There's just never been a better time to listen to Jazz. Each year this music continues to morph into a panoply of virtuosity. Styles get hybridized, traditions reinvented, genres turned upside down, all while documenting a range of critical issues facing the world today. 2019 saw the rise of alternative big bands, the eclectic inclusion of chamber, classic and electronic instrumentation, funk mythology, brass bands, vivid story-telling, and any number of artists willing to innovate outside the box. Meanwhile musicians, new and old alike, doubled down with an impressive array of releases dedicated to the revival of Jazz in its modern, avant garde, and hard bop forms.
As an international phenomenon, Jazz thrives as a series of pidgin languages, nurtured by artists honoring the cultural, political and musical roots that sustain them. Increasingly it's also a ring shout of artists claiming their independence and agency, seeking to remake an ecology that reflects their future while honoring the past. Many of these musicians transformed the Dialectics Best of 2019 list - just one slice of excellence and can't possibly celebrate the entire quality of achievement across Jazz. Regardless, acknowledging work that's important, meaningful and critical to moving this music forward remains part of a critic's terrain.
Here are sixteen albums, the top ten with six honorable mentions, that mattered, made a difference, or were just extraordinarily good in 2019. Special thanks to all the musicians, record labels and promoters who supported Dialectics and Dialogs this year. Click on artist names to go to their websites, and album titles to hear or purchase their music.
Rarely do albums change the way you appreciate or understand music. Miho Hazama's Dancer in Nowhere is one of those albums. Compositions are daring, joyful, intricate and beautifully executed. Arrangements are sophisticated, sublime, and unpacked in ways that appear to reference and redefine the big band genre in real-time. Songs play like Pulitzer prize winning essays, ringing with the wit and sophistication of a brilliant mind, the cadence and structure of a master at the peak of her powers. Underneath it all is a big band playing with the versatility of a small symphony. All parts of your being will stand at attention here, mesmerized by every aspect of this uniquely outstanding album.
Half protest album, half improvisational gem, Waiting Game displays the full scope of Terri Lyne Carrington's vision for Jazz. Incorporating rap, spoken word, and her new sextet Social Science, Carrington presides over a blunt assessment of the violence, destruction and oppression racism, homophobia and runaway capitalism perpetuates. Bells (Ring Loudly), No Justice describes the death, struggle, love and redemption of those most effected in American society, while the improvised Dreams and Desperate Measures celebrates the genius of absolute freedom. Waiting Game reaffirms that art matters, and that truth to power is, and will always be, paramount to Jazz.
Stepping Back, Jumping In is trumpeter Laura Jurd's first masterwork, an album whose ambition toggles convention, fluidly moving through music that sounds like chamber work, a rock opera and improvisational Jazz. Jumping In vaults you into Jurd's compositional alliances with chaos, order, and everything in-between. Ishtar is cinematic worthy, building to a tense congestion of synths, trumpet, and strings. Companion Species blossoms from solo Persian santoor to a car wreck of electrified psychedelic chord changes reminiscent of Miles Davis' All Blues. Enchanting string arrangements make Stepping Back the graceful landing to an album that soars beyond belief.
"Psychedelic Arabic Jazz" only hints at what makes Yazz Ahmed special. Polyhymnia, Ahmed's album dedicated to unique women in history, is the larger story of her importance to Jazz. Lahan al-Mansour, for Saudi Arabia's first film director, opens with Ahmed's fluid, decisive, and melismatic arranging style. Ruby Bridges rides a nicely harmonized New Orleanian stomp while One Girl Among Many features female members of the band reciting dialog by Malala Yousafza, the Nobel Prize winning Pakistanis female education rights activist. Ahmed's dreamscapes move from angular and alarming, to empathic and gentle, exactly like the meditative Greek muse the album is named after.
1994's The Departure introduced David Sanchez as a supremely confident artist who understood the preeminence of his Caribbean roots. Fast forward through a career of singular albums, remarkable partnerships, and a prolific tenure with SFJAZZ, to Carib, Sanchez's lovingly crafted expose of Haiti and Puerto Rico. Percussionists Jhan Lee Aponte and Markus Schwartz provide the cultural florescence of Congo-Guinee rhythms that connect the album to "the river" of the African diaspora heritage Sanchez sees throughout contemporary music. Carib is a very deep album. Embrace every song so you might truly hear the histories of those Sanchez has dedicated so much of his career to.
Samuel Torres doesn't just play Latin Jazz, he reinvents it on the fly. One of the most thrilling and gifted percussionists of his generation, Torres continually covers new ground, using solo, quartet, septet and even orchestra to express his unique creative enterprise. Alegria is his latest musical playground, a Pan-Latin romp through boogaloo, bachata, cumbia chicha and bullerengue, honoring Ray Baretto, Miguel “Anga” Diaz and Dr. Martin Luther King along the way. Odd meters, polytonality, wonderful instrumentation, and a really tight band, make tunes like Anga, Little Grasshopper and Alegria delightful ventures into Torres' musical imagination. Spontaneous dancing required!
