My year-end list published in the Reader a couple weeks ago bore the headline “The ten best jazz records of 2016,” because I forgot to remind my editor that I’d prefer to say “My ten favorite” instead. The concreteness of “best” doesn’t acknowledge the reality that I didn’t hear all the jazz albums released last year—not even close. As usual, in the days and weeks since I compiled the list, I’ve heard music that could’ve competed for a spot, including Flaga (The Book of Angels, Vol. 27) (Tzadik), the latest in a long series of disparate recordings produced by John Zorn using the book of compositions he wrote for his old group Masada. Because of the connection to Zorn and the “Book of Angels” rubric, the performers tend to get less attention than they might otherwise—which makes it easy for individual titles, such as Flaga, to get overlooked.
I overlooked it mostly because I didn’t even know it existed until recently, which is strange considering it features a trio of pianist Craig Taborn, bassist Christian McBride, and drummer Tyshawn Sorey—such a high-octane lineup that a release with their names on it would’ve arrived as something of an event. The players live up to expectations, ripping into Zorn’s Jewish-themed tunes with head-spinning gusto; they honor the meditative tenor of the themes even as they tear it apart. McBride is arguably the most accomplished and best-known mainstream bassist of his generation—a powerful musician with a faultless sense of time, profound harmonic knowledge, and a commanding tone—while Taborn and Sorey are fearless explorers in numerous contexts, inside and outside improvised music. Here they work together as a forward-looking jazz trio, playing deep grooves at high velocity—swinging ferociously, splaying melodies wide open, and generating intense heat with the aggression of their playing.
I’m not interested in revisiting the order of my list, but Flaga is one of the most exciting and rewarding jazz albums I heard from 2016. I’ve listened to it a half dozen times in the past couple weeks, and on each occasion it’s both quickened my pulse and slowed my breathing. Below you can check out a fairly representative selection, the fiery opening track, “Machnia.”
Gropper/Graupe/Lillinger, Riot (Why Play Jazz)
Starlite Motel, Awosting Falls (Clean Feed)
Herlin Riley, New Direction (Mack Avenue)
Ethan Iverson, The Purity of the Turf (Criss Cross Jazz)
Shabaka & the Ancestors, Wisdom of Elders (Brownswood Recordings)