During my freshman year in college, a friend and I were hanging in my dorm room and listening to BADBADNOTGOOD‘s BBNG2. After a couple of songs, he turned to me and mused “What ever happened to jazz? I wish we lived in the days of nights on the town hitting up smoke-filled jazz clubs.” Our ensuing back and forth reminded me of some key dialogue from Mo’ Better Blues, a film which I encountered via The Roots‘s excellent album Things Fall Apart. The back and forth centers around a central question in the relevance of an art form: do you retain your integrity as an artist and risk falling behind the times, or do you give in to popular trends to stay in the public’s favor, even if it means avoiding the styles you’d rather pursue? To pull just a small quote from the exchange: “The people don’t come because you grandiose motherfuckers don’t play shit that they like. If you played the shit that they liked, then the people would come. Simple as that.”
For me, jazz has had a particularly difficult relationship with this dilemma, which doesn’t correlate quite the way you might think. Whereas the above debate insinuates that “safe” and “traditional” music is what the public wants while artists wish to take risks, jazz’s problem is, in my view, the exact opposite. I’ve had to read through prominent jazz magazines for a couple of my jobs to look for coverage of my company’s clients, and a consistent theme of “critic-approved jazz” becomes apparent the more time you spend reading these publications’ reviews. Instead of rewarding experimentation and new ideas, it’s often referred to as quaint or too far outside what’s “acceptable” for the genre. I read a mostly negative review from one of these mags for GoGo Penuin‘s A Humdrum Star which labeled it as “art pop” and critiqued its ideas as too “novel.” In essence, these critics aren’t interested in what the people want, nor what forward-thinking artists want; to them, jazz can grow, but only to specific lengths in specific directions.
This is where our recurring Jazz Quarterly column comes in, as I feel this is one of the best tools we have on our site to prove that jazz is not only far from dead, but thriving. This old school mindset inhibits jazz’s prominence in the public eye. Prominent jazz critics are limiting what’s worthy of their endorsement with parameters that fly in the face of the realities of the genre and modern music in general, being that forward-thinking, engaging jazz that challenges norms is truly what will capture the attention of modern listeners. Not everything we recommend here is accessible, and much of it will never scrape into the mainstream. But what I love most about penning this column with Nick, Dave and Ahmed is the fact we consistently bring together an eclectic list of albums rife with fresh ideas and, most importantly, exceptional jazz that makes the genre better and more diverse. As much as I love the classic jazz albums in my CD and vinyl collection, the future of jazz isn’t with Blue Note and Impulse reissues or artists aiming to emulate that sound note for note. The future of jazz is with the types of artists we explore below, and I hope you find at least album from this list that proves that point for you.
ADT – Insecurities (avant-garde jazz fusion)
“Fusion” is becoming somewhat of a mainstay in prog metal, of all places. In a way it makes sense: jazz and prog are too highly technical genres, and fusion serves as a link between each style’s rock roots. With the rising prominence of prog fusion, Insecurities could potentially be a crossover hit for many members of our core readership who appreciate jazzy influences and experimental tendencies, and in general, fans of truly great experimental music will find a lot to love about what ADT has to offer. The band’s canvas feels like a reinterpretation of famous fusion artwork painted for Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock, except this time, the available is all neon and the artists are hopped up on an even heavier dose of mind-bending substances. Insecurities blends all the strengths of fusion and avant-garde jazz with modern experimental norms, making for a jazz-rock experience totally unique in its approach to each end of the genre spectrum.
Anenon – Tongue (ambient jazz)
Ambient music and modal jazz are my go-to genres when I need relaxing music. Each presents a relative directness and simplicity in their approach while also creating patches of soothing notes and melodies that are perfect for all of my “chill” needs, whether it be a summer drive with the windows down or a night inside as snow cascades around my house. One of my favorite pats of modern music is the availability of seemingly every genre combination imaginable, which is why I was particularly thrilled to stumble upon Anenon‘s gorgeous synthesis of melodic jazz and ambient atmospheres on Tongue. This is one of those records I daydream about hearing someday but don’t always discover, which makes Tongue that much more of a highlight among this year’s jazz offerings. Whirring sax, field recordings and stirring piano and synth melodies weave together to produce the sheer definition of “beauty” on album more focused on achieving a gorgeous aesthetic than worrying about fitting any preconceived genre formulas. It’s this liberated approach that bolsters Tongue‘s exceptional quality; the compositions defy jazz norms while retaining it’s greatest melodic and atmospheric strengths, resulting in an invigorating, moving listen for fans and skeptics of the genre alike.
