This wasn’t a year of radical transformation in the world of jazz. There was no single breakout star, and no explosion like the sudden realization last year that some really major shit was going down in London. But a tremendous amount of extraordinarily good music was released, and there was something for just about every taste. If you liked smooth modern jazz with one foot in R&B, then trumpeter Marquis Hill’s Love Tape was for you; if you wanted intricately composed chamber music, saxophonist Anna Webber’s Clockwise was a must-hear; if you wanted to throw your arms in the air and dance like a maniac, sax/synth/drums trio the Comet Is Coming had two records, Trust In The Lifeforce Of The Deep Mystery and The Aftermath, to play as loudly as your lease would allow.
As always, there were deaths: the Art Ensemble Of Chicago’s Joseph Jarman, keyboardist/singer Dr. John, drummer Ginger Baker, pianists Michel Legrand, Harold Mabern, and Larry Willis, guitarist and longtime ECM Records engineer Jan Erik Kongshaug, Criss Cross label head Gerry Teekens, poet Steve Dalachinsky, and others. It was a year of major anniversaries, too: ECM turned 50, as did the Art Ensemble Of Chicago and Miles Davis’ In A Silent Way. Music critic Natalie Weiner put together an amazing website, the 1959 Project, providing a daily snapshot of what many have called jazz’s greatest year. (It was, after all, the year that produced Davis’ Kind Of Blue, Charles Mingus’ Mingus Ah Um, Thelonious Monk’s The Thelonious Monk Orchestra At Town Hall, and Ornette Coleman’s The Shape Of Jazz To Come, to name just a few.)
The 10 albums listed below are the best jazz releases of the year in a specific sense: After three years of writing this column (and with plans to continue), I have a decent sense of what Stereogum readers want from a jazz record, and it’s what I want most of the time, too. The ability to put a new spin on a standard that’s been recorded hundreds of times already is not high on that list, but saying something original in an entertaining and accessible way absolutely is. The albums below are almost all filled with music composed by the people playing it (there are a couple of outside tunes on the Branford Marsalis disc, but they’re ones you’re likely not familiar with), and they’re all populist records. By that, I mean that you could put them on for people who either don’t know much about jazz or would tell you they don’t listen to it, and by the end, they might well be won over.
There were a lot of records that almost made the cut this year, and when they didn’t, it was by narrow margins. I highly recommend checking out the Art Ensemble Of Chicago’s half-studio, half-live double CD We Are On The Edge: A 50th Anniversary Celebration, with stunning guest work by Moor Mother, among many others; Joshua Redman’s Sun On Sand, a collaboration with the string quartet Brooklyn Rider; the London septet Nérija’s Blume; trumpeter Josh Lawrence’s Triptych; Earth, Wind & Fire vocalist Philip Bailey’s Love Will Find A Way (featuring Robert Glasper, Kamasi Washington, Christian McBride, Chick Corea, and others); and JD Allen’s Barracoon, one of his most raw and unfettered albums ever. But for now, check out the 10 discs below, as they are uniformly tremendous, while demonstrating the vast breadth of jazz in 2019.
10 Allison Miller’s Boom Tic Boom – Glitter Wolf (Royal Potato Family)
Drummer Allison Miller has been leading Boom Tic Boom since 2010. They started out as a quartet featuring violinist Jenny Scheinman, pianist Myra Melford, and bassist Todd Sickafoose. Beginning with their second album (Glitter Wolf is their fourth), cornet player Kirk Knuffke and clarinet player Ben Goldberg came on board, and the music became a little more raucous and a lot more fun. At its softer moments, it has a kind of chamber music feel, but there aren’t that many soft moments. Miller hits hard and likes to swing, and Sickafoose is happiest when he’s bouncing along beside her. Together, they and Melford — a pianist who can play as free as she likes, or dig deep into the blues — lay down thick, pulsing jazz grooves over which Knuffke and Goldberg take energetic, lyrical solos as Scheinman adds just a touch of extra bite. This is a complex, thoughtful album that you can throw on at a party.
