Best of Jazz in 2017, the Top Ten Albums (updated)

Jazz music is maybe one of the musical genres that is more subject to personal interpretation and if we exclude a few of the new albums that gather universal consensus, you will always find a great disparity of opinions from critics and listeners over the majority of recent Jazz publications, especially when it comes to debuting musicians. As a matter of fact, if you compare three of four Jazz charts it will be a real challenge to find the same artist appearing in all of them.

Said this, here you can find my personal Top Ten list with the best Jazz albums which I’ve heard this year so far. There are a few well known and acclaimed artists but also a number of new musicians that are shaping the future of Jazz through many interesting influences coming from other kinds of music.

We have now entered the last quarter of 2017, there is still so much to hear from now to the end of the year but many of the artists that appear in this edition of the list are expected to maintain their positions. Enjoy the chart and we’ll see together what will happen in the forthcoming months.


 

#1) An Ancient Observer by Tigran Hamasyan

 

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After many months since the release of Ancient Observer by Armenian composer Tigran Hamasyan it is now difficult to predict that another record will remove this masterpiece from the top of the chart. And as the readers of the blog may confirm, I stated since the beginning that the LP was going to be one of the major releases of the year, across all genres.

Differently from Tigran’s productions of the last few years, An Ancient Observer sees the artist focused primarily on the piano and the simplicity of the arrangements is totally in favour of Tigran’s inspirations. In all of the songs of the album we can 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.

…and today I’m really excited because I will see him live here in Roma on next November!

It’s a special kind of magic when a musician and his instrument of choice seem to merge into one entity, one voice, one force of musical creation. Few musicians have achieved this almost symbiotic relationship with their instrument in the last decade, and Tigran Hamasyan is one of them, handling the piano like an extension of his very essence in his jazz/classical/world music-informed compositions (Itdjents)


 

#2) Far From Over by Vijay Iyer Sextet

 

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One of the most influential figures of the current Jazz scene, American pianist Vijay Iyer is also one of the most experimental and prolific composers of these days. After having achieved a remarkable success with the two great – and relatively “standard” – albums released for the ACT label in 2009 (Historicity) and in 2013 (Accelerando), he’s been involved in wide range of heterogenous musical projects where he sometimes explored territories well beyond conventional Jazz.

Iyer’s last work, the beautiful Far From Over, apparently marks a sort of return to the more usual sounds and structure of Jazz music, but in reality it conceals an absolutely modern and courageous reading of the old canons of this musical genre. From a purely formal point of view, in fact, we find in this album a collection of compositions which correspond to the typical structures of hard bop, swing, funky-jazz or avant-garde. The approach to the music, however, is completely innovative and sees the artis and his five skilled bandmates taking corageous paths which unpredictably diverge from the convention. In some songs of the album, partly because of the composition of the ensemble (two saxophones, one flugehorn, piano, bass and double drums) and partly because of the peculiar way of playing of the musicians, I felt sensations and emotions similar to those I had the first time I listened Igor Stravinsky’s Petrushka.

That’s another milestone for Jazz, another great album by Vijay Iyer, and it’s no surprise to find him reaching quickly the top positions of the chart.

Along with bassist Stephan Crump, both Lehman and Sorey have worked extensively in some of Iyer’s previous groups. It makes sense that they’d sound comfortable in the composer’s dense and memorable pieces, though this ensemble’s compatibility isn’t an end in itself. The union of players and material inspires a new synthesis: the sound of Iyer consolidating strengths and discovering some new ones as he settles into the vibe created by his most potent band yet. (Pitchfork)


 

#3) Potsdamer Platz by Jan Lundgren

 

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Potsdamer Platz is the last beautiful work by Jan Lundgren and it 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).

For this LP the Scandinavian supergroup managed to craft and record a fantastic sequence of songs which someone could initally confuse for simple lounge-bar jazz tunes, but that in reality represent – each of them – a beautiful example of modern jazz, without too many superstructures and useless conceptual elements. It’s easy to proclame the willingness to balance tradition with enjoyability, but there are very few artitst that actually manage to achieve this goal without slipping into banality or the mere repetition of a model.

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.

Lundgren’s intuitions about when to do more with less make him an ideal accompanist, he has the most polished of keyboard touches, and a songwriter’s ear for melodies that sound simultaneously conventional and new (The Guardian)


 

#4) Transparent Water by Omar Sosa & Seckou Keita

 

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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 Senegalese drummer, vocalist and kora player Seckou Keita, who is today one of the most charismatic musicians from Africa.

The duo has released this year a beautiful album, named Transparent Water, which sees also collaborations with other musicians coming from the most disparate areas of the world, each one bringing his own influences and playing his 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.

Those keen on analysis will be tempted to try to break this music down to its component parts, disentangle instruments, and assign strict definitions to what’s happening here. That’s not advised. Part of the magic in Sosa’s music has always been his ability to operate behind the curtain, working the seam where music and magic coexist. His brand of sorcery remains one of his greatest gifts, and it continues to hold sway over every person and project he gets involved with. (All About Jazz)


 

#5) Gentle Giants by Slowfox

 

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Slowfox is the recent jazz project founded by German double bass virtuoso Sebastian Gramss. The project is basically a jazz / avant-garde trio featuring saxophonist Hayden Chisholm and pianist Philip Zoubek. The three skilled musicians have released on last May the second album of the project, named Gentle Giants, which is an excellent testimony of the current status of contemporary chamber music.

