10) Michael Pisaro, A Mist Is a Collection of Points (New World)
On this recording from Michael Pisaro, the most celebrated American member of the Wandelweiser composers' collective, sparsely charted resonant notes hang in the air like the mist of its title. The three-part work—performed by pianist Phillip Bush, percussionist Greg Stuart, and Pisaro himself adding sine-wave tones—provides a series of perspectives on how sounds spread, disperse, and interact, focusing on the acoustic phenomena that occur after each individual note arrives and on the shaping of music by the space around it.
9) Mbongwana Star, From Kinshasa (World Circuit)
Former members of Congolese band Staff Benda Bilili, many of whom were homeless paraplegics living on the grounds of Kinshasa's zoological gardens, teamed up with Parisian producer Doctor L for one of the year's most insistently funky records. A mixture of numbed postpunk and funk grooves adds a strong Western vibe to the indigenous traditional sounds, as if a group of soukous musicians had stumbled into the sessions for Fear of Music—liquid guitar lines and soulful Lingala vocals float over throbbing rhythms and the occasional blown-out six-string lick.
8) Josh Berman Trio, A Dance and a Hop (Delmark)
Cornetist Josh Berman seems to have found himself leading this deft, agile trio with bassist Jason Roebke and drummer Frank Rosaly. The group's music balances an investment in sound for its own sake against conversational phrasing and limber, precise rhythms. And though the elegant gestures Berman makes in the midst of his improvisations can be dramatically bent and contorted, the trio operates as a single, nimble intuitive organism.
7) Yarn/Wire, Currents Vol. 3 (Yarn/Wire)
New York quartet Yarn/Wire are one of the most exciting new-music ensembles in the world, playing pieces as daring and unconventional as their instrumentation (their lineup consists of two percussionists, Russell Greenberg and Ian Antonio, and two pianists, Laura Barger and Ning Yu). Too often in new music, recording lags well behind composition, so that by the time most folks can hear a piece it no longer feels particularly fresh. This year Yarn/Wire took it upon themselves to self-release three albums of style-erasing pieces by the likes of Thomas Meadowcroft, Christopher Trapani, and Øyvind Torvund, and the best stuff turned up on the last installment, which includes music by Mark Fell, David Bird, and Sam Pluta. Pluta, a key member of NYC collective Wet Ink, has a seemingly superhuman ability to improvise using acoustic source material fed into his electronic setup in real time. He contributed Seven Systems, an autobiographical work that he describes as a "sequence of seven interlocking movements that unfold over a twenty minute span"; it's a mind-warping feat of sonic juggling that leaves me full of energy and curiosity after every listen.
6) Liberty Ellman, Radiate (Pi)
Guitarist Liberty Ellman has been a member of Henry Threadgill's Zooid since its inception, and he certainly brings some of that band's sensibility to Radiate, his first album under his own name in nine years. Tubaist Jose Davila (a fellow Zooid member) and bassist Stefan Crump keep the scampering low end as thrillingly active as the front line (which includes reedist Steve Lehman and trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson), and the leader's compositions are worthy of this excellent roster, pulled taut between chamber-music intimacy and daring improvisation.
5) Jack DeJohnette, Made in Chicago (ECM)
Recorded live in 2013 on the opening night of the Chicago Jazz Festival (on whose programming committee I serve), Made in Chicago is a testament to the sense of community that characterizes Chicago jazz—particularly the group of players who formed the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians 50 years ago. Drummer Jack DeJohnette, a Chicago native, was once a member of the AACM, and his ties to its members remain deep—he enlisted some of its greatest figures for this dream band, namely pianist Muhal Richard Abrams and reedists Henry Threadgill and Roscoe Mitchell. (None of them has lived in town for decades, but the bassist in the group, Larry Gray, is still here.)
4) International Contemporary Ensemble, Anna Thorvaldsdottir: In the Light of Air (Sono Luminus)
One of the most memorable and beautiful experiences I had in 2015 was an April concert by International Contemporary Ensemble performing pieces by Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir at the Museum of Contemporary Art, and the studio recording the group subsequently made of the centerpiece of that program lives up to my memories. A three-movement work created specifically for ICE, In the Light of Air is a stunning evocation of nature that casts a ritualistic trance: piano scrapes, scratchy cello and viola bowing, terse clusters of harp notes, bowed vibraphone, and rumbling percussion jut out of a collective murmur. Sometimes instruments line up and trace fragile melodies, like tendrils of sound crawling over a bleak landscape; later brief, gorgeous soliloquies emerge for piano and viola, followed by repeating long tones and meandering piano that together push the music into a distant oblivion.
3) Joanna Newsom, Divers (Drag City)
Joanna Newsom's most sure-handed and impressive accomplishment yet, Divers balances the fantastic qualities of her words and melodies with a dazzling directness and clarity that's pulled me in like nothing since her 2004 debut. Her composing combines folk-pop with Baroque flourishes, while her singing blends mannered formalism, loose pop phrasing, and otherworldly warbling—and the idea-packed miniatures on Divers move from strength to strength with precision and fluidity. I've been giddily discovering the record's countless secrets and rewards with each additional spin.
2) JD Allen, Graffiti (Savant)
I don't think anyone has excelled in the sax-trio format over the past decade as much as JD Allen, who has developed a quicksilver rapport with this band (bassist Gregg August and drummer Rudy Royston). His beautifully grainy tone sparkles as he deconstructs each succinct, earthy, graceful theme; his sidemen provide imperturbable support, cushioning and prodding his improvisations.
1) Henry Threadgill Zooid, In for a Penny, In for a Pound (Pi)
This dense double album from the remarkable Henry Threadgill doesn't introduce any new ideas to Zooid's repertoire, but it captures his potent working group at a new artistic peak—which is really saying something given the previous highs. As usual, the band builds its fluid, multilinear improvisations around fixed harmonic intervals, but the way it exploits its rich, distinctive ensemble timbre in its quicksilver interactions is nothing short of breathtaking.