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Ben Gray's Favorite Jazz Albums of 2016

Ben Gray
Staff Writer

A quick pre-amble: jazz is so diverse that it’s near-impossible to compare and rank the "best" albums of the year (Editor's note: which is why Nextbop refers to these lists as our "favorites" as opposed to "the best", because words are important). How does one rank Julian Lage, Darcy James Argue, Takuya Kuroda, and Brad Mehldau against each other? The answer of course is that one doesn’t - you listen to what moves you, when it moves you. The broadness of the jazz genre also brings up the interesting question of what to even include in these comparisons, particularly for things that are maybe on the edge of "jazz." What makes a jazz album jazz? Solos? Extended harmony? Inclusion of a jazz standard? (What’s a jazz standard in 2016? "Teen Spirit?")

So ok, these lists are, at least at some level, irrelevant. That said, 2016 has been a bounty of music, both jazz and otherwise. There are a bunch of things that have really impressed this year and why not take the opportunity to celebrate them?

Also: when and how you listen to music clearly affects what is "best." For me, I’ve got a long-ish commute and so do a lot of my listening in the car. Even there, the morning and evening commutes find me in a different headspace. If you’re walking around the city with this music in your headphones, or listening late at night at home through some nice speakers, or listening to something after a hard breakup, or whatever, obviously your listening preferences change.

So. Here are five albums and a few more things that immensely impressed me from 2016.

1. Ben Wendel - What We Bring (Motéma)
Ben Wendel’s work has been a constant source of beautiful music, and What We Bring is definitely a highlight. Featuring a top-notch band with Gerald Clayton on piano, Joe Sanders on bass, and Henry Cole on drums (plus some additional percussion from Nate Wood on a couple of tunes), the quartet here navigate a set of originals from Wendel (including a couple of tunes from his "Seasons" series of duets, repurposed for quartet here) and an arrangement of the standard "Solar". Not a weak track or a weak performance to be found on this - Sanders and Cole are locked together to provide the foundation, with Clayton both joining the rhythm section and also turning out some incredible solos (including a head-turner on "Fall") as Wendel’s sax leads the charge.

2. Takuya Kuroda - Zigzagger (Blue Note)
Following up from 2014’s excellent Rising Son, Kuroda ups the ante here with a synth-heavy, hard-grooving album featuring his quintet. The musicians are excellent, including Kuroda on trumpet, Corey King on trombone and vocals, Takeshi Ohbayashi on keys, Rashaan Carter on bass, Adam Jackson on drums (and Keita Ogawa on percussion for three tracks, plus the Antibalas horns for the closer "Think Twice"). Not surprisingly, then, the playing on this is great, but the solos are almost beside the point as the band establishes a groove that draws fairly heavily on Afrobeat. Highlights include the lead single, "RSBD", the title track, "Do They Know" (with a great vocal turn from Corey King), and "Little Words" (with a woozy keyboard solo from Ohbayashi).

3. Daniel Freedman - Imagine That (Anzic)
My expectations for Imagine That were high, and this album has not left the car since I got my hands on it. Freedman’s albums have a very selfless quality with the drums playing a supporting role for the soloists. Here, that means Jason Lindner on keys and Lionel Loueke on guitar, plus a great vocal guest turn from Angelique Kidjo on "Baby Aya". Every one of the songs on this album has wormed itself into my head at one time or another, but "Determined Soul", with its solid groove and a great keyboard solo from Lindner, "Baby Aya", with a catchy vocal line from Loueke and Kidjo and an unexpected outro, and "Love Takes Time", with its soulful melody line, probably spent the most time bouncing around in my brain.

4. Brad Mehldau - Blues & Ballads (Nonesuch)
Scene: it’s Sunday morning, gray and drizzly. Wake up, start some coffee. While that’s brewing, cue up Blues & Ballads. As "Since I Fell For You" starts to play you realize: all’s well. It’s not as if you expect anything bad from this trio, but this album is just so good - tremendous playing from Mehldau at the piano and maybe the best group dynamic of any working band out there. Mehldau, Grenadier, and Ballard are working here as one group mind as far as this listener can tell. Lots of highlights on this but the introduction to "And I Love Her" is especially beautiful, really something to behold.

5. BADBADNOTGOOD - IV (Innovative Leisure)
Throughout their career, BBNG have had their share of bangers and often made some very compelling songs and albums. There’s always been something else, though, underneath the music - these young guys trying to challenge the jazz establishment, make a statement, etc. On IV, BBNG embrace jazz as much as soul and hip-hop and this just feels like everything works, coming out naturally without making it seem like they’re trying too hard. As with a lot of the albums on this list, the strength of IV isn’t in any virtuosic soloing (though there are bits of that here, too), but instead in the compositions, the lived-in grooves. It’s an album that is happy to hang out in the background until you realize just how much of your mind has semi-consciously wandered toward the music. By the time Sam Herring’s vocal shows up on "Time Moves Slow," you’ve put aside whatever you’d been doing and the album is front-and-center. IV isn’t the sound of some kids sneering at the establishment, it’s a fully-realized sound from a band playing their music. Not a small accomplishment.

Three non-album things:
Hekselman/Klampanis/Ravitz- "Across the Rooftop"
Let’s hope we get some more from this concert of Beatles-inspired tunes. So far, the trio has released videos for "And I Love Her" and "Across the Universe," and if that’s all there is we should be grateful for it. But I’m keeping fingers crossed for more of this leaking out in 2017.

Aviation Trio - Lookout Sessions EP
A quick shot of three tunes from a new band of young musicians, seemingly put out there pretty casually. It’s shocking how good this music is and how little attention it’s gotten.

Joe Tatton Trio - Bang Bang Boogaloo
A single from this trio led by pianist Tatton, with "Bang Bang Boogaloo" and "Sunday Shade." The B-side wins, with "Sunday Shade" getting near-constant play in these speakers.

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