Must-Hear Jazz Records – 2017

Here’s what I submitted for the NPR Jazz Critics poll. Plus a few key items below. Thanks to Francis Davis and Tom Hull for all the work they put in coordinating the results. Here are all the voters’ ballots

Best New Releases

Tom Rainey Obbligato  –  Float Upstream  (Intakt) 

Team Rainey puts on their inversion boots and provides sage abstractions that deliver a melodic punch line after revealing a song’s amorphous innards. From “Stella By Starlight” to “I Fall in Love Too Easily,” there’s nothing standard about these standards.

Mario Pavone’s Dialect Trio  –  Chrome   (Playscape) 

You can call it attack or volition or plain old oomph. But the authority brought to bear by the bassist’s squad – Tyshawn Sorey and Matt Mitchell – gives these skittish freebop sketches an architecture that blends splash and swing. Those currently falling for the pianist and drummer def need to hear this.

Billy Mintz  – Ugly Beautiful  (Thirteenth Note)

The roiling of the two-reed front line – sometimes gentle, always graceful – gives this set a feel akin to an ocean voyage: the motion never subsides. The drummer’s pairing of John Gross and Tony Malaby speaks to an approach that Joe Morris knowingly once deemed the “wraparound.” Total teamwork.

Matt Wilson’s Honey and Salt   (Palmetto)

As far as poetry/music discs go, it’s right up there with Conjure – and that’s saying a lot. Sandburg’s humor snuggles with the bandleader’s versatility, so each track resounds with individuality.  Flash points: Ron Miles’ forlorn horn on “As Wave Follows Wave”; the band’s cartoon jaunt matching John Scofield’s gorilla talk; the Ornette farewell of “Stars, Songs, Faces”; Joe Lovano’s “are you a writer or a wrapper?”; and the hard-earned philosophy in Carla Bley’s voice when she says the phrase “nearly always.” Re: politics, when “Choose” comes marching out of your speakers, you’ll get a vibe for the inclusionary efforts we all must make to have our cracked country function again. Fellowship, indeed.

Nicole Mitchell – Mandorla Awakening II: Emerging Worlds   (FPE) 

Creating your own universe is an AACM dictum that’s in good hands with Mitchell’s expansive suite. It’s impossible to focus on anything but the thrust of the near-symphonic details once her narrative hits lift-off mode – which doesn’t take long.

Kirk KnuffkeCherryco   (Steeplechase)

He starts in the Caribbean, drops by Central Ave, nods to Paris, and manages to squeak in a bit of Fort Worth everywhere he goes. Throughout, the NYC brass maestro’s insightful lyricism is the bedrock for this Don Cherry (and Ornette Coleman) salute. Nimble, buoyant, gorgeous.


Virtuosity in effect. Scholarship, as well, because the pianist sheds new light on a handful of tumultuous pieces his Snakeoil boss has crafted. Elaboration, momentum and intricacy are Berne essentials – the DNA that forms the essence of any given TB piece. His confrere has absorbed all those elements, and brings a ton of warmth to this recital.
The bassist is on a roll. His last three albums have been jewels, full of vista-scanning possibilities and fierce accord. The band is so locked-in on this thing, that the music waves a banner of unity at every turn. Skronk, groove, tunefulness, the works.
It finds the bassist helming a pair of bands and deploying a wealth of gambits. For a few reasons – the legibility of the tunes, say, or the eloquence of he and his confreres – this is one of his most entertaining discs. With Rob Brown and Cooper-Moore goosing the action, it takes on a gloriously gnarled articulation, like the best Black Saint releases used to.
The pianist has plotted particular ways for the horns to reside in his music, supercharging his esteemed trio and creating a launch pad for the unabashed vigor that marks the solos by Steve Lehman, Graham Haynes and Mark Shim.

Historical Releases 

Picnic  –  Picnic  (Corbett vs Dempsey)

Phillip Wilson – Esoteric  (Corbett vs Dempsey)

Thelonious Monk: Les Liaisons Dangereuses 1960   (Sam Records)


Aruan Ortiz  –  Cub(an)ism     (Intakt)


Dominique Eade &  Ran Blake  –  Town & Country   (Sunnyside)


Jaimie BranchFly or Die (International Anthem Recording Co.)


 Top Tracks

Tim Berne’s Snakeoil – “Sideshow”

Expanse is part of his compositional lingo, and this almost-30-minute-long opus finds the quintet (plus producer/guitarist David Torn) scrutinizing delirium and repose in equal measure. For some bandleaders this track could be an album on its own. The impressive Incidentals (ECM) is rounded out by a wealth of tangled fancies that really pack a punch.


Jason Moran – “South Side Digging”

Wow. In some ways, just wow. To be a smidge more articulate, consider the depth of vision that’s behind this jitter-swang tour de force on the Bandwagon’s Thanksgiving at The Vanguard and revel in the coordination it takes to turn a barrage of keys into a storm of eloquence. Chicago in the blood, and blues all over the road.

Marta Sanchez – “Danza Imposible”

The title track from the pianist’s best album yet is a swirl of action (horns and rhythm) that unites poise and pulse. It’s lustful, it’s heady, it’s cagey, and it’s seductive. Her CD-release show at the Jazz Gallery (you should become a member this year) was just as engaging.


Steve Coleman’s Natal Eclipse – “Horda”

The closing track to the saxophonist’s Morphogenesis (Pi) is a lesson in percolating action. The piece that comes before it is entitled “Dancing and Jabbing,” but that’s what truly happens on “Horda”: everything pops, but with a composure so assured it almost brings a chamber music vibe to the table.


Kate Gentile – “Micronesia Parakeet”

There’s something unusually wily about the way the drummer/composer has her outfit morph this fetching experiment from Mannequins (Skirl), forming an arc that starts with an aggressive Andrew Hill reverie and winds up with a dreamy Muhal phantasy. Nuanced, covert and impressive, its dedication to cracked-up counterpoint has a lot to do with its success.


Craig Taborn – “Subtle Living Equations”

It begins as a stark sketch, initially cryptic and compelling so. But as the negative space is filled in, propulsion emerges. By the end, it’s simply a glistening ring of drummed notes reveling in its own mystery. The more you hear it, the more you want to hear it again.


Do Not Miss

Mike Reed, Flesh & Bone (482 Music); Tyshawn Sorey, Verisamilitude (P1); Amir ElSaffar & Rivers of Sound, Not Two (New Amsterdam); JD Allen, Radio Flyer (Savant); Ambrose Akinmusire, A Rift In Decorum: Live at the Village Vanguard (Blue Note); David Virelles, Gnosis (ECM)




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