The Best Jazz Albums of 2018

Sorry I've been away from this space for so long. My day gig (national-security columnist for Slate) has kept me busy (as you can imagine), and I've got a tight deadline on a new book. Still, as Congreve observed, "Musick has Charms to sooth a savage Breast," and there's plenty of breast-beating savagery out there, so I've continued to listen, and here is my dispatch on the Best Jazz Albums (10 new and two historical discoveries) of 2018.

A more discursive version of this list, with descriptions and an audio track from each album, appears here in Slate (my editors indulge me now and then). Exclusively for this blog's readers, I append, below, some notes on the entries' sound quality.

New Albums
1. Keith Jarrett, La Fenice (ECM, 2 CDs).
2. Cecile McLorin Salvant, The Window (Mack Avenue, CD or LP).
3. Fred Hersch Trio, Live in Europe (Palmetto).
4. Ben Allison, Quiet Revolution (Sonic Camera).
5. Dave Douglas Quintet, Brazen Heart: Live at Jazz Standard—Saturday (Greenleaf, 2CDs).
6. Frank Kimbrough, Monk's Dreams (Sunnyside, 6CDs).
7. Charlie Haden & Brad Mehldau, Long Ago and Far Away (Impulse).
8. Steve Coleman & Five Elements, Live at the Village Vanguard, Vol.1 (The Embedded Sets) (Pi, 2CDs).
9. Dave Douglas & Joe Lovano, Scandal (Greenleaf).
10. Charles Lloyd & the Marvels + Lucinda Williams, Vanished Gardens (Blue Note, CD or LP).

Historical Albums
1. Miles Davis & John Coltrane, The Final Tour: The Bootleg Series, Vol.6 (Columbia Legacy, 4CDs).
2. Erroll Garner, Nightconcert (Mack Avenue).

I also prepared a Best 10 list, along with >100 other critics, for Francis Davis' NPR jazz poll. Under Francis' rules, an album recorded more than 10 years ago must be considered "historical," even if the music has never before been released. Since Jarrett's La Fenice and Haden/Mehldau's Long Ago were recorded in 2006 and 2007, respectively, I had to scratch them off the list (though I put Jarrett down as the #2 Historical Album, behind the Davis-Coltrane). To fill in the gap, I listed, as #9 and #10, two duet albums: Ethan Iverson & Mark Turner, Temporary Kings (ECM, CD or LP); and Mary Halvorson (with Bill Frisell), The Maid with the Flaxen Hair (Tzadik).

Now for the Sonic section. All of the New Albums sound very good to excellent. Dave Douglas' Brazen Heart might be rated a straight Good, as it is a live two-disc recording, part of an eight-disc collection (though you can purchase each two-fer separately), containing each set of a twice-nightly, four-night run at New York's Jazz Standard, and so the mix is catch-as-catch-can. But don't let this deter your purchase if you're into this music: the sound is still good, the balance is clear, and vibe is at once hot and cool.

As for the Historical Albums, the Garner's sonics are fairly good; recorded from what seems to be a mid-hall perspective at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, it's a bit muffled, but the music is amazing. The Davis & Coltrane discs, taken mainly from radio transcripts, sound better than anyone has a right to expect. One of the concerts, recorded in Copenhagen (the best-sounding of the bunch), is also available on vinyl, and it sounds as clear, warm, and dynamic as any live Miles Davis album miked by Columbia's crack engineers—and those of you who know those albums know that this is saying a lot.

Allen Fant's picture

Nicely done- FK.
Another banner year for us Jazz Hounds. Here is to 2019 and more Jazz releases.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

I expect you have been missed by many, Fred. Certainly by this writer. Glad to have this contribution from you.

philcryer's picture

Lots on the list for me to discover, thanks especially for highlighting the Lucinda Williams collaboration, checking that out now - but on my list I picked: John Coltrane “Both Directions At Once”. But now the question, is it a new album, or an historical one?

Maximilian von Hohenzollern's picture

This year was full of awesome releases :D As soon as something new came out I turned on the best vpn for torrenting, downloaded them, and started enjoying songs. I understand why jazz isn't that popular nowadays but still I want it to be more popular :c