EZH Best releases of 2017: Jazz and beyond \\ 20-11
In decades to come, 2017 will be remembered in history books as remarkable year. But thankfully, there will also be books written about the music that has had a huge impact on culture this year.
In turbulent times, we turn to music for answers, guidance and escapism. Both communities and individuals have had an awful lot to process this year, and that doesn’t exclude musicians, who in times like these, articulate the things that we find so difficult to say ourselves.
We’ve scrutinised over the list. In our Top 20, you’ll find established artists and rising ones who have made lasting impressions with their releases this year. Here are the best releases of 2017 in Jazz and beyond; check out the Top 10 here.
Who’s on your #20-1 best releases of 2017? Tweet us @EZHmag.
20 \\ Mammal Hands – Shadow Work [Gondwana]
Where meter meets moment; the weaving rhythms and repetitions throughout Mammal Hands’ Shadow Work create a mantra-like minimalistic sound which cradles and gently transports the listener. With building layers and conversation between the piano and the saxophone, notes lifting within the whole sound as found in the introductory piece, Black Sails, the listener is introduced into a space that comfortably guides an experience of transportation and meditation.
Folding repetitions of motifs dance through every instrumental soundscape, playfully evident in Straight Up Raining. Each note feels carefully placed with conviction with one note fluidly folding into the next. It has the freedom of a child running with abandon, of a laugh bursting from the mouth, of a hand gliding between reeds of grass in a field.
While Wringer ends in a sense of suspension, the soprano saxophone melts over charging percussion in an ominous surge of energy in Transfixed. In contrast, the final track, Being Here, returns the listener to a more holistic place, sampling outside sounds that concludes the album in a frame of nature—a theme that runs through many of Gondwana’s releases.
Although banded with the Spiritual Jazz tag, Mammal Hands’ influences—spanning electronica, minimalism, folk and classical—separate them from many of their contemporaries.
\\ Nina Fine
19 \\ Tony Allen – The Source [Blue Note]
The past year brought two Jazz releases from Afro-beat legend and long-time Fela Kuti rhythm machine Tony Allen. Growing up, Allen’s hero was the great Jazz drummer Art Blakey, and back in May he payed tribute with an album of Jazz Messengers covers. On The Source, Allen meets Blakey half way, with a set of originals that meld big band Jazz with afrobeat riffs and rhythms. It’s an incredibly satisfying blend and one that feels effortless and organic, never contrived, which is not an easy thing to pull off.
Allen’s drumming is full of subtle ingenuity and understated groove, which seems to ripple through the whole ensemble, meshing with swaggering bass lines, ticking guitar parts and intricate figures in the horns. It sometimes feels as though the band are an extension of the drum kit, or the moving parts in a complex mechanism—a clock running to Lagos time. The melodies (co-written by Allen and sax player Yann Jankielewicz) are strong, the colours are bold and bright and there are some punchy solos from members of Allen’s Paris-based big band. The result is rhythmically infectious and frequently uplifting, and God knows we all need a bit of that this year.
\\ Thomas Rees
18 \\ Nai Palm – Needle Paw [Sony]
There is an age-old tradition of the front-person from a band going solo, reinventing themselves and the musical direction of their group when (or if) they return. For Nai Palm, the lead singer of Hiatus Kaiyote, going solo for her LP Needle Paw was so much more than just creative departure or experimentation.
Nai Palm consistently leads Hiatus Kaiyote with an unpredictable force. Over the thirteen tracks of Needle Paw however, adorned with just guitar and voice, Nai Palm takes the listener on an intimate journey into her songwriting process and musical tastes. Ultimately she envelops them in the emotive strength of her voice. Diaristic yet political, the record is bookended by two ceremonial songs from Aboriginal performer Jason Guwanbal Gurruwiwi, evoking a rich history of indigenous Australian music that goes beyond language and into land and Earth itself.
At times her solo debut is achingly intimate, as on penultimate number Homebody. Elsewhere it’s full of rhythmic swagger as on Jimi Hendrix cover Electric Ladyland, or unapologetically esoteric, as on Blackstar/Pyramid Song/Breathing Underwater—a cover for which she sought explicit permission from David Bowie’s estate to perform. Needle Paw is a love letter to the human voice and its capacity for self-expression in all its guises.
\\ Ammar Kalia
17 \\ Ambrose Akinmusire — A Rift In The Decorum: Live At The Village Vanguard [Blue Note]
Oakland-born trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire is one of the great musicians of our time and his long-standing quartet is one of the great bands. A Rift In The Decorum has everything that made Akinmusire’s two studio releases, When the Heart Emerges Glistening and The Imagined Savior is Far Easier to Paint so striking. It showcases his distinctive, emotionally raw compositional style, which tempers bracing abstraction, churning chordal beds and nagging bass pedals with passages of heartfelt tenderness. It highlights his painterly approach and the astonishing range of sounds he can conjure from the trumpet—stinging voluntaries, bugle calls, fragile whistles, rasp and bestial snuffles. But it also captures his quartet’s thrilling live dynamic.
Pianist Sam Harris, bassist Harish Raghavan and drummer Justin Brown (who also plays with Thundercat) have been on the road together for years and the interplay between them is at a level most groups can only dream of. The way they respond to and develop one another’s ideas, switch grooves and emerge from passages of tempestuous group improvisation to nail ensemble hits or luxuriate in Akinmusire’s melodies, is properly jaw dropping. Listening to A Rift doesn’t quite match the edge-of-your-bar-stool-thrill of seeing the quartet up close in club, but it’s not far off.
