Complete Communion: Stewart Smith On The Best Jazz Of 2015

Stewart Smith casts his eye over a rich year for jazz releases both new and archival

Portrait courtesy of Jason Fulford

2015 has been a remarkable year for jazz, with Kamasi Washington’s The Epic resonating with a wider audience than the genre has enjoyed in years. In both the mainstream and underground, there’s a sense that jazz is not only gaining in popularity, but is opening up musically too, with an increasing number of artists seeking out collaborators and gigs beyond the jazz bubble.

I was almost tempted to include Kendrick Lamar’s hard-bop infused To Pimp A Butterfly in this list, alongside acid house outlier Hieroglyphic Being’s terrific collaboration with a crack ensemble of improvisers including the Sun Ra Arkestra’s Marshall Allen and Liturgy drummer Greg Fox, We Are Not The First, but I thought it best to focus on artists innovating from within the jazz tradition. Music is not a competition, so I’ve put this list, which ranges from Turkish cosmic jazz to Anglo-Japanese free improv, in alphabetical order. But if I had to nominate a favourite it would be Matana Roberts’ astonishing Coin Coin Chapter 3: River Run Thee, closely followed by Jack DeJohnette’s beautiful celebration of the AACM, Live In Chicago.

In addition to new releases, I’ve also noted a few notable reissues, including a phenomenal David S. Ware set and a glorious Miles Davis live box. In both cases, these gatherings represent only a fraction of the creative, exciting and beautiful music out there.

Rodrigo Amado, Joe McPhee, Kent Kessler & Chris Corsano – This Is Our Language


The Portuguese saxophonist follows last year’s outstanding Motion Trio live and studio albums with a terrific set from this international free-jazz dream team.

Steve Coleman – Synovial Joints

(Pi Recordings)

"Two years in the making, Synovial Joints explores two compositional ideas: ‘musical movement employing connective principles’ and a concept Coleman calls ‘camouflage orchestration’, inspired by field recordings he made in the Amazonian rainforest. All this might sound mind-bogglingly cerebral, but for all its seriousness of intent Synovial Joints conveys a playful complexity, its bright melodies and inventive arrangements reflecting Coleman’s curiosity and delight in human physiology." Complete Communion, May

Jack DeJohnette w/ Muhal Richard Abrams, Larry Gray, Roscoe Mitchell Henry Threadgill – Made In Chicago


"Made In Chicago marks the 50th anniversary of the Association For The Advancement of Creative Musicians, reuniting DeJohnette with Windy City luminaries Roscoe Mitchell, Muhal Richard Abrams, Henry Threadgill and Larry Gray. It’s a wonderful testament to the AACM’s generous approach to composition and improvisation, deftly synthesising the jazz tradition with classical music and the modernist avant-garde." Complete Communion, May

Amir ElSaffar – Crisis

(Pi Recordings)

"A non-hierarchical fusion of Iraqi maqam and jazz, Crisis is a work of rare beauty and power, with ElSaffar playing and singing over a bustling mix of post-bop and Arabic rhythms. The solo trumpet lament ‘Taqsim Saba’ is followed by ‘El-Shaab (The Prophet)’, a driving group performance which pays oblique tribute to the Arab Spring." Complete Communion, October

Mary Halvorson – Meltframe

(Firehouse 12 Records)

For her first solo recording, the New York guitarist Mary Halvorson tackles different corners of the jazz songbook: "Her playing incorporates intricate harmolodic runs, chordal vamps and math-metal riffing… Halvorson might be seen as a rather cerebral player, but her gorgeous, imaginative takes on Ellington’s ‘Solitude’ and McCoy Tyner’s ‘Aisha’ do not lack emotional resonance." Complete Communion, August

Alexander Hawkins Trio – Alexander Hawkins Trio

(Alexander Hawkins Music)

