The 10 Best Jazz Albums of 2018: Critic's Picks

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Esperanza Spalding performs on April 16, 2018.

In a 2017 piece for NPR, All Things Considered jazz critic Michelle Mercer wrote an insightful and unforgiving look at how women are both perceived and treated in the genre's community.

“I've heard variations on the ‘women can't really follow jazz’ theme ever since I first started hitting jazz clubs and loving extremely long solos," she wrote. "To be a female jazz fan and critic is to live with a frustrating irreconcilability: I have an intellectual passion for creative, complex music and, sometimes, the musicians who make that music doubt my ability to appreciate its creativity and complexity.”

Fast forward to 2018, meanwhile, and you will find more than half this very list of the finest jazz recordings from the calendar year are either led or co-led by women. It’s a shift that certainly signifies the changing of the times, where the always-absurd parameters of the old patriarchy are rendered particularly toothless thanks to the dynamic new directions taken by bold and exciting modern acts as harpist Brandee Younger, pianist Kris Davis, saxophonist Tia Fuller, guitar genius Mary Halvorson, and especially those who appear on our list of the best jazz albums of 2018. 

Read about our 10 favorites from the year that was below. 

10. Aruán Ortiz / Don Byron, Random Dances and (A)tonalities (Intakt)

Twenty years after helping to usher in a new era for creative jazz with his chamber funk masterpiece Nu Blaxploitation, reedist Don Byron moves things forward in the duo realm with Random Dances and (A)tonalities, working in tandem alongside Antiguan pianist Aruán Ortiz that adds a warm, beating heart to the complexity of cubist jazz through an exhilarating dialogue that transcends generational and geographic boundaries. Bringing together Byron's Bronx and Ortiz's Santiago de Cuba for clarinet, saxophone and piano, this is the placid sound of two well-spent December days in Zürich, Switzerland, a deep chat between two East Coast cats amidst the snowcapped mountaintops of the Alps setting their scenery.

9. Wendy Eisenberg, The Machinic Unconscious (Tzadik) / Its Shape Is Your Touch (VDSQ)

She can play with the scattershot ferocity of a cobra striking the neck of her 1989 Japanese Jazzmaster, or as contemplative and meandering as an acoustic instrumental plucked by a fireplace inside an old Upstate, NY hostel. And with two fantastic albums, former Birthing Hips guitarist Wendy Eisenberg emphasizes both sides of her style. On The Machinic Unconscious, she is backed by a money rhythm section of bassist Trevor Dunn (of Mr. Bungle fame) and drummer extraordinaire Ches Smith, and rips through jazzcore in the spirit of Derek Bailey and Fred Frith’s Massacre days. Meanwhile, she changes gears entirely with Its Shape Is Your Touch, a collection of improvisations that takes its time in its amalgamation of American fiddle legend Ed Haley and the free-blues guitar improvisation of Bill Orcutt, giving the feeling of a lost gem from John Fahey’s Takoma Records archive.

8. Kamasi Washington, Heaven and Earth (Young Turks)

The jazz orchestra concept is indeed a slippery slope. On one hand it can be a capital-B Bore that feels like a chore to sit through. However, when in the employ of the right composer, it has the ability to capture your head and your heart on an infinite scale. Los Angeles sax giant Kamasi Washington achieves that upper echelon of the orchestral spectrum in a way that truly feels like a physical layer between Heaven and Earth, utilizing what he learned as a member of Gerald Wilson's orchestra and magnifying it to a level on par with the deepest crate classics from Quincy Jones, Lalo Schifrin and David Axelrod combined. 

7. Andrew Cyrille, Lebroba (ECM)

Guitarist Bill Frisell had a pretty amazing 2018, having recorded an album with both of his longtime collaborators Lucinda Williams and Charles Lloyd on the excellent Vanished Gardens, in addition to his role on the great Change in the Air LP by trumpet player Cuong Vu, and even his first purely solo album since 2000 with Music IS. However, the 67-year-old's finest moment of the year happens with this transcendent conversation between himself and fellow ECM veterans Andrew Cyrille on drums and Wadada Leo Smith on Trumpet (Frisell's very first studio encounter with the horn legend).  In fact, the highlight of Lebroba -- the name of the combined first syllables of each man's hometown -- stems from a Wadada original: the 17-minute "Turiya: Alice Coltrane Meditations and Dreams of Love," which captures the intimacy of these three wise old lions losing themselves in the depths of their combined forces.

