It seems that with each year it gets harder to keep up with all the great music being released. I began with a Top 10 list, and in the end struggled to narrow it down to even 20. I also left off George Colligan’s Write Them Down and Sean Clapis’ The Unseen River, recusing myself since they came out on my label, RMI Records. Do consider checking them out, though, as well as these wonderful albums below.
Important Note: these are in alphabetical order, not necessarily order of preference.
1 ) George Cables – In Good Company
I’ve been a fan of Cables since I was a teenager and first heard him on Dexter Gordon records. This is a stellar trio record (with his working unit of bassist Essiet Okon Essiet and the great Victor Lewis), paying tribute to other greats, including Kenny Barron, Billy Strayhorn and the late John Hicks (whose “After the Morning,” my personal favorite Hicks tune, gets a gorgeous reading here).
2 ) Stanley Cowell – Juneteenth
This isn’t the brilliant pianist/composer’s first solo piano record, but it is my favorite to date, a powerhouse milestone in his late-career resurgence. The whole suite is brilliant, and the final 17-plus minute track “Juneteenth Reflections” is superlative.
3 ) Chris Dingman – The Subliminal and the Sublime
With all due respect to Kamasi Washington (who is also on this list), this is the most “epic” jazz record I have heard this year, thanks to Dingman’s cinematic full-album composition and the excellent work of his stellar band, with Fabian Almazan, Loren Stillman and Justin Brown (all vets of his wonderful debut record Waking Dreams) joined by Linda Oh and Ryan Ferreira.
4 ) Josh Evans – Hope and Despair
Young Mr. Evans has been making a substantial name for himself as a trumpet player for some time already, but this emotionally potent record puts him on the map as a composer/bandleader. The powerful spirit of his onetime mentor Jackie McLean is evident here on multiple levels, including the wailing alto of Bruce Williams and the presence of two other noteworthy J-Mac disciples, Abraham Burton and Eric McPherson.
5 ) Orrin Evans – Evolution of Oneself
At last count, pianist/composer Evans had recorded about 643 albums as a bandleader, something not surprising given the creativity and ambition I’ve seen since I first met him in 1993. This mature, soulful and eclectic trio record (featuring Karriem Riggins and Christian McBride) may be the finest yet.
6 ) Yoron Israel – This Moment (Live in Boston)
I’ve been a fan of Yoron’s drumming since I heard him in the 1990s with Jay Hoggard, James Williams and others, and he’s really come into his own as a bandleader. This live record shows his quartet High Standards in performance, living up to their, well, high standards.
7 ) Joshua Kwassman – Heartwork
When I met Josh, he was still a high school student and expressed artistic ambitions that I found disarming at the time. Fast forward nearly a decade, and I’ll be damned if he isn’t DOING it. The “it” in this case is keeping a super-tight band (Brother Spirit) together as a vehicle for his sweeping, ambitious soulful compositions that consistently illuminate the human condition.
8 ) Joe Locke – Love is a Pendulum
Joe Locke’s records are always a feast of melody, soul and virtuosity, and the feast is all the more bountiful when there is an overarching concept, as there is on this beautiful set centered on an utterly gorgeous set of compositions he based on a set of poems by Barbara Sfraga.
9 ) Lionel Loueke – Gaia
The innovative guitarist Loueke’s trio with Massimo Biolcati and Ferenc Nemeth has been well-represented on records. I hesitate to simply say this one meets the group’s lofty standards, as that doesn’t do justice to the fire and continued evolution represented here.
10 ) Luis Perdomo – Twenty Two
Perdomo’s Controlling Ear Unit (featuring Mimi Jones on bass and Rudy Royston on drums) is a great vehicle for his stunning piano work and his distinctive compositions. It is worth noting that he is also a sideman on two other records on this list.
11 ) Perez Pattitucci Blade – Children of the Light
Danilo Perez, John Pattitucci and Brian Blade have had a multi-dimensional relationship in various different configurations . . . oh yeah, plus being the rhythm section for that Wayne Shorter guy. Hearing them groove and undulate through this program of trio music is such a treat, highlighted by their deconstruction of my personal favorite Perez composition (“African Wave,” originally from The Journey).
12 ) Roberta Piket – Emanation: Solo, Vol. 2
Piket is an absolute monster, and it is unsurprising that this solo piano record is as nuanced and authoritative as the first volume was. I find her solo piano take on Herbie Hancock’s “Actual Proof” to be particularly miraculous.
13 ) Pete Rodriguez – El Conde Negro
Rodriguez, a fabulous Austin-based trumpet player and composer, has found a way to balance his position as the son of salsa royalty (the great singer/bandleader Pete “El Conde” Rodriguez) and a man with his own distinctive artistic voice. His band (featuring Luis Perdomo, Ricky Rodriguez, Rudy Royston and Robert Quintero) absolutely smokes, but Pete is in command throughout with his playing, singing, composing and clever arrangements of tunes associated with his father.
14 ) Sean Sonderegger – Eat the Air
Sean Sonderegger has been blurring the lines between straight-ahead and avant-garde for some time now, and this album is a mature, coherent statement that is simultaneously lyrical and restless.
15 ) EJ Strickland – The Undying Spirit
If you listen to straight-ahead jazz you’ve invariably heard EJ Strickland’s drumming in recent years, but hopefully this record will put his multifaceted talents (including composer/bandleader) in the public consciousness.
16 ) Ike Sturm – Shelter of Trees
Through both his own work as an artist and his vital role as Music Director for the Jazz Ministry at St. Peter’s Church (the renowned “jazz church”) in NYC, bassist/composer Sturm has found the sweet spot that encompasses authoritative jazz and spiritual devotion. The band here has a significant overlap with Chris Dingman’s group mentioned above (including pianist Almazan and saxophonist Stillman as well as Dingman himself) along with soulful work from guitarist Jesse Lewis and drummer Jared Schonig, as well as the disarmingly beautiful and fascinatingly complimentary vocals of Chanda Rule, Melissa Staylianou and Misty Ann Sturm (and two tracks featuring marimbist Zaneta Sykes). Taking center stage, though, are Sturm’s wonderful compositions, each of them reaching for the divine while also paying tribute to his late father, the important composer/educator Fred Sturm.
17 ) Gregory Tardy – With Songs of Joy
Another artist with a distinctive track record of straight ahead jazz with a spiritual focus, all Tardy seems to do is put out one record after another of soul-affirming, powerful music. The majority of these records are buoyed by his longtime rhythm team of Sean Conly and Jaimeo Brown, joined here by the powerful John Chin on piano and the stellar young trumpet player Philip Dizack.
18 ) Charenee Wade – Offering: the Music of Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson
This material is ripe for the picking in a serious jazz context, and the excellent young singer Wade does exactly that, with a moody set that simultaneously recontextualizes and pays proper respect to the cutting-edge and, sadly, still-relevant 1970s work of the revolutionary Gil Scott-Heron and his keyboard-playing and composing cohort Brian Jackson.
19 ) Kamasi Washington – the Epic
The “epic” part could refer to length of this 3-CD set or to the large ensemble, augmented at times by strings and a choir. All of that is used to strong effect on this record, but I have a particular soft spot for anyone who can tear the roof down with spiritual wailing on the tenor saxophone, as Washington does so effectively here.
20 ) Steve Wilson and Wilsonian Grain – Live In New York – the Vanguard Sessions
It is a true delight to see and hear Steve Wilson reassert himself as a bandleader here. Backed by a great quartet including the aforementioned Orrin Evans, we get tune after tune of Wilson’s uniquely soulful alto and soprano and his distinctive improvisational vocabulary.