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The 20 Best Jazz Albums of 2017

The single most riveting jazz album, and arguably the most important album of the year in any style of music was Fukushima, by the Satoko Fujii Orchestra New York. A narrative of personal terror rather than a depiction of the horrific events of March 11, 2011, its tension is relentless. Fujii, who conducts the orchestra, alternates several harrowing themes within ominous cloudbanks of improvisation, poignantly lyrical solos and segments which shift from stately and elegaic to withering, chattering satire. That’s the bandleader’s response to the greed-fueled attempts to cover up the disaster. As Fukushima reactor number three continues to leak its deadly contents into the Pacific, it’s a shock that more artists haven’t addressed the ongoing environmental crisis. As Fujii succinctly said after leading the group in the world premiere of the suite in 2016, it’s not over.

Whittling this list down to another nineteen albums out of the hundreds of releases that deserve to be credited here was almost painful. It makes no sense to try to rank them: if an album’s good enough to make this list, you ought to hear it.

Ran Blake & Dominique Eade – Town & Country
Protest jazz, icy Messiaenic miniatures, reinvented standards and luminous nocturnes from the noir piano icon and his brilliant longtime singer collaborator. Listen at Spotify 

Amir ElSaffar’s Rivers of Sound – Not Two
The paradigm-shifting trumpeter/santoorist/singer’s latest large-ensemble recording, blending elements of Middle Eastern, Indian music and jazz is an album for our time: turbulent, restless and packed with poignant solos from a global lineup. Listen at New Amsterdam Records 

Anouar Brahem – Blue Maqams
The oudist teams up with bassist Dave Holland, drummer Jack DeJohnette and pianist Django Bates for some of the year’s most haunting themes, drawing evenly from the Middle East, the tropics and the west. Listen at Spotify 

JD Allen – Radio Flyer
This era’s preeminent tenor saxophonist/composer expands on his usual terse, three-to-four-minute “jukebox jazz,” biting irony and ironic humor by bringing guitarist Liberty Ellman in to join the longtime ace rhythm section of bassist Gregg August and drummer Rudy Royston. Listen to a little bit at Soundcloud 

The Mary Halvorson Octet – Away with You
The world’s foremost under-forty jazz guitarist has never written more plaintively, or more amusingly. Even more caustic sarcasm than Allen, not quite as many jokes as Mostly Other People Do the Killing (see below). Haunting pedal steel ace Susan Alcorn is the not-so-secret weapon here. Listen at Bandcamp 

Vijay Iyer – Far From Over
Like Allen, Iyer beefs up his sound, in this case bolstering his trio with bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Tyshawn Sorey by adding cornetist Graham Haynes, Steve Lehman on alto sax and Mark Shim on tenor. Fearlessly political, constantly uneasy, bustling with urban noir tableaux, a requiem and smoking bhangra jazz. Listen at Spotify 

Greg Lewis – The Breathe Suite
The organist best known for reinventing Monk tunes dedicates each track on this often shattering, sometimes acidic collection to black men murdered by police. Angst, horror and slashing solos from guitarists Marc Ribot or Ron Jackson take centerstage as the bandleader builds relentless ambience. There’s never been an organ jazz record anything like this. Listen at Spotify 

Doug Wieselman‘s Trio S – Somewhere Glimmer
The multi-reedman (who also plays banjo here, more than competently) joins forces with drummer Kenny Wollesen and cellist Jane Scarpantoni for broodingly cinematic themes on a smaller scale than his legendary, carnivalesque Kamikaze Ground Crew have typically tackled. Listen at Bandcamp 

Guy Mintus – A Home In Between
With his long-running trio, bassist Tamir Shmerling and drummer Philippe Lemm, the pensive, incisive Israeli-born pianist cascades through dark cinematic tableaux with moody Middle Eastern and angst-fueled neoromantic interludes. This is one restless album. Listen at Spotify 

Shahin Novrasli – Emanation
Eerily rustling, acerbically modal postbop and more Middle Eastern-flavored themes from the Azeri pianist (an Ahmad Jamal protege) with bassist James Cammack and drummer André Ceccarelli plus Georgian percussionist Irakli Koiava. Violinst Didier Lockwood proves perfect for this uneasy project. Listen at Spotify 

The Jihye Lee Orchestra – April Wind
The singer/composer makes some serious waves with her first big band recording, a lustrously blustery, suspensefully cinematic, dynamic suite inspired by a ferry disaster off the Korean coast. Listen at her music page 

Bill Frisell and Thomas Morgan – Small Town
The iconically  lyrical guitarist and his sympatico bassist bandmate intimately reinvent bluegrass, Lee Konitz, Paul Motian and some Frisell standbys in a return to the format he first recorded with thirty-five years ago. Listen at Spotify 

Tomas Fujiwara – Triple Double
Two horns (Taylor Ho Bynum on cornet and Ralph Alessi on trumpet), two guitars (Mary Halvorson and Brandon Seabrook) and two drummers, Gerald Cleaver holding down the second chair through variations, and frequent sparring, over one bitingly catchy theme after another. Drummers always lead the best bands, don’t they? Listen at Bandcamp  

Josh Green & the Cyborg Orchestra  – Telepathy & Bop
Composer/conductor Green ambitiously makes his debut with an irrepressibly theatrical, sometimes vaudevillian, lavishly cinematic big band album that rivals Esquivel for outside-the-box creativity and bizarro orchestration. One of the funnest and most irreverent albums of the year. Listen at Spotify 

Sam Bardfeld – The Great Enthusiasms
In this fearlessly political collection, the violinist takes each of the song titles from speeches by Richard Nixon. Pianist Kris Davis and drummer Michael Sarin join in the rich irony, bristling with energy. If Thelonious Monk had been a violinist, he would have made this record. Listen at Bandcamp 

Chuck Owen & the Jazz Surge – Whispers on the Wind
The follow-up to the composer/conductor’s titanically gripping, picturesque River Runs suite isn’t quite as intense, but it’s just as dark, inspired by Larry McMurtry, Stephen King and Cormac McCarthy. Unorthodox instrumentation to rival Darcy James Argue; twisted cowboy themes; southwestern gothic; brassy solar flares and the most counterintuitive, smart jazz guitar solo of the year: that’s LaRue Nickelson on acoustic. Listen at Spotify 

Fabian Almazan – Alcanza
The Cuban-born pianist has done some memorable work with strings and orchestration; here, the Shostakovich-inspired bandleader fully realizes that epic vision, with Camila Meza centerstage on vocals and guitar. Plaintive ballads, vertigo-inducing overlays, glistening melodicism that’s equal parts latin and classical, and a grandeur unmatched by any other album this year. Listen at Spotify 

Rudresh Mahanthappa & the Indo-Pak Coalition – Agrima
The alto saxophonist’s wind-tunnel control and technique are as breathtaking as always. The themes are more distinctly Indian, and darker, and more ambitious. Guitarist Rez Abbasi takes his tunefulness to new levels. And let’s not stop with the music: let’s say the hell with imperialist historical smog and unite India with Pakistan. Listen a little at Soundcloud

Jen Shyu – Song of Silver Geese
The esteemed singer and multi-instrumentalist peppers this surreal, envelopingly lush nocturnal suite with moon lute and piano, mingling with strings and vibraphonist Chris Dingman’s Jade Tongue ensemble. Singing in Timorese, Korean, Chinese and other languages, she gives voice to individuals real and mythical impacted by or lost to tragedy.  Listen at Pi Recordings

Mostly Other People Do the Killing  – Loafer’s Hollow
Packed with both inside jokes and irresistibly cartoonish humor, the world’s funniest jazz group give the gasface to Count Basie and his innumerable imitators in 30s style swing. They can spot a cliche a mile away and never miss their target. Satire doesn’t any broader, more spot-on or more hilarious than this. Listen at Spotify 

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The 100 Best Songs of 2017

This is a playlist. Click on each song title to stream it, click on the artist name for their webpage.

It was tempting to pick one of the segments of the Satoko Fujii Orchestra New York’s new release, Fukushima, as the best song of the year. But the single most relevant and mesmerizing album of 2017 is best heard as a contiguous suite. Taking one of its five movements out of context would spoil the experience. And it’s nowhere to be found online at the moment, anyway.

