Ryan and I have covered quite a bit of jazz over the past year or so. Among other articles, we have written about the best records for those just getting into the genre and somehow rounded up the 10 essential John Coltrane records that should be in your collection. And as we have traversed this great genre of music, we’ve turned a bit of a blind eye to more modern releases. We don’t exactly have a reason why it happened, it just did, but it’s OK because it got us thinking: What are the 10 best modern jazz albums?
In doing our research, we gathered a lengthy list of projects from the past 10 years or so. We eventually picked apart records we otherwise love or respect, casting them aside for albums that truly deserve a place on such a list. These selections do more than just showcase the best of what jazz has to offer in the past decade; they show exactly how alive and well jazz has and continues to be, no matter what coverage you may see for these artists. You won’t see many of these acts making headlines on your favorite music sites, but they are getting their shine in their own ways, whether it’s through critical acclaim or, in one very specific case, a friggin’ Pulitzer Prize.
AM: Narrowing down a selection from New York pianist Vijay Iyer and his trio wasn’t exactly easy, because they’ve got several killer records to their name. But Accelerando also kind of immediately wins out based on the two tracks these guys chose to cover: Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature” (one of my personal favorite songs ever) and Flying Lotus’ “MmmHmm.” Despite the fact the vinyl release of Accelerando is slightly different (and shorter) than the digital version, we’re still treated to these covers and, man, are they ever glorious. The second half of “Human Nature” is particularly epic, with Iyer, bassist Stephen Crump, and drummer Marcus Gilmore going ham on the melody. And then there’s the selection of original tunes, including smoky opener “Optimism” and the menacing title track.
RK: This kind of interaction doesn’t just happen, it takes years of dedicated playing from a group. The trio here is on top of their game and present such a focused and entertaining album that it is hard to find any flaw. Their musicianship is reminiscent of the Bill Evans Trio, where there is no main melodic instrument. They all take turns adding to the conversation, often soloing simultaneously. Marcus Gilmore is especially entertaining to listen to. He has a way of paying homage to classic drumset techniques while pushing towards new ways of expression. His grandfather, Roy Haynes, was the creator of many drumset fundamentals so it is no surprise that Gilmore is creating ideas for use by the next generation of drummers.
AM: If you have ever wondered what exactly “joy” sounds like, then you need to hear pianist Jason Moran’s trip through Fats Waller’s catalogue on All Rise. What started as (what sounds like) an amazing live show dedicated to the larger-than-life jazzman transformed into an equally captivating recording, bursting with life, soul and happiness. Even the more meditative moments, such as bits of “Fats Elegy” and “Jitterbug Waltz,” are enrapturing moments of #feels. Elsewhere, you’re bound to get addicted to the sing-along hook of “Ain’t Misbehavin’” and toe-tapping funk of “The Joint Is Jumpin’.” By all accounts, Waller was one of the biggest personalities the music world has ever seen, and Moran and his cast of players (including frontwoman Meshell Ndegeocello) go above and beyond doing the source material justice.
RK: Jazz has long been trademarked by its reimagining of popular songs as vehicles for solo improvisation. This practice is taken a step further on this project, where the subject of imitation is jazz piano pioneer Fats Waller. Instead of a straight note-for-note, arrangement or feel replica, Moran updates and puts his own spin on these tracks. In collaborating with the great Meshell Ndegeocello, Moran pushes this selection towards a conglomeration of jazz and hip-hop. Each track sounds so fresh and modern that it is hard to believe that the core tunes were written in the first half of the 1900s. The piano playing on this album celebrates Waller’s style while showcasing its relation to a modern approach to jazz piano. All Rise is a genre-pushing album that deserves to be given the attention inherent with a vinyl listening session.
