Though it’s always been the case to some extent, jazz has increasingly become more an approach to creating music than an easily definable style. Scanning over the year’s standout jazz releases, what’s most impressive is the divergent paths they take, each boldly different and incorporating a wide range of influences in distinctive ways.
The major story of the year was, all too typically for the genre, about a long-dead artist. Both Directions at Once, the much-touted “lost John Coltrane album,” was indeed an exciting find, a thrilling glimpse at a previously unheard session with the iconic saxophonist’s classic quartet at the height of their powers. It didn’t reveal anything particularly new in the broad strokes, but it did serve as a reminder of Coltrane’s relentless push forward. That quality is shared by all the artists on this year’s list, all of whom are finding their own ways to reinvent a genre that thrives on continual evolution.
From these 10 albums, perhaps only Walter Smith III’s Twio and the Bad Plus’ rebirth, Never Stop II, would be recognizable to listeners in Coltrane’s era. The former is a tightrope-walking sax-bass-drums trio date in the Sonny Rollins mold, with the imaginative tenor saxophonist Smith unleashing torrents of bracing melody over the roiling rhythms of drummer Eric Harland and bassists Christian McBride and Harish Raghavan. The addition of Philly pianist Orrin Evans to the longstanding Bad Plus gave that impish trio a reinvigorating jolt of raucous power.
The year’s most startling album comes from trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, who has finally managed to fully realize his audacious ideas. Origami Harvest combines Akinmusire’s daring group with a string quartet and underground rapper Kool A.D., fusing multiple genres into a stunning whole that’s not quite described by any of them. The trumpeter shares his genre-obliterating approach with drummer/composer Tyshawn Sorey, whose sprawling three-CD Pillars is an absorbing exercise in monumental minimalism. On Starebaby, drummer Dan Weiss stirs together modern jazz and extreme metal into a nerve-rattling stew of darkness and tension, and guitarist Mary Halvorson released a set of oblique-angled, mysterious songs.
One of their forebears in such original thinking is the Pulitzer-winning saxophonist and composer Henry Threadgill, who released two typically striking new albums. Dirt… and More Dirt features two suites by his large ensemble, further honing a language in which only the composer is truly conversant. Guitar hero Bill Frisell, meanwhile, continues to refine his achingly gorgeous sound with a career-highlight solo outing that is captivating in its shimmering lyricism.