The Story of Jazz in 2022 Part of NPR Music's Best Music of 2022 series.
The Story of Jazz in 2022
Special Series

The Story of Jazz in 2022

Part of NPR Music's Best Music of 2022 series

Guitarist Jeff Parker, whose free-form album Mondays at the Enfield Tennis Academy was among the best jazz releases of the year, according to our critics. Mikel Patrick Avery/Courtesy of the artist hide caption

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Mikel Patrick Avery/Courtesy of the artist

Guitarist Jeff Parker, whose free-form album Mondays at the Enfield Tennis Academy was among the best jazz releases of the year, according to our critics.

Mikel Patrick Avery/Courtesy of the artist

Jazz was all over the place in 2022. I mean that as a compliment, and with an intended double meaning: We saw some great examples of improvisers flowing through the culture, and we also heard compelling sounds across the broadest spectrum of styles. Which is one reason to balk at any list purporting to capture the definitive Best Jazz of 2022 – instead of doing that here, we asked a handful of keen listeners for their advocacy picks: one album and one song worth shouting about. —Nate Chinen


Nate Chinen

Song

Cécile McLorin Salvant, "Moon Song"

When people talk about Cécile McLorin Salvant, they often hail her interpretive daring — a natural focus, in light of the extravagant insight she keeps bringing to other people's songs. But can we stop for a moment to marvel at Salvant the songwriter? Ghost Song invites us to do just that, with its healthy balance of original gems. "Moon Song" isn't the most attention-grabbing of them, but it centers so many of her favorite themes: impossible yearning, obsessive craft, the illusion of control. "If you should love me / Don't ever tell me," she begins, over a harmonic progression that feels instantly familiar. What to make of this vulnerable yet guarded instruction? Like the song's key metaphor, it's warm and welcoming, but with a faraway glow. Listen here.

Album

Jeff Parker ETA IVtet, Mondays at the Enfield Tennis Academy

By now, critical consensus has anointed Makaya McCraven's In These Times the runaway crossover wonder of 2022. It appeared on my own top albums list, and on many others; its charms are abundantly clear. For our confab here, I'd like to herald an album conceived in the same spirit and harnessing many of the same energies, but with hazier and somewhat headier results. Guitarist-composer Jeff Parker is one of McCraven's longtime collaborators, and his Mondays at the Enfield Tennis Academy shares some DNA with McCraven's breakthrough In the Moment, from 2015. It's groove-forward but non-ingratiating, with a dynamic that puts pure creative potential in the hands of every musician in Parker's band: alto saxophonist Josh Johnson, bassist Anna Butterss (whose own work made another of our year-end lists) and drummer Jay Bellerose. An immersive listening experience that never settles on one version of the truth. Listen here.


Keanna Faircloth

Song

Endea Owens, "Where the Nubians Grow"

This has been a year of cultivation for Endea Owens: Through her initiative The Community Cookout she sows seeds of hope in New York, providing monthly meals and pop-up concerts for her neighbors. As one of the few women instrumentalists in a late-night television show band, she plants seeds of inspiration into young women musicians globally. Her Tiny Desk Concert with her band, The Cookout, opened with an original composition dedicated to her hometown of Detroit called "Where the Nubians Grow." It's an undeniable groove that personally embedded a seed of perseverance within me to push through the final quarter of 2022. Listen here.

Album

The Baylor Project, The Evening: Live at APPARATUS

One of the coolest memories I have of this year is experiencing a night of performance in the heart of Koreatown in Manhattan. I entered a building, took the elevator up to the fourth floor to what had been the home of a lighting design studio – before its conversion into an intimate jazz club called "Mums." I was invited to enter through lush, chocolate-velvet curtains that gave way to a room filled with pink and golden chrysanthemums; little wonder that what came out of that evening yielded this now Grammy-nominated album by The Baylor Project. The breathtaking vocals of Jean Baylor, supported by the embrace of her husband, drummer Marcus Baylor, and their stellar band made everyone in attendance feel like they were in on an intimate secret. Listen here.