In lieu of that, the single best song of 2017, Kitten, by Dennis Davison, is still in the embryonic stage. It wasn’t released by a record label, or even recorded in a studio. It reached this blog as a voice memo, just vocals and guitar in a practice space. The frontman of cult favorite psychedelic band the Jigsaw Seen has written a lot of great songs over the years, but this one is the most harrowing. On the surface, it’s about a homeless guy who finds a kitten. He’s in trouble: he lives by the exit sign. And this is not a sweet love-conquers-all narrative. It’s a wish song – and a portrait of terminal depression as vivid and chilling as anything Phil Ochs or Ian Curtis ever wrote. And it’s as catchy as it is depressed.

Rather than trying to rank the other 99 songs here, they’re listed in rough chronological order of when they were either received or witnessed onstage. Rather than regurgitating the Best Albums of 2017 list, this one has a lot of songs that either haven’t been officially released, or were just so amazing to see live over the past year that it wouldn’t be fair to exclude them. Same rules as last year: one song per band or artist. Otherwise, half this list would be Ward White and Amir ElSaffar, and that would be counterproductive. You can go down the rabbit hole with any of the hundred artists on this list all by yourself without any further help from this blog.

Ward WhiteCoffee Maker
A pair of accomplices grow more desperate by the hour in this catchy yet characteristically enigmatic, Charming Disaster-esque post-murder narrative. The way White caps off his guitar solo is as cruel as it is priceless. From the even more inscrutable As Consolation, best rock album of 2017.

Jack GraceGet Out of Brooklyn
The baritone Americana crooner’s somber, heartbreaking requiem for a pre-real estate bubble New York. “The place held its own ground, the rivers separated where you bothered to go – really used to try to get out of Brooklyn, now everybody’s trying to get in.” From the album Everything I Say Is a Lie.

The Dream Syndicate  – Like Mary
The most harrowing track on Steve Wynn’s recently regrouped, legendary 80s band’s new album How Did I Find Myself Here is a catchy, tensely muted, grim portrait of a woman who may be a child killer…or just an Oxycontin casualty.

Amir ElSaffar’s Rivers of Sound – Ya Ibni, Ya Ibni (My Son, My Son)
A vast, oceanic Iraqi-flavored lament from the paradigm-shifting trumpeter/multi-instrumentalist’s Middle Eastern orchestral jazz group’s latest album Not Two. 

The Sadies – The Good Years
A brisk shuffle beat beneath hypnotically lingering guitars in this chilling Nashville gothic elegy for a disastrous marriage: “She couldn’t wait to clean out the place he occupied.” From the album Northern Passages.

Alice Lee – Your Blues
A savagely lyrical, spot-on soul anthem for the era of Ferguson and Eric Garner from the ex-New York singer/multi-instrumentalist’s brilliant new album The Wheel.

Charming Disaster – What Remains
The New York noir supergroup– led by Jeff Morris of lavish, dark, latin-flavored rockers Kotorino and Ellia Bisker of parlor pop existentialists Sweet Soubrette – slink their way through this chillingly allusive post-murder narrative inspired by Flannery O’Connor’s The River. From the album Cautionary Tales.

Los WemblersSonido Amazonico
A brand-new version of the eerie, slinky national anthem of psychedelic cumbia, which the Peruvian band wrote and first recorded almost fifty years ago. This one’s a lot longer and more psychedelic than any other version in existence, Chicha Libre’s included. From their unlikely and amazing comeback album Ikaro Del Amor.

 Sofia TalvikLullaby
Catchy, anthemic and resolutely optimistic on the surface: “Still you wish you were dead.” When the Nordic Americana songwriter played this at the American Folk Art Museum this past spring, you could have heard a pin drop. From the album Big Sky Country.

Castle Black – Broken Bright Star
Guitarist Leigh Celent’s evil, spare icepick intro kicks off this slowly marauding anthem that eventually explodes in a fireball of reverb. From the album Trapped Under All You Know.

Morricone YouthClunes Town
Del Shannon mashed up with Ennio Morricone – makes sense, right? – with distantly ghostly multitracked Karla Rose vocals. From the band’s Mad Max soundtrack

LusterlitCeremony
Frontwoman/drummer Susan Hwang gives this long, creepy, ineluctably crescendoing, chromatically-charged Cormac McCarthy-inspired anthem her most luridly Lynchian vocal ever. From the album List of Equipment.

Lorraine LeckieAmerica Weeping
Leonard Cohen died the day before the fateful 2016 Presidential election. This careening psychedelic riff-rocker is the eclectic bandleader’s anguished response. Free download!

Son of SkooshnyUntold History
With Steve Refling’s keening slide guitar, this is one of the band’s harder-rocking numbers, Mark Breyer’s chillingly autobiographical account of growing up amid all sorts of familial and social Cold War-era dysfunction. From the album Matchless Gifts.

Aimee MannLies of Summer
Slow and lush, heavy like a thunderstorm, this mutedly depressed orchestral rock tale doesn’t reveal whether the narrator is addressing a prisoner or a dead person until the very end. From the album Mental Illness.

Brian Carpenter & the ConfessionsCity on Fire
The Ghost Train Orchestra trumpeter/bandleader plays keys and guitar and lends his baritone voice to this brilliantly Lynchian band, duetting with chanteuse Jen Kenneally in this slinky, bolero-tinged smash. They managed to steal the spotlight from Big Lazy on a Friday night in the East Village last month, no joke. 

Changing ModesDust
Awash in orchestral keys and troubled close harmonies from the band’s two frontwomen, this slowly crescendoing apocalypse anthem makes an apt coda to the New York art-rock band’s brilliant album Goodbye Theodora.

James Williamson and Deniz TekNo Sense of Crime
The best and most death-obsessed track from the Stooges’ immortal Kill City album, reinvented as lush, poignant, similarly opiated acoustic parlor rock. Giant Drag’s Annie Hardy adds plaintive high harmonies, with violin from Petra Haden. From the killer, wryly titled ep Acoustic K.O.

Miramar  – Sin Ti
A psychedelically Lynchian, allusively Middle Eastern-tinged bolero, the highlight of the Virginia group’s show at Drom back in January.

Joshua GarciaThat’s the Way You Drop a Bomb
Oldschool first-wave-style folk revival narrative as one of the crew of the Enola Gay might have heard it. Chililng beyond belief, and a staple of the New York songwriter’s live show.

Greek JudasKontrabandistas
A drug-smuggling anthem from the 1930s Greek underworld reinvented as searing, menacing, twin guitar-fueled metal. From the band’s brand-new debut album. 

The New Pornographers – High Ticket Attractions
Motorik Pulp-style new wave satire of yuppie status-grubbing. Llittle do they know how much corporations are taking advantage of them. From the album Whiteout Conditions.

Kerem Guney – Sicak Bir Sevda
Is it fair to put a haunting Turkish psychedelic rock anthem from the late 70s – like the Doors with an electric saz – on a list of 2017 songs? It hasn’t been released outside Turkey until the Uzelli Psychedelic Anadolu compilation came out earlier this year. 

MeszecsinkaHajnalban (At Dawn) – fifteen minutes of evil shamanic post-Velvets Balkan crash and wail from this phantasmagorical female-fronted Balkan group. Another band who killed it back in January at Drom.

Jaye BartellSwim Colleen
With his deadpan baritone and reverb-drenched, spare guitar hooks, nobody’s better at allusive macabre narratives than this guy. From his album In a Time of Trouble, a Wild Exaltation.

Carol LipnikMy Piano
Stately, graceful art-rock eco-disaster parable: after all, pianos are made from trees. Her vocal crescendo will give you goosebumps. She and pianist Matt Kanelos held the crowd rapt with this at Pangea back in January.

The Jigsaw SeenMy Name Is Tom
A rare successful mashup of dark Indian raga theme and American psychedelic rock, and one of the LA band’s most iconic songs. They ripped the roof off with this at Bowery Electric back in March.. From their latest album For the Discriminating Completist.

Ran Blake & Dominique Eade It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)
The iconic noir pianist and the brilliant jazz singer outdo Dylan’s original. Eade’s rapidfire articulation underscores the venom and bitterness in this exasperated capitalist treadmill tirade as Blake anchors it with his signature blend of eerie glimmer and murk. From their album Town & Country.

Rev. Billy & the Stop Shopping Choir End of the World
The fearless environmental activist and his mighty, roughly sixty-member choir opened their towering Prospect Park Bandshell set this past summer with this ominous original gospel tune: “Only so many beautiful days on earth!”

