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Brian Kiwanuka's Favorite Jazz Albums of 2017

Brian Kiwanuka
Contributing Writer

It may seem a bit odd that a year-end list on a jazz publication only includes seven albums. As always, there has been a good amount of quality jazz releases this year. However, some of these records captivated me so much that I ended up devoting an obscene amount of time to them. Highlights include how Gerald Clayton returned and somehow matched the high quality of his last record and Mary Halvorson in general, who continues to be unflinchingly experimental, unique and brilliant - as a sidewoman and a bandleader. My favorite jazz moment of the year has to be when I saw Halvorson’s outstanding octet at the Village Vanguard, but as that concert was unfortunately not recorded, I will happily settle for the great records below.

7. Nate Smith - Kinfolk: Postcards From Everywhere (Ropeadope Records)
Respected drummer Nate Smith’s latest album shows off his compositional chops to great effect. Expectedly, the drumming throughout is astounding, but what is also clear is that Smith has a talent for writing soulful, groovy and above all, gorgeous jazz tunes. The main Kinfolk band which includes Smith (drums, percussion, fender rhodes, synth, sounds), Kris Bowers (piano, fender rhodes), Fima Ephron (electric bass), Jeremy Most (guitars) and Jaleel Shaw (alto and soprano saxophone) is occasionally assisted by some fantastic features. Chris Potter stops in on the funky head-nodder "Bounce: pts I + II" and has some great sax interplay with Shaw. The album opener, "Skip Step", with its great drum driven rhythm and vocals, which are used as backing for the keys, is another brilliant moment. The album also gets Neo-Soul-ish, with singer Amma Whatt putting in a great performance on "Disenchantment: The Weight".

6. Jonah Levine Collective - Attention Deficit (World Galaxy Records)
There has been a lot of talk of jazz artists based in L.A. lately - add trombonist Jonah Levine to the list. The Jonah Levine Collective includes Emile Martinez (trumpet, flugelhorn), Josh Johnson (alto saxophone), Owen Clapp (upright & electric bass), Jonathan Pinson (drums) and Kiefer Shackelford (piano). Their debut is a great collection of straight-ahead jazz, with two brief deviations into more hip-hop inspired territory ("Zootcase", "French Song Reprise"). "Zootcase", which features hip hop producer Mndsgn is an extremely hypnotic piece of work with some great key playing. Other highlights include a ridiculously high energy cover of "For Free" on which the drummer and pianist in particular shine and "Transition", which is just in general a gorgeous song. "Qu'est-Ce que c'est (The French Song)" is a standout as well, featuring a great trombone solo and some interesting percussive accompaniment by the piano.

5. Mary Halvorson Quartet - Paimon (Tzadik)
To finish off John Zorn’s Book of Angels, Halvorson has assembled a talented quartet with Tomas Fujiwara (drums), Miles Okazaki (guitar) and Drew Gess (bass). The center-piece of this record has to be the interplay between the guitars of Halvorson and Okazaki, the guitarists approaching Zorn’s Klezmer compositions with starkly different styles. Okazaki’s slicker, more relatively traditional style is juxtaposed well by the bandleader’s tendency to use her note-bending delay pedal and other interesting effects. The sounds coming from Halvorson range from ghastly, hazy tremolos ("Phul") to distorted walls of sound with electronic bleeps and bloops ("Beniel"). How she comps and solos on "Yeqon" and "Ruhiel" are standout moments of the record. I covered this record for Free Jazz Collective.

4. Vijay Iyer Sextet - Far From Over (ECM)
Not exactly known for working in relatively large groups, it was great to hear that Vijay Iyer was working with a sextet, and the results here are brilliant. Composed of Iyer (piano), Crump (bass), Tyshawn Sorey (drums), Graham Haynes (cornet, flugelhorn, electronics), Mark Shim (tenor saxophone) and Steve Lehman (alto saxophone), the group shines throughout the 58 minutes of Far From Over. Highlights include "Threnody", which has a standout performance from Lehman and the groovy "Nope", which may be one of Iyer’s most infectious tunes. Check out my NextBop review of the record here.

3. Tomas Fujiwara - Triple Double (Firehouse 12 Records)
Dark, abrasive and exciting are a couple words that one could use to sum up Fujiwara’s latest record. Triple Double, is an album that is made up of a sextet of two trios - two drummers (Fujiwara and Gerald Cleaver), two guitarists (Halvorson and Brandon Seabrook) and two horns (Taylor Ho Bynum on Cornet, Ralph Alessi on Trumpet). There are some fantastic exercises in tension ("Love and Protest") and aggression ("Diving For Quarters"). "Pocket Pass" is fantastically organized chaos. Check out my NextBop review of the record here.

2. Cécile McLorin Salvant - Dreams and Daggers (Mack Avenue)
Regardless of the level of talent involved, a double album is a difficult test for any artist. Thankfully, Salvant, one of the best modern jazz vocalists, has passed this test with flying colors. On Dreams and Daggers the singer gives new life to old material - a standout being her expressive rendition of "Somehow I Never Could Believe" - and inserts string filled originals ("More"). Recorded live at the Village Vanguard with the Aaron Diehl Trio, after this record, there should be no doubt of the power and range of the singer’s voice. Check out my NextBop review of the record here.

1. Gerald Clayton - Tributary Tales (Motéma)
On Tributary Tales, Clayton, with a slightly different band, continues the large ensemble explorations that he started with Life Forum. This is my favorite jazz album of the year - Life Forum is one of my favorite modern jazz albums and here Clayton has managed to meet that high standard again. Highlights include the hectic opener "Unforeseen" and "Lovers Reviere", which has great poetic features from Aja Monet and Carl Hancock Rux. Check out my NextBop review of the record here.

"Brian Kiwanuka is a writer‚ attorney and music nerd but not in that order. He digs Nas‚ Björk and Bill Evans and occasionally subjects his friends to detailed rants about​ music. You can check out more of his writing on various music genres on 93 Million Miles Above

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