My Favorite Jazz Recordings of 2018

by Birdland Director of Programming, Ryan Paternite

For more than twenty-two years I have programmed the music at Birdland Jazz Club, and since June of 2018, the new Birdland Theater. In doing so, I listen to a lot of music every year. I have to. Much of it is in the form of private Soundcloud playlists, three-track samplers, EPKs on Youtube, or other works in progress or promotionally oriented compilations designed to solicit live performance opportunities. And I can usually gauge compatibility within the span of such a sampler.

But I also receive, stream, read about, and seek out, many of the full length jazz recordings released during the year. But not all of them. Therefore, my caveats are that I’m not a journalist and I don’t claim to be objective. My tastes are too limited and my range of possibilities far from comprehensive. But since I’m tasked with efficiently evaluating ticket salability, I’d like to think that when a snippet prompts me to listen to the whole, and that listening leads to repeated listening, then that recording must merit mention and kudos.

These are simply the few, full-length jazz recordings, released in 2018, which I enjoyed listening to the most. One wonderful theme that emerged, is that many of the artists were previously unknown to me, or I’d heard their name but not their music, more anon. I also noticed that my “essential track(s)” were often the first tracks on the album. Artists and producers, nota bene.

I have no interest in these recordings particular sales or successes, except where noted, and all of the recordings were purchased, or streamed through a paid subscription, except where noted. However, I am hopeful about sales and success for all artists in general so I hope you will seek them out. Stream, download, or purchase CD or vinyl. It doesn’t matter to me as long as you don’t steal. Artists need to make a living or someday we might not have so many great records to listen to each year. Here they are:

David Murray
Blues For Memo
Motema Music

I’ve listened a lot to tenor saxophonist David Murray in the last fews years, when, by his own admission, he’s turned slightly away from freer jazz sounds toward something more accessible. Even so, the timbre of chaos lurks just below the surface of his sound, which makes me like him even more. On Blues for Memo, Murray’s comfortable and familiar quartet setting is disrupted by a few provocative guests, most notably the poet/spoken word artist Saul Williams. I’m a big fan of jazz and poetry/spoken word and this album is a welcome addition to my library.

Essential track: “Kush,” where Williams’ contributions are free-associative, stream-of-consciousness personal ads. Timely, clever, and thought provoking. Not always radio friendly but who cares. Saul Williams: “Armless conductor of styrofoam orchestra seeks brass section robot for radio broadcast of new symphony written in blood. See sharp for details. / Dead organist seeks prenatal plastic surgeon for everybody nose job in purgatory of the suit of skeletal bones / sent down the wrong pipe.” (??) Let me know when you figure that one out.

Caroline Davis
Heart Tonic
Sunnyside Records

Saxophonist and composer Caroline Davis, who was previously unknown to me, made a wonderful record with a great quintet including the trumpeter Marquis Hill, who is bending a lot of ears right now. The traditional ensemble avoids being too straight ahead, though, because of Caroline’s clever compositions. Somehow, the personal, emotional, conceptual theme she iterates, comes through clearly. Not easy to do with instrumental music.

Essential track: “Constructs,” for the way each episode grows out of the repeated bass figure.

Walter Smith
Whirlwind Recordings

Another artist who was new to me this year, Walter Smith III. He really owns the tenor/bass/drums format with a great feel for and responsibility toward outlining the harmony with his lines, while staying melodically inventive. He’s also adept at exploiting the various timbral textures available to an ensemble without an explicitly harmonic instrument. No less interesting are duets with drummer Eric Harland (“We’ll Be Together Again”), and bassist Christian McBride (“the Social Call,” — with some funny studio chatter), and two quartets with second tenor Joshua Redman (“On the Trail” and “Contrafact” — the former features a clever contrapuntal arrangement of the melody for the tenors).

Essential track: “Ask Me Now,” on which Smith’s solo hews closely to the melody, albeit with increasing elaboration, ornamentation, and rhythmic displacement, which feels, simultaneously, like an authentic yet novel way to attack a well-known Monk composition.

