In 2018, the jazz world saw important releases by revered elders like drummer Andrew Cyrille, trumpeter Eddie Henderson and saxophonist-composer Wayne Shorter along with impressive outings by talented newcomers deserving of wider recognition like bassist Carlos Hernandez, saxophonist JD Allen and trumpeter-composer-arranger Michael Leonhart. Perennial favorites Bill Frisell and John Scofield again find a prominent spot on my year-end list. Tenor sax sensation Joshua Redman unveiled a supergroup and the telepathic duo of bassist Francois Moutin, and daring singer Kavita Shah positively swept me away.
Here are the 10 best jazz albums of 2018:
The longtime Jazz at Lincoln Center bassist and Wynton Marsalis protege explores the Latin side of Dizzy Gillespie on this live outing, recorded at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola in NYC. With a potent frontline of tenor saxophonist Melissa Aldana, trumpeters Mike Rodriguez and Terell Stafford and trombonist Marshall Gilkes, the grooving Afro-Cuban factor is provided by conguero-singer Anthony Almonte, drummer Obed Calvaire, pianist Manuel Valera and the sturdy bassist laying down an authentic tumbao feel underneath. Together they reimagine Dizzy anthems “Groovin’ High” and “Bebop” with an infectious clave groove and punch up the Latin jazz implications on “A Night In Tunisia,” “Manteca” and “Tin Tin Deo.” A sizzling set from a talent deserving of wider recognition.
Accomplished tenor saxophonist/composer Redman pays tribute here to Old and New Dreams, a late-’70s/early-’80s boundary-pushing freebop band of Ornette Coleman Quartet torchbearers that featured his late father Dewey Redman on tenor sax. With bassist Scott Colley playing the Charlie Haden role, cornetist Ron Miles channeling Don Cherry and Brian Blade reviving the spirit of Ed Blackwell, Redman digs deep on his earthy meditation “Blues for Charlie” and soars majestically on Coleman’s 1969 classic “Comme Il Faut.” The interplay between the four is conversational and crackling throughout, with Redman and Miles throwing sparks back and forth on ‘Unanimity” and engaging in call-and-response on Haden’s “Playing.” Another highlight here is Colley’s Ornette-ish “New Year.” A new supergroup for now.
At age 79, free-jazz drumming icon Andrew Cyrille continues to push the envelope. On his second ECM release, he is again paired with the inventive guitarist Bill Frisell. Trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith rounds out the gestalt trio. Smith’s dramatic dedication to Alice Coltrane, “Turiya,” unfolds over four movements with Cyrille shifting nimbly from open-ended rubato playing to West African polyrhythms to earthy blues shuffle. Cyrille’s tender ballad “Pretty Beauty” is underscored by the drummer’s alluring brushwork and Frisell’s patient chording, highlighting Smith’s beautiful lyricism on muted trumpet. The guitarist figures prominently on his lonesome blues “Worried Woman” and on the energized free-for-all “TGD,” brimming with Hendrixian backwards looping effects and distortion-laced skronking. Elder statesman Cyrille plays with grace, zen-like restraint and rare authority throughout this profound work.
A member of Herbie Hancock’s experimental early-’70s Mwandishi sextet, trumpeter Henderson revels in his acoustic hard bop roots on this stellar outing featuring pianist Kenny Barron, alto saxophonist Donald Harrison, bassist Essiet Essiet and drummer Mike Clark. Together they swing effortlessly through Woody Shaw’s surging “The Moontrane” and Miles Davis’ jaunty “Fran Dance,” then show remarkable restraint on John Coltrane’s hauntingly beautiful ballad “Naima.” Barron’s soul-jazz number “Smoke Screen” has the leader tossing off bristling solos on top of the groove. For a change of pace, they take the Tin Pan Alley nugget and timeless jamming vehicle “After You’ve Gone” at a snail’s pace, caressing each note while showcasing the full breadth of Henderson’s warm tone and balladic powers.
Easily Shorter’s most ambitious undertaking in his distinguished and celebrated career, this 3-CD set comes with accompanying 48-page graphic novel penned by Shorter with Monica Sly and illustrated by Randy DuBurke. CD1 is stunning in its breadth and depth. An orchestral outing, it features Shorter blowing ferocious soprano sax alongside his longstanding bandmates (pianist Danilo Perez, bassist John Patitucci, drummer Brian Blade) and the 34-piece Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. Together they navigate their way through dense compositions like “Pegasus” and “Prometheus Unbound,” along with a 12-minute reworking of Shorter’s 1985 tune “The Three Marias.” CD2 is highlighted by a quartet reading of “The Three Marias” that runs 27 minutes and showcases Shorter in a rare performance on tenor sax. A quartet version of “Prometheus Unbound” on CD3 crackles with intensity while featuring some of Shorter’s most impassioned playing of the set. An epic journey into the creative mind of the 85-year-old genius.
