Even though jazz is best experienced live, there are always albums that populate that proverbial “desert-island” aesthetic. The number of discs that qualify as essential seems to grow every year, and often the difference between what gets on my list and what just misses can be excruciating.
Nonetheless, the choice for No. 1 is usually crystal clear for me, and that maxim is certainly true for 2015. Here then are my favorite new recordings (plus one reissue) for the year.
1. Jack DeJohnette, “Made In Chicago” (ECM) This is DeJohnette’s best recording in the last 30 years, due in no small part to the participation of his elite Chicago associates Muhal Richard Abrams, Roscoe Mitchell, Henry Threadgill and bassist Larry Gray. Mitchell, Threadgill and DeJohnette were all pivotal members of the AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians) founded by Abrams in the early 1960s. Full of joy, this album exceeds all expectations.
2. Wadada Leo Smith and John Lindberg, “Celestial Weather” (TUM) The world is immeasurably richer for the renaissance of Smith recordings over the last few years, and this gem -- with long-time associate Lindberg -- is almost unbearably intimate, loaded with organic balance and timbre distortion. As usual, the devil is in the details -- and these details are sublime.
3. Jon Irabagon, “Inaction Is Action” (Irabagast Recordings) This solo sopranino saxophone album is chock full of audacity and sonic manipulation that conjure images of dying behemoths and objects of industrial torture. Somehow, Irabagon manages to create laugh-out-loud moments even as he scares the bejesus out of the listener.
4. Barry Altschul & 3 Dom Factor, “Tales of the Unforeseen” (TUM) Three equal, independent voices find their way in this exploratory document, recorded following a tour, and the experience shows. Old-school free jazz with important input from bassist Joe Fonda and saxophonist Irabagon, these “tales” have to be heard to be believed.
5. Terrence McManus and John Hebert, “Saints & Sinners” (Rowhouse Music L.L.C.) Bassist Hebert has a sound as huge as old-growth Redwood, and this pairing with the quirky guitar machinations of McManus works on multiple levels. Each player has exquisite touch and big ears.
6. John Abercrombie, “The First Quartet” (ECM) This reissue of Abercrombie’s first three quartet sessions on ECM has been a long time coming. These records illuminated a completely different path for jazz guitar, and the Abercrombie Quartet -- with Richie Beirach’s piano, George Mraz’s bass and the drums of Peter Donald -- still sounds fresh more than 30 years later.
7. Chris Lightcap’s Bigmouth, “Epicenter” (CleanFeed) The record brings thoroughly modern music from the pen of Lightcap, and I’m a believer in the twin-tenor concept blazed by Tony Malaby and Chris Speed. Craig Taborn and Gerald Cleaver round out this session.
8. Rudresh Mahanthappa, “Bird Calls” (ACT) This was a banner year for Mahanthappa, and even though this disc doesn’t sound anything like Charlie Parker, it does roar out of the gates with Matt Mitchell, Adam O’ Farrill, Francois Moutin and Rudy Royston.
9. Myra Melford, “Snowy Egret” (Enja Yellowbird) Melford’s band boasts a hyper-melodic fusion that shimmers and glides on the guitar of Liberty Ellman and the bounce of Tyshawn Sorey. Ron Miles and Stomu Takeishi complete the beguiling puzzle for some engaging charts that really sing.
10. Evan Parker, Joe Morris and Nate Wooley, “Ninth Square” (CleanFeed) One listen to the independent soliloquies that open this disc clearly indicates that this is the real deal. Tension gets ratcheted to a delirium – then Parker cranks it even further.