1. Mary Halvorson Octet, Away With You (Firehouse 12)
Last year guitarist Mary Halvorson released one of her best albums, a peculiar solo recording of jazz standards and cover songs rendered in her own inimitable style—Meltframe privileges her wonderfully jagged improvisational approach as she reimagines the structure and scale of the tunes. This year she's dropped an even better record that showcases her continuously improving skills as an arranger and writer. On Away With You, Halvorson leads a powerful octet (with idiosyncratic pedal steel guitarist Susan Alcorn providing a liquid foil to her angular playing), and she's reached a new peak as a composer, balancing melodic fragility with harmonic strength. The members of the band get plenty of improvisational leeway, but the ensemble—and the material—comes first.
2. JD Allen Trio, Americana (Savant)
On the fantastic Americana: Musings on Jazz and Blues (Savant), tenor saxophonist JD Allen digs into the elemental I-IV-V chord pattern that underpins so much American music, including Delta blues, country, rock, and soul—though he prefers structures other than the familiar 12-bar configuration. The album's wide array of sounds is rooted in the basic language of hard bop, but it conveys the spirit and feel of folk music. Working with a spry, agile rhythm section (bassist Gregg August and drummer Rudy Royston), Allen uses his full-bodied tone to revisit the approach that Sonny Rollins famously took to this trio format, though the two horn men don't sound much alike—like Rollins, he tears apart phrases and melodies, working them over and recombining their parts.
3. Tyshawn Sorey, The Inner Spectrum of Variables (Pi)
On Tyshawn Sorey's devastatingly gorgeous The Inner Spectrum of Variables, he's a composer and conductor first, a drummer and improviser second. The six-part suite, spread over two CDs and running almost two hours, is not only his greatest work to date but also one of the year's most arresting and ambitious recordings. Sorey's ensemble includes pianist Cory Smythe and bassist Chris Tordini, joined by three remarkable string players: violinist Fung Chern Hwei, violist Kyle Armbrust (brother of Spektral Quartet violist Doyle), and cellist Rubin Kodheli. Without descending into pastiche or postmodern goop, Sorey pursues sophisticated concepts that make room for various traditions and genres.
4. Henry Threadgill Ensemble Double Up, Old Locks and Irregular Verbs (Pi)
I saw Ensemble Double Up premiere this music in 2014 at the Winter Jazzfest in New York, and here as there, Threadgill doesn't play—instead he conducts a top-notch lineup consisting of two pianists (Jason Moran and David Virelles), two alto saxophonists (Curtis MacDonald and Roman Filiu), tubaist Jose Davila, cellist Christopher Hoffman, and drummer Craig Weinrib. The album is a concert-length work written in homage to cornetist Lawrence "Butch" Morris, pioneer of conduction, who died in January 2013; starting in the mid-70s, after he and Threadgill both ended up in New York, they often played together. Old Locks and Irregular Verbs expands on the compositional system Threadgill uses in his group Zooid, but he says it's "not as tightly prescribed"—the musicians have more latitude to navigate the material according to what they hear from their bandmates. And despite the potentially unwieldy size of the lineup, the performances feel impressively lucid.
5. Jeff Parker, The New Breed (International Anthem)
Guitarist Jeff Parker has long tinkered at home with electronic beats and samples, but by and large he's kept those experiments to himself. He finally started sharing earlier this year with the release of New Breed, the first record he's made with a Los Angeles group since moving there from Chicago a few years ago—the core players are drummer Jamire Williams, bassist Paul Bryan, and saxophonist and fellow Chicago expat Josh Johnson. Parker's music is raw and off-center, maintaining a consistent tension between looped beats and electronic patterns on one hand and his limber band's relaxed grooves on the other. As usual, his lovely melodies are quietly insinuating, snaking easily into your memory while creating a taut, surprising friction with the tunes' rhythmic and harmonic elements.
6. Jim Black Trio, The Constant (Intakt)
Drummer Jim Black has one of the most immediately recognizable styles in jazz—his wonderfully unhinged playing bears the mark of the rock backbeat, but he adds a clanking, disruptive quality that forces his collaborators to sharpen their reflexes. Recently Black has been leading one of the best bands in his busy career, an unlikely trio with bassist Thomas Morgan and Austrian pianist Elias Stemeseder that balances his investments in chaos and melody. Black's ballads are the most effective pieces on the record: "Song E" is exquisitely tender, complementing the sensitivity and warmth of Morgan and Stemeseder's solos, and Black exercises great restraint while still kicking out firm backbeats.
7. Steve Lehman, Sélébéyone (Pi)
I remain skeptical of collisions between hip-hop and jazz, but on Sélébéyone alto saxophonist Steve Lehman makes the most effective case for the hybrid I've ever heard. Drummer Damion Reid drops complex beats with inhuman precision, keyboardist Carlos Homs spins halos of fractal harmonies, and French saxophonist Maciek Lasserre slaloms alongside Lehman on the front line—together they map out an amazing gauntlet for the rapping of HPrizm (Anti-Pop Consortium) and Senegalese MC Gaston Bandimic (who rhymes in Wolof).
8. Anna Högberg Attack, Anna Högberg Attack (Omlott)
This debut album by alto saxophonist Anna Högberg—a knockout punch from her young Swedish sextet—was one of the year's most exciting discoveries. She's worked in the Fire! Orchestra (Mats Gustafsson's big band), and she's already making a great case for herself as a composer, arranger, and bandleader—she deftly moves between orchestral serenity, scalding free-jazz intensity, thoughtfully melodic solos, and coloristic abstraction. Her killer band—saxophonists Malin Wättring and Elin Larsson, pianist Lisa Ullén, bassist Elsa Bergman, and drummer Anna Lund—brings her vision to life with electric clarity, navigating swiftly and precisely through shifting landscapes.
9. Tim Stine Trio, Tim Stine Trio (Astral Spirits)
Chicagoan Tim Stine plays acoustic guitar and writes knotty, seesawing lines that arrive in sudden rushes of activity—he often follows tangles of tightly clustered notes with measures of silence, sounding like Derek Bailey if he'd decided he wanted to swing again. Bassist Anton Hatwich and drummer Frank Rosaly impart a brisk energy to the music, avoiding clutter in order to give Stine a spacious platform for his heaving-and-retreating melodies. Most jazz guitarists play electric and augment their sound with a variety of effects, but Stine plays acoustic with no effects at all—just moderate amplification that gives his tone a bit more bite, and that only at live shows, not when he records. You can hear exactly what he's doing.
10. Darcy James Argue's Secret Society, Real Enemies (New Amsterdam)
The third album from ambitious New York composer and bandleader Darcy James Argue is thick with paranoia—it uses the idea of conspiracy theories as a conceptual framework, examining the tendency of the postwar U.S. to embrace them to explain political, social, and economic conditions and movements. Few jazz orchestras still exist these days, but the Secret Society is one of the best and most probing. Argue has written and arranged 13 pieces that stand up to the conceptual underpinnings he's chosen. v