Bernhard Meyer – Murmuration (post-jazz, modern jazz)
Bernhard Meyer’s Murmuration is often labeled as a post-jazz album, and it’s easy to see why. Apply a similar formula to post-rock’s to a jazz band, and you can already imagine what this sounds like. A perhaps more accurate descriptor would be modern jazz, even if it’s still rather loose as a term. Nevertheless, Murmuration is a truly fantastic, slightly minimalistic jazz album.
COAST – COAST (jazz fusion)
Praise be to Art As Catharsis, for they surely seem to know how to pick out some of the coolest and most interesting music coming out of Australia’s thriving music communities across seemingly all genres. COAST is just the latest one that borrows the best aspects of sleek, classic jazz fusion with plenty of other experimental flourishes. Opener “Blackline” is the perfect summation of this with its squiggly synth touches, heavy drum hits, buttery smooth sax and guitar solos, and killer lead lines. “Or Not” has a lead melody that could’ve fit easily on a classic Wayne Shorter record with a funky synth and rock drum groove that Herbie Hancock surely would recognize and appreciate. The more serene “Tide” and “Obin” are far more fluid and subtle in their complexities but just as rewarding. Where COAST succeed beyond merely treading on the jazz fusion ground of their elders though is the fun and playful nature they imbue throughout the album’s 6 tracks, as well as the strong cohesion of sound and ideas that unify them. It’s not breaking new grounds in jazz fusion, but it refreshes it to create a package that sounds as vibrant and cool today as it would have decades ago.
Death Drag – Shifted (avant-garde jazz, noise metal)
I’ve liked Iluso Records ever since discovering the amazing band dMu from them! However, they have many other noticeable releases, such as Death Drag’s Shifted, from January. Death Drag is a quartet from London that blurs the line between avant-garde jazz and metal. They move between atmospheric passages to more in-your-face insanity, and they say it’s a blend of contemporary classical and avant-garde jazz approach to playing noise metal. It can’t be said enough how much I like this album, as I’m sure you will too!
Eave – Eave (free jazz)
Eave is a Montréalais minimalist free jazz quartet, and their self-titled debut more than amazed me! Don’t let the minimalist descriptor fool you into thinking this is boring and uneventful, Eave is always interesting and moving, it just does so in whispers rather than in shouts. Some of the songs are rather pleasing and beautiful, while others sound completely alien and ominous, eerie and deranged, and could play the part perfectly as a thriller or horror movie soundtrack.
Garrett Wingfield’s Octopod – Monoliths and Sepulchres (free jazz, avant-garde jazz)
Here’s a full-length album from an avant-garde jazz octet that has the goal of diving into the absurd on Monoliths and Sepulchres. If it’s not already clear by the aura of “Prelude [sGW]” and its eccentric showcase of brass, it will become so long before the end of the album. You have free, improvised interludes that fill the blanks between the erratic but thoughtfully written main pieces, at the count of seven. The album has been crowdfunded, and its release did not disappoint; this album is awesome!
GoGo Penguin – A Humdrum Star (nu-jazz, minimalism)
The trouble with talking about a band like GoGo Penguin is that they are so ridiculously consistent in what they do that it’s easy to take for granted just how impressive the thing they do so often is. I wrote about that somewhat inadvertently in my original write-up of the album as I found myself overall impressed with the album but at times a bit lukewarm if only because it felt like they had already made similar musical statements on Man Made Object. But then I’ll come back to A Humdrum Star after a while and listen to some tracks like “Transient State,” “Reactor,” and “Window” and be reminded that, no, this isn’t at all ordinary or usual. Their fusion of intricate and precise rhythmic work with more expressive and generally minimalist piano over is one that can be easy to write off as soulless and antithetical to jazz, but that is utterly beside the point. Its entire purpose is to push the boundaries of acoustic music within these highly technical frameworks and compositions that borrow heavily from modern electronic-based music. It’s the kind of thing jazz purists may sniff at, but for others who are more eclectic and tolerating of jazz as a big tent encompassing all sorts of music that is equal parts challenging and rewarding, GoGo Penguin still has plenty worth saying. There’s nothing humdrum about that.
