As I reflected on the past 12 months, I realized that 2016 was a banner year for jazz releases. It was extremely difficult to narrow my selections of outstanding recordings to just 16. My criteria for this list is that these were all CDs that moved me emotionally. They are albums that I would like to keep in my permanent collection.
I’d love to play this music for friends or when traveling long distances. I love a good melody coupled with improvisation that takes me away from it and back, arresting and surprising harmonies, meaningful lyrics and rhythms to keep my mind stimulated or even move me to dance! Some are current working ensembles and some are historic recordings. All have a great jazz feel throughout. Here are 16 sweet jazz CDs from 2016 in no particular order of favorite, but all worthy of your exploration.
1. Ted Nash Big Band Presidential Suite: 8 Variations On Freedom Motéma Music
Released two years after the work premiered at Jazz at Lincoln Center, saxophonist and composer Ted Nash’s ode to outstanding leadership in the 20th and 21st centuries are an important keepsake for not only the music, but for the excerpts of great oratory read by contemporary leaders. Ambassador Andrew Young, Glenn Close, Senator Joe Lieberman and Deepak Chopra and others interpret the original words of John F. Kennedy, Aung San Suu Kyi, Lyndon Johnson, Winston Churchill and more. Nash’s music explores the cadences of the language and the intent of the text. A significant historic and artistic document.
2. Rene Marie The Sound Of Red Motéma Music
After years of singing songs written by someone else or in tribute to an influence, Rene Marie claims her place as a songwriter and poet. Feelings of anger, despair, faith, betrayal, loyalty, joy and love with total honesty weave throughout this tome of truth. Ms. Marie is in fine voice throughout and her band follows her lead with intimate attention to detail. A statement of a fully realized persona.
3. Herlin Riley New Direction Mack Avenue
This is fun stuff – but as serious as your life! Veteran drummer Herlin Riley assembled a band of younger musicians – a la Art Blakey – and challenged them to morph through the many styles of jazz commanded by their mentor. A standout song is Riley’s Harlem Shuffle in tribute to Art Blakey. This album wraps up with Riley’s lusty vocal, syncopated tambourine licks and insistent New Orleans street beat on Tootie Ma.
4. Brian Lynch Madero Latino: A Latin Jazz Interpretation On The Music Of Woody Shaw Hollistic MusicWorks
Aggressive, intelligent, challenging, demanding, complex, spiritual, sensual and exciting are great adjectives to describe the music of the late, great post-bop trumpeter and composer, Woody Shaw. Brian Lynch continues his tribute series but adds a special Latin edge to differentiate this recording from his earlier efforts. His cohorts including fellow trumpeters Dave Douglas, Etienne Charles and Sean Jones as well as the Latin jazz powerhouse of pianist Zaccai Curtis and his brother, bassist Luques Curtis and percussionists Pedrito Martinez and Little Johnny Rivero add more syncopation and energy to Woody Shaw’s bristling music. Especially compelling is Shaw’s ode to his home town of Newark, New Jersey: On The New Ark.
5. Allen Toussaint American Tunes Nonesuch
Sadly, this was Allen Toussaint’s final recording. It hadn’t been planned that way, but as you listen, you’ll think of no better way for Mr. Toussaint to make his final musical document. His easy, comfortable approach to the piano spans all styles of American music from classical to ragtime, jazz, blues and rhythm & blues. While the version of Southern Nights is shorter and does not include Toussaint’s story-telling vocal, it is succinctly wistful and quintessential Allen Toussaint.
6. Stryker-Slagle Band (Expanded) Routes Strikezone
Guitarist Dave Stryker and saxophonist Steve Slagle have been musical partners for ages. With Routes, they invited sympathetic music friends to help them flesh out their guitar-saxophone songs with additional horns and piano. The results are spectacular. You’ll feel the funk of Stryker’s guitar but he also plays off tuba and French horn accents as well as double saxophone sparring between Steve Slagle and Billy Drewes. This is a loving musical portrait of New York jazz today. Start with the Lickety Split Lounge and then explore other Routes.
7. Andy Gonzalez Entre Collegas Truth Revolution
The bassist plays an essential role in Latin jazz. Drummers and percussionists often accentuate the rhythms and the real time-keeper is the bassist. Andy Gonzalez is one of the best. Blessed with a warm tone and un-erring musical instinct, he is a musician who deserves greater attention. As these sessions started, Gonzalez began treatment for kidney failure with dialysis. Perhaps that knowledge permeates the music, but it is filled with joy, life and positive direction. If you need proof, listen to the Latin jazz version of Ludwig Van Beethoven’s Ode To Joy.
8. Renee Rosnes Written In The Rocks Smoke Sessions
Pianist Renee Rosnes is a serious composer, a musical philosopher and an inspirational woman. After raising her children, she has re-emerged as an impeccably balanced and creative musician. Her exploration of the genesis of life, The Galapagos Suite – contained in full on Written In The Rocks is a masterpiece of musical layering to illustrate the eras of life on earth. Her band-mates: vibraphonist Steve Nelson, bassist Peter Washington, drummer Bill Stewart and saxophonist Steve Wilson help Renee unearth musical treasures.
