Mid-Year Verdicts: TOP TEN JAZZ ALBUMS IN 2017

EDIT: if you arrived to this page with a search engine, please be informed that there are updated charts with the best Jazz albums of 2017. You can easily discover these from the Jazz section of the blog.


 

After the publication of the top ten chart for Electronic music, let’s see now which are the best ten albums for the Jazz category. This list takes into consideration the releases occurred within the first six months of 2017. The interesting thing which emerges from a quick view of the chart is that there are a lot of relatively young musicians and two debut albums, meaning that we’re living in a special period of jazz renewal.

The new artists who are entering the Jazz scene evidently transfer into their music the experiences and the typical feelings of those generations which are today between 30 and 40 years old, with all the different musical influences that they have been exposed to. And it is no coincidence that contemporary Jazz language is increasingly embracing the dynamics and timbres of other musical genres, even those which are apparently quite far from the classical paradigms of Jazz: folk, rock, noise, and metal. If this may bother the purists of the genre, it seems to me a truly exceptional thing and it’s probably one of the elements that keeps this fantastic musical genre alive.

Before starting with the list of albums, let me give you a small reminder about the new series of Jazz compilations that I’ve just started to publish in this blog. This series, named Smoky Nights, collects the most recent and valuable songs appearing on the recent albums. Here is the first volume of the series, which will be followed by periodical updates.

And let’s start now with the Top Ten chart.

 

#1) An Ancient Observer by Tigran Hamasyan

I spoke about the wonderful new album by Tigran Hamasyan in many recent post of this blog, and it’s definitely no surprise that this work is still solidly at the top of the rankings. From the very first opportunities I had to listen to An Ancient Observer, I immediately understood that it was going to be a major release for the current year, across all genres.

Differently from Tigran’s most recent productions, An Ancient Observer sees the young Armenian composer focused primarily on the piano. The simplicity of the arrangements in this case is in favour of Tigran’s music, since we can fully appreciate the beautiful balance that he managed to achieve between Armenian folk music (which is based on a different tonal system with respect to the European one) and those more conventional – and for us familiar – musical structures. The melodies in Tigran’s songs are always suspended on this unstable equilibrium between two worlds and two cultures, and this dynamic contrast creates a fascinating and magical atmosphere. Listening to the album, however, we appreciate how this is today the result of years and years of work and persistent refinement rather than just a circumscribed musical experiment. As a matter of fact, we’re speaking of a musician that is incorporating local folk melodies into jazz-form improvisations since his teens.

Sometimes, even if quite rarely, there are songs that can hit you deep in your emotions. Songs where the beauty of the melodies is combined with a great expressiveness of the interpretation. An Ancient Observer is full of these kind of songs. This is with no doubts a musical work that will leave a mark for a long time. Not to be missed, absolutely.

 

#2) Transparent Water by Omar Sosa & Seckou Keita

Cuban-born jazz pianist Omar Sosa has built a vast discography of works in which he plays with musicians from all around the globe, often travelling outside the standard of jazz traditions. In his last album he joined the efforts with the Senegalese drummer, vocalist and kora player Seckou Keita, who is today one of the most charismatic musicians from Africa. The duo has released a beautiful album, Transparent Water, which sees contributions from other musicians from the most disparate areas of the world with their characteristics musical instruments: we have Japanese koto player Mieko Miyazaki, Chinese sheng player Wu Tong, and Venezuelan percussionist and batá player Gustavo Ovalles, just to mention a few ones.

But like a sort of magic, what could be imagined at first as a chaotic mix of sounds, influences and instruments, here is wonderfully transformed into a celebration of simplicity and – to some extent – it becomes an ode to the universality of music. The experience of listening to this beautiful album is really a journey through ethnic sounds and enchanting melodies, with the different musical traditions which complement each other providing the listener with varied nuances of the same basic tune. Wonderful.

 

#3) Potsdamer Platz by Jan Lundgren

Potsdamer Platz is the last work by Jan Lundgren and it’s actually the first “conventional” Jazz album we find in this chart if we want to stick to the common idea that most people have of a Jazz ensemble.