Suraya Mohamed

Song

Ezra Collective, "Victory Dance"
Earlier this year, the U.K. jazz band Ezra Collective dropped "Victory Dance," the first single from the band's album Where I'm Meant To Be. Led by drummer and bandleader Femi Keleoso, the group plays an infectious mix of many genres, but here the Afro-Cuban rhythms and influences are upfront and peppy. It's a happy, energetic song that starts with a cool percussion vamp and moves into the catchy melodic line played in unison by Ife Ogunjobi on trumpet, James Mollison on saxophone and Keleoso's brother, TJ, on bass. Joe Armon-Jones comes in soon after to keep the fire going with his genius keyboard artistry. (You can also watch them play a Tiny Desk version.) Listen here.

Album

Eliane Elias, Quietude
Before producing her recently published Tiny Desk Concert, I spent a lot of time digging into pianist, singer and composer Eliane Elias' remarkable archive which includes her latest release, Quietude. Though an outstanding composer in her own right, for this record Elias chose to include some beautiful bossa nova standards, with works by many great Brazilian composers including Antonio Carlos Jobim and Dorival Caymmi. The arrangements are exquisite, the sound is luxurious and the performances by Elias and her fellow musicians are marvelous. Listen here.


Marcus J. Moore

Song

Mejiwahn, "Lumaby"

I realize I'm cheating a bit – this isn't jazz, per se – but I haven't been able to stop playing Mejiwahn's "Lumaby" from his incredible album Beanna, released this year. In it I hear the roots of salsa and bossa nova, a light and breezy groove seemingly made for warmer climates. To me, it's a song rooted in the tradition of Gal Costa. I've been shouting out Meji all year. This song and album should be required listening. Listen here.

Album

Dezron Douglas, Atalaya

Certain albums tend to emulate weather, and Dezron Douglas' Atalaya just feels like the fall. There's a chill to it, a level of cool evoking the convergence of traditional and contemporary New York jazz. To me, Atalaya sounds like a late-night set, when the creative freedom takes over and the buttoned-up essence of the 8 p.m. show gives way to after-hours experimentation. Blurring the boundaries of free jazz and hard bop, Atalaya balances restraint and release with the utmost precision, lending to an album that settles and propels equally. Listen here.


Larry Blumenfeld

Song

Terri Lyne Carrington, "Unchanged"

On drummer Terri Lyne Carrington's New Standards, Vol. 1 the melody of "Unchanged"— from pianist Marta Sanchez's 2019 release, El Rayo de Luz — gets switched from saxophone to trumpet. Yet the slippery, overlapping rhythms, emblematic of Sanchez's writing, remain intact. Sanchez is among 11 composers, all women, whose repertoire Carrington's album champions with style and a message. Curious about those rhythms? Consult New Standards: 101 Lead Sheets by Women Composers, Carrington's consciousness-raising Real Book published this year. Listen here.

Album

Mali Obomsawin, Sweet Tooth

The most auspicious debut album I heard this year — Sweet Tooth, from bassist, singer and composer Mali Obomsawin — nods to both the familiarly freeing legacy of Ornette Coleman's mid-20th-century quartet and to lesser-known declarations of independence: the sounds, songs and ideas of Maine's Wabanaki people. Obamsawin connects these histories with power and ingenuity. "My people have had to innovate endlessly to get our stories heard," she has said – which is pretty much jazz's story, right? Listen here.


The year in jazz

Charles Mingus, photographed at a party in New York on Aug. 4, 1976. For poet and critic Harmony Holiday, the complexities that underpin legacies like Mingus' were a constant puzzle this year. Lynn Karlin/Penske Media via Getty Images hide caption

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Lynn Karlin/Penske Media via Getty Images

Charles Mingus, photographed at a party in New York on Aug. 4, 1976. For poet and critic Harmony Holiday, the complexities that underpin legacies like Mingus' were a constant puzzle this year.

