This year’s Top 10 list is heavy on big bands (three: none of your granddad’s type), pianists (four: playing solo, duet, or trio), and small labels (only two picks are majors; five, including the No. 1 choice, are artist-owned).
1. Maria Schneider, The Thompson Fields (ArtistShare)
Maria Schneider, the pre-eminent big-band leader and composer of our time, outdoes herself with this feast of Americana, inspired by the Minnesota farmland of her youth. Her harmonies are lush and gorgeous, propelled by muscular rhythms and taut melody lines. This is intricate but airy music, the stuff of swoons and majesty. And the members of her 18-piece band, many of whom have been with her for 20 years, have evolved into top-notch soloists as well as consummate ensemble musicians.
2. Steve Coleman, Synovial Joints (Pi)
Alto saxophonist Steve Coleman has long explored systems in music, its mathematical and biological roots, and his past few projects have infused these concepts with a kaleidoscopic swing that’s enticing. He’s also expanded his band—from the five-piece Five Elements to the up-to-20-piece Council of Balance (which includes piccolo, bass trombone, strings, and a variety of percussion, in addition to the usual jazz instruments). And he knows just how to inject their timbral colors into the melody, harmony, or ambient swirl.
3. Vijay Iyer Trio, Break Stuff (ECM)
Pianist Vijay Iyer is another systematizer, with academic training in math and physics as well as in music. And like Steve Coleman (whose influence he cites), Iyer has broken through in recent years, imbuing his intricacies with swing, wit, and beauty. His bandmates of more than a decade’s standing, bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Marcus Gilmore, weave through the patterns with inventive aplomb.
4. Fred Hersch, Solo (Palmetto)
Recorded live at a concert hall in the Hudson Valley, this is Fred Hersch’s 10th solo album (it’s his 49th as a leader or co-leader), and it’s his freshest, most engrossing in a decade or so. He plays a mix of originals and standards—the latter including Ellington, Jobim, Monk, and Joni Mitchell—with a lyrical touch (Hersch is the most lyrical jazz pianist around) and a turbulent flow.
5. Charlie Haden & Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Tokyo Adagio (Universal/Impulse!)
The late, great bassist Charlie Haden was at his best playing ballads or in duets, especially with musicians who were longtime friends or sharers of some spiritual kinship. Tokyo Adagio—recorded live, in 2005, at Tokyo’s Blue Note jazz club—has him playing almost nothing but ballads, in duet with Gonzalo Rubalcaba, a Cuban pianist who shared his flair for rhapsody and romance. This is a simmering, sumptuous album.
6. Dave Douglas Quintet, Brazen Heart (Greenleaf)
Trumpeter Dave Douglas has released more than 40 albums as a leader, fronting nearly as many bands, and the quintet on this one—pianist Matt Mitchell, tenor saxophonist Jon Irabagon, drummer Rudy Royston, and the astonishing bassist Linda Oh—ranks among his best. The songs are a mix of restless reveries and post-bop rousers (Booker Little, channeled through Wayne Shorter); the execution is perpetually riveting.
7. Erik Friedlander, Ocalypso (Skipstone)
This is a tribute album to Oscar Pettiford, one of the great bassists and among the very few cellists in jazz, and it’s fitting that Erik Friedlander, his true heir on cello, meets the challenge. The result is head-stirring music: precision swing, crafty dissonance, and relentless zest. His frequent bandmates—Michael Blake on reeds, Trevor Dunn on bass, and Michael Sarin on drums—supply swift sails and firm anchor.
8. Ran Blake & Christine Correa, The Road Keeps Winding (Red Piano)
A pianist influenced by Thelonious Monk, Billie Holiday, and rain-soaked film noirs, Ran Blake doesn’t swing the way most jazzmen do, but he penetrates, as well as anyone, the essence of the verse, the tingle of a mood, the grief of the blues. Lately he’s teamed up with smoky-voiced female singers, ex-students of his at the New England Conservatory, for duets, and this one—a tribute to Abbey Lincoln—glows with amber, Christine Correa stirring just the right mix of dark romance and spooky passion.
9. Ryan Truesdell’s Gil Evans Project, Lines of Color (ArtistShare)
Gil Evans was one of the great big-band composers of the 1950s and ’60s, though more a colorist than a swashbuckler, attuned less to brassy swing than to stacked harmonies and swaying rhythms. Ryan Truesdell (Maria Schneider’s assistant, just as Schneider was once Evans’ assistant) scavenged the archives for the maestro’s scores and assembled a band of top-notch musicians (some from Schneider’s orchestra) to play them under his baton. This is his second album and nearly the equal of Evans’ own, which is saying a lot.
10. John Zorn, Gomory: Book of Angels, Vol. 25—Mycale Sings Masada Book Two (Tzadik)
Nearly a quarter-century ago, John Zorn embarked on his Masada songbook—jazz tunes built on the “Jewish scales” (major scales with the second note flat or minor scales with the fourth note sharp)—and in the years since, he’s expanded it into a genre of infinite capacity. There’s the Masada quartet, string trio, string sextet, Electric Masada, Masada for guitars, solo piano, and, lately, Mycale—Masada for four a cappella singers: Ayelet Rose Gottlieb, Sofia Rei, Sara Serpa (who’s also recorded with Ran Blake), and Malika Zarra. Haunting, gorgeous music—and it cooks.
This 1955 live concert by one of the most sparkling jazz pianists can finally be heard in its entirety (an album of excerpts has long been considered a classic), and it reveals new depths to Garner’s wondrousness.
2. Gerry Mulligan, The Emarcy Sextet Recordings (5 LP, Mosaic)
These sessions, from 1955–56, have long been out of print—some were never released in the U.S.—and they reveal Mulligan, the best-ever baritone saxophonist and a master of harmony (in the same school and of the same caliber as Gil Evans), in an expansive, lyrical mode.
3. Al Cohn & Jimmy Rowles, Heavy Love (Xanadu)
One of the great unknown saxophone-piano duet albums, recorded in the late 1970s, and long out-of-print, this LP has been reissued in the Xanadu Master Edition series on CD: It’s straight-ahead standards and be-bop, deeply romantic with a modern edge—a sheer delight.
*Correction, Dec. 17, 2015: This article originally misidentified the three-CD Erroll Garner box as a two-CD set. (Return.)