The Robert Sabin Dectet – Ghost
A portrait of a house whose occupant has just died, a somber belltone pavane punctuated with artfully suspenseful use of space and moody horns. From the bassist’s album Humanity Part II with his lushly cinematic large ensemble

Gacaltooyo Band – Ninkaan Ogayn (He Who Does Not Know)
Never before released outside of Somalia, this late 70s jam is a slow, haunting mashup of noir soul, Bollywood balladry, Ethiopiques and what sounds like J-pop – Somalian pentatonic scales come across as positively Asian in places here. From the compilation Sweet As Broken Dates: Lost Somali Tapes from the Horn of Africa

The Mehmet Polat TrioEverything Is in You
Joined by kora and ney flute, the brilliant Turkish oudist shifts between otherworldly Middle Eastern modes, Asia and Africa in this pensive epic. From the album Ask Your Heart

Black Lesbian FishermenRagged Ritual
This trippy, practically fifteen-minute drone-rock dirge has subtle Indian raga allusions, moody Middle Eastern ambience and a slow build to a darkly majestically macabre, resonant swirl of organ and guitar. From the album Ectopic Apiary.

Hearing ThingsStalefish
A mashup of growling go-go funk, horror surf, Middle Eastern music and the Doors, it’s a staple of Brooklyn’s funnest band’s live show.

NO ICELeave Her Alone
Musically, it’s a bitter, fiery soul-rock anthem. Lyrically, it’s one of the year’s classiest numbers: cool guys don’t harass women. From the Brooklyn band’s amazingly multistylistic, fun debut full-length album Come On Feel the NO ICE.

Orkesta MendozaContra La Marea
The  briskly strutting noir centerpiece of the slinky psychedelic mambo/cumbia band’s latest album ¡Vamos A Guarachar!, brooding baritone sax and clarinet alongside bandleader Sergio Mendoza’s reverberating guitar multitracks.

The Trio JoubranLaytaka
The gorgeously fluttering, understatedly elegaic intro to the oud-playing brothers’ album and DVD A’Lombre Des Mots (In the Shadow of Words), their tribute to their longtime collaborator, iconic Palestinian poet and activist Mahmoud Darwish. They mesmerized the crowd with this at their Lincoln Center show this past June.

Doug Wieselman’s Trio S  Dreambox
A cello drone and flickers from the drums underpin the bandleader’s moody Balkan melismas. building to a ferocious, Macedonian-flavored dance – the high point of their new album Somewhere Glimmer.

Money Chicha – Tamborcita
The most epic number on the debut album by the Austin psychedelic cumbia monsters (a spinoff of the slightly less psychedelic Grupo Fantasma), simmering and swooshing with ominous chromatics, reverb guitar and dub tinges.

Ella AtlasLeave Me in Blue
The most darkly lingering, epically sweeping track on 2017’s best debut album, The Road to Now, the Lynchian first release by enigmatic singer Tarrah Maria and Lost Patrol guitarist Steven Masucci.

King Gizzard & the Lizard WizardOpen Water
A hash-smuggling Red Sea speedboat theme of sorts, it’s got an energetic, hypnotically shuffling, qawwali-ish groove, icepick staccato guitar and all sorts of eerie chromatic hooks. From the album Flying Microtonal Banana.

Timatim FitfitLiving in the City
A stabbing parlor pop tune, John Cale mashed up with the Handsome Family from the menacing, carnivalesque solo album The Sugar Man, a creepy side project by Orphan Jane accordionist Tim Cluff.

Omar SouleymanMawal
An uncharacteristically slow, hauntingly violin-driven refugee’s lament from the gruff Syrian-born crooner’s album To Syria With Love.

Clint Mansell – Wheatfield With Crows
With its shivery violins, lustrous long tones and darkly ambient washes, this is where the film composer’s score to the Van Gogh movie Loving Vincent breaks into a scream.

 What Cheer? Brigade Black Cannon
Sort of a swaying Balkan brass Hawaii 5-0; the stampeding doublespeed bridge and the breathless charge on the way out are the high points of the East Coast’s largest brass band’s album You Can’t See Inside of Me.

The Legendary Shack Shakers  – White Devil
“White is the color of hipsters,” frontman JD Wilkes snarls as this noir blues stomps along, flickering with out-of-tune piano and Rod Hamdallah’s screaming distorted guitar. From the album After You’ve Gone.

BobtownMagilla Lee
New York’s best folk noir band blend their charming voices for this blithely bouncy narrative about “true meditation through medication” with dire consequences. They slayed with this at this year’s Brooklyn Americana Festival.

Nicole Atkins  I Love Living Here
A slow-simmering, crushingly sarcastic, angst-driven piano-and-horns anthem set in 2017 Brooklyn gentrifier hell. From the noir soul singer’s latest album Goodnight Rhonda Lee.

Anbessa OrchestraNagatti Si Jedha
The Israeli-American Ethio-jazz band jam the hell out of this uneasily catchy, slinky, reverb guitar-driven anthem, a mashup of vintage soul and ancient African riffs, when they play it live. From their most recent ep.

Red Baraat – Gaadi of Truth
Fiery, chromatic horn-driven live bhangra with a little hip-hop flavor: like an Indian Slavic Soul Party. From the album Bhangra Pirates.

The Sirius QuartetSpidey Falls!
This high-voltage microtonal string epic is part Big Lazy crime jazz, part Bernard Herrmann, part Piazzolla and part turbocharged tarantella.

Rahim AlHajChant
The Iraqi-born oudist and his trio entertained the crowd at Lincoln Center this past spring with an intimate version of this uneasily bouncy, subtly sardonic theme inspired by his mom trying to keep her kids out of trouble. This video link above is the full orchestrated version

Dos Santos Anti-Beat Orquesta – Red
Slinky, luridly organ-driven psychedelic cumbia mixed up withChicano Batman-style psychedelic soul. From the album Fonografic.

Nina Diaz – Star
Towering, angst-fueled noir punk cabaret, like a mashup of Vera Beren and Nicole Atkins. From the Girl in a Coma’s excellent debut album The Beat Is Dead.

Kalyani SinghEllis
An allusively grisly Ellis Island scenario set to a soaring Indian carnatic melody recast as gothic Americana – told from the point of view of a ghost. Or is she? You could have heard a pin drop when Singh sang this at the American Folk Art Museum last year. 

The NYChillharmonicBlumen
A lush, hypnotic, uneasily circling Radiohead-inflected epic from singer Sara McDonald’s mighty 22-piece New York band, who mash up big band jazz and symphonic rock. They raised the roof with this at Joe’s Pub last spring.

Dalava – The Bloody Wall
A murder victim haunts the crime scene over almost imperceptibly crescendoing art-rock in guitarist Aram Bajakian and singer Julia Ulehla’s reinvention of this old Moravian folk tune from their latest album The Book of Transfigurations.

Electric YouthIt’s Them
The Canadian duo’s enveloping, slowly crescendoing take on a classic Lynch film theme – in this case, for a movie that never came out. From the album Breathing.

Mulatu AstatkeYekatit
The godfather of Ethio-jazz, backed by an impressively tight pickup band including keyboardist Jason Lindner and trumpeter Adam O’Farrill, kept the uneasy, brassy groove going for almost fifteen minutes with this classic in Central Park back in August.

Los Crema Paraiso – Shine On You Crazy Diablo
The cinematic Venezuelan psychedelic trio have been playing their deadpan version of the Pink Floyd epic all the way through in concert. for more than a year now. They didn’t extend it all the way through at Barbes back in July, but it was still amazing how they can recreate it while adding wry dub tinges. This is a similar, relatively brief eight-minute studio version.

Melissa & the MannequinsCan’t Let Go
The latest deliciously catchy, jangly single from New York’s best new band of 2017; bittersweetly coy vocals, ringing guitars and a little vintage soul too. 

BrigaBela Sum
Mesmerizing singer Eva Salina and Balkan accordionist Sergiu Popa join the Quebecoise violinist on this broodingly gorgeous ballad from the album Femme.

Funkrust Brass Band – Dark City
The title track, and most distinctively chromatic, Balkan-flavored anthem from the debut album by New York’s largest and most explosive brass band.

 Sofia Rei – Arriba Quemando El Sol
The stark Violeta Parra peasant’s lament reinvented as relentless, marching art-rock fueled by Marc Ribot’s unhinged guitar. From the album El Gavilan.

Kelly GreenCulture Shock
A bustling, epic noir jazz theme that eventually descends into dissociative Sketches of Spain allusions, flutters loosely and then jumps back into the rat race again. Centerpiece of the album  Life Rearranged.

