1. Kamasi Washington, The Epic
My choice for best jazz record of the year is also the most significant release of 2015. Kamasi Washington’s madly entertaining The Epic (Brainfeeder) is a 3-disc multilayered triumph that features a 10-piece band with two drummers two bass players, a choir and orchestra. It’s audacious, over the top and sizzling with in-the-pocket grooves, anchored by the leader’s intoxicating saxophone solos. It’s mostly accessible, but it also doesn’t hesitate to roar like late-era spiritualized Coltrane or Pharoah Sanders. The 45 songs are packaged and presented with Sun Ra-style fervor, yet it’s pulse and rhythms are rooted in the present. The 45 songs are packaged and presented as a Sun Ra style narrative, yet it’s pulse and rhythms are rooted in the present. Better still was the accompanying national tour that landed at the Blue Note for a few nights last fall. It was loudest, most thrilling jazz concert I’ve experienced in a long while and the sold-out room was full of younger music fans who saw Washington and his band as superstars. Proof of Washington’s greatness is resoundingly evident on The Epic.
2. Maria Schneider Orchestra, The Thompson Fields (artistShare)
The most beautiful jazz compositions for orchestra come from the pen and passion of Maria Schneider. Her recordings are astonishing in their capacity to connect emotionally with the listener. The vivid music on The Thompson Fields (artistShare) was written during Schneider’s extended sojourn to a family farm in Minnesota where she grew up and she navigates her 18-piece ensemble with authority and sensitivity. Replete with deft improvised solos, the natural beauty of the midwest landscape is captured and plays out — the hallmarks of nature are by turns lyrical, melodic and turbulent — and the effect is grandly cinematic and on the cutting edge where jazz meets classical. A spectacular and deservedly Grammy-nominated achievement.
3. Ben Williams, Coming of Age
The originals on Coming of Age (Concord Jazz) wed fresh jazz to pop and R&B, and its a rush of pleasure from beginning to end. Bassist Ben Williams, Julliard trained and winner of the 2009 Monk Institute competition, makes sure that the record will satisfy on multiple spins — it’s the keyed up guitar solos, funky electric piano, sonorous sax and wicked beats that give Coming of Age its more-than-jazz appeal. On either acoustic or electric bass, Williams keeps the flow modern and grounded, fueled by virtuosity and vision along with his canny sense of crossover appeal.
4. Jose James, Yesterday I Had The Blues: The Music Of Billie Holiday
My choice for vocal album of the year is the best of this year’s tribute albums to Blllie Holiday on the 100th anniversary of her birth. On nine tracks, mostly ballads, James simplifies classic standards, closely collaborating with pianist Jason Moran, bassist John Patitucci and drummer Eric Harland. His fluid baritone has a honeyed quality and he lets songs like “Good Morning Heartache” breathe and take gentle flight. His voice patient and shimmering, James digs into the blues (“Fine and Mellow”) and croons “Lover Man” as a sensual soul singer. He smolders and seduces, capturing the essence of Ms. Holiday’s charm and vulnerability. (Blue Note)
5. Nick Finzer, The Chase
The Chase (Origin) is a sturdy and beautifully arranged program of melodic originals by Finzer who hits all the right notes on his sophomore recording. It’s as warmly compelling as it is masterfully swinging, without a false step or throwaway tune in the bunch. His first-rate band of up-and-comers, anchored by pianist Glenn Zeleski, bassist Dave Baron and drummer Jimmy MacBride, are particularly adept at underscoring the small band harmonics on upbeat songs. Together they give this sonically impressive date of a loose, open-collar feel — the blended grooves and interlocking rhythms give The Chase a jolt of traditional hipness and modern cool.
6. Joe Locke, Love Is A Pendulum
Jazz vibraphone has come a long way since the glory days of Lionel Hampton. Locke is an individualist who bridges the divide between past and perfect. His best recording to date, Love (Motema Records) has strong romantic melodies that give the album an unsinkable musicality. He’s got a swoon-worthy band with juggernaut precision by drummer (and co-producer) Terreon Gully. This is Locke’s masterwork — it heaves and flows with a modern beat that’s consistently appealing.
7. Revive Records Presents: Supreme Sonancy, Vol 1.
A visionary producer and taste maker, Revive Music CEO Meghan Stabile is the most important person currently on the New York jazz scene who’s not actually a musician. For her first record, Supreme Sonancy Vol. 1, she pairs cutting edge artists connected to the hip hop scene (Raydar Ellis) with progressive jazz musicians. The record smartly zeroes in on the fluidity of jazz to hip hop and rap, such as cleverly reworking Wayne Shorter’s “Pinocchio” by folding in deep bass and staccato beats as if to say this isn’t your pop’s Blue Note music.
8. Jamison Ross, Jamison (Concord Jazz)
This exuberant debut release opens with Technicolor fireworks on a vivid Muddy Waters cover, “Deep Down in Florida” that pops and shimmies on evocative soul and blues rhythms. Like singer Gregory Porter, Ross has a big, deep voice that’s operatic in its storytelling style, yet peaks and dips fluidly with an emotionally tangible vibe. He’s a savvy instrumentalist. The album is propelled on Ross’ talent and he saves the best for last — the closer “Bye, Bye Blues” is a rousing, church revival-like number that soars on Ross’ star-making charisma and natural enthusiasm. (Concord Jazz)
9. Tom Harrell, First Impressions (HighNote)
The lyrical trumpeter Tom Harrell has often integrated jazz and strings on his projects to great effect. He establishes a quiet brilliance on First Impressions (HighNote) an album that folds jazz improvisation into classical tunes by Modernist composers Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel. It’s a magnificent record that resonates with superior interplay and diverse arrangements where Harrell’s warm liquid tone reminds one of Art Farmer. There’s some fire, too, on the electrifying title track, which has soaring Miles Davis-like moments. As a whole, this nine-piece chamber ensemble album oscillates between jazz and the European classical tradition while superbly detouring through other musical styles.
10. Orrin Evans, The Evolution of Oneself (Smoke Sessions)
Evans is a Philadelphia original. With 25 solo records and essential sideman duties in trumpeter Sean Jones Quartet and bassist Ben Wolfe’s band, Evans recorded Evolution (Smoke Sessions) during the year he turned 40 and the album is a reflection on everything that jazz and family means to the pianist. It’s flavored with gorgeous standards, angular originals, a brilliant Grover Washington, Jr. cover and buzzy, hip-hop interludes made in collaboration with his son. Overall, it’s profoundly expressive and the best introduction to this respected player, producer, bandleader and educator.