That’s at least been the vibe in the press the last few years. Nielsen denounced jazz as the least-popular music genre in America in its 2014 year-end report; it tied with classical for a 1.4 percent share of the total consumption of music on a national level. That’s just wrong. But oh what a difference a year can make.
Just as it did in the early ’90s when the likes of Pete Rock and Large Professor began to discover killer breakbeats on old Blue Note records and A Tribe Called Quest invited Ron Carter to play the bass on The Low End Theory, hip-hop has once again given jazz the shot in the arm it needed to thrive in 2015. Only this time those sparks are coming from California, where Kendrick Lamar recorded the year’s most important and acclaimed hip-hop album To Pimp a Butterfly with the help of some of the hottest jazz musicians in the game right now, including Robert Glasper, Ambrose Akinmusire, Thundercat and the other fella making tsunami-sized waves of excitement for the genre: South Central sax great Kamasi Washington.
This forward momentum produced countless wonderful new releases, most of which were certainly buoyed by the Kendrick/Kamasi Effect, be it in terms of sales or spins on-air. Here are 10 that stood out among the pack in a truly banner 12-month span for this great national music. Jazz is alive and well; just try to challenge that after listening to these records.
10) Pat Metheny, Jan Garbarek, Gary Burton, Scott Coley, Danny Gottlieb, Paul McCandless and the SWR Big Band, Hommage à Eberhard Weber (ECM)
2015 saw guitarist Pat Metheny returning home to the label where he got his auspicious start for the first time since the release of his 1984 LP Full Circle to celebrate the 75th anniversary of his former bassist Eberhard Weber. This mind-blowing live album draws from the two-night-long Great Jubilee Concert in Weber’s hometown of Stuttgart, Germany, this past January celebrating the life and career of a true architect of the ECM sound.
In addition to Metheny, who commissioned the 32-minute title track culled from tapes of the bassist’s solos, such beloved associates as saxophonist Jan Gabarek and vibe great Gary Burton also join the legendary Südwestdeutschen Rundfunks Big Band in these most unique arrangements of their friend’s renowned oeuvre. Weber’s ability to play his custom electro-acoustic bass might have been sidelined in 2007 following a massive stroke, but thanks to the wonders of technology and the knowhow of such innovative pals like Metheny and flugelhornist Ack van Rooyen—who plays on this year’s other Weber LP, Encore—his artistry has been rendered immortal.
9) World’s Fair, Julian Lage (Modern Lore)
One of the best jazz stories of the last 20 years involves guitarist Julian Lage, who has been in the public eye since the acclaimed 1997 documentary about his days as a child prodigy, Jules at Eight. Now, at 28, he is one of the leading voices in modern jazz guitar. But World’s Fair, his proper solo debut, is his most definitive statement as a recording artist yet. Recorded entirely on acoustic guitar, Lage’s playing on these dozen instrumentals almost transcend jazz entirely; his phrasing is more in line with John Fahey than Pat Metheny, while managing to construct a perfect conduit between the two. This is calm, healing music that could only be made by the hands of someone who’s already amassed a lifetime of experience before his 30th birthday.