This was an excellent year for jazz on record, across every possible iteration of style. (If you're seeking evidence for the claim, consult the 2017 NPR Music Jazz Critics Poll.) But it's always worth pointing out that albums only tell part of the story, which often assumes different dimensions at street level, where the music pulses in real time.
So while I poured a lot of care and deliberation into my own best albums list, the year was largely defined by other factors. I'm remembering a head-spinning tour of the scene in Havana, Cuba, and the high bar for musicianship I encountered there. I'm thinking about the wrenching loss of pianist Geri Allen, and the waves of shock and sadness that followed. I'm recalling some encouraging scenes at major summer jazz festivals, in Newport and Detroit.
And then there are the gigs. I have a tradition of compiling my Top 10 under a banner I like to call The Year in Gigs, which ran for more than a dozen years in my column in JazzTimes. This year's edition finds a common thread in performances that stretched and challenged my perceptions.
That isn't a process unique to the avant-garde, though it's well represented here. These performances, covering a wide sonic and stylistic range, were simply the all-around standouts. As usual, I'm listing them in chronological order, and looking ahead to the new year.
Ambrose Akinmusire Quartet
Jan. 29, The Falcon, Marlboro, N.Y.
Just before the engagement that yielded an exemplary double album, A Rift in Decorum: Live at the Village Vanguard, trumpeter and composer Ambrose Akinmusire led his working band in a less formal but just as serious gig upstate. As I observed at the time, the performance was "an enthralling tempest, distinguished both by refinement and risk."
Dave Douglas: Metamorphosis
March 3, Appel Room
Douglas devoted this Jazz at Lincoln Center concert to a summit of his avant-garde jazz heroes, including fellow trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith, alto saxophonist Oliver Lake and drummer Andrew Cyrille. But he also deployed those fearless improvisers — and others, like percussionist Susie Ibarra and pianist Myra Melford — in small and responsive groupings, so that the takeaway wasn't a riotous provocation so much as a glow of communion.
Wayne Shorter Quartet
April 23, New Jersey Performing Arts Center
The eminent composer and saxophonist Wayne Shorter returned at long last to Newark for a festival in his honor at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center. And after a warmup duo set with Herbie Hancock on piano and synths, Shorter led his flagship quartet in a flat-out magnificent concert, making even the phrase "conquering hero" seem like some kind of faint praise.
May 4, Saint Andrew's Church, Beacon, N.Y.
She had the year's runaway debut in Fly or Die, an album bristling with kinetic force and unruly ideas. And Branch, a trumpeter who never lets an advanced technical vocabulary get in the way of direct expression, applied the same alignment of forces here, working with Tomeka Reid on cello, Jason Ajemian on bass and Chad Taylor on drums.
June 9, Ojai Music Festival, California
A solo flute piece by Edgard Varèse, and a historic performance by Eric Dolphy, set the spark for Chase — a virtuoso flutist and pathfinding conceptualist — to create her epic "Density 2036." The version she presented here was boundless, fearless and spiky with intrigue, drawing on the compositional input of partners like Pauchi Sasaki (prowling the stage in an interactive "speaker dress") and Tyshawn Sorey (thrashing hard and smart behind a percussion rig).
'Naked Lunch' with Live Orchestral Accompaniment
July 11, Alice Tully Hall
To kick off its weeklong Ornette Coleman tribute, the Lincoln Center Festival presented a rare screening of David Cronenberg's Naked Lunch, with this live performance of the score by Howard Shore. The orchestral colors were vibrant and exquisite; so were the interjections of two Ornette stand-ins, tenor saxophonist Ravi Coltrane and alto saxophonist Henry Threadgill.
Johnny O'Neal Trio
Aug. 17, Ginny's Supper Club, Harlem
This was just another night of the week for Johnny O'Neal, a bebop pianist and cocktail singer whose quality of expression runs almost as deep as his reservoir of tunes. But O'Neal has a way making the everyday feel rare, and his casual mastery in this set — full of midcentury-modern obscurities and fluttery torch songs — was a reminder of how lucky New Yorkers have been to have him back on the scene in recent years.
Cécile McLorin Salvant and Sullivan Fortner
Sept. 27, Village Vanguard
Just one track on Cécile McLorin Salvant's sublime new double album, Dreams and Daggers, features her with pianist Sullivan Fortner. But I saw the duo on two separate occasions this year, coming away each time in awe at the loose, insinuative swing in their rapport. This early set, on the second night of a weeklong run, was one for the books.
Mike Reed's Flesh & Bone
Oct. 8, Christ Church Neighborhood House, Philadelphia
Reed, a freethinking drummer, bandleader and composer from Chicago, devoted his current album, Flesh & Bone, to the unpacking of a traumatic racial encounter. His performance at the October Revolution of Jazz & Contemporary Music — with the band and poet Marvin Tate against a backdrop of video screens — put the music's rangy counterpoint in a contemplative frame.
Dominique Eade and Ran Blake with Kavita Shah
Nov. 21, Park Avenue Armory
Eade is a jazz singer of roving insight and imperturbable grace; Blake is a master pianist drawn to the power of elision and suspense. As on their stunning new album, Town and Country, they drew some twine around a bundle of American songs. Then the smart young vocalist Kavita Shah presented the premiere of "Folk Songs of Naboréa," a song cycle for seven voices and kora, which dares to peer beyond the apocalypse toward a more harmonious form of chaos.
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