John Sharpe's Best Releases Of 2016

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Here are ten new releases, reviewed at All About Jazz, which stood out among those I heard this year.

Wadada Leo Smith
America's National Parks
(Cuneiform Records)

While the title might conjure up a string of luminous tone poems, the reality of trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith's magisterial collection goes far beyond that on his most outstanding release since the monumental Ten Freedom Summers (Cuneiform, 2012). Not coincidentally, it's also the product of his long standing Golden Quartet, this time expanded to a quintet by the addition of Ashley Walters' cello. Smith's artistic intent permeates every moment, informing a stupendous bringing together of the through composed and the improvised, the abstract and the earthy.

Michael Jefry Stevens
(Not Two Records)

Bassist Joe Fonda and pianist Michael Jefry Stevens rejoice in a back story spanning over 30 years, but the debut of the Generations Quartet proves to be one of their finest settings. The moniker derives from the presence of veteran reedman Oliver Lake, best known for his part in the pioneering World Saxophone Quartet, at one end of the age range, and young Austrian drummer Emil Gross at the other. The inclusion of Lake's acid toned, angular alto and expressive distortion adds the edge which takes Fonda/Stevens' tested blend of inside/outside alchemy onto another level.

Jonas Cambien
A Zoology of the Future
(Clean Feed Records)

Belgian-born, Oslo-based pianist Jonas Cambien recruits two rising stars of the Norwegian firmament for a series of incisive cuts notable for their inventive arrangements and madcap rhythms. Drummer Andreas Wildhagen is part of Paal Nilssen-Love's Large Unit and may not be known to many, but on this showing that is likely to change, while reedman Andre Roligheten performs with Friends & Neighbors and Gard Nilssen. Improvisation thrives in the nooks and crannies of the charts, such that the interlocking beats, nagging vamps and snatched extemporizations combine in a heady brew.

Anna Webber
(Skirl Records)

If there were a prize for avoiding the obvious, then Brooklyn-based Canadian saxophonist and flautist Anna Webber would be a prime contender. Webber has used internet sourced inspiration, including a random binary digit generator, to develop the 11 idiosyncratic compositions on the sophomore offering from her Simple Trio. She creates an enthralling tapestry of staggered rhythmic layers which are not quite unisons, nor totally out of phase but remain unpredictable because of the sudden suspensions and flourishes. Pianist Matt Mitchell and drummer John Hollenbeck execute her intricate scores in a way which makes them seem natural and their wayward logic seem inevitable.

Joe McPhee
(Cipsela Records)

Multi-instrumentalist Joe McPhee has a long history of solo albums. Flowers, his eleventh unaccompanied release, which constitutes one of his most successful solo outings, dates from the Jazz ao Centro Festival in Coimbra in 2009. McPhee is a master at inventing figures and melodies as the foundation for his excursions which encompass more extreme elements of the sound spectrum. It's that fascination as to how McPhee will plot a course on the continuum between structure and abstraction in any given piece which forms a large part of his enduring intrigue and appeal.

Yoni Kretzmer
(Out Now Records)

NYC-based Israeli saxophonist Yoni Kretzmer has pulled together a dynamite cast for the splendid debut of his quintet. Kretzmer's thoughtfully put together compositions produce classic small group free jazz by what comes across as a little big band. It's the sort of session you might have found on the Black Saint label in its heyday, but given a twist of contemporary attitude. Kretzmer makes full use of his crew, not only as adventurous soloists, but also as seasoned ensemble players able to hatch motifs on the fly, indulge in conversational interplay and switch effortlessly between styles and approaches.

RED Trio
Summer Skyshift
(Clean Feed Records)

English saxophonist John Butcher once again joins the Portuguese RED Trio in thrilling seat of the pants navigation. Butcher, who has developed unconventional sounds into a coherent personal language, reveals a less expected penchant for visceral excitement comparable to the free jazz mainstream in its fiery energy. Whether cause or effect, Rodrigo Pinheiro mixes his accustomed piano manipulations with flowing lines and emphatic minimalist patterns to engender the exceptional level of responsive dialogue heard throughout this excellent recital.

Irene Schweizer
Welcome Back
(Intakt Records)

For such an assuredly rhythmic performer Swiss pianist Irene Schweizer shows an unexpected affinity to drummers, though this is only the second entry to her discography with maverick Dutch drummer Han Bennink. In spite of their impeccable avant-garde credentials they have crafted a surprisingly accessible album which fizzes with joie de vivre. While a fondness for tradition surfaces at regular intervals, it's glorious off-the-cuff syncopation that proves their strongest suit. In the end, it's two people having fun in a way which everyone can share.

Peter Kuhn
No Coming, No Going —The Music of Peter Kuhn 1978-1979
(NoBusiness Records)

In No Coming No Going, the Lithuanian NoBusiness imprint has unearthed a real gem, as part of its continuing exhumation of the New York 1970s loft scene. Reedman Peter Kuhn was a minor presence during the latter half of the decade, but in Livin' Right, reissued here as the first installment of a two disc set, he waxed a masterpiece which sums up many of the virtues of the time as it triumphantly explores then current free jazz paradigms: with bass and drums keeping time but also offering trenchant counterpoint, freeform horns in garrulous polyphony, and attractively organized heads which frame and launch the interaction.

Dag Magnus Narvesen
Cornua Copiae
(Clean Feed Records)

Fresh off the conveyor belt of talent emerging from the Norwegian jazz scene comes drummer Dag Magnus Narvesen whose Damana Octet functions more akin to an even larger ensemble, thanks to some expertly voiced parts. On the roster are some increasingly familiar names, such as saxophonists Kristoffer Berre Alberts and Andre Roligheten, alongside a welter of less well known but equally skilled compatriots. Narvesen, who wrote all the tunes, seizes the big band tradition and gives it a smart modern makeover with a refreshing merger of concise yet integrated solos and exhilarating constructs. Best of all the band sound as if it's having a blast.

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