EZH Best releases of 2017: Jazz and Beyond \\ #10-1
Our Best releases of 2017 list constantly changed length whilst it was being compiled; Top 10, Top 25, even Top 50. It’s been an exceptional year for Jazz and Jazz-ish releases, many of them debuts. We drew the line at 20, mainly for our own sanity.
We’ve been pumped to see so many of the artists featured in our Eleven acts you need to know in 2017 list, published in January of this year, make serious moves; two of them have made our Top 10 with their debut releases.
Mini-spoiler alert of sorts; we need to nod to the killing releases that we couldn’t squeeze into our Top 20. Floating Points (New Energy) and Eric Lau (Examples) have both made big impacts on the electronic scene. We also acknowledge that we’ve not been able to include some of the new artists that we’ve been supporting this year including vocalist Maya Huyana with her impressive debut EP Rebirth. Keep your eyes on her in 2018.
Harder still has been sifting through the incredible tide of Jazz and nu-Jazz. Ezra Collective, Wildflower and Vels Trio have been marking the UK’s continuing growth as a Jazz giant, whilst the US continues to trail-blaze a sound engrained with hip-hop, groove and soul; Terrace Martin impressed just about everyone with big tune Intentions. Jordan Rakei, Moses Sumney and Sampha brought genre-less beauty this year. In Melbourne, 30/70 showed us just how strong their neo-soul scene is. Meanwhile, Far Out Recordings and Philophon continue to share with us some of the most alluring music from around the world.
Rest assured, we spent sleepless nights working out our Top 20. We’ve picked the 20 releases, some critically acclaimed and others less known, that truly mark an incredible year in music. Check out #20-11 first then join us for our Best releases of 2017 across Jazz and beyond.
10 \\ L’Rain – L’Rain [Astro Nautico]
Although Brooklyn artist L’Rain installs each track of her self-titled debut with a number of kooks, L’Rain flows like a mixtape. Opener Heavy (But Not In Wait) is like a sonic invitation into heavenly slumber; the album however is not a dreamy shoe-gazer. On Alive and a Wake, vocal layers slide through ghostly glissandos. The bleets of a saxophone wither in the undercurrent before layers crash and thrash with a nightmarish quality.
Stay, Go (Go, Stay) is a standout. After a short bout of arpeggiated guitar chords you land right in the crux of the song’s hook. Build up is minimal, yet in an audio-illusion you enjoy its resolve as if you’ve been waiting an age for it. You’ve arrived at the end, at the start. And that’s what makes Go, Stay (Stay, Go) so effecting. It’s simply Stay, Go (Go, Stay) played in reverse. However, for the poetic listener, it can be interpreted with familiar pains; regret, grief, the re-living of a difficult episode.
L’Rain didn’t create a straight-forward concept album, but the nine tracks are tied together by the death of her mother, who became suddenly ill and passed during the writing and recording. Perhaps this life-altering event goes some way to contextualising the push and pull of this album’s production; joy and pain, slowing down and speeding up, dreamy and nightmarish; opposite movements flow throughout. It’s a moving debut.
\\ Tina Edwards
9 \\ Binker & Moses – Journey to the Mountain of Forever [Gearbox Records]
When Binker & Moses released Dem Ones, some wondered whether it was going to be a standalone success; how could two artists alone create another ground-breaking album, as dynamic and exciting as the first? Saxophonist Binker Golding and drummer Moses Boyd’s debut contributed to recent conversations over the death of genre; whether you were a grime fan or a Jazz head, you were listening to the duo intently. Speculation over album two turned to (further) admiration when Journey To The Mountain Of Forever arrived. A number of artists joined them, including free Jazz giant Evan Parker and percussionist Sarathy Korwar. The album was fresh with ideas yet held a distinctive familiarity, it was unmistakably the sound of Binker & Moses.
The lusciousness of Gifts From the Vibrations of Light, featuring harpist Tori Handsley, drives their spiritual identity further. Memorable calypso Fete By The River, reminiscent of Sonny Rollins’ St Thomas era, adds to the band’s gravitas as composers. Golding’s Coltrane influences are further driven on this release, whilst Boyd stretches himself further as one of the UK’s most talented drummers in his interplay with percussionist Sarathy Korwar.
Binker & Moses presented an album that was glossier than its predecessor. However, its sonic-compass points in many more directions. They draw multiple influences into one cohesive language; one that transcends borders, genre and definition.
\\ Tina Edwards
8 \\ Sampa the Great – Birds And The BEE9 [Big Dada]
Sampa the Great has arrived. Following a number of singles, Birds And The BEE9 shows an artist who has developed a strong identity. The Zambian artist re-located to Sydney, Australia four years ago, later initiating herself into Melbourne’s highly active live scene.
Black pride is the centre of gravity for this modestly-labelled mixtape. Black Girl Magik is a glowing ode to black womanhood. Protect Your Queen goes further with lyricism that is equal part celebration and call to arms for anyone who should need a dramatic shift in perspective; “Systematic beauty is what you’ve seen / Change your scene if you ain’t seen a black queen”.
