We’ve charted out quite the trajectory for Jazz Club over the past few years. Initially, we launched the column as a means of dissecting key albums from throughout the year, starting with what I still fervently believe to be the greatest jazz album of the decade thus far. Then the column began to take on a life all its own, shifting between similarly focused album discussions and larger discussions about the genre as a whole, such as our eulogy for Ornette Coleman and starter kits for things like “jazz albums for metalheads.” We’ve since settled into a consistent groove lately with our quarterly recommendation posts, as it provides us with a means of talking about all the many unique shades of jazz while also drawing your attention to the best and brightest minds keeping the genre alive for many generations to come. As such, we’ve comprised our end of year Jazz Club wrap up with an eclectic recap of the top of the class from the past year. Each of our regular jazz aficionados demonstrate their own preferences when it comes to the genre, but the diversity only serves as a reminder of how there’s always something new and exciting to discover in the genre. No matter how many years and decades go by, nor how little the general public seems to care about the genre, jazz will continue to excel as an art form. If you need proof, we’ve provided ample evidence below that should satiate your jazz needs until 2018 starts the search all over again.
Nick Cusworth’s Top 5 Jazz Albums of 2017
5. Shubh Saran – Hmayra (fusion, progressive jazz)
This one’s for the prog nerds. Guitarist Shubh Saran comes from the crop of young jazz guitarists who are seeking to push both modern instrumental progressive rock/metal and jazz forward with hooky leads, impressive riffs, and solid compositions underneath. Part Tosin Abasi, part Tigran Hamasyan, part Snarky Puppy, and plenty more, Saran’s work has a kind of cool complexity and smoothness to it that belies the technical chops clearly present throughout. His full-length debut Hmayra is a wonderful taste of the talent and potential this Indian American who has already found fascinating ways to weave in traditional music and influence from his birth country possesses. It’s fun, catchy, and demonstrates a deep knowledge and instinct of what makes for great music across all sorts of genres and cultures.
4. Alfa Mist – Antiphon (fusion, hip-hop)
Moving from something that’s pure fire and electricity to about as laid-back as you can get, London’s Alfa Mist’s blend of hip-hop and soul-infused jazz is music that seems like it can only exist inside of a smoky jazz lounge late at night. Alfa’s full-length debut Antiphon is one hell of a trip as he cruises through nearly an hour of invigorating and refreshing fusion with a mission. Using candid conversations with his brothers on relationships, social issues, and more as the backbone of the album, there is a certain consciousness and sense of dialog that is constantly in the background. It’s also just a startlingly beautiful piece of work, in particular the one track featuring vocals, “Breathe,” a hypnotic r&b song with an unexpected chorus that I could just listen to over and over again that eventually fades into a string-infused outro that is nothing short of stunning. Save this one for when you just need to sit back and feel good. I guarantee you won’t regret it.
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3. Cameron Graves – Planetary Prince (spiritual jazz, fusion)
Funnily enough, my favorite release featuring Kamasi Washington wasn’t actually a Kamasi Washington album (though he will get his proper due a little further down). Instead, it’s an album from pianist Cameron Graves, who runs in the same tight-knit crew as Washington and was featured on The Epic. On his debut album Planetary Prince, Graves plays a type of eclectic and intensely rhythmic cosmic jazz that should feel familiar to anyone already familiar with Washington’s sound. Far from a clone of The Epic though, Planetary Prince finds Graves stretching and expanding his own off-kilter and eclectic sensibilities in every direction. The music is big, funky, technically-demanding, and just a hell of a lot of fun. Graves is an absolute madman on the keys, setting the pace and level of virtuosity for everyone else in the ensemble to go wild. It’s not until you reach pieces like “Adam & Eve” with its extended classically-infused intro though that you come to fully understand just the breadth and depth of Graves’ talents. Also, there’s an incredibly catchy track called “The End of Corporatism,” and honestly, if that alone isn’t enough to get you interested, then I don’t know what to tell you.
