Best jazz albums of 2017 often found the big picture in all its ugly beauty

Best jazz albums 2017

Jazz musicians thought big in 2017, perhaps realizing that if a reality TV/star/oft-bankrupted real estate developer could be president, certainly a thoughtful jazz musician could reach for a large statement, beyond the notes and chords. And thus, many notable albums writ large, whether culturally or politically. In my choices for the year’s best, I strove, as always, to judge an album on the intentions –  and the merits that arose thereof.

Nevertheless, if an ambitious thematic work persuaded, and with compelling music, the impact was hard to deny. So you had albums with social or political agendas such as Nicole Mitchell’s future-vision Mandorla Awakening: Emerging Worlds; Ted Nash’s orchestral Presidential Suite, with accompanied readings of presidents and prime ministers by other well-known leaders; and the always activist-minded Charlie Haden Liberation Music Orchestra’s Time/Life, emerging as perhaps the final statement of one of our most beloved musicians, who died a few years ago.

Less overtly political, but as musically ambitious in content and scale as any was Brian Lynch’s Madera Latino, (pictured above) a Latin jazz reinterpretation of one of the still under-sung masters of modern music, trumpeter Woody Shaw.

In contrast to Lynch’s muscular front lines, often with three brilliant trumpets riding clave rhythms, was the comparative intimacy of the duet album Masters in Bordeaux by French pianist Martial Solal and American saxophonist/flutist Dave Liebman. This showed that ultimately jazz is about dialogue, whether between two (here from different continents) or, by extension, ever-increasing groups of speakers, implying a template for the democratic process, as I have written about in depth in my forthcoming book, Voices in the River: The Jazz Message to Democracy.

Another album “bubbling under” my top ten with a capacious concept is tenor saxophonist Noah Preminger’s Meditations on Freedom. It’s redolent of Charles Mingus’ great “meditations,” though perhaps more studied. Hear sax-trumpet-bass-drums interpreting Dylan’s magnificent “Only a Pawn in their Game,” Bruce Hornsby’s “Just the Way It Is,” Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come,” and George Harrison’s”Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth).” Plus there’s original tributes to “Mother Earth”, “Women’s March,” “The 99%,” and more. I also loved how the deeply rootsy concept of Adam Nussbaum’s The Leadbelly Project played out.

So I encourage you to explore at least some of these titles for their layers –  musical, textual and political. You’ll be a richer, more-informed arts patron and citizen. I hope that an informed citizen and one flying with culture-vulture wings are two sides of the same coin. They might fly high enough to catch the sun’s fiery natural energy — to expand our powers of healing, production and progress in these uncertain and often-dismaying political times. In that spirit, how do we learn — without suffering the fate of Icarus — what is possible and what might be self-destructive? True collective power and compassion will usually trump narcissistic grandiosity.

Here are my choices for best jazz albums of 2017, in order of preference. I include links to my reviews of albums I covered in some depth during the year:

Brian Lynch – Presents Madera Latino: A Latin Jazz Perspective on the Music of Woody Shaw (Hollistic MusicWorks) The Milwaukee native has reached the jazz mountaintop after a humbly serious career of historically-minded music making with a dazzling two-disc set, which Illuminated one of his great models, trumpeter Woody Shaw. It ranged from the late elder’s inherent lyricism in “Sweet Love of Mine” to a wide expanse of Shaw’s meatiest, most forward-thinking post-bop jazz: “Song of Songs,” “Zoltan, “In a Capricornian Way,” and very hip Lynch originals like “Blues for Woody and Khalid” (for the recently passed Khalid Larry Young, the innovative organist perhaps best known for his classic album Unity! with Woody, The Tony Williams Lifetime, Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew etc.).  Accordingly, The Jazz Journalists Association chose this as album of the year and Lynch as trumpeter of the year. Kudos to Brian (no relation to the writer).

Here’s a nifty video on the Madera Latino recording sessions:

Nicole Mitchell  – Mandorla Awakening: Emerging Worlds (FPE)

Flutist-composer Nicole Mitchell brings her utopian vision to Milwaukee

Tom Harrell – Moving Picture (High Note) review/preview:

As the days dwindle down, jazz heats up in Milwaukee

Charlie Haden Liberation Music Orchestra – Time/Life (Impulse!)

Ted Nash Big Band  – Presidential Suite (Motema)

Chris Potter – The Dreamer is the Dream (ECM)

Martial Solal & Dave Liebman – Masters in Bordeaux (Sunnyside)

Miguel Zenon – Tipico (Miel Music)

Brian Blade & the Fellowship Band –  Body and Shadow (Blue Note)

Fred Hersch – Open Book (Palmetto)

BEST JAZZ VOCAL ALBUM

Jackie Allen – Rose Fingered Dawn: The Songs of Hans Sturm (Avant Bass)

Jackie Allen mesmerises with personal vision and poetic music

BEST VOCAL RUNNER-UPS:

Dominique Eade and Ran Blake – Town & Country (Sunnyside)

Gregory Porter – Nat “King” Cole & Me (Blue Note)

Father Sky – Father Sky (Self-released) Sleeper album of the year.

Father Sky is soulful music to your ears and to the earth

BEST HISTORICAL ALBUM

Thelonious Monk – Les Liasons Dangereuses 1960 (Sam) If anyone ever understood, “ugly beauty” – as we hope to put a palatable face on contemporary America – it was Monk, who built an aesthetic on the notion, and even wrote a tune titled “Ugly Beauty.” Here he’s in his prime, hard-swinging but ever-cubistic and melodic, for a soundtrack that was never used — probably because it’s too strong and arresting to be movie background music.

HISTORICAL RUNNER-UP

Idrees Sulieman Quartet – The Four American Jazzmen in Tangier, featuring Oscar Dennard (Sunnyside)

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