HAGO – HAGO (jazz/metal fusion, middle eastern jazz)
It would be difficult for me to write at length about the excellent debut album from Boston’s HAGO without essentially repeating what I wrote about it back in January, but my opinion and praise have not changed much since then. It continues to succeed wonderfully as both an example of modern jazz with middle eastern and cosmic sci-fi influences as well as a piece of progressive metal. For a collection of styles that so often result in soulless technical exercises or ham-fisted and overstuffed musical turduckens, HAGO succeed through sharp compositions and arrangements that are only further embellished rather than overshadowed by the technical prowess all of the musicians present clearly possess. It’s also easy to focus on the heavier aspects of the album and gloss over the lighter modern jazz fusion touches and moments throughout, which might not be as immediately striking or technical but are just as well-executed, especially “Ancient Secrets” and “Aurora.” They are a group to watch for sure, and HAGO is an album to celebrate now and for some time to come.
John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble – All Can Work (modern jazz, experimental big band)
John Hollenbeck is a well known musician already, but All Can Work is my first time hearing about him. I can only wonder why this moment didn’t come sooner, however, as this is one fine piece of modern, progressive jazz in a big band context. On top of the stellar musicianship and composition of the band, Theo Bleckmann’s voice is pure ecstasy to listen to. That album is truly a must of 2018’s jazz music.
Julian Lage – Modern Lore (jazz guitar, jazz blues)
Ever the prolific musician, 2018 sees wunderkind guitarist Julian Lage going back to putting out yet another album with his trio, hot off the heels of both a live album and a collaboration with bluegrass guitarist Chris Eldridge. I’ve previously written about Lage’s innovative take on guitar playing and his ability to translate it into styles beyond the jazz fundamentals he cut his teeth on, and Modern Lore’s heavily blues-inspired sound is a prime example of said ability in action. Shades of the lush jazz sound found on previous record Arclight in the form of cuts such as “Nocturne” do still make appearances across Modern Lore’s runtime (“General Thunder”, “Pantheon”), but the album frequently displays much more vigour than its predecessor, dipping into crunchy blues territory at the drop of a hat before jumping right back out with a wink and a nod (“Roger the Dodger”). An impressive new release from a phenomenal and yet ever-improving young guitarist whose true creative potential may well be in the stratosphere at this point.
Omar – *3 (avant-garde jazz)
I’ve been a fan of Tours’ avant-garde jazz quartet Omar for a little while now, and the release of 3 took me by complete surprise. If you’re not dizzied by the absurd and nonsensical drums, maybe the elastic tempo, always stretching and crunching, will. Moreover, the saxophone’s performance on 3 is tasty and really impressive, especially the many unison moments with the guitar on what sounds like free times. A strange and memorable album this is!
Subtle Degrees – A Dance That Empties (avant-garde jazz, modern classical)
There’s a reason why A Dance That Empties was the topic of my first full-album Jazz Club post of the year. As longtime follower of saxophonist Travis Laplante, I knew anything he came up with on this collaboration with drummer Gerald Cleaver would be a unique and worthwhile addition to the modern avant-garde jazz landscape. What I didn’t expect was just how bold, inventive and just plain excellent A Dance That Empties would be. As I said in my initial post, the album leverages the most transcendent elements of avant-garde jazz, modern classical and experimental folk music, drawing on each player’s individual strengths and musical cohesion to further elevate the celestial, spiritual qualities of Laplante’s composition. This is unquestionably a must-listen for fans of avant-garde music this year.
Théo Ceccaldi’s Freaks – Amanda Dakota (jazz fusion, jazz-rock)
French violinist Théo Ceccaldi’s latest effort is with his septet, Freaks. Amanda Dakota is a fun and energetic album that includes a lot of heavy jazz, but also some explorations of electronica and lighter rock influences. It’s also walking the line with experimental and avant-garde jazz at times, which is always quite enjoyable. Most of the time, the album is an instrumental, but you get a few very nice vocal harmonies and melodies here and there. They seem so out of place, but that adds to the charm of the album as a whole.
Verneri Pohjola & Mika Kallio – Animal Image (atmospheric jazz, ambient jazz)
Finnish musicians Verneri Pohjola and Mika Kallio worked together to craft one of the most beautiful and poignant movie soundtracks ever made, I’m certain! Animal Image is an animal documentary, and the two players really captured the feeling of contemplation that is conveyed by the film on this soundtrack. Mika’s drum set is filled with cymbals and gongs, and Verneri’s trumpet plays slow and languid sustained notes. It’s a real work of the soul, and it’s just beautiful.
Zs – Noth (avant-garde jazz, free jazz)
Zs are pretty well known in the world of experimental and avant-garde jazz. Their last album, Noth, not so much. The album was recorded live, and the band’s use of electronics and experimentation is once again at the core of their musical identity. It might not be an easy one to go through – it’s basically one 45-minute improvisation split in two –, but it warrants a listen, and you’ll most probably find something for you here if you’re into more experimental music.