2. Yazz Ahmed – La Sabateuse (fusion, Arabic jazz)
Okay, look, I could tell you tell you all of the reasons why this incredibly great album from Bahrani-English trumpeter Yazz Ahmed is one that you should listen to. But, one, I already have, and two, several of us here already have multiple times, including just earlier this week in our aggregate album of the year list. If the fact that Ahmed, a relative newcomer to the scene whose biggest credit before this year was playing with Radiohead on The King of Limbs, has appeared prominently on our list in addition to many, many others isn’t enough to grab your attention though, nothing will. Ahmed is the breakout star of jazz in 2017 and has been able to attract such a wide and unexpected amount of attention and acclaim from jazz fanatics, casual listeners, and skeptics alike because her music is a perfect blend of old-school 60s era modal jazz and early fusion with modern production techniques and grooves, all wrapped in a cocoon of middle eastern/Arabic influence that is far better integrated and executed than just about anyone else I’ve heard try. That’s the short answer. You can read our other takes to get the longer answer, or, better yet, just go listen to La Sabateuse already because if you haven’t you are just missing out on one of the most enjoyable albums of any genre this year.
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1. Portico Quartet – Art in the Age of Automation (ambient/experimental jazz fusion)
London based Portico Quartet became modern jazz darlings and a crossover hit after their 2007 debut album Knee Deep in the North Sea was nominated for the coveted Mercury Prize and was showered with other critical accolades. The band’s heterodox mixture of classic small group dynamics with modern compositional sensibilities and novel use of the Hang won them admirers across jazz, electronica, and elsewhere. With the departure of founding member (and Hang player) Nick Mulvey after their follow-up Isla, however, the remaining founding trio eventually made a sharp left turn and tried their hand at electronic pop. This album, Living Fields, under just Portico, while an admirable enough attempt at more straight-forward pop songwriting, was utterly devoid of the more beguiling and enchanting qualities that had made their quartet albums so special.
Two years later the group have resurfaced, once again as a quartet and with keyboardist Keir Vine (Mulvey’s replacement on their third self-titled album). The resulting album, Art in the Age of Automation, is more than a welcome return for the quartet. True to its name, it is a deeply affecting exploration of the fusion of electronic instruments, acoustic instruments, sampled sound (including the Hang), and more. The compositions are more ethereal than they’ve ever been, creating a kind of sonic fog that swirls around the listener and transports them to some kind of futuristic dream space. Saxophonist Jack Wyllie, once again favoring soprano over tenor, plays the role of siren and guide, laying down sweet and soothing melodies and textures that serve as a constant grounding force. The combination of natural and sampled sounds behind him from the rest of the quartet (Duncan Bellamy on drums, Milo Fitzpatrick on bass, and Vine on keys) create this strange, almost indescribable fusion that, while very clearly using and working within small jazz combo foundations, is so utterly reshuffled and distorted through the lens of ambient electronics that it creates a sort of beautiful tension, a pushing and pulling of different forces that is enthralling and transcendent.
Art in the Age of Automation is easily the group’s best work to date, and more than that, it feels both ahead of its time and perfect for this moment when society is integrating and weaving technology into every aspect of our lives. It is an absolute gem and must-listen for fans of modern, minimalist-influenced jazz, as well as electronic and ambient music as a whole.
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Ahmed Hasan’s Top Jazz Album of 2017
Kamasi Washington – Harmony of Difference (spiritual jazz)
An artist naming a debut album The Epic may have been considered somewhat pretentious by some measure, but saxophonist extraordinaire Kamasi Washington knew exactly what he was delivering unto the world in the sprawling three-hour jazz opus, and did far more than live up to the name. The boldness of its premise gave Washington and co. a massive canvas to paint on, bringing us piercingly heart-rending sax crescendos and laid-back RnB tunes alike.
Followup Harmony of Difference doesn’t just take a different approach: it flips the script entirely. The EP clocks in at little more than a cool half hour, nearly half of which is occupied by lead single “Truth” alone. First track “Desire” opens the EP on a gentle note, featuring an almost somber sax line over a lush midtempo background — but second track “Humility” immediately pulls a sharp left turn towards a big band sound, completely changing course after the briefest of transitions.