Lynn Karlin/Penske Media via Getty Images

I began this reminiscence writing about a year of concerts and festivals, that renewed togetherness and back-outsideness that feels at once routine and rogue after the hiatus, but quickly realized that what's most important to me about jazz right now is what is happening offstage and backstage, in-between shows and attitudes, when we catch ourselves wondering what we're saying as if trapped in a dreamscape that only the right question posed at the right time can interrupt or interpret. Some of the best jazz songs ask such questions. Mingus' version of "What Is This Thing Called Love?" for example, which makes sure to never define what it seeks to define, embodies it instead, revels in the unknowns as its very tempo and temperament. Or Tony Williams's "Where" – interrogating that dream to rid it of aimlessness, where are you going / where have you come from / if anyone asks you / I hope you can say.

Jazz is an elegiac form as much as a collective one, such that its tones often vacillate between ache and celebration, ecstatic love and dead-end romance, self-discovery and self-delusion — ballad and blues. Jazz ensembles and compositions are safe havens for codes that don't exist outside of them and subject to the exile that comes with protecting the freedom of expression that mainstream culture aims to replace with the ready-made. Sometimes those codes woven into the music are so exclusive that their makers exist in obscurity, or in a network of rumors among themselves, their families, friends and most avid fans, never entering the minds of those outside of it. Some jazz musicians spend their whole lives within this network, perhaps never venturing away because it fulfills them enough, because the pivot to some kind of celebrity musicianship is no more glamorous than being loved and appreciated by one's own community. A little utopian caveat about the myths animating the jazz underground, and backstage and post-stage and festival.

I've spent this year mining those territories with direct questions, conducting oral histories of jazz families whose legacies are often left to apocryphal lore and imagination. I began with the Coltrane family, interviewing Michelle Coltrane, daughter of Alice and John, Surya Botofasina, their nephew, and several of the singers who grew up on the ashram Alice Coltrane lived on in Malibu, Calif. I interviewed Keki Mingus, daughter of Charles Mingus, who told me she hadn't been asked about her father by the jazz establishment in many years. His centennial this year was in danger of passing without Keki's account, sourced from a close and loving relationship with him and his life and music, which seemed almost intentional and in the service of more sensational narratives about Mingus's life and temperament. Next, I interviewed pianist Jamael Dean and his grandfather Donald Dean, a drummer born in 1935 who has played with everyone from Cecil Taylor to Donny Hathaway, to, I found out in the interview, my own father. And I was interviewed by singer Melanie Charles and Yunie Mojica, two women who are at once performing and creating a community of musicians and thinkers offstage.

Most recently, I spoke with Jasper Marsalis about his upbringing, his music and painting, what it's like to be Wynton's son and what it's like to be himself expanding that tradition in new forms. What each interview has taught me, and in a different way each time, is that jazz music is the energetic extension of an oral tradition that separates Black art from the rest of Western art, in that it values knowing things by heart, remembering, and retelling in person, or riffing on a closed-notion, over paper documents and final says. Jazz musicians and their families become talking books and written biographies and articles must be supplemented with oral histories which whisper secrets that can never be translated here, if they hope to evolve into accuracy, which is never a fixed point in the history of this music. The stories morph and change as the songs do each time they are played.

The danger of not exploring the ways this music is traded and handed down across generations, becomes collective improvisation as a way of life and not just a way of sounding more lifelike in song, is that the keepers of these stories are not as immortal in the flesh as their sound is in spirit dimensions. In February of this year an LA-based, Chicago-born jazz musician, Derf Reklaw, died in Los Angeles. Ask me how: He was found waiting for a city bus with his instruments and his phone in his hand. He had performed hours earlier. (His family has since begun a project in his name, the Derf Recklaw Arts and Heritage Foundation.)

He was a longtime family friend and would recount vivid, ever-changing stories of his life in and out of the music of which we have little record. Those stories may vanish because no one asked the right questions, because we neglect musicians whose charisma transcends the limits of a two-hour concert or album.

