Compiling a list of the greatest works of the last ten years is an inherently difficult proposition. The first complication lies in the fact that so many of my musical memories from the last decade are tied to recordings released prior to the period. Some of my best memories include the Charlie Parker song from 1950 that played at my wedding, the New Year’s Eve I first stumbled upon Duke Ellington’s 1960 version of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite, or when I first extensively studied Miles Davis’ 1970s music.
The second difficulty lies in the fact that jazz is undergoing a Renaissance. Although not financially, jazz is arguably at its strongest creatively since 1959. This has occurred both within the genre itself, as well as in how it approaches other musical forms. It is fitting, then, that only a portion of the story of jazz during the decade is told by “jazz” albums as strictly defined. Indeed, the three best “jazz” recordings from 2009 to 2019 were not technically within the genre at all – Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly (Top Dawg/Aftermath/Interscope, 2015), followed by Flying Lotus’ You’re Dead! (Warp Records, 2014) and Thundercat’s Drunk (Brainfeeder, 2017). Even within the genre itself, both the quantity and quality of output has been unparalleled. So, although the list below is limited in number to ten titles, also included are additional recommendations of those that were close contenders and have some connection – obvious or otherwise – with the ones selected. -Rob Shepherd
10. Robert Glasper Experiment – Black Radio, 2012 (Blue Note)
In hindsight, it is quite easy to minimize the impact Black Radiohad in 2012 and continues to hold. Pianist Robert Glasper was hardly the first to meld jazz with R&B or Hip Hop. The former had been trending since the late 1960s and the latter since the late 1980s. However, Black Radio in many ways prominently ushered in a new area of these types of fusion, an area upon which those in the Experiment – Glasper, bassist Derrick Hodge, drummer Chris Dave, woodwind player Casey Benjamin, turntablist Jahi Sundance – and countless others outside of the core band have only further continued to develop. In many ways, much of the jazz-hip-hop hybrids which permeated the 2010s are connected to the RGE.
Watch the Robert Glasper Experiment’s lyric video for “Black Radio” featuring Yasiin Bey
Additional recommendations: Terrace Martin – Velvet Portraits (Sounds of Crenshaw/Ropeadope, 2016), James Francies – Flight (Blue Note, 2018), Makaya McCraven – Universal Beings (International Anthem, 2018)
9. Mary Halvorson – Meltframe, 2015 (Firehouse 12)
While not widely known as a major jazz city, New Haven, Connecticut has an amazing avant-garde music scene with Firehouse 12 playing a central role in it. Prior to moving to Texas, I lived for a few years in the area and attended many striking performances at the studio. This includes a fairly early one by Mary Halvorson when she was still mostly seen as a promising young artist. Watching her flourish over the past ten years in her unrelenting pursuit of creativity, from a fresh new voice to a MacArthur genius grant recipient has been a wild ride. Throughout, she has been incredibly prolific – including as a leader, with the trio Thumbscrew, on a number of fantastic duets, as part of Tomeka Reid’s quartet, and even deconstructing disco with a string quartet, Jamaaladeen Tacuma, and G. Calvin Weston as part of Marc Ribot’s Young Philadelphians. In all of her releases, she draws upon unique and striking perspectives while still sounding identifiability like herself. Although a close call, her solo album Meltframe is arguably her greatest as it provides her talent at its most raw. While consisting entirely of covers, she adds such color and distinction to them that even the most familiar tune sounds distinctly new.
Stream Mary Halvorson’s “Platform”
Additional recommendations: Mary Halvorson Octet – Away With You (Firehouse 12, 2016), Mary Halvorson & Bill Frisell – The Maid with the Flaxen Hair (Tzadik, 2018), Tomeka Reid Quartet – Tomeka Reid Quartet (Thisty Ear, 2015)
8. Hailu Mergia – Lala Belu, 2018 (Awesome Tapes from Africa)
Lala Belu is an incredible work paired with an equally extraordinary background story. Pianist/accordionist/melodica player Hailu Mergia was once part of the Wailas Band, a prominent fixture in 1970s Ethio-jazz. In 1981 the group became the first modern Ethiopian musicians to travel to the United States. As their home nation was overtaken by a dictatorship, Waila’s members remained in America but ceased to perform. By 1985, Mergia became a full-time cab driver with his musical career seemingly ended. Then, in 2012, the head of the Awesome Tapes from Africa label stumbled upon the pianist’s recordings and offered him the ability to record what would ultimately become Lala Belu. Joined by drummer Tony Buck and bassist Mike Majkowski, this release is a funky yet hypnotic merger of both the music of his homeland and of the nation he has lived in for the latter half of his life. The closer, “Yefikir Engurguro” is among the most beautiful solo piano pieces ever written.
