Hear Now: 5 New Jazz Albums You Need to Check Out

Melissa Aldana 2016
Courtesy Photo

Melissa Aldana

The word jazz, for many people, means something very specific: stodgy music made by men in fedoras who would require you to have a Ph.D. before you listen, if they could. Especially in 2016, though, this definition couldn't be less accurate: Jazz is more international, more diverse and, in a lot of ways, more influential than it has been since its heyday.

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Below are five recent albums that showcase the genre's vivacity -- whether you're an old head or you're not sure what instrument John Coltrane played, hopefully you'll find something new to enjoy.

Melissa Aldana, Back Home (March 11, Wommusic)

Characterizing a woman’s music as vulnerable or sensitive is usually just a euphemism for a writer’s own laziness, a sign of hearing what’s meant to be abstract through an all-too-worldly lens. With Melissa Aldana, though, it’s difficult to capture her unusually evocative playing any other way. Aldana, a 27-year-old tenor saxophone player from Chile who already has four albums and a win at the Thelonious Monk Institute’s prestigious annual competition under her belt, holds court with lyrical, gutsy solos on recent album Back Home. Like her self-professed inspiration, Sonny Rollins (whom she recently interviewed), her timeless aesthetic is best served by a sparse ensemble: here, a fluttering and fluid (and piano-less) rhythm section. From her work so far, at least, it seems like she and Rollins may also share a sort of musical code: only play when you have something to say -- luckily for us, Aldana has plenty.

Vijay Iyer & Wadada Leo Smith, A Cosmic Rhythm With Each Stroke (March 11, ECM Records)

“You don’t even have to go to Jupiter,” said veteran trumpet player Wadada Leo Smith jokingly after performing the entirety of his recent joint album with pianist Vijay Iyer at the Met Breuer -- a fittingly conceptual location (the landmark’s museum’s new contemporary art complex, one of whose opening exhibitions features work from Iyer) for the high-brow piece. The key to its twists and turns, though, seems to lie in the title: accepting the piece, a blend of delicate dissonances and dynamic shifts, as an interstellar journey, you can’t help but be swept up (and possibly imagining yourself on some George Lucas fantasy). Iyer blends haunting electronic vibrations (the only possible descriptor) with more familiar, well-tickled ivories while Smith soars and sputters at will -- for the staunch avant-gardist, little is more familiar than brand-new music. At the end of the pair’s performance (which lasted over an hour, without a single pause), his contentment with the work was evident: “Sometimes when your heart is full,” he concluded, “you just don’t say nothing.”

Ryan Keberle & Catharsis, Azul Infinito (March 4, Greenleaf)

So-called Latin music -- the crutch of an epithet used when the extraordinary diversity of music below the southern border of the United States overwhelms -- has been part of jazz since its inception (see Jelly Roll Morton’s infamous “Spanish tinge”). But too often, incorporating it into Western jazz is just a matter of bludgeoning out all its extraordinary rhythmic complexities for a bland, “smooth” groove. Trombonist Ryan Keberle appears to be sensitive to this practice, taking a fairly academic approach to his “Latin” endeavor: his press release notes that the project was “inspired by time spent performing with many incredible South American composers over the past 15 years,” likely to signal their tacit endorsement, and his recent performance at the Jazz Standard featured lengthy explanations of his compositions’ authentic rhythmic roots. But thankfully, his careful approach hasn’t produced a cautious record: instead, it’s inventive, fun, and polished -- and never self-indulgent (a jazz rarity). The band’s synchronicity makes it fresh but not forced, with Camila Meza’s lilting vocal lines sounding familiar and haunting in turn. An important listen for anyone who thinks Latin jazz stopped with “The Girl From Ipanema” (and any jazz listener).

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Julian Lage, Arclight (March 11, Mack Avenue Records)

The album starts with a slightly modified rock beat (“Fortune Teller”), and digs in from there -- an emphasis on melody and a lack of politeness set help Lage set himself apart from jazz guitar’s often florid tradition. Notes of prog stay “jazzy” with the sparse ensemble, while Lage’s lyric gift leaves the listener with melodies likely to endure even after just one listen. Even “Nocturne,” though gentle, won’t necessarily lull you to sleep (though it’s not out of the question the song could end up alongside Ed Sheeran on some tactical Spotify playlist). Lage’s inventive arrangements will engage even the most intimidated of jazz listeners, and his omnivorous, memorable flights will keep them on the hook.

Makaya McCraven, In the Moment (Deluxe Edition) (March 18, International Anthem)

McCraven expands his entry into the eternally popular realm of jazz-inflected beatmaking (and groove-oriented jazzmaking) with this re-release, a polished effort that begs for (but doesn’t require) rappers to add their take on top. Subtle scratching and an embrace of ambient noise combined with the project’s offbeat and occasionally dissonant improvisations set this project apart from your average watered-down Dilla redux. The project was culled from 48 hours of live recordings, all done over a 28-set residency at Chicago’s The Bedford -- which McCraven recently recreated for the audience at New York’s Winter Jazz Fest back in January. In the festival’s often overwhelming fray, the drummer’s fluidly shifting beats and extended jams provided an easy, and welcome, respite.