Leonhart took a major leap forward as arranger/conductor for Nels Cline’s 2016 Blue Note debut, Lovers. Here the trumpeter/composer fronts his own large ensemble on a seven-movement suite inspired by the butterfly of the same name and its 9,000-mile migration spanning six generations. From the evocative opener “Transformation in the Deserts of Mexico,” sparked by an intense Donny McCaslin tenor solo, to a grandiose “The Silent Swarm Over El Paso,” colored by vocal choir, strings, bass harmonica and Cline’s reverb-soaked surf guitar, this ambitious outing traverses myriad textures, tones and moods. The 12/8 “Countdown to Saskatchewan” features the leader’s harmonizer-effected trumpet solo. One of three extra tracks beyond the suite, “Music Your Grandparents Would Like,” features some sick, fuzz-laden guitar work from Cline (aka Wilco’s secret weapon).
French bass virtuoso joins free-spirited improvising singer on a series of highly conversational duets ranging from the jazz standard “You Go To My Head” to the Edith Piaf anthem “La Vie En Rose” to a scat-fueled take on Bill Evans’ “Interplay.” Special guest Martial Solal, the 90-year-old Algerian-born piano master regarded as the French Art Tatum, joins the two on his “Coming Yesterday” and “Aigue Marine.” And Shah’s mentor Sheila Jordan, who pioneered bass-voice duos in the 1950s with Steve Swallow, guests on the Rodgers & Hart chestnut “Falling In Love With Love,” as well as a soulful take on Horace Silver’s “Peace.” Moutin’s imposing chops, supportive chording and percussive fills make him the ideal partner for Shah’s daring vocal flights. Together they make magic on this near-telepathic encounter.
The remarkably prolific guitarist re-examines some of his earlier works here while showcasing five new compositions in the exposed setting of solo guitar. Using looped layers and finessed chordal voicings on top of basic melodic motifs, Frisell starts many of his tunes from a place of almost naive simplicity before gradually building sonic cathedrals from there. His signature heartland quality permeates sparse offerings like “Pretty Stars” and “Thankful” while his reworking of “Winslow Homer” employs a virtual guitar choir through overdubbing. Condensing his lonesome-sounding “Ron Carter,” originally a septet piece on 2001’s Blues Dream, to solo guitar is a minor miracle, while “Monica Jane,” a poignant ode to his daughter that originally appeared on 1992’s This Land, may be the most precious gem in this intimate collection.
The guitar great melds Albert King-styled string-bending and jazzy horn-like phrasing to melodic vehicles on his followup to 2016’s Grammy-winning County for Old Men. With pianist Gerald Clayton, bassist Vicente Archer and Scofield’s longtime drummer Bill Stewart, Combo 66 shifts nimbly from the moody “Combo Theme” to the catchy “Can’t Dance” to the old school swinger “King of Belgium” (for the late harmonica ace Toots Thielemans). “Icons at the Fair” is a jazzy allusion to Paul Simon’s “Scarborough Fair,” while the intimate ballad “I’m Sleeping In” features Scofield at his lyrical best. Another triumph for the revered six-stringer.
In his first three trio albums (2008’s I Am I Am, 2009’s Shine! and 2011’s Victory!), the tenor saxophonist showcased his Coltrane-inspired chops, bold tone and blowtorch intensity in the company of bassist Gregg August and drummer Rudy Royston. With Love Stone, Allen and his standard crew, augmented by guitarist Liberty Ellman, have mellowed things out considerably. Rapturous readings of “Stranger in Paradise,” “Why Was I Born” and “Until The Real Thing Comes Along,” along with unhurried takes on “You’re My Thrill” and the bluesy “Prisoner Of Love,” make this Allen’s answer to Coltrane’s Ballads.
Honorable mentions: Kurt Elling: The Questions, Rudy Royston: Flatbed Buggy, Steve Cardenas, Charlie and Paul, Ben Allison, Quiet Revolution, Henry Threadgill: Dirt…And More Dirt, Myra Melford’s Snowy Egret: The Other Side of Air, Dr. Lonnie Smith: All In My Mind, Cuong Vu: Change in the Air, Nels Cline: 4 Currents, Constellations, Mary Halvorson-Bill Frisell: The Maid With The Flaxen Hair — A Tribute to Johnny Smith
Paste jazz correspondent Bill Milkowski has been writing about jazz since the 1970s. He’s the author of several books, including a biography of Jaco Pastorius, and has written more than 1,000 set of liner notes for everyone from Weather Report to John Coltrane.