Scroll, and you’ll find a list (in no particular order) of what we see as the most meaningful releases in jazz this year. Because this music is constantly changing, there are undoubtedly albums we’ve missed here (woe is the artist who releases their masterwork in December). But in our opinion — you won’t regret spending real time with any of these works of art.
The Centennial Trilogy — Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah | Three is a magic number, and to honor the 100-year recorded history of jazz, Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah made his most prolific move yet: a trilogy of albums that embody the lineage of jazz creation. Each album gives the listener a different experience.
Ruler Rebel serves as a soaring ode to Scott’s hometown of New Orleans, while Diaspora, as its name suggests, celebrates the rhythmic feels and traditions that arose from the African diaspora. Lastly, The Emancipation Procrastination delves into darkness and social commentary rarely handled with such a light and masterful hand.
We all know not to go around cavalierly comparing contemporary jazz musicians to Miles Davis. It’s easy to say but is hardly ever true — who but Miles has made such wide-reaching innovations, within jazz and beyond it, absorbing the pop culture obsessions buzzing around him and incorporating new cross-genre sounds seamlessly into his own?
But here is Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah, whose Centennial Trilogy is inclusive of post-bop harmonic foundations, boom-bap hip-hop feels, Afro-Cuban percussion and the electric beat manipulations of trap music — all while sounding unmistakably his. Somewhat evasive of using the word “jazz” at all, Scott prefers the term “stretch music” to describe his genre and its boundlessness.
Freeform Jazz — Uyama Hiroto | At the start of his career, Japanese producer, composer and arranger Uyama Hiroto was best known for a breakbeat remix of “Theme of Love” from the video game Final Fantasy IV. He’s certainly come a long way from those kitschy beginnings, but a thread of playfulness and a sort of knowing, smiling-Buddha sensibility still runs throughout this fantastic album. A lush, emotive trip through ambient and hip-hop-adjacent nu-jazz, this is a truly untouchable record, smooth and rewarding from start to finish. -Isabel Zacharias
Fly or Die — Jaimie Branch | Avant-garde jazz, oft-maligned (and rightfully so) as one of creative instrumental music’s most alienating sounds, gets reimagined here in a distinctly populist way.
Here, finally, is an interpretation of “free jazz” more concerned with actual freedom than with the chaos and competitive virtuosity we’ve come to associate with the term. And within that freedom, Branch takes on an almost poetic sensitivity to the way each chord interacts with the next, creating new luminous truths — as on the brief title track when Branch’s trumpet uncannily imitates the sound of a buzzing housefly. By its end, Fly or Die has been a complete journey through the subconscious of a sharp and highly observant mind. -Isabel Zacharias
The Invisible Man — Sly5thAve | We’ve been playing the music of Sylvester Uzoma Onyejiaka II, or Sly5thAve, as he’s better known, for years on KMHD. Over that time, Sly5thAve has been releasing a spate of third-stream (the blending of jazz and classical music) albums with his Club Casa Chamber Orchestra.
On his latest, he continues that tradition with a tribute to legendary emcee and producer Dr. Dre. This perfect synthesis celebrates the source material Dre used to create his masterpieces — covers of songs from the classic album The Chronic, and material Dre produced for artists like Snoop Dogg, Blackstreet, Eminem and more.
It’s the first album in the Sly5thAve catalog that could be considered a full-length release, and when they performed the material live in Los Angeles a few months back, Dr. Dre himself showed up to the premiere. -Matt Fleeger
Art in the Age of Automation — Portico Quartet | Portico Quartet is a band with a unique and identifiable sound, one that’s been honed over a decade playing together. Their newest, Art in the Age of Automation, may be their most fully realized record yet. At the center of Portico Quartet’s sonic fingerprint is the distinctive rhythm produced by the hang drum, an instrument resembling an overturned steel drum.
Mixing acoustic with electronic music, jazz with downtempo, Portico Quartet uses instrumental composition to develop a mood that’s introspective, somber and uplifting all at once. The sonic experience here takes the listener on a journey through our troubled modern world in a way that presents hope and salvation as a real (if remote) possibility. Listeners who spend time with the record will likely become immersed in its instrumental prowess – and overtaken by something that sounds like nothing that’s come before. -Matt Fleeger
Kinfolk: Letters from Everywhere — Nate Smith | Nate Smith burst onto the international jazz scene this year with his first album as a leader, and what an album it is.
