\\ Supreme Standards Top 10 Jazz and Jazz-ish albums of 2018

14th December 2018

Jazz is the alternative music of the 2010s. Whilst music scenes like grime and gqom have expanded into movements that have travelled, nothing has vibrated quite as far as twenty-first century Jazz. 

In 2018, records have landed that will be enjoyed, talked about and dissected for years. In addition to the five that we’ve given special nods to in our week of Facebook reviews, we’re presenting ten that have had a significant impact. They are records which have shocked, which have challenged, which have surprised. They’ve also brought communities together, and for those reasons, have made history. Here are the best ten Jazz and Jazz-ish albums of 2018. 

10. Maisha \\ ‘There is a Place’ (Brownswood)

Lead by drummer Jake Long, Maisha have revealed their debut album, ‘There is a Place’ which flurries with spiritual jazz, afrobeat and moments of what’s being referred to as ‘the London sound’. On this ambitious record, the six member band team up with several collaborators including a string quintet, evoking small-scale grandeur. Percussion from Tim Doyle and
Yahael Camara-Onono play a significant part with timbre and texture. On opening track ‘Osiris’, Shirley Tetteh gifts us with an attention-grabbing solo, before Nubya Garcia, on both sax and flute for this track, delivers a suspenseful ascending melody that climaxes towards a spiritual fanfare. The afrobeat driven ‘Eaglehurst/The Palace’ represents a live prowess in the band. There is contrast thoughout the five track record, serving evidence of a yin and yang within the band for both contemplation and roaring energy.

Maisha released an EP via Jazz re:freshed in 2016 and provided ‘Inside the Acorn’, the opening track for Brownwood’s time capsule compilation ‘We Out Here’. With ‘There is a Place’ however, they’ve reintroduced themselves as a band with a strengthened, zealous identity. 

9. Mansur Brown \\ ‘Shiroi’ (Black Focus Records)

Guitarist Mansur Brown has had to handle a lot of pressure and hype early on in his career. His band TriForce featured on Brownswood’s major compilation ‘We Out Here’ and also have an EP out on Jazz re:freshed. Further to that, Brown was only eighteen when he featured on one of the decade’s biggest breakthrough Jazz albums, Yussef Kamaal’s ‘Black Focus’. In the aftermath of the band’s dissolve, Brown has been a constant in the careers of both its members, Yussef Dayes and Kamaal Williams. With drummer Dayes, he’s been performing live and recorded tracks such as ‘Love is the Message’ at world-famous Abbey Road Studios. Meanwhile, Kamaal Williams signed Mansur Brown to his label, Black Focus Records. Now 21, the Brixton based guitarist has released his debut album, ‘Shiroi’.

Without necessity, the mysteriousness of Mansur Brown’s starting days elevates the experience of his debut record further. Its Jazz-fusion, with the glowing warmth of effects and loops applied to influences as wide as trap and Jimi Hendrix; Brown and Dayes stunned in 2018 at a Church of Sound show dedicated to the work of the legendary guitarist.

‘Shiroi’ is at times an album for contemplation. Its spaciousness shows Brown’s care for timing, phrasing and breath. Tracks like ‘Simese’ positively evoke Brown’s contributions to ‘Black Focus’, his watery-reverb sound which has become synonymous with South London. ‘Flip Up’ could be spun at 4am in sticky floor clubs, whilst ‘Hands Tied’ could be the moment to draw a lover closer in romantic reverie.

What is clear on ‘Shiroi’, is that a leitmotif floats throughout the record. One that Brown created himself to form a ‘South London sound’. To have achieved this at 21, and to create a record that refreshes his own watermark whilst simultaneously taking it further, is truly masterful.

8. Allysha Joy \\ Acadie: Raw (Gondwana)

Melbourne via Manchester, the Australian 30/70 frontwoman took a solo step when she signed with UK label Gondwana. This debut is a deeply sincere offering, concerned with progression, both musically and sociologically.

