Skip to main content

 Albums of the Year, Presto Jazz Albums of the Year 2019

Now that it's officially December I can legitimately look back at the best of the many releases that have crossed my desk over this past year. Writing these regular reviews and round-ups has given me the opportunity to listen to lots of incredible music, much of it from artists who I probably wouldn't have otherwise stumbled across. At the same time I’ve discovered a passion for early jazz this year, so alongside listening to new releases I have been consuming lots of Edmond Hall, Sidney Bechet and Louis Armstrong, which oddly enough refreshed my perspective on the contemporary scene. I think we find ourselves at a point in history whereby it’s easy to think everything has been done in music, but the artists in the list below show that there is still limitless potential for innovation, beauty and abstraction in jazz.

So this is my list, in no particular order. I have also mixed in reissues like the Tubby Hayes Quartet's lost Fontana sessions and Eric Dolphy's recently discovered sessions (in a suitcase no less), alongside new recordings. I hope you enjoy the list, but if you feel I've missed something essential please do email me at matt.groom@prestomusic.com

Daniel Herskedal

Daniel Herskedal is a Norwegian composer, tuba and bass trumpet player whose music has the ability to vividly paint a scene, in this instance a series of imagined sea voyages. Written for small ensemble, Voyage impressed me with its range of colours, and Herskedal's knack for writing melodies that feel both new and yet also somehow familiar, influenced by Norwegian folk music. The imaginative and well-balanced arrangements allow plenty of room for improvisation from the talented musicians, making this is possibly the most inviting new album I heard all year.

Available Formats: CD, MP3, FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC

Herlin Riley

New Orleans drummer Herlin Riley’s Perpetual Optimism is chock full of unbounded enthusiasm and joie de vivre. With players like trumpeter Bruce Harris and saxophonist Godwin Louis in the band the energy levels are high, all powered by Riley's inventive drumming. Quite simply it's brilliantly played, joyous bop, and a record that I keep returning to. Check out the band’s cover of Willie Dixon’s Wang Wang Doodle for a taster.

Available Formats: CD, MP3, FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC

This rediscovered gem is at the top of most end-of-year jazz polls, and with good reason. It’s brimming with terrific originals by Tubby Hayes, which hold up against anything that was being written at the time, and had the album not languished in the archive for half a century some might well be standards now. The performances by Hayes and his British sidemen are inspired, making this an instant classic, no matter when it was recorded.

Available Formats: CD, MP3, FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC

For aficionados of out-there space-jazz who haven’t yet come across London-based trio The Comet is Coming, the band name alone will most likely prompt a sizeable blip on their internal Sun Ra-dar. Saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings is a key figure on the vibrant London jazz scene, and together with with Dan Leavers and Max Hallett he creates a memorably psychedelic jazz-odyssey, with some very catchy tunes and riffing, plus a stand-out guest appearance by rapper Kate Tempest.

Available Formats: CD, MP3, FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC

Available Format: Vinyl Record

Trish Clowes

I was listening to this album a lot back in the spring; Clowes’s saxophone is very versatile, seamlessly transitioning between spinning gorgeous long melodic lines, into delicate arabesques, and occasionally venturing into more aggressive playing. It's an album that's easy to enjoy, and comes wrapped up in a loose sci-fi concept too.

Available Format: CD

The Vampires

An unexpected highlight of the year, The Vampires are an Australian group who delight in confounding expectations, bringing a range of influences to their music, including dub and rock. They also clearly love lounge music and exotica too, and flicking through the fourteen relatively short tracks can feel a bit like dropping the needle at random through one of those sixties easy listening compilations – in a highly entertaining way!

Available Format: CD

An ideal introduction to Laura Jurd’s music, Stepping Back, Jumping In demonstrates her facility for writing complex charts that always sound spontaneous and immediate. It's a true team effort, with Dinosaur band mate, pianist Eliot Galvin, contributing the noirish Ishtar (featuring a beautiful spot for Martin Lee Thomson’s euphonium), and also Soosan Lolavar’s impressive I Am The Spring, You Are The Earth. As I said at the time, I'd love to hear this performed live sometime.

