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20 Best Jazz Albums of 2018

Heady fusions, hard-grooving breakouts and timeless elegance: our favorites from a stellar year

best jazz of 2018

We run down the year's finest in new jazz, including Wayne Shorter, Cécile McLorin Salvant and the Bad Plus.

In 2018, jazz continued to surge into new zones, with up-and-comers like Chicago’s Makaya McCraven and London’s Nubya Garcia and Shabaka Hutchings stirring up serious street-level buzz. Meanwhile, the old guard kept right on pushing, as master musicians in their seventies and eighties — from saxophonists Wayne Shorter, Charles Lloyd and Peter Brötzmann to drummer Andrew Cyrille — turned in outstanding, challenging work. High-profile archival finds like John Coltrane’s Lost Album and Charles Mingus’ Jazz in Detroit kept some attention focused on the past, but a flood of excellent new releases assured that the present stayed front and center. Here are 20 highlights.

JP Schlegelmilch, Jonathan Goldberger, Jim Black, 'Visitors'
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JP Schlegelmilch, Jonathan Goldberger and Jim Black, ‘Visitors’

From 2000 through 2013, drummer-composer Jim Black melded exploratory jazz and atmospheric rock on a brilliant series of albums with his group Alasnoaxis. This year, some of those ideas resurfaced on this striking and ultimately unclassifiable set, a collaboration with keyboardist JP Schlegelmilch and guitarist Jonathan Goldberger, who split compositional duties. Springing as much from gritty prog and wide-eyed psychedelia as from adventurous contemporary improv, the music on Visitors combines gripping melodic invention with deep textural intrigue. That the album could appeal as much to a Bowie or King Crimson fan as a listener steeped in the jazz sphere these three players inhabit says a lot about the seamlessness of Visitors’ ingenious stylistic blend.  

Kamasi Washington, Heaven and Earth
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Kamasi Washington, ‘Heaven and Earth’

After a brief breather on his 2017 EP Harmony of Difference, Kamasi Washington returned to the sprawl of his 2015 breakthrough, The Epic, on his latest full-length. Across three albums, including surprise bonus disc The Choice, and more than three hours, the saxophonist indulged his every musical whim, from placid lite-funk to Vocoder-assisted Latin jazz. There are tedious stretches here, but when Washington’s grand ambition aligns with his soaring invention — like on transporting orchestral fantasy “The Space Traveler’s Lullaby” or one of several choir-abetted Coltrane-gone-gospel spirit-raisers — it’s easy to hear why he’s connected with so many outside the jazz faithful.  

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Joe Lovano and Dave Douglas Sound Prints, ‘Scandal’

For decades, narrow-minded observers have tried to keep jazz fragmented into discrete, even opposing strains: “straight-ahead,” “avant-garde” and so on. Fortunately, elite musicians such as trumpeter Dave Douglas and saxophonist Joe Lovano continue to ignore this line of thinking. The second release from Sound Prints — their collaboratively led band inspired by Wayne Shorter’s ever-unclassifiable aesthetic, and featuring the superb rhythm section of pianist Lawrence Fields, bassist Linda May Han Oh and drummer Joey Baron — finds the quintet settling into a wonderfully loose group M.O. Rubato themes, most by the leaders with a pair of pieces from Shorter’s legendary Sixties run for Blue Note, flow into searching, deep-listening improvisations where any group member can take the music anywhere they please. Scandal shows how, when great players dispense with categories, jazz can be everything at once.

Harriet Tubman, Terror End of Beauty
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Harriet Tubman, ‘The Terror End of Beauty’

The walls seem to sweat when The Terror End of Beauty plays. Few records this year, jazz or otherwise, conjured such a thick, enveloping atmosphere. The album’s massive, gooey sound is all about the deeply sympathetic bond among the three members of this long-running New York power trio — guitarist Brandon Ross, bassist Melvin Gibbs and drummer J.T. Lewis — and producer Scotty Hard. Harnessing dub drift, free-jazz fire, hard-rock power and countless other currents, the trio honors and extends the legacies of its influences and mentors, such as late avant-guitar great Sonny Sharrock, nodded to in the title. It’s limiting to call this a jazz record, or to assign it any other easy stylistic designation. Better to just say it’s a monster album with real physical weight. 

James Brandon Lewis, Chad Taylor, Radiant Imprints
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James Brandon Lewis and Chad Taylor, ‘Radiant Imprints’

For this duo session with percussionist Chad Taylor, saxophonist James Brandon Lewis drew overt inspiration from John Coltrane, alluding to classic compositions such as “Impressions” and adopting the tenor-drums format heard on 1967’s legendary Interstellar Space. But the similarities end there. This pair often zeroes in on a kind of mighty, hurtling swing, closer to uptempo bebop than turbulent free jazz. And on pieces like “First Born,” Taylor switches from trap set to mbira, offering a crystalline complement to the saxist’s peaceful melodic revery. In and out of jazz, Coltrane tributes are legion; this was the rare one that put forward a highly developed, refreshingly personal perspective in place of run-of-the-mill reverence.

