What, exactly, is "alternative jazz"? After that new category was announced ahead of the 2024 GRAMMYs nominations, inquiring minds wanted to know. The "alternative" descriptor is usually tied to rock, pop or dance — not typically jazz, which gets qualifiers like "out" or "avant-garde."
However, the introduction of the Best Alternative Jazz Album category does shoehorn anything into the lexicon. Rather, it commensurately clarifies and expands the boundaries of this global artform.
According to the Recording Academy, alternative jazz "may be defined as a genre-blending, envelope-pushing hybrid that mixes jazz (improvisation, interaction, harmony, rhythm, arrangements, composition, and style) with other genres… it may also include the contemporary production techniques/instrumentation associated with other genres."
And the 2024 GRAMMY nominees for Best Alternative Jazz Album live up to this dictum: Arooj Aftab, Vijay Iyer and Shahzad Ismaily's Love in Exile; Louis Cole's Quality Over Opinion; Kurt Elling, Charlie Hunter and SuperBlue's SuperBlue: The Iridescent Spree; Cory Henry's Live at the Piano; and Meshell Ndegeocello's The Omnichord Real Book.
Sure, these were the standard bearers of alternative jazz over the past year and change — as far as Recording Academy Membership is concerned. But these are only five albums; they amount to a cross section. With that in mind, read on for 10 additional albums from 2023 that fall under the umbrella of alternative jazz.
Allison Miller - Rivers in Our Veins
The supple and innovative drummer and composer Allison Miller often works in highly cerebral, conceptual spaces. After all, her last suite, Rivers in Our Veins, involves a jazz band, three dancers and video projections.
Therein, Miller chose one of the most universal themes out there: how rivers shape our lives and communities, and how we must act as their stewards. Featuring violinist Jenny Scheinman, trumpeter Jason Palmer, clarinetist Ben Goldberg, keyboardist and accordionist Carmen Staff, and upright bassist Todd Sickafoose — Rivers in Our Veins homes in on the James, Delaware, Potomac, Hudson, and Susquehanna.
And just as these eastern U.S. waterways serve all walks of life, Rivers in Our Veins defies category. And it also blurs two crucial aspects of Miller's life and career.
"I get to marry my environmentalism and my activism with music," she told District Fray. "And it's still growing!
M.E.B. - That You Not Dare To Forget
The Prince of Darkness may have slipped away 32 years ago, but he's felt eerily omnipresent in the evolution of this music ever since.
In M.E.B. or "Miles Electric Band," an ensemble of Davis alumni and disciples underscore his unyielding spirit with That You Not Dare to Forget. The lineup is staggering: bassists Ron Carter, Marcus Miller, and Stanley Clarke; saxophonist Donald Harrison, guitarist John Scofield, a host of others.
How does That You Not Dare To Forget satisfy the definition of alternative jazz? Because like Davis' abstracted masterpieces, like Bitches Brew, On the Corner and the like, the music is amoebic, resistant to pigeonholing.
Indeed, tunes like "Hail to the Real Chief" and "Bitches are Back" function as scratchy funk or psychedelic soul as much as they do the J-word, which Davis hated vociferously.
And above all, they're idiosyncratic to the bone — just as the big guy was, every second of his life and career.
Art Ensemble of Chicago - Sixth Decade - from Paris to Paris
The nuances and multiplicities of the Art Ensemble of Chicago cannot be summed up in a blurb: that's where books like Message to Our Folks and A Power Stronger Than Itself — about the AACM — come in.
But if you want an entryway into this bastion of creative improvisational music — that, unlike The Art Ensemble of Chicago and Associated Ensembles boxed set, isn't 18-plus hours long — Sixth Decade - from Paris to Paris will do in a pinch.
Recorded just a month before the pandemic struck, The Sixth Decade is a captivating looking-glass into this collective as it stands, with fearless co-founder Roscoe Mitchell flanked by younger leading lights, like Nicole Mitchell and Moor Mother.
Potent and urgent, engaging the heart as much as the cerebrum, this music sees the Art Ensemble still charting their course into the outer reaches. Here's to their next six decades.
Theo Croker - By The Way
By The Way may not be an album proper, but it's still an exemplar of alternative jazz.
The five-track EP finds outstanding trumpeter, vocalist, producer, and composer Croker revisiting tunes from across his discography, with UK singer/songwriter Ego Ella May weaving the proceedings with her supple, enveloping vocals.
Compositions like "Slowly" and "If I Could I Would" seem to hang just outside the reaches of jazz; it pulls on strings of neo soul and silky, progressive R&B.
Even the music video for "Slowly" is quietly innovative: in AI's breakthrough year, machine learning made beautifully, cosmically odd visuals for that percolating highlight.
Michael Blake - Dance of the Mystic Bliss
Even a cursory examination of Dance of the Mystic Bliss reveals it to be Pandora's box.
