Best Jazz of 2019: Hank Shteamer's Picks - Rolling Stone
×
Home Music Music Features

The Many Sounds of Jazz in 2019: A Listener’s Guide

New forms of protest song, fresh strains of fusion, and more. Our look at the currents that shaped the genre this year, and the must-hear releases that exemplified them

Best Jazz Songs Of 2019

We look back at the prevailing currents that shaped jazz in 2019, and survey the standout albums — by Joel Ross, Angel Bat Dawid, Branford Marsalis, and many more — that exemplified them.

Photos in Illustration by Lauren Desberg, Lauren Orseau, and Eric Ryan Anderson.

Jazz continued to explode in 2019, shooting off in countless directions. There wasn’t one dominant trend, sound, or scene in the genre this year, but there were clear areas of focus, informal constellations of like-minded players and conceptualists: artists who harnessed the energy of rock, devised unusual instrumental textures, pushed compositional limits, or embraced the power of the voice in non-traditional ways. Here, from the perspective of one curious listener, are a few of the releases that stood out this year, arranged according to certain key features. The below isn’t intended as a ranking or comprehensive survey; think of it more as a sketched-out roadmap of what there was to hear in jazz this year — and an invitation to explore further.

Lift Every Voice
It was hard to spend any amount of time with an Angel Bat Dawid track like “We Are Starzz”— which featured multiple voices singing lullaby-soft over a tranquil vamp, with clarinet lines bubbling up in the background — and not fall completely under the spell of this polymathic Chicago vocalist and musician. The entirety of Dawid’s debut album, The Oracle, seemed to radiate a kind of otherworldly poise, from the lo-fi dub of “Black Family” to the Sun Ra–esque sound collage of “Impepho,” and “What Shall I Tell My Children Who Are Black,” a hymn-like setting of a wrenching poem by the late Chicago artist and educator Margaret Burroughs. The LP’s unadorned sonics and self-reliant spirit — in addition to providing all vocals and performing on clarinet, keyboard, and other instruments, Dawid recorded the album entirely on her iPhone — only heightened its intoxicating appeal.

The Oracle was one of a slew of jazz-adjacent 2019 albums that utilized voices without really touching on anything resembling conventional jazz singing. If Dawid’s album often felt like a meditative prayer, Where Future Unfolds, an album by Damon Locks’ Black Monument Ensemble — of which Dawid is a member — was its dance-party counterpart, melding psychedelic soul with samples from civil-rights-movement speeches and righteous chants against racial injustice.

Saxophonist Matana Roberts and vocalist Amirtha Kidambi also addressed societal strife on Memphis and From Untruth, respective albums that plunged the listener into each artist’s sui generis soundworld. Roberts’ release, the fourth chapter of her ongoing “panoramic sound quilting” known as Coin Coin, juxtaposed impressionistic narration — centered on a Memphis ancestor whose father was murdered by the Klan — with gritty, impassioned avant-jazz. With her band Elder Ones, Kidambi unites diverse strands in her musical DNA. (“I was trying to find … a way to blend this background in Hindu devotional music, my avant-garde classical technique and language, my love of spiritual free jazz and Alice Coltrane and late John Coltrane, and punk and protest music,” she told Bandcamp Daily.) That synthesis continued on From Untruth, Elder Ones’ latest, as Kidambi’s unfettered vocal virtuosity led saxist Matt Nelson, bassist Nick Dunston, and drummer Max Jaffe from trancelike hushes to frenzied ecstatic peaks.

On Songs of Freedom, drummer Ulysses Owens Jr. and a series of guest vocalists decried oppression and celebrated liberation via a sparkling set of pieces written, associated with, or even — on three brief interludes set to spoken excerpts —actually uttered by Nina Simone, Joni Mitchell, and Abbey Lincoln. And on albums by the Art Ensemble of Chicago and drummer Terri Lyne Carrington’s Social Science, words — from radical poet Moor Mother on the former and guests including Rapsody and Meshell Ndegeocello on the latter  — seared and sobered, further examples of how jazz artists in 2019 used the voice to interrogate and inspire.

