“Grace” In a turbulent year, sometimes the quietest statements were the most powerful. Singer Lizz Wright’s “Grace” was a welcome balm — an exploration of her Southern heritage through a broad-ranging collection of roots, gospel, blues, pop, and jazz, from Ray Charles, Nina Simone, and Sister Rosetta Tharpe to Bob Dylan, k.d. lang, and Allen Toussaint. The enveloping warmth of Wright’s voice and the continuity in Joe Henry’s production make tracks like Dylan’s “Every Grain of Sand” and the Frank Perkins-Mitchell Parish standard “Stars Fell on Alabama” all of a piece, and a nuanced expression of the American experience.
Dominique Eade and Ran Blake
“Town and Country” Singer Eade and pianist/composer Blake have been collaborators since they began working as student and teacher at New England Conservatory in 1978. Their combined interests in folk, blues, and jazz standards, and Blake’s particular interest in music drawn from, or inspired by, American film noir, make for a haunting, mythic depiction of the American landscape, from Jean Ritchie’s “West Virginia Mine Disaster” and Johnny Cash’s “Give My Love to Rose,” to Bob Dylan’s “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” the spiritual “Elijah Rock,” Henry Mancini’s “Moon River” (part of a “moon trilogy”), and Leadbelly’s “Goodnight, Irene.”
“Honey and Salt: Music Inspired by the Poetry of Carl Sandburg” Long one of the most ebullient and generous performers on the jazz scene, drummer and composer Matt Wilson digs into his familial and hometown connection to a poet with whom he shares the same optimistic vision and appetites. The music veers from bluesy acoustic funk to spare jazz abstraction, the poetry alternately sung (by guitarist Dawn Thomson) and spoken (Sandburg, John Scofield, Joe Lovano, Carla Bley), the themes ranging from prairie barns and Depression soup lines to a reminder to “Choose” — because kindness is always an option.
“Hudson” This all-star collective offered its own response to the turn of the year (recorded in January) with this mix of originals and classic-rock covers, all drawing from the Hudson River Valley where Jack DeJohnette, Larry Grenadier, John Medeski, and John Scofield all live, and the musical ground zero of ’60s culture, Woodstock. So there’s Joni Mitchell’s song of that name, some Hendrix, Dylan, and the Band, deep, understated funk grooves, a bit of swing, Scofield’s eloquent vocal guitar lines, and a closing Native American chant by DeJohnette as a benediction.
“Serious Play” In 2013, Hungarian-born pianist, composer, and Berklee prof Gardony reflected on the loss of his parents with the spontaneously improvised CD “Clarity,” as clear-eyed and eloquent as it was deeply felt. In January, obeying the need to respond to this particular historical moment, he went into the studio again, for this mix of improvised pieces like “Truth to Power,” as well as standards like “Georgia on My Mind,” “Over the Rainbow, ” and John Coltrane’s “Naima.” By turns angry, mournful, and hopeful, it’s another major statement.
Rez Abbasi and Invocation
“Unfiltered Universe” Born in Karachi, Pakistan, and raised in Southern California, guitarist and composer Abbasi has long explored the twining musical traditions of South Asia and American jazz. This is the third volume from his band Invocation, with saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, pianist Vijay Iyer, bassist Johannes Weidenmueller, and drummer Dan Weiss. Elsewhere, I called this specifically Southern Indian investigation “Carnatic bebop,” which gives you an idea of the energy, virtuosity, and beguiling forms.
“Típico” The Puerto Rican alto saxophonist, composer, New England Conservatory professor, and MacArthur “genius” fellow Miguel Zenón took a break from some of his more specific conceptual explorations of his homeland and its people and their states-side born offspring for this focus on his band of more than a decade: pianist Luis Perdomo, bassist Hans Glawischnig, drummer Henry Cole. Various Afro-Caribbean themes thread through these eight pieces, but mostly it meets Zenón’s goal of expressing the collective identity of a superb ensemble.
Vijay Iyer Sextet
“Far From Over” It might seem like a back-handed compliment to call this album from pianist, composer, Harvard prof (and another MacArthur fellow) Vijay Iyer his most accessible. Yes, the knotty meters, twisty themes, and shifting forms are all here, but so is a hard-bop affinity for grand, declarative melodies and even some Miles-like electric grooves, and a classic front line of alto sax (Steve Lehman), tenor (Mark Shim), and cornet/flugelhorn (Graham Haynes).
Frank Carlberg Large Ensemble
“Monk Dreams, Hallucinations, and Nightmares” Pianist and composer Carlberg, a familiar presence on the Boston scene as performer and educator, here delivered a statement, both rigorous and raucous, on the many moods of Thelonious Monk, abstracting bits of some themes, delivering others full-blown. This was one of many tributes this year honoring the centennial of the great jazz composer.
“Neko” With the death of two band members — bassist Norikatsu Koreyasu in September 2011, and guitarist Kazuhiko Tsumura in June 2015 — this band, led by trumpeter Natsuki Tamura, is now carrying on as a trio, with the extraordinary pianist and composer Satoko Fujii (Tamura’s wife), on accordion, and trombonist Yasuko Kaneko. Spare, meditative, with long-lined melodies over static harmonies, it’s a small masterpiece of minimalist drama and redemption.
LOCAL ARTIST PICK
Eric Hofbauer Quintet
“Reminiscing in Tempo” A special MVP award this year goes to guitarist Eric Hofbauer, who is a regular with the Boston area’s most adventurous jazz and free-improv outfits. Last year he made my list with his chamber-jazz arrangement of Charles Ives’s “Three Places in New England,” part of his “pre-historic jazz” series, which has also included Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” and Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time.” This time out, Hofbauer’s band is covering more standard fare, but with an equally original take, Ellington’s rarely performed (even by Ellington) 1935 “Reminiscing in Tempo.”