Jazz is always best experienced live, in the moment, but the art form continues to yield substantial treasure in the form of recorded documents, and this year is no exception.
Every disc on this list swells with unbridled excellence and most of them stayed in my personal rotation for months at a time.
If there is a recurring theme in 2016’s selections, it might be the year of the drum. Eight of my top 10 feature drummers operating at the top of their game, from Pheeroan ak Laff, to Jack DeJohnette, Andrew Cyrille, Jim Black, Gerry Hemingway, Joe LaBarbera, Whit Dickey and Nathan Hubbard.
Wadada Leo Smith, “America’s National Parks” (Cuneiform 2016)
Smith has been undergoing an artistic renaissance in the last few years, and this album is a masterpiece, from start to finish. Special kudos to the ensemble, featuring Anthony Davis’s luminous piano, the rock solid rhythm team of John Lindberg and Pheeroan ak Laff and the newest member of the ensemble, cellist Ashley Walters. Absolutely superb.
Mark Dresser Seven, “Sedimental You” (Clean Feed 2016)
Somehow, Dresser manages to create his most accessible work without compromising any of its inherent ferocity. Stellar performances abound, from the hair-raising work of 21-year-old violinist David Boroff and piano monster Joshua White, to the jewel-like contributions of Nicole Mitchell, Michael Dessen, Marty Ehrlich and Jim Black. Beautiful, powerful, and joyful to the core.
Jack DeJohnette, “In Movement” (ECM 2016)
DeJohnette is still the finest drummer working in the idiom, and his opening cymbal wash on John Coltrane’s “Alabama,” proves it. Ravi Coltrane and Matthew Garrison complete the contemplative circle with solid features, and the leader sparkles throughout. The duet with Coltrane on “Rashied,” bristles with kinetic energy.
BassDrumBone, “The Long Road” (Auricle 2016)
The long-running trio of trombonist Ray Anderson, bassist Mark Helias and drummer Gerry Hemingway have been active for nearly 40 years, and this double CD is a terrific introduction to their music, which manages to flow from the avant-garde to raucous blues by constantly swinging its tail off. Appearances by pianist Jason Moran and tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano don’t hurt, either.
John Lindberg Raptor Trio, “Western Edges” (Clean Feed 2016):
Lindberg is one of the music’s great bassists, and this trio with baritone saxophonist Pablo Calogero and drummer Joe LaBarbera ripples with muscular brutality. They swing like crazy and I must confess I had no clue that LaBarbera was such a bad hombre.
Satoko Fujii & Joe Fonda, “Duet” (Long Song Records 2016)
It’s hard to believe that these two haven’t been collaborating forever. The degree of intimate listening and deep exchange between Fujii’s piano and the woody, natural-sounding bass of Fonda is breathtaking. Unbelievably, this live album was only the second time they played.
Andrew Cyrille Quartet, “The Declaration of Musical Independence” (ECM 2016)
Cyrille’s mastery has always been criminally underrated, and this disc might go a long way toward mitigating that injustice. Guitarist Bill Frisell turns in a superlative performance, as does bassist Ben Street. But where has Richard Teitelbaum been hiding? He’s a big part of the magic of this session.
Whit Dickey & Kirk Knuffke, “Fierce Silence” (Clean Feed 2016)
Dickey is another drummer who should be much more widely known, and this duo session with avant-trumpet whiz Knuffke defies all expectations one might assume from such a pairing. It is burning, glorious free jazz at its finest.
Peter Kuhn Trio, “The Other Shore” (No Business 2016)
Underground free-jazz legend Kuhn emerges from a 30-year absence from the scene with a blistering trio featuring young bass virtuoso Kyle Motl (who you will be hearing more of) and the uber-creative drums of Nathan Hubbard (who you should have been hearing more of.) Volcanic, post-Ayler brilliance.
Sara Serpa & Andre Matos, “All the Dreams” (Sunnyside 2016)
This duo knocked me out with their 2014 collaboration, “Primavera,” and they are back with a vengeance this year. Sparse and haunting, Serpa’s voice is a wonderful instrument, rich in detail and clarity.