In past years when compiling all of my favorite releases from a given year I called it a “best of” list. Which is ok because you’ve got to call it something, but in some ways, it’s quite terrible. Compiling the best of list was a relatively easy way with which I could prepare my annual top ten critics poll ballots, as I had a list from which I could start trimming. But as time goes on I am less and less interested in ranking or scoring music, giving recordings a star rating, or voting for my top three players in a critics poll (this was the first year I did not vote in the Downbeat critics poll in maybe six or seven years). I am becoming more and more interested in exploring the affective nature of these albums in my writing, placing myself as inside of them as possible – offering final judgments or canonical statements such as “best of the year” are not of any interest to me. In posts to come I plan to throw some of this writing out there – we’ll see how it turns out.
I’m also tiring quickly of determining how far the limits of the word “jazz” go. My definition of the word, or what fits in that category, has been pretty loosely defined. So much so that a couple years ago Colin Stetson’s History of Warfare, vol. 2, was my top jazz album. I’m not really sure how much “jazz” is in it, but there you go. And as organizing my music collection is a never ending task, I’ve been really struggling to figure out where to shelve many of the releases from Rare Noise that I’ve been getting and enjoy (reviews of a couple of them are forthcoming). Not really jazz, not really rock, not really noise, not really anything other than what they are. Whereas in previous years I have kind of divided up my “best of” list into genres, I’m not doing that anymore – it’s all lumped together, because in one way or another, it all exists somewhere on the same continuum.
So here, in alphabetical order by first/band name – and not separated out into genres – are my favorite albums of 2014. I find each of them to be excellent in every way: well conceived and executed, entertaining in an assortment of fashions, interesting, creative, and with something unique and new to say.
And on final count, it turns out that there’s just over 40 of them – although had I heard more records there surely would have been more.
On some albums you’ll see brief descriptions/details/thoughts about the album, I write them as inspiration hits – by no means does the lack of additional text indicate some sort of lower evaluation on my part.
3ish, Events (JCR) – Originally from Los Angeles, and now based out of Kansas City, Matt Otto is one of my favorite tenor players. Rounding out this leaderless trio is bassist Ryan McGillicuddy and drummer Jason Harnell (It expands to a quartet on two tracks with Phil O’Connor joining on bass clarinet). Events is just a simply gorgeous album: understated, unabashedly lyrical, natural, laid back, and effortless. Otto has a dry, light sound, and his approach is slightly reminiscent of Warne Marsh and other West Coast saxophonists. He strings lengthy lines together at will, but no matter how complex his melodies get, he never overplays or shows off. McGillicuddy and Harnell are just as tasteful, musical, and mature. Nothing 3ish plays is more than it has to be – everything is just right. A damn near perfect album.
Adam Schroeder, Let’s, (Capri) – A swinging, sophisticated and thoroughly enjoyable date, Let’s showcases Schroeder’s meaty bari sax tone, individual voice, and strong melodicism. From the funky “Just Clap Your Hands” – which could mistaken for a classic Blue Note cut – and the easy swingers “In the Middle of a Kiss” and “Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams,” to uptempo originals that showcase his nimble fingers and lithe phrasing, Schroeder is a player and composer that everybody should check out. And it doesn’t get much better than his rhythm section: Anthony Wilson (guitar), John Clayton (bass), Jeff Hamilton (drums).
Ambrose Akinmusire, The Imagined Savior is Far Easier to Paint (Blue Note)
Ben Flocks, Battle Mountain – Holy crap, I listened to this a ton this summer. A diverse mix of Americana (“Tennessee Waltz”; “Shenandoah”), standards (“Polka Dots and Moonbeams”), originals, Lead Belly’s “Silver City Bound,” and pop tunes. Gorgeous, raucous, tender, catchy, bittersweet, but above all: memorable and unshakeable.
