The Big City – Best Jazz Albums 2015

By George Grella

This list is built around the bal­lot I sent to Fran­cis Davis for his 10th Jazz Critic’s Poll, which should be posted at NPR by the mid­dle of Decem­ber. As some­one who grew up read­ing and admir­ing (and learn­ing a good deal about think­ing and writ­ing from) Davis’ crit­i­cism, I’m always thrilled to be a part of this.

There’s only one hard and fast thing about this list—I feel Epi­cen­ter, from Chris Lightcap’s Big­mouth, is absolutely the best jazz album of the year, and have thought that since my first lis­ten. The rest can change from day to day, hour to hour, minute to minute …

This bal­lot is always frus­trat­ing to fill out. I lis­tened to around 200 jazz record­ings that were released in 2015, and that num­ber is only a (sub­stan­tial) por­tion of the total jazz record­ings that came out this year. And the flow never stops, there are record­ings that are com­ing out every week (like the new Kneedelus album and Robin Eubanks’ big band record) that due to the lim­its of time and a hard dead­line, I sim­ply can­not lis­ten to prior to mak­ing this list (I’ll get to them eventually).

When I pick what I feel are the year’s best record­ings, it’s a gut reac­tion. I’ve been doing the crit­i­cal lis­ten­ing thing for long enough now that I trust my ears to tell me if some­thing suc­ceeds, then later I can go back and ana­lyze the why, what, and how of it. The best music to me is the music that feels com­pletely sat­is­fy­ing, and I take things on their own terms, so play­ing free can be as sat­is­fy­ing as play­ing a stan­dard. There are more than ten records that were com­pletely sat­is­fy­ing to me this year, but this list is lim­ited to “10 Best New Releases,” so my choices are both arbi­trary and cal­cu­lated: I’ve tried to spread it across styles within a broad def­i­n­i­tion of jazz as a genre, and in some cases it’s been a bit of a coin toss to fit the album on the list. Please note that my picks for vocal, debut, and latin jazz albums are all excel­lent and belong in the top ten.

I’ve aug­mented this with addi­tional titles that will not count in this poll. Every­thing you see under “The Elevens” are all wor­thy of top ten inclu­sion, I just ran out of chairs. Below that is the hon­or­able men­tion cat­e­gory, which is record­ings that are packed full of excel­lent music but just don’t quite work as com­plete albums; often the issue is that they’re just too long, e.g. sev­enty min­utes when fifty-five would have been ideal. Since that’s an album issue, less a musi­cal one, I’ve put them in that cat­e­gory. They are rec­om­mended nonethe­less, and your mileage will surely vary.

Now, a cou­ple argu­ments. Kamasi Washington’s The Epic and the A Love Supreme: The Com­plete Mas­ters are likely going to come up big this year, at least from what I see from the Jazz Jour­nal­ists Asso­ci­a­tion chat­ter (I am not cur­rently a mem­ber because I remain unem­ployed and can­not afford the annual dues). I have reser­va­tions about both:

The Epic is played and pro­duced to the nth degree, a com­plete plea­sure to lis­ten to and ful­fill­ing through­out it’s entire dura­tion. It’s also a still­born recre­ation of an era that passed over forty years ago. Jazz has moved on quite far from the Coltrane/modal/spiritual era, and crit­i­cally I can never rec­om­mend his­tor­i­cal recre­ations (re-imagining and re-contextualization are another mat­ter) when there is so much fine jazz being made that reflects the present and pushes into the future. For a more detailed argu­ment, I rec­om­mend you read Ryan Meehan’s review which we pub­lished in the Rail.

It is no crit­i­cism of John Coltrane nor of A Love Supreme to say that the Com­plete Mas­ters release is dis­ap­point­ing and unessen­tial. The only mean­ing­ful dif­fer­ence between this and the 2002 Deluxe Edi­tion are sev­eral alter­nate tracks that show Coltrane ini­tially thought of the work as a sex­tet, with Archie Shepp and Richard Davis in the group. Those show the idea was unwork­able, that it moved the music towards absolute music when the goal was Coltrane’s per­sonal spir­i­tual expres­sion: Shepp and Davis just don’t get what’s going on. It’s musi­co­log­i­cally inter­est­ing to see that detail, but it’s a dis­trac­tion from the actual music and the album, and in my opin­ion did not merit rere­lease. I detect the cyn­i­cal whiff of prof­i­teer­ing, and I’m sorry I spent what lit­tle money I have on it.

