END OF THE YEAR CHARTS: BEST OF JAZZ IN 2017

This chart with the best 10 Jazz albums of 2017 is the perfect combination of a first group of albums which conquered and mainteined their positions in the top ten since the early months of the year, and a few “late” masterpieces that arrived after the summer and that – in a very short time – have literally twisted up the top positions of the final ranking.

Another general consideration that we can make on this top ten is that the artists with the most experience prevailed. Apart from some young promise that has managed to find a place in the lower parts of the ranking, the main positions are all assigned to musicians with a consolidated background. But beware, this does not mean that we are always facing the same old music. On the contrary, this year’s Jazz music scene shined for the absolutely brilliant way in which the most important artists have managed to combine a somewhat classic approach to their music with clear elements of innovation, replicating once again that magic thanks to which this musical genre, despite the criticisms of many, still manages to represent – much better than many other types of music – progress and growth.

There is nothing left to say that recommend going through this list of artists and their new albums: maybe you could have missed a few of these LPs and in this respect this article could be an opportunity to fill any gap in your Jazz discography for the year. And to better complement and accompany the reading of the chart, I’ve also prepared a special compilation with selected tracks from the most interesting LPs released in 2017. This mixtape includes also artists who have not reached the top ten chart and that aren’t mentioned in the article. In this respect, the mixtape is even a better way to revisit the state of contemporary Jazz through a fascinating journey through various musical sub-genres and different styles.

 


 

Number 10

LA DIVERSITE’ by Nicolas Kummert

NICOLAS KUMMERT - La Diversité - 800x800

La Diversité is the last album produced by the young Belgian jazz singer and tenor saxophonist Nicolas Kummert and it’s an LP which slowly but incessantly ascended in the Jazz music charts of this blog. It’s not bny chance, then, that it eventually consolidated its position within the Top Ten albums of the year.

La Diversité is a particular release which requires a few listens to be fully comprehended and appreciated. Kummert’s saxophone lines are in fact subtle and articulated and his style incorporates so many different influences that you may need some time to untangle the dissonant harmonies that permeate the album. This is not an album wnich you can just put in the background during your busy evenings; you need to listen it carefully in order to enjoy at the best all of its curious and inspired musical lines. Profound and full of suprires, that’s one of the most challenging but interesting albums of the year.

In most of the tracks Nicolas Kummert is is supported by a number of talented musicians who all participated actively with their single touches to the final result. 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.


 

Number 9

FAR INTO THE STARS by Markus Stockhausen

MARKUS STOCKHAUSEN - Far Into The Stars - 800x800

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.


 

Number 8

GENTLE GIANTS by SLOWFOX

SLOWFOX - Gentle Giants - 800x800

Slowfox is a recent music 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 under the moniker fo SLOWFOX, 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: on one side boundless creativity, on the other 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)


 

Number 7

TRANSPARENT WATER by Omar Sosa & Seckou Keita

OMAR SOSA & SECKOU KEITA - Transparent Water - 800x800

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.


 

Number 6

PROVENANCE by Björn Meyer

BYORN MEYER - Provenance - 800x800

If last year I ended up completely conquered by the beauty and the particularity of Janek Gwizdala‘s American Elm, it may be understandable how it was possible for me to fall in love with Provenance, the new album by Swedish Jazz bassist Björn Meyer. This work, in fact, shares with Gwizdala’s one the same exact musical approach and provides the listener with a collection of fabulous solo pieces for electric bass and very few other contour elements.

The technique used by Meyer for his new album is very special: by playing his six-strings bass only in the highest regions of the instrument’s dynamics, the artist manages to produce a lighter sound, very similar to that of an electric guitar, but with a substance and a body which result definitely denser and more stratified. And with the addition of a few electrical touches and some effects like reverberation, the result is complete: in front of us magical worlds unfold thanks to the wise touch of this great musician.

Provenance is one of those albums that reject tags and labels. “Jazz” or “meditiative music” become simple attributes of a music that assumes mystical and universal contours. There is no need to wonder what kind of music you hearing when such a pure sound and these poetic melodies come before you. You just have to enjoy it, and be transported into the realms of magic.