New Fusions
Are the Messthetics a jazz band? It’s starting to sound that way. On their second album, Anthropocosmic Nest, the Fugazi-descended instrumental trio continued in the post-hardcore–gone-fusion vein of their self-titled 2018 debut, but there’s a new sense of looseness and adventure here — check out charging, ecstatic opener “New Wings” or playful dub-funk-improv excursion “Pay Dust” — that places them squarely in a fruitful between-genre zone. Whatever you call their music, any fan of high-level, real-time instrumental interplay (one of the central features of jazz by any reasonable definition) needs to hear this album.

The sound or texture of rock surfaced constantly in many of the year’s standout jazz releases. Messthetics guitarist Anthony Pirog himself turned up on saxophonist James Brandon Lewis’ An UnRuly Manifesto, adding his mercurial lines to the album’s groove-propelled collective-improv flights. And on a stark and riveting album by Blacks’ Myths, the rhythm section from Lewis’ album — bassist Luke Stewart and drummer Warren “Trae” Crudup III — distilled free improv and noisy blurt à la Lightning Bolt into volatile sound masses, interspersed with harrowing protest poetry.

Veteran underground shapeshifters the Flying Luttenbachers mashed together styles on a pair of new albums, grafting death-metal aggression onto bits of modern composition and No Wave–y art-funk, with plenty of live-wire improvisation, while Sunwatchers explored their own ecstatic yet party-friendly punk-jazz hybrid on their galvanizing opus Illegal Moves (an album that sported maybe the year’s best cover art in any genre).

Julian Lage, Nick Millevoi, and Mike Baggetta — the latter working with a rhythmic dream team of bassist Mike Watt and drummer Jim Keltner — deployed vintage twang in service of Americana-meets–Ornette Coleman lilt, surreally deconstructed retro pop, and exploratory jazz-psych, respectively, on the albums Love Hurts, Twilight Time, and Wall of Flowers. Blackstar guitarist Ben Monder offered gentle covers of the Beatles, Dylan, and more, and turned in a deliciously doomy take on Bond theme “Goldfinger” on Day After Day. And the ever-brilliant Marc Ribot plied his incendiary avant-shred on Diatom Ribbons — a wild, style-hopping, remarkably ambitious album from pianist Kris Davis that also featured everyone from Nels Cline to Esperanza Spalding — and Testament, a tough, gutsy set by saxist Avram Fefer, powered by free-jazz abandon and burly rhythmic rumble.

Elsewhere, bassist Chris Lightcap combined two smaller ensembles, Superette and Bigmouth, to create the extra-potent SuperBigmouth. On the band’s debut, Lightcap ingeniously fused proggy rhythmic drive with floating, almost choir-like themes scored for an octet including twinned guitars, tenor saxes, and drums. Barrett Martin, drummer for Screaming Trees, Mad Season, and others, explored a similarly liminal zone — with help from fellow Seattle heavies like Kim Thayil — on Songs of the Firebird, a vibrant, beat-driven odyssey that touches on jazz, rock, classical, and Afro-Cuban music without sounding disjointed. And London trio ŪROK found common ground between bruising metal and spacey fusion on an album released by the eclectic and prolific Chant Records label.

Hybrid styles also flourished on albums by guitarist David Torn, saxist Tim Berne, and drummer Ches Smith, who ventured deep into post-genre abstraction on the heady, monumental Sun of Goldfinger, and NYC duo 75 Dollar Bill, who furthered their quest for DIY-raga transcendence on the raw yet meditative I Was Real. indie singer-songwriter Ryley Walker and drummer Charles Rumback went equally far into hushed and pastoral terrain on Little Common Twist, a sublime duo release that drew on folk and drone as much as jazz. And Bill Frisell embraced down-home warmth on Harmony, a quietly luminous roots-jazz effort built around the lovely vocals of Petra Haden, daughter of the guitarist’s late friend and collaborator Charlie Haden. 