Joy is a multi-instrumentalist who is focused on her voice and keys, even using the jangley earrings either side of her neck to add twinkling percussion during live performances. Intersectional feminism — that is, the understanding that women face varying degrees of discrimination based on their race, class or LGBT status — pulses through Joy’s purpose. This is transparently clear on ‘Know Your Power’; “Respect this mind she’ll share with you / Or did your hands move unexpectedly too / You’re so self entitled / You’re shading her / So I shame myself”. Responsibility and respect are some of the biggest takeaways of this track, without a preaching undertone.

‘Acadie: Raw’ is also a sensual album; ‘Honesty’ is a dare to share, whilst ‘Swallow me’ is a self-sacrificial ballad. Melbourne’s coastal nu-soul stamp is recognisable throughout the album, but to no diservice, especially not for Gondwana founder Matthew Halsall, who has expanded the breadth of his roster with soulful signings in the shape of Joy, Leeds band Noya Rao and folkish Caoilfhionn Rose. Joy’s debut is bold in character whilst being delicate on the ear.

7. Kamasi Washington \\ ‘Heaven and Earth’ (Young Turks)

With ‘Heaven and Earth’, Kamasi Washington further confirms that he is a musician of grandeur. In the time it takes to listen to his second album, including bonus recordings within ‘The Choice’ — a hidden record within the album’s sleeves — you could do a number of things. From London, you can take the train to Antwerp, Belgium, or fly to Corfu in Greece. You might even be able to pick up your baggage from the carousel before the end of ‘Ooh Child’.

Whilst Washington has been heralded as a future legend since the release of ‘The Epic’ in 2015 (which was recorded in 2011), the championing hasn’t come without its own baggage, with some making a point of his solos not being all they’d hoped for. However, whilst many Jazz musicians make soloing their track’s bread and butter, Washington isn’t concerned with that kind of showmanship. On ‘Heaven and Earth’ he blazes bright as a composer, arranger and  reconceptualist. Regarding the latter, what Washington is doing isn’t completely new, but the way he presents a mind-body dualism is refreshingly light and approachable.

It’s often said that the most successful ideas are those that are different in some way, but similar enough to what’s been before in order to bear familiarity and recognition. Were Washington to be a little more ‘out there’ with his solos, or experiemntal with his concepts, he might not be the ‘saviour’ he is coined as being. ‘Heaven and Earth’ finds a perfect balance. 

6. Ben Lamar Gay \\ ‘Downtown Castles Can Never Block the Sun’ (International Anthem)

Chicago native Ben Lamar Gay is unconcerned with following the path of others; his music sounds comparable to little, except perhaps for 2017’s standalone ‘Bottle Tree’; an album he recorded in partnership with A.M Frison — it has all the hallmarks of an underground cult status record.

What makes ‘Downtown Castles Can Never Block The Sun’ so impressive, is that it’s equal parts debut and Greatest Hits. With seven solo albums recorded that had never seen the light of day, Scottie McNeice of International Anthem convinced Gay to let those records come out of the darkness. Whilst the seven albums are now trickling out, ‘Downtown Castles’ provides a tantilising glimpse of what Gay is capable of. The cornestist also uses keys, percussion, his voice and all kinds of miscellaneous sound effects to create textures which clink and clank, melodies that stick, and sounds that peak curiositiy.

Whilst Gay thrives in avant-garde territory, his music is incredibly accessible. Take for example ‘A Seasoning Called Primavera’ with its sing-a-long chorus, the floating-in-space ‘Mehlor Que Tem’ — taken from the Brazilian documentary ‘This Is Bate Bola’ which he scored in its entirety — or the sexually-progressive ‘Kunni’. Ben Lamar Gay is upheld in Chicago’s world-class scene. With his Greatest Hits proceeding seven albums, his career is likely to be as unpredictable as his discography. 