As a side note, the album was recorded in an highly responsive auditorium in Lugano and according to the author this aspect had a big influence on the final result: “Even though the instrument is technically non-acoustic, the music is deeply influenced by the properties of the space where it is played. The many different ways in which acoustics affect my compositions and improvisations have always been sources of surprise and inspiration. There is definitely a second member in this solo project – the room!


 

Number 5

POSTDAMER PLATZ by Jan Lundgren

JAN LUNDGREN - Potsdamer Platz - 800x800

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.


 

Number 4

FAR FROM OVER by Vijay Iyer Sextet

VIJAY IYER - Far From Over - 800x800

American pianist Vijay Iyer is one of the most influential figures of the current Jazz scene, and he’s also one of the most experimental and prolific composers of these days. After having achieved a remarkable success with two great 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 in the career of Vijay Iyer and it’s absolutely no surprise to find him reaching the top 5 in the final chart for Jazz music.


 

Number 3

JERSEY by Mark Guiliana Jazz Quartet

MARK GUILIANA JAZZ QUARTET - Jersey - 800x800

There are artists who are so much driven by musical curiosity and the desire to explore different influences that they feel the pressure to produce adventurous works mixing together musical genres, always trying to find new languages for expressing their creativity. And it may defintely curious to see how, sometime, the best way these artists really manage to achieve their goal is to come back to the origin of their music. Evidently, it is just by going through the most well-known roads that you can travel the further.

Mark Guiliana, the talented and versatile drummer who gained the attention of fans and critics playing together with artists of the caliber of Brad Mehldau and Avishai Cohen, started a few years ago an exploration of electronic music, pop/rock and free-improvisation – sometimes with mixed results in my opinion. This year he has movedback to a more conventional lineup, a total analogue set-up, and he eventually released one of the most exciting records of his entire discography.

Working together with long-time supporting musicians such as tenor saxophonist Jason Rigby and bassist Chris Morrissey, and the the new addition of Fabian Almazan on piano, Mark Guiliana managed to record a compilation of songs wich are today the perfect synthesis of Conteporary Jazz and that showcase a perfec balance between the excellence of the individual musicians (often engaged in breathtaking solos) with an excellent harmonic cohesion.


 

Number 2

BODY AND SHADOW by Brian Blade & The Fellowship Band

BRIAN BLADE - Body and Shadow - 800x800

As a long-term fan of American jazz drummer Brian Blade, I’ve been waiting for this new record with great expectations and some trepidation. His last effort with his fellow companions, Landmarks, dated 2014. But although I was therefore ready to listen to a great album, I could not imagine falling in love with Blade’s new release from the real first notes of the first track of the record. Body and Shadow, the last work released by Blade with the Fellowship Band, it’s something so beautiful and unique that it literally takes your breath away. This is a music with no reference, no original model: it is pure poetry that the musicians play spontaneously, leaving aside technical those virtuosities and conceptualisms which in any case they would not have any problem to use given their pedigree.

The adjectives that comes to mind thinking of the jazz played by the musicians on this record are “soft” and “sweet“. In fact the music proceeds in this album without angularities: we have sounds, melodies, and harmonies played with care and with delicacy, melodies that manage to touch the most intimate strings of the soul. But be aware, delicacy and softness here do not mean lack of emotions. Instead, this is a clear manifestation of musical leadership and a group of musicians who have played together for years and years. They show an impressive capacity to self-synchronize their sounds and a level of self-awareness that makes all the ensemble tuned and compact. And what has been said at the overall level is also true for the drumming of Brian Blade. His touch is never heavy or above the other instruments.


 

Number 1

AN ANCIENT OBSERVER by Tigran Hamasyan

TIGRAN HAMASYAN - An Ancient Observer - 800x800

After so many times this album has been mentioned in this blog, it was extremely difficult that another record could remove it from the top of the chart. And in the end, as easily predictable, An Ancient Observer by Armenian composer Tigran Hamasyan won the award of best Jazz album of the year.

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.

Many readers of the blog already had the opportunity to enjoy the Spotify playlist that was assembled to celebrate the greatness and the ingenuity of Tigran. This is available from the following widget, and collects both new and past pieces of music from our beloved pianist.


 

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