Those who pine for a new big idea in jazz—one that lends the music’s next chapter a catchy name—largely miss what’s going on.
Radical thinkers—seeming outliers—are today’s prime movers. If this has been the case throughout much of jazz’s history, what is different today is that these innovators no longer beget clear schools. Jazz’s forward flow is not well measured by stylistic monikers and pop-culture breakthroughs, but rather through profound ripples of impact. The most influential musicians now suggest less about how jazz should sound or be sold and more about how meaningful musical possibilities may be awakened within the context of jazz tradition.
On those terms, two musicians— Henry Threadgill, 71 years old, and Steve Coleman, 59—loom especially large right now. Threadgill and Coleman have achieved masterly and original voices as instrumentalists (both play alto saxophone; Mr. Threadgill is also a flutist). Leading unconventional ensembles, both are starkly authoritative yet also warmly nurturing presences. Both have successfully met one of jazz’s central challenges: to synthesize the acts of composition and improvisation through personalized yet rigorous approaches to structure and form. Each has crafted and stuck to a unique process that can’t really be imitated but can be shared.
And share they have. Their influence stands behind what I sometimes call “the quietest revolution you’ve never heard of”—that is, a growing swath of distinguished musicians whose music owes to direct and indirect lessons learned from the music of Threadgill and Coleman and the bands they lead (sometimes, in Threadgill’s case, conducts). These are subtle ideas with profound effects—the “rhythm chants” that underlie most of Coleman’s music, say, and the ways in which Threadgill liberates each instrument from its conventional role.
My year-end Top 10 jazz albums list includes one musician whose close collaboration with Coleman formed essential inspiration, Jen Shyu. It includes a band that features Threadgill, led by drummer Jack DeJohnette, who absorbed essential influence in the same Chicago scene Threadgill rose from. It’s topped by dazzling CDs from Coleman and Threadgill themselves.
As I’ve written many times, I don’t particularly like this Top Ten game; it’s reductive and in some ways beside the point of how I listen and express my ideas. There’s always a swirl of recordings that could, should, or would on any other day have made the list that follows, including ones from musicians with formative connections to Coleman and Threadgill—singer Cassandra Wilson’s “Coming Forth By Day” (Legacy), drummer Dafnis Prieto’s “Triangles and Circles” (Dafnison), saxophonist Miguel Zenón’s “Identities Are Changeable” (Miel Music), among others.
In jazz, some albums represent powerful crystallizations of concept and execution. Shyu’s “Sounds and Cries of the World” is one good example, synthesizing a decade’s worth of musicological research and the final flowering of an ambitious idea (see below). Yet others merely mark moments in an ongoing evolution, as is the case with the CDs that top this list. You’d have needed to hear Threadgill in concert during the past year with his Double Up ensemble (included two pianists and, more recently, three) to know where his sound has gone since he recorded 2015’s “In for a Penny, in for a Pound.” And you’d have needed to catch Coleman’s recent Village Vanguard date to hear how he’s distilled the sprawling beauty of his “Synovial Joints” CD into a wondrous drummerless nonet.
This was a good year for jazz singing. Shyu’s album exploded ideas about what any singer in any tradition can do. Wilson’s cast Billie Holidays’ legacy (and her own) in new light. And Cécile McLorin Salvant, whose album knocked hard on this list’s door, persuaded me to feeling like the conventions of traditional jazz singing still form fertile soil.
This year continued the best story in modern jazz for at least the past decade—the resurgent and reimagined presence of Afro Latin influence. Two albums in this Top Ten attest to all that—from pianist Arturo O’Farrill’s Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra and Cuban pianist Chucho Valdés. Cuban pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba’s duet with bassist Charlie Haden made this list. So could have Rubalcaba’s own CD, “Faith Live” (5Passion) or the aforementioned albums by Prieto, who is Cuban, and Zenón, who was born and raised in Puerto Rico. So could have “L’ó dá fún Bàtá” (Motema) from percussionist Román Díaz, whose fingerprints are all over much of New York’s best music right now.
