Welcome back to Jazz Club! It’s been a while since the three of us (Jimmy, Nick and Scott) sat down to dissect the one of our favorite genres, which was most recently a conversation about BADBADNOTGOOD‘s excellent 2016 album IV. In that discussion, we tossed around the idea of pooling together a list of some of our favorite new jazz releases, something we’re excited to finally begin today with our first installment of Jazz Quarterly. This is also offering us an opportunity and excuse to get ourselves back in the habit of listening to new jazz regularly, which, if you’re anything like at least a couple of us (namely Nick) has been something we’ve been meaning to get back into for far too long. There are a few places now that offer some great monthly curated lists like Bandcamp, Stereogum, and more, and you’ll likely notice that a bunch of these selections are pulled from there because they provide a valuable resource for even supposed “curators” such as ourselves. As each of us prefers different flavors of the genre, you’ll find an eclectic list of recommendations below, ranging from more traditional offerings to experimental blends of jazz with Indian classical music, doom metal sensibilities, electronic music, progressive rock and much more. We’d be genuinely shocked if you can’t find at least one release worth your time from this list, so without wasting any more time, feel free to dive in to the best the genre’s had to offer so far this year.
Albert Cirera & Tres Tambors – Suite Salada (free jazz/spiritual jazz)
Hailing from Barcelona, saxophonist Albert Cirera presents his second quartet album with Tres Tambors, i.e. Marco Mezquida on piano, Mark Lohikari on bass, and Oscar Domenech on drums. One listen to second track “Tantra,” and it’s pretty easy to draw an immediate comparison to the work of late-period John Coltrane in his spiritual jazz phase. Building off of a steady and understated modal bass groove, the group swells and Cirera steadily grows from beautiful melodies and arpeggios to shrieks, wails, and moans. It’s a sound that Coltrane pretty much pioneered in the mid-to-late 60s starting with Impressions, perfecting on A Love Supreme, and pushing even further on Ascension, Meditations, and Expression. This comparison isn’t meant to diminish Cirera and the group’s incredible talent and musicality though, and Suite Salada is hardly just a Coltrane knock-off. It possesses its own unique flair and puts a modern twist on the spiritual/free jazz sound, and tracks like “Es Fosquet” are nothing short of stunningly beautiful.
Unlike Scott and Jimmy, who have a much greater affinity and tolerance for free jazz than I do, what I appreciate about albums like this is that despite the fact that the tracks presented here don’t have too much going on in the way of chordal or formal structure, there is always an internal logic and momentum (and recognizable melody) at work that creates the sense of structure and form, even if it’s non-traditional and largely improvised. If you’ve listened to Coltrane’s discography and have been searching for something modern that still hits those sounds, Suite Salada is a terrific album to turn to.
Alfa Mist – Antiphon (chill/hip-hop/soul)
One of the things I love about jazz is just how versatile and ridiculously diverse it is. There’s music for pretty much any mood and setting imaginable. Easily one of my favorite variants though is the “chill” kind, the type of music you turn to at the end of a long day and can just lose yourself in. On his first LP, British pianist Alfa Mist hits this mood perfectly with a mixture of velvety rich and smooth grooves, instantly memorable melodies, and fantastic performances. Much like how Solange‘s incredible A Seat At The Table was structured, Alfa Mist uses natural sound audio as a lynchpin to form songs around throughout the album, which creates a musical context that feels more like a musical conversation between Alfa and the musicians he brings in throughout. This is especially true on vocal-heavy tracks like the hypnotic “Breathe” and “7th October,” which calls to mind the brilliant jazz/hip-hop/soul experimental blends of the likes of Flying Lotus and Thundercat. The music of Antiphon is comfortable, warm, and familiar like huddling under a fleece blanket inside on a chilly, rainy day, but it still packs a surprising amount of depth, punch, and beauty. It’s also honestly the type of album I’m most likely to reach back to repeatedly whenever I need to just relax and contemplate the finer things in life.
