The year 2017 was a thrilling one in jazz, bursting with new ideas, original voices, and irreverence. Jazz, for lack of a better word, is never in any one place at any one time — there are always many things happening within various mini-scenes, with talent coming from every direction—and from every generation (Roscoe Mitchell, at 77, is just as vital now as when he made his debut a half-century ago).
This year about four dozen records could’ve cracked any “best of” ranking, but here are 15 that had special resonance in 2017.
1. Nicole Mitchell: Mandorla Awakening II Emerging Worlds (FPE Records)
Mitchell released two albums in 2017: Liberation Narratives, a collaboration with the poet and founder of Third World Press Haki R. Madhubuti, and this Afrofuturist suite recorded live at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago two years ago during the 50th anniversary celebrations for the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. Mitchell, on flute and electronics, composed and arranged all the music, and her Black Earth Ensemble—which includes the always compelling Tomeka Reid on cello—is electrifying. Alex Wing on guitar and avery r. young on vocals are revelations. A mesmerizing work and, to these ears, the record of the year. (Mitchell was the artist-in-residence earlier this month at NYC Winter Jazzfest.)
2. Roscoe Mitchell: Bells for the South Side (ECM)
Like Nicole Mitchell, the saxophonist and composer Roscoe Mitchell (no relation) presented the four trios here at the Museum of Contemporary Art in 2015. (He was one of the original members of the AACM.) It includes long-time collaborators like Jaribu Shahid and Tani Tabbal, and new ones like the celebrated drummer Tyshawn Sorey (see below), who also plays piano and trombone on this outing. The overall effect is both ominous and joyous.
3. The Heliocentrics: A World of Masks (Soundway)
So many of Gil Scott-Heron’s lyrics seem as if they were written for today — “Winter in America,” “We Beg Your Pardon” — and none more so than “Is That Jazz?” This eclectic East London collective, which fuses jazz and funk with a wink to Sun Ra, is aided here by rising saxophone star Shabaka Hutchings (was also in town for Winter Jazzfest) and the ethereal vocalist Barbora Patkova. Is that jazz? I don’t know, and I don’t care. It’s an enthralling, unforgettable 45 minutes of music.
4. Trio Heinz Herbert: The Willisau Concert (Intakt)
Dominic Landolt (guitar), his brother, Ramon (keyboards, samples), and Mario Hänni (drums) are about as far away as you can get from a traditional trio. Their telepathic excursions, from quietly intense to out-and-out raucous, are best appreciated live. This album was recorded in Willisau, Switzerland, at one of the premier festivals for free and experimental jazz, famous also for the poster art by the festival’s founder, Niklaus Troxler. Rousing and unforgettable.
5. Tomas Fujiwara: Triple Double (Firehouse 12)
The 40-year-old drummer drifts from background to foreground with regular colleagues (and all-stars) Gerald Cleaver, Mary Halvorson, Brandon Seabrook, Ralph Alessi, and Taylor Ho Bynum. The results are electrifying and relentless. Brainy new-fusion that takes the roof off. One of the most exciting releases of this year.
6. Matthew Shipp: Piano Song (Thirsty Ear)
Shipp told this publication in early 2017 that he was going to stop recording. Blah, blah, blah. The East Village pianist can’t not record. His latest, on the label that cleared new paths within jazz under his leadership in the early 2000s, is one of his very best. That’s saying a lot. With the untrendy partners Michael Bisio on bass and Newman Taylor Baker on drums, the results are rich, emotional, smart, and witty.
7. Craig Taborn: Daylight Ghosts (ECM)
One of the most admired pianists of this — or any — generation, Taborn has been on hundreds of recording sessions (including Roscoe Mitchell’s Bells for the South Side) but has never recorded prolifically as a leader, which makes this all the more special. Accompanied by the likes of Chris Speed, Chris Lightcap, and his fellow Minnesotan Dave King of the Bad Plus, Taborn conjures eerie, beautiful soundscapes, especially on electronics, in one of the year’s essential albums.
8. Irène Schweizer – Joey Baron: Live! (Intakt)
The veteran Swiss free-jazz pianist has made her reputation, in part, working in the unloved duo format with drummers like Han Bennink and Andrew Cyrille. On her latest, a live date in Zurich, she conspires with none other than Joey Baron. Her percussive attack, informed as much by pre-War stylings than of Cecil Taylor, artfully maneuvers around Baron, and she’s unafraid to clash toe-to-toe with him.
9. Eskelin/Weber/Griener: Sensations of Tone (Intakt)
The tenor saxophonist Ellery Eskelin has a sound and approach all his own, sinewy and off-kilter. He’s been part of New York’s downtown scene but is steeped in history, too. (He’s done the Great American Songbook, for instance.) Call him an abstract traditionalist. Along with Christian Weber on bass and Michael Griener on drums, the trio goes from early standards like Jelly Roll Morton’s “Shreveport Stomp” to its own group improvisations. Disorientating, and totally delightful.
