Top 10 jazz albums
Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society
“Real Enemies” This 78-minute CD-length piece for 18-piece orchestra is no less than Argue’s attempt to convey, musically, “a social history of paranoia in the United States since World War I.” Influenced by the 12-tone sounds of ’70s Hollywood cinema, he crafted a piece that was chilling, funny, and rollicking with varied grooves, strong solos, and the occasional drop-in spoken-word from John F. Kennedy, George H.W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and the like. Argue and the Secret Society gave the Boston premiere of the “Real Enemies” at the Museum of Fine Arts in October.
Michael Formanek Ensemble Kolossus
“The Distance” This first big-band project by veteran bassist and composer Formanek reveals him as a master of the format: sustained, churning long forms with continuous development, clear relationships between improvised and written material, details that ring out as part of a clearly articulated whole. Animating the writing are solo contributions from the likes of saxophonist Chris Speed, cornettist Kirk Knuffke, and guitarist Mary Halvorson.
Charles Lloyd & the Marvels
“I Long to See You” Here master saxophonist and flutist Lloyd joined his regular cohort of bassist Reuben Rogers and drummer Eric Harland with guitarist Bill Frisell and steel guitarist Greg Leisz for a program with a strong strain of Americana: Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War” as well as Lloyd originals, hymns, and folk songs, with guest spots by Willie Nelson and Norah Jones. Lloyd and the Marvels played Berklee Performance Center in January and Scullers in December.
“Lovers” Cline — a musical polymath perhaps best known as a guitarist with Wilco — brought a special sense of personal intimacy to the idea of large-band orchestration, with help from arranger Michael Leonhart. The material ranges from Rodgers & Hart and Jimmy Giuffre to Sonic Youth’s “Snare, Girl,” interspersed with a good handful of carefully weighted Cline originals. Cline’s performance at the Newport Jazz Festival with the “Lovers” ensemble was a standout.
“Back Home” Aldana — the 2013 Thelonious Monk Competition winner, and a former Berklee student — continues to assert her authority with this outing, matching the technical control and beauty of her tenor saxophone sound with tough-minded improvisations and group interplay, playing a mix of pieces by herself and trio-mates Pablo Menares (bass) and Jochen Rueckert (drums), plus a gorgeous take on Kurt Weill and Ira Gershwin’s “My Ship.”
Jon Lundbom & Big V Chord
“2016: EPs” Austin-based guitarist Lundbom and his longstanding Big V Chord — saxophonist Jon Irabagon and bassist Moppa Elliott (both of Mostly Other People Do the Killing), saxophonist Balto Exclamationpoint, and drummer Dan Monaghan — originally released these four EPs as digital-only before collecting them on disc. Combining free improvisation with compositional deliberation, the band moves through rock and funk grooves and hard, bluesy, walking-bass swing, each CD anchored by a vintage Ornette Coleman composition.
Eric Hofbauer Quintet
“Three Places in New England” A typically evocative piece for orchestra by the ornery early-20th century visionary Charles Ives gets broken down for this lucid, transparent chamber-jazz reading for guitar, trumpet, clarinet, cello, and percussion. It was the third entry in Boston-based guitarist/composer Hofbauer’s “pre-historic jazz” series, following Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” and Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time.”
“The Bell” Composer and drummer/percussionist Smith — here with pianist Craig Taborn and violist (and former longtime Bostonian) Mat Maneri — is as likely to remind you of Morton Feldman as of Monk, here favoring the transparent textures, serene spaciousness, and repetitive patterns of minimalism. But it also gets loud. That meditative serenity can easily coalesce around hard beats and fortissimo piano chords. Minimal doesn’t mean no drama.
“Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground” Tenor saxophonist Preminger — a master with standards and ballads as well as an adventurous composer and bandleader — continued the exploration of the blues that began with last year’s “Pivot: Live at the 55 Bar,” this time with a collection of early Delta bluesmen, in original, imaginative arrangements. Working with the same band (trumpeter Jason Palmer, bassist Kim Cass, drummer Ian Froman), Preminger lets a little Ornette into his sound to join Coltrane and Rollins. One of the most emotionally satisfying discs of the year.
“Hidden Voices” On this trio disc (with bassist Eric Revis and drummer Gerald Cleaver) Cuban-born pianist/composer Ortiz creates a palette of sound that owes as much to American jazz’s experimental avant-garde as to the musical traditions of his homeland. The material ranges from exploratory originals to traditional Cuban son and a linking of two Ornette Coleman tunes, all delivered with vibrant immediacy.
Mili Bermejo & Dan Greenspan
“Arte del Dúo” You could look at this album as the culmination (to this point, anyway) of a 40-year musical partnership between singer-composer (and longtime Berklee professor) Mili Bermejo and her husband, bassist Dan Greenspan. Developed over the course of a residency at Cambridge’s Lilypad, the material spans an idiosyncratic blend of Latin-American songs and originals. A little gem, this recording is both daring in its spare intimacy and profound in its fearless, joyful execution.