AM: Where do I even start with Kamasi Washington’s flat-out incredible The Epic? Should I talk about how it’s truly one of the most epic albums you’ll ever listen to, weighing in at three LPs and nearly three (!) hours in length? Or maybe I could just wax poetic about how it’s made jazz cool again and reintroduced the genre to a bunch of kids who associated it with everything in the world you could consider uncool? Or how about I prattle on about Washington’s collaborations with cats like Kendrick Lamar, who by association make listening to The Epic an even cooler activity? Wait, I just did all of that didn’t I? Yeah, if you’re even remotely interested in jazz, I hope you’ve heard this album. If not—and if you’re nervous about listening to something this long—peep his band’s version of jazz standard “Cherokee.” You’ll immediately want to hear the rest.
RK: Andrew summed up why you would want to hear this album musically, so I am going to talk about why vinyl is the perfect medium for it. The packaging is gorgeous, with its black and white cover of Kamasi standing in front of earth and the moon. This is part of a beautiful mural called “The Elixir” by artist Patrick Henry Johnson. Each of the three discs comes in its own colored sleeve with musicians listed for each track (which is key when there is a choir and string ensemble featured throughout the album). The music itself feels like it was created for vinyl. It is dense, epic, dynamically expansive and virtuosic, which are all things that seem to be enhanced by vinyl. It is the perfect combination of amazing music with gorgeous packaging. Definitely a must have.
AM: Ryan totally nailed his take on Landmarks below, getting into how this 2014 album from Brian Blade and The Fellowship Band is “all about restraint.” Because it is—nothing on here feels grandiose for the sake of grandiosity. It’s majestic without being overwhelming, like watching No Country For Old Men without the grim depression. Perhaps I’m too taken by the cover art—can you blame me?—but this record plays like the soundtrack to a road trip where you’re taking in locales you’ve never seen before. But getting back to the bit about restraint; it’s exactly that quality that makes Landmarks such a phenomenal listening experience. It’s tightly constructed and never too flowery, just a killer album bolstered by some truly gifted players.
RK: This album is all about restraint. The musicians in this band are absolute monsters that could knock you over the head with some of the most intense and complicated music imaginable, but they don’t. They hold back, letting each note and rest hang in the air. Nothing is superfluous, everything is in its right place. That is not to say that this is boring by any stretch of the imagination. This restraint leaves you absolutely floored when the musicians drop in and out or when dynamics suddenly change (listen to the drums on “Ark.La.Tex”). With so many musicians trying to showcase their chops these days, it is refreshing to hear a group that just sits back and let’s the music speak for itself. Brian Blade is one of the most entertaining drummers and modern musicians to experience (whether that be on vinyl, MP3 or in concert). This album, though, with its twists, turns and dynamic range is made to be heard on vinyl.
AM: Avant-garde music isn’t for everyone, and anyone who argues otherwise is either a pretentious turd or completely out of their mind (or both!). In any case, it’s my opinion that life’s worth living when you are able to challenge yourself and, yes, that goes for when you’re listening to music. That brings me to In For A Penny, In For A Pound, the Pulitzer Prize-winning album from Henry Threadgill and his go-to band, Zooid. If you consider this an easy listen, then hats off to you, because you’re living on an entirely different plane. That being said, the 70-plus minutes of music on this thing aren’t so difficult that they beat you over the head with noise or obtuse meanderings. There’s a lot going on across the tracks on In For A Penny, and I’d be lying if I told you I understood exactly what Threadgill was trying to convey. But for me, it’s another opportunity to learn and begin to grasp this whole avant-garde jazz thing. I’ll leave the intelligent words about this one to Ryan. Well, OK, I can say one thing confidently: The guitar work on “Ceroepic (For Drums and Percussion)” is hypnotizing.