For me, this has been a year of looking at the parts of the lives of jazz musicians that cannot be recorded or even recounted in music alone, but that earn you true access to the music, its elegies and its glories. We are responsible for looking to improvisers and composers for more than entertainment and dazzle or distraction. When we do, we find a void neither stage nor its opposite, made up of tedious procedures, some grandeur and delight, and all the withheld questions that threaten to displace everyone involved: How did you get home from shows? Is the one haunting me most. Have we made it home?


The year in jazz

December 15

Tyshawn Sorey's year of creative unity

Composer, conductor, multi-instrumentalist and MacArthur "genius" Tyshawn Sorey, whose work this year was central for critic Larry Blumenfeld. John Rogers/Courtesy of the artist hide caption

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John Rogers/Courtesy of the artist

Composer, conductor, multi-instrumentalist and MacArthur "genius" Tyshawn Sorey, whose work this year was central for critic Larry Blumenfeld.

John Rogers/Courtesy of the artist

In March 2020, before the pandemic shut down live jazz in New York, the last performance I heard was a sextet that Tyshawn Sorey led from behind his drum kit at Manhattan's Jazz Gallery. McCoy Tyner, a pianist of towering influence, had died that day; after two hours of original music, Sorey's group slid into Tyner's "Search for Peace," a wordless release of grief I hadn't realized I needed and one last bit of communal uplift before the lockdown.

This past March, as COVID's veil began believably lifting, Sorey was back at the Gallery with a trio (pianist Aaron Diehl and bassist Russell Hall) and a special guest, alto saxophonist Greg Osby. Their music transformed nearly a century of jazz standards into a rush of fresh possibilities. Sorey was serving notice — not just to say "we're back," but that the music had advanced even while we weren't.

It had been waiting for us, as jazz always does, even in normal times. A document culled from that five-night engagement, released last month as The Off-Off Broadway Guide to Synergism, is the next logical step after Sorey's stunning July studio release, Mesmerism — a more pristine yet just as adventurous standards program, in trio with Diehl and bassist Matt Brewer.

All of this was inspired by Osby's 1998 album, Banned in New York, which also recast standards and was, for Sorey, "my soundtrack all through college." Back then Sorey was a trombonist studying classical music, just beginning to play drums in jazz ensembles. As he quickly climbed jazz's ranks, he felt a door slamming on his other ambition — composing for orchestras and chamber-music ensembles. "Since I am a drummer, not a lot of people will take my music seriously," he told me a decade ago. Yet Sorey's recent success as a composer prompted one reviewer to call Mesmerism "a return to jazz." Such irony aside, this past year elevated his standing as a composer yet further.

The clearest evidence was "Monochromatic Light," which premiered in Houston in February to honor both the 50th anniversary of The Rothko Chapel's opening and Morton Feldman's landmark piece for that event, and "Monochromatic Light (Afterlife)," a 90-minute multimedia extension Rothko's work, at Manhattan's Park Avenue Armory in September. In-between, at Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston, S.C. (for a concert series I co-curated) in June, Sorey sat in the third row while the festival's resident orchestra and cellist Seth Parker Woods performed "For Roscoe Mitchell," a dedication to one of several mentors connected to the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM). Then, Sorey stepped up to the podium and conducted his "Autoschediasms," guiding the musicians through "spontaneous composition."

In 2022, seated at his trap set, barely moving, Sorey built stirring drama with the flick of a wrist and a cymbal strike. On the podium, moving his large frame with balletic grace, he coaxed original stories from orchestral players. At the Armory, his music led and held us in a meditative space, channeling ghosts and pain into gorgeous stillness. Over this past year Sorey's ambitions, once in seeming opposition, ascended to a point of unity. Such a development is what the AACM's founders imagined more than a half-century ago. And it's what we need now, to transcend outdated genre-based fundamentalisms, and to turn a year that began as merely bearable into a vision of better things to come.


