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The Best Jazz Albums Of 2019

On December 10, 2019

Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah
Ancestral Recall (Ropeadope)

There’s a sense that this is the kind of album this New Orleans native has been building toward for the better part of a decade, its substantive sonic roots beginning with 2012’s Christian aTunde Adjuah and continuing through 2017’s Centennial Trilogy records. Had Ancestral Recall not come nearly 20 years after the tremendously talented trumpeter-turned-multi-instrumentalist first delivered a bandleader LP, it would be much easier for cross-armed purists to discount its place in jazz. Those who’ve followed Scott’s odyssey know his chops are legit, and his commitment to applying that deep understanding of the genre to new forms. It comes in the machine whirr that complicates the otherwise acoustic session of “Prophesy” and in the lushness and layering of “Double Consciousness.” He shares the blessings of Saul Williams’ sung performance poetry over rapid-fire West African polyrhythms on “I Own The Night” at one point and, later on, Elena Pinderhughes’ flute fluttering through the trumpet bleat and indigenous beat of “Before.” An accessible standout, “Forevergirl” carries all the nuance and quirk of a Radiohead suite without any of the art rock meandering.

Philip Bailey
Love Will Find A Way (Verve)

A highlight among the many noteworthy recordings in Earth Wind And Fire vocalist’s Philip Bailey’s extensive discography, Love Will Find A Way proves a late period surge for a legacy act is possible. To call his latest album a comeback seems backhanded, and that sentiment has no place when overseeing this terrific set that aligns his falsetto with some of the current jazz generation’s brightest stars. Robert Glasper and Kamasi Washington combine for the life-affirming “Sacred Sounds,” a track reminiscent of the latter’s Heaven And Earth aesthetic that becomes monumental with Bailey in the mix. As Talking Heads reworks go, his take on the seemingly un-coverable “Once In A Lifetime” reconfigures the flow and time signature to keep it on the right side of novelty. Unimpeachable by comparison, “Billy Jack” honors a Curtis Mayfield classic, and “Just To Keep You Satisfied” serves a sincere tribute to a powerful portion of Marvin Gaye’s songbook.

Peter Brötzmann / Alexander Schlippenbach / Han Bennink
Fifty Years After... Live at the Lila Eule 2018 (Trost)

In 1968, tenor saxophonist Peter Brötzmann and his octet went down into a basement in Bremen and recorded one of free jazz’s seminal albums, the raucous and radically improvisational Machine Gun. Among those players was drummer Han Bennink, who joins his frequent collaborator for this spirited return to that very same venue five decades years later. Finishing up this trio to celebrate that moment is pianist Alexander Schlippenbach, a German contemporary of theirs and fellow member of the Globe Unity Orchestra. Given that history and pedigree, it’s little wonder that Fifty Years After… provides such a faithful revisiting of that 1960s chaotic energy via “Short Dog Of Sweet Lucy” and the mad dash of “Bad Borrachos.” On the lucid title track, they simmer slow rather than flash fry.

Jamael Dean
Black Space Tapes (Stones Throw)

Often when discussing new or emerging talents in jazz, family trees have a tendency to crop up. Perhaps that has to do with the ways in which America’s homegrown genre is dutifully nurtured by its elders and vets as more of a legacy than a vocation. The grandson of drummer Donald Dean, who played on notable dates with soul jazz practitioner Les McCann, this still quite young pianist was already embedded in that tradition before releasing this essential Stones Throw record. Very much a part of the thrilling Los Angeles scene, having performed previously with the likes of Kamasi Washington and Thundercat, Jamael Dean links with co-producer Carlos Niño for one of the finest recorded projects to come from the city’s jazz players this decade. Given his key collaborator’s penchant for new age projection, Black Space Tapes frequently, though not exclusively, ventures into cosmic realms, as on the shimmering “Kronos” and “Akamara.” A little of local beat scene flavor spurts from the album’s middle with a remixed version of the latter, and then seeps out again at the end for the free-flowing finale “Emi.” Even still, Dean excels in the acoustic space as well, commanding the ebb and flow of “Adawa.”

Markus Howell
Get Right! (Posi-Tone)

While my personal tastes in the genre admittedly lean toward avant-garde experimentation or hip-hop hybridization more often than not, sometimes the craving for a righteously swinging date proves too tempting to resist. To that end, alto saxophonist Markus Howell provided the scratch for that itch with this rollicking debut for the dependable Posi-Tone imprint. From end to end, Get Right! captures the sounds and sensations of hearing straight-forward jazz in a nightclub without getting stuck with a cover charge or a two-drink minimum. In the hands of an eager sextet, his lively originals like “Warfare” and the title track play well with easygoing versions of Jimmy Heath’s “Bruh Slim” and Joe Henderson’s “Out Of The Night.”

