2019 continued the trend of jazz’s upward trajectory in terms of popularity and as the boundary-pushing music of the world. We’ve continued to see the rise of the digital single as the main method for consuming music by large audiences, but many artists are still out there putting in the work to create whole albums that are special. Submitted for your listening pleasure - here are ten albums that we think deserve a place in your collection. But just what was the theme or vibe of artistic output in jazz this year? And where is it all headed? Your guess is as good as mine. What we can say is albums are getting shorter in length, with our entries on this list averaging about 30 minutes. Yes, they may be shorter than before – but each of these releases packs quite the punch.
-Matt Fleeger, Program Director
Kinkajous – Hidden Lines (Running Circle)
We were listening to Yussef Kamaal’s “Black Focus” LP back in 2016 with a palpable sense of discovery. It sounded like one possible future of jazz along the space-time continuum. It’s exhilarating as a lover of music to hear something so fresh that you quickly realize it will eventually influence artists who haven’t heard it yet, informing music that hasn’t yet been written. Undeniably, the collective known as Kinkajous loved and absorbed the messages of “Black Focus”, helping them realize their own sound on their debut album “Hidden Lines”. Drummer Benoit Parmentier lays down stunning broken-beat rhythms throughout the record, which serve as the launchpad for the rest of the band. In the first minute of album opener “Black Idiom, Pt. 1”, Jack Doherty employs his science fiction synths against those drums until the otherworldly bass clarinet of Adrien Cau emerges like a starship from a strange nebula. The journey begins and the quintet never dips below the speed of light. This is a jazz soundtrack to escape the earth and possibly discover that bit of the cosmos that lives inside each of us.
The Comet is Coming – Trust In The Lifeforce Of The Deep Mystery (Impulse!)
This trio (featuring the prolific saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings) plays music that connects jazz improvisation with house, industrial and even punk sensibilities. Beyond their genre-defying sound, the band manages to convey subject matter of a spiritual nature with very little language. At times cacophonous, and at times introspective and soft, this record takes this listener on a journey into a deep mystery indeed.
Luis Ocasio & Brett Anderson – Solar (Gorge Mouth)
Here’s the scene – one studio, two musical minds and all the instruments necessary to create a mood matching the imminent darkness of autumn and winter in the Pacific Northwest. Portland’s Luis Ocasio & Brett Anderson, channeling the cinematic soundscapes of Menahan Street Band and The Olympians, have crafted an album of instrumental vibes perfect for watching the fading light of 3:45 p.m. in mid-December. Shifting musical directions from the beat tapes they have been releasing, the duo plays all the instruments on “Solar”, including flute, saxophone, guitar, bass, drums, conga, organ and synths. A head-nodding moodiness pervades the record, making it an ideal companion to pursuits as disparate as contemplating the simulation hypothesis or cleaning the kitchen. Standout track “Jupiter” conjures the heavy emptiness of deep space while the playful cut “Mercury” sounds like an outtake from the Beastie Boys’ “The In Sound From Way Out”. While the album is concise, the atmosphere it creates in that time will stay with you.
Korgy & Bass – Remote (Cavity Search)
A self-identified “creative beat-making duo” that nevertheless references the jazz canon in its name, what Portland’s Korgy & Bass really create are concept albums, not beat tapes. “Remote” is their most fully realized yet, due in part to Barra Brown and Alex Meltzer (a drummer and analog beatmaker, respectively) enlisting the New Orleans-based trombonist Cyrus Nabipoor for the record, as well as local bassists Milo Fultz and Sam Arnold. The result, alloyed together from recordings each contributed without ever being in the same room (hence the name), paints a landscape somewhere in between the natural and man-made world and sets up moments where harmonic tension syncs with the tension between what is produced naturally and what is produced by technology — ultimately challenging the idea that tech-assisted art and the human hand are at odds.
Kassa Overall — Go Get Ice Cream and Listen to Jazz (Kassa Overall LLC)
After so many years, it really feels like the whole “jazz vs. hip-hop” thing is finally coming to an end. One has to look no further than this genius effort from Kassa Overall for one of the easy reasons. “Go Get Ice Cream and Listen to Jazz” is a perfect synthesis of the two genres, and far, far more. The talented drummer is steeped in the jazz tradition – having played drums for the legendary Geri Allen and mentored by Elvin Jones, Tootie Heath, and Billy Higgins. Like an expert DJ, crafting a perfect mix of songs and sounds, Overall embodies the true spirit of jazz by amalgamating everything from hip-hop, post-rock, and electronic music into his sound – and tying it all together with witty, deep lyricism. Perfect albums don’t come along often – but this is surely one of them.
