From hip-hop beats to ’70s-style fusion, jazz artists are mixing it up in 2018

By Lucas Phillips Globe Correspondent 

You might not have seen many jazz artists mount the stage at last month’s Grammys (a gripe for another time), but a new year in jazz is already underway. Here’s a look at a half-dozen
notable albums released so far in 2018.

GoGo Penguin, “A Humdrum Star”

GoGo Penguin’s second Blue Note release is an album about being lost in the universe. It’s accordingly vast and unremittingly lonely. The UK-based trio combines acoustic and electric sounds just as they blend jazz and electronic influences. At its best, the album offers hummable melodies and addictive rhythmic interplay. At worst, it sounds like a club remix of British arena pop. Devoted fans of improvised music will probably find “A Humdrum Star” a little, well, humdrum. Others might get a full sense of many of these songs in the first 30 seconds, but still thoroughly enjoy the ride.

Chris Dave and the Drumhedz, “Chris Dave and the Drumhedz”


Chris Dave and the Drumhedz’s brilliant self-titled debut album (they also have a 2013 EP to their name) is a labyrinth of musical roots: brass bands, R&B, rock, pop, psychedelic funk, neo-soul, hip-hop, bop. Surprising, richly textured hip-hop songs with close musical ties to Robert Glasper, Kendrick Lamar are explosively supported by nearly 50 of some of the most in-demand players and shapers in contemporary music. Like his cohort, drummer Chris Dave is a human map of musical relationships — with credits on albums by Kenny Garrett, Glasper, Lionel Richie, Adele, and D’Angelo, to name a few — and their music sounds like it. This album is soulful, banging, free-flowing, and oh-so beat-delicious.

Lewis Porter, “Beauty & Mystery

The most notable recent jazz release with local roots comes from pianist and educator Lewis Porter, who has enlisted Berklee faculty members Tia Fuller (saxophone), Terri Lyne Carrington (drums), and John Patitucci (bass) in chasing Einsteinian inspiration. “Beauty & Mystery,” Porter’s take on a quote from the legendary physicist, aims for the sublime, with simplicity as a rule, for straight-ahead swing and pop covers. Uninspiring originals and arrangements keep the wheels on the ground for this date, but Porter is propelled by strong sidemen in Patitucci and Carrington. A “Beauty & Mystery” CD release show is set for Feb. 15 at Scullers Jazz Club.

Julian Lage, “Modern Lore”

Lage’s new album asks — and answers — the question: Why record another bluesy electric guitar album? Picking up where 2016’s “Arclight” left off, Lage plays with an ultra-polished but dusty sound (think Chet Atkins) that expresses pure love for the Americana that is electric guitar. He’s joined by top-notch bassist Scott Colley and drummer Kenny Wollesen on short, satisfyingly direct originals. Some tracks lag, but it helps that the production is nothing short of supreme. The album’s restrained, punchy lyricism is something of a ’50s throwback, yet it has a throaty earnestness that sounds like youth itself.

The Chick Corea & Steve Gadd Band, “Chinese Butterfly”

It’s the mid-1970s: Synthesizers and international beats are hipper than hip, New Age music is new, Earth Wind & Fire is the hot band, and drummer Steve Gadd is doing his first stint with a legendary fusion band led by Chick Corea. Now the two groove masters have teamed up again on this two-disc release that might best be described as a return to Return to Forever. With expansive, romping jams that have all those ’70s hallmarks (yes, even EW&F falsetto singer Philip Bailey appears), “Chinese Butterfly” is good-hearted fun, though it can sometimes sound out-of-date. Rock-solid playing all around livens Corea originals that are sometimes Gadd-oriented to a fault.

Dr. Lonnie Smith, “All In My Mind”


Smith’s new live album may be the best straight-ahead release so far this year. Recorded as part of Smith’s 75th birthday celebration this past summer, it finds the organist and his trio in top form. The highlight of the record — and the only new original on it — “Alhambra” has Smith masterfully building a deep web of keyboard sounds beyond the Hammond B-3 organ for which he’s known. Whether he’s playing standards, his classic brand of soul jazz, or even singing, Smith is dialed in. Even a nine-minute-plus cover of Paul Simon’s “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” is surprisingly satisfying.

Lucas Phillips can be reached at