It hasn’t been the most leisurely year for listening to music. Between tracking Trump for Slate’s War Stories column and writing a book, I may have missed a few albums that belong on this list. (Feel free to protest in the comments section.) That said, from what I did hear, 2019 has been a very good year for jazz records—including a couple of newly discovered gems from the vaults, several releases (a majority of the list) on very small or artist-owned labels, and one surprise that’s so jarring you might wonder if I’m joking, but I’m not. The first five albums are listed in the order of what I like best. The next five are ranked somewhat arbitrarily, reflecting the mood of the moment as much as anything; consider them tied for sixth place.
This album, struck from newly found (and professionally recorded) tapes of a 1999 concert in Switzerland, is one of the most engaging piano-trio albums of the past 30 years. The legendary but rarely recorded trio—pianist Paul Bley, bassist Gary Peacock, and drummer Paul Motian—spin through ballads, blues, and heady improvisations with inventive elegance, stating a theme, then darting off on separate trajectories, swirling in and out of each other’s paths, trading off melody, harmony, and rhythm, and always winding back to the same point, stirring emotions as much from silences or subtle rubato as from sheets of sound. It’s seamlessly wondrous.
Another lost treasure, this two-disc concert, recorded at New York’s Village Gate in 1961, finds the silky-toned tenor saxophonist coaxed to new heights of expressive powers by a quartet that included pianist Steve Kuhn and drummer Roy Haynes, both of whom had recently backed John Coltrane in his transition to turbulent adventures. Gorgeous, even breathtaking, especially the spiraling ballads.
This is a very cool album: the drummerless trio of saxophonist Ted Nash, bassist Ben Allison, and guitarist Steve Cardenas, taking a quietly disruptive amble through Leonard Bernstein’s Broadway score, tracing crisp lines, fleet tones, and crafty interplay. Spare, lush, and swinging in a dancing-in-your-head kind of way, it’s breezy, jaunty, and endlessly surprising.
I’d never heard of Rob Schwimmer till a musician friend thrust this album into my hands, and he turns out to be a mesmerizing pianist of astonishing drama, wit, and virtuosity. The album is a mix of originals, classics (Chopin, Obukhov), soundtracks (the theme from Vertigo), and a range of what he calls “Hallucinations on Popular Songs” (for instance, “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning” seguing out of “ ’Round Midnight”). On one track he plays the theremin—and on another the Haken Continuum—with an eerie magic.
Trinidadian trumpeter Etienne Charles won a Guggenheim fellowship to explore the musical roots of his homeland, but this result of his research is the opposite of dry or academic: It’s a raucous party and drum-tight, a buoyant fusion of jazz, reggae, R&B, and kongo—Thelonious Monk channeled through Bob Marley, and more. Charles, still in his 20s, blows the trumpet with a gleaming verve and clarity. His skilled band revels in colorful textures.
Pianist Michele Rosewoman has been delving into Afro-Cuban music for more than 30 years, and her latest venture is her deepest dive yet: a 14-piece big band, heavy on horns and percussion but not so heavy they overwhelm the sparkling melodies, blooming horn harmonies, or undulating rhythms.
Pianist Billy Lester, 73, is one of those artists who’s almost completely unknown but who, once you hear him, stays melded in your mind. Like most jazz musicians, he starts out with the melody of a tune, then takes it in unexpected directions, but Lester ambles into uncharted alleys and wormholes while retaining an unassuming lyricism, and that’s rare. It seems like random wandering, but it’s rooted in deep knowledge of jazz and extensive ear-training, inspired by the free-improvising pianist Lennie Tristano and his acolyte Sal Mosca, who taught Lester for many years. From Scratch joins Lester to the sort of agile, top-notch rhythm section that he’s long deserved—bassist Rufus Reid and drummer Matt Wilson—but rarely enjoyed, and the results are engrossing. The album is available on vinyl only, but the label, Newvelle, offers free downloads of alternate takes, most of them as enchanting as the masters.
Ran Blake, 84, is another oddly compelling jazz pianist: He can’t swing for more than a few bars, and he changes keys at random intervals, but few artists can evoke more colors from a keyboard. He has called himself a filmmaker without a camera, and his music casts a cinematic trance: a narrative drive wafting out of a dream. Here he and Claire Ritter, an accomplished pianist and former student, weave through 20 standards and originals, alternating between duets and solos, and it’s riveting.
Here’s the surprise: Joe Pesci, jazz singer. Yes, the actor who’s played some of Martin Scorsese’s most menacing mobsters croons a dozen ballads and standards with flair and artistry. His voice is strangely sweet and gruff (inspired by Little Jimmy Scott, to whom the album is dedicated and who sings in duet on one track), but his phrasing is sure-footed, his notes (including the off-center ones) are pitch-perfect, and he taps into the essence of a song. He also hired great musicians, including, on some tracks, pianist Kenny Barron, bassist Christian McBride, and drummer Lewis Nash. This was recorded over several years (Scott died in 2014, and three tracks were mixed by Phil Ramone, who died in ’13); then the megalabel BMG sat on it for at least two more years. (The CD case says 2017, though it was released in late November of this year.) The execs are probably putting it out now to cash in on Pesci’s comeback star turn in The Irishman. But unlike, say, Jeff Goldblum’s ivory-tinklings, this is the real thing.
John Zorn is a protean artist of our age: a wildly versatile saxophonist and a celebrated composer of symphonies, concertos, oratorios, sonatas, and jazz tunes, notably the Masada songbook, some 500 pieces, all written in the “Jewish scales”—a major scale with the second note flat or a minor scale with the fourth note sharp. On roughly 70 albums in the past 30 years, dozens of varied ensembles have traversed these tunes—jazz quartets, string sextets, electric rock bands, etc., etc.—but this one features Argentine mezzo-soprano Sofía Rei, who also tacked on lyrics, and guitarist-percussionist JC Maillard. Rei’s voice is pure and sensual, with roots in Renaissance folklore, which, since moving to New York, she’s meshed with jazz, pop, and punk. This is more lyrical than most Zorn ventures and maybe the only Masada offshoot with Latin cadences.
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