9 Branford Marsalis Quartet – The Secret Between The Shadow And The Soul (OKeh / Marsalis Music)
Branford Marsalis’s current quartet — with pianist Joey Calderazzo, bassist Eric Revis, and drummer Justin Faulkner — has been together for a decade, but this is only their third album, following 2012’s Four MFs’ Playin’ Tunes and 2016’s Upward Spiral with guest vocalist Kurt Elling. The music they make is complex, the kind of thing you can really only do if you’re a steadily working band (which this group is) where each member knows the others well enough to challenge them productively. Marsalis will play in almost any context, but when he leads this group his traditionalist, formalist side takes over, and he leaps with both feet into high-level post-bop here; every track offers a blend of intriguing melody, forceful collective swing, and intricate soloing. Nobody’s slacking off or fucking around, and while it seems like Marsalis prefers to keep this band alive on the road, this album is one hell of a postcard.
8 Matana Roberts – Coin Coin Chapter Four: Memphis (Constellation)
I really hope physical music formats still exist by the time saxophonist, composer, and multimedia artist Matana Roberts finishes her 12-volume Coin Coin series of albums. I want to see a line of CDs on my shelf. On this fourth volume, she’s joined by Hannah Marcus on guitars, fiddle, and accordion; Sam Shalabi on guitar and oud; Steve Swell on trombone; Ryan White on vibraphone; bassist Nicolas Caloia; and percussionist Ryan Sawyer. The music mixes swirling ensemble playing, fiercely raw solos, theatrical readings of text, and haunted background vocals from the entire ensemble and a few other folks. Most of the pieces blend together into long suites, but still work individually. Roberts plays some truly blistering sax here, with the guitar and violin frequently doing psychedelic noise-rock stuff over explosive drumming. There are quiet moments too, but the overall intensity never flags. This album — this entire series of albums — is a must-hear.
7 SEED Ensemble – Driftglass (Jazz re:freshed)
SEED Ensemble is led by saxophonist Cassie Kinoshi, who writes and arranges the material. The lineup includes trumpeters Miguel Gorodi and Sheila Maurice-Grey, trombonist Joe Bristow, tenor saxophonist Chelsea Carmichael, Theon Cross on tuba, guitarist Shirley Tetteh, either Joe Armon-Jones or Sarah Tandy on keyboards, bassist Rio Kai, and drummer Patrick Boyle, and the music is complex, swirling and frequently changing directions, even as it settles down to allow poets to speak their minds on several tracks. A lot of London jazz draws from a dance-club atmosphere; the bass lines groove hard, the drummers clatter and thump. This music has some elements of that, but it’s also densely orchestrated and deeply indebted to adventurous, classic 1960s jazz. If you like albums like Andrew Hill’s Passing Ships or McCoy Tyner’s Tender Moments, you’ll like this. (And if you haven’t heard those albums yet, dive in.)
6 Victor Gould – Thoughts Become Things (Blue Room)
Pianist Victor Gould’s debut album, 2016’s Clockwork, featured a large ensemble with multiple horns, extra percussion, and a string quartet, and really made use of every element in panoramic compositions. This album, his third, is a worthy semi-sequel (even the cover art is similar) that includes a few of the same players, including trumpeter Jeremy Pelt (who also employs Gould as a sideman), flutist Anne Drummond, and alto and soprano saxophonist Godwin Louis. Dayna Stephens is on tenor sax, and bassist Vicente Archer and drummer Rodney Green are in back. The music has a lushness not unlike the 1970s work of trumpeter Woody Shaw, on albums like Rosewood and Love Dance. The horns are frequently fiery, the rhythm section swings hard, and Gould’s piano playing is romantic and thoughtful, but the string quartet — used sparingly, not as wallpaper — gives it an unexpected extra something that really sets this record apart.
5 Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah – Ancestral Recall (Stretch Music/Ropeadope)
Christian Scott is one of a class of young trumpeters who have never known a world without hip-hop, and whose music is consequently informed by it to a degree that their older peers can’t match. (Theo Croker, Keyon Harrold, and Marquis Hill are the other members of this group — there are certainly more, but these guys are the Big Four.) He’s a ferociously talented trumpeter, but rarely if ever engages in traditional hard bop fireworks displays. Instead, he blends his custom horns into the music, not so much taking the lead as dancing in the middle of the circle. Ancestral Recall builds on what Scott did on his 2017 trilogy Ruler Rebel, Diaspora, and The Emancipation Procrastination: He combines hip-hop and trap beats, ice-cold electronic atmospheres, and rhythms from across the Afro-Caribbean diaspora to create a swirling cloud of sound, floating over oceans of rhythm. It’s as much a sustained mood as a collection of individual compositions, but at its best it’s stunningly beautiful.
