On the hopeful heels of a global pandemic, you’d think musicians would have reeled it in, played it safe, running for the cover of convention while straddling the promise of live performance’s steady return against the ongoing financial absurdity of streaming revenues. Instead, many double-downed on their craft, reinvesting in what felt like another remarkably year of music that extended the already dynamic range of Jazz. All this intense creativity, skilled precision, hyper dimensional ambition, and ageless poise, became the anthem for the year: sheer audacity remains alive and well as Jazz continues to thrive in such challenging times.
Sorry Dorothy, we’re still not in Birdland anymore.
Every inch of Jazz got a booster shot this year. Old and new swapped seats as vocalists perfected standards for new audiences while the avant-garde revved the engines of odd all over again. Ambient Jazz made outrageously elegant gains, while traditionalists honed hard bop into an labrys with the dual edges of traditional and Pan-Latin swing. Strings quartets, classical orchestration and chamber music flexed in ways unimaginable just fives years ago, as the lines between Jazz and classical continue to blur, accentuated by the exploration of an assortment of new provocative compositional strategies.
Courtesy of the Berklee Institute for Jazz and Gender Justice, we finally have a real “Real Book” made entirely of compositions by women while the interwoven complexities of race, gender, and identity were unpacked in a wide variety of fascinating albums. Story-telling found poignant arcs as new work traced the contours of Black love, the history of colonial oppression, the stark realities of incarceration, and the effects of structural violence on communities of color. This along with a variety of personal/historical narratives chronicled in exceptionally imaginative forms.
This year I’m moving away from awarding “bests,” acknowledging my own subjectivity, as well as what I perceive as the obvious absurdity of creating any hierarchical value to a genre as broad, deep and diverse as Jazz. Not that everyone’s a winner here, or that every musician should go home with a “party-bag” of thanks for their efforts this year, but the various ways that the Jazz community seeks to structure success or excellence based on “best-of” lists doesn’t make sense to me anymore.
Below are my favorite twenty albums for 2022. They reflect what I was able to listen to, what I find most relevant or important within this music, and is mostly dominated by artists who thrive by composing and playing outside the traditional lines of Jazz. Twenty does’t begin to do justice to the magnitude and integrity of the artistic intention presented in 2022. Again, it was another magnificent year for those who crave music that mesmerizes the ear, challenges the mind, soothes the soul, maintains the unique creative sensibility of Jazz, while courageously pushing the art form forward.
Thanks to all for your continued support of my work at 33third.org!
Past genres, absurd labels and the bizarre habit of categorizing Jazz into lists, there’s just music. Pure unadulterated artistry that dares to branch out in every direction Jazz provides if you’re listening close enough. Steeped in a career honoring all forms of Venezuelan music, from conservatory and youth orchestra, to time with the multi-Latin Grammy winning group Guaco, saxophonist Rafael Greco was well prepared to make a spectacularly singular album like Dice Que Vive (Signs Of Life). Many won’t hear this as “Jazz” and that’s fine. Regardless, be prepared to recalibrate your ears as songs like African Boy, 10th Avenue, Time and Belén, genre-bend their ways into your heart. Dice Que Vive’s unusual cohesiveness feeds off a strong visual aesthetic and almost child-like simplicity. Both make sense given Greco additional talents as an award winning photographer and children’s book author. Harnessing strong production skills, sound design, sampling, incidental field recordings, pop-like vocals, along with a sophisticated Pan-Latin world view, Greco is out to make all the haters smile while they slowly stir to his miraculous music.
Not one to shy away from difficult questions, Miguel Zenón uses Musica De Las Americas to profoundly ask “What did the Americas look like before 1491?” Answers spill out into eight superb compositions from one of most ingenious composers and best working quartets in Jazz. Intense but uplifting, each song explores a significant aspect of this question as Musica De Las Americas unpacks the historical collision between European colonialism and various Pan-American Indigenous communities. Few musicians create as thoroughly around the duel premise of enrichment and education. By end song’s end, you can’t help but be curious about the spiritual, cultural, musical and historical framework of Zenón’s musical inquiry. Repeat listening will only enhance your respect for Zenón’s Joycean ability to compact so much into each song. Pianist Luis Perdomo, bassist Hans Glawischnig and drummer Henry Cole, all leaders in their own right, provide the musical synthesis and energetic drive that brings Zenón’s genius to life. In the pantheon of music, Miguel Zenón continues to be one of its most dedicated and influential alto saxophonists.