Angles 9 – Disappeared Behind The Sun (free jazz/big band)
Jazz is already hard enough to find these days, but good jazz is even harder. I’m not sure where exactly Angles 9 lands on the spectrum when it comes to their music but I count it somewhere in that whole ill-defined clusterfuck of “out there”, or avant-garde jazz. And, fuck, is it out there. In the first track alone you’re greeted with sax skronks that pretty much require you to go see a hearing specialist afterwards. But this is more than just a free jazz noise-fest; there’s actually a lot of interesting structure to Disappeared Behind The Sun—it’s a cool, very singular take on avant-garde big band music. I refer you again to the opening track “Equality & Death (Mothers, Fathers, Where Are Ye?)”—after the saxophones quiet down (albeit not much), it gives into this strange, big band sort of sound with the drums keeping a relatively simple beat while the sound metastasizes out of control. The album as a whole, while prone to honking freakouts, still keeps a glimmer of beauty present (amid some pretty sweet percussion grooves as well). If you’re a fan of Burning Ghosts, or are just a skronk-enthusiast looking for something a little more put together than Interstellar Space, give Disappeared a try.
– Jimmy Mullett
Cameron Graves – Planetary Prince (spiritual jazz)
Kamasi Washington fucking knocked the ball out of the park when The Epic arrived back in 2015. Not only does he manage to look back and pay homage to jazz styles of the past, he does it in a way that doesn’t feel dated at all. Really, the only flaw I can see in The Epic is its (somewhat) unwieldy length, but that’s easily remedied by treating each disc of the triple album as its own album (which is what I actually do).
As the hype for Washington grew and grew, though, a few of his band members announced solo albums of their own. While Miles Mosley‘s debut wasn’t exactly what I expected (though it’s not bad for some contemporary R&B), Cameron Graves brought some unique flavor to the jazz world with his debut Planetary Prince. Inspired by Graves’s spirituality and stuck somewhere between The Epic‘s more cosmic offerings and straight-up jazz fusion, Planetary Prince rocks its influences so well and blends them to such a degree that its something entirely its own. Graves’s piano playing is virtuosic, and with a lineup featuring (among others) Kamasi himself, he carves out a whole new world in jazz with this album. If you enjoyed The Epic in any facet, this is mandatory listening. While it’s very different in spirit from The Epic, the musicianship is unparalleled, and the composition will leave you wanting more.
Collocutor – The Search (spiritual jazz/deep jazz)
Before The Search could make a formal pitch with its music, the album had already drawn me in with its brash album cover. I’ve found that judging an album by its cover actually works well when the artwork is as impressive as The Search’s, and lo-and-behold, Collocutor deliver with an incredible collection of world-infused jazz compositions. Somewhere between Masada and Miles Davis’ Sketches of Spain, the group crafts spiritually rooted jazz that could soundtrack sunsets from all around the Mediterranean, shifting between a hazy Moroccan desert and a nocturnal Spanish streets. The septet’s liberated approach to modal jazz produces an eclectic group of tracks that capably explore an abundance of subgenres without sacrificing the album’s overarching sonic theme.
Daniel Herskedal – The Roc (folk jazz/chamber jazz)
I can state with a pretty great degree of confidence that I have never heard tuba be used as a lead instrument in a jazz ensemble before listening to Daniel Herskedal. The Norwegian composer and tuba player succeeds brilliantly at using the instrument in a way that doesn’t so much intentionally draw attention to it as allow it to sing beautifully and naturally to the point that the novelty factor wears off almost immediately. The Roc is far too good an album to focus solely on that one element anyway. Existing somewhere between chamber music, the kind of contemplative folk-indebted jazz that the likes of Tigran Hamasyan (more on him further down the list) are known for, and some of John Zorn‘s klezmer jazz work, the music is warm, lyrical, intricate, and deep. The use of non-conventional jazz instruments throughout, including the tuba but also viola and cello, gives the entire thing an exotic flare, serving as a perfect soundtrack to traveling across foreign landscapes. Perhaps not coincidentally, there are several references to rail travel or travel in general in the song titles (also probably not coincidentally, his previous album was entitled Slow Eastbound Train, but I sadly have not been able to dig into that one yet), which only feeds into the general sense of transit and wanderlust. Play this one on your next trip to someplace new as you take in all of the sights and senses, or simply sit back and let it wash over you.