David Smooke & the Peabody Wind Ensemble – Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death
The epic, sixteen-minute title track to the toy pianist’s new album is a real cinematic showstopper. Horrified tritone cadenzas, thunderous swells, unexpectedly dusky microtonal banjo, and then toy piano plinking and clicking mutedly under extreme duress.

Mike Neer’s Steelonious – Off Minor
Smoking steel guitar, organ and a rhythm section take Thelonious Monk’s classic to the next Lynchian level. From the band’s debut album.

Vigen HovsepyanGulo
The most haunting track on the powerful Armenian singer and multi-instrumentalist’s new album Echoes: Revived Armenian Folk Music is this slowly swaying 6/8 piano ballad.

La Mar EnfortunaAman Minush
Elysian Fields guitarist Oren Bloedow and singer Jennifer Charles’ Sephardic art-rock side project made entrancing psychedelic rock out this darkly bouncy old tune at their November show at the Jewish Museum

Noura Mint SeymaliSoub Hanak
A microtonal duskcore anthem, the most straight-up rock number from the fearless jamband leader’s album Arbina.

Hilary DownesSecrets of Birds
The art-rock songwriter’s band take their deepest plunge into noir on the album’s title track: “Save me from these thoughts, divebomb every part,”…yet, “I am not afraid of the  darkness in my way.”

Trina Basu & Arun RamamurthySindhu Bhairavi
Haunting, edgy, hypnoticallly dueling Indian violins – since this live recording from their amazing Noguchi Museum show in September is an audio-only clip, it’s tantalizingly hard to figure out who’s playing what.

The Hooten Hollers – Scrapper’s Lament
An amusing, amped-up oldschool country ballad about the joys of scrounging for scrap metal – a perfect job in these new depression times. From the band’s 2017 album.

Borbely Mihaly Polygon2/1
A bouncy, uneasy, staccato Hungarian bass clarinet/cimbalom/drums theme, one of the highlights of the trio’s amazing show at Drom back in January.

Tomas Fujiwara’s Triple DoubleLove & Protest
Mournful, spacious blues trumpet over a twin-drum stampede spiced with burns and scrapes from guitarists Mary Halvorson and Brandon Seabrook: Wadada Leo Smith clarity and Amir ElSaffar majesty. From the group’s debut album.

River CultShadow Out of Time
Epic Daydream Nation-era Sonic Youth slides into galloping post-Sabbath in this careening live track from the heavy psych band’s latest ep Live at WFMU.

Bridget KibbeyToccata in D
This is the famous J.S. Bach organ piece that’s been used in a million horror movies…played solo, matter-of-factly and celestially, on the harp. It’s as funny as it is subversive, but ultimately it’s still arguably the creepiest piece of music ever written. A downtown crowd at the Times Arrow Festival earlier this year didn’t know what to make of it. 

Dawn ObergNothing Rhymes With Orange
The most bleakly hilarious song of the year is this sharp, literary middle finger raised at “Putin’s little bitch” in the Oval Office. Title track from the parlor pop pianist’s latest ep.

Kacy & Clayton – A Certain Kind of Memory
A dead ringer for Jenifer Jackson in wounded dark country mode circa 2007, down to the slow, lingering, Richard Thompson-esque arrangement. From the album The Siren’s Song.

Super Yamba BandControl Per Capita (C.P.C.)
One of the Brooklyn psychedelic Afrobeat band’s most lavish, funky jams. They got a packed house at Barbes boiling over with this last summer. 

 Chicano BatmanThe Taker Story
A anti-imperialist broadside, part Isaac Hayes hot butter, part Gil Scott-Heron, with a hazy latin tint from the psychedelic latin soul stars’ latest album Freedom Is Free.

Marcellus HallStill in Range
The ex-White Hassle frontman treated a Williamsburg crowd to an unexpectedly slashing take of this deviously allusive, pouncingly catchy, sardonic social media-era critique last spring. From the album Afterglow.

The Klezmatics – The Yoke
A crushingly bitter Catalan dirge told from a slave’s point of view, the highlight of NYC’s original klezmer punks’ latest album Apikorsom/Heretics. They held a Central Park crowd rapt with this last summer. 

Agnes ObelTrojan Horses
Creepy horror-movie piano and dark low strings anchor the evil, whispery harmonies of this moody Nordic art-rock waltz from the album Citizen of Glass.

 Pokey LaFargeSilent Movies
An offhandedly stinging, sarcastically swinging oldschool soul anthem for an era of selfie overkill. He and his band motored through this at Bowery Ballroom back in July. From the album Manic Revelations.

Algiers – Cleveland
A fierce yet enigmatic anti-police violence anthem, part noir gospel, part postrock, part postapocalyptic film theme from the band’s second album The Underside of Power.

Paris ComboBonne Nouvelle
Big bustling noir swing tune with a bitter undercurrent from a darker, more lyrically hilarious French counterpart to the Squirrel Nut Zippers. From the album Tako Tsubo.

Bridget KearneyLiving in a Cave
Orbison noir through the prism of 2017 new wave revival. From the Lake Street Dive bassist’s excellent, catchy debut album Won’t Let You Down.

Gold DimeDisinterested
The side project by Talk Normal’s Andrya Ambro punctuates this surreal drone-rock epic with all kinds of delicious, darkly explosive riffage. From the band’s debut album Nerves.

The Dirty Bourbon River ShowPoor Boy, Rich Girl
A sly steamboat-soul slap upside the head of an easy target – but some targets deserve to be hit upside the head. From the album The Flying Musical Circus.

 Meaghan BurkeGowanus
A swirling, theatrical orchestrated rock lament from the charismatic cello rock songwriter’s new album Creature Comforts.

The Ed Palermo Big BandOpen Up Said the World At the Door
A wry big band jazz cover of the haphazardly careening Jeff Lynne cult favorite from the Move’s 1970 Looking On album that perfectly crystalizes the angst-fueled bustle the original was shooting for. From the album The Great Un-American Songbook Volumes 1 & 2.

Touched By GhoulMurder Circus
The title track from the darkly enigmatic, female-fronted Chicago punk/postrock band’s debut album works artfully cynical variations on a familiar carnival theme. 

 Marta SanchezScillar
The jazz pianist and her band artfully shift roles in this broodingly modal, looping, haunting elegy of sorts. From her new quintet album Danza Imposible.

Seun Kuti & Egypt 80African Dreams
“Conscious capitalism doesn’t exist,” the torchbearer of the original Nigerian Afrobeat legacy remarked at his Central Park show this past summer before launching into this pouncing, undulating cautionary tale for those who might want to play that game.  

Ensemble Mik Nawooj Gin & Juice
A deadpan, operatic orchestral cover of the Snoop Dogg driving-while-wasted classic. For real. They killed with this in Harlem back in March.

NehedarThe Grudge
Broodingly punchy 60s psych pop with coy 80s new wave tinges and a deliciously vengeful lyric. “Wanna step on me so you can rise to a better pedigree?…Put the claws back in your kitty paws.”

 Ani Cordero – Culebra
Growling surf bass contrasts with spare Spanish guitar and ominously reverberating electric riffage in this kinetic number from the fearless protest song specialist. From the album Querido Mundo.

Maximo ParkWork and Then Wait
A defiant 99-percenter singalong anthem, sort of a cross between mid-90s Blur and an artsy dance act like the Cat Empire. From the album Risk to Exist.

The PorchistasMr. Chump
Which raises a middle finger to the American Boris Yeltsin. This orange-wigged creep is a “draft-dodging scum” who “beats on little girls and cheats on Monopoly.” Then the girlie chorus chimes in: “Eats shit!” From the album Axis & Allies.

GalanosFeel Good
Echoey and surreal, this macabre, whispery, reverb-drenched noir theme slowly coalesces out of a Lynchian spoken word interlude laced with evil guitar flickers. From the album Deceiver Receiver.

The 50 Best Albums of 2017

Scroll down for links to stream each of the albums here…except for the very newest one, which happens to be #1.

The best and most relevant album of 2017 was Fukushima, by the Satoko Fujii Orchestra New York. This haunting, epic five-part suite is not a narrative of the grim events of March 11, 2011, but rather the Tokyo-born pianist/bandleader’s reflection on personal terror and horror in the wake of the worst nuclear disaster in world history.