While artists known for jazz pushed into rock and beyond, members of art-pop iconoclasts Deerhoof furthered their intergenre adventures: drummer Greg Saunier in a sprawling and often inspired improv summit with Nels Cline, cornetist Taylor Ho Bynum, and unclassifiable legend Anthony Braxton; and John Dieterich on A Tangle of Stars, a duo release with fellow guitarist Mary Halvorson that ran the gamut from achingly pretty to perversely prickly, sometimes in the same piece.

Tenor Madness
The greatest solo this writer heard on record in 2019 came courtesy of a familiar name, Branford Marsalis, who in the past two decades has built up one of the most versatile and volatile working bands in jazz. The saxophonist’s tenor feature on “Life Filtering From the Water Flowers” — a rubato mood piece from his quartet’s latest LP, The Secret Between the Shadow and the Soul — is a thing of gnarled beauty, the sound of world-class virtuosity wielded in service of unguarded pathos, that must be heard to be believed. On the other tracks, the band touches on poetic balladry, turbulent free jazz, and more, making for a well-rounded program that never feels like a mere showcase for its accomplished leader.

For tenor lovers, Marsalis’ album was just a hint of what 2019 had to offer. A parade of the world’s greatest players on the horn put out worthy albums this year: from Joe Lovano, who released both a probing trio album and a moody, swinging quintet one — Roma, a live date co-led by veteran trumpeter Enrico Rava — via the prolific and enormously influential 50-year-old label ECM, to Peter Brötzmann, who stripped back for I Surrender Dear, an unaccompanied disc of standards, blues, and more that showcased his way with a tender, moaning melody. Chris Speed also summoned old-school elegance, and a marvelously velvety tone, on his trio album Respect for Your Toughness, while James Carter dug in with his earthy organ trio on Live From Newport Jazz, flaunting his raucously soulful attack and staggering chops. Chris Potter flourished in equally lean combos, darting and weaving through the supple rhythmic web of bassist Dave Holland and tabla player Zakir Hussain on Good Hope, and sailing over the lively pulse of bassist Linda May Han Oh and drummer Jonathan Blake on the latter’s Trion. And JD Allen, a longtime devotee of the trio format, debuted a crackling new lineup with bassist Ian Kenselaar and Nic Cacioppo on the muscular, radically unadorned Barracoon. 

And there’s plenty more: saxist André Roligheten jelled beautifully with drummer Gard Nilssen and bassist Petter Eldh on To Whom Buys a Record, an excellent set by Nilssen’s band Acoustic Unity that touches on springy, freewheeling post–Ornette Coleman swing and calm freeform reflection. Travis Laplante (full disclosure: a friend) mined a series of intimate fully improvised solo concerts to create Human, an album where head-spinning flights of circular breathing share space with sparse, prayerful lyricism. And Mark Shim, a force on the horn who should be better known than he is, displayed his knotty, hard-edged flow on Ganymede, a strong effort led by bassist Matt Brewer and released on the Dutch label Criss Cross, whose founder Gerry Teekens died in November after releasing more than 400 titles in roughly four decades.  

Future Is Now
The same rhythm section that propelled Ganymede, Brewer and drummer Damión Reid, added crucial thrust to The People I Love, the year’s standout statement of jazz futurism. Led by saxist-composer Steve Lehman — who gets co-billing with similarly forward-thinking pianist Craig Taborn — the album builds on a fractured yet fiercely funky rhythmic grammar that’s clearly indebted to cutting-edge electronica. There’s even an Autechre cover here, but Lehman’s originals make the strongest impression: The dizzyingly nimble high-speed interaction found on “Ih Calam and Ynnus,” for example, comes off like the 21st-century analogue of the group telepathy of Miles Davis’ mid-Sixties quintet.