First off: revered tenor and soprano saxophonist Michael Blake's CV runs deep, from his lasting impression in New York's downtown scene to his legacy in John Lurie's Lounge Lizards.
And his new album is steeped in the long and storied history of jazz and strings, as well as Brazilian music and the sting of grief — Blake's mother's 2018 passing looms heavy in tunes like "Merle the Pearl."
"Sure, for me, it's all about my mom, and there will be some things that were triggered. But when you're listening to it, you're going to have a completely different experience," Blake told LondonJazz in 2023.
"That's what I love about instrumental music," he continued. "That's what's so great about how jazz can transcend to this unbelievable spiritual level." Indeed, Dance of the Mystic Bliss can be communed with, with or without context, going in familiar or cold.
And that tends to be the instrumental music that truly lasts — the kind that gives you a cornucopia of references and sensations, either way.
Dinner Party - Enigmatic Society
Dinner Party's self-titled debut EP, from 2020 — and its attendant remix that year, Dinner Party: Dessert — introduced a mightily enticing supergroup to the world: Kamasi Washington, Robert Glasper, Terrace Martin, and 9th Wonder.
While the magnitude of talent there is unquestionable, the quartet were still finding their footing; when mixing potent Black American genres in a stew, sometimes the strong flavors can cancel each other out.
Enigmatic Society, their debut album, is a relaxed and concise triumph; each man has figured out how he can act as a quadrant for the whole.
And just as guests like Herbie Hancock and Snoop Dogg elevated Dinner Party: Dessert, colleagues like Phoelix and Ant Clemons ride this wave without disturbing its flow.
Wadada Leo Smith & Orange Wave Electric - Fire Illuminations
The octogenarian tumpeter, multi-instrumentalist and composer Wadada Leo Smith is a standard-bearer of the subset of jazz we call "creative music." And by the weighty, teeming sound of Fire Illuminations, it's clear he's not through surprising us.
Therein, Smith debuts his nine-piece Orange Wave Electric ensemble, which features three guitarists (Nels Cline, Brandon Ross, Lamar Smith) and two electric bassists (Bill Laswell and Melvin Gibbs).
In characteristically sagelike fashion, Smith described Fire Illuminations as "a ceremonial space where one's hearts and conscious can embrace for a brief period of unconditioned love where the artist and their music with the active observer becomes united."
And if you zoom in from that beatific view, you get a majestic slab of psychedelic hard rock — with dancing rhythms, guitar fireworks and Smith zigzagging across the canvas like Miles.
Henry Threadgill - The Other One
Saxophonist, flutist and composer Henry Threadgill composed The Other One for the late, great Milfred Graves, the percussionist with a 360 degree vantage of the pulse of his instrument and how it related to heart, breath and hands.
If that sounds like a mouthful, this is a cerebral, sprawling and multifarious space: The Other One itself consists of one three-movement piece (titled Of Valence) and is part of a larger multimedia work.
To risk oversimplification, though, The Other One is a terrific example of where "jazz" and "classical" melt as helpful descriptors, and flow into each other like molten gold.
If you're skeptical of the limits and constraints of these hegemonic worlds, let Threadgill and his creative-music cohorts throughout history bulldoze them before your ears.
Linda May Han Oh - The Glass Hours
Jazz has an ocean of history with spoken word, but this fusion must be executed judiciously: again, these bold flavors can overwhelm each other. Except when they're in the hands of an artist as keen as Linda May Han Oh.
"I didn't want it to be an album with a lot of spoken word," the Malaysian Australian bassist and composer told LondonJazz, explaining that "Antiquity" is the only track on The Glass Hours to feature a recitation from the great vocalist Sara Serpa. "I just felt it was necessary for that particular piece, to explain a bit of the narrative more."
Elsewhere, Serpa's crystalline, wordless vocals are but one color swirling with the rest: tenor saxophonist Mark Turner, pianist Fabian Almazan, and drummer and electronicist Obed Calvaire.
Themed after "the fragility of time and life; exploring paradoxes seeded within our individual and societal values," The Glass Hours is Oh's most satisfying and well-rounded offering to date, ensconced in an iridescent atmosphere.
Charles Lloyd - Trios: Sacred Thread
You can't get too deep into jazz without bumping into the art of the trio — and the primacy of it.
At 85, saxophonist and composer Charles Lloyd is currently smoking every younger iteration of himself on the horn; his exploratory fires are undimmed. So, for his latest project, he opted not just to just release a trio album, but a trio of trios.
Trios: Chapel features guitarist Bill Frisell and bassist Thomas Morgan; Trios: Ocean is augmented by guitarist Anthony Wilson and pianist Gerald Clayton; the final, Trios: Sacred Thread, contains guitarists Julian Lage and percussionist Zakir Hussain.
These are wildly different contexts for Lloyd, but they all meet at a meditative nexus. Drink it in as the curtains close on 2023, as you consider where all these virtuosic, forward-thinking musicians will venture to next — "alternative" or not.
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