The year in jazz

Julius Rodriguez, whose album Let Sound Tell All was a through line this year for journalist and author Marcus J. Moore. Erik Barden/Courtesy of the artist hide caption

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Erik Barden/Courtesy of the artist

Julius Rodriguez, whose album Let Sound Tell All was a through line this year for journalist and author Marcus J. Moore.

Erik Barden/Courtesy of the artist

In June, the pianist/drummer Julius Rodriguez released his debut album, Let Sound Tell All, a project so dynamic that even the umbrella of jazz couldn't quite contain its essence. Though the genre was surely present, the songs "All I Do" and "In Heaven" showed reverence for R&B and gospel — the former a posh cover of Stevie Wonder's 1980 song, the latter a piano-focused ballad rooted in the sound of Black church. It culminated in his ascendance from White Plains, N.Y., where Rodriguez studied classical piano and taught himself how to play drums, tagging along to jazz concerts with his father, who drove the then-11-year-old to clubs like Smalls while Thelonious Monk played on the car radio. Along the way he studied at the Manhattan School of Music, then Juilliard, before dropping out to tour with rapper A$AP Rocky in 2018.

Rodriguez is now a rising star at the intersection of jazz, soul, hip-hop and blues, playing alongside other multi-hyphenates like José James, Madison McFerrin and Meshell Ndegeocello. On Let Sound Tell All, through an amorphous blend that he simply calls "the music," Rodriguez converged past and present with stellar results, showcasing himself as a torchbearer among a cohort of young New York players bringing history into the future. People like him, vibraphonist Joel Ross and flutist/producer Melanie Charles combine traditional jazz with contemporary rap, electronica and soul, nudging listeners to drop preconceived notions of what Black classical music is supposed to be. Like others before them, they're showing that jazz can be edgy and expansive, not just the backdrop for sipping overpriced drinks in cramped nightclubs. Can Rodriguez play that scene? Sure. But his virtuosity is broader than that, transcending age and genre, making him one of the most well-rounded performers I've encountered in recent years.

YouTube

I've seen Rodriguez perform three times this year — at a private taping in Greenpoint, Brooklyn (above), then twice at BRIC JazzFest as the leader of his own band and as lead pianist for José James' headlining set. As leader, he'd switch between piano and drums, wading through the delicate "Where Grace Abounds" or pounding out the frenetic "Two Way Street." Even when he wasn't at the helm, Rodriguez still commanded the stage from the piano bench, playing superb solos without overtaking the show's star.

"What makes him so special is his unique ability to go deeply into the music, whether it's jazz, hip-hop, R&B, experimental, whatever," James told me recently. "He really gets inside the concept of the song or project and creates from inside it, rather than adorning it from the outside. That's a subtle thing but so important. Because it means he's fully present in the moment and walking the edge of creation at all times."

Indeed, there's a fluidity to Rodriguez's work, the feeling of defiance based in the renouncement of industry-crafted tags. Whether he's retooling Erykah Badu cuts or building his own soundtrack, his artistry is limitless and Let Sound Tell All was one of the strongest statements of 2022.


The year in jazz

Immanuel Wilkins in a performance for Jazz Night in America at PhilaMOCA in January 2022. NPR hide caption

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NPR

Immanuel Wilkins in a performance for Jazz Night in America at PhilaMOCA in January 2022.

NPR

This year's most powerfully transporting jazz album got its hooks into me before I'd even tabulated last year's list. I'm not sure that has ever happened to me before, but The 7th Hand, the phenomenal sophomore effort by alto saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins, impressed early and often: Whenever I'd return to it over the course of the year, the album felt enduringly mysterious, sustaining and alive. Harmony Holiday, who penned its liner notes, praised Wilkins in our 2021 Year in Review by copping a term from the late critic Greg Tate: "spiritual genius."