Houston Person and Ron Carter Remember Love
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Houston Person and Ron Carter, ‘Remember Love’

Probably best known as a foil for eminent singers like Etta Jones and soul-jazz greats such as Richard “Groove” Holmes, tenor ace Houston Person has ventured all across the genre in a career spanning more than five decades. Here he’s matched with one of the relatively few musicians alive who could boast a similar range and longevity: super-bassist, Guinness World Record holder and follow octogenerian Ron Carter, his duo partner stretching back decades. The repertoire is familiar (mostly standards, from “Love Is Here to Stay” to “The Way You Look Tonight”) and the rapport is sublime, as Person’s warm, woolly old-school tone floats over Carter’s exquisitely swinging lines. This stuff might be old-fashioned by definition, but in the hands of masters like these, it never sounds remotely stale.

Ray Angry One
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Ray Angry, ‘One’

Keyboardist Ray Angry boasts one of those played-with-everyone résumés (Mick Jagger, Dionne Warwick, Christina Aguilera, the Roots and so on) that let you know he’s been deep in the musical trenches for years. But though his discography as a sideman stretches back more than two decades, he only released his debut as a leader this past September. One turned out to be the year’s most unexpected jazz triumph. Joined by established stars Ambrose Akinmusire on trumpet, Myron Walden on sax, Derrick Hodge on bass and Eric Harland on drums, Angry presented a dazzlingly robust concept, encompassing songful lyricism, strutting funk, slyly rambunctious post-bop and a suitably ethereal Björk tribute. Overall, the album plays like a longstanding promise fulfilled and a testament to the wisdom of waiting until you’ve got it exactly right.

Dan Weiss Starebaby
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Dan Weiss, ‘Starebaby’

Is Starebaby even a jazz album? In some key ways, no. Overall it’s more a work of composition than improvisation, the latest genre-blurring album-length suite from Dan Weiss, a drummer-composer of nimble technique and formidable imagination. But elite jazzers were probably the only ones that could have pulled off Weiss’ latest creation, a dark, intensely dynamic set inspired equally by doom metal and David Lynch. The skeleton of the music is all Weiss, but the meat on the bones comes from the players’ ear-grabbing textures: the poison-gas guitar of Ben Monder, who also played on Bowie’s Blackstar; the sci-fi synth madness of keyboard vanguardists Craig Taborn and Matt Mitchell; and the ominous bass throb of Trevor Dunn, also known for his work with Mr. Bungle, Fantômas and the Melvins. Combined with the drummer’s outré vision — check out batshit circus-prog closer “Episode 8” — it all adds up to an album that creates its own sonic and, in the listener’s mind, cinematic reality.

Various Artists We Out Here
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Various Artists, ‘We Out Here’

Compilations tend to feel like afterthoughts; We Out Here is more like a statement of purpose. The album documents a London scene that has received global attention for the way it’s made jazz feel youthful, danceable, newly urgent. What impresses most is the wide-eyed eclecticism on display here (from Maisha’s stirring post-Coltrane swirl to Theon Cross’ butt-moving tuba funk and the Moses Boyd Ensemble’s club-ready electro-jazz groove) and the way certain key players (such as saxist-flutist Nubya Garcia, pianist Joe Armon-Jones and multi-reedist Shabaka Hutchings, who curated the comp and also made waves this year with the Impulse debut by his band Sons of Kemet) float through various ensembles. Think of We Out Here as a communal self-portrait in the form of an expertly assembled mixtape.

Charles Lloyd and the Marvels + Lucinda Williams Vanished Gardens
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Charles Lloyd and the Marvels + Lucinda Williams, ‘Vanished Gardens’

Getting together for a breezy “all-star” session is one thing; forging a true artistic alliance with a fellow veteran is another. Charles Lloyd, a jazz giant whose résumé includes work with the Beach Boys and the Doors, and eminent roots singer Lucinda Williams accomplished the latter on Vanished Gardens, a profoundly lovely set on which the two — with help from a world-class band including guitarist Bill Frisell, pedal-steel player Greg Leisz, bassist Reuben Rogers and drummer Eric Harland — take a deep, relaxed dive into old and new pieces, and a handful of smartly chosen covers. They cast a humid inter-genre spell on tracks like “Ventura” and “Unsuffer Me,” both reworkings of older Williams tracks, and bring luminous poignancy to Jimi Hendrix’s “Angel.” Meanwhile, the album’s handful of instrumentals remind the listener how adept the 80-year-old Llloyd has always been at unfussily expanding the borders of jazz to let in a bit of ever-welcome fresh air.