David Weiss & Point of Departure – Wake Up Call (progressive jazz)
Perhaps more so than just about any genre of music still being actively produced today, modern is jazz is constantly haunted by the specter of what came before it. Because the music went under so many incredibly huge transformations in such a short period of time from the 1920s through the 1970s (ragtime to swing to bop to post-bop and fusion), it’s easy to view the past 40 or so years as one of relative stagnation. Of course if you actually look at the ridiculous diversity and progression of jazz today it’s easy to see how hogwash that is, but it’s nice occasionally to be presented with an example that displays a clear apples-to-apples comparison. Wake Up Call by trumpeter David Weiss and his ensemble Point of Departure is just that. Comprised entirely of “covers” and re-imaginings of classic tracks from several greats of that late golden-era period of post-bop and early fusion—including John McLaughlin and Mahavishnu Orchestra, Tony Williams, Wayne Shorter, Joe Henderson, Charles Moore, Kenny Cox, and Lelo Nazario—Weiss and Point of Departure use the originals as mere starting points rather than blueprints, taking each in fascinating and thrilling directions. The prominence of electric guitar, featuring two guitarists on each track, is certainly part of it, featuring them in a way that gives the entire sound a harder and spacier edge without succumbing to the kind of cheese that passes for most “rock-infused jazz” also helps. The performances throughout are deft, passionate, and exciting, and though the general style and sound feel familiar to anyone versed in that era of jazz, the ways in which they twist and subvert it rhythmically and sonically draw a clear distinction between the two and place them squarely into the modern jazz era. The result is an album that does its inspirations justice while displaying some of what makes jazz being produced and put out right now just as engrossing and thrilling as what came before it.
Eivind Opsvik – Overseas V (experimental jazz)
Like most of the artists I’m highlighting in this list, I was only just introduced to the Norwegian bassist Eivind Opsvik recently, and the music presented on Overseas V, the fifth in a long-running series of his brand of experimental jazz, is some of the most beguiling, yet heart-pounding music I’ve heard in a while. Unsurprisingly for a bassist, the music is rooted in bold rhythmic splashes, introducing lines and themes in fits and starts that interlock in such a way to create a racing mechanized beast. Tracks like opener “I’m Up this Step,” “Hold Everything,” and “First Challenge on the Road” are there to grab you by the throat and not let go until they’ve run their course. The incredibly titled “Brraps!” is another monster altogether with it’s jagged guitar punches, fierce and frantic soloing, and drum rim hits that could smash through concrete. Which isn’t to say it’s all herky-jerky weirdness. Calmer moments exist like the mysteriously melancholy “Extraterrestrial Tantrum” and the shifty “Shoppers and Pickpockets” that offer a respite from the sonic vertigo but still prevent the listener from feeling too settled. The good news for listeners who might feel a bit overwhelmed by Opsvik’s off-kilter and claustrophobic compositions is that most of the tracks are under 5 minutes and the full album under 40, offering just enough madness without going overboard. Either way Overseas V is an album well worth a try, and for those who are enticed by the music, there are four other albums in the series to dig into!
GRID (Nelson, Dahl, Podgurski) – GRID (free jazz/doom jazz)
Matt Nelson can rightfully boast about being one quarter of Battle Trance, a saxophone quartet led by Travis LaPlante whose 2016 album Blade of Love was an exceptional marriage of avant-garde jazz and post-minimalism. And while Nelson’s ties to the quarter certainly boosted the buzz around GRID, the group deserves praise in its own right for the trio’s unique approach to free jazz by way of a handful of disparate genres. GRID—rounded out by Tim Dahl (Child Abuse) on bass and Nick Podgurski (New Firmament, Feast of the Epiphany) on drums—is as indebted to free jazz as the sonic palettes of doom, noise and sludge, making the fictional-sounding “doom jazz” more than an appropriate descriptor. Imagine John Zorn trying to blast his way through a Sunn O))) set and you’ll get a clear picture of the trio has to offer. And to that end, Nelson deserves especial praise for the way he bastardizes his instrument, as the resulting cacophony often sounds more like distorted electronics rather than anything from the woodwind family. By now, you’ve probably ascertained that this record won’t appeal to casual jazz fans. But for fans of the genre’s fringes and heavy music will likely be attracted to the concoction GRID has set brewed on their debut.