A respected circle of producers have gravitated towards Sampa the Great including Kwes Darko, Sensible J and Hiatus Kaiyote’s Silent Jay. Together their efforts draw on their native neo-soul scene with subtle Jazz-funk nods and nineties hip-hop references—just look to Casper’s panpipes. Collectively the beats neatly elevate Sampa’s witty phrasing, using space on Karma the Villain to underpin some of her stand-out lines; “I’m too deep / I could sell my intelligence”. Meanwhile her single take ad-lib on Bye River stands just as tall as her prepared phrases.
Sampa the Great’s wordsmithery is worthy of repeat listens; Birds And The BEE9 is an album that you will want to share with as many of your friends as possible.
\\ Tina Edwards
7 \\ Nicole Mitchell – Mandorla Awakening II: Emerging Worlds (FPE Records)
The horrors of contemporary politics—yawning wealth gaps, Brexit and the social rifts it has exposed, the election of Donald Trump and the ongoing battle for civil rights—have stoked a fire in Jazz. The spirit of protest is raging with an intensity not seen since the days of Coltrane’s Alabama. Some artists, such as Christian Scott and Shabaka and the Ancestors, whose set at this year’s Love Supreme Festival peaked with a defiant ‘we will not forget Grenfell’, have responded directly. They’re fighting fire with fire. Others, like flautist and composer Nicole Mitchell (a former leader of the AACM) have harnessed the power of Afrofuturism, using imagined worlds to comment on our present day reality.
On Mandorla Awakening II, Mitchell employs a shifting soundscape of woodwinds, strings and percussion (including yowling electric guitar, three-stringed Japanese shamisen and breathy shakuhachi) to transport us to 2099 and the island of Mandorla, a utopian community holding out in a world ravaged by war and environmental disaster. The music veers between light and dark, dystopia and utopia. Grooves dance before descending into chaos, and in the second half of the suite Chicago poet Avery R Young raises the intensity with volleys of arresting spoken word and bluesy, preacher man shouts. This is a visionary, exquisitely composed work with an urgent message. The title of the opening track, Egoes War, says it all.
\\ Thomas Rees
6 \\ Jaimie Branch – Fly Or Die [International Anthem]
A remarkably original debut album, trumpeter Jaimie Branch plays and composes with fearlessness. Textures are tangled and jagged; Branch’s trumpet soars like a bird over barbed wire and broken bricks. There’s a dark menace in the brash brass of Leaves of Glass which wouldn’t sound out of place in a Bernard Herman film score. In The Storm, Tomeka Reid’s villainous cello pulls at you as Branch’s soaring cries do little to settle; the listener possessed by Stockholm syndrome. With continuing tension, Drummer Chad Taylor pats and paddles in Waltzer with the erratic movements that mimic escapism.
Don’t wait for comforting balladic relief. Tension is built so discreetly throughout the album that even at your most unprepared you are forced to surrender yourself. By title track Fly Or Die, a 53 second statement piece, the air is sharp and you’re in Branch’s palms. She could take you anywhere, and those who listen with vulnerability will be most rewarded.
You may have felt increasingly anxious over the 35 minutes, but fuck, like your favourite horror film, you’ll want to relive the thrill over and over again.
\\ Tina Edwards
5 \\ Joe Armon-Jones & Maxwell Owin – Idiom EP [Yam Records]
Idiom and it’s luscious title track epitomise the luminous sound of South London which is enjoying its time in the International spot light. The project of Ezra Collective keys player Joe Armon-Jones and producer Maxwell Owin, the six-track EP is layered with groove, clever phrasing and personality.
Armon-Jones, the keys player chiefly responsible for the EP’s compositions, plays so comfortably with Owin, as well as with Maisha’s drummer Jake Long, that on first listen you could be fooled into thinking that the record is a second or third collaborative effort rather than a debut.
SE Discoteque drips with the ambience of its local South East London geography. Contributions from featured artists are a perfect fit. On the title track, guitarist Oscar Jerome travels across the EQ curve with transcendent licks. The results are both danceable and tantric. On Tanner’s Tango, saxophonist Nubya Garcia’s warm melody trickles over broken beat and dance influences that sound so regular to Armon-Jones and Owin that it feels as though they were each born with a hard drive of musical references.
Whilst parallel projects might take precedence for Armon-Jones and Owin in 2018, it’s safe to bet that we haven’t heard the last from this collaboration.
\\ Joshua French
4 \\ Kamasi Washington – Harmony of Difference [Young Turks]
The latest release to come from Kamasi Washington since 2015’s lauded triple LP The Epic, Harmony of Difference contains a similar grandeur to its predecessor, contained within the shortened form of only 32 minutes of music. Built around the compositional notion of counterpoint—the interdependence of musical elements that rhythmically diverge and yet unite in harmony—Washington takes this form as metaphor, applying the titular harmony of difference to the properties of Desire, Humility, Knowledge, Perspective, Integrity, and Truth. The result is a densely interwoven suite of music that riffs off of the same chord progression, uniting each element in the final 13-minute number, Truth.
