Looking over the jazz albums I kept returning to in 2015 -- a year in which Spotify, Pandora and other streaming services have further elevated standalone singles -- I’m struck by the way each artist engages with the album format to make a larger musical statement. In almost every case, the releases capture a highly personal vision, woven through the entire project.
From Tiffany Austin’s funky and footloose old-wine-in-new-bottles take on Hoagy Carmichael to Ben Goldberg’s exquisite chamber-jazz-meets-art-song journey into the world of poet and philosopher Allen Grossman, these albums add up to more than the sum of their considerable parts. Another trend that stands out is that the Bay Area’s already-deep pool of vocal talent continues to grow apace.
Here are my 10 favorite jazz albums of 2015, in alphabetical order (with an additional slate of excellent local releases, any of which could have easily slid into the top 10).
Laurie Antonioli & Richie Beirach - Varuna
A veteran jazz singer who leads one of the best working bands on the scene, Antonioli has also converged intermittently over the years with Beirach, a probing post-bop pianist with a strong feel for European classical music. The album features one striking passage after another, centering on the transporting “Resolution Suite,” a free improv epiphany in three brief movements.
Tiffany Austin - Nothing But Soul
(Con Alma Music)
Working with tenor saxophonist Howard Wiley, Austin this year delivered one of the most joyful and exuberant debut recordings in recent memory. Focusing on the songs of Hoagy Carmichael (with a few ringers) she puts her own stamp on tunes that have been around the block, including a sly version of “Baltimore Oriole” and her luscious reading of “Skylark.” (Read KQED review here.)
Alex Conde - Descarga For Monk
Conde has been on the Bay Area scene for a while, but the Spanish-born pianist emerged as a major creative force with this album. Passionately reimagining a set of classic Thelonious Monk compositions through the lens of flamenco, the project uncovers previously unexpected rhythmic interplay in Monk’s music. He’s joined by an ideal cast of collaborators with percussion master John Santos, ace bassist Jeff Chambers, and the texturally resourceful drummer Jon Arkin. (Read KQED review here.)
Karina Deniké - Under Glass
After more than two decades as an indispensable creative catalyst for a vast array of bands, recordings and projects, Deniké stepped out on her own with this captivating album. While she references at least a half dozen styles, she uses a core group of players for a consistent play of textures, whether she’s delivering winsome girl-group harmonies with Lily Taylor or taking a funhouse ride on the midway. There’s a dizzying quality to Deniké’s music -- an uncanny, time-shifting feel where songs seem familiar until she adds an unexpected texture or arrestingly original image. (Read KQED review here.)
Ben Goldberg - Orphic Machine
A clarinetist and composer who combines rigorous intelligence with searching imagination and a gift for melodic invention, Goldberg this year assembled an all-star nine-piece ensemble featuring extravagantly vivid improvisers like guitarist Nels Cline, cornetist Ron Miles and pianist Myra Melford. Orphic Machine distills their wild energy in a set of elliptical art songs composed for the self-conscious and emotionally acute vocals of violinist Carla Kihlstdet, who brings a feverish intensity to the koan-like epigrams of Allen Grossman. The result is an extraordinary recording that lingers in the mind and the ear.
The Lost Trio - Monkwork
A collective ensemble featuring saxophonist Phillip Greenlief, bassist Dan Seamans and drummer Tom Hassett, the Lost Trio has never strayed far from the knotty, endlessly engaging compositions of Thelonious Monk. My favorite tracks on this all-Monk session feature three-song medleys that create a revelatory inter-Monk dialogue, as when the insistently repetitive blues “Misterioso” segues into the sublime ballad “Ask Me Now.” The absence of a piano, Monk's primary instrument, gives the music a transparent quality, offering an X-Ray view into Monk’s rhythmic and harmonic architecture. (Read KQED review here.)
Myra Melford - Snowy Egret
A pianist and composer with a gift for creating exploratory ensembles and wondrous musical galaxies, Melford is one of jazz’s most consistently enthralling artists. Her quintet Snowy Egret with cornetist Ron Miles, guitarist Liberty Ellman, bass guitarist Stomu Takeishi, and drummer extraordinaire Tyshawn Sorey brings coiled emotion, wit and boundless generosity to this set of roiling, elastically beatific compositions inspired by Eduardo Galeano’s Memory of Fire trilogy.
Kim Nalley - Blues People
(Kim Nalley Jazz Productions)
More than any of her previous albums, Blues People reveals the full range of Nalley’s musical vision -- and it’s no coincidence that the title echoes the seminal 1963 book of cultural criticism by LeRoi Jones. From her incisive originals and defiant reinvention of the Gershwins’ “Summertime” to her celebration of bawdy humor on “The Chair Song (If I Can’t Sell It)" and her gospel-steeped version of "Movin' On Up" (the theme to 1970s sitcom The Jeffersons), Nalley builds a seamless African-American aesthetic encompassing the sacred and profane, the spiritual and the sensual, high art and popular culture. Like the best parties, this album is a furious argument, a grinding slow dance, and a raging good time. (Read KQED review here.)
Rob Reich - Shadowbox
Musicians playing Reich's music seem to find themselves, or at least reveal aspects of their sound not always evident in other settings. Equally eloquent on the piano and accordion, Reich creates soundscapes brimming with half-buried feelings and memories just out of reach, and Shadowbox contains his own particular alchemy of folk, jazz, and classical currents. With the subway rumble of Ben Goldberg’s contra alto clarinet, Todd Sickafoose’s elastic bass lines, Eric Garland’s subtle but assertive cymbal touch and guitarist Ila Cantor’s levitating guitar lines, the opening track “Night Heron” embodies much of what makes Reich’s music tantalizing and evocative. (Read KQED review here.)
Mary Stallings - Feelin' Good
Stallings is the rightful queen of Bay Area jazz vocals, but she’s always been reluctant royalty -- which is why she’s been “rediscovered” at least three times since she started recording in 1961. Working with a top-shelf cast of New York players led by veteran pianist/arranger Bruce Barth, she delivers a consistently smart set that pays tribute to four key bandleaders who championed her talent over the years: Cal Tjader, Dizzy Gillespie, Billy Eckstine and Count Basie. Her blues-tinged, dry-martini sound hasn’t lost any of its pleasing bite, and album highlights include two Neal Hefti gems (“Li’l Darling” and “Girl Talk”) and Mongo Santamaria’s “Afro Blue,” featuring her original lyrics.
Other noteworthy local jazz releases from 2015
The Bad Plus and Joshua Redman - The Bad Plus Joshua Redman (Nonesuch)
Bryan Bowman - Like Minds (Bryan Bowman Music)
Electric Squeezebox Orchestra - Cheap Rent (OA2 Records)
Zakir Hussain - Distant Kin (Moment Records)
Karen Marguth - Just You, Just Me (Way Fae Music)
Ochs-Robinson Duo - The Throne (Not Two)
Fred Randoph - Song Without Singing (Creative Spirit Records)
John Schott - Actual Trio (Tzadik)
The VNote Ensemble - Urbano (The VNote Ensemble)
Wayne Wallace Latin Jazz Quintet - Intercambio (Patois Records)