I’m perfectly willing to accept that, with any given style of music, creative juices ebb and flow; that there are fallow and fertile periods alike. Thus, I’m also willing to accept that there have been periods when jazz music has stalled, briefly, failing to live up to its own spirit of adventure and invention. But I don’t think we’re in such a period right now. Recently, I read a review in which the critic said there hasn’t been much creative vibrancy in jazz music over the last four of five years. I beg to differ: In the last two years alone, there’ve been plenty of jazz albums rich in creative wonder and artistic play.
Here are my five favorites– in no implied order other than alphabetical.
Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society – Infernal Machines
Argue’s musical vocabulary is rooted in tradition without ever seeming particularly orthodox, which means that his music is hip without sounding like a novelty or a self-conscious experiment. And it’s no pastiche, either; indeed, Argue– a prolific blogger on all topics jazz-related– has expressed a distaste for jazz ensembles that simply incorporate modern pop/rock cover songs into their repertoire as a way of seeming edgy. His own music is not a pastiche, but a true integration; he honors the structure and spirit of big band jazz even as he shows that he’s absorbed the language of Radiohead, Steve Reich, Charles Mingus, and countless others. [Read the full review.]
Mulatu Astatke & the Heliocentrics – Inspiration Information
A vibrant and hypnotic assortment of sounds and styles, by turns very Eastern and very Western, tastefully retro but also very forward-thinking, jazzy without being too esoteric and funky without sacrificing the music’s depth and sophistication. Astatke borrows many of his melodies and rhythms from traditional Ethiopian folk music, which grounds it all in a particular tradition, but he also reveals a keen interest in Western modalism, as well as a distinctly spiritual sensibility that no doubt rubbed off on him from his late friends and collaborators John and Alice Coltrane. The Heliocentrics, on the other hand, bring all the musical signifiers of psychadelia, rock, James Brown funk, and film noir soundtrack music. Some of their beats come clearly out of funk, while others sound borrowed from contemporary hip-hop. [Read the full review.]
Marco Benevento – Invisible Baby
Benvento twists musical conventions and blurs genre lines like a true postmodern, but there’s no winking hipster irony here; these songs are all filled with heart and humor. Trust me, there won’t be many songs released this year that are as achingly melodic and beautiful as “Record Book,” or as infectiously, spastically energetic as the maelstrom of video game sound effects, Casio keyboards, and frenzied percussion on “Atari.” “The Real Morning Party,” on the other hand, is unabashedly campy, but it’s also unabashedly cheerful, even joyful, and undeniably funny. It’s hard not to smile at Benvento’s strange, charmingly twisted genius when the cheesy keyboards give way to a spirited percussion breakdown– and indeed, the same can be said of the whole album, which is irreverent and funny while still being smart and sincere, hip without compromising its beauty and its earnest joy, surprising and sophisticated without losing its tunefulness and accessibility. [Read the full review.]
Brian Blade & the Fellowship Band – Season of Changes
Seasons of Changes, is a rich, full-bodied recording that finds Blade and his bandmates chasing their muse through country, rock, and pop terrain without ever losing the heart of jazz. It’s stately and elegant, but also spontaneous and improvisational; it’s earthy and it’s accessible, but it’s also ambitious, sophisticated, and, at times, soaring. [Read the full review.]
Allen Toussaint – The Bright Mississippi
The twelve tracks assembled for this record are all songs written in, written about, or at least associated with the city of New Orleans– the city that happens to serve as the primary setting for Toussaint’s own city. These are the songs that Toussaint grew up with, the songs that gave him inspiration in his formative years as a musician– and it’s easy to hear the impact they had on his own soulful funk and R&B tunes. But what these songs mean to Toussaint’s music is less important than what they mean to his spirit, and to the spirit of the city he so dearly loves: These songs are Bourbon Street brawlers, Mardi Gras romps, funeral dirges, roadhouse blues, and churchhouse spirituals, capturing in them all the spirit and history of a place that’s very specific but not necessarily bound to geography. [Read the full review.]