Kenny Barron Quintet
Concentric Circles
Blue Note Records

I heard this group at The Village Vanguard in late 2017 or early 2018 and immediately wished I could hear more. Shortly thereafter I saw this release and picked it up. Kenny sounds great. The band sounds great. The tunes are nice. The arrangements are effective without being overbearing. And Mike Rodriguez is an outstanding trumpeter. A brilliant soloist with a gorgeous tone. This is contemporary hard bop at its absolute best. Also, the sonic quality of the recording, warm and mid-rangey, reminds me of many classic Blue Note LPs from the 1960s. Kenny’s solo version of Monk’s “Reflections” doesn’t hurt either.

Essential track: “DPW,” for all the reasons I stated above. And one of Mike Rodriguez’s solos.

Tom Waits
This is Tom Waits
Spotify Playlist

Favorite recordings curated by the artist. Not jazz, but come on. Certainly in the tradition of the Great American Songbook from which jazz artists draw heavily. Every track is great and it will keep you busy for hours.

Essential track: “Cold Cold Ground.” One of those (many) songs you recognize when you hear it but didn’t know Tom Waits wrote it.

John Coltrane
Both Directions at Once

Heretofore unheard recording by the classic quartet, with great tunes and much better sound than the many available live recordings and bootlegs. Yes, please!

Essential track: Just listen to the whole thing and the “outtakes.”

Jure Pukl
Whirlwind Recordings

Not to be broken vinyl, but saxophonist Jure Pukl was also new to me this year and I’m glad I’ve gotten to know him socially, and his music through this eminently listenable record. Jure is joined by fellow tenor Melissa Aldana (my management client and friend) and the distinctively melodic bass and drum team of Joe Sanders and Gregory Hutchinson. It’s that melodic sensibility which can make this band sound like four voices in counterpoint, but it also swings.

The recording was made in just three hours in a Slovenian studio, so success was far from certain. Luckily, the result is a complete and consistently excellent musical statement. The texture and material are purposefully sparse, and much of the interplay feels improvised. The whole thing is reminiscent of early Ornette Coleman, so it’s appropriate that they cover Ornette’s “InterSong.”

It’s also worth mentioning that Jure and Melissa are married and they play and blend beautifully together, perhaps because they also often practice together. At times their sounds are indistinguishable in harmony, to the point that I had to ask Jure, “Melissa is on the left, yes?” And he said, “I don’t know, but she plays first.” As any guest artist/spouse should, I suppose. *Cool cover art by Cecile McLorin Salvant.

Essential track: “Doves.” An episodic piece with an enigmatic, harmonized head, alternating with tenor-bass-tenor solos, each with a different time feel. Exemplary of the varying moods and textures on this record.

#3 & #2
Miles Okazaki
Work: The Complete Compositions of Thelonious Monk

Frank Kimbrough
Monks Dreams: The Complete Compositions of Thelonious Sphere Monk
Sunnyside Records

This is a 2-for-1 selection — or perhaps 12-for-2 selection since each project spans 6 discs and over 6 hours of music. Many Thelonious Monk centennial celebratory recordings were issued. These two recordings of all of Monk’s 70 known compositions, are both incredible achievements, but for different reasons.

Miles Okazaki was a name I had heard whose music I hadn’t heard. While I consider myself somewhat of a solo jazz guitar connoisseur I still marvel at the incredible variety of timbres, textures, and clever arrangement ideas he brings to Monk’s compositions. He also, it seems to me, often accounts for the titles of the tunes in his arrangements, throwing tongue-in-cheekiness at an already wryly humorous subject.

Frank Kimbrough, on the other hand, is an old friend whose music I’ve listened to extensively. Even so, his Monk project surprised me. It’s ambitious and meticulous, with an impressive variety of arrangements and configurations, within the boundaries of a quartet palette. Most amazingly, though, is Frank’s ability to sound like himself within the potentially smothering confines of a comprehensive exploration of one of the most distinct pianistic voices of the twentieth century.