10. Dayna Stephens: Gratitude (Contagious Music)
Stephens, another tenor sax player, is a musicians’ musician, thoughtful and brainy, with a wonderful tone. On this understated but complex effort (released on his own label he just started) he’s backed by the esteemed rhythm section of pianist Brad Mehldau, bassist Larry Grenadier, and drummer Eric Harland. As gorgeous as he is on tenor, Stephens’ finest moment may be on baritone saxophone in the Strayhorn-Ellington tune “Isfahan.”
11. William Parker: Meditation/Resurrection (AUM Fidelity)
The East Village bassist and composer has been a beacon in the downtown and international scenes for more than 40 years. He’s making some of his most adventurous and engaging music now. On this double album, he leads two quartets, one that includes the underdocumented pianist Cooper-Moore. Parker also appears on another AUM Fidelity find, the unreleased David S. Ware Trio Live in New York, 2010, when Parker and his late colleague lit up the Blue Note, an atypical venue for them.
12. Linda May Han Oh: Walk Against Wind (Biophilia Records)
The workmanlike Australian has been one of the most sought-after bassists in New York the last ten years. In her new album as a leader, she eschews bass solo pyrotechnics and instead focuses on her composing and the group dynamic. And what a group: Ben Wendel, Justin Brown, and Matt Stevens, young stars all. It was released on the new label started by the fine keyboardist Fabian Almazan, who marries new jazz talent with an environmental mission. The Village Voice was with her in the studio in Brooklyn when she recorded it.
13. Tyshawn Sorey: Verisimilitude (Pi Recordings)
It was a big year for the 37-year-old drummer: He received his doctorate of musical arts from Columbia University; started an assistant professorship at Wesleyan University (where he replaced Anthony Braxton); and won the big one, a MacArthur Fellowship. On his sixth album as a leader, a quiet but transfixing one, he leads a trio with the exceptional Cory Smythe on piano and Chris Tordini on bass. Sorey, like so many musicians young and old, doesn’t like the word “jazz.” Who can blame him; it feels, as Miles Davis might say, “corny.” He plays, he said in a recent tweet, MUSIC (the caps his). As Miles might also say, “Call it anything.”
14. Jaimie Branch: Fly or Die (International Anthem)
This debut by the 33-year-old Chicagoan now living in Brooklyn mixes live recordings and studio-enhanced work with startling results. Her trumpet playing is influenced by Booker Little and the technical experiments of Axel Dörner. Her former Chicago colleagues Tomeka Reid (again), drummer Chad Taylor, and bassist Jason Ajemian only enhance her compositions.
15. Cécile McLorin Salvant: Dreams and Daggers (Mack Avenue)
The 28-year-old singer is mature beyond her years and enjoys mining jazz and its environs from the early 20th century, like Josephine Baker’s “Si J’étais Blanche” (“If I Were White”). On Dreams and Daggers, she leads her stellar (and dapper) trio of Aaron Diehl (piano), Lawrence Leathers (drums), and Paul Sikivie (bass) through a (mostly) live set at the Village Vanguard. She’s affecting on “Somehow I Never Could Believe,” a piece from Street Scene, the underappreciated opera by Kurt Weill and Langston Hughes.
And if, like me, you treasure and pore over reissues (and newly discovered unreleased material), so many gems were put back into circulation in 2017.
Thelonious Monk’s full soundtrack to the Roger Vadim film Les Liaisons Dangereuses, never released in full until this year, was beautifully presented by Saga and Sam Records. If you really want to geek out on vinyl (and Monk), Craft Records has just put out The Complete Prestige 10-Inch Collection, a limited-edition box set of LPs Monk recorded for the label from 1952 to 1954.
Bass god Jaco Pastorius is in top form leading a cracking big band at Avery Fisher Hall in Truth, Liberty & Soul Live in NYC: The Complete 1982 NPR Jazz Alive! Recording (Resonance Records).
Hard-bop pianist Sonny Clark lived fast and died tragically at just 31. Long associated with Blue Note in its heyday, his trio date on another label, The 1960 Time Sessions with George Duvivier and Max Roach, has just been reissued on double vinyl by Tompkins Square.
Ornette Coleman’s Crisis and Ornette at 12 were out of print for decades and have been released for the first time on CD from Real Gone Music.
Pharoah Sanders’ greatest phase, you could argue, were the series of albums he did for the Impulse! label in the late 1960s and early ’70s. Three of those—Tauhid (1967), Jewels of Thought (’69), and Deaf Dumb Blind Summun Bukmun Umyun (’70)—were reissued by Anthology Records on vinyl, which somehow feels right.
The Jazz Dispensary, meanwhile, reissued some fertile 1970s work with Joe Henderson & Alice Coltrane’s The Elements, Gary Bartz NTU Troop’s Harlem Bush Music—Uhuru, and Azar Lawrence’s Bridge Into the New Age. What a year.