9. Ken Peplowski Enrapture Capri Records
There really is something for every jazz lover on Enrapture by clarinetist and saxophonist Ken Peplowski. His ability to span styles, eras and approaches yet maintain his own singular identity is just one reason this recording is special. The other is the repertoire. Peps chose rarities by Duke Ellington, Herbie Nichols, Harry Warren in need of a good re-listen. If you need proof of Peplowski’s great taste in tunes, relish his version of the Fats Waller gem Willow Tree.
10. Andrew Bishop and Ellen Rowe Chisel And Stone PKO
When I told Ellen Rowe and Andrew Bishop that their CD was one of my favorites for 2016, I assured them that the choice was about their musicianship and not our friendship. Many of the songs on Chisel and Stone were recorded on December 15th, 2012 – the day after the Sandy Hook shooting tragedy. Ellen grew up in the town next to Sandy Hook. She wasn’t sure that she would be up to recording, but she prevailed and her emotion is felt throughout, especially on her original, Summer Solstice. Her partner, saxophonist Andrew Bishop is the perfect foil – coaxing more from his horn and soul and thus from Ellen. A great musical snapshot of two of our most beloved jazz educators and performers.
11. Phil Woods Quintet Live At The Deer Head Inn Dear Head
Alto saxophonist, NEA Jazz Master Phil Woods passed away on September 29th, 2015. You would never have known that he was coping with severe emphysema on the date of this recording: November 10th, 2014. Be-bop, blues and beloved standards flowed flawlessly from his horn. Perhaps it is because he was truly at ease in his home nightclub of the Deer Head Inn in Delaware Water Gap, Pennsylvania. It could also be that he was among loyal bandmates Brian Lynch, Bill Mays, Steve Gilmore and Bill Goodwin. Their humor, intelligence and wit draws you right in to their erudite musical conversation. Case in point is their rendition of I’ve Got Just About Everything.
12. Roberta Piket One For Marian – Celebrating Marian McPartland Thirteenth Note
After twenty years of recording and performing, Roberta Piket knows what to do with a tribute recording: to reflect on the influence and to use the inspiration to create new versions of the original music. Many of the tunes on One For Marian were originally solo piano or trio pieces, but with Steve Wilson, Virginia Mayhew and Bill Mobley on horns, new harmonies and possibilities emerge in McPartland’s music. Threnody, Marian McPartland’s dedication to her friend, fellow pianist Mary Lou Williams, is beautifully arranged and expressed by Roberta and her quintet.
13. Miles Brown Middle Game Miles Brown Music
This was a delightful surprise. Bassist Miles Brown is the Jazz Program Director of Oakland University and a blossoming chess master. Middle Game is based on Miles’ analysis of the improvisational nature of the classic game. It is brilliant original music handled deftly by Brown with some of the area’s most original improvisers: saxophonist Andrew Bishop, trumpeter Kris Johnson, pianist Michael Jellick and drummer Jesse Kramer. For an example of this energy and musical exchange try Midwest Arrival.
14. Paul Vornhagen Trust Your Heart PKO
With Trust Your Heart, saxophonist and flutist Paul Vornhagen did not break any new musical ground. Rather, he lovingly visited his repertoire of the Great American Popular Song with the capable and congenial accompaniment of Gary Schunk, piano and Kurt Krahnke, bass. And – this recording is about Paul as a singer. Sensitive, sweet, heart on the sleeve. It’s actually a very brave act to make music like this in our cynical modern times. As evidence – listen to I’m Old Fashioned.
15. Bill Evans Some Other Time: The Lost Session From The Black Forest Resonance
More “heart on the sleeve” music. Kudos to producer Zev Feldman and Resonance Records for unearthing this rare session by pianist Bill Evans in June, 1968. While Eddie Gomez occupied the bass chair in the Bill Evans Trio for many years, drummer Jack DeJohnette was only a member for six months. This is the most complete document of that special moment in jazz time. This is worthy listening not only for its historic significance, but for Bill Evans feeling relaxed, confident and at his highest level of expression. There are many fine choices on this 2 CD set. A fine point of departure is Evans’ original Walkin’ Up.
16. Stan Getz Moments In Time Resonance
I don’t think I’ve ever heard an unsatisfying recording made at the legendary jazz club, The Keystone Korner. Moments In Time by saxophonist Stan Getz, pianist Joanne Brackeen, bassist Clint Houston and drummer Billy Hart more than satisfies. It leaves you wanting more. And it is a shame that this quartet did not record more. Joanne Brackeen’s ideas sparkle, Clint Houston’s bass lines sing and Billy Hart’s drums crackle. Getz is great, strong form throughout with musical thoughts coming together in honest musical conversation. The Getz standard O Grande Amor should be required jazz studies listening.
— Linda Yohn is the WEMU Music Director, and host of 89.1 Jazz. On twitter @LindaYohn or email her at email@example.com