Indeed, each of the EP’s first five tracks — all of them hardly a few minutes in length — are substantially different from one another. A distinct musical theme, unique to each track, forms the anchor around which each is built; a given track spending just enough time exploring said theme to establish some sort of foothold in the listener’s mind, but not a second more. And so for the first half of Harmony of Difference, we’re treated to the sheer versatility of Washington and his band, switching between styles with hardly a moment’s notice, with even a brief yet utterly delightful excursion into funk (“Perspective”) thrown into the mix.
Finally, the fifteen-minute masterpiece “Truth” is where it all comes together. While its length should not be especially surprising to any listeners of The Epic, which often featured ten-plus minute tunes itself, the magic of “Truth” is how effortlessly it synthesizes every single one of the preceding themes into one beautiful and utterly moving piece. There are no words for how hypnotizing it is to hear the band seamlessly transition between one section into another, often combining several of the earlier motifs to create something new and even more breathtaking, all before ending upon a spellbinding crescendo that beautifully summarizes the half hour of music leading up to it.
On our main end-of-year list, we crowned Full of Hell’s Trumpeting Ecstasy with the top spot, making explicit reference to how the band’s chaotic fury was the perfect soundtrack to a world more or less burning around us. While that may be true to an extent, on the other side of that coin stands Kamasi Washington, holding up the message that Harmony of Difference conveys so effectively. Harmony of Difference is the timeliest possible reminder that there are all kinds of beauty around us, in each of us, should we look hard enough; and perhaps more importantly, that we can work together to bring even more good into the world by embracing what makes us different. It’s also a damn fine jazz record, which makes this a win-win situation I’ve ever seen one. Got a half hour to spare? Throw Harmony of Difference on: your soul will thank you for it.
Scott Murphy’s Top 5 Jazz Albums of 2017
Of all the genres the general public has deemed “dead” or relegated to specific, backdrop-oriented purposes, jazz has had the most success with not only staying relevant, but continuing to thrive. Few other genres are as diverse and rich with experimentation, to the point where the concept of “jazz” continues to broaden its definition on an annual basis. This year’s offerings were no exception, and whittling down my top suggestions to five picks was an enormous challenge; our honorable mentions section is populated with many of my favorite albums, and I forfeited blurbs for Yazz Ahmed and Kamasi Washington since I’ve already written about them for our Top 25 Albums of the Year list and a solo Jazz Club post, respectively (I also reviewed La Saboteuse earlier this year). Even though this curation was difficult, I ended up compiling a list of five phenomenal albums which confronted my notion of what jazz can be while presenting me with some of my favorite music from the year, regardless of genre. All of these albums are well worth the time needed to dissect, and I promise you’ll easily lose yourself in some truly engrossing compositions.
5. GRID (Matt Nelson, Tim Dahl & Nick Podgurski) – GRID (free jazz, noise)
For a trio, GRID certainly contains a fair amount of underground music pedigree among its ranks. Staffed by saophonist Matt Nelson (Battle Trance), bassist Tim Dahl (Child Abuse) and drummer Nick Podgurski (New Firmament, Feast of the Epiphany), the trio bring a slew of musical influences to the table for a debut rife with reckless experimentation. Though this may sounds like a critique, let me assure you this headstrong, carefree attitude pays off in dividends, as the group build a brash free jazz foundation and paint it with striking hues of doom, noise and sludge, making the fictional-sounding label of “doom jazz” sound like a more than an appropriate descriptor. Of all the more traditionally-staffed free jazz I’ve heard this year, GRID came out as a clear leader of the pack, due in no small part to it’s unflinching dedication to extrapolating as much chaos from their instruments as humanly possible. It’s often difficult for younger bands find a unique voice this early in their career, but GRID isn’t like most debuts, or albums in general for that matter. There’s still so much more potential for this trio to realize, and given what they’ve presented thus far, we have good reason to wait for a follow-up with bated breath.
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4. The Necks – Unfold (avant-garde jazz, minimalism)
Though seemingly the most tangentially “jazz” artist on this list, The Necks have mastered a signature, seamless blend of genres in a way unrivaled by other avant-garde jazz groups. For the last 30 years, the eminent Australian trio of Chris Abrahams (piano, organ), Tony Buck (drums, percussion, electric guitar) and Lloyd Swanton (bass guitar, double bass) have continuously honed a meticulous formula revolving around steady evolution drawn from spellbinding repetition. They’ve taken the strongest elements of ambient music, avant-garde jazz, free improvisation, and minimalism and consistently released albums that bend the boundaries of all these genres, often times with just one or two extended compositions.
