Jazz is funny thing: a genre that’s over 100 years old, and by all means the first “popular” music of this recorded era of human history. It’s a genre that isn’t even really a genre, but more like a meta-genre (hence our “Jazz Without Boundaries” catchphrase). Through the 1980s, ‘90s, and 2000s, the creativity and popularity of this music waned to the point where a now-infamous editorial in the Wall Street Journal in 2009 asked “Can Jazz be Saved?”.
Slowly but surely over the past ten years, we’ve had a front-row seat to the rise of jazz as a popular music again. This resurgence exists in the collective zeitgeist of the world’s many and varied jazz scenes, but it is driven from the place where everything sacred in art always comes from: youth. The making and consuming of jazz is truly a multi-generational activity these days, but the segment that defines what “cool” is (persons aged 20-35) now makes up a significant section of the jazz-loving world (and of the KMHD audience). Will this cresting wave of creativity roll forever? One could wish, but waves like this never do. In any case, right now this one is head-high, and we’re in no rush to see it roll back out to sea.
-Matt Fleeger, Program Director
Matthew Halsall – Fletcher Moss Park (Gondwana, 2012)
While this list is not ranked in any certain order, there is a definite reason for this album being placed at the top. If we had to choose a #1 for this past decade, this would be it. You may have never heard of the Manchester, UK-based trumpeter Matthew Halsall, but we hope you’ll spend some time with his music. Unlike so many stateside musicians, Halsall doesn’t overdo it with a showcase of chops or virtuosity meant to impress and placate fellow musicians. Instead, this record’s spiritual feel is executed in a beautiful fashion that anyone can absorb. This all-acoustic release with all-original compositions gets a lift from the addition of harpist Rachael Gladwin, which compliments Halsall’s soft trumpet work. Reminiscent of late-period John Coltrane – and further work from Alice Coltrane – this is truly a special listening experience the whole way through.
Makaya McCraven – In the Moment (International Anthem, 2015)
What Makaya McCraven did back in 2015 continues to reverberate in today’s jazz climate. To our knowledge, no one had ever done what Makaya McCraven did on this record. Over the course of 28 weeks, he assembled some of Chicago’s finest musicians (including Jeff Parker and Matt Ulery) to play with him a weekly gig. Each performance was recorded, and he later went back and pored over them, mixing his favorite parts together, overlapping them, and then redefining the sounds into something wholly unique. Normally, this would be called remixing – but “In the Moment” is something more: it’s an album that sounds cohesive and dynamic. It works as a special experience for the listener – a sort of distillation of hours and hours of music into one single, potent creation. This is also the record that cemented McCraven’s legacy as one of this past decade’s most popular jazz artists.
Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah – The Centennial Trilogy (Ropeadope, 2017)
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.
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.
-Isabel Zacharias, Matt Fleeger
Hiatus Kaiyote – Choose Your Weapon (Flying Buddha, 2015)
The soundtrack to a Street Fighter video game set in a tropical swamp in zero gravity would sound something like “Choose Your Weapon”, the unnerving and addictive sophomore LP from Hiatus Kaiyote. A self-termed “future soul” quartet that crashed to Earth from its native planet (apparently Australia?) in the mid-2010s, vocalist Nai Palm and her gang sound just as ambitious and fight-ready on this record as they did in 2015. Verging on overstuffed with sampling, infinite synth patches, shimmer and fuzz, the level of production is astonishing — and not just at its heights of creepy 8-bit cacophony, as on the insistent interludes of “Shaolin Monk Motherfunk”, but in the Glasper-informed, boom-bap jazz of quieter moments like “Building a Ladder”. Of course, the most important instrument is Nai Palm’s mellifluous caterwaul, which (like most great voices) remains much-debated. Still, this is a hungry record demanding to be heard, sometimes by any means necessary. Rummage through it as a treasure chest or write it off as clamor — but there is no denying it.
