As l look back at the albums I loved most this year, I realized the importance of being swept up. There’s intellectual noodling and the need to keep attention; there’s creating new ideas and reforming old ones; there’s high and lows in energy, but what I loved the most this year wasn’t just the creating of interesting artistic work but if that work is done so well, the music made so compellingly, that it melts this cold, robotic heart and sweeps me up, or sweeps others up just as much. There’s been all this talk this year about the Year of the Drummer or how this year is better or worse in music than the year before, but ultimately, the connection the music makes — whether or not you get swept up — makes all the difference. Here are the ten albums that took me out of my everyday this year and made each day something a little bit more.
10. Sly5thAve Presents Akuma (Truth Revolution Records)
Saxophonist Sylvester Onyejiaka comes from prominent large funky groups, backing Prince and Liv Warfield, which explains why that same feel is all over his debut album. So much of it works like clockwork precision that gets right to your spine. Its three-part “Suite for Ogbuefi” is a sweeping celebration of sounds, and “Security” and “Deme” are just plain jams. Sly5thAve has worked with the best and their fingerprints are all over this album. They’re mighty fine fingers.
9. Takuya Kuroda – Rising Son (Blue Note)
Trumpeter Takuya Kuroda gets markedly better with every album. There’s no other trumpeter today who improves leaps and bounds with every successive release to turn into one of the most fascinating jazz musicians on the scene today. With Rising Son, Kuroda’s Blue Note debut, he plays with more soul than ever before, playing songs with more stank than ever before, getting things more turnt than ever before.
8. Mario Castro Quintet with Strings – Estrella de Mar (Interrobang Records)
Castro’s Estrella de Mar sticks with you. The saxophonist plays with a sophistication that doesn’t skimp on the soul, but his composing and arranging for strings show enough restraint that he didn’t let the connotative heft weigh things down. Castro knows what he’s doing, carrying and shaping the energy of the music as he goes. From the moment the album gallops in with “”, Estrella de Mar has your attention and it doesn’t let go until Castro is through.
7. BADBADNOTGOOD – III (Innovative Leisure)
Looking deep into the narrative to this trio into the ripple effect they’re making in music — leaving a true mark in hip hop, packing rooms of previously uninitiated jazz fans, making shows that are a legit good time — it would make sense that this album of original compositions, with actual depth and restraint and consideration of audience appeal with loss of artistic integrity while holding to signature sound, would be this good. III isn’t a great album because it’s BBNG’s first on a label. It’s great because they’ve been a band long enough to make it this great.
6. Jason Moran – All Rise: A Joyful Elegy for Fats Waller (Blue Note)
The Fats Waller Dance Party is an awesome show. It’ s a cool performance with great energy and proves Jason Moran is an impeccable showman. Translating this into pure audio is a task worthy of spreading it to the world but a challenge to ensure nothing is lost. Jason Moran and Me’shell Ndegeocello don’t lose a single thing and keep the party intact all throughout this album. Now, you can dance anywhere.
5. Jeff Ballard Trio – Time’s Tales (Okeh)
Saxophonist Miguel Zenon, guitarist Lionel Loueke, and drummer Jeff Ballard sound like a super trio. Ballard has been dazzling with with rhythms learned from all over the world most notably with Brad Mehldau’s trio. Yet the context of his trio here, playing mostly covers with an approach as though the charts were stolen by Carmen Sandiego before making their safe return to rehearsals, opens up George Gershwin songs like never depicted and makes you never notice you’re hearing a Queens of the Stone Age song. However, it’s most clear that these three sound great together, should play together a hell of a lot more often, and have released in this trio album not just the Jeff Ballard album we’ve been waiting years for, but yet another Lionel Loueke album to keep in rotation for a crazy long time and a Miguel Zenon album to fall in love with until he released Identities Are Changeable in the fourth quarter of the year. All three of these guys are fantastic and this album is a blessing.
4. Harvey Mason – Chameleon (Concord)
Harvey Mason charms on this album. He surrounds himself with youthful talented musicians like guitarist Matthew Stevens, keyboardist Mark de Clive-Lowe, trombonist Corey King, vocalist Chris Turner, and trumpeter Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah, among many others, and they’re all great, but there’s Mason in the cut, just doing his charming razzle dazzle. He’s subtly brilliant throughout Chameleon, which seems odd since it’s his own album as a leader, his first in over a decade, but call it gregariousness with his bandmates or an interesting way to frame himself, but Mason amazes as though through peripheral hearing, charming his way into your heart.
3. The Bad Plus – Inevitable Western (Okeh/Sony)
The Bad Plus released two albums this year. The first, their take on Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, is inspired, riveting, and unapologetically TBP. It still sounded like a natural thing for them to do as artists, even as they were doing something incredibly difficult. Their second release of the year, Inevitable Western, also naturally sounds like what they would continue to do as artists and it’s just as unapologetically TBP. It proves once again why Iverson, Anderson, and King are the trio they are today.
2. Steve Lehman Octet – Mise en Abîme (Pi Recordings)
Steve Lehman has a doctorate with distinction in Musical Composition. He’s Dr. Steve Lehman. His latest release continues to apply spectral harmony, a compositional style previously only used in contemporary classical (oxymoronic, I know) music in jazz. I have no idea what spectral harmony is (though I damn sure am going to read up about it), but I do know that the man also has a concentration in rump shaking. Chris Dingman on an augmented vibraphone has never sounded better.Tyshawn Sorey keeps everything tight on the kit to keep it all together. It melds a century-old still innovative compositional method to a genre known for constant permutation, adds electronic elements to it, and it still has soul. Robots could have made this through overfeeding baby hamsters, for all I know– I don’t know how Steve Lehman and this octet made an album this good, but I don’t have a doctorate in composition with a concentration in rump shaking.
1. Phronesis – Life to Everything (Edition Records)
Every song on Life to Everything is a banger. Even the ballads are bangers. The live album, recorded over two nights at The Roundhouse in London, captures the electric energy pianist Ivo Neame, bassist Jasper Høiby, and drummer Anton Eger generate and maintain live in some of their best compositions yet. Phronesis have never sounded better than this, never more trapping, never more infectious. You don’t want to miss a moment of this album.You’ll want to pore over it repeatedly to completely extract its brilliance.