Jazz had a really good year in 2017. From a creative standpoint, every year is a good year for jazz: there are always talented musicians making great records, far too many to put on a single year-end list. But things also looked really positive for the genre in ways not perceptible by just closing one’s eyes and listening. For one thing, it was a fantastic year for female instrumentalists and bandleaders. Nearly half the albums listed below are either led or fronted by women, and several feature multiple women in the band (in three of those cases, it’s the same woman, cellist Tomeka Reid, who will be a guest on the Burning Ambulance podcast very soon). For another, jazz seems to be making serious inroads with younger, not-typically-jazz-aligned listeners. Pitchfork features jazz reviews with greater and greater frequency, Stereogum now has a monthly jazz column and a year-end jazz albums list (full disclosure: I wrote both of these), and Bandcamp regularly profiles jazz artists and showcases jazz albums on its editorial site, Bandcamp Daily. Jazz clubs are seeing an influx of younger patrons, and New York’s annual Winter Jazzfest seems to get bigger every year. Things are looking up.

Trumpeter Jaimie Branch made one of the most universally acclaimed albums of 2017, her sparks-shooting horn lines backed by a bass/cello/drums group that surged and swirled, battered and roared. UK-based saxophonist Camilla George blended hard bop, reggae, and Afrobeat into a stirring, high-energy debut. Vocalist Zara McFarlane, who guested on George’s album, brought her Jamaican heritage to the table, making her third album as much reggae (and its precursors) as jazz. Cellist Akua Dixon picked up the baritone violin and made a moody, beautiful album of originals and surprising covers. Trumpeter Yazz Ahmed blended Middle Eastern music, jazz, and funk into a mosaic of sound that recalled Miles Davis‘s On the Corner, if that corner was located in a Bahrain street market. Saxophonist Nicole Johänntgen went to New Orleans and made a strutting, joyous party album. Cellist Tomeka Reid made vital contributions to albums by Branch and flautist/composer Nicole Mitchell, then recorded a duet disc with alto saxophonist Nick Mazzarella that combined the blues, chamber music, and avant-gutbucket jazz of the Julius Hemphill school. Poet Camae Ayewa, aka Moor Mother, delivered face-melting poetry in front of a blaring free jazz quartet on Irreversible Entanglements‘ incendiary debut. Fire music, indeed.

Harriet Tubman transformed their atmospheric post-metal into a unique kind of fusion, with help from trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith. Saxophonist JD Allen, a perennial BA favorite, took a sharp left turn, joining forces with Henry Threadgill-aligned guitarist Liberty Ellman for a harmolodic, abstract journey. British sax-drums duo Binker and Moses released a double CD—the first was all them, while the second featured high-profile guests, including Evan Parker. Christian Scott made three albums this year that blended New Orleans rhythms with trap beats and his usual high-powered trumpet playing; they were compiled into a single unit at the end, which is why they get one spot on the list. Tyshawn Sorey made a piano trio album that found a middle ground between Muhal Richard Abrams and Morton Feldman. Kamasi Washington followed his 2015 triple CD, The Epic, with a half-hour EP that was simultaneously smoother and more assured. And pianist Jason Moran, having completed his Blue Note contract, moved his creative output over to Bandcamp, where he made a stunning album with guitarist Mary Halvorson and cornet player Ron Miles.

All these albums are great, and it would be very difficult to call one better than the rest. So instead of a ranked list, here are the 25 best jazz albums of the year, in alphabetical order:

Yazz Ahmed, La Saboteuse (Naim Audio)
Ambrose Akinmusire, A Rift in Decorum: Live at the Village Vanguard (Blue Note)
JD Allen, Radio Flyer (Savant)
Tony Allen, The Source (Blue Note)
Binker & Moses, Journey to the Mountain of Forever (Gearbox)
Jaimie Branch, Fly or Die (International Anthem)
Akua Dixon, Akua’s Dance (Akua’s Music)
Amir ElSaffar’s Rivers of Sound Orchestra, Not Two (New Amsterdam)
Ken Fowser, Now Hear This! (Posi-Tone)
Camilla George Quartet, Isang (Ubungu)
Harriet Tubman, Araminta (Sunnyside)
Irreversible Entanglements, Irreversible Entanglements (International Anthem)
Vijay Iyer Sextet, Far From Over (ECM)
Nicole Jöhanntgen, Henry (Label)
Miya Masaoka/Zeena Parkins/Myra Melford, MZM (Label) Myra Melford interview
Nick Mazzarella/Tomeka Reid, Signaling (Nessa)
Zara McFarlane, Arise (Brownswood)
Nicole Mitchell, Mandorla Awakening II: Emerging Worlds (Label)
Jason Moran, BANGS (self-released)
Preservation Hall Jazz Band, So It Is (Sony/Legacy)
Roots Magic, Last Kind Word (Clean Feed)
Christian Scott, The Centennial Trilogy (Ropeadope) Christian Scott interview
Matthew Shipp Trio, Piano Song (Thirsty Ear) Matthew Shipp interview
Tyshawn Sorey, Verisimilitude (Pi Recordings)
Kamasi Washington, Harmony of Difference (Young Turks)

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One Comment on “The Year In Jazz: 2017

  1. Pingback: 2017 Best of Lists from Around the Web: Part II – Avant Music News

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