5. Sarathy Korwar \\ ‘My East Is Your West’ (Gearbox Records)

Recorded live at Church of Sound, the Clapton based residency, ‘My East is Your West’ is a reconfiguration; a gentle provocation to amend what has come before it. Percussionist Sarathy Korwar is highly adaptive and curious. On this record, he lends these qualities to spiritual jazz, particularly to pieces that were inspired by Eastern sounds, yet which were performed and recorded through the perspective of Western musicians. Although this cultural migration is mostly celebrated as a positive — having given us many celebrated standards such as Coltrane’s ‘Journey In Satchidananda’ — Korwar saw an opportunity to rebalance the scales.

With his UPAJ collective — a group of ten musicians who share experience and a fascination of both Jazz and Indian Classical music — Korwar readdressed tracks such as ‘Creator Has a Masterplan’, ‘Mind Ecology’, and Coltrane’s aforementioned classic. On the former, Korwar’s arrangement is almost unreocgnisable from Pharoah Sanders’ composition until Tamar Osborn enters after two minutes on the flute. The fast-paced fanfare of its introduction, so varied from the version known to generations, proves Korwar’s bravery as an innovator, inserting himself and his fellow musicians into the standards’ history.

4. John Coltrane \\ ‘Both Directions at Once: The Lost Album’ (Impulse!/Universal Music Group)

“This is like finding a new room in the Great Pyramid”, said legendary saxophonist Sonny Rollins on the discovery of John Coltrane’s ‘The Lost Album’. The reality of this record sounds like something of fandom fantasy; a Jazz legend records music at a thriving time in his music career — 1963 — only for it to be left unheard in his former Queens apartment in New York for 55 years.

The album recorded to tape features two originals, named by their studio references. On ‘Untitled Original 11383’, Coltrane plays soprano sax, delivering memorable runs, bedded by a rare arco bass solo from Jimmy Garrison. It drives loose and tight, whilst on ‘Untitled Original 11386’, we hear the quartet restructuring their usual approach by returning to the main theme between solos — not something we’re used to hearing from these musicians at the time. It’s a classy composition with depth of range and small moments of samba in the rhythm section. It’s on this album that we also hear Coltrane’s first recording of ‘Nature Boy’ — Coltrane revealed a longer, elaborate version in 1965. However with this take, its impact is concentrated. 

Coltrane recorded this album as part of his classic quartet 21 months before the ‘Love Supreme’ recordings; a record considered to be one of the greatest of all time. This lost tape, which gathered dust on a shelf in Queens for more than half a century, is nothing short of a revelation, and post-humously extends a discography across the second millennium. 

3. ‘Makaya McCraven \\ Universal Beings’ (International Anthem)

Makaya McCraven is the only constant in an album recorded across four cities; Chicago, New York, L.A. and London. It was a matter of building pop-up studios for the latter two city’s documentations, but the DIY aesthetic doesn’t mean that ‘Universal Beings’ isn’t a slick record. McCraven’s signature DNA is hip-hop production with equal parts jazz improvisation. Much like his breakthrough solo debut ‘In The Moment’, the 22 tracks on this double LP were all built from improvised sessions. Beat scientist McCraven has an incredible ear for hooks and groove, showcased throughout, especially on ‘Suite Haus’. 

The collective of collaborators are of an outstanding level, given the breadth of their careers; some rising, some established for decades. Harpist Brandee Younger (Moses Sumney, Lauryn Hill) and cellist Tomeka Reid (Hear In Now) create a delicate balance on ‘Holy Lands’ and syncronised jeopardy on ‘Tall Tales’, both recorded in New York. Meanwhile, comparative risers from London give the record necessary spaciousness. Recorded in the very same day and location as the first CHICAGOxLONDON performance — at the legendary Total Refreshment Centre — pianist Ashley Henry graciously provides bedding for Nubya Garcia’s rolling saxophone melody on the aptly named ‘The Newbies Lift Off’.

