Lara Bello, Nick Finzer, Chris Greene + Others: Preston Frazier’s Best Jazz of 2017
Preston Frazier’s Best Jazz of 2017 list touches on albums he reviewed in these pages, including Adam Larson, Nick Finzer and Lara Bello, as well as Chris Greene – with whom he spoke about an unlikely origin story in jazz earlier this year. Preston also delves into other favorites including Miguel Zenon, Joe Jackson sideman Vinnie Zummo and Lucas Pino …
No. 10. CHRIS GREENE QUARTET – BOUNDARY ISSUES (JAZZ): Evanston, Illinois-based Chris Greene’s music always makes great road music, and Boundary Issues is no exception. Greene and his long-term band blend stunning new compositions like “Thunder Snow (written by piano player Damian Espinosa) and “The Crossover Appeal” (written by Greene) with daring and original interpretations of masterworks by Horace Silver (“Nico’s Dream”) and Kenny Kirkland (“Dienda”). The combination works, as the front line has a telepathic relationship with the rhythm section of bassist/composer Marc Piane and drummer Steve Corley. The first item on this Best Jazz of 2017 list has a more aggressive, funkier feel than Music Appreciation, but is unmistakably jazz played by master players who continue to evolve.
No. 9. MADELEINE PEYROUX – SECULAR HYMNS (VOCALS): Songstress Madeleine Peyroux turned back the clock a bit with Secular Hymns. On this album, it’s just Peyroux with the remarkable Jon Herington of Steely Dan fame on guitar and vocals and the expressive bassist on Barak Mori. Check out their interpretations of “Tango Till They’re Sore” and “Shout Sister Shout.”
No. 8. ADAM LARSON – SECOND CITY (JAZZ): Second City, Larson’s second album for Inner City Music, continues to build on the solid foundation of Selective Amnesia. At the same time, however, the next item on my Best Jazz of 2017 list isn’t an attempt at repeating past glories. Check out “Breakout,” a fitting coda to this fine selection of songs. Larsen displays his mastery of the tenor sax, only to be challenged by Rob Clearfield’s Fender Rhodes. Indeed, the entire band pulls out all the stops, with the rhythm section providing a fast and loose backing. And so ends Second City, a triumphant outing for Adam Larson.
No. 7. MIGUEL ZENON – TIPICO (JAZZ): Puerto Rican-born alto sax player and composer Miquel Zenon changes his modus operandi with Tipico. This Best Jazz of 2017 honoree takes a more straight-ahead approach compared to Identities are Changeable, which was likewise featured on last year’s list. Still, his quartet moves through Zenon’s original compositions with grace and enthusiasm. Check out the song “Las Ramas” and the title track, “Tipico.”
No. 6 ORGAN FREEMAN – RESPECT MY ART (JAZZ FUSION): Organ Freeman simply smoked on this 2017 release. Songs like “E.T. AF” mixed jazz, rock and reggae with seamless ease. “Don’t Eat Your Fingers” is just plain fun. The trio’s “Respect My Art” is a delight, from first to last note.
No. 5 JOEL LaRUE SMITH – THE MOTORMAN’S SON (JAZZ FUSION): A moving combination of Caribbean rhythms, classical touches and deft improvisation await you in Joel LaRue Smith’s Best Jazz of 2017 entry. Smith’s compositions are sharp and stirring. His piano playing and arranging skills are equally stunning, as he navigates his skilled band around a swirling group of jazz/Afro Cuban songs. This album is phenomenal.
No. 4 VINNIE ZUMMO – THE COYOTE (JAZZ) Vinnie Zummo isn’t just a great sideman, though he’s spent many years working with Joe Jackson. He is also a brilliant solo artist. On this Best Jazz of 2017 honoree, the guitarist shows why you should explore his back catalog. Zummo’s bebop skills are astoundingly fresh. “On the Groove” simply smokes, while “Retro Fuso” (which features Joe Jackson and long time Jackson bassist Graham Maby) will have you begging Zummo for a trio album next time.
No. 3 LUCAS PINO – THE ANSWER IS NO (JAZZ): Tenor saxophonist Lucas Pino and his all-star band No Net Nonet return with a muscular release. Pino’s approach on The Answer is No is fresh, and the band’s residency at Small’s Jazz Club is evident as they are as tight as Jimmy Macbride’s snare drum. Don’t let their familiarity with each other fool you, however. Pino’s compositions, while challenging, give this gifted group of players the space to stretch. Check out “The World Ahead” and “Pick ‘Em Up, Turn the Lights Out” as proof.
2. NICK FINZER – HEAR AND NOW (JAZZ): This has been a great year for jazz trombonists, and Nick Finzer’s Hear and Now is a case and point. His chops are unmistakable, but the album also shows Finzer’s continued growth as a composer and band leader. Check out “Lullaby for an Old Friend,” which gives Finzer an opportunity to dazzle listeners with his muted trombone over a pensive and introspective melody. Elsewhere, “Race to the Bottom” seems to be a frenzied reflection of our troubling life and times. This Best Jazz of 2017 honoree is pure jazz magic.
1. LARA BELLO – SIKAME (VOCALS): Mixing superb and haunting lyrics (mostly in Spanish) with an incredibly versatile and effective voice, Bello produced the top selection on our Best Jazz of 2017 list. A haunting album of almost all original material, Sikame casts fine flamenco instrumentation with a subtly complementary production to leave the listener captivated. It’s not to be missed. Indeed, Lara Bello’s writing and vocals are so captivating that it’s nearly impossible to listen to all of Sikame in one sitting, from the opener “Sola” to the enticing “La Semilla.” But it doesn’t take repeated listenings to figure out what makes this album so terrific: Check out “Sikame” and “Our Spanish Love Song,” as well.
BEST JAZZ OF 2017 HONORABLE MENTIONS
STEVE KHAN – BACKLOG (JAZZ FUSION): This winter 2016 release from a living guitar legend still speaks to me. Steve Khan returned with a gorgeous mix of Latin-tinged covers and infectious arrangements for a powerhouse band. Khan, a noted writer, breathes new life into songs by Thelonious Monk (“Criss Cross”) and his father Sammy Cahn (“Our Town,” which was co-written with Jimmy Van Heusen). An always a tasteful and provocative guitarist, Steve Khan leads a band including Randy Brecker, Marc Quinones and Bob Mintzer through a wonderful and worldly musical journey which captivates the listener.
BILLY CHILDS – REBIRTH (JAZZ): Billy Childs follows up his stellar release Map to the Treasure: Reimagining Laura Nyro with the equally intriguing Rebirth. Childs’ quartet wastes no time moving the bar forward on this Best Jazz of 2017 honorable-mention album with songs like “Peace” and “Tightrope,” where the pianist manages to walk the line between familiar and daring. It’s another Childs winner.
ADAM STEFFECK – AVIATOR (JAZZ/FOLK): Is this jazz? Fingerstyle guitar? Acoustic rock? How ever you categorize Aviator, there is no mistaking that Adam Steffeck is a talented composer and musician. He kicks things off in fine form with the dense and percussive “Take a Right, Then Straight Ahead,” a captivating opener. Songs like “Buried in Dust and Ruin” conjure up visions of a fast-moving storm: Grace and deadly power. The song, as with all of Aviator, is cinematic in scale, bold in concept and brilliant in execution. This is, indeed, a fine debut.