It’s time for our annual countdown of the 25 best jazz albums of the year. In 2015, there was really only one Big Story in jazz, and that was the rise and crossover success of saxophonist Kamasi Washington. He’s been on the scene for a decade or more, playing on albums by George Duke, Stanley Clarke, Gerald Wilson, and many others. All the way back in 2004, he released an album with the Young Jazz Giants, a quartet featuring the brothers Ronald and Stephen “Thundercat” Bruner. But this year, he broke out to a truly shocking degree. He was a featured musician and arranger on rapper Kendrick Lamar‘s introspective, complicated hip-hop album To Pimp A Butterfly, which perfectly set the stage for his own three-CD debut album, The Epic. He’s been able to sell his album, his shows (which are rousing, populist parties that recall Parliament-Funkadelic and Archie Shepp at once), and his story to an audience that hasn’t paid this kind of attention to jazz (and make no mistake, this is real jazz, with no concessions to hip-hop, rock or pop) since Charles Lloyd was playing the Fillmores East and West in the 1960s. And the music’s even good!
(Spoiler alert: The Epic will be on this list.)
As always, of course, artists without a tenth of a percentage of Washington’s press profile were doing fantastic work, too. Two dozen more albums every bit as worthy of your ears and your money will also be spotlit this week. Shall we begin?
25. Kirsten Edkins, Art and Soul
Saxophonist Kirsten Edkins’ self-released debut is a soulful, groove-oriented set featuring Larry Goldings on piano and Hammond B3, bassist Mike Valerio, and drummer Mark Ferber. On various tracks, guests (trumpeter Mike Cottone, trombonist Ryan Dragon, and guitarist Larry Koonse) drop in. “Good Blood,” where both trumpet and trombone are present and producer Bob Sheppard is heard on bass clarinet, while Edkins plays alto, is a lush highlight, recalling early ’70s Herbie Hancock. Picking up the soprano, she harmonizes with Sheppard on the winding lines of “The Bug.” On the ballad “Soul Eyes,” her tenor playing is supple and thoughtful. Edkins is a multifaceted player who can strut and sway with equal facility; this debut promises a bright future.
24. Milford Graves/Bill Laswell, Space/Time – Redemption
When bassist/producer Bill Laswell curated a residency at John Zorn‘s performance space The Stone in 2014, he and drummer Milford Graves improvised together. This studio disc (full review here) follows that initial pairing. The drums are recorded in an extremely naturalistic manner, and paired with an effects-slathered bass and occasional, minimal keyboard melodies—it’s an unexpected combination, and one that causes the ear to gravitate toward the spacier, “weirder” sounds. Space/Time – Redemption is a collision of two aesthetics that on the surface couldn’t be farther apart. But pairing Graves with a more “traditionally free” bassist would probably have been much less satisfying than this weird, dreamlike encounter.
23. The Adam Larson Quintet, Selective Amnesia
Saxophonist Adam Larson is joined by pianist Fabian Almazan, guitarist Matthew Stevens, bassist Matt Penman and drummer Jimmy Macbride for his third album, which features eight of his own compositions, with witty titles like “Shitpay,” “Your Loss,” and “The Dope Pope.” The music is very modern, and thus a little dispassionate at times, but the quality of the playing is undeniable. And it never sounds like homework; far from it. “Shitpay” has a loping energy that’s almost Latin jazz, while “Disguise” is a softly exploratory romance (not quite a ballad; Macbride, like Tony Williams, is too active on the hi-hat to let things get too soothing).
22. The Thing, Shake
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The latest album from this Scandinavian power-jazz trio (full review here) features only one of their patented rock cover songs: a version of Loop’s “The Nail Will Burn.” More representative are two compositions by bassist Ingebrigt Håker Flaten, “Til Jord Skal Du Bli” (“To Earth Shall You Return” in Norwegian) and “Fra Jord Er Du Kommet” (“From Earth You Have Come”). While sparse and abstract, they build to impressive levels of roaring intensity, even at ballad tempo. Two guests—alto saxophonist Anna Högberg of Dog Life and cornet player Goran Kajfes of Nacka Forum and Oddjob—show up on the 13-minute “Aim.” This is The Thing‘s most overtly “free jazz” (and best) release in a while.
21. Rodrigo Amado, This Is Our Language
Saxophonist Rodrigo Amado of Portugal teams up with three Americans—saxophonist and trumpeter Joe McPhee, bassist Kent Kessler, and drummer Chris Corsano—for a thoughtful four-way conversation full of carefully negotiated harmonies, free clatter and squawk, and throbbing groove. McPhee never fully takes over, but he keeps the nominal leader on his toes at all times, and the “rhythm section” pay attention to each other when they feel like it, but spend just as much of the album going their own way. There’s plenty of back-and-forth murmuring, and relatively little full-on blare, all things considered. These guys can get loud, but they’d rather surprise with compelling dialogue.