Wilkins, who grew up playing piano for a Holiness-Pentecostal congregation in the Philadelphia area, distilled his metaphysics into the music on The 7th Hand. His deeply impressive band (with Micah Thomas on piano, Daryl Johns on bass and Kweku Sumbry on drums) excels in the kind of intuitive grace and dynamism required to distinguish a young crew in this lineage. But what sets them further apart is the consuming fervor of their commitment to the moment, and to each other: a glowing, intangible synonymy with the John Coltrane Quartet, among select others. I hear that quality all over the album, but it was something else to feel it rattling a room — as I did one evening in late January of this year, when Wilkins played an album-release show at PhilaMOCA, co-presented by Ars Nova Workshop and WRTI and later featured by Jazz Night in America.

YouTube

That event was among the first of its kind I'd experienced in the pandemic era: a crowded, swaying fellowship, wildly euphoric even from behind a KN95 mask. It was an early harbinger of a year that saw bands back out on tour, venues reopening their doors. After the severe isolation of 2020 and the halting progress of 2021, I joined a returning horde in 2022, reaping my bliss at major festivals like Newport Jazz and Big Ears; in packed clubs like The Village Vanguard and Ars Nova Workshop's stylish new home, Solar Myth; and in spaces like National Sawdust in Brooklyn, where guitarist Mary Halvorson premiered her chamber inventions, taken from an engrossing pair of albums.

Saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins, photographed at a performance in 2019. This year, Wilkins' brilliant album The 7th Hand was a constant companion for WRTI editorial director Nate Chinen. Jonathan Chimene hide caption

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Jonathan Chimene

Saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins, photographed at a performance in 2019. This year, Wilkins' brilliant album The 7th Hand was a constant companion for WRTI editorial director Nate Chinen.

Jonathan Chimene

Without going out of my way, I caught Immanuel Wilkins in performance several more times over the course of the year — as far afield as Rotterdam, at the massive North Sea Jazz Festival, and as close to home as the Philly suburbs, at the Ardmore Music Hall. Wilkins, who turned 24 this summer, also paid a visit last month to a class I teach at NYU's Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music. Among the questions I had for him: How did it really feel for a touring artist as the music industry revved back up in 2022? "What are the stress points?" I asked, thinking about the many acts that canceled or curtailed their tours in the face of a bleak financial reality, among other problems.

"I didn't go on tour as a leader before 2020," Wilkins first stipulated. "So I only know post-COVID touring. But there are some big issues with what touring is, for all of us. It's not good for the body, one. It's very rigorous, to the point where I don't know if it's truly sustainable. We went on five or six tours this year — and I'm tired." The upside, he hastened to add, was that he had the good fortune to be out on the road with some of his best friends, a circumstance he recognizes as a rare privilege.

As for the clamoring enthusiasm among audiences — that air of ardent wish fulfillment, which I've witnessed in so many different circumstances this year — it clearly registered with him. "That feels amazing," Wilkins said. "It feels great to play for people who want to be out, who want to see the music. One of the most beautiful things about being a musician is that feeling of, like, 1,000 people, 2,000 people, all projecting their energy on four people on the bandstand." My thoughts ran back to that night early in the year, when the crowd was a lot smaller but the transfer of energy no less intense.

"The energy of the room, it's like going into this portal," Wilkins went on, marveling. "That's something that I missed during the pandemic, and now, it feels like people are hungry again. The room has a power again."

Our year-end package from NPR Music, The Story of Jazz in 2022, which we will publish this week, could be understood in one sense as a testament to that power, and everything that went into its restoration. Marcus J. Moore attests to the breakout success of the category-exploding keyboardist Julius Rodriguez, drawing in part from a few tantalizing in-person encounters. Larry Blumenfeld reflects on the groundbreaking year enjoyed by composer Tyshawn Sorey, whose Monochromatic Light (Afterlife) was an immersive revelation in its staging at the Park Avenue Armory this fall. And Harmony Holiday reflects on some of the vital stories that hover around the edges of the room, offstage or backstage.

In other words, this is neither a comprehensive survey nor a definitive statement, and you can look elsewhere for the official stirrings of critical consensus. But we'll also be sharing some of our other highlights on record: moments that took us someplace, even as they rooted us to the spot.


The year in jazz