RK: This suite is broken into movements highlighting each instrument, which, if done incorrectly, could add up to a disjointed album. Obviously, given that In For A Penny, In For A Pound has a place on this list, that is not the case. Within each movement are multiple themes, variations and solos. The interactions between all the instruments are what make this album thoroughly enjoyable. The written material splits complicated rhythms and melody lines among musicians, which results in a ping-pong effect that grooves. This gives the soloist plenty to work with sonically. So much is happening at once, but it never sounds too crowded. All the musicians know when to sit out (sometimes you won’t hear one of them for a few minutes). To get this music to sound so fluid must have taken many hours of rehearsal, not to mention the foresight and mental prowess that went into writing it. Threadgill absolutely deserved the Pulitzer for this project and it is great to see that after many years of churning out great music, he is being recognized for it.
AM: If you’ve read our other jazz lists, you may have been waiting to read the line, “Alright, y’all, let’s get weird.” Well, that’s exactly what we’re doing with Meltframe, the 2015 covers album from avant-garde jazz guitarist and composer Mary Halvorson. It’s her first release as a solo player and, let me tell you, it totally rips (when necessary). Listening to a recording of only guitar playing can be a bit difficult to digest at first, and I completely understand that it won’t be for everyone. But believe me when I tell you that there’s something cathartic about this album when you give it the time it so deserves. No matter how long it takes you to get into it, you simply can’t deny a few cuts on here. That’s especially true of her take on Oliver Nelson’s “Cascades,” which opens Meltframe with pure distorted goodness. And her version of McCoy Tyner’s “Aisha” (from John Coltrane’s Ole), which is straight-up flooring.
RK: Mary Halvorson is one of the most in-demand guitarists on the scene today and this album showcases why. Recording a solo album is complicated, because you need to make sure it is always interesting and changing. Throughout Meltframe, Halvorson works with textures, dynamics, tempos, and styles to keep the listener engaged. Her work is beyond creative. She tunes and detunes strings during the melody of “Sadness,” all while comping underneath. She uses effects near the end of “Cheshire Hotel” to bend pitches while strumming beautifully. Mary is able to play multiple ideas simultaneously while using the tension created to create an entertaining album that doesn’t get old after repeated listens. Her work in ensembles is amazing, but it is especially great to hear her stretch out on her own.
AM: I realize that saying Cécile McLorin Salvant uses her voice like an instrument isn’t some original, grand statement. But it’s the truth, damn it, and it’s why so many others have described her stunning vocal abilities as such. While your favorite player wields their [insert any physical instrument] like a deity, the same can be said of Salvant. Her original tunes and covers of classics on the Grammy-winning For One to Love can only be heard as “straight-ahead” in the most conventional sense, meaning they’re not necessarily difficult. But they are beautifully presented by Salvant and her band, who breathe new life into tunes like Burt Bacharach’s “Wives and Lovers” and Meet Me In St. Louis’ “The Trolley Song” (which I previously knew mostly from a “Simpsons” gag). Her original compositions are equally as potent, partially because she carries them with a similar strength and presentation. It makes For One to Love a, well, lovely record to listen to especially with your personal favorite beverage (be it coffee, wine or bourbon) and, yes, the right person by your side.
RK: Cécile McLorin Salvant’s vocals jump and slide in the most glorious, unexpected ways. Right from the opening track, “Fog,” we are treated to techniques that only a few vocalists could pull off (like how she sings the phrase “Sometimes, I try to recall“ near the beginning of the track). A hallmark of a great instrumentalist (especially a vocalist) is their level of conviction. The notes or lyrics flow straight out of the musician from somewhere deep inside. Salvant emotes every phrase with such honesty that they jump right out of the speakers. The backing piano trio is stellar as well. They play a perfectly supportive role to Salvant, and it would be easy to disregard their playing, which would be a mistake. They punctuate the melody lines as well as groove through some solidly in the pocket playing throughout this album.