Stream Hailu Mergia’s Lala Belu album
7. Vijay Iyer – Mutations, 2014 (ECM)
Vijay Iyer’s first for ECM is also arguably his best. While his previous releases showcased a supremely talented pianist, it appears that signing with the Munich based label opened a number of doors creatively for him. These allowed him to expand his artistic visions and alter his sound. At Mutation’s core is a ten-part suite, “Mutations I-X” with Iyer on piano and electronics joined by violinists Miranda Cuckson and Michi Wiancko, violist Kyle Armbrust and cellist Kivie Cahn-Lipman. It is built out of various fragments of sound, each within a different sonic atmosphere, with electronic flourishes playing a central role in interweaving the tones. As the title suggests, each movement builds off of the previous one, slowly and gradually changing it into something completely unrecognizable compared to what came before. There are also three fascinating “solo” piano performances where the artist essentially duets with himself between piano and electronics. Whether by himself or joined with strings, Iyer crafts a coherent view that seemingly disparate sounds are really more similar than they seem; all it takes to get from one to another is a series of slight mutations.
Watch the trailer for Vijay Iyer’s Mutations album
Additional recommendations: Vijay Iyer & Wadada Leo Smith – A Cosmic Rhythm with Each Stroke (ECM, 2016), Ambrose Akinmusire – Origami Harvest (Blue Note, 2018)
6. Wayne Shorter Quartet – Without a Net, 2013 (Blue Note)
Historians will likely rate Shorter among the best composers of the late 20th Century. While many have focused over the years – and some continue to do so – on whether music is ‘in’ or ‘out’, the saxophonist has boldly disregarded that such a distinction even exists. In his own words, “Jazz shouldn’t have any mandates. Jazz is not supposed to be something that’s required to sound like jazz… The word ‘jazz’ means ‘I dare you.’” This viewpoint is expressed across his discography, including his most recent Emanon. However, it is best seen on Without a Net, his first for Blue Note in over forty years. While the performances by the saxophonist and his long-standing quartet of the “Children of the Light” – pianist Danilo Perez, bassist John Pattitucci, and drummer Brian Blade – are extraordinary, it is really the compositions which come to the fore. Throughout, they reconstruct an eclectic complication of songs ranging from new tunes to longstanding originals including those once played with Miles’ Second Great Quintet or Weather Report. Like with the rest of Shorter’s scores, even the oldest of these is made to sound not just new and contemporary but, at times, futuristic.
Stream the Wayne Shorter Quartet’s “Starry Night”
Additional recommendations: Steve Coleman & The Five Elements – Functional Arrhythmias (Pi Recordings, 2015), Tim Berne – Snakeoil (ECM, 2012)
5. Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah – Stretch Music, 2015 (Stretch Music/Ropeadope)
As mentioned above, a very popular trend over the past ten years has been to combine jazz with hip hop. This is most commonly done by extracting some aspects of one and interjecting them into a work more firmly planted in the other. Upon first encounter, Stretch Music appears to be yet another such creation. But further review shows that, while it draws equal inspiration from both categories, the album does something quite different with them. Instead of choosing to focus primarily on one or the other, it pulls both forms from a place of equal footing toward a middle where they merge into one new and vibrant music. Flourishes from other influences – particularly alternative rock, R&B, African drum music, Caribbean music, brass band and second line music from his home city of New Orleans – are sprinkled throughout as well. Although wholly individualistic, one is left wondering whether perhaps this is the future of trumpet music – now fully realized – that Miles Davis once imagined back during the last decade of his life.
The new “stretched” style is supplemented by Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah’s performance on not just trumpet but also the sirenette and reverse flugelhorn, two instruments designed specifically for him and his new approach. The presence of two drummers – Corey Fonville and Joe Dyson Jr. – only further adds to the aesthetic. The remainder of the band – Braxton Cook on alto saxophone, Corey King on trombone, Lawrence Fields on piano, and Kris Funn on bass – is stellar. However, the real breakout star is Elena Pinderhughes, perhaps the best flautist today and one whom very badly needs to issue her debut as a leader sometime in the near future.
Stream Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah’s Stretch Music album
Additional recommendations: Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah – The Centennial Trilogy (Stretch Music/Ropeadope, 2017), Terrence Blanchard ft. the E-Collective – Live (Blue Note, 2018)
4. Jack Dejohnette, Muhal Richard Abrams, Henry Threadgill, Roscoe Mitchell and Larry Gray – Made in Chicago, 2015 (ECM)
The Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) is one of the most influential musical institutions of all time, touching every genre. In celebration of the collective’s fiftieth anniversary, ECM released this masterpiece featuring three of the AACM’s top heavyweights – the late Abrams, Threadgill, and Mitchell. Originally captured at the 2013 Chicago Jazz Festival, the all-star group assembled when Dejohnette was granted carte blanche to present any lineup of his choosing. While he could have selected nearly anyone from his long list of collaborators over the course of his illustrious career, the drummer-leader focused on his Chicago roots in creative music. Although the original impetus for the collective’s establishment was retrospective in nature, the performance presented is entirely forward-thinking. While the music is challenging and would not likely be the type sought out by those unaccustomed to the avant-garde, even the most ardent critic is left marveling at the sheer strength and capability presented. While a mostly ad hoc formation, the pieces performed include originals by each of its members (except Gray) which further allow for their dialogue to open up and reflect many different facets over the course of the recording. It is already a lasting tribute to not just the AACM and its enduring legacy but the city of Chicago itself which has fostered such music.