Fans of the high-tech should also make time for pianist Matt Mitchell’s Phalanx Ambassadors, where a stellar band — rounded out by guitarist Miles Okazaki, vibes and marimba player Patricia Brennan, bassist Kim Cass, and drummer Kate Gentile — brings grit and invention to the leader’s spiky, brain-bending compositions. Okazaki’s own The Sky Below, which features Mitchell, featured a more lyrical spin on similarly advanced ideas, while Drolleries, an album by saxophonist Sam Weinberg’s outfit Bloor (which has since changed its name to Bloar), took frenetic math-jazz to harsh extremes, sometimes suggesting the Minutemen tackling contemporary classical music. (The catalog of Astral Spirits, the enormously prolific Austin label behind Drolleries, is a must-browse for anyone whose taste in jazz and improvised music runs to the visionary or outré.)

Meanwhile, pianist Fabian Almazan led his trio through breathtaking feats of high-speed rhythmic choreography on This Land Abounds With Life, a nature-themed album that left plenty of room for more placid moods. And Dan Weiss, the drummer behind 2018’s superb, metal-inspired Starebaby, turned down the volume without sacrificing intricacy and intensity on Utica Box, a set of compelling suite-like pieces written for a quartet featuring two basses.

Sonic Palettes
Other bands featuring unusual instrumentation bent ears in all kinds of novel ways. On Glitter Wolf, a bright and buoyant album by her band Boom Tic Boom, drummer Allison Miller put forth a boundless compositional vision — a little bit funk, a little bit jazz, a little bit klezmer, a little bit fantastical soundtrack music — fleshed out by the distinctive voices of Jenny Scheinman’s violin, Ben Goldberg’s clarinet, and Kirk Knuffke’s cornet. (Miller and Scheinman also teamed up on the more stripped-down but equally charming Parlour Game.)

Stephan Crump fashioned a warm, full sound out of a group, Rosetta Trio, featuring only his own bass and two guitars on Outliers. Vijay Iyer and Craig Taborn made for a formidable two-piano duo on searching, highly attuned live set The Transitory Poems. Tomeka Reid paired her cello and Mary Halvorson’s guitar on Old New, an intimate quartet album that expertly balanced the swinging with the abstract. (Reid turned up on other worthy releases this year, as well, including trumpeter Dave Douglas’ Engage and the collective improv album Geometry of Distance.) And Jaimie Branch also worked cello — played by Lester St. Louis, an impressive player who backed Chance the Rapper on SNL this year — into the transporting sound palette of Fly or Die II: Bird Dogs of Paradise, where the leader’s trumpet danced over hypnotic grooves fleshed out by whooshing synths, chiming mbira, and incantatory vocals. 

Brass instruments that sometimes take a back seat in jazz could be heard in starring roles this year. On The Law of Vibration — an extraordinary release, originally out under the radar in late 2018, by the trio known as 10³²K — bassist Kevin Ray and drummer Andrew Drury laid down a turbulent yet ever-nimble red carpet of rhythm for the highly expressive trombone veteran Frank Lacy, joined on one track by the late trombone original Roswell Rudd. And on his album Fyah, tuba luminary Theon Cross provided the body-moving bounce for a lean and kinetic trio hang with fellow London jazz stars Nubya Garcia and Moses Boyd. The aforementioned Dave Douglas is no stranger to the frontline, but on Devotion, he opted for the outside-the-box configuration of brass, piano, and drums — rounded out by keyboard ace Uri Caine and octogenarian percussion master Andrew Cyrille — and achieved an appealing off-the-cuff exuberance.

Compositional Gifts and Textural Riches
KingMaker, the debut from young vibraphone marvel Joel Ross, featured thrilling back-and-forth improv from the leader and his collaborators: alto saxist Immanuel Wilkins, pianist Jeremy Corren, bassist Benjamin Tiberio, and drummer Jeremy Dutton. But just as striking was the leader’s remarkably assured compositional vision. Not just brief launchpads, his pieces billowed out like lavish tapestries, both ingeniously involved and warmly inviting.

