Top 12 2014
For a number of years now I’ve put out a list of my favorite ten jazz releases of the year. This year is different, because I just couldn’t settle on ten. A great year for jazz, I just couldn’t imagine deleting any of these works. At turns entertaining, daring, profound: the state of the music is flourishing! Check out this list and enjoy. I hope I’ve turned you on to something new.
Dianne Reeves – BEAUTIFUL LIFE (Concord)
Ms. Dianne combines a cornucopia of guest musicians (George Duke, Esperanza Spalding, Gregory Porter, Robert Glasper, Sean Jones) with some exquisite song selections: I Want You (the Marvin Gaye hit), Dreams (Stevie Nicks), Waiting In Vain (Bob Marley), 32 Flavors (Ani DeFranco). Add superb production by Terri Lyne Carrington and you have a new soul masterpiece by one of today’s finest jazz singers.
Arturo O’Farrill & The Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra -THE OFFENSE OF THE DRUM (Motema)
Fans of O’farrill can delight in his widening palette of Latin colors, including the virtuoso harp playing of Edmar Castaneda on Cuarto de Colores, the funky rap of Christopher ‘Chilo’ Cajigas on They Came. Vijay Iyer even contributes a tune!
Cyrille Aimee – Nuit Blanche; IT’S A GOOD DAY (Mack Avenue Records)
Fresh faced French laced vocalist Aimee leads a band that features three distinctly styled guitarists: Brazilian, jazz & gypsy. A smooth, tart warbler, she is unique in the current sea of female jazz vocalists. My favorite tracks: Nuit Blanche (by Aimee), the Michael Jackson hit, Off The Wall & Duke Ellington’s Caravan.
Billy Childs – MAP TO THE TREASURE / REIMAGINING LAURA NYRO (Sony)
This seems to be the age of tributes, and every now and then someone does it perfectly (think Herbie Hancock’s homage to Joni Mitchell, River: The Joni Letters). Childs work here is a companion, an elegant honoring of a great singer/song writer. The cast is impressive: Renee Fleming,Yo Yo Ma, Wayne Shorter, Dianne Reeves, and on. Sometimes sounding like a Broadway production, the arrangements are carefully sculpted. My faves include Upstaris by a Chinese Lamp (Wayne Shorter & Esperanza Spalding), Stoned Soul Picnic (Ledisi), and Gibsom Street (Susan Tedeschi & Steve Wilson).
Jimmy Greene – BEAUTIFUL LIFE (Mack Avenue Records)
After the news broke of the slaughter of first graders at Sandy Hook I emotionally collapsed, surrendering, however momentarily, any hope for mankind. I can’t imagine the devastation experienced by Jimmy Greene, whose daughter was one of the victims. His response was to create this beautiful tribute to six year old Ana, how she lived, and Greene’s faith in God. He’s joined by some guests, too, including Kenny Barron, Pat Metheny and Kurt Elling. Listen to Saludos/Come Thou Almighty King, Ana’s Way & Where Is Love? In his liner notes Greene writes “Love wins.”
JD Allen – BLOOM (Savant Records)
Detroit tenor JD Allen leads a quartet featuring Orrin Evans on piano. Tough and tender, abstract yet grounded, the lineage of Trane is certainly evident as is Coleman. The title track, for instance, where JD worries the thread of a melodic fragment until it either unravels or blooms, depending on your perspective. Other highlights include Tadd Dameron’s If You Could See Me Now and the jaunty Car-Car (The Blues). Keep your eye on this guy.
Melissa Aldana – & CRASH TRIO (Concord)
Chilean Melissa Aldana started playing sax at age 6 and was taught by her father. The bass/drums/sax trio is an interesting and challenging format, unaided (and unfettered) by piano, the pared down arrangements exposes a song’s skeleton of melody, harmony and rhythm. A type of high wire act, performed with aplomb here by Aldana and Pablo Menares (bass) & Francisco Mela (drums). I particularly like her originals, M&M and Bring Him Home, and the acapella Monk cover, Ask Me Now.
Kenny Barron / Dave Holland – THE ART OF CONVERSATION (Blue Note)
The “My Dinner With Andre” of jazz recordings: two mature friends, piano and bass, in smart conversation, respectful, understated, ultimately tasteful and satisfying. Imagine a night at Bradley’s, the piano player’s piano bar in New York (unfortunately now defunct), late night and after hours. I particularly enjoy Dave Holland’s The Oracle, Kenny Barron’s ballad, Rain, and the Billy Strayhorn cover, Daydream.
Steve Lehman Octet – MISE EN ABIME (Pi Recordings)
Steve Lehman is working to develop a new musical vocabulary. I hear echoes of Steve Coleman’s work, and certainly Lehman’s teacher, Anthony Braxton, in his composing. No less radical than the work of Bird or Monk in their time. But this music is mathematical in it’s logic of dynamics, textures and release. The Octet includes 2 reeds, 3 brass (including tuba!), vibes, bass and drums. Heady stuff, yet very enjoyable to these ears. I recommend 13 Colors, Glass Enclosure Transcription or Autumn Interlude.
Ambrose Akinmusire – THE IMAGINED SAVIOR IS FAR EASIER TO PAINT (Blue Note)
In his second album for Blue Note, trumpeter Akinmusire continues to push the edges of the music. At turns romantic, explorative and revolutionary. Ambrose is graced with a tone akin to Clifford Brown’s warm, buttery timbre. As an improviser his lines are inventive and engaging. As a composer, he is brilliant. Try out As We Fight, Our Basement (featuring vocalist Becca Stevens and string quartet) or Vartha.
Chick Corea Trio – TRILOGY (Concord)
This triple disc set features live recordings from Chick’s tour with Christian McBride (bass) and Brian Blades (drums), each a virtuoso at the height of his power. As good as Chick and Christian are (and they are both excellent) the hidden treat for me is hearing Brian Blade in this format. He’s the closest thing we have to a descendant to Tony Williams, and as dynamically as he’s played with Wayne Shorter over the years, what a thrill it is to hear him work within the parameters of this more traditional setting. Every track is a winner. I’ll be playing Joe Henderson’s Recorda Me, Thelonious Monk’s Work and Alice In Wonderland.
Wadada Leo Smith – Lake Ontario; THE GREAT LAKES SUITES (TUM)
A child of the Delta, Smith was as influenced by Miles Davis as he was by the blues, add to that a predilection towards the avant garde. The other three players in his quartet here all hail from cities around the Great Lakes: Henry Threadgill (reeds) and Jack DeJohnette (drums) are from Chicago and bassist John Lindberg hails from Detroit. The six tunes here, spread across a double CD set, are (mostly) named after the Lakes themselves. I’m predisposed to like Lake Michigan, spending every summer of my youth on her shores. Lake Erie features Threadgill’s bass flute work. Lake Superior is as stormy and dynamic as you’d expect.