Through repetition saxophonist Washington finds difference and originality, a unique identity within the simplest of musical progressions and notations. From the languorous, bass-driven opening of Desire, the record progresses to the rhythmically swung charge of Humility, Knowledge’s understated melody, to the soul-drenched groove of Perspective, before finishing on the Afro-Latin clave rhythms of Integrity. It is in Truth, however, that Washington’s ingenuity as a composer shines through.
Harking back to the choral majesty of tracks like Change of the Guard on The Epic, Truth feels like an entire LP in itself, building from dreamy vibraphone lines to bursts of Washington’s reed-breaking intensity and flashes of cosmic crescendo. The track is accompanied by an incredible montage video shot by AG Rojas, marking out Harmony of Difference as a truly interdisciplinary work.
\\ Ammar Kalia
3 \\ Thundercat – DRUNK [Brainfeeder]
Every Thundercat record plays like a brief glimpse into the hyperactive, musical-genius mind of its maker, Stephen Bruner. For Bruner’s third LP as Thundercat, Drunk, we have a glimpse into his love for cats, especially his own–Tron–on the groove-heavy A Fan’s Mail, his love for Tokyo on the ‘80s synth-funk track of the same name, and his enduring love for yacht rock with the Kenny Loggins and Michael McDonald-featuring Show You The Way. Aside from novelty autobiographical references though, Drunk is a typically mind-melting mish-mash of musical styles that Thundercat executes uniquely: Jazz meets trap meets funk meets soul.
His most sketch-like record so far, what Drunk lacks in narrative owing to its abundance of one-minute songs, it makes up for in abundant creativity. Take the minimal production and typically incisive lyrics of Kendrick Lamar feature Walk On By, sequenced directly after the kitsch groove of Show You The Way, or the comic lyricism of Friend Zone positioned before the strangely touching songwriting of heartbreak on Them Changes. None of it should work but the earnest authenticity and skilled musicianship holds it all together as a patchwork of imagination unleashed.
\\ Ammar Kalia
2 \\ Alice Coltrane – World Spirituality Classics 1: The Ecstatic Music of Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda [Luaka Bop]
Influenced by her late husband John Coltrane’s fascination with spirituality and its intersections with music, Alice Coltrane found herself drawn to Eastern spiritual tradition, specifically Hinduism and the Vedas. Rather than a passing, new-age affectation, Coltrane devoted much of her life to this myriad set of beliefs, founding the Vedantic Centre in California in 1975. Here Coltrane taught a community of spiritualists under the Sanskrit title of Swamini Turiyasangitananda.
Much like the open-minded, accessible nature of the Ashram—which operated without doctrine or liturgy—Ecstatic Music is not a collection of traditional devotional recordings. Instead, Coltrane takes the Sanskrit bhajans—comprised of chants sung to evoke the power and spirit of God—and places them within the context of her own musical background. The Oberheim OB-8 synthesiser is therefore present on almost all of the tracks, providing a rousing swell or Wurlitzer-like siren that disorients or lifts the melody. Tracks like Rama Rama and Rama Guru perfectly illustrate this mix of acoustic and synthetic, showcasing Coltrane’s own voice, never before recorded. On more contemplative songs such as Om Shanti and Ram Katha, Coltrane’s low-register vocalisations beautifully accompany chord progressions that demonstrate a lifetime of Jazz training.
In yoking together these varied references on Ecstatic Music, Coltrane bridges the gap between the church, Jazz, and the temple. It is testament to the power of her music that she can hold such conflicting influences together to create a beautifully unified whole.
\\ Ammar Kalia
1 \\ Bottle Tree – Bottle Tree [International Anthem]
An anomalous album from the South side of Chicago, Bottle Tree sounds quite like nothing that came before it. Lyrically uninhibited and textured with partying West African rhythms, it feels like some of the best bits of the past that have arrived via the future.
Throughout the album, percussive textures between composer/multi-instrumentalist Ben Lamar Gay and drummer Tommaso Moretti criss-cross in multiple directions. With that, several tracks hold the weight of celebration and warmth. It could easily overwhelm, but with invisible restraint they play freely. Somewhat like a child running in a park, unaware of the gate’s finite parameters as he plays within them. Hooks are numerous and so layered that repeat listens grow more and more rewarding. With a sonic satisfaction equivalent to the right key in the right lock, A.M. Frison‘s rich, raspy voice melts over Moretti and Gay‘s intricate architecture.
Bottle Tree is left-field popular folklore. Listen to What Are You Wearing when your loins are bursting with heart-aching lust. Immerse yourself in Open Secret and Another Other when you want to dance like a shape-shifter—and After The End when you’ve reached post-apocalyptic optimism. Once you acknowledge the comparisons to Stevie Wonder and African rhythm masters, its many influences are almost beyond identifying by sound alone. A triumphant record with fearless originality.
\\ Tina Edwards
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EZH | Tina Edwards \\ Ammar Kalia \\ Thomas Rees \\ Joshua French