The Midnight Hour – S/T (Linear Labs, 2018)
This collaboration between producers extraordinaire Ali Shaheed Muhammed (A Tribe Called Quest) and Adrian Younge (Kendrick Lamar, Talib Kweli, Jay-Z, Wu-Tang Clan) is a star-studded collaborative effort that features CeeLo Green, Raphael Saadiq, Bilal, and even a reworking of Luther Vandross. The album plays like a mixtape in the best way imaginable: with two of the best to ever do it arranging large and small ensembles à la Quincy Jones, the listener is presented with an experience that is a perfect amalgamation that lives in the worlds of soul and jazz effortlessly.
Jeff Parker – The New Breed (International Anthem, 2016)
Here’s another tectonically important record from Chicago’s International Anthem imprint, who first became interested in guitarist Jeff Parker’s solo material when they saw how greatly he contributed to Makaya’s “In The Moment”. Yes, all Parker touches — from the seminal post-rock of Tortoise to the contemporary jazz-funk of Isotope 217 — bears the brilliant “Chicago sound.” He invented it, really: atonal experiments repeated gently enough to constitute a groove, and at other times, exaggerated enough as to feel only half-serious.
Parker is a master of balance, and “The New Breed”, his first proper release as a leader, builds up its avant-garde defenses just as quickly as it breaks them down, delighting in that contrast every moment. There’s noise, but none imposes on the compositions, deriving mostly from the pedals on Parker’s guitar or Josh Johnson’s alto saxophone and only from Wurlitzers, Mellotron, loops and samplers when there’s no arguing it contributes. All those keyboards and drum programming, by the way, are Parker; one of the few elements he can’t take credit for is the vocal on “Cliche”, which is sung by his daughter Ruby and points out another balance The New Breed strikes beautifully: rarely is a work categorized as “experimental” so unafraid of also being personal and warm.
BADBADNOTGOOD – IV (Innovative Leisure, 2016)
For the Toronto band’s shape-shifting 2016 release, a Roman numeral IV indicated the arrival of their fourth album. The IV might also have been a nod to their transition from a trio to a quartet with the permanent addition of frequent contributor Leland Witty. Witty adds an astounding array of sonic textures with contributions via saxophones, bass clarinet, flute, vibes, guitars, and violin. “IV” also finds the quartet creating compositions that are features for a diverse cast of guest artists. Luckily, all the cooks in this jazz kitchen season the stew perfectly. From the moody, disconsolate vocal provided by Future Islands’ Sam Herring on “Time Moves Slow” to Charlotte Day Wilson’s R&B balladry on “In Your Eyes”, the compositions on this album defy categorization.
Sam Wilkes – Wilkes (Leaving, 2018)
As much a pop-funk P-bass slapper as an ambient jazz producer, Sam Wilkes is right at home in the L.A. jazz scene of the late 2010s — still dominated in many ways by Flying Lotus’ Brainfeeder label, but home also to a gentler, more spiritual-leaning strain of instrumental music defined by artists like Carlos Niño and Miguel Atwood-Ferguson. Wilkes, whose most frequent collaborator outside his own material is probably hyperactive funk machine Louis Cole, embarks on a deceptively simple mission with his 2018 self-titled: minimalism without the sacrifice of listenability.
As such, though one composition nears the eight-minute mark, the record itself is a tactful six tracks. There’s some tonal wandering that is just wandering, as with the majority of the elastic “Hug”, but in those moments, as with all the best ambient music, what keeps your attention is the texture of the sound itself: saxophonist Sam Gendel’s spotless tone, the effect trails, the vocals edited to obscure their words’ meaning, and those twinkling bits of synthetic percussion that Wilkes is so singularly gifted at sprinkling. Plus, who could resist a droned-out, 21st-century update of John Coltrane’s “Welcome”? Brilliant.
Yussef Kamaal – Black Focus (Brownswood, 2017)
You’d be forgiven for thinking that Yussef Kamaal was a person, but it’s two people: Yussef Dayes (who plays the drums) and Kamaal Williams (on keys). When this record came to our attention in early 2017, we heard sounds that were an update of Herbie Hancock’s late 70’s jazz/disco arrangements, with tinges of Afro-Cuban percussion and super-heavy funk thrown in for good measure. Unfortunately, the duo broke up shortly after the recording gained worldwide popularity, but this remains an excellent album – one of the many great records put out by Gilles Peterson’s Brownswood label over the past decade.