Watch the trailer for Jack Dejohnette’s Made in Chicago album
Additional recommendations: Henry Threadgill Zooid – In for a Penny, In for a Pound (Pi Recordings, 2015), Nicole Mitchell – Mandorla Awakening II – Emerging Worlds (FPE, 2016), Jeff Parker – The New Breed (International Anthem, 2016)
3. Steve Lehman Octet – Travail, Transformation, and Flow, 2009 (Pi)
Over the past ten years, jazz has gone in numerous directions. Some of them – for instance, the fusion with hip hop – have been applied by many artists. By contrast, with the exception of its followup, Mise en Abime, alto saxophonist Steve Lehman’s Travail, Transformation, and Flow presents a path few understand, let alone emulate. Drawing upon spectral music where compositional choices are informed by mathematical analyses of sound waves, Lehman creates music never before seen in jazz history. Joined by drummer Tyshawn Sorey, tenor saxophonist Mark Shim, trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson, vibraphonist Chris Dingman, tubaist Jose Davila, bassist Drew Gress, and trombonist Tim Albright, the album showcases an alternative to both improvisation and composition that sounds equally foreign and familiar, propulsive, and cerebral.
Stream the Steve Lehman Octet’s “Rudreshm”
2. Matana Roberts – Coin Coin Chapter Two: Mississippi Moonchile, 2013 (Constellation)
Thus far, Matana Roberts has shared with the world only four of her proposed twelve volumes of the Coin Coin series. All have been extraordinary and deserving of a more thorough analysis. Each portrays different stories of the sound quilter/saxophonist/vocalist’s family and the broader African-American narrative. Although a strange term to use in reference to any of her art, Mississippi Moonchile is the most conservative of the four. In many ways, it needed to be. A key thread running throughout is the role of religion in the life of Matana’s grandmother and the collective African-American history more broadly. Historically, faith has provided solace to individuals in even the direst of circumstances including those most oppressed by society. To provide sufficient respect for this, Roberts in many ways needed to be a little more reigned in than on her other outings. That is not to say Chapter Two’s tying of avant-garde jazz to gospel and spirituals is any less courageous than her other output; it is just not as outwardly radical. Like her other recordings, it features her colleagues from the cutting edge of creative music, including trumpeter Jason Palmer, drummer Tomas Fujiwara, pianist Shoko Nagai, and bassist Thomson Kneeland. However, it is the role of operatic vocalist Jeremiah Abiah which gives Mississippi Moonchile a unique place in experimental music and ensures an end product that simultaneously pushes the envelope while still showing reverence to the past.
Stream Matana Roberts “Invocation”
Additional recommendations: Wadada Leo Smith – Ten Freedom Summers (Cuneiform Records, 2012)
1. Tyshawn Sorey – The Inner Spectrum of Variables, 2016 (Pi)
“Is this jazz?” is a question that has been asked needlessly and pointlessly for many years. Representatives of the neo-traditionalist movement like Stanley Crouch and Wynton Marsalis have particularly focused on propagating narrowed definitions. Such a critic could argue that The Inner Spectrum of Variables should not be on a jazz list of any kind as it is first and foremost “classical” music. Fortunately, most artists, including Tyshawn Sorey, have completely ignored these concerns. There is a clear and undeniable “classical” touch as the drummer’s trio with pianist Cory Smythe and bassist Chris Tordini, a group which frequently obfuscates categorical lines is joined by a string trio of cellist Rubin Kodheli (who has also been fantastic in a trio with Laurie Anderson and Christian McBride over the last few years), violinist Chern Hwei Fung, and violist Kyle Armbrust (see #7 of this list). Despite this, the criticism presents a view that is superficial at best.
Throughout its history, jazz has focused on distilling the best segments of different cultures, regardless of the source of their original derivation, and adding creative improvisation to place these shards into a new configuration. Applying this thought, the drummer-leader’s chef-d’œuvre presents jazz at its finest. Recorded in a single fifteen-hour session, The Inner Spectrum of Variables consists of six movements which utilize Butch Morris’ conduction, a style of structured free improvisation. It is near impossible to detect which portions are prewritten and which are spontaneous. Throughout, it draws from a widely diverse palate of influences including the AACM, Anthony Braxton, Bach, Scriabin, Steve Reich, Harold Budd, Morton Feldman, Bartók, Frank Zappa, Brahms, Louis Armstrong, ethio-jazz, gypsy jazz, klezmer, and countless others. All of these disparate connections are brought together into a single cohesive whole, one which examines and expresses a full range of constantly shifting emotions reflective of human life – love, fear, loneliness, joy, sorrow, hopefulness, to name only a few.