…but, rather, here are my favorite albums of 2016. Why the distinction? I think it’s silly and self-aggrandizing for anyone, however expert their ears, to say “These are the 10 best albums of the year.” I get that people, myself included, have an insatiable appetite to rank things, perhaps to make the world seem a little more orderly. But music is not science. Its virtues resist quantification.
Many 10-best lists seem to me primarily driven by critical notions of what sounds the most innovative, hence the usual bias toward the avant-garde. That’s fine. But I feel that jazz (and music in general) is not primarily about innovation or progress. It should appeal to the heart as well as the head.
I do prize originality and think jazz should sound new and of its time. But that newness is all about individuality, not some intellectual conceit of progress. A great album or song should sound like the honest expression of no one but this artist. There’s another practical reason I don’t call these “the best” albums: there are many hundreds of jazz and jazz-related CDs issued every year. Nobody can listen to everything, and I don’t pretend to have heard them all.
The list that follows is an expanded version of the one I supplied to The 2016 NPR Music Jazz Critics Poll. The NPR poll showed, by the way, that there is essentially no critical consensus on what the year’s “best” albums were. The album that came in first place, Henry Threadgill’s Old Locks and Irregular Verbs, received a mere 41 votes out of the 137 critics and journalists polled.
Here are my favorites, the albums I heard this year that moved me on a personal, emotional and intellectual level. Maybe they will move you, too.
1. Trio Corrente, Vol. 3 (Independent release) – Using Brazilian pop and folkloric building blocks, the Sao Paulo-based trio of Fabio Torres (piano), Paulo Paulelli (bass) and Edu Ribeiro (drums) make joyful music of wild originality with jaw-dropping rhythmic precision. They shared a Grammy award in 2014 with clarinetist Paquito D’Rivera for the album Song for Maura. Still they are my candidate for the best band that almost nobody in the U.S. has heard of. (In the U.S. you can hear their most recent albums on Spotify.)
2. Peter Bernstein – Let Loose (Smoke Sessions) – A great album by one of my favorite guitarists. With fabulous backing by pianist Gerald Clayton, bassist Doug Weiss, and drummer Bill Stewart, Bernstein is free to “let loose” like a horn player, and, boy, does he.
3. Gregory Porter – Take Me to the Alley (Blue Note) – The burnished baritone returns with a new batch of originals that take his songwriting to a whole new level.
4. Bill Charlap – Notes from New York (Impulse) – The new album from the impeccable pianist is a master class in class. I have given only three albums five stars. This is one of them.
5. Tillery (Rebecca Martin, Becca Stevens, Gretchen Parlato) (Larrecca Music) – Tillery combines the talents of three of today’s most interesting singer-songwriters: Becca Stevens, Rebecca Martin, and Gretchen Parlato. On their debut album, the exquisite songs defy easy categorization; maybe that’s why I like them so much.
6. George Coleman – A Master Speaks (Smoke Sessions) — The 80-year-old tenor saxophonist, a NEA Jazz Master and Miles Davis Quintet alumnus, released his first album as a leader in 20 years with an all-star band – and it’s excellent.
7. Snarky Puppy – Family Dinner, Vol. 2 (Decca-Ground Up Records) The jazz-rock-funk collective from Denton, TX is highly popular, and deservedly so. Led by bassist/arranger Michael League, these guys have big ears for great music from all over the world. Here they are with singer/songwriter Becca Stevens and the Swedish band Väsen, playing a song by Stevens.
8. Cyrille Aimée – Let’s Get Lost (Mack Avenue) – A fabulous performance by the French jazz singer with the unforgettable voice.
9. Fred Hersch – Sunday Night at the Vanguard (Palmetto) – Another brilliant outing by one of the best piano trios in jazz.
10. Jack DeJohnette • Ravi Coltrane • Matthew Garrison — In Movement (ECM)
11. Trio da Paz, 30 (Zoho) – Celebrating its 30th anniversary as a trio, the Brazilian expatriate supergroup of guitarist Romero Lubambo, bassist Nilson Matta and drummer Duduka da Fonseca continues to impress with its unique blend of Brazilian and American jazz.
12. Roberta Piket, One for Marian (Thirteenth Note Records)
13. Catherine Russell – Harlem on My Mind (Jazz Village)
14. David Bowie – Blackstar (Columbia)
15. Caetano Veloso & Gilberto Gil – Dois Amigos (Nonesuch)
My Favorite Reissues or Historical albums:
1) Bill Evans – Some Other Time: The Lost Session from The Black Forest (Resonance Records)
2) The Savory Collection, Vol. 1 (Apple Music)
3) Miles Davis Quintet: Freedom Jazz Dance: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 5 (Columbia/Legacy)
Favorite Vocal Album:
Cyrille Aimée – Let’s Get Lost (Mack Avenue)
Favorite Debut album:
Jacob Collier – In My Room (Membran/Qwest)
Favorite Latin jazz album:
Trio Corrente, Vol. 3. (Independent release)
Honorable mentions: Joey Alexander – Countdown (Motema); Leslie Pintchik – True North (Pinch Hard); Nels Cline, Lovers (Blue Note); Dave Stryker – 8 Track II (Strike Zone); Kenny Barron – Book of Intuition (Verve) ; John Scofield – Country for Old Men (Impulse); Joshua Redman and Brad Mehldau – Nearness (Nonesuch); Ted Nash – Presidential Suite (Motema); Russell Malone, All About Melody (HighNote)