Postdamer Plaz sees the Swedhish pianist and composer play together with a new quartet he assembled with Jukka Perko (alto & soprano sax), former E.S.T. Dan Berglund (bass), and Morten Lund (drums). This all-Scandinavian band has managed to craft and record a fantastic sequence of songs, which initially may appear as simple lounge-bar jazz tunes but that in reality show how it’s possible to balance enjoyability with tradition, something that it’s easy to proclame but very difficult to implement in reality.

As reported on his biography, Lundgren is part of a remarkable and long tradition of innovative pianists from Sweden like Jan Johansson, Bobo Stenson and Esbjörn Svensson. He has the ability to integrate the most disparate musical influences into a fascinating whole. Whether its contemporary classical music, the northern folk tradition or the groove of jazz, Lundgren has a unique way of leading the listener on a voyage of discovery – sometimes relaxed, sometimes more passionate – through his magnificent musical soundscapes. An instant classic.

 

#4) Precious Time by Anthony Jambon Group

At place 4 of the chart we encounter the best Jazz debut of the year (or at least of the first six months of 2017). This is the surprising album named Precious Time released by French guitarist Anthony Jambon, who’s supported here by four additional young Jazz musicians (Joran Cariou, Camille Passeri, Swaéli Mbappe and Martin Wangermée).

I really enjoyed this work, in particular for the delicate balance that Jambon has managed to achieve between simplicity of his melodies and complexity of the rythimc sessions. The eight songs of the album are definitely accessible and easy to enjoy also by less experienced listeners, but the apparent simplicity of the musical constructs looks definitely as a precise stylistic choice and certainly not a limitation in curiosity of the author towards musical exploration and improvisation. This is one of the happy surprises of the year, and Jambon is for sure an artist that we shall follow to see his future steps into the realms of Jazz. Fresh and vibrant.

 

#5) La Diversité by Nicolas Kummert

The album which we find today at 5th place of my chart is slowly but steadily ascending on most of the charts that I periodically write in this blog, not only when I speak about Jazz, and this is because some musical works need a longer time to be fully comprehended and appreciated. And we can’t even rule out that its growth hasn’t stopped here. The album that I’m talking about is La Diversité, produced by the young Belgian jazz singer and tenor saxophonist Nicolas Kummert with major support from Benin-born guitarist and singer Lionel Loueke.

Differently to the two albums which precede this one on the chart (i.e. Potsdamer Platz and Precious Time) here we are in front of a less immediate kind of Jazz. Kummert’s saxophone lines are subtle and articulated, his style incorporates so many different influences that it’s today incredibly eclectic, vibrant and surprising. In addition to that, Lionel Loueke gave a very significant contribution to the entire album and a special touch of Africanism to many songs in this record.

This is not an album wnich you can just put in the background during your busy evenings and leave it there for its nice soundscapes; you need to listen it carefully in order to enjoy its curious and inspired musical lines. And as I said at the beginning, this is an album that I’m appreciating more and more everytime I put it once again in my music player. Profound and full of suprires, one of the most challenging but interesting albums of the year.

 

#6) Titok by Ferenc Snétberger

Titok, by Hungarian artist Ferenc Snétberger, is an ode to guitar. Snétberger is playing this instrument since almost 50 years (his biography states that he had classical guitar lessons from 1970) and throughout his career he has been exploring many different styles and influences (from the ‘hot‘ jazz guitar of “Django” Reinhardt to Latin American musics, passing through US jazz and European classical traditions). Well, what we hear in this record seems to be a point of arrival for all these different experiences he had so far and the album certainly represents an important chapter in the artist’s career.

In this record Snétberger plays together with Swedish bassist Anders Jormin and US drummer Joey Baron. The album contains some old Snétberger’s tunes that are reinterpreted (magistrally) by the trio, along with new compositions where the three musicians are more oriented towards improvisation. The atmospheres created by the guitarist and his comrades are typically warm and gentle, and everything seems made with the precise will to enhance the poetic sound of Snétberger’s guitar. That’s a very good Jazz release, for both lovers of jazz guitar and also those causal listeners who simply want to enjoy a beautiful collection of nice songs.

 

#7) Circles by MEM3

MEM3 is a relatively young and cosmopolitan jazz trio consisting of pianist Michael Cabe from Seattle, bassist Mark Lau from Sydney and drummer Ernesto Cervini from Toronto. The trio has released to this date two very enjoyable and elegant jazz albums, the last one named Circles and published in the first months of 2017. In their albums they play mostly original compositions from all three musicians as well as a few traditional hymns.