AM: Right out of the gate, Emily’s D+Evolution stakes its claim as a transcendent, innovative work that blends jazz, funk, prog-rock and other genres with such ease that it’s not even fair. As Ryan notes below, the multi-talented Esperanza Spalding (known previously for her stunning bass and vocal talents) goes everywhere and back on this project with only a trio (and a batch of guest singers) playing on each track. Now, those players do rotate, but they’re really just on board to do their thing while Spalding leads the way, singing like a woman possessed and rocking the hell out of whichever instrument she’s got her hands on. There’s a weight to many tracks on Emily’s D+Evolution that would require, like, 30 more paragraphs to explain, but that’s kind of exactly why you need to hear this project. Also, opener “Good Lava” straight-up rocks.
RK: It’s hard to believe that this album features only a trio (along with background vocalists). The arrangements, orchestrations, compositions and musicianship are so dense and well crafted that there is always something new and exciting to hear, even after multiple listens. The music is constantly moving, changing and pulling you in. There is something dark and sinister in this selection of tunes as well, but it is hard to pinpoint its origin. The overall mood of this album lends itself perfectly to firing up the turntable and sitting back. It is easy to hear why Esperanza Spalding is such a master while listening to the slinking bassline in “Judas” and its interaction with the vocal line. Also, that groove on “Funk the Fear” is just dirty.
AM: There’s an inherent feeling of levity and elation running through the musical veins of Otis Was a Polar Bear, an album dedicated to the daughter of drummer/bandleader Allison Miller. With her Boom Tic Boom players at her side, Miller jumps headfirst into a variety sounds while maintaining a singular focus. It’s an album of youthful exploration that’s conveyed in the jubilance of the players, including the stellar opening track and its movements (“Fuster”), the playful “Staten Island” and the awesomely titled “Pig in a Sidecar.” Maybe it’s just in my head, but I can totally see a polar bear named Otis moving through various landscapes while listening to this. Few albums I’ve heard in the past few years have inspired that style of imagination.
RK: Creative orchestrations and catchy melodies dominate this album and as a listener, you are never quite sure what is coming next. Miller’s drumming is particularly impressive. She plays with such a relaxed feel while pulling off complicated patterns. In many of the tracks, she even uses her drumset as a melodic and chordal instrument! On top of that, her composition chops are on point (listen to all the different parts of “Fuster” and how well they flow into one another). She assembled an amazing band to bring her songs to life. All the musicians, just like Miller, make it sound so effortless. To relay such interesting and complex music in such a natural, organic way is astounding.
AM: Often beautiful and occasionally knotty, Lovers is an engaging listen that perfectly captures the mission of Nels Cline. The shape-shifting guitarist, also known for playing with the likes of Wilco and Mike Watt, wrote that he hoped to provide listeners with “something of an update of the ‘mood music’ idea and ideal, while celebrating and challenging our iconic notion of romance.” Listening to Lovers’ 18 tracks, it can be quite simple to passively listen as you carry on and let the tunes drift about in the background. But pay closer attention and you’ll begin to appreciate the nuance, like the more challenging “It Only Has to Happen Once” or his wonderfully eerie cover of Sonic Youth’s “Snare, Girl.” Or maybe you’ll just get stuck on his interpretation of “I Have Dreamed” and wonder why you haven’t watched more musicals (note: the original is from “The King and I”).
RK: Expansive projects, like Lovers, are hard to find these days. With album sales dwindling and large-scale jazz tours a thing of the past, it is refreshing to hear Nels Cline put forth this effort to revitalize an era of jazz gone by. With a string section, full horn section and even a harp (!), Cline assembled a stellar team of musicians to convey an album that, at first listen, sounds like it could have been made 60 years ago. For those familiar with Cline’s work, this album may confound. He is known for his blistering free jazz explorations, but on this album we get to hear him put out an offering of orchestral jazz. It is amazing to hear such a master sound so at home in this context as he does in free jazz and rock. The arrangements, by Michael Leonhart, are beautiful, highlighting the melodies and backgrounds with the perfect choice of instruments. This vinyl is perfect to put on in the background of your next cocktail party or to intently listen to and dissect.