All week long, we’ve been counting down the 25 best jazz albums of 2015 (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4), and we’ve finally reached the finish line. Here are the top five.
5. Sonny Rollins, Complete Live At The Village Gate 1962
After three years of hermetic woodshedding, Sonny Rollins came back and recorded three albums in 1962, including the forbidding Our Man In Jazz, a live set featuring Don Cherry on cornet, Bob Cranshaw on bass and Billy Higgins on drums. This box gathers every note of music over a four-night stand, ultimately yielding six CDs of woolly, free-but-swinging brilliance. This is Rollins at his most oblique and exploratory, working at sometimes extraordinary length and almost perversely dismissive of melody or compositional cohesion. Still, moments of extraordinary beauty are as frequent as you’d expect from players of this caliber. Essential listening.
4. Chris Potter Underground Orchestra, Imaginary Cities
On saxophonist Chris Potter’s second ECM release, he’s expanded his long-running group the Underground (guitarist Adam Rogers, keyboardist Craig Taborn and drummer Nate Smith) into the Underground Orchestra with the addition of vibraphonist Steve Nelson, two bassists (Scott Colley on upright and Fima Ephron on electric), and a string quartet composed of Mark Feldman and Joyce Hammann on violins, Lois Martin on viola and David Eggar on cello. Nearly half of the album’s running time is taken up by the title suite, which runs through four movements and at least as many moods, from string-led balladry to African-esque groove to surprisingly free sections, and well beyond. The three tracks that follow may be less epic, but the players never slack off or make the easy choice.
3. Jeremy Pelt, Tales, Musings And Other Reveries
Trumpeter Jeremy Pelt has released an album for the HighNote label every January since 2010. For the first time ever, he’s the sole horn player on the disc; with no saxophonist to take half the weight, he’s forcing himself to solo longer and harder. And the musicians behind him are creating a more intense, surging sound than he’s had in some time. Pianist Simona Premazzi and bassist Ben Allison are playing in front of two drummers: Victor Lewis in the left speaker, and Billy Drummond in the right. It’s at the point now where every Jeremy Pelt album is an event, a way to start the year having one’s faith in jazz’s emotional power and ability to continually surprise, while remaining essentially itself, confirmed (or restored, if need be).
2. Kamasi Washington, The Epic
The single most talked-about jazz album of 2015 is also one of the year’s best. Washington’s music blends spiritualism and vernacular grooves in a way that recalls early 1970s albums by Archie Shepp and Pharoah Sanders, and his politics are somewhat retro, too – there’s a long sample of a Malcolm X speech tucked away toward the end of this mammoth document’s third CD. But The Epic has an orchestra and a choir to add grandeur to its grooves, and while three discs is too much, every listener’s lists of what to keep and what to cut will be different.
1. JD Allen Trio, Graffiti
It’s been three years since the last JD Allen Trio album, 2012’s The Matador and the Bull, released in summer 2012. After that, Allen formed entirely different bands for his next two albums; on 2013’s Grace and 2014’s Bloom, the power and simplicity he was able to summon so effortlessly with bassist Gregg August and drummer Rudy Royston was missing.
Graffiti is kin to, but in some ways substantially different from, the four previous trio albums. Opening track “Naked” is a sax-drums duo, Allen wandering around in the horn’s lower range as Royston batters the kit in a surprisingly bouncy way, like a man operating a jackhammer from a pogo stick. When August joins, on “Jawn Henry,” the group’s propulsive, melodic swing is immediately back in place, like it was never gone. Allen’s melodies are concise, little figures that he expands upon in a linear manner, while always making room for his bandmates to add their own thoughts.
In the past, the trio were known for short, punchy compositions that stated their highly singable melodies right up front, explored them just long enough to be interesting, then bounced to the next one. Victory! packed 12 tracks into just 36 minutes. Graffiti, by contrast, contains only nine tracks, and four of them are six minutes long or longer. Of course, it doesn’t matter how long or short a piece of music is. It matters what you do with the time. And somehow, Allen and company have managed to stretch out without allowing their expression to become flabby or meandering. “Sonny Boy,” running 6:08, is a taut exercise in disciplined swing and hypnotic tenor playing, built around a maddeningly familiar and earworm-ish bass line. The album also includes a simmering, introspective but not mournful tribute to the late Butch Morris, and an array of the group’s typically hummable, hypnotic melodies, extrapolated into thoroughly conceived improvisational interplay that gives each man time to shine without ever overshadowing or bigfooting his compatriots.
The JD Allen Trio is an almost telepathic, three-headed machine, making some of the most exciting jazz around. But as collaborative as this music is, it’s important to emphasize that Allen himself is the best saxophonist under 60 in jazz, destined to be ranked with John Coltrane, Joe Henderson, Sonny Rollins, and Wayne Shorter. So if you haven’t been paying attention, the time to start is now.
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