The particularity of this trio is that you really feel how each single member of the group was equally important for the development of the album. In everyone of the songs of the album you can clearly recognize who’s the leading player for that tune, this is typically the composer of the piece, but he’s always skilfully supported by the other musicians of the band. The alternation of the leader role for the various pieces guarantees in itself a good variety in the songs of the album. Additionally, tthe delicate and just perceptible contrast among the three different music styles gives the album a further element of interest.

From a musical point of view, the trio is clearly influenced by a few masters of Contemporay Jazz such as Peter Erskine, The Bad Plus and the Esbjorn Svensson Trio. Their music is kind, elegant but never trivial, and the album benefits of excellent recording and production that allow you to listen even to the most subtle nuances of the sounds produced by their instruments. There are a few delicate electronic inserts that do not disturb at all, rather they enrich the songs and make even more intense some of the beautiful atmospheres produced by the three musicians. A small gem in the landscape of modern jazz.

 

#8) Planetary Prince by Cameron Graves

Planetary Prince is the exaggerated and exuberant solo album by Cameron Graves, who is mostly known for being the pianist of Kamasi Washington’s jazz ensemble. This is the second debut album in the chart and another confirmation of what I was writing at the beginning of the post about the transformation that these new artists are producing on conventional Jazz, something that is particularly evident here given the mind-expanding inventions that mark all of Cameron Grave’s work.

The progressive Jazz pianist from Los Angeles wrote for this LP a phenomenal and quite refreshing collection of songs which remind us about the tunes of the past but with the addition of a healthy dose of madness. Kamasi Washington said Abou the album: “it is an amazing and almost unbelievable combination of modal jazz, romantic era European classical music, and mathematical death metal. A style so cool that it deserves its own genre

Cameron Graves is also a founding member of the West Coast Get Down collective, a collaborative group of musicians born and raised in Los Angeles. The members of the collective (which includes also Kamasi Washington, Miles Mosley, Tony Austin, Ryan Porter, Ronald Bruner Jr. and Brandon Coleman) are united by their common will to innovate music. Graves, on his part, gave an important contribution by trying to reimagine the modern jazz with main influences from progressive rock and cosmology.  Terrific and energetic, Planetary Prince is an incredible collection of explosive and vibrant songs.

 

#9) Sleepwalkers by Omer Klein

Sleepwalkers is the seventh album by the Israeli-born pianist Omer Klein, recorded with his world-touring trio featuring Haggai Cohen-Milo on bass and Amir Bresler on drums. The album follows his successful 2015’s LP Fearless Friday, which gave him increased popularity.

Omer Klein grew up in Israel, a Country which gave so many talented Jazz musicians in the last decade, but his Jazz formation happened in the U.S. where he became a notable member of the NYC jazz scene. Today he lives in Germany, and the move to Europe gave Klein a notable further improvements in compositional style and also additional influences for improvisations.

The music in Sleepwalkers is a magical fusion between introspection and energy, something that’s today a characteristic feature of Klein’s style, and the album definitely increases the number of rewarding piano trio releases we had the opportunity to enjoy this year.

 

#10) Danse by Colin Vallon Trio

The final entry of this Top Ten chart for Jazz is occupied by Colin Vallon and his last album Danse, which sees the Swiss pianist playing with Patrice Moret on bass and Julian Sartorius on drums and percussions. This also the third release for ECM after publication of Le Vent in 2014 and Rruga in 2011.

Colin Vallon’s music is mostly based on the idea of exploring basic melodies or elementary harmonies with nuanced motifs or disjointed and dissonant counterpoints. And one the most beautiful aspects of the music in this album is that sense of dangerous instability that exists between classical musical forms and a restless spirit of experimentation that ultimately explodes in all the songs.

Colin Vallon is another valid representative of that young generation of Jazz musicians who are deliberately transforming the conventional canons of the genre through the use of inspirations from distant worlds, in this case we clearly recognize both the obsessive rhythms of György Ligeti and the melodic melodic developments of melodic rock, like those of the early Radiohead. 

 

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