The KMHD staff listened to a ton of new music this year and chose these musically divine gems as the most vital jazz albums of 2016. Check out a special playlist of the albums below and listen to KMHD Director Matt Fleeger talk with State of Wonder host April Baer about the best of the year above.
“Everything’s Beautiful” by Miles Davis and Robert Glasper — This one-of-a-kind soundtrack was produced as a companion piece to Don Cheadle’s 2016 biopic of Miles Davis, “Miles Ahead.” While there was an official soundtrack to the film, “Everything’s Beautiful” sounds somewhat like an “anti-soundtrack” to the motion picture. That’s because the music featured on this record wasn’t originally recorded by Miles Davis. Instead, Robert Glasper composed music based on samples from the rich tapestry that makes up the Miles Davis discography. Here, Miles’ music gets a fresh re-vamp for the 21st century, with plenty of famous guests like Erykah Badu, Phonte and Ledisi.
“IV” by BadBadNotGood — For their fourth studio album, Toronto indie-jazz pioneers BadBadNotGood enlisted the services of some of their favorite artists. These guest appearances (from the likes of Colin Stetson, KAYTRANADA, Sam Herring and Mick Jenkins) add a dynamic texture that was missing from their previous three releases. On “IV,” BBNG shifts from laid back cool-jazz, to driving rhythmic improvisation, to instrumental hip-hop, electronica, hard-bop and more.
“Astral Progressions” by Josef Leimberg — The debut solo record from Compton-based trumpeter Josef Leimberg is a long-awaited journey into 1970s spiritual jazz fused with West Coast hip-hop rhythms. “Progressions” is a fitting title since this album continues to demonstrate the sheer creative power of the LA-area jazz scene. Featuring collaborators such as Kamasi Washington, Kurupt, Bilal and Georgia-Anne Muldrow, the album maintains its consistent cosmic soundscape with enough diversity of sound to keep your attention while you contemplate the expansion of the universe.
“Black Focus” by Yussef Kamaal — Yussef Kamaal is not a person, but two people: Yussef Dayes plays the drums and Kamaal Williams plays the keys in this band that also features key players from the U.K. jazz scene. The two were born and raised in east London and derive their sound as much from Thelonious Monk’s hard-bop as they do from Idris Muhammed’s disco-funk explorations. This mix of jungle, house, grime and straight-ahead jazz makes this album both a danceable rollick and a cerebral “living room album.”
“Sound Rhythm and Form,” by Hypnotic Brass Ensemble — The brass band is one of Jazz’s oldest traditions. Hailing from Chicago, the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble sounds incredibly different compared to the sounds of the bands that originated and still play in New Orleans. “Sound Rhythm and Form” combines brass rhythms with hip-hop-oriented beats and expertly executed solos from each of the Cohran brothers (and a special guest appearance from their Sun Ra and AACM alum father, Kelan Philip Cohran). Put it on, kick your feet up, and bob your head — 51 minutes of good vibes await you.
“Man Made Object” by Gogo Penguin — Gogo Penguin continues to exceed expectations with their Blue Note debut. Fusing the elegant and elegiac piano lines of Chris Illingsworth with the skittering, frenetic drumming of Rob Turner and stabbing bass of Nick Blacka, the Mancunian trio sounds only like itself. These ten piano-driven compositions use subtlety and nuance to great effect. Songs such as “Branches Break” and “Surrender to Mountain” build from the barest strains into something overwhelming, leaving behind a wistful exhilaration. Imagine jazz improvisation as computer code hacking into the human heart and you will have some idea of the sound this incredible group harnesses.
“The New Breed” by Jeff Parker — While Jeff Parker’s name rarely lights up marquees or graces album covers, his dreamlike guitar tones have enriched numerous recordings over the last two-plus decades. It seems fitting that the first album in 11 years featuring him as leader emerges in the wake of a move from Chicago to Los Angeles, a scene that shares Parker’s creative fire. Sparking up a cold hard drive full of old beat projects, Parker fused these Dillaesque home recordings with organic sounds created in his new hometown with fresh collaborators. An earthy groove, courtesy of drummer Jamire Williams and bassist Paul Bryan, runs throughout the course of “The New Breed” while sublime passages and runs by saxophonist Josh Johnson penetrate the rhythmic moods. At the hub of this wheel of sound is Parker’s guitar, spinning and slashing towards something both familiar and new.
“In A Natural State” by The Sextet — To release a debut as compelling, organic and self-assured as “In A Natural State” is cause for celebration. When the group disbands only days after the record release show, all that’s left to do is play the whole album again and wonder at what could have been. This debut/swan song deftly manages the tricky balance between being a laid back groove record and a vehicle for emotive improvisation. Bassist and leader, Robert Castillo and drummer Dave Kelsay keep an ever percolating groove going with plenty of air to allow fiery solos from trumpeter Jared Henkin, saxophonist Morgan Quinn and trombonist James Powers. Paul Paresa switches effortlessly between acoustic piano and keyboards. Whether they are putting their own stamp on “Afro Blue” or riffing on expansive originals such as closing number “Moving On,” this is the sound of young players feeling their oats. In this moment, there is greatness. Portland never got the chance to know it.
“Work Songs” by the Jaimeo Brown Transcendence — Some years an album arrives and it’s the record for its time and place. “Work Songs” is just such a piece of art. The drummer and engine behind its creation says it best in the liner notes, “Throughout history, human beings have chanted, hummed and sung their way through the drudgery of labor. These sounds are the living tapestry of our human story. ‘Work Songs’ is a fabric woven of the forgotten voices of coal miners, southern prisoners, gandy dancers, stonemasons, and cotton pickers rendered from our contemporary perspective. I find the remnants of African-American work songs in the majority of music America listens to today.” Jaimeo Brown has created something vital and challenging with this project, fusing the lost voices of the past with modern jazz textures to say something about us all. The entire album stands as an artistic reminder that in 2016 America, not all voices are given the opportunity to ring free.
“The Olympians” by The Olympians — Boasting many of the same deadly musical assassins that make up Menahan Street Band, The Budos Band and The Expressions, The Olympians have arrived bearing gifts for the gods and for you. Sounding like the lost soundtrack to a Greeksploitation film, this funky affair struts and strides to the very peak of Olympus. Mastermind Toby Pazner helms this musical trireme from behind piano, organ, clavinet and harpsichord. Punchy horn lines, in-the-pocket grooves and wistful chords offer up tribute to one god after another until the record ends. Pour yourself another dram of ouzo and put it on again.
Honorable Mentions: Junior Oliver — “Bristol Fashion”; The Bad Plus — “It’s Hard”; Allen Toussaint — “American Tunes”; Blktop Project — “Concrete Jungle”; Idris Ackamoor & The Pyramids — “We Be All Africans”