These are the 10 best jazz albums from 2018, from young upstarts to rappers (yes, rappers).
As a mid-1970s sideman for McCoy Tyner, this saxophonist regularly drew comparisons to his predecessor Sonny Fortune and the departed John Coltrane. His own Bridge Into The New Age from 1974 for Prestige carried on the latter’s tradition in fine form and remains a well-respected record of its time. Yet by the decade’s end, Azar Lawrence had transitioned into funk and disco like so many of his peers, playing on records by Le Pamplemousse and his own short-lived Chameleon. His return to the jazz world on this side of the millennium came in tribute to Trane, something that continued through 2016’s Frontiers with Al McLean. As such, his latest effort Elementals keeps jazz’s spiritual idiom front of mind, though it hardly qualifies as a retro affair. Backed by a quartet that includes fellow ’80s boogie session man Munyungo Jackson and Leno-era Tonight Show drummer Marvin Smith, Lawrence explores Eastern avenues on “Solar Winds” and “African Chant,” coming back stateside for “Koko.” A faithful tribute to Coltrane’s 1962 take on the standard, “It’s Easy To Remember” glides along with class and grace.
With all due respect to octets, nonets and all manner of ambitious big bands, there’s something so gratifying in experiencing a high-quality trio in action. Sure, the inconvenience of convening an armada of players for even the most serviceable outing can dazzle the aged and naïve alike. But when a triad performs at peak, as Theo Hill’s group does so clearly here, watch out. A familiar face in the New York scene, the pianist puts in the work at the city’s various establishments, an ethic made apparent on his second bandleader set in as many years. Joined by bassist Rashaan Carter and drummer Rudy Royston, he flexes dexterously through a series of originals and covers bustling with craft. He honors Jaki Byard with the relentless take on “Cyclic Episode” and channels pre-Miami Vice Jan Hammer with a fusion flair for “Thorn Of A White Rose.” Elsewhere, Hill goes electric for “Retrograde,” a free-flowing celebration amplified by the rhythm section with a title that nods with insider intel to an improv technique.
At a recent month-long residency at the West Village mainstay that shares his record label’s name, Robert Glasper presented a fairly comprehensive look at his range. From tight trio dates to steadfast nights celebrating Miles Davis and Mulgrew Miller, the bandleader flipped between modes every few days as if performing feats of strength. Toward the run’s end, the pianist brought out the big guns, R+R=NOW. A coast-to-coast collaboration with such modern giants as Terrace Martin and Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah, this assortment of maestros each could, and regularly do, command the helm alone. All in together now, Collagically Speaking celebrates the clan’s aggregated strength. Glasper mans the keys, plunking down on “Change Of Tone” while Brainfeeder alum Taylor McFerrin — son of vocal legend Bobby McFerrin — and Martin share synthesizer duties on most cuts, yielding cosmic delights like “By Design.” Even with so much space taken by those three, the rhythm section of Derrick Hodge and Justin Tyson do far more than keep time. And Scott, of course, does his damn thing on trumpet, notably crushing “The Night In Question.”
Solo bass performance doesn’t light up a club the way, say, a pianist toiling away in a corner might. Despite inherent depth, the instrument most often exists in structures as a sophisticated support beam, marveled at for its incomprehensible state of sturdiness and pliability. Not beloved for solitary characteristics, the double bass in veteran Barre Phillips’ hands nonetheless becomes a thing of honed wonderment. Presented as three named pieces respectively broken down into quarters and fifths, End To End demonstrates decades of fidelity and dutiful industry, a dramatic close to work formally begun with 1968’s Journal Violone. What distinguishes the unsettlingly engrossing sections of each, which veer between the plucked and the bowed, has more to do with Phillips’ choices than anything apparent to outsiders. Following the notional curiosities of their surroundings, twins “Inner Door, Pt. 4” and “Quest, Pt. 4” feel like a necessary backbone, repeating phrases providing grounding and tension. In the lulls, his breathing features as an ambient element in the most Eno sense of the word.
Chicago boasts one of the more sonically diverse hip-hop scenes in the country right now, with sensitive streetwise poets and trap house terrors respectively demanding and commanding attention both in their communities and beyond. Among those thriving in the former, Noname follows up 2016’s critically adored mixtape Telefone with another chapbook set to a beat. More Q-Tip than Ken Nordine, her word jazz jumbles personal narratives up with poignant observations, her insightful stare often fixed upon her own backyard. “Blaxploitation” lays her city’s hypocrisies bare, citing South Side and Wicker before broadening her indictment with national scale. She drills down into the intricacies of 20-something sexuality on the title track, offering keen perspective on the give-and-take of interpersonal relationships. Grappling with mortality and minor fame on “Don’t Forget About Me” and reciting a semi-secular creed across “Regal” compels listeners, but the instrumentation keeps them locked. What Noname and co-producer Phoelix have accomplished musically here transcends the neo-soul template’s temperament, making for something especially attuned to the shared sensibilities of wizened jazz denizens and lyrical rap aficionados alike.
From Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly to the Brainfeeder albums in its orbit, the West Coast Get Down’s impact on contemporary jazz cannot be overstated. Kamasi Washington’s triple-disc triumph The Epic not only made him and his cadre of outstanding instrumentalists some of the hottest names of the genre this decade, it radically shifted the conversation about this music from past tense to present tense. After a few years touring the globe in the expansive album’s seismic wake, the saxophonist’s grand return this summer kept that same energy. A double album with a third record cleverly hidden in the packaging, Heaven And Earth lives up to the maximalism alluded to by its title. Inspired by the cosmic and the classical alike, his latest collection expands on the universe of his making. The cheekiness of leading with a cover of Bruce Lee’s Fists Of Fury theme song belies a genuine cinematic scope to these recordings, evident on voluminous numbers like “One Of One” and “Vi Lua Vi Sol.” Choirs ooh and aah, as orchestral flair adds further pomp to the lavish closing ceremony of “Will You Sing.”