Bernie Worrell, Elevation (M.O.D. Technologies) Several reviews of this got pretty down (one was almost plain mean) on this solo piano album from the former Parliament/Funkadelic keyboard master, but I really dig it. Slow, quiet, heavy sustain pedal, nothing showy or pyrotechnic, and lots of ambient resonance to lose yourself in. I wrap myself into the “In a Silent Way” every time. Includes some originals, “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat,” a cover of “Ooh Child” that I don’t really dig (it’s the album’s only real weakness), and closes with a simple and stirring rendition of Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song.”
Billy Hart Quartet, One is the Other (ECM)
Bobby Avey, Authority Melts From Me (Whirlwind Recordings) – Pianist Avey traveled to Haiti to learn about Haitian culture and music, which this captivating, demanding, and rewarding album results from. It’s a 53 minute suite with three long-form tracks separated by two shorter interludes. Avey’s writing is rhythmically and metrically complex, which is a tribute to how rock solid and effortless bassist Thomson Kneeland and drummer Jordan Perlson make things sound. Miguel Zenon and Ben Monder do the bulk of the soloing; it’s impossible to go wrong by writing killer charts and having Zenon and Monder go off. This is some heavy writing and playing.
Camille Thurman, Origins (Hot Tone Music) – I had really hoped this album would have got more recognition, as Thurman is a fabulous tenor and soprano player with her own voice and sound. She occasionally slightly hints at the avant-garde tenor tradition (although I can’t exactly quite nail down how) in her primarily straightahead/post-bop approach. When I put this album on I rarely get past the opening track “Forward Motion” because I just keep hitting repeat. It’s a tenor/bass/drums cut, with bassist Corcoran Holt and drummer Rudy Royston, and it sounds just like its title. Thurman is also a fine singer – she mixes a slight gospel sound with nimble bebop phrasing to great effect. If anything, Origins shows that Thurman should be talked about with the same level of praise as other young saxophonists. It’s a really good album.
Clarence Penn & Penn Station, Monk: The Lost Files (Origin) – Drummer Clarence Penn’s latest is a super hip and contemporary update on eleven Monk tunes. Along with saxophonist Chad Lefkowitz-Brown, pianist Vega, bassist Yasuhi Nakamura, and Gerald Clayton on Rhodes for one track, Penn reworked Monk’s tunes – sometimes shifting accents to create a new rhythmic feel, or disguising the tune altogether. In doing so, he has breathed fresh life into and offered new ways to hear compositions that everybody knows and that have been played to death – No easy feat.
Dave Douglas, Riverside (Greenleaf)
Diego Barber/Craig Taborn, Tales (Sunnyside)
Doug Wieselman, From Water (88 Records)
Eric Revis, In Memory of Things Yet Seen (Clean Feed)
Fred Frith & John Butcher, The Natural Order (Northern Spy) – A fully improvised guitar and saxophone set. Crunchy, angular, skronky. At times it sounds like the taste of blood in your mouth (One track is called “The Welts, The Squeaks, The Belts, The Shrieks”). While at others it verges on almost quiet introspection – not so far as to be ambient, but there are definitely spaces where Frith and Butcher explore the nooks and crannies. It’s not balls-out all the time, but when it is, lookout.
Gato Libre, Du Du (Libra)
Gordon Lee with the Mel Brown Septet, Tuesday Night (OA2) – I’m going to write up a longer review of this, but the quick and dirty: burning hard/post-bop album from the mainstays of the Portland, Oregon jazz scene.
Hera & Hamid Drake, Seven Lines
Indigo Mist, That the Days Go By and Never Come Again (Rare Noise) – read my review here.
John Stowell & Dave Liebman, Blue Rose (Origin)
Jon Irabagon, It Takes All Kinds (Irrabagast) – This is a ridiculously scintillating trio album from tenor saxophonist Irabagon, bassist Mark Helias, and drummer Barry Altschul. Recorded live at the Jazzwerkstatt festival in Germany. Great sound quality, feels like you’re in the room. Quirky and fresh tunes, great band, and Irabagon’s solo cadenzas on “Quintessential Kitten” (I shake my head in disbelief every time I hear them) are worth the cost by themselves.
Juhani Aaltonen, To Future Memories (TUM) – read my review here.