Oxford pianist and organist Alexander Hawkins is one of the most brilliant young voices in British jazz, having developed a generous musical language that takes in elements of Ellington, Ethiopiques and South African jazz, as well as the abstractions of the avant-garde. Neil Charles on double bass and drummer Tom Skinner bring a lateral and lively sense of rhythm to this superb trio set. "It’s tempting to think of ‘Perhaps 5 Or 6 Different Colours’ as a kind of sonic abstract expressionism, with Hawkins tending towards the clear strokes and bold angles of Franz Kline, rather than the ejaculatory moves of Jackson Pollock." Complete Communion, March

Darius Jones Quartet feat. Emilie Lésbros – Le Bébé De Brigitte (Lost In Translation)

(Aum Fidelity)

The brilliant New York alto saxophonist and composer Darius Jones is joined by French vocalist Emilie Lésbros for this oblique tribute to Brigitte Fontaine’s classic collaboration with the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Comme A La Radio. Taking in contemporary free-bop and lush balladry, the album peaks with the gleefully sly cabaret of ‘Chanteuse In Blue’.

Konstrukt & Akira Sakata – Kaishi/Live At Kagart

(Holidays Records)

Turkish free-jazz outfit Konstrukt have brought a number of giants into their orbit, including Joe McPhee, Peter Brötzmann, Marshall Allen and William Parker. This live recording with Akira Sakata is one heavy cosmic jam, with the Japanese saxophonist and vocalist blasting a trail through the group’s spiral galaxy of echo trails, Moog textures and ritualistic percussion.

Ingrid Laubrock – Ubatuba

(Firehouse 12 Records)

The German-born, New York-based saxophonist and composer Ingrid Laubrock debuts her new group on this excellent disc. The musicians do a fine job of opening up Laubrock’s ingenious pieces, with trombonist Ben Gerstein offering some inspired solos.

Rob Mazurek – Alternate Moon Cycles

(International Anthem)

As impressive as Galactic Parables Vol. 1, the massive 3LP set from Mazurek’s Exploding Star Ensemble is, it’s this modest trio disc which resonates most deeply for me. Mazurek meditates on a single cornet note over tremolo bass and gently oscillating organ, transporting the listener to a parallel universe in which Miles Davis and John McLaughlin dropped in on Can’s Future Days sessions.

Nicole Mitchell/Tomeka Reid/Mike Reed – Artifacts

(482 Music)

Flautist Nicole Mitchell celebrates the 50th anniversary of the AACM with this inspired collection of pieces by the Chicago organisation’s alumni. Lesser known gems by giants like Roscoe Mitchell, Fred Anderson and Anthony Braxton are featured alongside works by under-celebrated figures such as Leroy Jenkins and Amina Claudine Myers.

William Parker – For Those Who Are, Still

(Aum Fidelity)

A three disc set gathering some of the great bassist and composer’s recent commissions. ‘For Fannie Lou Hamer’ pays tribute to the Civil Rights activist, while ‘Vermeer’ is a song cycle featuring the majestic Leena Conquest. ‘Red Giraffe With Dreadlocks’ pairs Indian classical singer Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay with Senegalese griot Mola Sylla, while ‘Ceremonies for Those Who Are Still’ embeds a fiery free-jazz trio within a symphony orchestra. "William Parker can do little wrong…" Complete Communion, August

Mette Ramussen & Chris Corsano – All The Ghosts At Once

(Relative Pitch)

"Baby-faced drum demon Chris Corsano has dropped some scorching duets with fire-breathing saxophonists like Paul Flaherty and Wally Shoup, but this team up with the young Danish altoist Mette Rasmussen inhabits more liminal territory. It’s certainly not short of abrasive tones and pulsing kick drum action, but both Rasmussen and Corsano temper their attack with a strong sense of dynamics and texture." Complete Communion, August

Mike Reed People, Places & Things – A New Kind of Dance
(482 Music)

The latest from Mike Reed’s post-bop group People, Places & Things is "intended to inspire or allude to dancing". Taking in everything from Balkan folk and South African kwanza to Ellington ballads and thumping R&B, the album does particularly groovy things with Mos Def’s ‘Fear Not Of Man’.

