2016 was a really good year for weird jazz! Not good in the sense of commercial success or cultural impact — but for a genre that arguably peaked decades ago, there was a surprising amount of good, weird jazz coming out this year. A lot of it is still fundamentally upsetting when you listen to it, but in a sort of good way? Here are my three favorites of the year, which I also forced Lizzie to listen to:
Shabaka & the Ancestors - Wisdom of Elders
Easily my favorite weird jazz album of the year! Shabaka Hutchings is a British-Barbadoan sax player who’s won a ton of UK awards over the past few years. This album saw him putting together a band in South Africa and getting really into Sun Ra. The result is basically updated Afrofuturist free jazz. He keeps the instrumentation simple enough that it’s not as overwhelming as you might think. “Mzwandile” is my favorite track, equal parts hooky and dissonant. It kind of sounds like the world is ending, which feels very 2016.
Lizzie says: I was worried that 13 minutes of "hooky and dissonant" was going to sound like an instrumental malfunction, but this was surprisingly reserved for a song that still manages to feel just slightly off.
Takuya Kuroda - Zigzagger
Takuya Kuroda is working in the Herbie Hancock / Donald Byrd mode, focused on groove and rhythm. (Japanese funk is much smoother than American funk.) Kuroda even joins with Antibalas to cover a Byrd song at the end of the album, in case the reference wasn’t coming through. I can imagine a world in which this music is really popular! Kuroda has a German Wikipedia page but not an English one, which is a good gauge of how close we are to that world.
Lizzie says: A world in which this music is really popular would be a world in which people suddenly fall asleep while dancing and never understand why.
Melanie di Biasio - Blackened Cities
Ted Goia called di Biasio “the Billie Holliday of Belgian ambient music,” which is about right. Her specialty is loungey songs that drop out into cold empty space. It’s a pretty good trick! Blackened Cities is the fullest expression of the trick yet, a single 24-minute track with two identifiable hooks hidden among a lot of drones and wind noises. It’s bleak out there.
Lizzie says: I can't help but think that every apocalypse movie would be just a little bit better if this were in the soundtrack. You know, the shot that’s always a slow pan of destruction but there’s a glimmer of hope in the eerie calmness of it all?