As I wrote in a Soundtracks for the Blind post and Jazz Club entry earlier this year, Unfold is yet another superb addition to their discography that reaches a level of quality not always achieved by prolific, veteran acts. Opting for a semi-condensed four-track structure, The Necks prove that they can make their formula click regardless of the numbers in the track list. Fans of meditative music that challenges genre notions and creates a consuming sonic landscape would be remiss in their search for the best avant-garde jazz has to offer.
3. Saagara – 2 (jazz fusion, Carnatic classical music)
Jazz never ceases to amaze me; despite having listened to and studied it intensely for the last several years, there’s always a new furrow for me to unpack and explore further into untouched nooks and cranies in my understanding of the genre. My most recent expedition involved an in-depth look at “fusion,” mainly surrounding the simple idea of combining jazz with another genre ultimately creating an open-ended realm of possibilities. To complicate matters further, 2017 unveiled fusion that lies outside of the typical “jazz+rock” formula. Specifically, albums like Yazz Ahmed‘s La Saboteuse and Saagara‘s 2 introduced me to the vibrant synthesis of “world fusion,” an expansin of jazz’s universal themes that was embodied particularly well by the latter of these two albums.
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 (one of two main subgenres of Indian classical music commonly associated with southern India). 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.
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2. Peter Brötzmann & Heather Leigh – Sex Tape (European free jazz, free improvisation)
Thought certainly lauded as a free jazz icon, I’ve always been disappointed by the relatively tepid coverage Peter Brötzmann has received in the larger conversation about the genre. Don’t get me wrong: Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane deserve heaps of praise for their pioneering careers. But when it comes to free jazz that’s completely ravenous, nothing compares to fantastically unhinged Brötzmann classics like Machine Gun and Nipples. Yet, what’s perhaps most striking about the saxophonist is his continued relevancy so late in his life; he continues to collaborate with some of the biggest names in modern free jazz, namely greats like saxophonist Mats Gustafsson. Further proof of this continues to arrive, and one need not look further than the bold, unique stylings of Sex Tape to draw the conclusion that Brötzmann ‘s not slowing down any time soon.
For his latest sonic wasteland, Brötzmann enlisted an unusual bedfellow with Heather Leigh, who surrounds his conniptions with an elastic atmosphere courtesy of her pedal steel guitar. Brötzmann’s playing is unsurprisingly abrasive and versatile, opening with a raunchy riff before breaking out into his usual rapidfire reed abuse. It’s incredible how he’s continued to expand his dexterity and endless creativity throughout such a prolific career. Joining Leigh’s pedal steel in unholy matrimony makes for an incredibly fresh duet that’s unique even by Brötzmann’s standards. Her ambient backdrop strikes a perfect balance between electronic and organic textures, ebbing and flowing to add further depth to the duo’s performance. Leigh certainly doesn’t tame or diminish Brötzmann’s free-wheeling assaults, but she does extract new sonic territory from his playing that contorts into perhaps the most noteworthy free jazz album of the year thus far.
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1. Irreversible Entanglements – Irreversible Entanglements (jazz poetry, avant-garde jazz)
There are only a handful of new albums each year that truly halt the happenings of the surrounding world and latch onto my full attention. Of course, there are a great deal more albums I love, but only a select few that rise above he rest to earn longevity in my larger rotation of regular listening habits. I felt this reaction viscerally upon listening to “Chicago to Texas,” and with each subsequent listen, Irreversible Entanglements only continued to strike me in ever more profound ways. On every level, Irreversible Entanglements are a jazz group for the history books; in terms of poetry, free jazz and general experimental music, the quintet’s performances contain precisely the type of fearless artistry that defines landmark albums for generations to come.