Peter Brötzmann and Heather Leigh Sparrow Nights
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Peter Brötzmann and Heather Leigh, ‘Sparrow Nights’

Sometimes typecast as an inveterate hell-raiser, Peter Brötzmann is actually one of the great collaborative improvisers of the past 50 years. Duets tend to bring out the best in him, and his ongoing collaboration with pedal-steel maverick Heather Leigh reached its high point to date on this gorgeously stark set of improvisations rendered in warm studio fidelity. Whether on his home-base tenor or one of several other saxes and clarinets, the 77-year-old responds to Leigh’s somber, sometimes abrasive textures with forlorn laments and wrenching cries. These 10 pieces might be abstract, but on purely emotional terms, Sparrow Nights contains some of the earthiest, most affecting blues heard on record in 2018.

Makaya McCraven Universal Beings
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Makaya McCraven, ‘Universal Beings’

The year’s buzziest jazz artist is a drummer, producer and musical Johnny Appleseed, who travels the globe assembling stellar bands, recording them live and meticulously stitching together the results into sprawling collages of intercontinental groove. Makaya McCraven’s latest effort, which draws on material captured during the past year-and-a-half at shows in New York, London, L.A. and his home base of Chicago, often finds him playing a supporting role, laying down expertly sculpted grooves for his collaborators like harpist Brandee Younger (heard on the album’s “New York Side”) and saxist Nubya Garcia (who appears on the London portion) to show off their spellbinding improvisational brilliance. Universal Beings is both a rich musical travelogue and the latest reminder of the combustion and communion that can occur when great improvisers work out their ideas in front of an audience. (For more along these lines, check out Where We Came From, which features additional music from McCraven’s October 2017 visit that also yielded Universal Beings’ London Side.) 

Wayne Shorter, Emanon
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Wayne Shorter, ‘Emanon’

Wayne Shorter’s ideas have always been bigger than jazz; what Emanon shows is that they’ve also been bigger than music itself. This non-streaming box set pairs three discs of stellar live material by his long-running working quartet — augmented on the first by the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra — with an original graphic novel co-conceived by Shorter. It’s not hard to draw a parallel between the “rogue philosopher” seen hopping among planets in the comic and the fearless improviser heard on the albums. Supported by like-minded adventurers Danilo Perez on piano, John Patitucci on bass and Brian Blade on drums, the saxophonist-composer plunges into extended works that move from poetic tenderness to swooping, surging drama. At 85, he’s still exploring new worlds.

Cécile McLorin-Salvant The Window
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Cécile McLorin Salvant, ‘The Window’

For singers who specialize in jazz, there often comes a crossover moment, or at least an attempted one, when they’re compelled to branch out from the genre’s basics. But Cécile McLorin Salvant, the most acclaimed jazz vocalist on the planet right now, seems perfectly content with the basics. Her commanding latest LP showed why. A Great American Songbook–centric set that finds her accompanied only by pianist Sullivan Fortner, the album can sound either charmingly plush or radically spare, depending on the mood of the tune in question. The more upbeat pieces here (like Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “The Gentleman Is a Dope”) are buoyant retro fun, while the often lengthy ballads (such as a stunning album-capping take on Jimmy Rowles’ “The Peacocks,” featuring guest saxist Melissa Aldana) are deep wells of conflicted emotion. Why branch out when you can make your native style feel infinite?    

The Bad Plus Never Stop II
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The Bad Plus, ‘Never Stop II’

During their initial 17-year run, the Bad Plus built up a reputation as one of the most tight-knit groups in contemporary jazz, the rare example of a die-hard working band in an era where ever-shuffling personnel is the norm. That seemed to change last year, though, when the trio announced that Orrin Evans — a seasoned mid-career pianist and a longtime friend of TBP bassist Reid Anderson — would be stepping in for charismatic co-founder Ethan Iverson. So it’s both a surprise and a delight that their debut with Evans, framed as a sequel of sorts to 2010’s outstanding Never Stop, sounded so much like Bad Plus business-as-usual, with poignant, lucid melodies set against proggy complexity and rowdy improvisational dust-ups. The album didn’t feel like a new chapter so much as a signal to longtime fans that Anderson and drummer Dave King’s commitment to their core aesthetic hadn’t wavered in the slightest. (A happy footnote: Iverson’s own first album since leaving the group — Temporary Kings, a pensive duo session with saxist Mark Turner — found him thriving in an entirely different sonic space.)

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