The compositions were also the focus on Polyhymnia, an album from trumpeter Yazz Ahmed, who paid tribute to her female heroes with epic large-ensemble works that blended orchestral grandeur with Arabic scales and trippy funk. Snarky Puppy continued to dazzle with their worldly modern fusion on Immigrance, an album where high-wire daredevilry flowed smoothly into crisp, party-friendly bounce. The festive rhythms, heartfelt melodies, and bluesy underpinnings of Abullah Ibrahim’s The Balance summed up the many gifts that have made the 85-year-old Cape Town pianist-composer a legend for decades. Saxophone giant Joshua Redman — who also put out an enjoyable record with his powerhouse quartet —  teamed with composer Patrick Zimmerli and string quartet Brooklyn Rider for Sun on Sand, a dramatic and often thrilling suite that seamlessly reconciled classical precision and jazz poise. And Brad Mehldau put forth an admirably personal vision, reminiscent in spots of both Radiohead and the Pat Metheny Group but ultimately totally its own thing, on his long-form electro-jazz-pop opus Finding Gabriel.

After their 2018 triumph Never Stop II, the Bad Plus kept their momentum going on Activate Infinity, the trio’s second album with pianist Orrin Evans. The record reaffirmed that the personnel switch hasn’t shifted their focus away from beguiling jazz-prog-pop gems that sound at once familiar and eccentric. Bad Plus bassist and drummer Reid Anderson and Dave King showed how adaptable their aesthetic was on Golden Valley Is Now, where they joined up with old friend and collaborator Craig Taborn — playing synths and electric piano in addition to the acoustic — for an enchanting album that sounded like their main band filtered through Eighties synth-pop and Nineties electronica. 

A different kind of nostalgia rippled through You Don’t Know the Life, where keyboardist Jamie Saft, bassist Steve Swallow, and drummer Bobby Previte — the same band that recruited Iggy Pop to guest on an album in 2017 — tapped into classic organ-trio textures, with hints of vintage R&B and near-ambient trippiness. The album’s feel is loose and jammy but the vibe is rock solid. Texture was also paramount on Trust in the Lifeforce of the Deep Mystery, an aptly named set where King Shabaka — U.K. jazz ambassador Shabaka Hutchings — plunged into rave-friendly psych-jazz bliss with bandmates Betamax and Danalogue. Keyboardist Joe Armon-Jones explored similarly lush vistas on Turn to Clear View, a retro-flavored jazz-funk-R&B opus that sounded like it was fished out of a dusty bin of rare Seventies vinyl.

The Freedom Principle
Pure spontaneity reigned on Peace Planet / Box of Light, a two-album set by drummer-bandleader Whit Dickey. You could call the music played by his so-called Tao Quartets free jazz, though it’s really a highly personal and refined language, growing out of around three decades’ worth of NYC-centric collaborations with some of the players heard on this release — including saxist Rob Brown, pianist Matthew Shipp, and bassist William Parker. There’s urgency here but also great reserves of patience and empathy. 

A similar sense of freeform communion radiated from Garden Party, an album credited to the sextet Dopolarians and also featuring Parker, as well as the Southern veterans Edward “Kidd” Jordan on tenor saxophone and the late, great Alvin Fielder on drums, plus vocalist Kelley Hurt, pianist Chris Parker, and alto saxist Chad Fowler. Sometimes starting from scratch and sometimes branching out from brief themes, the group worked its unhurried way through moods ranging from somber to mischievous.

Mat Maneri, a player who’s also a key presence in the New York community documented on Whit Dickey’s release, put forth his own yearning vision of abstraction on Dust. With crucial contributions from pianist Lucian Ban, bassist John Hébert, and drummer Randy Peterson, the album is a shining example of patient instrumental exchange that can sound like chamber music melting slowly off the page. At the other end of the spectrum — handily demonstrating how no jazz approach in 2019 was absolute — were a pair of releases by Norwegian drummer Paal Nilssen-Love, who aligned with musicians from Brazil and Japan (on New Brazilian Funk and New Japanese Noise, respectively) for hyperactive out-jazz exorcisms that each reached heights of vigorous mania but ultimately sounded nothing alike.  

Newswire

Powered by
Arrow Created with Sketch. Calendar Created with Sketch. Path Created with Sketch. Shape Created with Sketch. Plus Created with Sketch. minus Created with Sketch.