Jessica Ackerley Trio – Coalesce (avant-garde jazz)
I have a somewhat hypocritical relationship with the guitar—while I usually can’t stand “guitar porn” and excessive solos, I’m a huge fan of improvisational guitarists like Loren Connors who apply a similar mindset in the opposite direction. To me, the contrast is stark, as a composition or improvisation intended to enhance the structure of an overall piece feels quite different from needless noodling for the sake of showing of a guitarist’s chops. So when Heavy Blog contributor Dave Tremblay recommended Coalesce on his own blog (Can This Even be Called Music?), I jumped at the chance to see if Jessica Ackerley could fill my admittedly slim jazz guitar niche. Not only does she lead her trio through some textured blends of composition and improvisation, her playing in particular excels through a sense of mystery and exploration that hangs on every note. This adventurous tone bears an accessible edge for free jazz skeptics while also pushing the boundaries of standard guitar trio fare.
Jungle Fire – Jambu (Latin jazz/afrobeat)
While I personally love the retro soul-cum-afrobeat sound of Daptone Records groups (such as The Budos Band), I do have to admit it can have its stale moments. I definitely couldn’t go an entire day listening to just Budos and Menahan Street Band—there’s a set limit for me to listen to blaring horns and the like. So, when I saw Jungle Fire and heard the first track “La Kossa” off of their latest album Jambu, I was expecting another album in the style of another Daptone release. But as I kept listening, and slowly dug my way into the band’s fusion of hot Latin grooves and afrobeat (seriously, it’s like a modern, Acid-era Ray Barretto mixed with the best sounds The Budos Band have ever made) I realized that I didn’t want to leave it. You’d think that an album of just instrumental music in this vein would sound pretty same-y after a while, but Jambu willingly buckles you in and takes you for a fucking musical journey. This is the type of music that I’d love to blast in the car as I’m driving through the hilly chaparral of California to get to Laguna Beach. No part of Jambu is boring at all—just when you think you’re beginning to get sick of a track, Jungle Fire brings in an expertly-placed solo or a bridge that stops your hand from pressing fast forward. It’s songwriting at its best, and it’s danceable as fuck—what’s to hate?
Mark de Clive-Lowe – Live At The Blue Whale (cosmic jazz/electronic)
Mark de Clive-Lowe is someone who has miraculously flown under my radar despite being just about everything I love in modern, forward-thinking jazz. The Japanese/New Zealander composer, pianist, and producer seamlessly blends soulful jazz, r&b, dance, and live electronic elements to create a positively intoxicating brew of head-nodding and head-spinning tunes. And if, like myself, you’re finding yourself just dipping your toes into the MdCL waters, his most recent release, Live At The Blue Whale, is a fantastic place to start despite being a live EP. The four tracks presented here cover an incredible amount of ground, starting with the more conventionally relaxed and dancey “Evergreen,” a MdCL original that features his usual blend of live improv and live remixing. The rest of the EP focuses on paying homage to the artists who have played an integral part in inspiring him, however, from the trippy “L+H” for Yusef Lateef to the cosmic jazz of Sun Ra‘s “The Golden Lady,” and a reinterpretation of Ahmad Jamal‘s “Swahililand.” All tracks have MdCL’s fingerprints all over them though as he mixes and remixes different elements of performance in, constantly blurring the line between what’s being performed live and what is sampled. The rest of the quartet performing with him here – Josh Johnson on sax/flute, Brandon Eugene Owens on bass, and Gene Coye on drums are as tight as all can be, but MdCL is the glue that ties it all together, whether he’s playing sprawling lines on grand piano or playing mad scientist at the boards. The EP is brief at under a half hour, but it’s more than enough to give listeners every reason to dive into the man’s extensive back catalog. I highly recommend his previous LP, Church, and am kicking myself enormously for not getting on the MdCL train far sooner.