Smith has been fortunate to have played with some legendary jazz bands and musicians during his career traveling the world.
It’s those travels that inspired this near-perfect album with compositions that feature his dynamic drumming style. There’s something in Kinfolk for every taste: listeners will find funky, hip-hop-soaked grooves, introspective sounds reminiscent of Quiet Storm R&B, and even songs incorporating a country-folk feel. All of this is interspersed with interludes that sound like field interviews from family, friends and strangers along the way. -Matt Fleeger
The Offering — Darkhouse Family | The Cardiff-based duo of Earl Jeffers and Don Leisure had been making music for years under the moniker “Metabeats & Jamal” but it wasn’t until last year with the release of the Solid Gold EP that they embraced a new sound, combining jazz sensibilities with house, downtempo and hip-hop.
On their latest full length, The Offering, Darkhouse brings an essential listen that seamlessly melds soul jazz, funk, hip-hop and R&B. This isn’t just an electronic “beat maker” album, though, as the duo enlisted some of England’s finest up-and-coming jazz talent to provide the instrumentation, including Kamaal Williams (of Yussef Kamaal), drummer Daf Davies and vocalist Jessy Allen. This collaborative effort yields a supremely enjoyable listen bound to make fans from all walks of life happy. -Matt Fleeger
Soul of a Woman — Sharon Jones | Sometimes you need a friend to give you a swift kick in the ass to get you out of a rut. Sharon Jones continued to be that friend right up until the end of her life. Despite being physically ravaged by cancer, she found the strength to record her final album in between chemo and radiation treatments.
The results illuminate an artist as important to contemporary soul music as to the revival movement she first helped generate when she hit the music scene at age 40.
Soul Of A Woman moves back and forth between the uptempo dance stompers Jones was renowned for and soul ballads that highlight how comfortable the singer was in any setting. The Dap-Kings, perhaps the tightest outfit in music today, provide an elegant architecture for her soaring voice to inhabit with all its undiminished power. That’s the crushing poignancy of her final album: she never sounds like she’s saying goodbye. With an album like this, she never has to. -Derek Smith
The Source — Tony Allen | In 1964, Fela Kuti eyed the loose-limbed young drummer and asked, “How come you are the only guy in Nigeria who plays like this – jazz and highlife?” The answer has always been because nobody else can stretch the skin of rhythm into such fantastical shapes.
Over the past five decades, Tony Allen has been the engine and inspiration for Afrobeat, from his legendary output with Fela to every erstwhile imitator who has emerged since. Fittingly enough, for his first album for Blue Note Records, Allen conjoins the music of his inspiration with the sound of his own artistic legacy. The Source contains eleven polyrhythmic poems built from the earthy sounds of hard bop and Afrobeat, showing the 77-year-old musician at his most protean — but what makes The Source such a joyful listening experience is so much more than Allen’s rhythmic pyrotechnics.
The assembled nonet digs into the eleven meticulously arranged compositions with disciplined abandon, taking the listener on a groove-laden voyage stretching from Rudy Van Gelder’s studio to the vibrant streets of Lagos. -Derek Smith
Galaxies Like Grains of Sand — Hampshire and Foat | Warren Hampsire and Greg Foat’s new album contains enough imagination in its booster rockets to achieve escape velocity, allowing you to temporarily forget about the problems back home on Earth.
A project drawing inspiration from science fiction, Italian library music and British jazz of the 1960s, the two multi-instrumentalists from England layer sublime improvisation over ambient soundscapes. As the first tune unfurls like the galaxies of its namesake, it’s clear that we are already floating in space. Beginning with a metronome that blends perfectly with the handpicked notes of Warren Hampshire’s guitar, the arrival of Foat on a Fender Rhodes sets the album’s tone of orchestrated ambiance.
Awash in waves of vibes, tubular bells, autoharp, strings and underpinned by the crisp drumming of Clark Tracey, this record is the sound of weightlessness. -Derek Smith