4 Theon Cross – Fyah (Gearbox)
It may seem like a small thing, but the London jazz scene deserves a ton of credit for bringing the tuba back to a prominence it hasn’t enjoyed in decades. Theon Cross is a member of Sons Of Kemet, Ezra Collective, and the SEED Ensemble, and has played with Makaya McCraven, Moses Boyd, and others. This is his second release as a leader, following 2015’s Aspirations EP, and features Nubya Garcia on saxophone and Boyd on drums on most tracks. Cross’s tuba playing is sometimes organic, and sometimes fed through subtle reverb and other effects to create a sound like a dub bassline. Boyd’s tight-but-loose drumming reminds me of the Meters’ Zigaboo Modeliste, and Garcia’s saxophone playing is hypnotic, looping phrases over and over and only occasionally cutting loose. Some tracks include background sounds that almost make them sound like live recordings from a street fair.
3 Jeremy Pelt – Jeremy Pelt The Artist (HighNote)
Trumpeter Jeremy Pelt puts out an album every year, and it’s always at least worth hearing. This one is a genuine triumph. The first half of the disc is a five-part suite inspired by the sculptures of Auguste Rodin. The band features pianist Victor Gould, keyboardist Frank LoCrasto, Chien Chien Lu on vibraphone, Vicente Archer on bass, Allan Mednard on drums, and Ismel Wignall on percussion. That’s a group capable of doing everything from straightforward hard bop to abstract, time-warping soundscapes, and they do so on this album. The third segment of the suite, “I Sol Tace (Gates Of Hell),” is an example of the group at its most introspective and psychedelic. Pelt’s trumpet is warped by electronics, Lu’s vibes and Wignall’s percussion slap and rattle from the margins, and Archer and Mednard set up a booming groove as Gould and LoCrasto fill in the gaps. This is really beautiful, adventurous music that’s never hostile or overpowering.
2 Yazz Ahmed – Polyhymnia (Ropeadope)
Trumpeter Yazz Ahmed’s follow-up to 2017’s La Saboteuse began as a commissioned work to be performed on International Women’s Day in 2015; its six tracks are dedicated to historical figures like Rosa Parks, Ruby Bridges, and Malala Yousafzai. The music is performed by a large, almost entirely female ensemble that includes saxophonists Camilla George and Nubya Garcia, guitarist Shirley Tetteh, and pianist Sarah Tandy. Ahmed is a highly skilled arranger and composer, with the ability to create cinematic vistas of sound. The size of the ensemble gives her a vast number of colors to play with, and she uses them all, creating music that has the surging power of big band swing, the keening trancelike melancholy of Arabic music, and the swirling psychedelia of electric Miles Davis. And her own flugelhorn playing is lush and beautiful. Each track here has its own character, but the whole work is a breathtaking statement.
1 Jaimie Branch – Fly Or Die II: Bird Dogs Of Paradise (International Anthem)
Trumpeter Jaimie Branch’s second album as a leader is exactly the sequel its title suggests, but it’s much more than that. There’s been one major shift in personnel: The band’s original cellist, Tomeka Reid, broke out on her own, so young phenom Lester St. Louis has taken over, making the spot his own. He locks in with bassist Jason Ajemian and drummer Chad Taylor on minimal, bluesy grooves that speed up and slow down like a human heartbeat. Branch delivers fierce, polemical lyrics on two tracks here; her murmuring but still impassioned voice complements her piercing, white-hot trumpet perfectly. “Prayer For Amerikkka Pt. 1 & 2″ is a stunning two-part epic, beginning as a crawling blues half Mingus and half Julius Hemphill, until its jumps into high gear in the second half, as the subject switches from gentrification to the abuse of refugees and migrants and the music becomes Latin-tinged. It’s too bad the phrase “a heartbreaking work of staggering genius” was claimed long ago by one of America’s douchiest writers, because it really applies here.
Listen to a playlist of key tracks from each album on Spotify.