My Top 12 Jazz albums of 2018

I read three jazz magazines—Downbeat, Jazzwise, and JAZZIZ—every month and visit a number of jazz-oriented sites on a regular basis, and I am happy to report that jazz is not only alive, it is vibrant, diverse, and abundant. Even better, the quantity of releases is matched by the amazing quality of countless releases. I listened to dozens—perhaps 200 or more—releases in in the past year, and time and again I was floored by the talent and creativity coming from musicians young and old, from all corners of the world.

This list could be much, much longer. (And I actually list 13 albums, if you keep count.) But in the interest of appealing to readers who likely aren’t as “into” jazz I am, I’ve kept it short and sweet. I think all of these albums are worth hearing and buying.

Love Stone by J.D. Allen. Some ballad albums drag, and others slip into sentimentality. Allen not only avoids those traps, he makes every single note count in such a way that there is a perfect marriage of warmth and anticipation throughout this remarkable, gorgeous album. There is not a hint of showmanship here, but the playing is otherworldly. Stunning.

The Future is Female by Roxy Coss. With song titles such as “Females are Strong as Hell,” “#MeToo”, and “Nasty Women Grab Back,” you might expect anger and heaps of spoken word lectures. Instead, you are treated to a brilliant, modern hard-bop session with sophisticated writing and beautiful playing. Coss and I likely differ on more than a few political fronts, but I have no reservations at all about this confident, engaging, and—again—beautiful set. Highly recommended.

The Other Side by Tord Gustavsen Trio. Gustavsen has been producing melodic, melancholy Nordic jazz for nearly two decades now, and he once again delivers a magical, dusky collection. This one has an overtly spiritual quality to it—Gustavsen’s “The Other Side” and Bach’s “Jesu Meine Freude/Jesus, Det Eneste” are examples—but there is a deep, pulsating restlessness that bubbles up from time to time. Recommended listening for late night, with a good bourbon in hand.

Flight by James Francies. He’s barely into his 20s, but Francies has already made his mark as a sideman in a wide range of settings, not just within jazz but also in pop, hip-hop, and R&B. That eclecticism is evident here, with modern production and stellar chops at the service of an impressive and cohesive artistic vision. There is certainly a strong nod, to my ears, to Robert Glasper, another Houston native, but Francies is his own man, and his restless, inventive approach is an indication that jazz is in good hands.

Little Big by Aaron Parks. His 2008 album Invisible Cinema remains one of my all-time favorite piano-driven jazz albums, and he never predictable or dull. There is a decidedly “rock” feel to this album, but this is ultimately an organic synthesis based in creativity and trust, full of both energy and melodic focus. Like his decade-old classic, this presents and sustains an aural world, from beginning to end.

After Bach and Seymour Reads the Constitution by Brad Mehldau/Brad Mehldau Trio. How many artists can release a solo album of Bach and Bach-inspired improvisations and a trio album bursting with freshness and mind-boggling skill? But we’ve come to expect this sort of thing from Mehldau, who can play anything and play it with an immediately recognizable sound and quality. The Bach album is respectful but often surprising, while the trio engagement is a deep dive into twists and turns that are as assured as they breathtaking. Artistry in spades.

Concentric Circles by Kenny Barron Quintet. Barron is fine wine—he is now 75, and he is, if anything, better than ever. Which is saying something. This has the feel and approach of 1960s Blue Note classic (think Herbie Hancock or Andrew Hill), but with a clear contemporary quality. Relaxed and crisp, warm and sharp, detailed and accessible—this is small ensemble playing at its finest, headed by a generous, joyful leader.

Live by Marcin Wasilewski Trio. This veteran Polish group has been a natural fit for the ECM label, with a melancholy and melodic style that reminds me at times of the Gustavsen trio. But this live set finds the trio in an energetic, even exultant, mood, with plenty of sparks flying, notably on the Police classic “Message in the Bottle” and Herbie Hancock’s “Actual Proof”, but also in the other cuts, all originals.

Ahlam by NES. This is perhaps the most unusual entry in this list, as it is sung in a variety of languages and has a strong “world music” flavor. Singer/cellist Nesrine Belmokh, who has a stunning voice, has roots in classical music (she’s worked with Lorin Maazel and Daniel Barenboim), but she effortlessly combines that background with jazz, pop, and traditional Arabic music, resulting in a deceptively simple and achingly beautiful album. Dreamlike in feel, which is fitting, as “Ahlam” means “dream” in Arabic.

Sonic Creed by Stefon Harris & Blackout. This has long been a favorite group, led by one of the finest vibrophonists today, and this long-awaited album, the follow-up to 2009’s “Urbanus”, does not disappoint. This is a sophisticated but immediately engaging collection, with a subtle funkiness and chamber-music quality that sets it apart, especially with the vibrophones in the mix. Rewards multiple listens!

Heaven & Earth by Kamasi Washington. How do you follow up a massive hit album titled The Epic (2016)? You go even more epic! Washington is one those rare artists (in any genre) who lives up the hype, marrying audaciousness with a focused vision, complete with choral parts and otherworldly sonic landscapes. The contributions of pianist Cameron Graves are worthy of note, as they ground the entire two-disc affair, from simple melodic lines to cascading walls of keyboard brilliance. Hard to describe, but has to be heard.

13th Floor by Eric Harland/Voyager. This ensemble lacks nothing in talent, with the prolific Harland on drums, Taylor Eigsti on piano, Walter Smith on sax, Harish Raghavan on bass, and Julian Lage and Nir Felder on guitar. It also lacks nothing in writing and cohesion; each cut is a perfectly realized gem, undergirded by Harland’s astounding time-keeping and driven by Eigsti’s often rhapsodic playing. This is not a “blowing session”, but a fully realized work of cerebral, muscular jazz.

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