The best jazz albums of 2016, and the best historical releases.

The Best Jazz Albums of 2016

The Best Jazz Albums of 2016

Pop, jazz, and classical.
Dec. 19 2016 10:15 AM

The Best Jazz Albums of 2016

Plus the best historical releases.

Wadada Leo Smith, Shirley Horn, and Sarah Vaughan.
Wadada Leo Smith, Shirley Horn, and Sarah Vaughan.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Reuters Photographer/Reuter, Tom Beetz/Wikimedia Commons, and AFP/Getty Images.

Everyone knows that music has charms to soothe a savage breast, but few have read the rest of William Congreve’s line, which claims it can also “soften rocks, or bend a knotted oak,” and so, in these times of breast-beating savagery, heads full of stones, and tangles in desperate need of unknotting (times to try men’s and women’s souls, one might say), there is still a vital place for music in our lives. And so, here are my picks for the 10 best jazz albums of 2016, followed by the year’s four best previously unissued old treasures.

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Threadgill, 72, alto saxophonist, composer, avant-garde impresario, won the Pulitzer Prize for his 2015 album, In for a Penny, in for a Pound, but this new one, featuring an odd septet (two alto saxes, two pianos, cello, tuba, and drums), is better still—a through-written, 47-minute masterpiece, with sweeping solo improvisations, segueing from lyrical to boisterous, mournful to giddy, always drenched in rhythm, at once epic and intimate.

This work originated as a multimedia spectacle at BAM’s Next Wave Festival, an exploration of conspiracy theories as a symptom of modern life’s unease, but the music scintillates on its own. Argue, one of the two or three best modern big-band composers out there, wrote it in 12-tone technique, but he weaves it with swing and melody, drawing on film noir, Latin music, and electro-funk. Heady, soulful, and a little creepy.

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Kimbrough is one of the most eloquent pianists on the jazz scene—virtuosic, lush to the point of dreamy but also percussively precise, adept as anyone at cutting to the bone of a song—and this may be his best album as a leader. Most of the tracks are covers of pieces by mentors over the years (Paul Motian, Paul Bley, Andrew Hill, Maria Schneider) while others include an obscure Gershwin tune and one piece—the gorgeous title track—by his partner, the composer Maryanne de Prophetis.

Another piano trio, this one led by a longtime master of the format. The album (its title resonant of Bill Evans’ 1961 classic, Sunday at the Village Vanguard) consists of an entire set, in the order the songs were played, at the same club, this past March. Half of the tracks are originals, half are covers of pieces by Richard Rodgers, Jimmy Rowles, Thelonious Monk, and the Beatles—all laid down with Hersch’s usual harmonic inventiveness and rhythmic zest.

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And yet another piano trio, by yet another master (Mehldau made his first mark, in the mid-to-late ’90s, with a series of albums called Art of the Trio, Vols. 1-5), this latest installment—mainly standards by Cole Porter, Buddy Johnson, and Charlie Parker, along with a couple Beatles tunes—confirms his standing as the bluesiest of balladeers.

At age 75, Smith, the premier avant-garde trumpeter (sprouting from the same Chicago-based movement as Henry Threadgill) unfurls majestic vistas of sounds, textures, and solemn-celebratory rhythms. His Golden Quintet features comrades from the old days—pianist Anthony Davis, drummer Pheeroan AkLaff, bassist John Lindberg—and the young cellist Ashley Walters, who plucks and bows bass lines, counterpoint, and polyrhythms. Disc 2 rambles a bit.

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The protean American trumpeter and French pianist team up with a top-notch rhythm section to fashion jazz riffs on the slippery sharp angles of Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp, and the rest of the Dada crowd, with an assist from Erik Satie. Full of wit, mirth, and a quiet twisted swing.

David Krakauer, one of the most virtuosic clarinetists in any and all genres, joins with a quartet (sometimes septet) that includes guitarist Marc Ribot and John Medeski on organ. Together, they fuse klezmer, funk, and rock in a way that digs deep into the idioms of all three (a very rare thing). Dancing for your feet and your head. Great fun.

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Barron is one of the most propulsive balladic pianists, and this is, oddly, the first album with his long-standing trio. It’s infectiously joyous stuff: swaying melodies, samba cutaways, and zestful rhythms.

Wilson, one of the most versatile and good-natured drummers, brings together a dozen longtime comrades to pay tribute to his wife, a violinist, who’d died recently of leukemia, but there’s nothing sentimental here: spirited marches, blazing free-for-alls, passionate ballads, and a knockout love song, a Wilson original (like most of the tracks) called “Flowers for Felicia.”

Best Historical Albums

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Young was the first to take the Hammond B3 organ off the funk-soul circuit and on the modal path to Coltrane. On these newly discovered sessions from Paris, circa 1964–65, he, trumpeter Woody Shaw, and some local musicians tear into post-bop excursions with a joy and intensity that exceed even his great Blue Note albums in the years that followed.

This is a revelation: unissued studio sessions from the late ’60s, with the piano master and his trio, going way beyond the sparkly ballads of his classic Concert by the Sea, into stride, rock, blues, and a couple of gorgeous sparkly ballads, too.

Another gem from Resonance, a label that specializes in digging up unknown treasures from obscure archives, this captures Sarah Vaughan and her trio in a small club in the late ’70s. It’s probably her best album from that period.

Yet another head-shaker from Resonance, this is the best live album by Shirley Horn, from the late ’80s, just before her star revival, and a bit more down-home than what came later. Like no other jazz singer, she invests a lyric as if it’s the story of her life.

And finally …

I considered putting David Bowie’s death-door Blackstar on this list, before concluding it’s not quite jazz, though it certainly has jazz elements, stirring mainly from Donny McCaslin’s jazz band, which Bowie recruited to play with him (in real time, not via overdubs). Still, the album is a masterpiece, and a lesson to rock stars everywhere: If you want your stuff to sound great, hire great jazz musicians to play with you.