Fujii’s stock in trade is not political music. Her vast catalog – over eighty albums as a leader or co-leader since the 90s – encompasses everything from epic improvisational soundscapes, to dark, acerbic piano compositions, rainy-day Japanese-flavored jazz-folk and collaborations with a global cast of artists. This may be her greatest achievement to date, as lush and sweeping as it is anthemically tuneful. And as a response to greed-fueled attempts to cover up the deadly environmental damage caused by the meltdowns, it’s as savage as Shostakovich’s greatest symphonies or Charles Mingus’ political broadsides.

It’s not streaming anywhere at present (end of December 2017), but it’s just out and available from Fujii’s Libra Records. Watch this space for a link! 

Vast research and triage went into the rest of this list. If you count multitasking as listening, an extremely ambitious listener can digest maybe three new albums a day. That’s about 1200 albums a year. An extremely ambitious music blogger can sample several thousand and then attempt to make sense of the very best. As in previous years, these albums are listed in rough chronological order considering when they were received here, rather than in any kind of hierarchical ranking. Which would be absurd, anyway – if an album’s one of the year’s fifty best, it’s got to be pretty damn good.

Ran Blake & Dominique Eade – Town & Country
Protest jazz, icy Messiaenic miniatures and luminous nocturnes from the noir piano icon and his brilliant longtime singer collaborator. Listen at Spotify 

Ward White – As Consolation
The best rock record of 2017 is a surreal, twistedly psychedelic, ferociously literary masterpiece, from the guy who also put out the album ranked #1 here in 2013. Listen at Bandcamp 

The Dream Syndicate – How Did I Find Myself Here
Iconic noir songwriter Steve Wynn regrouped his legendary, influential 80s band, who picked up like they never left off with a mix of psychedelia, dreampop and volcanic jams. Listen at youtube

Amir ElSaffar’s Rivers of Sound – Not Two
The paradigm-shifting trumpeter/santoorist/singer’s latest large-ensemble recording, blending elements of Middle Eastern, Indian music and jazz is an album for our time: turbulent, restless and packed with poignant solos from a global lineup. Listen at New Amsterdam Records 

Son of Skooshny – Matchless Gifts
Wickedly lyrical songwriter Mark Breyer, longtime leader of powerpop cult favorites Skooshny, carries on with this richly jangly magnum opus, which collects his best songs of the last ten years or so. Listen at Bandcamp 

Phil Ochs  – Live in Montreal 10/22/66
What’s the iconic 1960s political firebrand doing on a list devoted to new music? This is new – a never-before-released set of many of his most shattering songs. It’s probably the definitive solo acoustic Ochs album. Listen at Spotify 

Charming Disaster – Cautionary Tales
The New York noir supergroup – led by Jeff Morris of lavish, dark, latin-flavored rockers Kotorino and Ellia Bisker of parlor pop existentialists Sweet Soubrette – expand their palette from murder ballads to apocalyptic anthems, spy themes and a novelty song that had to be written. Listen at Bandcamp 

Alice Lee – The Wheel
The long-awaited new album by one of the most brilliantly lyrical, sardonically insightful, captivating soul singers and songwriters to emerge from this city in this century. Listen at Bandcamp 

Changing Modes – Goodbye Theodora
Postapocalyptic art-rock, noir surf and snarling dreampop are just the tip of the iceberg on the keyboard-driven, female-fronted cult favorite New York band’s seventh album. Listen at Spotify

The Mehmet Polat Trio – Ask Your Heart
Serpentine, uneasily picturesque, dynamic Middle Eastern, African and Balkan themes from the virtuoso oud player and his eclectic group. Listen at Spotify 

NO ICE – Come On Feel the NO ICE
The Brooklyn What’s Jamie Frey continues as part of this careeningly diverse group, arguably the best band to come out of Brooklyn in the past five years. Fearless soul-rock, unhinged post new wave and loud, enigmatic anthems with a killer, spot-on sense of humor. Listen at Bandcamp

Aimee Mann – Mental Illness
Morose, muted, characteristically slashing acoustic waltzes and orchestral pop from the perennially relevant psychopathologist. Listen at Spotify 

The New Pornographers – Whiteout Conditions
Sardonic, bitingly insightful new wave for an age of greed and narcissism from this era’s preeminent powerpop supergroup. Listen at Spotify 

Orkesta Mendoza – ¡Vamos A Guarachar!
The world’s darkest and slinkiest southwestern gothic psychedelic cumbia noir mambo band. Listen at Bandcamp 

Los Wemblers – Ikaro Del Amor
That a four-song ep could make this list testifies to how genuinely incredible, and improbable it is. Legendary in their native Peru, where they started almost fifty years ago, this psychedelic cumbia family band jam as eerily and otherworldly as they did when they first emerged from the jungle. Listen at Spotify 

The Uzelli Psychedelic Anadolu compilation
Spanning from 1975 to 1984, this collection of kinetic Turkish psychedelic rock and funk seems even more current in this era of surreal cross-cultural mashups, comprising songs by artists including Erkin Koray, Asik Emrah, Ali Ayhan, Deniz Ustu Kopurur and others. Listen at Spotify 

The Sadies – Northern Passages
The moodily jangly Canadian gothic cult favorites’ hardest-rocking and most psychedelic album. Listen at Bandcamp 

Morricone Youth – Mad Max
The iconic New York noir cinephiles’ first release of the year – one of a planned fifty recordings of scores for films they’ve played live to over the years – is far darker and more southwestern gothic-oriented than the road warrior film’s plot. With a Karla Rose vocal cameo, too. Listen at Spotify 

James Williamson and Deniz Tek – Acoustic K.O.
Two iconic guitarists who largely defined the uncompromising Detroit proto-punk sound of the 1970s flip the script with an acoustic ep of lushly orchestrated Stooges classics. Listen at Spotify 

Andina: Huayno, Carnaval and Cumbia – The Sound of the Peruvian Andes 1968-1978
Seventeen trebly, reverby, even rarer tracks than the psychedelic cumbia unearthed by Barbes Records on the iconic Roots of Chicha compilations. Los Walker’s are the best-known group here; Los Compadres del Ande, Los Jelwees and Huiro y su Conjunto, among others, are also included. This isn’t just chicha, either: there are horn bands and cha-cha groups here too. Listen at Bandcamp

Melange – Viento Bravo
The Spanish Nektar jangle and swirl and spiral through one brooding, psychedelic art-rock mini-epic after another. Listen at Bandcamp 

The Legendary Shack Shakers – After You’ve Gone
Unstoppable after twenty years on the road, the iconic ghoulabilly/noir Americana band dive deeper into their twisted, swampy roots. Guitarist Rod Hamdallah makes a furiously triumphant return. Listen at Spotify 

Mames Babegenush – Mames Babegenush With Strings
Dynamic, lush, soaring, swooping brass-and-reed-fueled original klezmer dance numbers and anthems from this powerhouse Copenhagen unit. Listen at Spotify

Briga – Femme
The Montreal-based violinist’s eclectic, incisive mix of Romany, Balkan and klezmer sounds, with a little psychedelic and hip-hop flavor. Listen at Bandcamp

Saffron – Will You
Magical singer Katayoun Goudarzi and sitarist Shujaat Khan team up with Rolling Stones saxophonist Tim Ries, pianist Kevin Hays and others for this hypnotic, otherworldly reinvention of centuries-old Indian carnatic themes. Listen at Rockpaperscissors 

Sweet As Broken Dates: Lost Somali Tapes from the Horn of Africa
Newly digitized, rare, otherworldly 1970s and 80s Somali psychedelic rock, funk and Afrobeat from cassettes and master tapes buried to hide them from bombing raids. Amazing stuff. Listen at Bandcamp 

Arthur Lee & Love – Coming Through to You: The Live Recordings 1970-2004
Four sprawling discs comprising most of this psychedelic rock legend’s best songs, which he rocks the hell out of in concert. Most of this stuff is previously unreleased, and further proof that Lee’s career was far from over by the time he was done with Forever Changes. Listen at Spotify 

Steelism – Ism
Friends of Dean Martinez meets Morricone Youth in this surreal, catchy mix of keening steel guitar-driven instrumentals. Powerhouse soulstress Ruby Amanfu guests on a track. Listen at Spotify 

Neotolia – Neotolian Song
Pianist Utar Artun’s acerbic, moodily cinematic, sometimes jazz-inspired Turkish ensemble with the great Jussi Reijonen on guitar and oud. Listen at Soundcloud 

Dalava – The Book of Transfigurations
Slashingly eclectic ex-Lou Reed guitarist Aram Bajakian and his singer wife Julia Ulehla join forces and reinvent haunting, often harrowing Moravian folk songs with a psychedelic edge.Listen at Bandcamp 