In the aching opener “Vibrations,” something diabolical seems at play. Bridging the existential gap between krautrock and hip-hop through the lens of free jazz, this conglomeration of unlikely allies are up to something. When the beat drops on “Cyclical / Physical” the extent of that something takes shape, MC Dälek dropping poetic and profound bars over a meticulous, metallic storm. Saxophonist Mats Gustafsson, who noiseniks may recall from a smashing 2005 Roskilde set alongside Sonic Youth and Merzbow, makes his presence more pronounced on the subsequent eponymous track, gradually battling the rapper’s noggin pointing amid fellow Fire! drummer Andreas Werliin’s rhythms. Orchestrated somehow by Faust co-founder Hans Joachim Irmler, Anguish is the year’s most unexpected jazz hybrid and, in shook hindsight, its most effective. While hard rock and indie rap have done this dance before, this rogue endeavor yields impish results, each contributor represented uncompromisingly. Dälek’s Jersey-burnt voice and Gustafsson’s otherworldly playing often dominate, yet even reflective instrumentals like “Brushes For Leah” offer no reprieve from the existential dread of the affair, a genre thriller born of busted genres.
A powerhouse of a locale across musical styles, Houston has proven time and time again to be a hub for jazz talent. In the tradition of contemporary players like Chris Dave and Robert Glasper, the city comes through again with pianist James Francies. A transplant in New York with ties to The Roots and Chance The Rapper, he leads his first full-length set at the tender age of 23. Beyond the youthful energy evident across its 11 cuts, Flight sports skill beyond years over its roughly hour-long duration, perhaps partially due to producer Derrick Hodge’s involvement. With inflections of hip-hop and R&B executed well by a crew populated in part by fellow Houstonians, something overtly stated midway through the frenetic “Crib,” Francies’ debut blends acoustic with electric while staying modern throughout. The near psychedelic tranquility of “Dark Purple” contrasts with the exhilaratingly hilly ride of “Sway,” though both tracks fit the album’s overall aesthetic. A lone cover, “Ain’t Nobody” manifests more fluidly than Chaka Khan’s brilliant if dated electro-original.
The cabaret can sometimes self sabotage, its intimacy stippled with tiny pitfalls and failings. In such spaces, a singer and a pianist left alone leaves little room for error, scarcely any nook or corner for secreting flaws. At the same time, the potential for honesty lends an excitement to the proceedings, presenting a level of imperfect excellence worth aspiring toward. And since we’re talking about Cécile McLorin Salvant and Sullivan Fortner, two absolute gems in the urban rough, that latter scenario comes into play. On The Window, their warm duo date, the 2010 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition winner further cements her status as the best vocal jazz performer of her generation. Ineradicable standards and show tunes like Stephen Sondheim’s “Somewhere” mingles with francophone favorites and Broadway curios. In that third category, “The Gentleman Is A Dope” provides cutting comic relief ahead of the gravity of Ella Fitzgerald’s “Trouble Is A Man.” Whether idiosyncratic or anticipated, her selections come alive with devastating beauty, ferocity and fragility. The handful recorded in front of an applauding audience crackle as well as those presented without.
The young Minneapolis native and third-generation jazzman starts his album not unlike a beat tape, its “River Song” knocking about like prime Dilla. But the track’s gradual emergence as deep cosmic soul, uplifted by erstwhile Chance The Rapper crooner J Hoard, perfectly encapsulates Javier Santiago’s compositional brilliance on piano and keys. Much like the mythical creature of its titular provenance, Phoenix emerges with fiery potency, the glowing red product of a studious practitioner. An effusive expression lasting about as long as most Adult Swim shows, the title track vibrates at a higher frequency, the Fender Rhodes a stateless joy for wind controller and saxophone to further enliven. The initial preciousness of “Gaia’s Warning” soon smooths out and luxuriates, while “Abyss: Light” stresses its urgency between skips and jumps. Leftfield hip-hop reveals itself again amid the mad percussive mischief of “Tomorrow,” a testament to his time as an engaged beatsmith. By the album’s closer, the intoxicating and salutary departure of “Alive,” it’s apparent we’re dealing with someone capable of stardom.
Eric Darius, Breakin’ Thru (SagiDarius)
Makaya McCraven, Universal Beings (International Anthem)
Brockett Parsons, The Brockettship (Ropeadope)
Ryan Porter, The Optimist (World Galaxy)
Christian Sands, Facing Dragons (Mack Avenue)
Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Adrian Younge, The Midnight Hour (Linear Labs)
Wolfgang Muthspiel, Where The River Goes (ECM)
Kandace Springs, Indigo (Blue Note)
Marcus Strickland, People Of The Sun (Blue Note)
Tom Tallitsch, Wheelhouse (Posi-Tone)
Born, raised and still living in New York City, Gary Suarez writes about music and culture for a variety of publications. Since 1999, his work has appeared in various outlets including Forbes, High Times, Rolling Stone, Vice and Vulture, among others. In 2020, he founded the independent hip-hop newsletter and podcast, Cabbages.