In 2018 as she began her journey as Founder and Director of Berklee’s Institute for Jazz and Gender Justice, drummer Terri Lyne Carrington wondered why the Real Book, the popular compilation of Jazz standards, had only one composition written by a woman. This simple question led to the complicated unpacking of the unfair dominant position men maintain in Jazz. Bringing together 101 Jazz compositions written by women led to the publication of New Standards last September. Her album New Standards Vol 1 features eleven of these compositions with a stunning cast of guest artists anchored by a Carrington led quintet of Kris Davis, Linda May Han Oh, Nicholas Payton and Matthew Stevens, who also co-produced the album. Most compositions are taken from diverse group of contemporary women in Jazz while two feature the legendary vocalist Abbey Lincoln and master composer Carla Bley. Beyond the remarkable achievement that this album simply exists, is the uplifting reality of listening to such quality music produced by the equitable partnership of such a large ensemble of talented women and men.
Somewhere within the 13,000 square mile isosceles triangle that connects Saint Petersburg Russian, New York City and Havana Cuba, lives the genesis for the New York Afro Bop Alliance Big Band’s The Pan American Nutcracker Suite. Simmering Tchaikovsky’s classic winter tale into a clave infused demi-glace of Pan-Latin Jazz, drummer Joe McCarthy vaulted the impossible, crafting these gorgeous charts with help from arranger Vince Norman, and a seasoned band playing through the album as smoothly as pool sharks visiting your neighborhood YMCA. Classic songs get unexpected jolts from Brazilian rhythms, Chinese drum patterns, a nod to Gil Evans, as well as the brilliant orchestration and soloing this band this known for. Songs like March, Overture and Waltz of the Flowers start innocently enough before veering into the sophisticated big band sound that McCarthy navigates with a variety of choice Latin interpretations. Transcending cliche, predictability or a rote understanding of this territory, The Pan American Nutcracker Suite is a magnificent harmony of swing, sophistication and soul that satisfies throughout.
Absorbing Samara Joy’s Linger Awhile in quiet settling with a superb surround-sound system makes for admiring every ounce of nuance this spectacular vocalist and her latest gem have to offer. Measured but daring, shaping sound, words, and songs in ways that perhaps only other vocalists can truly unpack, this latest Joy ride is the sonic version of being hypnotized by the brilliance of finely cut glass. Popular classics glisten with warmth, whimsey, sorrow and the tenderness of brilliant story-telling. Honoring traditions while unafraid to reinvent them with her ingenuity, Joy is a once in a generation vocalist, possessing an intuitive flair for re-crafting classics for new audiences to rediscover and embrace. Whether vaulting registers, surfing the subtle rhythmic aspects of her phrasing, or the sophisticated depth of emotional maturity she embeds into each composition, Joy navigates songs in ways that should be impossible for someone who recently just turned twenty two. Stringent but supple, her trio of Ben Paterson, David Wong and Kenny Washington provide the perfect foundation for this remarkable album.
As if trying to pack more than thirty years of musicianship into one double CD, Songbook Vol. 2: Dance The Way U Want To plays out as an opulent, dynamic, tribute to trumpeter Brian Lynch’s contributions to Latin Jazz. This tour-de-force spares no musical mastery as Sphere’s of Influence deftly navigates gorgeous charts that have been a staple of Lynch’s music throughout his career. Textbook examples like E.P.'s Plan B and The Disco Godfather and the tribute tune Tom Harrell, find Lynch soloing at the height of his powers. Brilliant, lyrical, harmonically and rhythmically complex phrasing makes for mandatory listening for any young trumpeter climbing the ranks. Compositions stretch out creating more than enough room for saxophonists Tom Kelley, Aldo Salvent, and Chris Thompson-Taylor, pianists Kemuel Roig and Alex Brown, and the ridiculous good syncopation of drummer Hilario Bell - music band leaders and maestros Eddie Palmieri and Ray Barretto would certainly appreciate. If you want just one album that tells you everything you ned to know about maestro Brian Lynch, this would be the one.