\\ Thomas Rees
16 \\ Makaya McCraven – Highly Rare [International Anthem]
Editor Tina Edwards wrote an Album of the Day review of Makaya McCraven‘s Highly Rare for Bandcamp; “McCraven’s polyrhythms chug like a steam train, clanging against Ben Lamar Gay’s vocal cries and saxophonist Nick Mazzarella’s Eastern scales”. Read the full review here.
\\ Tina Edwards
15 \\ Zara McFarlane – Arise [Brownswood]
Zara McFarlane’s Arise is a Caribbean dedication rooted in tradition. “Ode to Kumina, the opening track, eases you in with the sounds of the sea, surrounded by tropical birds, followed by percussion, chanting, and horns”. Read the full review here.
\\ Jelly Cleaver
14 \\ SZA – CTRL [Top Dawg Entertainment]
Three years in the making, SZA’s CTRL was the record that almost never happened. Coming to prominence writing hits for the likes of Rihanna, Beyonce and Nicki Minaj, when it came to the release of her debut LP, SZA professedly had around 200 tracks written-many of which were studio improvisations and yet none of which she could be persuaded to release. After her studio confiscated her hard drive to stop her anxious tinkering, the result is one of the best-sounding R&B albums to come out not only this year but perhaps this decade.
Leading with Travis Scott-featuring single Love Galore, the listener is hit with the impeccable control and power of SZA’s voice—at turns gentle and rounded, before switching to full-voiced power and emotive potential. CTRL isn’t just jilted R&B in the style of Love Galore, though. The diversity of production is one of its best features, showcasing SZA’s vocal and songwriting skills, shape-shifting between the woozy guitars of Drew Barrymore to the nocturnal seduction of The Weekend and earnest confessional of 20 Something. If nothing else, CTRL is a singular creative vision and proof that you shouldn’t ever listen to your anxiety.
\\ Ammar Kalia
13 \\ Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah – Diaspora [Ropeadope]
Releasing three albums in 2017, Christian Scott’s Centennial trilogy marked the 100 year anniversary of the first Jazz recording. Whilst many saw this as a reason to reflect, Scott looked ahead.
The trumpeter—and sonic architect if you consider the liner notes—has a penchant for top line melodies, and it’s in Diaspora, the second release of three in 2017, that this is hardest to ignore. Throughout, Scott balances confidence and humility. Often riding in tandem with remarkable flautist Elena Pinderhughes, he carves soundscapes that allow his bandmates to rise with him rather than stand behind him; something that many front persons struggle to execute so eloquently.
Drummer Corey Fonville’s Trap influences give wordsmiths plenty of rhythmical cues to play with. The Walk, whilst showcasing vocalist Sarah Elizabeth Charles, delivers spacious rolls and snaps that could melt the purest hip-hop heads. IDK, which features saxophonist Braxton Cook, aches with sensuality thanks only in part to its slow throbbing bass. Scott has an excellent ear; his bandmates make up some of the American East Coast’s most notable rising talent.
Scott is presenting music that feels at home both in Jazz clubs and night clubs, all the while incentivising conversations about race, protest and justice with his music. Scott’s distinctive Centennial trilogy—particularly the standout compositions of Diaspora—further mark his reputation as a visionary.
\\ Tina Edwards
12 \\ Nubya Garcia – Nubya Garcia’s 5ive
In 2017, Nubya Garcia has emerged as one of the UK’s most exciting instrumentalists. “Nubya’s 5ive’s strongest elements are in common with many great Jazz records; accessible melodies, varying textures and a few surprises”. Read the full EZH review here.
\\ Tina Edwards
11 \\ Kendrick Lamar – DAMN. [Top Dawg Entertainment]
Kendrick Lamar’s work has been analysed with such rigour this year, that there seems to be little left unsaid about his twice platinum-selling, multiple Grammy award-nominated album. Fans who went so deep as to speculate that it could be sequenced back-to-front had their suspicions confirmed, with the arrival of the reversed Collectors Edition, while journalists and forum users, less concerned with fan theories, poured over it’s ‘prophetic’ lyrical content, diverse instrumentals and sample sources, ensuring that no detail was ignored.
Despite a constitution reduced in out and out Jazz, funk and RnB, DAMN. retains the instrumental maturity of its predecessor. It affirms Lamar’s self-professed developments as a craftsman of the song and as a lyricist, but also highlights the talents of beat-makers Mike WiLL Made-It and Sounwave. Both contributed razor-sharp, ‘in-the-box’ beats alongside abstract, wildly processed and mangled tracks, to give the project a textural breadth. The album too suggests why peers like Pharrell are inspired to liken Lamar’s flow, wordplay and cultural impact to the expressive playing and revolutionary actions of be-bop luminaries like Coltrane and Davis.
Distilled to a single argument;, Lamar’s music just does something to people. It inspires journalists like Rodney Carmichael to grapple with their innermost skepticism surrounding faith and societal fibre and inspires teachers like Mr Mooney to base ‘hip-hop lit’ classes upon its meticulously constructed poetry – it represents so much and is a pleasure to behold in today’s cultural landscape.
\\ Joshua French
Albums #10-1 land Wednesday 20 December. Follow us across our socials to find out who made the Best Jazz and beyond releases of 2017 list.
EZH \\ Tina Edwards \\ Ammar Kalia \\ Nina Fine \\ Joshua French \\ Jelly Cleaver