Vigen Hovsepyan – Echoes: Revived Armenian Folk Music
The evocative singer/guitarist’s brooding, eclectic ballads and anthems from decades past, featuring the great oudist Ara Dinkjian. Listen at Spotify 

Money Chicha – Echo in Mexico
This is psychedelic south-of-the-border funk band Grupo Fantasma proving how deeply they can go into heavy psychedelic cumbias. Listen at Soundcloud

Castle Black – Trapped Under All You Know
Layers of reverb guitars flickering and roaring through the shadows, Leigh Celent’s power trio put out the best short rock album of 2017. Listen at youtube 

The Sweetback Sisters – King of Killing Time
Hard country, early 50s style from the eclectic, purist, badass duo of Emily Miller and Zara Bode with a great band behind them. Listen at Bandcamp 

Clint Mansell – Loving Vincent soundtrack
A classic 21st century horror film score. It’s not a horror film per se, but you can see the madness coming a mile away. Listen at Spotify 

Ella Atlas – The Road to Now
Enigmatic, allusively torchy singer Tarrah Maria’s band put out one of the most Lynchian releases of the year, joining forces with Lost Patrol guitar mastermind Stephen Masucci. Listen at Bandcamp 

Kelly Moran – Bloodroot
Enigmatically glistening, baroque-tinged multi-keyboard instrumentals inspired by many species of woodland greenery. Listen at Bandcamp 

King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard – Flying Microtonal Banana
On which the well-loved Aussie psychedelic band took their initial leap into eerie, Middle Eastern-tinged microtonal music. Listen at Bandcamp 

Nina Diaz  – The Beat Is Dead
The Girl in a Coma bandleader gets ornate and cinematic with this dark, 80s new wave-style collection. Listen at Spotify 

Funkrust Brass Band – Dark City
High-voltage, rat-a-tat original Balkan brass anthems from this huge Brooklyn ensemble fronted by Charming Disaster’s Ellia Bisker. Listen at Bandcamp 

The Warlocks – Songs from the Pale Eclipse
Jangly, punchy, catchy 60s Laurel Canyon-style psychedelic rock – in lieu of a new album by the Allah-Las, this one will do fine. Listen at Bandcamp 

Galanos – Deceiver Receiver
With a gutter blues influence, some Thee Oh Sees dark garage-psych and some Black Angels ambience, this group are sort of the X of creepy 21st century rock. Listen at Bandcamp

Chicano Batman – Freedom Is Free
Organist Bardo Martinez and his shapeshifting band swing kaleidoscopically between latin soul, Zombies-style psych-pop, hard funk and Isaac Hayes-style epics. Listen at Bandcamp

Bridget Kearney  Won’t Let You Down
One of the year’s catchiest albums features Lake Street Dive’s killer bassist playing most of the instruments, through a mix of powerpop and new wave-flavored sounds. Listen at Bandcamp  

Algiers – The Underside of Power
Politically-fueled punk soul meets postrock meets postapocalyptic film score in gritty singer Franklin James Fisher’s ominously smoky narratives. Listen at Spotify 

Eric Ambel – Roscoe Live Vol. 1
One of the most distinctively brilliant, entertaining rock guitarists of the last couple of decades at the top of his game at an upstate outdoor festival with a killer band. Listen at Bandcamp 

Red Baraat – Bhangra Pirates
Wave after wave of undulating, crescendoing, cinematic, insanely danceable original brass-fueled live bhangra jams. Listen at Spotify 

Olcay Bayir – Neva/Harmony
Quietly intense new versions of ancient Turkish ballads and Balkan songs from the nuanced Turkish singer’s debut album. Listen at Spotify 

Gogol Bordello – Seekers & Finders
Amazing how fresh and energetic the original Eastern Bloc punks sound after all these years. Tight, catchy, never boring. Listen at Spotify

Ihtimanska – Yuz Yuze
A low-key but bouncy duo album of biting, minor-key Turkish and Bulgarian tunes from the duo of reedwoman Ariane Morin and accordionist Yoni Kaston. Listen at Bandcamp 

Daniel Ruiz – Purple Bird and Other Strange Songs
A haunting mix of of Doors and Nick Cave-influenced dark psychedelic rock and pop  from this Spanish songwriter. Listen at Bandcamp

An Iconic Noir Piano/Vocal Duo Put Out the Best Album of 2017 So Far

Town and Country, the new duo album by iconic noir pianist Ran Blake and his longtime collaborator, singer Dominique Eade, opens with with Lullaby, from the 1955 serial killer film Night of the Hunter. It’s over in less than a minute. Blake plays icy upper-register chromatics behind Eade’s wary resonance, more a wish than a convincing statement that “Birds will sing in the willows…hush!”

It’s hard to think of a more appropriate way to open a protest jazz record in 2017.

The other piece from that film score, Pretty Fly, isn’t that much longer, Blake’s allusive, Debussyesque pointillisms and reflecting-pool harmonies in tandem with Eade’s similarly allusive narrative of childhood death. On their 2011 masterpiece Whirlpool, the two had fun reinventing jazz standards as noir set pieces. Beyond the existential angst, this new album has a more distinctly populist focus.

Like every other artistic community, the jazz world has shown a solidarity not seen since the 1960s. The divide between the forces of hope and the forces of tyranny has never been more distinct, and artists are responding. Of all the protest jazz albums coming out – Noah Preminger’s was the first, and trombonist Ryan Keberle has an excellent one due out next month – this might be the best of all of them.

Jazz versions of Dylan songs are usually dreadful, but this duo’s take of It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding) outdoes the original  – although Ingrid Olava’s version is awfully good. Eade’s rapidfire articulation underscores the venom and bitterness in Dylan’s exasperated capitalist treadmill tirade as Blake anchors it with his signature blend of eerie glimmer and murk.

Likewise, their take of Moon River is everything you could possibly want from that song. Again, Eade’s optimism is guarded, to say the least, with the same emotion if less theatrics than the version by Carol Lipnik and Matt Kanelos.

The unselfconscious pain in Eade’s plainspoken delivery in the first of two takes of the old Appalachian ballad West Virginia Mine Disaster resounds gently over what becomes a ghost boogie, Blake channeling centuries of blues-infused dread. The more insistent, angrier version that appears later on is arguably even more intense.

The spiritual Elijah Rock follows a jagged and torn vector rather than the mighty swinging drive that pretty much every gospel choir pulls out all the stops for, Eade anchoring it as Blake prowls around in the lows. He may be past eighty now, but his bleak vision is undiminished. In the same vein, the duo bring out all the grisly detail in the old English lynching ballad The Easter Tree.

As with Dylan, doing Johnny Cash as jazz is a minefield, but the version of Give My Love to Rose here echoes the stern New England gospel of The Church on Russell Street from Blake’s iconic 1961 collaboration with Jeanne Lee, The Newest Sound Around. Eade hits a chilly peak channeling nonstop uncertainty over Blake’s fractured blues stroll in Moonglow, which segues into the Theme from Picnic, an apt choice considering that Moonglow appears in that film’s score.

Thoreau features a spoken word passage from Walden over Blake’s distantly Ivesian backdrop.”You’ve got that wanderlust to roam,” Eade intones coyly as Open Highway gets underway: “No, I don’t,” Blake’s steady, brooding piano replies. The playfully creepy piano-and-vocalese number Gunther is based on a twelve-tone row by Blake’s old New England Conservatory pal, third-stream pioneer Gunther Schuller.

Their take of Moonlight in Vermont is more starless than starry, flipping the script yet again with potently dark results. Goodnight, Irene – the album’s title track, essentially – takes the bittersweetness and futility of Leadbelly’s original to new levels: this is a suicide song, after all.

There are also several solo Blake miniatures here. Harvest at Massachusetts General Hospital. an angst-fueled, close-harmonied, leadfoot stroll with a personality straight out of Titicut Follies, is represented by two versions. And the bell motives – always a favorite Blake trope, and a powerfully recurrent one here – are especially poignant in the elegaic Moti.

This isn’t just the best protest jazz album of the year so far, it’s the best album of 2017. Where can you hear it? You can catch a couple of tracks at Sunnyside Records’ page.

