Talk to a dozen jazz musicians and you are likely to get universal agreement on two things: a general discomfort with the word “jazz” and the undeniable truth that it is a tough go making a living as a creative musician these days. The record industry was never overly friendly to bold, improvised music, but now there is essentially no record industry at all.
On the other hand, ask a dozen serious jazz fans or critics, you will get universal agreement that the art itself (if not the financial ease for the artists) is thriving. In fact, we could easily have created a Best 20 or Best 25 list for this year without breaking a critical sweat. Best 50 was probably within reach.
These things are related, we argue. The death of the record industry also removed any significant incentive for jazz musicians to compromise their art. With no prospect of stardom or wealth as a creative musician, every player is an independent and an idealist, an artist seeking maximum expression. And the results are beautiful, thrilling, inspiring.
Of course, it makes sense that only two of our favorite baker’s dozen are on a “major label” (a vocal album celebrating Billie Holiday on Blue Note, owned by the Universal Music Group, and a remarkably fine “jazz supergroup” recording on Nonesuch, owned by the Warner Music Group). The remaining 11 are on intrepid independent labels such as ECM, Pi, and AUM Fidelity or artist-created imprints such as Greenleaf (Dave Douglas) or Tzadik (John Zorn). And what is being produced is brilliant and wonderfully varied. Indeed, the most compelling reason for us to go beyond a “top ten” (to 13) — and the best rationale for thinking in terms of a 50-best list — is to show the wide sweep of “jazz” in 2015, from electronica to classic “songbook” singing, from utterly free improvising to tightly composed music that may be as close to “new music” in the classical tradition as it is to Charlie Parker.
What narrowly missed the top 13? While you’ll find pianist Matt Mitchell referenced twice below, his double-disc Vista Accumulation (Pi) lingers for us as one of a dozen more discs at edge of our list. Dave Douglas was stunning in his electronic collaboration with Mark Guiliana and Shigeto (below), but his quintet with Joe Lovano, playing brand new tunes by and inspired by Wayne Shorter was also worthy. We hated leaving out a fabulous records by bassist Chris Lightcap (featuring Craig Taborn, Chris Cheek, Tony Malaby, and Gerald Cleaver) and vibraphonist Chris Dingman. And new and highly accessible soul-jazz from the folks at Revive Music (who put our this year’s gushingly fun Supreme Sonacy) has us thinking that — is it possible? — actually “popular” jazz that doesn’t pander is within reach. Veterans of the New York downtown scene made fabulous records this year (bassist William Parker’s For Those Who Are, Still and pianist Matthew Shipp’s The Conduct of Jazz), and recent denizens of this list, as sidemen or leaders, had good years too (Brad Mehldau with 10 Years Solo Live and Jon Irabagon’s twin releases Behind the Sky and Action is Inaction).
But the 13 recordings below, presented in artist-alphabetical order, are our favorite of 2015, a baker’s dozen that remind us that jazz remains alive, growing, thriving, and powerful. John Garratt and Will Layman
Songs for Quintet