Slate has relationships with various online retailers. If you buy something through our links, Slate may earn an affiliate commission. We update links when possible, but note that deals can expire and all prices are subject to change. All prices were up to date at the time of publication.
In every era, amid whatever trash and tragedy that life throws our way, music has the “charms to soothe the savage breast,” as William Congreve put it, though he (less famously) added that it can also “soften rocks, or bend a knotted oak.” In other words, music isn’t just a calming salve. It’s powerful. It can change your mind, maybe even the world.
I can’t claim that much for the new music of 2022, but some of it opened new ways of listening—and new distractions from the world’s pettiness. Here are my picks for the year’s 10 best new jazz albums—a diverse lot (though I didn’t intend them to be, they just turned out that way), led by six men and four women; five Black, three white, one Latina, one mixed-race; ages ranging from 23 to 84. I also list the three best newly released historical recordings (all three of which happen to be by great pianists).
Just 23, Samara Joy is the new young jazz singer, a child of the Bronx who grew up singing in church, glommed onto the jazz classics (Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday), and joined the caravan of tradition. She’s old-school (in a good way), and hasn’t yet developed her own sound, but her voice is smooth and gorgeous, she knows how to phrase a lyric for an effect, and she’s backed by a first-class rhythm section including spicy Kenny Washington on drums.
The pianist-composer Marta Sánchez, born and raised in Madrid, living in New York the past decade, leads a standard jazz quintet (piano, two saxes, bass, drums), but its sounds are anything but. Influenced by Lennie Tristano’s chamber jazz, Carla Bley’s folk fusions, and her own classical training, she infuses her music with dark harmonies and meditative rhythms while insistently tapping the blues.
This is one of John Zorn’s most purely pleasurable albums in a while, yet it’s not music for basking. It’s riveting, rousing, and occasionally discombobulating, careening—track to track, sometimes within one song, like a sonic collage—from meditative ballad to post-bop uptempo to merry-mayhem shredding. Zorn doesn’t play, but his band of frequent collaborators—guitarist Julian Lage, pianist Brian Marsella, bassist Jorge Roeder, drummer Ches Smith—are ideal conveyors.
Mary Halvorson is a singular guitar stylist, strumming clusters, harmonies, sometimes even notes that are new under the sun, and, in the dozen years that she’s been on the scene, she’s molded her inventions—which, early on, seemed inchoate or random—into transfixing musical visions. Amaryllis features a quintet—augmented, on the second half, by a string quartet—that coats her compositions with rich colors and textures.
Matthew Shipp may be the most original jazz pianist on the scene, rooted in the avant-garde (Cecil Taylor and Paul Bley are clear influences), but exploring lyrical passageways, too. His latest album, with bassist Michael Bisio and drummer Newman Taylor Baker, treads both paths. It starts with a toe-tapping bass-and-drums groove, which Shipp twists into a chromatic spiral with brashly dissonant accents that deepen its snappy appeal. Then he shifts to a soft meditation, followed by an avant pounder, then a soothing ballad and a tense misterioso.
At age 84, tenor saxophonist Charles Lloyd remains a force of nature, blowing blues, ballads, and uptempo rousers with grace, verve, and beauty. This live trio date, recorded in San Antonio’s Coates Chapel (hence the title), dwells mainly in the mellow, but the harmonies are sublime and the interplay with guitarist Bill Frisell and bassist Thomas Morgan intricate.
Highlights include Billy Strayhorn’s “Blood Count” and Lloyd’s own “Song My Lady Sings.”
Like several of Keith Jarrett’s other solo piano concert albums, this one, recorded in 2016, is entirely improvised. The pieces veer from avant rumblers to elegiac ballads to earthy blues, but they’re more streamlined than usual, most of them lasting just around five minutes—less rhapsodic, though still arousing, with the themes and variations pared down to their essentials, and for that reason more intense.
Three of the finest improvisers—trumpeter Enrico Rava, bassist William Parker, and drummer Andrew Cyrille—join together for the first time in zestful interplay, at once hot and cool (mainly cool), grippingly balanced, much of it invented on the spot, though it’s capped off with a standard, “My Funny Valentine,” that doesn’t sound at all out of place. The album’s title refers to the late Cecil Taylor, with whom all three have played, though the music here is more melodic and always accessible.
Drummer Tyshawn Sorey has made a deep mark as an experimental composer and conductor, mainly in classical and avant-garde circles, but here he leads a trio through jazz standards—most of them rarely covered pieces by Paul Motian, Muhal Richard Abrams, and Horace Silver, but also some of them familiar, such as “Detour Ahead” and “Autumn Leaves.” Aaron Diehl is among the most elegantly inventive pianists around, and bassist Matt Brewer hoists an agile anchor, but Sorey is the leader, propelling or playing off his bandmates, twisting the tunes in unexpected but always diverting directions.
Cécile McLorin Salvant has reigned as the premier jazz singer of our times for six or so years now. Still just 33, she keeps getting better, keeps evolving, and her latest, Ghost Song, is unlike anything she’s ever done. It’s a mix of originals and covers (none of them, strictly speaking, jazz songs) that amounts to a suite about love and loss, the span of life and death. The covers have a quirky range—Kate Bush, Kurt Weill, Sting, a piece from The Wizard of Oz—and her originals reveal a new sophistication. Blessed with an operatic range, she remains a master singer of blues, swing, precision, wit, and storytelling drama. Her band members, who vary from track to track, are exquisitely matched. The sound quality is superb.
The Best New Historical Releases
Bill Evans, the greatest lyrical jazz pianist, caught a second wind in the final year of his too-brief life (he died in 1980, of various drug-related ailments, at the age of 51), recording a dozen live concerts—released as albums posthumously—that belied the image, held by those who didn’t hear him toward the end, of a faded artist past his prime. This double album, laid down at the Teatro General San Martín in Buenos Aires, is among the most startling—exuberant, joyful, roused by a gentle but insistent swing.
Ahmad Jamal, who is still active, made his mark in 1958 with a live album, At the Pershing: But Not for Me, featuring the finger-snapping hit “Poinciana.” These newly unearthed sessions from live sets at a Seattle jazz club reveal (as have other recent discoveries) that he was also an exuberant adventurer, a shapeshifter of infinitely elastic rhythm. This is music of soul and wit and joy.
By Ahmad Jamal. Jazz Detective.
Mal Waldron, who died in 2002 at age 77, recorded more than 100 albums, mainly as sideman to the likes of John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, Eric Dolphy, Art Blakey, and Billie Holiday. But as a leader, he crafted a new style, veering away from lyrical melodies, toward rhythm, motifs, and colorful harmonies. This deeply meditative live solo concert, recorded in Grenoble, France, in 1978, begins with minimalist repetitions and slowly evolves to fiery originals and romantic ballads, capturing the riveting full range of his styles.