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From Wynton Marsalis to Vijay Iyer, the best jazz albums of 2016

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Renee Rosnes: "Written in the Rocks" (Smoke Sessions Records): Rosnes long ago earned a reputation as a first-rate pianist, but with "Written in the Rocks" she affirms her gifts as composer with a fertile imagination and a technique to match. Even if you didn't know that "Written in the Rocks" has specific pictorial and programmatic purposes, its stunning array of instrumental colors, exquisitely refined voicings and lush harmonic palette command attention. Rosnes' score benefits greatly from the contributions of vibraphonist Steve Nelson, flutist-saxophonist Steve Wilson, bassist Peter Washington and drummer Bill Stewart, but it's the inventiveness of Rosnes' concept and writing that stand out.

Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis: "The Abyssinian Mass" (Blue Engine Records): The theme of faith has coursed through Marsalis' work for decades, most notably in recordings such as "In This House, On This Morning" (1994), featuring his septet in a gospel service portrayed in jazz; and "All Rise" (2002), an epic that explored struggle and salvation. "The Abyssinian Mass" continues Marsalis' investigations along these lines, the massive forces of the JLCO, the Chorale le Chateau and vocal soloists offering up 23 movements on two discs — a monumental statement brilliantly articulated in jazz, blues and gospel.

Marquis Hill: "The Way We Play" (Concord Jazz): As part of his prize for taking top honors in the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Trumpet Competition of 2014, trumpeter Hill won a recording contract with Concord Jazz. Expectations were high for his major-label debut, and Hill fulfilled them with a more personal album than one might have thought possible under these circumstances. Though Hill recorded mostly standards, he conjured distinctive arrangements, intensifying his message by featuring social commentary in the form of spoken word from poet Harold Green III. The nimbleness of Hill's technique and the lyrical core of his phrase-making are apparent throughout.

Vijay Iyer/Wadada Leo Smith: "A Cosmic Rhythm with Each Stroke" (ECM Records): The title may sound a bit high-flown, but it reflects the ethereal and hypersensitive character of the music itself (as well as the name of the primary suite on the recording). Pianist/keyboardist Iyer and trumpeter Smith improvise subtly, one gently expressed musical thought responding to the next. You sense the environment in this recording, Smith's streaks of sound and Iyer's richly textured pianism set against plenty of space and silence. Listeners uninterested in traveling into unusual musical terrain may not be pleased, but open-eared audiences will welcome the freshness of the approach, the translucence of the sound and the delicacy of the delivery.

Julian Lage: "Arclight" (Mack Avenue): Fine jazz guitarists are hardly in short supply, but Lage stands out for the clarity of his thought, the sleekness of his sound and the range of his expression. Leading a trio with comparably agile work from drummer Kenny Wollesen and bassist Scott Colley, Lage mixes originals with historical repertoire, the latter giving him ample opportunity for buoyant swing rhythm, the former enabling him to venture into somewhat edgier fare.

Laurin Talese: "Gorgeous Chaos" (Bassic Black Entertainment): The first time I heard Talese, five years ago in Philadelphia, she made a vivid impression via the sumptuousness of her instrument and the creativity of her vocal lines. She sounds still more accomplished on her album "Gorgeous Chaos," Talese bringing heart and spontaneity to standards, obscurities and originals alike. In all of this material, she emerges as an uncommonly persuasive storyteller, accompanied on select tracks by bassist Christian McBride, keyboardist Robert Glasper and other noteworthy instrumentalists who clearly believe in her. "Gorgeous Chaos" should serve as an excellent calling card for a singer very much on the rise.

Melissa Aldana: "Back Home" (Wommusic): Chilean tenor saxophonist Aldana received considerable attention after winning the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Saxophone Competition three years ago, at age 24, and her work ever since has proved she deserved it. "Back Home" crystallizes the appeal of Aldana's music, most notably the austere quality of her sound, the consistently understated manner of her performance and the considerable sophistication of her improvised lines. Bassist Pablo Menares and drummer Jochen Rueckert provide continuous, intriguing counterpoint. This music may seem a bit restrained for some listeners' tastes, but to me it's balm in a very noisy world.

Howard Reich is a Tribune critic.


Read the full piece from: Chicago Tribune

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