Sari Kessler Breathes New Life into Old Songs Uptown

If you’re a jazz singer, why on earth would you want to cover a bunch of songs that have been done to death by thousands of others over the years? New York singer Sari Kessler took a bunch of them – along with a few choice obscurities – reinvented them and made them her own, a rare and distinctive achievement. Kessler is a very attentive and nuanced interpreter, working these numbers line by line. Depending on the lyric, she can be disarmingly direct, even biting one second, then misty and melancholy, or coy and sultry the next. Much if not all of her latest album Do Right is streaming at her music page (it hasn’t hit Spotify yet). She’s playing Minton’s uptown on August 21 at 7:30 PM; there’s no cover but there is a two-item (food/drink) minimum which if YOU do right shouldn’t run you more than twenty bucks, maybe a lot less. Remember, coffee and seltzer are drinks.

The album opens auspiciously with a take of Burt Bacharach’s Walk on By that does justice to the Dionne Warwick (e) original but also puts an artsier spin on it. Elvis Costello’s Bacharach collaborations have a lot to recommend them, but this outdoes them in the purist jazz ballad department. Then Kessler reinvents the old Bessie Smith hit After You’ve Gone as a jaunty, defiant bossa, fueled by John di Martino’s dancing piano and Houston Person’s tenor sax, the bandleader taking a coolly triumphant little scat solo as the song winds out.

Kessler subtly builds the Depression-era swing lament Why Don’t You Do Right – the album’s title track, more or less – to a gritty exasperation, echoing the classic Rasputina version emotionally if not musically. The album’s most shattering track is The Gal from Joe’s. Di Martino’s rainy-day piano in tandem with Willard Dyson’s brushy grey-sky drums make it a real haunter, on par with Jeanne Lee’s iconic collaborations with noir pianist Ran Blake.

Kessler and band go a long way toward redeeming Bobby Hebb’s Sunny – reputedly the most-covered song ever – adding a similarly dark, clave-fueled undercurrent. Tackling It’s a Wonderful World may a recipe for disaster, but Kessler reinvents it by duetting with Steve Whipple’s bass, Sarah Vaughan-style, with a hint of klezmer acerbity. Then di Martino comes in and the band swings it, spacious and dancing.

Kessler gives I Thought About You a tender, wistful, gentle clave groove, the balmy horn chart and Nadje Noordhuis’ judicious flugelhorn solo matching guitarist Ron Affif’s purist, low-key bossa approach. The old novelty hit The Frim Fram Sauce, and its Dr. Seuss menu, has new relevance in this era of trendy new spots slinging organic locavore artisanal curated bespoke cuisine in the furthest ghetto corners of Brooklyn; Kessler’s totally deadpan delivery drives the satire home.

Feeling Good follows a steady upward trajectory, Affif’s cautious-then-exuberant solo at the center. The slow drag My Empty Bed Blues has equal parts bittersweetness and retro charm. Kessler imbues Too Close for Comfort with a Sinatra-like knowingness and precision, matched by di Martino’s clenched-teeth solo.. The two wrap up the album with a piano-vocal lullaby take of Moonglow. If you’re sick to death of restaurant singers phoning in stuff like All of Me, Kessler and her first-class band are a breath of fresh air.

Iconic Noir Pianist Ran Blake Offers a Dark Salute to the Great George Russell

It’s autumn in New York. Finally, in this overheated age, we’ve made it there. And what better way to conclude Halloween week than with the latest album by the definitive noir pianist of our era, Ran Blake, which opens and then after fifteen additional tracks, concludes with that song? The cd, Ghost Tones, a tribute to Blake’s old pal George Russell, sadly isn’t streaming anywhere on the web, but you can get a sense of its magically shadowy gravitas from the momentary clips up at cdbaby.

Throughout the record, the saturnine majesty of Blake’s playing is undiminished. Like Dave Brubeck at age eighty, he’s never played with more depth or poignancy. The album is a mix of pieces by Russell – one of the great individualists of the last half-century, an underrated but vastly influential composer who shares Blake’s dark sensibility – alongside Blake originals and a handful of chilly, sepulchral reinventions of jazz standards. The album’s opening track is a clinic in how Blake, playing solo, uses his signature, Messiaen-esque close harmonies to take a moody ballad far deeper into the night than its composer ever dreamed. Then, to wind up the album, Blake offers a spare, guardedly optimistic, far more straight-up take that hews much more closely to the original.

Alice Norbury (Blake’s shout-out to Russell’s wife) opens stately and stern, but then the clouds lift a bit, Blake multitracking his piano with string synth, broadening his usual noir cinematic sweep. As becomes crystal clear, this is a portrait of a profound and formidable personality. Drunmer Charles Burchell’s clave drives the first Russell composition, Living Time, with a white-knuckle tension as bassist Brad Barrett bubbles, Blake swirls and ripples and the horns – Peter Kenagy on trumpet, Aaron Hartley on trombone – punch in, Doug Pet’s tenor sax soaring like a vulture overhead. It’s 70s noir Morricone taken to the next level.

Blake’s solo piano miniature, Paris, perfectly captures that city’s twilit, rain-drenched angst amid the ghosts of centuries past as it rises to an insistent peak, again recalling Messiaen. Telegram From Gunther, a tongue-in-cheek miniature by Blake and another old third-stream pal, Gunther Schuller, makes an intro to the cumulo-nimbus electroacoustic industrial decay of Biography.

The best-known Russell number here, Stratusphunk, gets stripped to its austere, rust-tinged chassis as a solo piano piece. Another, Jack’s Blues rises artfully from a wary foghorn fanfare to an alllusive stroll through a desolate South Street Seaport or Boston Wharf of the mind, lowlit by Kenagy’s Miles-like muted trumpet. Then Blake makes a good segue with a solo take of Rodger & Hart’s Manhattan, taking that same tangent to its logical, briskly walking conclusion. After that, Russell’s Ballad of Hix Blewitt marks a return to plaintive, cinematic sweep with strings and Dave Fabris’ resonant pedal steel.

One of the most dynamically menacing Blake solo numbers here is his Cincinnati Express, building to twisted ragtime and then back. With its bell-like multi-keys,Vertical Form VI shows just how far into the avant garde – think Louis Andriessen – Russell could go and includes a sample from a 1998 London big band concert recording by the Living Time Orchestra. After Blake’s ominoulsy swaying solo version of Jacques Crawls, a spare, spacious take of Russell’s Lonely Place makes a brilliantly apt segue, Pet’s desolate, wee-hours upper-Broadway sax and Hartley’s trombone enhancing the ambience. Another well-covered Russell tune, Ess-Thetic, gets an insistent, menacingly circular solo piano treatment; there’s also an austerely reinvented take of You Are My Sunshine introduced by vertigo-inducing strings and steel. It’s noir music in its most brooding, bittersweet, distantly heartbreaking perfection, and ought to help introduce the brilliance and individualism of Russell to a new audience.

There’ll be a best albums of 2015 page here at the end of the year, and this will be on it. On the other hand, this album deserves a page all its own: there’s nothing in its category released this year that can compare. Blake gets a likely star-studded 80th birthday tribute at Jordan Hall, 290 Huntington Ave in Boston, his longtime New England Conservatory stomping ground, on November 13 at 7:30 PM.

A Menacing Masterpiece and an Annual Halloween Celebration from Pam Fleming’s Dead Zombie Band

Trumpeter Pam Fleming‘s Dead Zombie Band are the inventors and possible sole practitioners of a relatively new and incredibly fun style of music: Halloween jazz. Fleming, who’s played with everybody from Natalie Merchant to roots reggae legend Burning Spear, brings her signature eclecticism to the band’s album Rise and Dance, streaming at cdbaby. Leading an all-star cast of New York talent, she’s playing the band’s annual Fort Greene Halloween dance party starting at around 6 PM this Saturday on Waverly Avenue between between Willoughby and DeKalb Avenues. Take the C train to Clinton-Washington.

The band slowly rises, as if from the grave, as the album gets underway, Fleming’s somber trumpet leading the funeral procession. And then they’re off on a wry reggae pulse, Tine Kindemann’s singing saw flickering in the background. Fleming’s fiendishly fun vocals are the icing on this orange-and-black cake. Fleming’s trumpet, Karen Waltuch’s viola, Jenny Hill’s tenor sax and Buford O’Sullivan’s trombone all have chromatically delicious fun. It’s a lot more Black Ark noir than it is Scooby Doo.

Zombie Drag is a slow, muted, misterioso carnival theme: the way Fleming slowly marches the horn chart out of the mist, then back and forth, is Gil Evans-class inventive. Pianist Rachelle Garniez goes for icy Ran Blake noir on The Bell behind Fleming’s whispery, ghoulish recitation. Then Garniez – who’s also playing Barbes at 8 on Nov 5 – takes over on the similarly crepuscular Two Lovers and winds it up with a gorgously ghostly improvisation that dies on the vine far to soon.

