When some dumb people think of jazz, they think of bowler hats, Kenny G, and the nerds who thought they were cool in high school. What few people except the nerds who thought they were cool in high school know is that now is one of the most exciting periods in jazz history. Young musicians are challenging assumptions about what jazz can be, and bringing in stylistic influences from hip-hop, soul, and even EDM. These are ten of the best semi-recent jazz albums, and they will change your life.
One of the coolest things about contemporary jazz is how permeable the membranes between jazz, hip-hop, and soul have become. Robert Glasper is on the vanguard of that, and this album features guest spots by Bilal, Mos Def, and Eryka Badu. Glasper thinks Jazz should evolve to reflect the changing musical landscape, just as Miles Davis incorporated elements of rock in the sixties and Herbie Hancock brought funk grooves to jazz with Head Hunters. Glasper continues this tradition not just by bringing in rappers and soul singers, but by composing in a way that incorporates the music of hip-hop into the very structure of his songs. Drummer Chris Dave recalls the best productions of J Dilla, and Glasper’s own sumptuous piano grooves call to mind Digable Planets and Tribe Called Quest. It’s a style of music much more unified than the producer/rapper dichotomy present in much of hip-hop. Even a rapper as distinctive as Mos Def seems as much a part of Glasper’s combo as John Coltrane seemed part of Miles Davis’.
Laura Mvula’s debut LP, Sing to the Moon, is a vocal jazz album disguised as a soul record. Mvula’s arrangements feel lush and even luxurious, but they never crowd out her unique singing voice. Her lyrics read somewhat clichéd, but her impassioned vocal delivery and her spry, surprising arrangements add real heft to them. One song, “That’s Alright,” turns the line “Tell me who made you the center of the universe?” into a triumphant rallying cry against sexist assumptions about women in music. Mvula includes on the album demo versions of several of the songs, giving the listener a chance to hear the basic elements from which she creates her baroque jazz symphonies. Listening to these songs next to their finished versions, we see a musician equally skilled at making horn charts and at crafting intimate, beautiful moments with just a voice and a piano. She’s the only artist today who earns her Nina Simone comparisons.
On this album, as on Black Radio, the drumming is front and center. The boom bap of hip-hop is sometimes evoked through suggestion on this album, with the conspicuous absence of an offbeat driving home the rhythm more effectively than its presence ever could. This is perhaps the quietest album on the list, with Jose James sometimes seeming to whisper his songs rather than sing them. It’s also probably the sexiest, with feather-light keyboard touches framing James’ hushed, soulful delivery. One standout track is “Come to My Door,” an acoustic guitar-based ballad in which James promises an ex-lover that he will always take her back, even as lines like “At night I lie sometimes awake in my bed, repeating over and over our conversation” suggest she will never take up the offer. It’s a rare moment of sweetness and vulnerability on an otherwise totally confident album, and it’s absolutely devastating.
You can’t write about contemporary jazz without mentioning bassist and singer Esperanza Spalding. Spalding won the 2011 Best New Artist Grammy, beating out Drake, Mumford and Sons, and Florence and the Machine. Her 2012 album Radio Music Society builds on the momentum her previous albums garnered. In addition to her beautiful voice and dexterous bass playing, Spalding is a truly great lyricist, with lines like “On the neon news they won't be talking bout his life /Flowers still unfolding when he had to fly / Toward, toward God” recalling the best work of Joni Mitchell. Her lyrics also take on a dizzying array of subject material, from war to black identity to the dolorous pleasure of young love. She’s probably the only singer today who could make a line like “drone strike leaves thirteen civilians dead” sound poetic. The best song on the album is the funky “Black Gold,” in which Spalding extols the virtues of black pride over a bass line that sounds straight out of Charles Mingus. Spalding is a musician of rare gifts, gifts that, thankfully, she shares with her listeners.
The Dirty Dozen Brass Band are New Orleans institutions, with compositions recalling the street festival roots of jazz. This album is a song-by-song reinterpretation of Marvin Gaye’s classic 1971 album of the same name, but the Dozen make it their own. The title track features a guest spot by Public Enemy’s Chuck D, who adds heft and fury to the soulful protest of the original. The album never loses this momentum. It is perhaps the definitive musical statement of post-Katrina New Orleans, bristling with fury even as the ecstatic joy of Delta Jazz prevents the whole thing from slipping into nihilism. This is jazz with grit and duende, more than doing justice to the original.
This Cambridge, MA based Jazz group comes to the American art form by way of Ethiopia. Jazz is huge in Ethiopia, but Ethiojazz is relatively unknown in the states outside of its ambassador Mulatu Astatke. Fans of Astatke will find a lot to like in Debo Band, but they have a style of their own. Their bandleader is a graduate student in ethno-musicology, but this academic focus doesn’t prevent Debo Band from breaking out of their traditional influences and incorporating elements of soul, big band, and hip-hop. Their music posses a propulsive and even conspiratorial energy that is hard to describe but feels a little like Duke Ellington’s Far East Suite as remixed by ?uestlove.
This is hands down the most eclectic Jazz album I have ever heard. It’s got Balkan-inspired dirges. It’s got Sousaphonic reveries. It’s got a bass line lifted from an LCD Soundsystem Song. It’s got minimalist piano strains reminiscent of Steve Reich. And somehow, it all works. Jazz has always been a genre uniquely capable of absorbing other musical styles, but rarely with the sort of omnivorous glee that Darcy James Argue brings to his seemingly hundreds of musicians. This album is symphonic in scale and organization, with movements separated by interludes that recapitulate themes found elsewhere in the album. The title of the album is, I think, supposed to claim Brooklyn as the new Babylon of Rastafarian and other afro-centric ideologies. In this imagining, as in this band, Brooklyn becomes a locus point for the entire history of black music. Brooklyn Bablylon more than earns this somewhat audacious claim.
BADBADNOTGOOD cannot be stopped. This Toronto based trio of musicians is ostensibly a jazz combo, but their drums and piano are often so distorted that it sounds more like instrumental hip-hop. They are equal parts J Dilla and Ornette Coleman, creating challenging and abrasive jazz from songs borrowed from Kanye West, James Blake, and Tyler, the Creator. To call these songs covers would be to understate how truly weird they are. They’re almost unrecognizable. In one case, BBNG stretches out Kanye’s “Flashing Lights” to seven minutes and layers out furious piano runs that on first listen seem to evince hostility towards the instrument not heard since Jerry Lee Lewis. These are jazz musicians you would not want your kids around.
The Bad Plus is by now a familiar name in contemporary jazz, but this, their latest album, finds them achieving artistic heights that previously eluded them. No longer are they the cover-happy upstarts, always at risk of losing their latent behind gimmicky pop-culture signifiers. The new album is almost all originals, and every song showcased the Bad Plus’s range and skill. The first song, “Pound for Pound,” is based on one of Ethan Iverson’s signature piano lines, which accumulates complexity as it repeats throughout the six minutes of the song. By the end, the original melody becomes the framework for shimmering panoply that is truly epic. The Bad Plus have, with Made Possible, made their best album in an already impressive career.
Brad Mehldau makes albums at a dizzying pace, but Day is Done is one of his best. Mehldau is a pianist, but is just as importantly an arranger and bandleader. He is not afraid to give the most interesting parts of his compositions to his sidemen. Like Miles Davis, he is a bandleader who knows the best jazz comes out of seamless collaboration, not showmanship. This is not to say he’s not a pianist with some serious and obvious chops. His cover of The Beatles’ “Martha My Dear” lifts the original melody and places it in an intricate web of counterpoint and recapitulation that sounds stately and almost classical but is also a whole lot of fun to listen to.