Part of the calculus of adding strings to Jazz is factoring a dynamic role for them to play. Often ornamental or simply part the “symphonication” of Jazz, strings can distract in unforeseen ways. Perhaps knowing this, saxophonist Farzin Farhadi has created The Cure, an album of supple compositions that uses strings to their fullest potential. Having written for television and film, it's not hard to hear how cinematic this album sounds. Sweet, wistful, often laced with long fluid melodies, The Cure consistently finds a brilliant proportion between Farhadi’s trio and the Allegria String Quartet. Nothing cluttered here as Farhadi uses space to make sure we take breaths and enjoy every measure of his music. Metaphorically songs like Love Unexpectedly, She Moves Through Me, Ascent and Black Rose paint perfect pictures their titles depict, while songs like After All feature playfully conversations between Farhadi’s calls on soprano sax and Allegria’s stringed responses. Pianist Christian Jacob and bassist Trey Henry lean in and hold back in ways that perfectly compliment Farhadi’s saxophone throughout.
Trombonists are a unique musical species. Loud, proud and often gifted in ways that transcend their instruments, it’s not uncommon to discover magnificent, one-of-a-kind works that are born from their special brand of musical ingenuity. Marshall Gilkes’ Cyclic Journey is just such an album. Muscular, poetic, infused with the adroit skill of combining chamber like arrangements with the buoyancy of swing, Gilkes has married a stellar quartet to the imaginative orchestration of piccolo trumpet, flugelhorn, French-horn, euphonium and tuba. Broken into eight parts, Cyclic Journey explores a variety of themes within Gilkes’ personal and professional life. This musical journal is equal parts pensive, pugnacious, inquisitive and somber. Every compelling composition, meticulous arrangement, and solo opportunity are channeled through the resounding technical skill Gilkes brings to the trombone. Cyclic Journey flows effortlessly, each song a perfect bridge to the next, as stellar musicianship and superb interplay display an unabashed sentiment that this type of brass orchestration is a unique creative engine for Jazz, and not just the perfect setting for Gilkes’ most recent masterwork.
Solo recordings are often journeys into the unknown. What remains when everything is stripped away but a musician and their instrument? Center stage, alone, nowhere to hide musically, recorded solo work becomes a professional sojourn back to the days of busking on street corners. For bassist Kham Meslien and his album Fantômes… Futurs (Ghosts… Future), it’s an opportunity to showcase a spectacular multilateral ability to amaze. While Mauza, Kar kar kar, Le saule pleureur and the title track Fantômes... Futurs stick to a traditional solo format, every other song finds Meslien unleashing his uncanny ability to loop or overdub his playing with atmospheric instrumentation, or in one case, the poetry of guest artist Anthony Joseph. None of this works without Meslien’s mesmerizing bass play or the stunning narrative arcs of his compositional tone poems. Reduced to metal and wood, Meslien could easily carry the album alone. Combined with the lyricism of the multi-dimensional ways he composes and structures his musicianship, the earthen tone we get to hear throughout the album is just icing on the cake.
The term “deep listening” tends to promote stereotypic expectations of soft lighting, expensive stereos and music that’s more superficial than substantive. Those precepts quickly fade as you move through Between All Things, the salient album from multi-reed instrumentalist Hailey Niswanger and guitar savant Mia Garcia, know otherwise as the band OHMA. Meditative and cinematic, terraforming sonic landscapes with an intuitive precision, Between All Things refreshes an important niche where Jazz evolves through the conscientious nature of ambient music. Don’t absorb this album in bites. Be still, get quiet, and go with its flow. Amazingly, nothing sounds superfluous. Saxophones, percussion, flute, keyboards, guitars, synthesizers and spoken word, all fall neatly into place; an organic listening experience akin to walking through a tropical rainforest of sound. Gently, magically, the metaphor of Between All Things slowly comes into focus as meticulously shaped compositions blur time, while becoming the auditory version of photosynthesis: an abundantly nutritious musical oxygen that will definitely enrich your life.