Matana Roberts – Coin Coin Chapter 3: River Run Thee

"River Run Thee is an extraordinary sonic collage, constructed from loops, field recordings and live overdubs. As to whether this is jazz or not, who cares? What matters is the music – and it is remarkable… Out of the churning mass of ghostly harmonies, echoing chatter and digital noise come arresting vocal lines, both sung and spoken. Even after a couple of listens, certain elements haunt the listener: the cracked voice Roberts uses to recite her grandfather’s poetry, the raw beauty of her saxophone lines, the uneasy contrast between the serenity of environmental recordings of the American South – bird song, church bells – and the harrowing accounts of the slave trade she reads over them… An astonishing work of history, memory and sensed experience." Complete Communion, January

Matthew Shipp Trio – The Conduct of Jazz

(Thirsty Ear)

A busy year for Matthew Shipp – arguably the leading pianist of his generation – is capped with this superb disc from his new trio, featuring Michael Bisio on bass and Newman Taylor Baker on drums.

Sons of Kemet – Lest We Forget What We Came Here To Do

"Lest We Forget… continues Sons of Kemet’s exploration of the Afro-Caribbean diaspora, with drummers Tom Skinner and Seb Rochford cooking up lithe, trance-like grooves under Shabaka Hutchings’ reeds and Theon Cross’s sinuous tuba. This is groove-based jazz, but it moves to a different beat than old-school jazz-funk or the Dilla-inspired slugging of contemporary US jazzers like Robert Glasper. The rhythms plot points between Barbadian folk, Rastafarian drum circles and UK bass music, while the melodies move between the Caribbean, South Africa, Ethiopia and the Middle East… a gloriously contemporary album, offering a boundless vision of what UK music can be." Complete Communion, October

Henry Threadgill Zooid – In For A Penny, In For A Pound
(Pi Recordings)

The latest from the great saxophonist and flautist’s group Zooid is as playful as it is ingenious, moving from skewed funk to vivid neo-classical cello features.

Roger Turner & Otomo Yoshihide – The Last Train

"The latest from London free improv label Fataka documents a Cafe Oto communion between British percussionist Roger Turner and Japanese multi-instrumentalist Otomo Yoshihide… a beautiful tension between jagged noise and extra-terrestrial atmospherics." Complete Communion, March

Kamasi Washington – The Epic


Spanning hard bop and spiritual jazz, R&B and fusion, The Epic is a powerfully contemporary engagement with the African-American tradition… The Epic might not be formally radical, but its ambition and emotional generosity are a joy to behold.

Reissues And Archival Releases

A comprehensive survey of this year’s reissues and archival releases would be a Sisyphean task, but we can at least point to a few highlights. Live At Newport 1955-1975 (Sony Legacy) might be less musically focussed than previous entries in the Miles Davis Bootleg Series, but it is a dazzling testament to the trumpeter’s rapid evolution. Highlights include a staggering 1967 Quintet set, with drummer Tony Williams a volcanic force, and 1973’s monstrous electric jam, where guitarist Pete Cosey rips the cosmic portal wide open.

Birth Of A Being (Aum Fidelity) is a stunning 2CD set documenting the first studio recordings of the late saxophonist master David S Ware’s group Apogee. These 1977 sessions show Ware building on the legacies of Coltrane, Ayler and Ornette Coleman to create music of unparalleled emotional force and formal invention.

Vilnius’s NoBusiness

continue to complement their contemporary releases with archival treasures, including reissues from under-sung West German outfit Free Jazz Group Weisbaden and Los Angles clarinet great John Carter.

Fresh light has been thrown on UK jazz history thanks to the sterling work of Gearbox Records and Cadillac. The latter’s reissue of Stan Tracey’s 1974 solo disc Alone, alongside a newly discovered live duet with saxophonist Mike Osborne, shows the great modernist revitalised by his engagement with the new avant-garde. The Turtle Records Story box on Cherry Red, which I’ll be reviewing in full for tQ, adds further pieces to the British jazz story.

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