Best of 2016: Jazz

From risk-taking to traditional, a stellar year
The Brad Mehldau Trio
The Brad Mehldau Trio

Tenor saxophonist Scott Hamilton drew the biggest crowd at this year’s A Place for Jazz series. The Empire Jazz Orchestra continued its commitment to big band excellence in two outstanding concerts, and the Keith Pray and Phil Allen bands also kept that venerable tradition swinging.

And drummers made some noise: Joe Barna, Cliff Brucker and Jeff Siegel recorded albums this year. Pianist Monty Alexander gave a brilliant performance as the Music Haven series moved to Proctors and the great bassist Ron Carter filled the Zankel Music Center at Skidmore College with his deep, timeless sound.
Here, in chronological order, are the top jazz events of the year as chosen by Gazette reviewers Michael Hochanadel and Dave Singer.

Mike Stern Trio at the Van Dyck (Jan. 22). Beautiful tones, tricky tunes and tons of notes, guitarist Stern delivered in a big way. A fluent, flexible listening band, they knew the tunes but freely found their own ways through them. Stern ranged from Metheny-like vaporous fog-chords to emphatic single-note blasts like Schofield, but always sounded like absolutely no one but himself. — Hochanadel

Stefon Harris at the Egg (Jan. 30). Vibraphonist and Albany native Harris’ Egg show this year was both performance and education. An unselfish leader, he successfully motivated his young, wild band both to take risks and stay disciplined as a group. Saying jazz could have only been invented in America, he and his group showed why it’s “more than ever essential in our country today.” Rocking far more than he swung, he left you feeling inspired for days with the broad promise of jazz.  — Singer

Brad Mehldau Trio at The Egg (April 14). Beats mattered as much as notes as pianist/composer Brad Mehldau crafted/ignited dense, questing or serenely lyrical improvisations. Playing at times from charts of fresh songs from “Blues and Ballads,” they often went way off the page: a state-of-the-art trio in full, fantastic flight. — Hochanadel

Keith Pray Quartet at the Van Dyck (April 16). His Big Soul Ensemble is a monthly (first Tuesdays) blast, but Pray’s quartet (Jeff Siegel, drums; John Menegon, bass and guest pianist Henrique Haneine) took the blues around the world including, maybe most surprisingly, Mongolia; and into unexpected times and chords. Pray cut WAY loose on alto, face red, fingers and riffs flying; Haneine earned his guest-star stripes and Siegel and Menegon laid a supple foundation. — Hochanadel

Freihofer’s Saratoga Jazz Festival (June 25). Eric Lindell cooked crawfish-boil blues. Joey Alexander wowed everyone, taste and technique melding perfectly. Christian Scott’s Atunde Adjuah crew risked purists’ border patrol with spirited genre-jumping “stretch music.” Elio Villafranca’s Cuban heritage spiced his trio set. Vincent Herring revived half-forgotten tunes by Wes Montgomery and Billy Reed. Karrin Allyson crooned Rogers and Hammerstein classics. Jamison Ross brilliantly drummed and sang at once. Shemekia Copeland sang a smoking soul-blues set. Pieces of a Dream made phat funk fashioned for jazzers. Steps Ahead played, well, straight ahead. The Isley Brothers made music rooted in 50s doowop and R&B and 60s soul. — Hochanadel

Freihofer’s Saratoga Jazz Festival  (June 26). Stronger than Saturday’s, as Chick Corea’s trio towered over all other jazz offerings, Smokey Robinson’s soul set Sunday topped the Isley Brothers Saturday, and Jon Cleary’s New Orleans funkfest Sunday bested all blues acts, both days. Corea’s Trilogy starred Christian McBride, bass, and Brian Blade, drums. Cleary and his Absolute Monster Gentlemen made the funkiest fun. Lizz Wright was most elegant/eloquent. Bria Skonberg’s Quintet delivered Louis Armstrong-style trumpet and Peggy Lee-style vocals. — Hochanadel

Bill Charlap Quintet at Skidmore’s Zankel Music Center (July 5). Charlap calls his new album “Notes from New York” — every note the pianist and his crew played seemed painted in the many rich hues of New York City small-band jazz, from blues to swing to bop to the polite and polished modern. Formidable fun at full strength, the band divided and conquered in cozy duets. — Hochanadel

Monty Alexander at Music Haven (July 31). The compact, Jamaican-born pianist threw playful air-punches before sitting at the gleaming Steinway. Fluent and fiery, beautifully accompanied, his piano playing felt like everybody from bop era 52nd Street cruised to the islands for a nice vacation, with drinks. — Hochanadel

Scott Hamilton at A Place for Jazz (Sept. 10). Saxophonist Hamilton’s quartet brought us a world-class jazz show, the kind of traditional, simple standards that made the genre famous worldwide, and the kind you don’t hear much anymore. Most today would call it corny; but to the right ear, there was nothing cooler, nothing that could swing more, than Scott Hamilton jazz that night. — Singer

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