Rarely does a single song sell me on an album. Dave Stryker’s exquisite version of Nick Drake’s River Man, did just that, setting the tone for his gorgeous and ambitious album As We Are. Sultry, swinging, sophisticated and at times delightfully unpredictable, As We Are’s integrity is born from a particularly creative union of Jazz and classical quartets. Here Stryker pairs the brilliance of John Patitucci, Julian Shore and the mercurial drumming of Brian Blade, with the majestic strings of Sara Caswell, Monica K. Davis, Benni von Gutzeit and cellist Marika Hughes. Perennially tasteful, Stryker’s playing shines throughout, parlaying a lifetime of creative improvisation into several lovely original compositions. Well honed tunes like As We Are, Lanes, Dreams Are Real and Hope benefit from each quartet giving way to the other, completing each-other’s musical sentences within conversations including angular harmonies and the finely tuned tension of such multi-layered instrumentation. Sara Caswell provides exceptional solos on Soul Friend and River Man - the stand outs showcasing the album’s unique alchemy.
Once you get past the scandalous outfits or quotes that Jazz “needs more sex,” you’ll find the otherworldly talented pianist Connie Han mapping out space for herself as one of the most gifted young pianists in Jazz. Classically trained, with the touch and emotional maturity of a musician twice her age, Han is an old soul with a remarkably fresh sound. Using the ancient Sumerian goddess of love, beauty and war as inspiration, Secrets of Inanna finds it groove in a series of energetic songs that are so challenging they feel like a musical obstacle course. Ereshkigal of the Underworld slaloms through dark chords, rendering a thrilling atmosphere, while the duet Gilgamesh and the Celestial Bull with drummer Bill Wysaske, races forward as if Han has sprouted an extra pair of hands. Equally adept on Fender Rhodes, Prima Materia, Young Moon and Enki’s Gift, manages to maintain a delightful edge while on Vesica Piscis, Han slows down to feature a somber duet with saxophonist Rich Perry. All delight as Han shows no signs of slowing down her ongoing march towards stardom.
What is there left to prove when you’ve played with every major figure in contemporary Jazz, recorded numerous influential albums, and are widely considered to be one of the best clarinetists on the planet? Apparently a lot if you’re Anat Cohen and you continue to make music as sublime as Quartetinho. At times sounding larger than they actually are, Quartetinho gets its particular dimension from being a gathering of multi-instrumentalists; a band that can swiftly move to include accordion, vibes, guitar, glockenspiel, and synthesizers. Diving back into the Brazilian repertory Cohen so adores, the album is a delicious balance between band originals and music by Antonio Carlos Jobim, Egberto Gismonti and Maria Do Carmo Barbosa De Melo. Arrangements never falter here as tunes like Boa Tarde Provo, Boot and Frevo are flawlessly revisited while originals like The Old Guitar and Birdie mix the sparkling attention to detail of contemporary Jazz with a subtle folk like appeal. Brining it all together is Cohen’s instrumental voice; one of the most graceful, articulate, charismatic and authoritative in Jazz.
Coltrane, Miles, Shorter, Hancock, Joe Henderson, Horace Silver, and now Charles Mingus. Conrad Herwig remains a busy man, remapping the landscape of Jazz mastery to his Latin Side of the border. Tapping such an accomplished set of composers, essentially a Mount Rushmore of Jazz royalty, to render through the calculus of the clave has never been an easy task. And yet it all fits, swings, and resonates because Pan-Latin artistry remains at the root of where and how Jazz originally came to be. Knowing this, The Latin Side of Mingus roams freely through a rich selection of Mingus originals, shifting gears while applying any number of Afro-Carribean rhythms to accentuate music that already swings like hell. Veterans Craig Handy, Alex Sipiagin, Randy Brecker, and Bill O’Connell flawlessly compliment Herwig’s arrangements, while Luques Curtis, Camilo Molina and Robby Ameen navigate tempos you won’t easily forget. Ruben Blades narrates No Dejes Que Pase Aquí (Don't let it Happen Here), Herwig’s reminder that this music was born from, and thus always speak to issues of struggle.
