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by Seth Colter Walls

August 1, 2014

The Year in Jazz: 1986

by Seth Colter Walls  |  August 1, 2014

In our series The 50, Rhapsody editors curated a given year's best songs across all genres. Now that we've completed our survey, going back to the birth of the LP, we're turning our attention to each genre, year by year.

The 1980s represented a famous changing of the guard in jazz. With the ascension of the "Young Lions" crew -- most often understood as revolving around the "return to hard bop" sensibility of the Marsalis family -- there was likewise a contraction of opportunities for members of New York's 1970s avant-garde "loft" scene. Some of the partisan vitriol at the time, from both camps, has resulted in suspicion and resentment that persists up to the present day. Though, thankfully, there are also some signs of a rapprochement: In early 2014, the NEA Jazz Masters ceremony honored longtime experimental heavyweight Anthony Braxton in a ceremony cohosted by Wynton Marsalis.

For our look at the best swing and improv of 1986, we're including cuts from those two titans' best albums of the year. Click play on our attached mix, and you'll hear how Wynton's J Mood album had some burning originals on it, like "Insane Asylum" (which should quiet down anyone who thinks the Young Lions didn't have their own wild edge). Likewise, after the angular first minute of Anthony Braxton's "Composition No. 131" is completed, the saxophonist-composer and his group show they can swing, too (perhaps to the surprise of those who have tried to maintain that Braxton's aesthetic fully departs from the jazz beat).

How could we get any more big-tent? Well, we could include the pop-jazz sound of Bobby McFerrin, whose percussive-vocalization tricks can't crowd out the blues sensibility in "Thinkin' About Your Body." (Later in our playlist, McFerrin pairs off with legendary saxophonist Wayne Shorter on "Walkin'" -- just before Shorter shows up on "Bimini," next to pianist Michel Petrucciani and guitarist Jim Hall.)

We could also add guitarist Sonny Sharrock's gorgeous, self-multitracked "Flowers Laugh" -- plus a heavy avant-metal selection from Last Exit, Sharrock's noisy supergroup with Peter Brötzmann, Bill Laswell and drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson. Taken together with late-career highlights from pianist Andrew Hill, saxophonist Joe Henderson and Song X -- Ornette Coleman's collaboration with Pat Metheny -- these albums, all either recorded or released in 1986, remain too cool to leave imprisoned behind polemical stances about what constitutes jazz.

Perhaps the connection between traditionalism and exploration is best exemplified by the way that the World Saxophone Quartet -- made up of loft-era stars -- took on Ellington's immortal "Come Sunday" in this year. Their rendering sounds both faithful to its source and energized by the group's arrangement. From the wild blues cry of Henry Threadgill's Sextett band to pianist Don Pullen's mix of soul jazz and cluster-chords -- and, yes, avant-garde titan Cecil Taylor's gorgeous and challenging solo concert recording, For Olim -- all the recordings in our mix are strong advocates for their creators' various approaches to jazz. Enjoy!

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