I’ve already written a great deal about the album for our September Editors’ Picks, so I’ll pull from there to further illustrate my point: Through a unique and potent blend of free jazz and slam poetry, Irreversible Entanglements have presented a debut that acts a case study on how to produce politicized art in an age where marginalized groups grow more uncertain of their place in the country on a daily basis. The quintet describes themselves as a “liberation-oriented free jazz collective” and boasts a skilled and voracious lineup, including Keir Neuringer (alto saxophone), Aquiles Navarro (trumpet), Luke Stewart (double bass) and Tcheser Holmes (drums). Though the players’ urgent and often frenetic performances alludes to political themes in their own right, Camae Ayewa’s gritty poetry and delivery are what truly elevates the ensemble’s social consciousness. This isn’t Ayewa’s first foray into a marriage of words and sounds—she turned heads last year with Fetish Bones, her latest release of politically charged poetry atop abrasive soundscapes under the name Moor Mother. Of course, delivering stanzas over machines, field recordings and analog noisemakers is a starkly different undertaking than performing as part of jazz ensemble, a challenge which Ayewa maneuvers with a razor sharp tongue that lacerates oppression with every line while her bandmates coexist in perfect disharmony.
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Dave Tremblay’s Top 5 Jazz Albums of 2017
Philipp Gerschlauer, David Fiuczynski, Jack DeJohnette, Matt Garrison, and Giorgi Mikadze – Mikrojazz! (Neue expressionistische Musik) (experimental jazz, microtonal)
What a mind-blowing album this is! Mikrojazz! (Neue expressionistische Musik) – from now on shortened as Mikrojazz – is certainly not the first jazz album to use microtonal systems, but it’s perhaps the first one to use it so seamlessly, thoroughly, and convincingly. Indeed, the international quintet is made up of renowned musicians and experimenters; David Fiuczynski, for example, has been making microtonal music for something like twenty years, and has participated in some of the most avant-garde bands out there. Although I’m less familiar with his collaborators on Mikrojazz, understand that they are all stellar musicians and experts of their own instrument. I’d like to draw attention especially to Philipp Gerschlauer, who’s also worked thoroughly in microtonality, and developed a 128 notes per octave system for alto saxophone, which is on full display on this album. Through many different subgenres and styles of jazz, the quintet not only legitimize microtonal music as a promising tool in the genre, but also pave the way by setting a stellar example. The goal here is to derange and even shock, maybe, but to do it with tact, taste, and reason is a whole new challenge. It would be quite easy to use microtones as a shock value and create dissonant, ugly pieces of music to seek reactions, but, on Mikrojazz, everything makes sense. It’s an album that works but not according to the rules of our musical universe, therefore expanding it and making it more accessible to other musicians and fans alike.
I truly believe that microtonal music is where we’re headed in the near future. It has already taken the metal world by storm with a few quite successful experiments, and it has now definitively opened a new paradigm in the realm of jazz. One which will be followed and explored even more. Mikrojazz is a very important album in jazz and music in general, and it’s your chance to be some of the first ones on board.
Logan Strosahl Team – Book I of Arthur (avant-jazz)
It never occurred to me to think of a music that merges Renaissance and Baroque music with 20th century jazz. Apparently, the idea has occurred to Logan Strosahl, and the result is Book I of Arthur, with his “Team” of musicians. Hopping from canon to tone rows, and from rigid structures to modern free jazz exuberance, this album is a true gem of this year. On top of the often off the hooks instrumentation, there is a narration that helps guiding the listener through the story being told, thanks to Logan Strosahl and Julia Easterllin. The story, as you might have concluded on your own by now, is that of the legend of King Arthur and the knights of the round table. Book I is the first of a series of releases on this epoch, and so I’m more than eager to listen to the following chapters!
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Mammal Hands – Shadow Work (jazz fusion, modern jazz)
Subtle and intimate, Mammal Hands’ latest album is a true masterpiece. The band’s spiritual, melodic jazz is lush with hypnotic rhythms and transcendental harmonic motions. It’s a delicate contemporary jazz record that warrants multiple listening sessions to fully appreciate. Not that it’s overly complex or hard to grasp at first, but just that the emotional depth of the record takes a while to sink in completely. As their third album, Shadow Work proves to be the band’s most mature album, even topping their sophomore, Floa, of which I am still very fond. In too few words, Shadow Work is a very memorable album, one that will hitch a ride into your mind and keep playing even when the record has stopped.