6. Maria Grand, Magdalena (Biophilia)

More people should know about Swiss saxophonist Maria Grand for her music, not only for her #MeToo story. Luckily, most jazz fans were savvy enough to hear the genius of the 26-year-old’s new direction in modern bop with the excellent Magdalena. Backed by her core rhythm section of bassist Rashaan Carter and drummer Jeremy Dutton (with guest turns from guitarist Mary Halvorson and pianists David Bryant and Fabian Almazan), Magdalena presents a more confident, assured performer and composer than who first emerged on her self-released 2017 debut EP, Tetrawind. She exhibits tremendous growth as both a singer and a reedist based on her recent studies of pioneering family therapist Virginia Satir, whose research during on coping and self-esteem indeed drives this fearless musician and her muse.

5. Esperanza Spalding, 12 Little Spells (Concord Music)

Jazz fans are among the last steady consumers of the compact disc. But Esperanza Spalding continues to boldly bring the music into the digital realm with the brilliant 12 Little Spells. Doing Beyoncé's Lemonade one better, the bassist's video album -- which was released at one song a day for 12 days starting on October 7th -- is a breathtaking audiovisual experience based on the human anatomy, and accentuated by journeys into both George Duke and Joni Mitchell territories with graceful swagger.

4. Makaya McCraven, Universal Beings (International Anthem)

The amazing thing about Madlib’s Yesterday’s New Quintet project is observing how one man can multiply himself into an entire jazz ensemble from the comfort of his own studio. What producer/percussionist Makaya McCraven does is reverse that producer's formula, in a sense. And Universal Beings is McCraven's most visionary work through that prism yet, bringing together four sessions in four cities (New York, London, Los Angeles and Chicago) with such fellow key figures of the new jazz revolution as white hot English sax greats Shabaka Hutchings and Nubiya Garcia, Tortoise guitarist Jeff Parker, harpist Brandee Younger and arranger Miguel Atwood-Ferguson, among others. With Universal Beings, McCraven continues to take the kinship between beats and bop to new heights.

3. Cécile McLorin Salvant, The Window (Mack Avenue)

The Great American Songbook is alive, well and in the capable hands of the best jazz singer of the modern era. Accompanied only by the elegance of pianist Sullivan Fortner, Salvant shines on her finest work yet with The Window's beguiling blend of well-loved showtunes and pop standards. There are deep covers of Stevie Wonder's "Visions" and Nat King Cole’s “Wild Is Love,” a heartbreaking run through “Ever Since The One I Love’s Been Gone” by jump blues piano great Buddy Johnson, and even a spin on Aretha Franklin’s pre-Atlantic 1965 single “One Step Ahead,” which was sampled for Mos Def’s 1999 hit “Ms. Fat Booty.” The soul of Salvant’s Window indeed casts an eternal reflection.

2. Tony Bennett and Diana Krall, Love Is Here to Stay (Columbia/Verve)

Tony Bennett and Diana Krall have been singing together --both on stage and in studio-- for nearly 20 years, but the opportunity to unite for a full-length LP had alluded them. That is, of course, until now. Two decades later, Astoria's favorite son celebrates turning 92 with arguably the best vocal duet album he's done yet, finally catching up with Krall and working alongside the Bill Charlap Trio to sublimely pay homage to a songbook he's been interpreting his entire career, the music of George and Ira Gershwin. So what if you heard it all before? Love Is Here To Stay is a blessing regardless.

1. Wayne Shorter, Emanon (Blue Note) 

Former wrestler CM Punk described his sport in a 2011 GQ interview as "one of the only art forms that America has actually given to the world, besides jazz and comic books." Leave it to jazz legend Wayne Shorter to bring two of those American cornerstones together -- in the same manner through which he's established his legacy as a samurai of fusion these last 60 years -- with this year's Emanon.

Written by Shorter and screenwriter Monica Sly and illustrated by Randy Duberke, Emanon (Noname spelled backwards) is a superhero both timely and timeless, dressed in a suit and long coat like Wayne himself and fixing to free citizens of the multiverse from "ideological and individual oppression." Emanon is Black Panther in loafers and a three-piece, and the incredible music conjured up by Shorter and his longtime quartet of pianist Danilo Perez, bassist John Pattiuci and Brian Blade on the drums across the 3-CD music compendium -- two discs of the raw quartet live in London, and a stunning studio session augmented by the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra -- provides a depth to the words and imagery that makes you think of the story when you're hearing the music and vice versa.

At 85, Shorter is among the last of a generation whose ability to stand tall alongside his leaders -- be it Art Blakey or Miles Davis or Joni Mitchell -- facilitated his own storied career as one of music's most ubiquitous captains, continuing to boldly sail the uncharted waters of his art.


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