In the spirit of 2015 summaries, I felt like sharing my recommendations for the best, in my view, jazz albums of yesteryear. The list is, of course, highly subjective and biased towards contemporary and European jazz.1 I also admit that the great majority of what I listen to comes from ACT Music label, since many of my favorite artists record for them, and thus it’s somewhat easier for me to explore their catalogue. Nevertheless, I tried to be broader in my picks, which was really easy this year thanks to some very surprising albums from relatively unknown artists. Below are my 6 favorites, with three in the “must listen” category additionally marked with a “💣” (how did internet function without emoji, eh?).
- 💣Kamasi Washington—“Epic” (Brainfeeder)
Ok, get this: a relatively unknown artist from Los Angeles (wut?) releases his 3-CDs-2hrs-52minutes-long debut which, in my opinion, is at the same time the best jazz album of 2015. Yeah, “Epic” really is, nomen omen, quite epic. Kamasi Washington achieved something unique here: he managed to create a very “mainstream” sounding, easy to listen, contemporary jazz record with a lot of free-jazzy, Ornette Coleman-inspired solos and hard bop rhythms. Oh, and he managed to do all this on a 3hr album and not make it boring in any way. Washington is known for recording with hip-hop artists (most notably for working with Kendrick Lamar), and arguably the biggest advantage of his debut is introducing free jazz to younger audiences, but regardless, the album is as exciting, refreshing and enjoyable to just about any audience I can think of.
Play it at home, in the morning or evening, on the bus, on the plane and at work. Absorb it.
- Michael Wollny, Christian Weber, Eric Schaefer—“Nachtfahrten” (ACT)
Michael Wollny is a well-regarded pianist, at least on the European scene, and his “Nachtfahrten” album solidifies his position as the band leader, improviser and composer. A much calmer, contemplative, and less experimental record than his previous solo albums or [em] trio, “Nachtfarhten” brings beautiful melodies with a touch of melancholy, but never boring or smooth-jazzy. Wollny’s lyrical piano is actually closer to Jarrett’s “standards trio” than anything else on the jazz scene today, which makes me love his music even more.
Play this album in the evenings. Enjoy with a glass of good wine, but skip the book and just contemplate the music.
- 💣Adam Bałdych & Helge Lien Trio—“Bridges” (ACT)
Another ACT recording artist and my personal favorite-of-all-favorites, Adam Bałdych, this year with a Norwegian trio led by Helge Lien. I am obviously biased towards Bałdych, because I’m Polish and a weekend-violinist, but I honestly think he’s the most interesting jazz artist of the European if not worldwide jazz scene. His folk-sounding acoustic violin, his energetic, sometimes post-bopish Seifert-like improvisations, and the wonderfully melodic support of Helge Lien’s piano-double-bass-drums trio make “Bridges” the most original and interesting jazz album I’ve heard in a very long time.
Play it all the time and watch yourself head-banging to the sound of acoustic violin and acoustic double bass. Yeah, that’s gonna happen.
- Sons of Kemet—“Lest We Forget What We Came Here to Do” (Naim Jazz)
Sons of Kemet took the European jazz scene by storm with their 2013 debut “Burn”,2 so the expectations were really high for their second record. “Lest We Forget…” doesn’t dissapoint, but presents the band in a bit of a different style. Yes, they’re still a crazy combo of saxophone, tuba (albeit with a new tuba player) and two drum kits, but while “Burn” was pure energy with a small hydrogen bomb on top of that, “Lest We Forget…” is slightly more difficult and much more free in the sense of improvisation and form. To me, it’s also more rewarding.
Play it loudly.
- Julian Argüelles—“Tetra” (Whirlwind)
Julian Argüelles comes back with a new band called Tetra to introduce an album titled… “Tetra.” This is the most mainstream/conservative album of the 5 recommendations I compiled here, but it’s still full of Julian’s great improvisations and I’m pretty sure many of his pieces will soon become standards.
Play it at a party, play it to people who say they don’t like contemporary jazz.
- 💣Marius Neset—“Pinball” (ACT)
Marius Neset is a genius. He’s 30 year old Norwegian saxophonist (from Os near Bergen, mind you), and he likes playing with big bands. “Pinball”, his latest album, is full of complicated yet melodic pieces, youthful energy with a touch of “world music” sound. He’s got violins, cellos, vibraphones, marimbas, flutes and tambourines, so it is easily the most original sounding jazz album of 2015. And Neset’s virtuosity is simply astonishing. “Pinball” is fresh and engaging, and next to Bałdych’s “Bridges” the album I most frequently listened to last year.
Play it carefully, it’s a noisy album. Don’t get districted, and don’t get carried away; you don’t want our neighbors hear you dancing to the sound of tenor saxophone and marimba solos.
There were of course other great albums I enjoyed. Get The Blessing’s “Astronautilus” (Naim Jazz) was definitely decent, although much less spectacular than 2013 “Lope and Antilope” and their earlier “OC DC” (2011) or “All is Yes” (2008). Another interesting album was “Let Go” (Efpi) by a young, London-based punk-jazz quartet Let Spin. It’s closer to punk than to jazz most of the time, and much more spectacular (and loud) live than in the studio, but still worth checking out. Finally, Brad Mehldau released a compilation of his solo records called “10 years solo” (Nonesuch), which is definitely interesting, but to me somewhat exhausting to go through. His interpretations of rock music favorites are still spot on, though.
I provided Spotify links to all the albums mentioned above (unless they weren’t available on Spotify) to make checking them out as easy as possible,3 but I would kindly ask you to consider buying the albums you enjoy. They are all available on iTunes and Amazon, and if you don’t like either you can always use my LossLessFinder to get quality files from other sources. Support new jazz, people, and have a great 2016.
- Actually the bias is stronger and deserves a longer explanation, even if it’s just a footnote. I am slightly opinionated when it comes to jazz music, namely I feel jazz should remain exciting, energetic and involving, and expanding its reach rather than looking back. Thus I despise smooth jazz for its way too laid-back supermarket-friendly sound, and generally avoid swing and big bands. I also prefer jazz music being played in cramped clubs by young artists to concert halls full of older audiences in suits (with a notable exception of Keith Jarrett who can play wherever he likes for whatever ticket price and I will still be a happy camper if I get to go to his concert). ↩
- Easily the best jazz album of 2013. If you haven’t heard it, buy it immediately or Spotify it. And watch out for when the band comes to town. Go to their concert because they’re even better live, and remember to bring a bottle of water to stay hydrated. ↩
- I even created a playlist which consists of single tracks taken from all the albums recommended here and available on Spotify. I thought of embedding it at the bottom of the post, but Spotify embeds ruin the flawless aesthetics of this website, and I’m all about aesthetics. ↩