Top Ten Jazz Recordings of 2015

Steve Coleman (left) and Henry Threadgill top my list and loom large on today's jazz landscape. (photos: left-courtesy Pi Recordings; right—Nhumi Threadgill)
Steve Coleman (left) and Henry Threadgill top my list and loom large on today’s jazz landscape. (photos: left-courtesy Pi Recordings; right—Nhumi Threadgill)

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. Continue reading “Top Ten Jazz Recordings of 2015”