That list, below:
Steve Coleman Synovial Joints (Pi)
Coleman has a gift for subtle rhythmic insistence, and for crafting ribbons of theme that snake and slither or float and unfurl in unexpected ways. He refers to his work as “community music.” That community has some basic requirements—an understanding of Charlie Parker’s improvisational language, a fluency in multiple rhythmic traditions. Beyond that, it values bonding of a familial kind, and the willingness to follow Mr. Coleman’s obsessions. Here he gathers 21 musicians, augmenting members of his core Five Elements band with strings, woodwinds and percussion, packing a great deal. It’s a stunning leap, even from a musician whose music has moved forward consistently for three decades.
Henry Threadgill Zooid In for a Penny, in for a Pound (Pi)
Threadgill focuses here on Zooid, the longest-running of his several celebrated ensembles, and spills across two CDs. His liner notes cite each piece as focused on a different instrument, yet his music’s nature defies such analysis. The music here is born of group communion and speaks foremost of the landscapes of sound created by Threadgill, the greatest American composer of my lifetime in any form. And yet Threadgill’s own playing—full-throated and ripe on alto saxophone, airy yet declarative on flute and bass flute—best defines the music’s essence, often through short fanfare-like bursts or a judicious single note.
Charlie Haden/Gonzalo Rubalcaba Tokyo Adagio (Impulse!)
As a bassist and bandleader, Haden, who died in 2014, was a towering musician. One of his gifts was for getting the best out of other musicians in duet (he recorded lots of them). He had a special relationship with Rubalcaba, who was 25 years his junior. Here’s how Haden once described for me the beginning, at a 1986 festival in Havana, of his deep bond with Rubalcaba: “Gonzalo’s band came on, he took a piano solo, and I nearly fell of my chair. I told the organizers, ‘Take me back to meet him.’ He spoke very little English at the time. But we arranged to meet the next day. We played for hours and hours.”) Haden played on Rubalcaba’s 1990 Blue Note Records debut; Rubalcaba played on and produced two Haden albums, “Nocturne” and “Land of the Sun,” both Grammy winners. The blissful intensity to these pieces, mostly ballads, recorded in 2005 at Tokyo’s Blue Note club, would comes across even without that backstory.
Jen Shyu & Jade Tongue Sounds and Cries of the World (Pi)
Here, Shyu sings original lyrics in five languages: English, Korean, Javanese, Indonesian and Tetum, the language of East Timor. She plays instruments that originated in four different countries. Despite these facts and even the album’s clinical-sounding title, this is neither world music nor fusion of any sort. Shyu makes a statement of cultural preservation with her Jade Tongue ensemble, yet it arrives embedded gracefully within a quite natural, if startlingly distinctive, form of musical expression. These are ritual songs from afar, paddling gently through the ebb and flow of improvised jazz. Or jazz-ensemble pieces sailing past folkloric signposts. They suggest timeless qualities of specific Asian traditions but even more so the promise of present-day New York. Along with the five languages Shyu speaks here is an unspoken one—the improvised lingua franca of jazz’s most accomplished musicians that connects her influences and animates her ambitions.
Fred Hersch Solo (Palmetto)
In some ways, it’s remarkable that pianist Fred Hersch is with us to celebrate his 60th birthday, which this solo CD marked. Hersch’s brilliant multimedia piece, “My Coma Dreams,” recalled and recast the two months he spent in a coma in 2008, the result of pneumonia run rampant, which followed a terrifying bout of dementia caused by the AIDS virus he has battled for 25 years. Five years ago, I sat the kitchen of Hersch’s SoHo loft. “People tell me that my playing is somehow deeper now since my recovery,” he told me. “I can’t judge whether that’s true or not. But I’ve always been determined to be my own man at the piano. And now, I feel even more of a desire to just be Fred.” It’s true. And being Fred means being one of the most distinctive and complete pianists in jazz.