The beauty of the album relies moslty in the exceptional balance between the beautiful harmonic improvisations and the melodic background that characterize all the songs of the disc. The music of Slowfox seems to float perpetually between these two domains, that boundless creativity and the reassuring melodies. The absence of the drums makes this sensation even stronger, and creates an extravagant, intriguing and sometimes hypnotic effect.

The artistic concept that has guided the composition of the songs of the album is probably summarized by the quote that is obtained by reading one after the other the titles of the 15 songs: “And those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music” (probably to be accredited to Friedrich Nietzsche)

The complete abandonment of percussion instruments does not appear to be a disadvantage in this context, but rather condenses the essence of the vibrations into a web created by these anarchic and spiritualized avant-garde musicians. This album can be described without any exaggeration as a very successful blend of fluttering compositional threads spanning in many directions, and free improvisations that surf on these threads and have their joy in it. (BetreutesProggen, english translation)


 

#6) Times Of Change by Amit Baumgarten Quartet

 

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Times of Change, the debut album by this young guitarist from Israel, is another of those modern albums where traditional Jazz is influenced, altered and sometimes completely distorted by the influences and the musical styles that the musicians enjoyed during their musical growth. And you can easily recognize that Amit Baumgartener, in addition to being a talented musician and composer, is basically a young guy who has grown to large doses of alernative rock and metal.

After a number of years spent shaping his style through experiences abroad and a few collaborations with Israeli musicians, he eventually assembled this Jazz quartet with Avri Borochov on bass, Tom Oren on piano and Alon Benjamini on drums.

I’ve been honestly impressed by the freshness of the style of this young musician: you can feel how the energy and innovation manage to give life to the standard constructs of Jazz music but at the same time still maintaining an attitude of respect towards those evident influences of the past which can be crearly recognized in his music. The most beautiful parts of the album, in my opinion, are those when the rhythmic session takes a boost and seems to stimulate the young guitarist to lose some control and to participate passionately to the groove of the song.

That’s a very nice debut, which landed almost directly among the best LPs of the year. Let’s see now if the album will withstand the passing of time and it will be still here after these few months which separate us from the end of 2017.

This is an eclectic album, that goes a long way from the post-bop tune “Rain Coffee” , to the prog-rockish “Urban Adventure” and even a surprising homage to the Seattle grunge bands with the tune “90’s”. All blended together in a unique and elegant way that creates a special sound and atmosphere. (Bandcamp)


 

#7) Far into the Stars by Markus Stockhausen

 

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One year after the release of beautiful and poetical album Alba, German trumpeter and composer Markus Stockhausen comes back with another ethereal release. Far into the Stars, the last of a long discography of albums, is a further testimony to the artist’s ability of creating delicate and fascinating atmsopheres where no sound is ever dissonant with the former one, and all the instruments works organically for the definition of engaging and emotional layers of melodies.

The style of Stockhausen is often tending towards the sonorities and musicality typical of classical music and this album does not deviate from this trend. The songs of the album are soft, gentle but still permeated by an underlying tension.

This is another precious gem in the collection of records released by a great representative of modern Jazz.

His music sounds gentle, familiar, quasi-classical. Stockhausen avoids dissonances, at least those which are immediately noticeable. However, if you listen to Far Into The Stars more closely, fascinating details emerge. There a mood of the clear beauty shifts almost imperceptibly into the tension of harmonic opposites and dissolves them again (Amazon.de, translated)


 

#8) La Diversite by Nicolas Kummert

 

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La Diversité by young Belgian jazz singer and tenor saxophonist Nicolas Kummert is an album which slowly but steadily ascended in the music charts of this blog, where it eventually consolidated its position within the best Jazz albums of the year. As a matter of fact, some musical works need a longer time to be fully comprehended and appreciated. Kummert’s saxophone lines are subtle and articulated and his style incorporates so many different influences that initially you may find yourself somewhat lost among the dissonant harmonies that permeate the album.

In what emerged at the end as one of the most interesting Jazz releases of 2017, this young artist is supported by a number of talented musicians. The major contribution, however, comes from Benin-born guitarist and singer Lionel Loueke, who gave a special touch of Africanism to many of the songs of the album.

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. Profound and full of suprires, that’s one of the most challenging but interesting albums of the year.

A longtime student of west African music, Kummert’s alliance with acclaimed Beninese guitarist Lionel Loueke is an ongoing, free-flowing conversation that skirts past the usual cliches of jazz-meets-Africa, so La Diversité is not some hyphenated mutant genre, but a distillation of collective experience and influences into something personal and open (The Irish Time)


 

#9) Titok by Ferenc Snetberger

 

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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.

Snétberger has a precise touch, flowing improvisational mind, and imparts each piece with a generous heart, a grace fully embraced by his sensitive fellows. (London Jazz News)


 

#10) Precious Time by Anthony Jambon Group

 

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Another debut album achieved a position in the Top Ten of Jazz for 2017 and it’s the surprising LP named Precious Time released by French guitarist Anthony Jambon, who’s supported by four additional young Jazz musicians (Joran Cariou, Camille Passeri, Swaéli Mbappe and Martin Wangermée).

This album is great in the particular way it manages to keep a delicate balance 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 rather than a limitation in curiosity of the author towards musical exploration and improvisation.

Fresh, vibrant and genuine, 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.

Jambon’s music gives space to both precise writing and improvisation, transcendental melodies and rhythmic complexity. Each of the 8 long tracks tells its own story and the listener is invited to travel through time and space, led by the band’s heightened sensitivity and communicative emotion. (Klarthe)


 

 

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