Hampshire & Foat – Galaxies Like Grains of Sand (Athens Of The North, 2017)
Warren Hampshire and Greg Foat’s 2017 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 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.
Charlotte Dos Santos – Cleo (Fresh Selects, 2017)
A big win for the Portland-based label Fresh Selects, Norwegian neo-soul vocalist Charlotte Dos Santos released “Cleo” exactly when the world was ready for it. With Daptone setting up an audience for throwback soul music throughout the 2010s and super-popular R&B moving in an ever more experimental direction (see: Frank Ocean, Solange), the idea of moving that vintage lens from Daptone’s ‘60s into the late ‘70s and melding it with 21st-century sampling techniques was perhaps anyone’s for the taking; thankfully, it dawned on someone with enough artistic vision to make it completely her own.
The lovably boxy analog drum machine sounds a ‘70s outlook provides (like Dos Santos plays here) are the base color in a vast and vibrant tapestry of tape hiss, vinyl crackle, Wurlitzer and vibraphone, much of which feels tastefully borrowed from alt-hip-hop. Spoken word samples are interluded with static, like channel-surfing on a busted TV. “Cleo” is both sparkling and oddly quiet, which is no truer than on Dos Santos’ lyricized version of Freddie Hubbard’s “Red Clay” — and much like the lyrics Abbey Lincoln wrote for “Afro Blue” changed that song for good, these words for “Red Clay” feel obvious and true, like they’ve been there all along. Such is this confidence with which this record announces itself.
Aqueduct Ensemble – Improvisations On An Apricot (Last Resort, 2018)
This album, created by Ohio-based musician Keith Freund, was made mainly in collaboration with his piano-tuner neighbor (who is simply referred to as “Stu” here). “Improvisations On An Apricot” conveys a sort of tasteful free-jazz with electronic augmentation to the listener. It’s hard to categorize beyond that statement, but if I had to I’d say the feeling comes from the same place that classic Bill Evans occupies in one’s ears and mind. There’s a palpable feeling of the consideration that went into making this release, and while the songs fit together logically and sonically - they can stand on their own just as well.
Khruangbin – The Universe Smiles Upon You (Night Time Stories Ltd., 2015)
Whether at the center of this decade’s resurgent love for “global” rhythms or a highly fortunate byproduct of it, Houston’s Khruangbin (Thai for “airplane”) are the only act under that now-crowded label to avoid being traced to one musical tradition — in part because they amalgamate so many, so effortlessly. In this record alone, originally conjured as a tribute to Thai popular music of the 1960s, there are musical tour stops all over the rest of Southeast Asia too, soaking up its particular ‘70s funk and soul styles, as well as the deep-down roots of American R&B rhythm and a touch of psychedelia and dub in the production. Donald “DJ” Johnson’s just-enough drumming is mixed perfectly, and Mark Speer’s guitar tone is always dialed, taking turns inviting Laura Lee’s rubbery, staccato bass lines and sparingly-used vocals to the forefront. Despite its globetrotting, there’s an impeccable simplicity to this record; it doesn’t need to do a lot (save add some surprising pedal steel here and there) to say all it wants to say. A direct flight to everywhere.
Blue Lab Beats – Xover (Blue Adventure / AllPoints, 2018)
Too often, the jazz mentality in the U.S. operates from a lonely place of insularity. “This is jazz.” “That’s not jazz.” “Someone call the jazz police!” This attitude has done the music little service over the years, which helps explain why a teenage duo from London, a city that celebrates jazz without boundaries, made one of the albums of the decade. Namali Kwaten (NK-OK) & David Mrakpor (Mr. DM) perform as Blue Lab Beats, cooking up genre-ignoring grooves in Kwaten’s studio, the Blue Lab. The Blue Lab birthed a batch of songs that were fiercely fleshed out at Real World Studios with a rotating crew of some of the freshest and most vibrant talents in London. Jazz pianist Ashley Henry brings an elegiac beauty to “Blue Skies”, dropping a blues-rich improvisation atop the pulsing beat. Leadoff single “Pineapple” showcases the summery guitar work of Mr. DM in perfect unison with Moses Boyd’s crisp and economical drumming. Rising hip hop artist Kojey Radical and soul singer Tiana Major9 offer a meditative rumination on nostalgia on “Sam Cooke & Marvin Gaye.” Every track on “Xover” brims with imagination.