The narrative gets very, very ghostly for a bit, Fleming’s ominous intonement backed by Ursel Schlicht brushing the piano strings, a “cackle cocktail party” and then the band goes up into Satan Is Waitin’, a mashup of saloon blues, Danny Elfman soundttrack shenanigans, jajouka (dig Jessica Lurie’s alto sax solo!), Jimmy Smith (that’s Adam Klipple on organ) and oldschool soul. After that, there’s some storytelling – imagine a Dr. Seuss Halloween tale set to Hollywood Hills noir boudoir soul.

Klipple’s droll roller-rink organ anchors some pretty joyous solos from tenor saxophonist Lily White, Hill (on baritone now), and Martha Hyde on alto throughout the reggae-soul number Rise and Dance – hey, if you were a zombie, you’d be pretty psyched to be getting out of the cold ground at last. Forget anything you’ve heard before: this is the real Monster Mash.

The Cat Empire Blazes in Midtown Saturday Night

Saturday night at their midtown stop on their current world tour, eclectic Melbourne, Australia rockers the Cat Empire had a smoke machine onstage, but they didn’t need it. The audience was their smoke machine. There probably hasn’t been so much ganja in the air at a concert anywhere in New York since John Brown’s Body and the Easy Star All-Stars played a doublebill on 4/20 a couple of years ago. On one hand, this band’s music is a lot more energetic than what you’d expect a bunch of stoners to be into: the crowd danced, twenty rows deep, throughout the group’s relentlessly bouncy two hours onstage. On the other hand, as the show went on, it all made sense: the band’s cartoon cat logo emblazoned on a bed of jungle greenery; the frequent departures into slinky reggae and latin grooves; the thicket of percussion, the interwoven harmonies of the three-piece brass section, and the blippy sonics flitting from turntablist Jamshid Khadiwala’s decks.

As it turns out, co-frontman/percussionist Felix Riebl is a better singer live than he is in the studio, probably because he feeds off the crowd’s energy. So is the band’s other frontman, trumpeter Harry James Angus, who plays with much the same electrically jazzy touch as his namesake and sang with an unselfconsciously warm blue-eyed soul delivery. Tight as the band is, they don’t seem to take themselves the least bit seriously: a couple of brief stabs at choreographed stage moves fell apart quickly and haphazardly, and drummer Will Hull-Brown’s one extended solo of the night turned what could have been an easy excuse for a bathroom break into a clever parody of stadium rock excess. Ryan Monro played with an elegant propulsiveness on both electric and upright bass underneath the polymath brilliance of keyboardist Ollie McGill, who switched effortlessly from sardonic Steely Dan jazz inflections, to biting reggae, joyous ska and ominously swirling organ. At one point, he was playing organ in his right hand, piano in his left and blowing into a melodica for extra texture. And his two longest, most extended solos were spine-tingling, the first beginning as Ran Blake noir before warping into Chano Dominguez flamenco jazz, the second quoting from both Ray Manzarek and Rod Argent in a whirlwind of echoey Fender Rhodes raindrops.

As the show went on, the band sped the songs up, slowed them down and bedeviled the dancers with trick endings. Counterintuitively, they closed the set with All Night Loud, a murky organ-fueled tone poem on album that they took doublespeed into upbeat ska. And as energetic as the show was, they mixed up the moods, from the soul-flavored groove of Steal the Light (the title track to their new album), to the fiery latin ska of Like a Drum, the defiantly anthemic “show me the money” sarcasm of Sly, and finally peaked during the encores with their towering, anthemic, Midnight Oil-influenced hit Chariot. “Our instruments are our weapons,” the whole band sang, and as with many of the songs, the crowd joined in.

Hee Hawk Bring Their Tuneful, Noirishly Jazzy Sounds to NYC

[repost from NY Music Daily’s sister blog Lucid Culture. When the two blogs spun off from each other and divided up the content, they got all the jazz. Sometimes they throw something tasty back this way]

Massachusetts group Hee Hawk are a prime example of darkly tuneful new instrumental music that begins with jazz and springboards all over the place from there. They’re making an auspicious stop in New York for two shows, the first on 3/19 at around 10 at Two Moon Art House & Cafe, 315 4th Ave. in Sunset Park and the next day, 3/20 at 9 PM at the Parkside. They’ve got a richly melodic new album out which is streaming at their Bandcamp page.

Bandleader Adam Lipsky’s compositions embrace Americana as well as gypsy and film music, often going off into absolutely lurid noir territory. That mood is enhanced on the album by the simple fact that the piano he’s playing is just a hair out of tune: when he rides the pedal, murky saloon piano overtones rise like smoke from the ground.

The first track, Cover That Man (Basketball) is one deadly game of hoops, late 50s cool Miles through the prism of Angelo Badalamenti, shifting from a slowly lingering noir sway to swing and back again with a tinge of dusky Ethiopian spice, Lipsky’s tersely resonant gleam punctuated by the occasional menacing guitar chord from Niko Ewing. Wake is what you might get from Bill Frisell scoring a Roman Polanski film, a dirge taken in a rustic direction by Nina Violet’s viola in tandem with Ewing’s dobro, Lipsky channeling Ran Blake in gospel mode, Mike Marcinowski’s boomy drums building the mournful mood in tandem with Steve Tully’s elegaic tenor sax.

With its slow Fever sway, brushed drums and smoky tenor, Dress Hips is lo-fi David Lynch, a torchy minimalist blues, Mary Lou Williams gone to the liquor store instead of Sunday services. The band’s signature track evokes Beninghove’s Hangmen with its bouncy blend of gypsy jazz, noir soundtrack bite and irrepressible oldtimey swing. through an unexpectedly ominous breakdown to its forceful conclusion. Likewise, the catchy song without words Singing Partner, Violet refusing to accede to any country cliches, Tully’s bright soprano sax fueling its tempo changes. The longest and most stunning of all of the tracks is Emerald, an increasingly shivery, creepy bolero, Lipsky’s otherworldly piano handing off to Violet’s mournful lines before Tully adds an unexpected optimism on baritone sax before the shadows overwhelm it. Whether you want to call this jazz, film music, oldtimey music or all of the above and more, it’s one of the best albums of recent months.

Otherworldly, Eclectic, Rumi-Inspired Indian Grooves from Saffron

Saffron’s new album Dawning is a glimmering, imaginative blend of classical south Indian ragas, jazz and western classical music. At its most rhythmically complex, it recalls Sameer Gupta’s Namaskar or some of Vijay Iyer’s work, athough it’s more hypnotic than it is lively. It’s also largely improvised, Shujaat Khan’s sitar sometimes nocturnally resonant, sometimes insistently intense against Kevin Hays’ moody, often plaintive piano and Rolling Stones saxophonist Tim Ries’ terse, agile lines. Overhead, rapt and meticulous, Katayoun Goudarzi recites Rumi poems in the origianl Persian.

The practically 21-minute opening track comes together slowly in the style of a classic raga, Reis’ soprano sax adding the occasional bubbly cadenza or edgy Middle Eastern motif, Hays evoking Erik Satie, the band shifting between still, misterioso ambience and galloping intensity as a tabla rhythm picks up the pace. The second track, The Inquisitor evokes Pat Metheny (or Iyer in a rare carefree mood)  as it develops a dancing, springlike theme, Reis building a bittersweet Pharaoh Sanders-ish Waiting on a Friend ambience

Yours is a comparatively brief tone poem of sorts that contrasts Hays’ bright sunshower piano with low drones. They follow with another epic, Tease, Reis’ goodnaturedly animated soprano sax bounding over hard-hitting sitar and januty blues piano, Hays wryly vamping out on the Beatles’ Blackbird at one point. But the two real stunners here are the next couple of tracks, which are vastly darker. Hays evokes noir piano legend Ran Blake in the anxious, creepily chromatic first one, Overcome, Reis’ bass clarinet adding a smoky swirl as Khan plays menacing major-on-minor lines. Trembling, true to its title, is even more anxious with its rapidfire tabla intro, the band exchanging variations on its apprehensively rustling melody. The album winds up with a brief flute number that sounds like an Indian Baul minstrel dance. The band doesn’t seem to have a web presence of their own, but you can check out the album at Palmetto Records‘ site: it’s also up at most of the usual places you’d expect to find stuff like this.