Marc Ribot, Live at the Village Vanguard (Pi)
Matt Wilson Quartet with John Medeski, Gathering Call (Palmetto) – This sure is a playful romp. Features a front line of cornetist Kirk Knuffke (who I’ve been listening to a ton recently) and tenor saxophonist Jeff Lederer, whose big, Coleman Hawkins/Texas-tenor sound is a cool contrast to the more contemporary approach of the other soloists. Medeski on piano here, rather than the organ he’s better known for (he’s not afraid to get a little dissonant), and Chris Lightcap on bass. Laced with dashes of bebop, Horace Silver funk, Ornette, ECMish introspection, and a cover of Beyonce’s “If I Were a Boy”, make Gathering Call a robust and rigorous album that is as fun as it is approachable.
Mark Turner Quartet, Lathe of Heaven (ECM)
Nels Cline Singers, Macroscope (Mack Avenue)
Orin Evans’ Captain Black Big Band, Mother’s Touch (Posi-tone) – Orrin Evans’ group sure is one power outfit. Put on “Tickle” – written by Donald Edwards and arranged by Todd Bashore – and get ready to be whacked with equal parts swagger and snarl; immediately following Evans’ piano solo enter roiling cascades of horn lines that move throughout the horn sections, tumbling up and down at a breakneck pace. It’s some of the nastiest and daring big band writing and playing I’ve heard recently. But the band also knows how to dial it down too, let things bubble ever so slightly. Evans’ “In My Soul,” which features Marcus Strickland on tenor, is a soulful 12/8 piece. His slow ballad “Dita” – arranged by Bashore – mixes hushed introspection, soul, and wistfulness, with lush orchestrations reminiscent of Gil Evans. Mother’s Touch is hip, swinging, moving, powerful, and engaging from top to bottom. Another great album from a great big band.
Peter Brendler, Outside the Line (Posi-tone) – What a sizzling, fun, and adventurous date. Bassist Brendler, joined by the unbeatable front line of tenor saxist Rich Perry and trumpeter Peter Evans, and drummer Vinnie Sperrazza (who put out his own very fine album this year) tear through several quirky and left handed bop heads, a laid back and understated cover of Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side,” and Ornette’s “Una Muy Bonita.” Brendler’s sound is both big and clean, his playing firm, rhythmic sense strong, his pocket deep. There’s a little bit for everyone on this outstanding record.
Phil Haynes and No Fast Food, In Concert
Plymouth, Plymouth (Rare Noise) – read my review here.
Revolutionary Snake Ensemble, Live Snakes (Accurate) – This is a pure “dance party in my pants” record. Yup, I said it. Recorded at several live performances with various personnel combinations, this album bounces and grooves through twelve cuts, and features plenty of polyphonic saxophone and trumpet soloing. The second line “Parade,” and the group’s cover of “Caravan” are particularly tasty. Prepare to shake yo’ ass.
Run the Jewels, Run the Jewels 2 – The second album from the tag-team of El-P and Killer Mike pretty much swept rap album of the year honors. No other album had a chance. (That it was a free download and the press surrounding the as of yet still conceptual Meow the Jewels – google it if you don’t know – definitely didn’t hurt its exposure.) The pair deliver some of the most artful and playful series of braggadocio lines you will ever hear. But it’s not all fun and games, as Killer Mike is, as usual, en point with his critique of racist policing practices. And El-P’s production is straight banging.
Sarah Manning, Harmonious Creature (Posi-tone)
Scenes, …But Not Heard (Origin)
Shabazz Palaces, Lese Majesty (SubPop)
Steve Lehman Octet, Mise en Abime (Pi)
St. Vincent, S/T
Tigran, Shadow Theater (Verve)
Tom Carter & Pat Murano, Four Infernal Rivers (Northern Spy)
Tom Chang, Tongue & Groove
Vijay Iyer, Mutations (ECM)
Vinny Sperrazza, Apocryphal (Loyal Label)
Wadada Leo Smith, Great Lakes Suite (ECM)