Even though Jazz is a collective art form where individual achievement often means leaning into a supporting cast, the experience of listening to Andrea Brachfeld’s Evolution is a vivid reminder
just how supremely important and talented this gifted flautist has been throughout her career. Matched to perfect surroundings, supported by long time collaborators with compositions that attest to her skill, Evolution showcases Brachfeld on C flute, alto flute, spoken word, Colombian clay flute, African bamboo flute, and kalimba. Often the most compelling soloist on any variety of Jazz of Afro-Cuban recordings, Evolution finds Brachfeld composing around various cultural figures that have shaped her music. Qingauiit leans into the vocal stylings of the Inuit duo Tudjaat, Ko Ribon honors the work of fellow musician Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, while the haunting The Hut Song gets its energy from the Baka people of Central Africa. In the end, Evolution allows for all these disparate influences to find a home in Jazz, as Brachfeld continues to evolve in all the ways that matter most.
At least once a month I find myself thanking the Universe for creating someone as special, imaginative, committed and musically heroic as Cécile McLorin Salvant. Given the embarrassment of riches we’re currently experiencing with female vocalists, a project like Ghost Song still stands out as an ethereal accomplishment. You don’t have to even like the album to appreciate it’s audacity. Beginning the album with the breathtaking original Wuthering Heights, then pivoting to the stunningly off-kilter, but brilliant mini-medley of Optimistic Voices / No Love Dying?! Sorry, only genius can make that sound as effortless as McLorin Salvant does. With no script to stick to, McLorin Salvant fully embraces songs like Moon Song, then ventures into the abyss with her pandemic inspired I Lost My Mind. Feathering such inventive original material with an array of neatly reimagined popular songs is no small feat. McLorin Salvant accomplishes this with taste, humility, rare skill, and the exacting emotional temperament of someone who’s read the fine print of every song she sings.
One can only imagine what the versatile drummer Makaya McCarven was like as a child. If In These Times is any indication, entire rooms in his childhood home were emptied of objects to satisfy his seemingly endless musical curiosity. Known for his work within the avant-garde, as much as for his forays into spaces where Jazz meets popular music, McCraven uses In These Times to explore the elaborate contours where musical story-telling becomes performance art. Pivoting around elaborate instrumentation, songs often feel like shared secrets; small bursts of mystery ranging from symphonic overtures to the nuance of 80’s soft soul. Mashups rule the day. So much is packed into these compositions you can experience blues, rock, soul, trance, chamber music and pop in the span of minutes. There’s no traditional comfort zone here, and that’s the point. Music is fluid. Music is everywhere. Music is up for the taking. Especially if you’re that kid who delights, thrives and reinvents music by using every instrument in the room.
Not so quietly flying the radar, Ryan Keberle has recorded a series of striking albums during his career. Much of his work revolves around brass arrangements, influential band leaders (Maria Schneider, Darcy James Argue), chamber music (Reverso), our political landscape (Catharsis), or in the case of Sonhos Da Esquina, a life-long passion for Brazilian music. While it’s incorrect to label this album as simplistic, it does use straightforward ingredients that allow Keberle’s trombone mastery to consistently soar above luxurious support from his quartet, Collectiv do Brasil. Paulista masters Felipe Silveira, Tiago Alves and Paulinho Vicente resound with authority, positioning compositions to blossom around their tonal centers while Keberle patiently builds one beautiful solo after another. Cio da Terra and Tarde make for a melancholic call and response between the lush chords of Silveira’s piano and the rich tone of Keberle’s trombone. While it might at first appear as an understudy to a more extroverted project, Sonhos Da Esquina power slowly builds until you realize it’s the album you’ve been craving all along.