9
Brooklyn saxophonist and Maine native Mike McGinnis had a big clarinet year, both with his Ängsudden Song Cycle octet and the very slightly larger configuration of Road*Trip. The latter rescues composer Bill Smith’s marvelous three-movement “Concerto for Clarinet and Combo” (1957) from obscurity. It also premieres McGinnis’ three-movement “Road*Trip for Clarinet & 9 Players,” a work of invigorating complexity and plainspoken lyrical beauty.
7. Unknown Known
Joshua Abrams Quartet
Everyone on Unknown Known — bassist (and original Roots member) Joshua Abrams, tenor saxophonist David Boykin, vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz, drummer Frank Rosaly — is a pillar of the Chicago scene, a bastion of creative energy for decades and certainly the last 10 to 15 years. Abrams features them to great effect on this all-original set, which has a brooding, luminescent side but also an allotment of ragged groove and swing. The audio is just right, the writing fresh, the chemistry immediately apparent.
After an inspired streak of trio albums, tenor saxophonist JD Allen went with a new quartet and hit it out of the park. He puts a heavy spotlight on pianist and Kyrgyzstan native Eldar Djangirov, formidable as they come at age 26, and coaxes warm, telepathic playing from bassist Dezron Douglas and drummer Jonathan Butler as well. Allen works in a fairly abstract and enormously expressive post-bop mode, outdoing himself with a ballad, “Selah (My Refuge),” that lingers in one’s ears.
Cécile McLorin Salvant
This one is a consensus pick, a game-changer from 24-year-old vocalist Cécile McLorin Salvant, winner of the 2010 Monk Competition. Reaching all the way back to vaudeville but also delivering knockout original songs, Salvant arrives at something personal and thoroughly modern: trad-jazz with a major twist. Between her dramatic flair, idiosyncratic timbre and unstoppable band — featuring pianist and Mack Avenue labelmate Aaron Diehl — there’s a lot to love here.
4. Functional Arrhythmias
Steve Coleman and Five Elements
Alto saxophonist Steve Coleman, 57, has seen to it that the groove-oriented improv concepts he began articulating in the ’80s continue to unfold, shaping new generations of players. Functional Arrhythmias is his first release in some years without a vocalist. What dominates is a spare but utterly absorbing quartet sound, with an alto-trumpet front line descended directly from bebop. But Coleman draws from funk, non-Western traditions and extra-musical ideas, as the band name Five Elements implies. Guitar theoretician Miles Okazaki adds vitally to five of the 14 tracks.
Guitarist Ben Monder’s solo outings are few and far between, but they always reveal a staggering depth of technical immersion and aesthetic wandering. Hydra, his latest, is an eight-song set of impossible, beautiful, mind-melting music in a format mainly of guitar, bass, drums and voice (the ingenious Theo Bleckmann). Forget whether this is jazz — it might not even be from Earth. And yet who could doubt the humanity of “Charlotte’s Song,” the closing acoustic guitar/voice duet, a rapturous setting of E.B. White’s words?
Craig Taborn Trio
Hailing from the midwest, pianist Craig Taborn has drawn sustenance from the jazz avant-garde, Detroit techno, metal and much else. His 2011 ECM debut Avenging Angel was just one man and a piano. Chants, the follow-up, is piano, bass and drums in the classic acoustic vein, with dense and mathematical moments but also an allure of the poetic. Bassist Thomas Morgan and drummer Gerald Cleaver essentially take up residence in Taborn’s brain, and once there, can do no wrong.
1. Without a Net
Wayne Shorter Quartet
Wayne Shorter, the saxophone great and genius composer, turned 80 this year, but age has no meaning when you surround yourself with pianist Danilo Pérez, bassist John Patitucci and drummer Brian Blade. This quartet, Shorter’s focus since about 2000, has taken on various orchestral and chamber projects without departing from its explosive main mission. Without a Net, for instance, includes the 23-minute “Pegasus” (featuring Imani Winds) as well as quartet reinventions of “Orbits” and “Plaza Real.” That music of such elemental fire and fury can exist makes the world a more redeemable place.
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