Kendrick Scott Oracle
A Wall Becomes A Bridge (Blue Note)

One of the most mesmerizing bands in jazz of the past decade, Kendrick Scott’s namesake group has yet to log anything remotely near a miss. For the ensemble’s second Blue Note offering and the Houston drummer’s first for the label since loaning himself out for the dream team effort Our Point Of View, the bandleader/composer offers a meditation on overcoming the obstacles one faces in life, be they personal or creative. Producer Derrick Hodge helps the Oracle fulfill its prophecy, as does the addition of turntable trickster Jahi Sundance, as evidenced on “Horizons” and “Windows.” In effect, A Wall Becomes A Bridge reflects a rekindling of Scott’s essence, where modal precedents and improvisational inspirations occasionally bend for boom bap sensibilities without breaking or otherwise losing shape. It’s that subtlety that makes the record a mandatory repeat listen.

Joel Ross
KingMaker (Blue Note)

With all due respect to Lionel Hampton and Cal Tjader, vibraphone generally isn’t the primary instrument most jazz lovers look for in an album. Yet after his presence on two of 2018’s best jazz albums — James Francies’ Flight and Makaya McCraven’s Universal Beings — you’d have been a damn fool to pass up on Joel Ross’ bandleader debut for Blue Note. From the solo plinking at its start through to its dreamlike close, the sprawling opener “Touched By An Angel” makes the urgent case for welcoming the vibes into a place of prominence. His KingMaker never crosses the 10-minute mark after that, but even on relatively abbreviated numbers such as “Is It Love That Inspires You” and “It’s Already Too Late,” Ross dutifully enchants.

Sick Gazelle
Odum (War Crime)

Those familiar with Bruce Lamont’s performances in extreme groups like Bloodiest and Brain Tentacles might be taken aback by the more plaintive post-rock of “Atlantic,” the opening track off his Sick Gazelle trio’s mesmeric album. Joined by former Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley and guitarist/bassist Eric Block, the Chicagoan saxophonist/vocalist tones down the heavy metal thunder in favor of a pensive atmospheric blur somewhere between melancholy and reverie across Odum’s four tracks. While not bound to any genre in particular, jazz presents itself here in a state of slow motion free fall, with Lamont playing a sort of adrift series of notes on the lengthy and languorous “Pacific.” The pace picks up unexpectedly on “Laguna,” its twitchy rock rhythm disrupted by disembodied vocals rather than detached sax.

Anu Sun
Sanguine Regum (Ropeadope)

Savvy Harlemites and those in the know that venture uptown for The Shed jam sessions have seen Anu Sun in action, consistently moving the room no matter what venue the event happens to land in. A close studio cohort of Robert Glasper’s who had no small hand in the making of the Miles Davis reimagining Miles Ahead, the bandleader addresses grand and personal issues on Sanguine Regum. Making logical linkages between the legacy of slavery and the current state of American racism, songs like “KAEPtain AmeriKKKa” and “SONset Reprise” flex around genre to make their points. His ability to couch complexities and nuances into familiar forms like the late night R&B groove of “Afro Blue” and “Hit Me Back” makes the album such a fulfilling listen every time.

David Torn / Tim Berne / Ches Smith
Sun Of Goldfinger (ECM)

David Torn’s on-and-off discography for the eclectic German imprint ECM goes back some 35 years, with his 1984 solo album Best Laid Plans setting the stage for a fairly lengthy career in music and film. While he’s recently recorded for the label both solo as well as in alto saxophonist Tim Berne’s Snakeoil project,Sun Of Goldfinger finds the guitarist/composer as compelling as ever in the titular trio with Berne and percussionist Ches Smith. The length of a network sitcom, “Eye Meddle” showcases the three musicians’ prowess on their primary instruments, with electronics weaving in and out in line with Torn’s catalog. Berne takes things to unexpected places again on “Soften The Blow,” his opening notes subjected to harsh loop conditioning. In time, he expands upon it, with layers of sax creating a complex atmosphere with the guitar detritus for where Smith seeks out each hit. Far less chaotic (until it’s not) than those delightfully messy bookends is “Spartan, Before It Hit,” in which an augmented ensemble of players work through a sprawling cinematic Torn piece seemingly set to a gripping film that none of us have seen or might not exist.

Profile Picture of Gary Suarez
Gary Suarez

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.

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