Preston Frazier’s Best Jazz of 2016: Marquis Hill, Dave Stryker, Manu Katche + others

Preston Frazier stopped by to discuss his picks for Best Jazz of 2016, offering a list that crosses a striking number of musical boundaries from straight-ahead jazz to vocalists to fusion …


MARQUIS HILL – THE WAY WE PLAY (JAZZ): This Chicago native brings an ace band and modern style to this first entry on this Best Jazz of 2016 list, Marquis Hill’s Concord Jazz debut. Now based out of New York City, Hill is joined by drummer extraordinaire Makaya McCraven, alto saxophonist Christopher McBride, bassist Joshua Ramos and vibraphonist Justine Thomas on a project that seamlessly infuses modern elements across a song selection including some American standards. The result is an innovative, soulful and challenging collection which demands repeated listening. It’s a sign of master musicians and arrangers when standards take on new life under their tutelage. Marquis Hill is the textbook definition of a master, and The Way The Play relentlessly demonstrates that craft.

THE ROSE VORTEX – FREE EXPRESS-O MACHINE (FUSION): Led my semi-retired guitarist Warren Cuccurullo of Duran Duran/Missing Persons fame, and in including saxophonist Azar Lawrence, keyboardist Alex Alessandroni among others, the Rose Vortex creates a jazz-fusion landscape which is infectious, melodic and daring. Cuccurullo’s compositions are strong and tasteful, and his guitar is sublime as always. Hints of Frank Zappa abound in tracks like “Kylo” and “Muckin’ Fusstache,” while “Polaroid” touches on John Coltrane. This is one 2016 release which should not be overlooked.


CATHERINE RUSSELL – HARLEM ON MY MIND (VOCAL): 2014’s Bring It Back saw Cat Russell upping her game so much that it was hard to imagine a release from her which would top it. This next Best Jazz of 2016 entry doesn’t try to recreate the vibe of Bring it Back. Instead, Russell employs a slightly bigger-band approach tied to subtle arrangements and her always impeccable voice. The result is another classic from Russell. “Don’t Take Your Love From Me” and “Talk To Me” go down like fine wine, as Harlem On My Mind proves yet again that Catherine Russell is a national treasure.


THE 4 KORNERS – PORTAL OF GOLD (FUSION): The Atlanta-based 4 Korners released their second album in late 2016, and it continues the infectious grooves and fiery yet precise playing displayed on their self-titled debut. Portal of Gold hints at touches of the Yellowjackets and Tribal Tech, but the band displays a power and intellect that all their own. This telepathy is born from years to playing together in various configurations, but a bigger part of the success of Portal of Gold is the 4 Korners’ composition skills. Check out “Through His Eyes” and “The Dew” for proof.


MATT ULERY’S LOOM/LARGE – FESTIVAL (JAZZ): Chicago bassist Matt Ulery is a prolific composer whose undeniable instrumental chops sometime overshadows his strengths as an arranger and bandleader. Festival, Ulery’s seventh release, finds him touching all the bases with his quintet (Loom) and a jazz orchestra (Large). In either configuration, Ulery’s acumen is not to be denied. This double album bristles with intensity and dynamics from start to finish. Check out “Canopy” and “Hubble” for a taste.


KANSAS SMITTY’S HOUSE BAND – KANSAS SMITTY’S (BIG BAND): Big band jazz with a punchy back beat and tight horn arrangements power the next honoree on my Best Jazz of 2016 list. On the group’s debut, Kansas Smitty swings with wild abandon, while each solo builds in intensity. It’s not a new sound, yet is it a great one. “Get a Move On” is a perfect sample of all these elements coming together.


ROBERTO FONSECA – ABUC (FUSION): Robert Fonseca’s reversal of the word Cuba as a title of his eighth album does not mean he’s abandoning the rhythms of his native country. Instead, ABUC seems to be a tribute to his native land while he incorporates bolero, danzon and other Caribbean styles into the album. The result is a stirring mix of jazz which keeps the listener on their toes. Fonseca employs a wide-ranging band, using traditional and electronic instrumentation to widen the listener’s palette. Check out the opener, a cover of the classic “Cubano Chant,” and the original piece “Habaera.”

DAVE STRYKER – EIGHT TRACK II (JAZZ): Guitarist Dave Stryker touches on familiar territory with his latest release, Eight Track II. Somehow, Stryker is able to inject new meaning into these well-loved and -worn compositions. “What’s Going On” and “One Hundred Way” sound as fresh and vital as the first time you heard them. Part of the reason is that Stryker, after some 26 albums, has learned to avoid the cliche. Another reason is that Dave Stryker is a damn fine jazz guitarist.

BEEKMAN – BEEKMAN VOL. 2 (JAZZ): This New York-based quartet has continued to refine its craft and this second album demonstrated just how far the group has come. Beekman hits you squarely between the eyes with the opening track, “Cancion al Licor de Ave”; drummer Rodrigo Recabarren’s Chilean-influenced composition jumps out of the speakers. Beckman’s near telepathy as a group is unmistakable, as pianist Yago Vazquez, saxophonist Kyle Nasser, bassist Pablo Menares and Recabbarren seem to play with one highly evolved mind. “En otro Lugar,” composed by Menares, is another example as to why Beekman Vol. 2 should be on everyone’s playlist.

MANU KATCHE – UNSTATIC (JAZZ): Perhaps best known as the drummer for Peter Gabriel and Joni Mitchell, it’s easy to forget that Manu Katche has had a long-running solo career as a bandleader and composer. Unstaticoffers more than a hint at this Best Jazz of 2016 honoree’s chops: Check out the title track. Elsewhere, “Ride Me Up” showcases his arranging and writing prowess. Unstatic is one drummer-led project which is rich, warm and focused.