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Vincent Touchard – Classe moyenne (chamber jazz)
This is a late arrival on my list. Released on the first of December, I fear it will be missed by many jazz and music outlets, but it’s worthy of a place on my top 5; here’s why. As opposed to most of what appears on my list, Vincent Touchard’s Classe moyenne isn’t an explosion of sounds. What Vincent, aided by the rest of his quintet, set out to do on this album is to insufflate beauty and poetry in the mundane. He himself describes the album as a soundtrack to the everyday monotony, and an ode to banality and simplicity. And this goal is achieved, without fanfare. A wise friend of mine told me that “routine is the fuel of life”, and it only rarely gets any praise. Classe moyenne defends and embodies this by being tremendously beautiful while lacking any sort of flamboyance. The songs are simple, gentle, and seldom detract from the beaten path, but they are crafted and played with such care and passion that it is a very emotional record to go through. Do yourselves a favour, and put this on while cooking, studying, or doing the chores; les choses du quotidien…
Andromeda Mega Express Orchestra – Vula (big band, progressive jazz)
Andromeda Mega Express Orchestra – from now on referred to as AMEO – are overachievers. Once you’re done uttering the group’s name, you might want to press the play button, which will embark you on a 65-minute ride aboard Vula, the latest release from Berlin’s 18-member jazz orchestra. One of the first things that crossed my mind was retrofuturism, although an arguably odd choice of term to describe music, I find it quite fitting in this case. From the croaking trumpets, reminiscent of the roaring twenties, as well as the big band aesthetic generally, to the undeniably modern take on harmony and structure, rife with uneven subdivisions and novel ideas that are explored in a highly rewarding fashion. The compositions on Vula range from wispy and fragile to ominous and bombastic. It’s a massive album, and you could be forgiven for thinking that its breadth works to its own detriment, but you would be wrong; Vula never grows boring or overstays its welcome, thanks to AMEO relentlessly bringing forth new concepts and ideas to play with. A really awesome album indeed!
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Amir ElSaffar/Rivers of Sound – Not Two (Arabic jazz, large ensemble)
Angles 9 – Disappeared Behind the Sun (avant-jazz)
Anomalie – Métropole (funk, jazz fusion, electro-jazz)
Black Motor – Branches (avant-garde jazz, modal jazz)
Bryan and the Aardvarks – Sounds From the Deep Field (chamber jazz, classical)
Burning Ghosts – Reclamation (avant-garde jazz, avant-garde metal)
Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah – Diaspora (nu jazz, post-bop)
Daniel Herksedal – The Roc (folk, classical jazz)
Eivind Opsvik – Overseas V (experimental jazz, fusion)
Granite Hands – Don’t Do It (math rock, jazz fusion)
Jaimie Branch – Fly or Die (jazz fusion)
Jessica Ackerley Trio – Coalesce (avant-garde jazz)
John Zorn – The Interpretation of Dreams (big band, avant-jazz)
Kristofer Maddigan – Cuphead Original Soundtrack (big band)
Lean Left – I Forgot to Breathe (avant-garde jazz rock, European free jazz)
Matt Mitchell – Matt Mitchell Plays Tim Berne: Førage (avant-jazz)
Milton Man Gogh – Stress to Impress (avant-garde jazz)
MoMo Trio – ORDINARY (minimalist jazz fusion)
Nate Smith – KINFOLK: Postacards From Everywhere (fusion, r&b)
Nova Collective – The Further Side (jazz fusion, prog metal)
Peter Evans, Agustí Fernández & Mats Gustafsson – A Quietness of Water (European free jazz)
Quantum Trio – Duality: Particles & Waves (jazz fusion, progressive jazz, electro-jazz, modern jazz)
Rumpus – Somehow (jazz fusion)
Sly & The Family Drone and Dead Neanderthals – Molar Wrench (free jazz, drone)
Vincent Jourde & Joffrey Dahonnet – Flow (modern jazz, duo)
Vulture Forest – Vulture Forest (ambient jazz)
Сольвычегодск – Вежливый приказ (experimental jazz, free jazz)