10 Best New Releases
Chris Lightcap’s Big­mouth, Epi­cen­ter
– Myra Melford, Snowy Egret
– Rudresh Mahan­thappa, Bird Calls
– Mary Halvor­son, Melt­frame
– Noah Pre­minger, Live at the 55 Bar
– William Parker/Raining on the Moon, Great Spirit
– Stephen Haynes, Pome­gran­ate
– Mike Reed’s Peo­ple Places & Things, A New Kind of Dance
– Aarhus Jazz Orches­tra, fea­tur­ing David Lieb­man and Mar­i­lyn Mazur, Lars Møller’s ReWrite of Spring
– Erik Fried­lan­der, Osca­lypso

The 11s:
– Dar­ius Jones Quar­tet, Le bébé de Brigitte
– Nicole Mitchell/Tomeka Reid/Mike Reed, Arti­facts
– Lib­erty Ell­man, Radi­ate
– Avisha Cohen Trio, From Dark­ness
Jason Roe­bke, Every Sun­day
– Chicago Reed Quar­tet, West­ern Automatic
Pas­cal Niggenkem­per, ‘‘look with thine ears
Mario Pavone/Matt Mitchell/Tyshawn Sorey, Blue Dialect
– Jack DeJohnette, Made in Chicago
– Cristina Pato, Latino
– Joey Calderozzo Trio, Going Home
Power Trio, Di Lon­tan
– John Hébert, Ram­bling Confessions
– PRISM Quar­tet, Heritage/Evolution Vol­ume 1
Eve Risser, des pas sur la neige
– Rem­pis Per­cus­sion Quar­tet, Cash and Carry
– Ran Blake/Sara Serpa, Kitano Noir
– Tim Berne’s Snakeoil, You’ve Been Watch­ing Me
– Wooley/Rempis/Niggenkemper/Corsano, From Wolves to Whales
– Zs, Xe
Dre Hoce­var Trio, Cod­ing of Eventuality
– Food, This is not a miracle
– Hyper­color, Hyper­color
Nate Woo­ley Quin­tet, (Dance to) The Early Music
– J.D. Allen, Graf­fiti
– Frank Carl­berg, big enig­mas
– Ross Ham­mond, Flight
– Steve Cole­man and the Coun­cil of Bal­ance, Syn­ovial Joints
– Rez Abbasi Acoustic Quar­tet, Intents and Purposes
– Marta Sánchez Quin­tet, partenika
– Bjørn Solli, Aglow: The Lyn­gøe Project, Vol­ume 1
– Andrew Bishop, De Pro­fundis

Honorable Mention:
– James Bran­don Lewis, Days of FreeMan
– Jean-Michel Pic, What is this Thing Called?
– Chris Pot­ter Under­ground, Imag­i­nary Cities
– Matt Mitchell, Vista Accu­mu­la­tion
– Enrico Rava Quar­tet, Wild Man Dance
– Jon Irabagon, Behind the Sky
– Mike Osborne, Dawn
– Sal Mosca, The Talk of the Town
– Amir El-Saffar, Cri­sis
– Kenny Wheeler, Songs for Quintet
– Makaya McCraven, In the Moment
– Chris­t­ian Howes, Amer­i­can Spirit
– Chris Ding­man, The Sub­lim­i­nal and the Sublime
– Robert Sabin, Human­ity Part II
– Sax­o­phone Quar­tet Dicke Luft, Car­il­lon
– Fresh Cut Orches­tra, From the Vine
– Louis Bel­go­nis, Blue Bud­dha
Ozo, A Kind of Zo
– Brian Lan­drus Trio, The Deep Below
Frantz Loriot/Manuel Per­ovic Note­book Large Ensem­ble, Urban Fur­row
– Vijay Iyer Trio, Break Stuff
– Ochion Jew­ell Quar­tet, Volk
– Sha­reef Clay­ton, North & South
– Andrew Drury, Con­tent Provider
– Jeff Den­son Trio + Lee Konitz, Jeff Den­son Trio + Lee Konitz
– Mike Sopko, Bill Laswell, Thomas Prid­gen, Sopko Laswell Pridgin

Best Debut Album
Roots Magic, Hoodoo Blues


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