Available Formats: CD, MP3, FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC

Jimmy Giuffre 3

One of the most remarkable things about the abstractions of the Jimmy Giuffre 3, as documented on this live album recorded in Graz in 1961, is to consider what Giuffre's trio had sounded like just a couple of years before. Having been a swing band arranger in the late forties, he found commercial success with his earlier trio featuring guitarist Jim Hall in the fifties. So it was a brave move to follow his heart and make the leap into nascent world of free jazz, making music that was sometimes even stranger than Ornette and Cecil’s. Sixty years on we can better appreciate the beauty Giuffre, Paul Bley and Steve Swallow were creating, and the rewards are everywhere apparent on this document.

Available Format: CD

Chick Corea, Christian McBride & Brian Blade

I’ve always preferred to hear Chick Corea in the live context, as the excitement of having an audience in front of him brings out his most direct, and often more innovative playing. A 3-CD boxed set Trilogy released in 2014 was a fine example of this, and a true collaboration between him, Brian Blade and Christian McBride, and thankfully this year we were treated to the next instalment with this concert from 2016. Many a work-a-day piano trio could do with checking this out for the sheer invention on display - and observe how Corea puts aside any notion of who is the ‘star’. Bassist Christian McBride leads in several places, whilst Brian Blade is all over his kit, looking for new and interesting things to say. Fabulous.

Available Formats: 2 CDs, MP3, FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC, Hi-Res+ FLAC

Vijay Iyer (piano), Craig Taborn (piano)

With 2019 marking the 50th anniversary of ECM it's reassuring that the label continues to maintain a commitment to the kind of challenging and un-categorisable music that Vijay Iyer and Craig Taborn create in The Transitory Poems, a record that, let's face it, will never become the label's next Officium. It takes a while to acclimatise but once you do this is heady stuff, blurring the boundaries between jazz, improv and contemporary classical.

Available Formats: CD, MP3, FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC

Gard Nilssen Acoustic Unity

This record is a blast – drummer Gard Nilssen, bassist Petter Eldh and saxophonist André Roligheten are clearly loving every moment of this racket. What I really enjoyed about the playing is how fresh it sounds – Roligheten’s alto ideas come fast and furious, but always on point, whilst Eldh and Nilssen lock horns and deliver lean and mean rhythms, recorded so well that they encouraged me to keep tweaking the volume knob up (until I heard banging on the wall).

Available Formats: CD, MP3, FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC

Gard Nilssen Acoustic Unity

Available Format: Vinyl Record

JD Allen

Another excellent sax, bass and drums combo, JD Allen’s Barracoon was released to mark the 400th anniversary of slavery, and Allen's righteous anger is everywhere apparent. Communion is a good place to start, having a NY street-tough vibe, with Kenselaar’s sprightly upright bass strutting about, delivering runs that Charlie Haden would have been proud of. Cacioppo’s drumming is on the right side of fussy, frequently hyper-active, surrounding Allen with multiple jump-off points for his blistering sermonising.

Available Formats: CD, MP3, FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC

Jon Batiste

The opening track Creative is a microcosm of Batiste’s style, kicking off with a catchy, jagged piano riff channelling his idol, Thelonious Monk. The group quickly proceed to transform the material through numerous sections of contrasting moods and styles, before the piano finally malfunctions with some off-the-cuff Cecil Taylorisms leading to an abrupt end. It’s a thrilling start to the record, but all performed with taste and restraint, making this an easy album to enjoy.

Available Formats: CD, MP3, FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC

Jon Batiste

Available Format: Vinyl Record

Branford Marsalis Quartet

This Branford Marsalis Quartet album has won many an accolade this year, and is about as state-of-the-art as modern bop gets, with the whole band firing on all cylinders. There are also some gorgeous ballads on here, making this an extremely satisfying listen throughout.

Available Formats: CD, MP3, FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC

The first official release in 30 years for studio recordings Dolphy made in 1963, this set includes 85 minutes of music that has never been released before. Recorded as part of the Iron Man sessions in 1963, these tapes feature Dolphy in peak form, and a highlight is the the very special musical partnership he had formed with bassist Richard Davis. The newly discovered tapes had been stored in a suitcase with Dolphy’s personal belongings and given to Dolphy’s close friends Hale and Juanita Smith just before he embarked on his fateful European trip in 1964. Much as I enjoyed Coltrane's Blue World, this Dolphy discovery pipped it for me.

Available Format: 3 CDs