While 2016 had more than its share of lows, it was a great year for jazz — which made paring down a list of the best discs to just ten especially tough. Included here are some guitar-centric releases by Nels Cline, Wolfgang Muthspiel and Jakob Bro, and others showcasing the tenor sax, including recordings with Donny McCaslin, Melissa Aldana and Ravi Coltrane. See the full list of the best 2016 jazz albums below.
1. Nels Cline, Lovers (Blue Note) – Guitarist Nels Cline is known for attacking his fretboard; just listen to his solo recordings and his collaboration with Wilco. But on his Blue Note debut, Lovers, Cline’s playing is fluid and airy. This double album was inspired by legendary jazz guitarist Jim Hall and includes stunning Cline originals plus poignant renderings of jazz standards.
2. Donny McCaslin, Beyond Now (Motema) – Saxophonist Donny McCaslin and his group collaborated with Davie Bowie on his final album, Blackstar. While McCaslin played remarkably on the album, he takes things to another level on Beyond Now, a project influenced by his time with Bowie. No stranger to working at the intersection of electronica and improvisation, McCaslin has created something exceptional.
3. Vijay Iyer & Wadada Leo Smith, A Cosmic Rhythm With Each Stroke (ECM) – While pianist Vijay Iyer has released a number of significant albums under his own name and performed with his own projects, he’s also been part of trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith’s Golden Quartet. On their duet album, A Cosmic Rhythm With Each Stroke, the instinctive rapport between the two musicians is more than evident, whether the songs are fluid and textural (“The Empty Mind Receives") or have sharper corners (“Labyrinths”).
4. Jack DeJohnette/Matt Garrison/Ravi Coltrane, In Movement (ECM) – The eminent drummer Jack DeJohnette has long been a guru of nuance while being equally at home propelling rhythms with a youthful vigor. Both tendencies are noticeable on this superb album. Joined by saxophonist Ravi Coltrane and bassist Matt Garrison, the offspring of late jazz greats John Coltrane and Jimmy Garrison (DeJohnette sat in with the senior Coltrane’s group five decades ago), the trio has one foot steeped in jazz tradition and the other pointed toward the future.
5. Charles Lloyd & the Marvels, I Long to See You (Blue Note) – It’s clear from seeing master saxophonist Charles Lloyd and guitarist Bill Frisell perform that they’ve got a connection that transcends music. There’s something inherently natural about the way they interact, and it's more than evident on this recording, which also showcases longtime Frisell cohort pedal-steel guitarist Greg Leisz.
Read on for the rest of the best jazz albums of 2016.
6. Wolfgang Muthspiel, Rising Grace (ECM) – While Rising Grace is Wolfgang Muthspiel’s album and his stellar guitar work is the central focus, it’s easy to be sidetracked by the genius players he’s surrounded himself with: trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, pianist Brad Mehldau, bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Brian Blade. There’s an understated beauty in the textural interplay throughout the album.
7. Melissa Aldana, Back Home (Wommusic) – Melissa Aldana doesn’t hide her deep affinity for Sonny Rollins: The legendary tenor man has been a major inspiration for the young Chilean saxophonist, who won the Thelonious International Jazz Saxophone Competition three years ago. But while the spirit of Rollins is evident in Aldana’s buoyant phrasing throughout Back Home, there’s a whole lot more in the way that she proficiently gets around on her tenor.
8. The Claudia Quintet, Super Petite (Cuneiform) – Drummer and composer John Hollenbeck has been heading up the Claudia Quintet for nearly two decades. In that time, the ensemble has developed something of an adventurous signature sound that traverses jazz, classical and avant-garde. Super Petite shows just how versatile the quintet can be, especially on the vigorously swinging “Philly,” the dreamy opener “Nightbreak” and the angular “A-List.”
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9. Matt Wilson's Big Happy Family, Beginning of a Memory (Palmetto) – Drummer and composer Matt Wilson surrounded himself with twelve musicians with whom he’s worked in his own groups to celebrate the life of his late wife, Felicia. Beginning of a Memory is as uplifting, heartfelt and full of joy as it is poignant.
10. Jakob Bro, Streams (ECM) – The quiet, wistful opener “Opal” sets the stage for Danish guitarist Jakob Bro’s second album for ECM, Streams, which for the most part is a study of beauty in understatement. There’s a nuanced brilliance in the interplay between Bro, bassist Thomas Morgan and drummer Joey Baron, who all make music that virtually floats.