Londoner Shabaka Hutchings creates conceptual bleed on this record, taking part in the Chicago chapter. With the continuation of Reid and addition of bassist Junius Paul, who recently joined the top-class avant-garde group Art Ensemble of Chicago, they move together on ‘Atlantic Black’ like a ferocious tide, ebbing back and forth in a storm. The L.A. tracks which close the record highlight a Californian state of mind, providing intellectual stimulation with some restbite after the intense first half of the record. McCraven’s clip-clap on ‘Turtle Tricks’ evokes calmer waters, whilst the title track that closes the journey is stripped to bare simplicity; human connection, with players locked in with each other, ebbing and flowing, and deeply universal.

2. Various \\ ‘We Out Here’ (Brownswood)

With artists hand-picked by Gilles Peterson, his Brownswood team and musically directed by future legend Shabaka Hutchings, ‘We Out Here’ is a self-contained time capsule of London Jazz circa 2017-2018.

Nine acts have a documented moment on the compilation, which for some, provided a springboard for a fruitful year. ‘Abusey Junction’ by KOKOROKO, lead by trumpeter Sheila Maurice-Grey, has been an runaway success on Youtube; it’s tipping on fifteen million views at the time of writing. It’s the band’s only track online, but it’s provided them the opportunity for a European tour in 2019. Tuba player Theon Cross hasn’t released anything under his solo project — having been busy with Sons of Kemet and Kano amongst many others — since his ‘Aspirations’ EP in early 2015. Therefore ‘Brockley’, with its’ dirty, thumping and fearless uni-fanfare, is oxygen. On record, his previous EP showed us a Theon that played with some lightness of touch. However ‘Brockley’ is a clearer reflection of his weight as a heavy-punching live player. Hutchings’ utilises his clarinet for ‘Black Skin Black Masks’, using it as a rapper would use his mouth and vocal cords. He spits bars.

‘We Out Here’ is a record of variety, vitality and versatility. It’s a shoebox of treasure to be discovered repeatedly throughout the twenty-first century. 

1. Sons of Kemet \\ ‘Your Queen is a Reptile’ (Impulse!)

On the same label as John Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders and Ibrahim Maalouf belongs the third album from Sons of Kemet, ‘Your Queen is a Reptile’. Disruptive and awakening, it is a swept viel on colonialism, violence and injustice experienced by black immigrants by British monarchy. In that sense, the attitude is sincerely punk. With each track dedicated to a black woman of significant impact, ‘Your Queen is a Reptile’ is an opportunity for corrective re-education. There are moments that bring the theme to the band’s deeply personal sphere, with the opening track, ‘My Queen is Ada Eastman’, being a triumphant tribute to Hutchings’ own grandmother.

British MC Congo Natty is invited to pay tribute to Mamie Phipps Clark — a social psychologist who fought against her naysayers to prove the effects of racial segreation on children — with a dubby, reggae-roots rumble. Harriet Tubman, an abolitionist who freed approximately seventy enslaved people, is spotlighted with a nerve-shredding Caribbean soca-meets-grime bash. With ‘Your Queen is Anna Julia Cooper’, we’re delivered a rolling strut with Hutchings spitting bars on his clarinet. Drummers Sebastian Rochford and Moses Boyd drive a roaring afrobeat romp on ‘My Queen is Albertina Sisulu’, with Cross and Hutchings weaving stacatto stabs in a frantic exchange of energies. Each track has a powerful individuality, much like their influencers. It is a record to set records straight.

‘Your Queen is a Reptile’ isn’t the easiest album to listen to this year by quite a stretch, but it’s met people’s thirst for a challenge. To mark the album’s Hyunda Mercury Prize nomination this year, the band performed at the awards ceremony. They didn’t take the prize home — but they received the only standing ovation of the night. Meanwhile, in 2018, they’ve been touring the world extensively to sell out crowds. This album has raised questions and encouraged conversations. Sons of Kemet are the people’s choice.

– Tina Edwards

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