Although gatekeepers often want to tell us what jazz is and what it isn’t, the music has always thrived and developed by ignoring any strict definition. That openness can lead to vigorous debate, a dialogue that can underlines the music’s ongoing vitality and richness. When improvisation remains at the core of jazz practice, the actual context for the performance can go all over the map, as you can hear on these 50 emblematic tracks of jazz in 2017.
There are those who still love to swing, whether it’s cornetist Kirk Knuffke lovingly surveying the compositions of the great Don Cherry (“Art Deco”), the quartet Hush Point updating west-coast verities (“Rhythm Method”), or Mike Reed’s Flesh & Bone summoning the spirit of Charles Mingus (“I Want to Be Small”). But the rhythmic thrust of jazz has embraced a huge variety of approaches, from the fusion of dance music and rock by the hard-hitting Kneebody (“Drum Battle), the loose funkiness in the atmospheric landscapes of guitarist Matthew Stevens (“Cocoon”), or the throbbing post-no-wave improvisation of guitarist James Blood Ulmer’s scintillating collaboration with Scandinavian heavies The Thing (“Baby Talk”).
Few genres allow its elders to maintain both broad listenership and artistic relevance like jazz. Art Ensemble of Chicago founder Roscoe Mitchell continued to collide adventurous currents in spontaneity with a rigorous compositional ethos (“Panoply”), while his old Chicago neighbor drummer Jack DeJohnette tackled some rock favorites created in the Hudson Valley with collaborators John Scofield, Larry Grenadier, and John Medeski (“Up on Cripple Creek”). Supported by a fiery young band, masterful hard-bop drummer Louis Hayes saluted his early employer Horace Silver (“Señor Blues”), while the soulful singer Gregory Porter celebrated one of his key mentors, Nat King Cole, in lush surroundings (“Pick Yourself Up”). And though the US will always be the birthplace of jazz, a complement of European explorers like Cortex, Kaja Draksler, and Silke Eberhard prove it belongs to the world now.