Jack DeJohnette Made in Chicago (ECM)
DeJohnette returned to his roots when he convening a band featuring all-star musicians from his early days in Chicago— including saxophonists Roscoe Mitchell and Henry Threadgill and pianist Muhal Richard Abrams—for the 2013 concert at which these tracks were recorded. It’s a fitting tribute to the legacy of Abrams’s Experimental Band, in which the other three played, and to the deeply influential Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) which Abrams’ band helped seed and which this year turned 50 (and is still going strong). Not all such reunions make for satisfying listening; this one does so, and more: It suggests the sort of conversational air that forms only among dear and longtime friends.
William Parker For Those Who Are, Still (Aum Fidelity)
Parker favors grand gestures. His 2013 release, “Wood Flute Songs,” spanned eight CDs and six years of live recordings. His most ambitious work to date, this release presents four long-form works including Parker’s first recorded composition for symphony orchestra, and a commissioned piece for the standing ensemble of the Kitchen, a Lower East Side Manhattan arts collective with its own deep avant-garde tradition. The news here is that Mr. Parker can write fluently and inventively for strings. More familiar are what Parker creates in any context: entrancing ebbs-and-flows; the sparkle of a silence after a crescendo; and layer upon layer of motifs that complement one another and shift subtly over time.
Charles Lloyd Wild Man Dance (Blue Note)
At 77, tenor saxophonist Charles Lloyd is both jazz’s wise old mystic and its wild child. His music evolves without ever losing its timeless bluesy core; it remains accessible while growing increasingly nuanced and sophisticated. This six-movement work, recorded in its premiere performance at a Polish jazz festival and features, introduces new Lloyd collaborators (pianist Gerald Clayton, bassist Joe Sanders, and drummer Gerald Cleaver) and deepens his ongoing associations with Greek lyra virtuoso Sokratis Sinopoulos and Hungarian cimbalom maestro Miklós Lukács.
Arturo O’Farrill Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra Cuba: The Conversation Continued (Motema)
O’Farrill’s powerhouse orchestra was in the midst of recording at Havana’s Abdala Studios when Presidents Barack Obama and Raúl Castro announced a historic policy shift in December 2014. By January of this year, the U.S. and Cuba opened their highest-level diplomatic talks in nearly 40 years, beginning a process, as Obama described, “to move beyond a rigid policy that is rooted in events that took place before most of us were born.” O’Farrill has been working on the musical equivalent of all that for more than a decade. Here, his collaborators include Cuban guests: trumpeters Yasek Manzano and Kalí Rodríguez-Peña; pianist and composer Alexis Bosch; and Juan de la Cruz Antomarchi, a master of the guitarlike Cuban tres who is better known as simply “Cotó.” “All this began in 2002, when an idea took root in my heart,” O’Farrill told me. “I wanted to create an ongoing conversation between musicians, to continue the one started decades ago by Dizzy Gillespie and [Cuban percussionist] Chano Pozo. People think revolution and ideological differences put an end to this conversation, but we’re pursuing this thing that Dizzy called a ‘global music,’ which has a multiplicity of opinions.”
Chucho Valdés Tribute to Irakere (Live in Marciac) (Jazz Village/Harmonia Mundi)
When pianist Valdés presented “Irakere 40” at Manhattan’s Town Hall earlier this month, he rekindled the sound of a band with which he changed the course of Cuban music four decades ago. Older audience members might have attended Irakere’s U.S. debut at Carnegie Hall during the 1978 Newport Jazz Festival. Appearing unannounced on a program that featured jazz pianists Mary Lou Williams, McCoy Tyner and Bill Evans, Irakere stole that show. Then, Valdés introduced New Yorkers to a bold and subversive music, both a response to Cuba’s post-revolution rejection of American jazz and rock and a seed for Cuban dance music now known as timbá. His tight band with a huge sound expressed a sweep of influences that ranged from Afro Cuban folkloric music to bebop, from Valdés’ father, Bebo (a towering Cuban pianist and composer in his own right) to Blood, Sweat & Tears. His current ten-piece group is less reconstituted Irakere than expanded Messengers, featuring three trumpets and two saxophones; the musicians are, for the most part, roughly half Valdés’ age. Valdés call this album a tribute to Irakere. It sounds more like testimony to the continuity and vitality of a vision that has always spanned borders and genres, conflated centuries, defied politics and, by now, having influenced generations, is bigger than any one band.