Nate Smith – Kinfolk: Postcards from Everywhere (fusion/r&b/soul)
Continuing the trend of people I wish I had known about long ago, drummer Nate Smith and his latest album Kinfolk: Postcards from Everywhere is a positive tour de force of groovy, fun-as-hell, r&b-infused jazz. Smith is one of those guys who’s played with a veritable who’s who of notable and A-list jazz world folks who have made a name for themselves over the past couple of decades, and several of those A-list folks drop in for guest spots, including bassist Dave Holland and saxophonist Chris Potter. Kinfolk appears to be ostensibly about these families Smith has amassed, both musical and familial, as he includes soundbites that appear to be of his parents on the two “Postcards” interludes. The album has a sense of nostalgia running through it, particularly on tracks like the dreamy “Retold” and the beautiful string and buttery smooth vocal-laden “Disenchantment: The Weight.” Smith states that collaboration and on-the-spot improv was the primary aim for the album though, as he wanted to see what everyone he brought in would bring to the table, how they would shape his own ideas, and how he would make it all work together into a coherent piece. The approach absolutely works, as Kinfolk sounds loose and not at all overly fussy in composition but beautifully conceived and developed. Kinfolk is high on the approachability scale even at its knottiest and is a must-listen for anyone already into the kind of jazzy r&b and fusion that crosses over into more mainstream circles.
The Necks – Unfold (avant-garde jazz/minimalism)
I’ve already written an in-depth Soundtracks for the Blind post on Unfold and The Necks‘ music, so I won’t repeat myself here. I’ll instead use this space to reiterate that this is another incredible installment from one of the most prolific and exceptional groups in experimental music. The trio is singular in their blend of avant-garde jazz and minimalism to craft expansive, ambient landscapes, and you owe it to yourself to dive into their discography immediately if you haven’t already.
Saagara – 2 (third stream/Carnatic classical music)
Fresh of his incredible 2016 album Lines, Polish clarinetist/composer Wacław Zimpel decided it was time to get the band back together. This wasn’t a traditional reunion, though—Zimpel is joined by performers from the next continent over on 2, the appropriately titled sophomore album from the Zimpel-led Indian orchestra Saagara. As would be expected, this collaboration brought out an interesting blend of east and west, with Zimpel’s post-minimal playing beautifully complementing the orchestra’s traditional Carnatic classical music. Much of this resembles a globally-minded rendition of Lines and feels as exotic, lush and detailed as the lineup might suggest. The key to this success lies in the two styles’ similarities—the Carnatic style calls for a subtle approach to rhythm and melody that perfectly aligns with Zimpel’s preferred techniques behind the reed. Fans of third stream straight from the heart of India would be remiss to ignore the genius captured here.
Tigran Hamasyan – An Ancient Observer (solo piano/folk jazz/fusion)
To be perfectly honest, I am not as high on Tigran Hamasyan as many of my metal-leaning friends are. For a number of reasons, the Armenian pianist has become one of the immediate go-tos for progressive metal fans interested in more conventional jazz. Of course, Hamasyan is far from conventional, blending many traditional folk melodies and modalities of his homeland into jazz piano constructs, as well as elements of progressive rock and more. I’ve appreciated all of the work of his that I’ve heard, though solo piano in general has never captured my full attention for long periods of time, which has been his focus of late. That said, his latest album An Ancient Observer is yet another installment of Tigran doing what Tigran does best. The melodies are beautiful, the performances bold and confident, and the compositions overall as well-constructed and head nod-inducing as ever. Plus he got the same guy who made Meshuggah‘s “Clockworks” video to construct a video for him, thus shoring up any other cred necessary with the metal crowd. With Mockroot and now this proving Hamasyan’s capabilities at building captivating and emotionally-resonant solo music, I’d personally love to see him stretch out again with some ensemble playing and see what further directions he can go in, but for now An Ancient Observer should more than satisfy Tigran fans old and new.
Vulture Forest – Vulture Forest (ambient jazz)
For most of Vulture Forest’s new self-titled album, you’ll probably wonder where exactly the band falls on the jazz spectrum. In my view, the quartet crafts ambient jazz so beautiful that it’s sometimes on the verge of resembling post-rock with the addition of trumpet. I mean this in the best way possible, too—every moment of Vulture Forest is an alluring blend of emotional atmospheres, sometimes leaning toward melancholia while mostly remaining at a level of awing tranquility. The band must have truly mastered the art of patience to so delicately unravel these compositions across a completely still sonic plane. If Miles Davis enlisted a guitarist for Kind of Blue and slowed down the final tapes to a delicate crawl, it’d probably sound a lot like Vulture Forest.