A note on the title – all these best of the year lists, but who really can hear all the great music put out in the same year it was released? Does anyone have the time for this? Or the money? So, I feel this is a better list – the albums can be from any year, any recording date, any release date, they’re just the best that I heard for the first time this year – otherwise, huge amounts of great music can’t be mentioned because I heard it a year or 2 late. So, here it is.
Mise en Abime – Steve Lehman Octet (Pi) – recorded
Gets my vote for album of the year. Lehman never fails to blow my mind, and this is thick, juicy, Martian-complex music played with vigor and beauty. As good as the first release of the octet was, this one sounds denser, tighter and more fluid. In some ways, the octet seems a modern extension of David Murray’s phenomenal and rarely mentioned (these days) octet from the 80’s – perfectly arranged modern music played with intelligence and intensity. I could happily take another dozen albums from this band.
Mythology – Matt Brewer (Criss Cross) – recorded Feb 2014
Steve Lehman as a sideman is as rare as it gets – and it’s perfect to see Brewer – long a beacon bassist of the best of modern bands – make his debut with a who’s who of NY greatness. Lehman and Mark Turner orbit around each other in delicious fashion, with David Virelles the sparest and choicest of accompanists. Mostly mid-tempo tunes, it takes a couple of listens to get in the flow of it (not the rippin’ blow down I was expecting), but by then, I was completely sold on the compositions and playing.
Gone, But Not Forgotten – Jonathan Blake (Criss Cross) – recorded Feb 2014
Two saxophone, no piano quartets – a lovely idea in my book. And this teaming of Chris Potter and Mark Turner is all swirling action and pounding solos. Blake and Ben Street pull the whole thing together with drive and focus. An album of compositions from recently departed musicians, Motion’s Circle Dance, Walton’s Firm Roots, Fambrough’s Broski and Miller’s New Wheels are all inspired takes with top notch tenor soloing and rhythmic inventiveness.
Anacappa – David Binney (Criss Cross) – recorded Feb 2014
Binney has been putting out one fantastic album after another for years now – all seeming to somehow miss their much deserved recognition (are Criss Cross albums banned from Francis Davis’ year end Jazz Critics Poll? They are never there, despite top albums every year). This album is more electric, with 2 guitarists (Wayne Krantz being responsible for all of the good guitar solos, raw and edgy, with Adam Roger’s doing his usual unexciting, undramatic, too-mellow noodling) – and the 2 drummers fill out the typically complicated, rich rhythmic world Binney loves creating. But the real, constant treat here is Binney’s fierce and ferocious alto, tearing through tunes with hellish intensity. So good.
Wiry Strong – Ralph Alessi (clean feed) – recorded May 2008
This Alessi band is a great one – and his earlier discs with the band (This Against That, Look) are phenomenal. No exception here. Been intending to get this for years, but only got around to it in 2014. Superb band playing and interaction – this is a tight knit group that knows how to play strong compositions with elements of freedom ranging throughout. Excellent writing too. Just how many of the top bands these days have Drew Gress in them? He’s everywhere. (album with Ravi Coltrane, Andy Milne, Drew Gress, Mark Ferber).
Live at the Village Vanguard Vol1 & 2 – Paul Motion Trio 2000 + Two (Winter and Winter) – recorded Dec 2006
It’s amazing it took me so long to listen to these discs. Both volumes are just fantastic. Always been a big Osby fan, and it’s a real treat to hear him in this live, open and very different setting (for him). The front line horns, Osby and Potter, come from a very different place with vastly different approaches and sounds, and together, they bring magic to the music making it varied and unpredictable. Motion’s style is so open and ranging that it’s the perfect vehicle for each horn to take the music where they want – and at times the varied soloing pulls at the music like its going to tear apart creating lovely tension and urgency. Add in consistently excellent piano playing (the annoying Jarrett-esqe alien whining aside), and this is beautiful music played with immediacy and intent.
Love And Ghosts – Farmers By Nature (AUM) – recorded June 2011
William Parker should be a National hero – however, we live in America, so he’s regulated to obscurity. On the fringe, right where the truly great artists always survive. This trio, a collective of Gerald Cleaver, Parker and the always brilliant Craig Taborn (if I look into my crystal ball, Steve Lehman and Taborn seem the next two most likely MacArthur Geniuses) has put out a couple of excellent albums. This is a delicious 2CD live album, recorded on consecutive nights and sounding nothing alike, and it is outstanding, challenging and modern trio music. Free, exploratory and adventurous, and also full of those tight interplay conceptions that makes current free jazz so modern and unique.
Three Times Three – Antonio Sanchez (CAM Jazz)– recorded Oct-Dec 2013
Sanchez is a badass, of course, and his discs and bands as a leader have been consistently excellent (the 2 horn, bass, drums a fav of mine). This 2CD release is three top-shelf trios playing 2 originals and one cover each. Disc one is a dream trio – Brad Mehldau and Matt Brewer. I’m a big fan of Mehldau’s trio, but I’m also a bit weary that he could be headed down the Keith Jarrett road (Jarrett, amazing, of course, would immensely benefit by playing with some young players eager to kick his ass into shape rather than the with the same, albeit awesome, trio decade after decade) – so I’ve been secretly wishing to hear Mehldau with Eric Harland/Marcus Gilmore/Tyshawn Sorey, or Antonio – add in the astounding Brewer and you have what I feel is the best Mehldau playing on record. Just spectacular, adventurous and unpredictable playing. The 2nd CD is no slouch either – a trio with John Scofield and Christian McBride that’s groovy, driving and the best Sco I’ve heard (and I always much prefer McBride on other people’s gigs – he’s too conservative on his own, but under another, more modern-bent player, he tears it up). And lastly, the dynamite, rippin’ Joe Lovano/John Pattitucci trio with ferocious energy. Fantastic music, all of it.