Essential track(s): Check out both versions of the lesser known, “San Francisco Holiday,” and you can hear what diversity Monk’s music inspires. Miles does a clever solo arrangement (as are they all) in which I can hear, dare I say it, the sound of street cars. Frank’s is an equally clever quartet arrangement but his solo does everything I mentioned above, it sounds like Frank but channelling Monk.

Sam Harris

Pianist Sam Harris, along with bassist Martin Nevin and drummer Craig Weinrib, have created an incredible piece of recorded jazz art that unfolds over the course of just 30-minutes. It starts with a repeating three note figure in section I. The bass and drums and cymbals enter with subtle, almost nature-like sounds leading into section II. The trio evolve into a gospel-y, blues inflected romp with a wide-ranging piano solo. Section III is perhaps the “ballad” portion where the bassist and drummer really shine in supporting Harris’s deliciously slow, almost gut-bucket blues. Nevin’s bass solo leads to section IV, which is the most self-contained — perhaps radio-friendly? — piece on the album. Harris’s solo piano intro leads the trio into another bluesy variation. Section V opens with a repeated figure that swells to a trio crescendo, then devolves into two bass notes, then silence, bringing the album full circle.

Sam Harris’s piano playing over the course of this record is like a six-handed collaboration between Steve Reich, Paul Bley, and Gene Harris. To me it’s one of the most consistently challenging and satisfying recordings of the year. Putting on my commercial hat, however, I wonder if there exists a venue — not just any venue, but a comfortable, good sounding venue — where an attentive, appreciative audience could experience a live variation of this piece? I can’t think of one, but I hope it exists, and I’m there to hear it.

Essential Track(s): All of them. Even though it’s widely accepted these days to pick and choose, mix and match, create playlists, etc., this album is best heard straight through, from start to finish, without interruption.

The Birdland Big Band
CD Baby

*Here’s the exception. I helped produce this one. And it was just released in the last few days of 2018 so you probably haven’t heard it yet. But I had to include it because I’m just so damn proud of these people. They’ve been through so much in the last couple years. A near mutiny, firings, interim leaders, a new permanent leader, some new personnel, and finally a reemergence which finds them sounding better than ever, and it’s perfectly documented on this recording.

The band plays weekly at Birdland and they’ve gotten to know how to play together well. They’re an ensemble composed of distinct voices: David DeJesus is the unflappable leader — as great a psychologist as he is saxophonist — who chooses great repertoire from a vast personal library. There are longtime band members — the heart and soul of the band — who also turn in some great solos, such as trumpeter Glenn Drewes and pianist Kenny Ascher, among many others. The voice of the band, the top note, is lead trumpeter John Walsh. Trombonist Mark Miller is also Lead Pen — not to be confused with lead pencil, which was banned in the 1970’s. His compositions and arrangements anchor every set.

In fact several members contribute great charts to the book and every single one of them plays an important part in the music and the family vibe that draws sold out crowds to hear them every week. There are also five vocal charts performed by Veronica Swift, another star for which I have a rooting interest! To me this record is a great achievement in big band artistry and craft and I hope you will check it out and concur.

Essential track(s): “Let’s,” composed by Thad Jones and arranged by Dave Lalama, for the ensemble playing and Chris Smith’s brilliant drumming. He sets the feel and responds to the ensemble like a melody instrument. A true heir to Mel Lewis.
“Your Smile,” composed and arranged by Mark Miller. The perennial anthemic set closer exudes the communal, joyous vibes of this band.

Finally, below, in diplomatically alphabetical order, are others records worthy of mention, released in earlier years, that I heard and enjoyed for the first time in 2018. Who knows what next year will bring? Well, I do, sort of. Some of the best things I’ve heard, haven’t been released yet. Can’t wait. — RP

Rachel Caswell
All I Know
CD Baby

Emmet Cohen
Cellar Live

Mark Guiliana Jazz Quartet
Motema Music

Thad Jones and Mel Lewis Orchestra
All My Yesterdays
Resonance Records

Ray Kennedy (RIP)
The Victoria Company

Cecile McLorin Salvant
Dreams and Daggers
Mack Avenue

Becca Stevens
Sunnyside Records