The Souljazz Orchestra – Inner Fire (Strut, 2014)
Jazz has always loved to steal from other cultures and genres. The Canadian collective The Souljazz Orchestra is a crew of master thieves, and 2014’s “Inner Fire” remains their biggest heist to date. The album draws from many wells of sound, bringing elements of Afrobeat, spiritual jazz, rhumba, Ethio-jazz and more into a bubbling stew that never sounds overcooked. This is the sound of jazz music for the soul, music to stir up the emotions and fire up the consciousness. From the resurrection of Andy Bey’s powerful spiritual jazz groover “Celestial Blues” to the pronounced march of “East Flows the River”, this album is a welcome reminder that music does not have to live in the background.
Uyama Hiroto – Freeform Jazz (Roph, 2016)
In 2016 a Japanese jazz album appeared without fanfare or promotion, meaning very few people heard its brilliance. Uyama Hiroto, multi-instrumentalist and producer, crafted a record that takes the listener on a stunning journey, with spiritual jazz and hip-hop as the principal signposts. Blending the pentatonic scales of Japanese music with Ableton-produced grooves, the music exists as a vibrant garden of sounds. Hiroto’s saxophone playing conjures echoes of Coltrane and Pharaoh Sanders but always comes across as fresh and inspiring. Little is known about Hiroto, beyond his important contributions to the music of the now-deceased Nujabes. What we do know is that “Freeform Jazz” speaks elegantly about Japan’s prominent place in jazz history, making the case that the best is yet to come.
Quantic presents The Western Transient – A New Constellation (Tru Thoughts, 2015)
The adage that change is good for the soul can be heard in every warm note emanating from the grooves on Quantic’s 2015 release, “A New Constellation”. Honing a new sound in a new city, Quantic came to America to pay tribute to studio jazz recordings with his new group, The Western Transient. Having assembled a roster of top-shelf L.A. musicians, Quantic brought his vintage Ampex reel-to-reel recorder to the studio and a notebook of new compositions. Exuding joy and airiness from start to finish, this album brims with hope and optimism. The sound of Todd Simon’s sparkling trumpet riding alongside Alan Lightner’s elegant steel drum work arrived like a new star in the jazz firmament — a new constellation indeed. Four years later, its brilliance remains undiminished.
Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings – Soul of a Woman (Daptone, 2017)
It’s impossible to divorce the sound of funk and soul in the 2010s from Bosco Mann and Neal Sugarman‘s Daptone label. The all-analog studio they built inside a family home in Brooklyn, as well as the decision to record exclusively to tape, produce a distinctive, handmade sound that’s garnered them as much praise as criticism for bearing such faithful resemblance the landmark soul music of the 60s and 70s. What keeps Daptone from being just a nostalgia project, though, are the people singing these songs, and singing them from the heart: Namely, Miss Sharon Jones, whose work is inextricably bound to the imprint.
“Soul of a Woman”, released posthumously following her death in 2016, has that ephemeral potency all posthumous releases possess — but beyond that, it’s Jones at her most honest, most feminist and most soulful. The powerful “Matter of Time” seemed to foreshadow the charged political climate that would come to a full boil in the months following her passing, and that super-memorable, angular lead guitar line somehow lifts it out of anachronism and places it in the here and now. This record is shot through with moments like that — wisdom, individuality and, more than anything, an earned refusal to follow anyone’s rules but her own, from a singer who was once called “too fat, too black, too short and too old” to make it in this industry. She certainly showed them.