Banned In London – Aruan Ortiz-Michael Janish Quintet (Whirlwind) – recorded Nov 2011
Recorded live in London, and with Greg Osby and Ruby Royston, plus Raynald Colom, filling out the quintet, this is a rippin’ driving set of excellent modern jazz. Osby sounds great (does he ever not?) and Ortiz rips off a couple of just thrilling piano solos – but hand it to Royston for elevating the whole thing into the stratosphere with his boundless energy and ideas.
50th Birthday Celebration Volume 7 – Masada (Tzadik) – recorded Sept 2003
For me, Masada is the best thing John Zorn has done – the acoustic quartet has all the power and magic of his other ensembles, tied up with masterly musicianship, great tunes, tight interplay and just crazy energetic free playing (plus, you get the lovely treat of Zorn actually playing alto). It took me until this year (his 60th) to delve into the many volumes of Zorn’s 50th Birthday month at Tonic (I ended up getting most of the Volumes this year), and I was very pleasantly surprised to find that this is one of the best Masada outings. Long a fan of Live At Tonic (the other one), which to me is the best Masada on record, this one is right up there – different, mellower in parts, but full of all the intensity and brilliance one could hope for.
50th Birthday Celebration Volume 11 – Bar Kohkaba (Tzadik)– recorded Sept 2003
Damn – a fantastic 3CD set of intense music played with simultaneous care and reckless abandon. This is possibly my favorite Zorn moment where he doesn’t play (I’m always a bigger fan of the disc he performs on). Joey Baron, as should be expected by now, just lights this album up with propulsion that could save NASA some money. Terrific and infectious tunes, this band has a completely unique sound and energy.
Conviction – Kendrick Scott Oracle (Concord)– released 2013
Kendrick is a dynamite drummer, one with a full, clean sound and an orchestral approach (out of the Eric Harland school of modern drumming), and his band mirrors that with a tightly blended sound that is clear, clean and unique. This album really grows on you – the feel of it is something special. That said, it is also mandatory for me to skip over the minute plus of Scott’s blabbering at the start of the record, and likewise, a must to skip over the incredibly annoying “be water, my friend” yapping over the first minute 20 seconds of the final track. If you can manage to be ready to hop over these distractions, than the music actually flows quite a bit like water, clearly and tightly and beautiful played.
The Drop And The Ocean – Rob Garcia (BJU) – released 2011
This was a surprise. Somewhere I have a bootleg of this quartet – a great band with Noah Preminger, Dan Tepfer and John Hebert – that completely underwhelms. Three of the top young players in NY together, so my expectations were high. But, it turns out the real magic is in the studio release (how often can you say that?). This is an excellent collection of tunes, playing and sound – with Preminger oozing out his singular and excellent tenor throughout. A very pleasurable listen.
10 – 10th Annivsary – SFJAZZ Collective (SFJAZZ)– recorded Oct 2013
Love this band – or, rather, all of its many incantations. Over the years, it’s been a slowly changing octet that saw it’s greatest firepower a few years back when, for a couple of seasons, they had Lovano/Dave Douglas/Zenon and Harland. All but Zenon are gone now, and as seemingly devastating of a blow as Harland leaving (his orchestral drumming sound is an integral, central sound to the band), the Collective survives with Obed Calvaire filling in nicely. The real treat here is the overall band sound and the incredible originals and arrangements. Being the 10th anniversary of the band, they, for the 1st time, dug back into the catalogue and revisited a number of their tunes. I would have preferred the complete 3CD set they usually release (I saw the band live several times, and they left a number of highlights off this selective disc) – but still, this has excellent performances of Union, Alcatraz, Frosted Evils – three of their all time best tunes. An excellent album from one of the premier bands in the music – they write just numbingly amazing tunes that are complex and perfect and that get better with continued listening.
In The Hall Of Mirrors – Stephen Gosling Trio (Tzadik) – recorded Feb 2014
A piano trio playing John Zorn penned piano charts and the amazing rhythm team of Greg Cohen and Tyshawn Sorey improvising against it. An excellent blending of classical meets avant-guard modern jazz – and let’s face it, any and every appearance of Sorey is a cause for celebration these days. He plays with such force and fluidity you’d guess that he was the one playing prepared music – although then, it would never be as good or as raw and energetic as he is here.
The Invasion Parade – Alfredo Rodriguez (Mack Avenue) – released 2014
Never been much of a Latin fan – something about the rhythms end up boring me to tears after a tune or two. But Alfredo is no mere Cuban player – he’s a ferocious talent that, live, in his trio, is one of the best things you’ll ever see. Simply amazing. The sad reality of major or semi-major labels (no idea what Mack Avenue is, but it ain’t Pi or Clean Feed) is they love making you doing projects. Hence, this album (nor his previous) ever come close to the live trio (and why exactly can’t he just release a 3CD live album?), but it is immensely listenable and enjoyable nonetheless. One note of caution – personally, it is an urgent must for me to skip track 3, the god-awful lullaby blabbering of Esperanza Spaulding (great bassist, happily I live avoiding her vocal pop crap) – do that, and the album rounds out really nicely. This is something that I keep coming back to – not a blow-yer-mind sort of disc, but the tunes and the musicianship and the overall playing is thoroughly enjoyable.