Cochemea – All My Relations (Daptone)
The liner notes to this 21st-century masterpiece of world jazz begin with these words by Antibalas’ co-founder, Martin Perna: “Before there were lies, there was truth. And the truth has always been that we all sprang from a single source of creation, making us, in the most expansive and wonderful sense, a family.” Cochemea calls to us and his ancestors using the soulful sounds of his alto saxophone, electric saxophone, flute and bass clarinet in perfect tandem with rhythms that sound as ancient as the sea. Featuring a ten-piece ensemble contributing congas, bongos, tablas, talking drums, shekeres and more, this music exists to celebrate our existence and our interconnection. It’s another joyful family reunion each and every time we start the record.
La La Lars – La La Lars II (Headspin)
Something of an offshoot of the Goran Kajfeš Subtropic Arkestra, La La Lars is helmed instead by Kajfeš’ drummer, Lars Skoglund. If those names sound awfully Swedish to you, you are correct. But plenty of Skoglund’s work has unwittingly been heard stateside too, as he continues his role as Musical Director for indie pop singer Lykke Li. A bit of the baroque preoccupation of Li’s sound appears on La La Lars’ second full-length, but overall, it’s much more whimsical, at times even veering into something like youthful naivety. Straight-ahead, bluesier cuts like “Bara Ida. Kanske Imorgon” still retain a positivity and reverberating percussion that must not be confused for easy listening; unlike so much contemporary jazz (and art in general), Skoglund doesn’t conflate “dark” with “serious”, and the complexity of arrangement here speaks for itself in that regard. Even more impressive are the melodies, which fall fluidly into their conclusions but take several exciting twists and turns to get there — something any composer knows is no small feat.
Resavoir – S/T (International Anthem)
This album, from a diverse collective out of Chicago under the direction of trumpeter Will Miller (Whitney, Chance the Rapper, Lil Wayne). The band’s debut is both accessible and deep in its musical sensibilities, a blend of neo-soul-jazz and elegant instrumental hip-hop. You can also feel a connection here to the late Chicago-based arranger and producer Charles Stepney. The aesthetic here is ethereal and beautiful, warranting repeated listens.
Ebi Soda – Bedroom Tapes (Sola Terra)
This is the debut from a young quintet out of London, who purvey a sound that feels a bit different for jazz. There’s a gritty feeling here, and between the 7 tracks on the record, ethereal textures emerge, only to be driven back underground by bombastic beats and sinuous grooves. “Bedroom Tapes” is obviously designed to create a visceral experience with live audiences. In other words, this is not jazz music to sit back and “wash over” you – but it does work while seated in a car on a road trip.
Medline – A Quest Called Tribe (My Bags)
In the annals of hip-hop history, no group quite got the jazz the way A Tribe Called Quest got the jazz. In beautiful illustration of this fact, Orlando Diaz, aka Medline, has paid glowing homage to Tribe and the jazz they mined with “A Quest Called Tribe”, while avoiding the trap of creating another empty tribute album. One critical component of Tribe’s quest was the crate-digging search for the perfect sample. Medline takes the listener on a journey through some of Tribe’s greatest jazz discoveries, transforming their sample-based cuts into new works of head-nodding jazz. The French-Chilean multi-instrumentalist and beat maker offers up postcards from famous jazz samples, such as Ronnie Foster’s “Mystic Brew”, Brother Jack McDuff’s “Oblighetto” and Milt Jackson’s “Olinga”, but the compositions feel like old friends hanging out with brand new faces. Medline brings the relationship between jazz and hip-hop full circle with his vibrant recalibrating of a band that changed everything.
Greg Foat – The Dreaming Jewels / Photosynthesis / The Mage / Gone to the Dogs (Athens Of The North)
There’s a difference between an artist you can expect a great release from every time, and an artist whose growth from record to record surprises and invigorates even longtime listeners. Greg Foat is the latter, and he keeps that up at the clip, in 2019’s case, of four records a year. The London-based keyboardist and producer was building unconventional, library music-inspired instrumentals years before what we see now as the British jazz renaissance, and has somehow always existed outside of that scene — or beyond scenes in general. This year and this decade would not have been the same without his constancy and contributions to what we now know is a definitively British jazz sound.