Our Best releases of 2017 list constantly changed length whilst it was being compiled; Top 10, Top 25, even Top 50. It’s been an exceptional year for Jazz and Jazz-ish releases, many of them debuts. We drew the line at 20, mainly for our own sanity.
We’ve been pumped to see so many of the artists featured in our Eleven acts you need to know in 2017 list, published in January of this year, make serious moves; two of them have made our Top 10 with their debut releases.
Mini-spoiler alert of sorts; we need to nod to the killing releases that we couldn’t squeeze into our Top 20. Floating Points (New Energy) and Eric Lau (Examples) have both made big impacts on the electronic scene. We also acknowledge that we’ve not been able to include some of the new artists that we’ve been supporting this year including vocalist Maya Huyana with her impressive debut EP Rebirth. Keep your eyes on her in 2018.
Harder still has been sifting through the incredible tide of Jazz and nu-Jazz. Ezra Collective, Wildflower and Vels Trio have been marking the UK’s continuing growth as a Jazz giant, whilst the US continues to trail-blaze a sound engrained with hip-hop, groove and soul; Terrace Martin impressed just about everyone with big tune Intentions. Jordan Rakei, Moses Sumney and Sampha brought genre-less beauty this year. In Melbourne, 30/70 showed us just how strong their neo-soul scene is. Meanwhile, Far Out Recordings and Philophon continue to share with us some of the most alluring music from around the world.
Rest assured, we spent sleepless nights working out our Top 20. We’ve picked the 20 releases, some critically acclaimed and others less known, that truly mark an incredible year in music.
4 \\ Kamasi Washington – Harmony of Difference [Young Turks]
The latest release to come from Kamasi Washington since 2015’s lauded triple LP The Epic, Harmony of Difference contains a similar grandeur to its predecessor, contained within the shortened form of only 32 minutes of music. Built around the compositional notion of counterpoint—the interdependence of musical elements that rhythmically diverge and yet unite in harmony—Washington takes this form as metaphor, applying the titular harmony of difference to the properties of Desire, Humility, Knowledge, Perspective, Integrity, and Truth. The result is a densely interwoven suite of music that riffs off of the same chord progression, uniting each element in the final 13-minute number, Truth.
Through repetition saxophonist Washington finds difference and originality, a unique identity within the simplest of musical progressions and notations. From the languorous, bass-driven opening of Desire, the record progresses to the rhythmically swung charge of Humility, Knowledge’s understated melody, to the soul-drenched groove of Perspective, before finishing on the Afro-Latin clave rhythms of Integrity. It is in Truth, however, that Washington’s ingenuity as a composer shines through.
Harking back to the choral majesty of tracks like Change of the Guard on The Epic, Truth feels like an entire LP in itself, building from dreamy vibraphone lines to bursts of Washington’s reed-breaking intensity and flashes of cosmic crescendo. The track is accompanied by an incredible montage video shot by AG Rojas, marking out Harmony of Difference as a truly interdisciplinary work.
3 \\ Thundercat – DRUNK [Brainfeeder]
Every Thundercat record plays like a brief glimpse into the hyperactive, musical-genius mind of its maker, Stephen Bruner. For Bruner’s third LP as Thundercat, Drunk, we have a glimpse into his love for cats, especially his own–Tron–on the groove-heavy A Fan’s Mail, his love for Tokyo on the ‘80s synth-funk track of the same name, and his enduring love for yacht rock with the Kenny Loggins and Michael McDonald-featuring Show You The Way. Aside from novelty autobiographical references though, Drunk is a typically mind-melting mish-mash of musical styles that Thundercat executes uniquely: Jazz meets trap meets funk meets soul.
His most sketch-like record so far, what Drunk lacks in narrative owing to its abundance of one-minute songs, it makes up for in abundant creativity. Take the minimal production and typically incisive lyrics of Kendrick Lamarfeature Walk On By, sequenced directly after the kitsch groove of Show You The Way, or the comic lyricism of Friend Zone positioned before the strangely touching songwriting of heartbreak on Them Changes. None of it should work but the earnest authenticity and skilled musicianship holds it all together as a patchwork of imagination unleashed.
2 \\ Alice Coltrane – World Spirituality Classics 1: The Ecstatic Music of Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda [Luaka Bop]
Influenced by her late husband John Coltrane’s fascination with spirituality and its intersections with music, Alice Coltrane found herself drawn to Eastern spiritual tradition, specifically Hinduism and the Vedas. Rather than a passing, new-age affectation, Coltrane devoted much of her life to this myriad set of beliefs, founding the Vedantic Centre in California in 1975. Here Coltrane taught a community of spiritualists under the Sanskrit title of Swamini Turiyasangitananda.
Much like the open-minded, accessible nature of the Ashram—which operated without doctrine or liturgy—Ecstatic Music is not a collection of traditional devotional recordings. Instead, Coltrane takes the Sanskrit bhajans—comprised of chants sung to evoke the power and spirit of God—and places them within the context of her own musical background. The Oberheim OB-8 synthesiser is therefore present on almost all of the tracks, providing a rousing swell or Wurlitzer-like siren that disorients or lifts the melody. Tracks like Rama Rama and Rama Guru perfectly illustrate this mix of acoustic and synthetic, showcasing Coltrane’s own voice, never before recorded. On more contemplative songs such as Om Shanti and Ram Katha, Coltrane’s low-register vocalisations beautifully accompany chord progressions that demonstrate a lifetime of Jazz training.
In yoking together these varied references on Ecstatic Music, Coltrane bridges the gap between the church, Jazz, and the temple. It is testament to the power of her music that she can hold such conflicting influences together to create a beautifully unified whole.
[This piece was published in EZH Magazine on 20/12/17]