L'Arbre Rouge is an exceptional example of transforming classical instrumentation with the creative sensibility of Jazz. Saxophonist Hugues Mayot's alchemy is unique among artists experimenting with these celebrated art forms. Moving from oddly familiar to uncharted and back, Mayot's arrangements don't just straddle the divide between genres, they invent new forms that exist on their own terms. Champ d'Insouciance and La Timidite des Cimes use of space, time, structure and spontaneity, position saxophone, violin, cello and bassoon in ways that make for an exhilarating, brilliant and remarkably satisfying new muse.
Puetros moves like a soundtrack - swift, flowing and with the dimension of a riveting narrative. Emilio Solla's Tango Jazz Orchestra moves effortlessly through elegant arrangements, navigating a voyage that speaks to ports around the globe and their role in shaping world culture. The orchestra is seasoned with bandoneon, accordina, conga and harp via the internationally recognized work of Julien Labro, Samuel Torres and Edmar Castañeda. Nominated for a Grammy this year, Puertos continues the legacy of a musician, composer and arranger, who while not as well known as others in Latin Jazz, produces work that's every bit as good.
Equal parts showman, ethnomusicologist and musical savant, trumpeter Etienne Charles has made a career unpacking the complex relationships between Afro-Caribbean culture and Jazz. In 2016, his San Jose Suite chronicled the connection of the notorious history of colonialism with contemporary music. This year's Carnival - The Sound of a People Vol. 1, explores the preeminent cultural celebration of his native Trinidad. Propelled by a Guggenheim Fellowship supporting his research, Charles has crafted an album where the urbane sophistication of Jazz is remade by traditional island rhythms, field recordings and the vivacity of documenting Carnival's celebration of freedom.
Sonero: The Music Of Ismael Rivera is Zenón's homage to the pioneering salsa vocalist who revolutionized the art form. Zenón's playing is crisp, soaring, intense, and surgical, teasing apart every choice bit of a superb selection of songs Rivera made popular throughout his career. Luis Perdomo (piano), Hans Glawischnig (bass) and Henry Cole (drums) polish Zenón's unique arrangements until they glisten with the kind of curious geometry his work is known for. Someday Miguel Zenón will make a bad album, but until then we'll continue to benefit from his remarkable string of influential recordings showcasing the depth, beauty and enduring spirit of folkloric Afro-Rican music.
Circles are symbolic for everything from life cycles to intimacy, ritual and rejuvenation. For drummer Thomas Grimmonprez a circle might as well represent the chemistry and cohesion his group brings to the drummer's delightfully ethereal album Big Wheel. Grimmonprez's compositions shimmer with pristine, rangy melodies, and a collective intelligence that balances structure with instinctive interplay. Cats and Dogs exquisitely frames the rhythm section's synchronicity against the atmospheric lines of guitarist Manu Codjia, while Heavy Soul navigates the right amounts of weight and tension. Less is so much more here. It's perfect.
Delicate Charms perfectly describes the series of trinkets bassist Matt Ulery has in store for you. Coping unfolds into a love letter to tension and release, prodding the soft spaces where melody can become melodramatic but in a sincere way, like holding a faded family photograph. The Effortless Enchantment and Mellisonant shift from hypnotic to stormy, accentuating this band's ability to turn on an emotional dime. The Air We Breath is a powerful anthem propelled by the Ulery's superior command of his instrument, arranging and compositional skills. By the end of the album you'll realize this is Matt Ulery's harmonic world, and we just live in it.
Using the Bible as his guide, Brad Mehldau claps back against xenophobia and war mongering, orchestrating a remarkably fresh combination of synths, singers and strings, to make Finding Gabriel one of his best efforts in recent years. Mehldau uses a seasoned musicians, stark dialog and Trump rally chants to frame the hate and hope for our increasingly polarize country. And it's impossible not to me moved as his art breaks into the realm of social practice with cuts like Deep Water, The Garden and The Prophet Is A Fool. Online artwork and animations by Dima Drjuchun and Robert Edridge-Waks round out this progressive tour de force.
With albums incorporating the NDR big band, church organist Roger Sayer, or the tasteful remaking of classic Duke Ellington tunes, you could say setting means a lot to Mark Lockheart. Days on Earth is the latest example of Lockheart fusing odd polarities into impressive works, here celebrating his time on the planet by combining a talented sextet with the wingspan of a thirty piece orchestra conducted by John Aston Thomas. Edgy, odd, intriguing and romantic, the album swerves in unexpected ways, righting course with the kind of trademark melodies and harmonics that make Days on Earth that luscious sour fruit you can't get enough of.