Credit: Elias Stein

To me, the essence of the Chicago jazz and improvised-music community is live performance. More than records made in many other jazz cities, records made in Chicago are documents of what a band does onstage—and that’d be a fair description of almost everything on my list. An aesthetic shaped by onstage performance tends to make for an album a bit less splashy or conceptual than many of the picks that dominate year-end lists, but none of these efforts is lacking in artistry and excitement.

Josh Berman Trio, A Dance and a Hop (Delmark)

Cornetist Josh Berman seems to have found himself leading this deft, agile trio with bassist Jason Roebke and drummer Frank Rosaly. The group’s music balances an investment in sound for its own sake against conversational phrasing and limber, precise rhythms. And though the elegant gestures Berman makes in the midst of his improvisations can be dramatically bent and contorted, the trio operates as a single, nimble intuitive organism.

Tomeka Reid Quartet, Tomeka Reid Quartet (Thirsty Ear)

For years cellist and composer Tomeka Reid has played in groups led by Nicole Mitchell and Mike Reed (among many others) and in the collective trio Hear in Now. This year she finally released her first album under her own name, and the wait was worth it. She leads a great band—New Yorkers Mary Halvorson on guitar and Tomas Fujiwara on drums, plus Chicago bassist Jason Roebke—through original compositions that alternate between elegant and thorny, lithe and turbulent, all the while demonstrating a sure grasp of swing-based improvisation and abstract collective spontaneity.

Michael Zerang & the Blue Lights, Songs From the Big Book of Love (Pink Palace)

Veteran percussionist Michael Zerang has rekindled his interest in composition by writing tunes for this bracing postbop quintet, which includes some of the city’s sharpest talent—cornetist Josh Berman, reedists Dave Rempis and Mars Williams, and bassist Kent Kessler. Throughout this album’s eight raucous, celebratory, and buoyant jams, the five of them rip and roar, mixing extroverted soloing with soulful ebullience whether they’re dancing through Middle East-inspired melodies or hurtling through steeplechase grooves.

Chicago Reed Quartet, Western Automatic (Aerophonic)

The impressive debut album from the Chicago Reed Quartet is also its swan song, bristling with unfulfilled promise. Mars Williams, Ken Vandermark, Nick Mazzarella, and Dave Rempis each contribute a pair of tunes, adding diversity and excitement—sometimes the group punctures upper-register blowouts with unexpected serenity, and sometimes it embraces plush Ellingtonian elegance.

Makaya McCraven, In the Moment (International Anthem)

To make this impressive album, drummer Makaya McCraven culled improvised passages and grooves from more than 48 hours of live recordings made during a weekly residency at the Bedford in 2013—he cut and pasted, looped, rearranged, and even added subtle keyboard washes. The drummer assembled a stellar cast of musicians for the residency—guitarist Jeff Parker, trumpeter Marquis Hill, vibist Justin Thomas, and bassist Matt Ulery, among others—and while their personalities remain intact, McCraven’s compositional mind-set is what allows the raw material to cohere into a new body of groove-oriented work.