When I sized up the best fusion jazz discs of 2013 at mid-year, I came up with ten I really liked a lot. And it didn’t matter if it was the cerebral, episodic prog rock of Guapo, the cross-generational world fusion of Maria Marquez or the fun and funky instrumental party music of Rock Candy Funk Party. Over the last six months, I came up with ten more, encompassing everything from the modern jazz-derived Prism by Dave Holland and his new, all-star quartet to the mathematical gamelan rock of Indonesia’s simakDialog.
And this time, there aren’t any that finished just short of being heartily recommended. No “honorable mentions,” here, just twenty excellent albums that are so divergent but share terrific musicianship, challenging harmonies and an adventurous bent. You’ve surely heard of some of these acts, but hopefully there’s a few in here that present some discovery opportunities.
Because we’re using such an inclusive definition of what is called “fusion,” it would be just as easy to slot some of these picks in other genres. Marc Cary’s Four Directions is roughly split in half between straight jazz and vintage style fusion songs. In spite of the split personality, it’s wholly fantastic. Guapo’s History of the Visitation would be the Album of the Year on a prog rock list, if I were to put one together. And don’t ask me where else should I place Koby Israelite’s Blues From Elsewhere. All I know that this record had to go on a “best of 2013″ list somewhere.
These choices below are the cream of the crop at the top of 2013, in no particular ranking or order, except for one that stands above the rest. Click on the nested links in the titles to get the full reviews…
ALBUM OF THE YEAR
Kendrick Scott Oracle – Conviction: The choice came down to either this one or Dave Holland’s Prism. Either way, it was gonna come from a jazz guy. As great and enjoyable are the fusion records from the rock guys, when it comes to harmonic development, spontaneity and the tightness among the band members, it’s hard to beat jazz musicians in those departments.
Drummer Kendrick Scott’s fourth album, and his second with his band Oracle is a gem, and one this has a continuity — a flow — to it, regardless of how many moods it goes through. He intended to make a big statement with this album, underscored by the title, and that theme pervades even when he takes on other people’s songs, like Sufjan Stevens’ “Too Much” or the Herbie Hancock deep cut “I Have A Dream.” His own compositions carry the same energy and emotional depth, and sometimes more. The originals often conjure up Brian Blade, Christian Scott and Pat Metheny Group as he avoids directly mimicking them.
To carry out his game plan, he assembled a scary-talented crew for his Oracle band with John Ellis on reeds, Joe Sanders on bass, Taylor Eigsti on keys and Mike Moreno on guitar. They have been performing together for some time, not thrown together for these sessions. That’s why the recordings have a ‘live in the studio’ feel that coincides with a polish apparent in their performances.
What makes Conviction truly great however, is the coherency, depth, and yes, purpose. Just because an album is spiritual doesn’t make it great, but Scott has mastered channeling the power of spirituality into great music that cuts across genres and temperaments.
THE BEST OF THE REST
John Scofield – Überjam Deux: This is funky fun that’s not even close to being lightweight. It’s the rare sequel that lives up to the hype generated by the original installment.
Steve Jenkins and the Coaxial Flutter – Steve Jenkins and the Coaxial Flutter: Jenkins keenly leverages fusion ideas from classic Jeff Beck all the way to David Fiuczynski but this ain’t no retro music. He’s always looking forward by also pulling in ideas from all across the current landscape of modern, edgy music. Jazz-rock of the future.
Koby Israelite – Blues From Elsewhere: Illustrates what a fertile ground the blues can be for avant-garde artists looking to flex their creative muscles into unfamiliar territory. The thing is, Koby Isrealite makes it seem so familiar, like these crazy hybrids were meant to be.
Dave Haskell Group – Pivot Point: There are no filler; the only moments found here are the good ones. While nothing about Pivot Point is groundbreaking, records as solid as this one are just as hard to find. Haskell may have put away his wings, but he’s still soaring.
Maria Marquez – Tonada: Marquez shows how reaching back to the rich, under-appreciated rich heritage of Venezuelan music can be pushed forward and made relevant in the 21st century.
Troy Roberts – Nu-Jive 5: Roberts combines an old feel with inspiration from fresh sources, and then throws in enough creases to give the music depth and lasting attractiveness. This is the rare fusion jazz record that excels in all facets of fusion.
Rock Candy Funk Party, featuring Joe Bonamassa – We Want Groove: A record that lives up to the name of the band playing it, We Want Groove is fusion party music that perfectly captures the spirit of when such party music made jazz so much fun for non-jazz fans to listen to.
Sean Nowell – The Kung-Fu Masters: Many sparks are created from two opposing forces: a rhythm section is often moving between 70s style fusion and 21st century electronica while the horn section roots itself firmly in the soulful hard bop tradition of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers or the 60s version of the Jazz Crusaders.
Guapo – History Of The Visitation: In the wide field of instrumental or progressive rock, these are the guys at the part of the spectrum who seem least concerned about commercial impact. That’s the very reason why fans of the purer, more adventurous forms of the style should be paying close attention to them and their latest album.
Aaron Germain – Chance: Applying his vast bass skills to original material that’s both challenging and bracing, Germain made a damned near flawless fusion album that conjures up what was so great about fusion back in the day, but injected with fresh ideas.
simakDialog – The 6th Story: World-class world fusion not by simply by putting together gamelan with Gong, but because of the potent unifying of rhythm with harmony, composition with improvisation, and East with West.
Spyro Gyra – The Rhinebeck Sessions: Unfairly lumped in with smooth jazz acts, a band that’s always been lethal in a field full of meek performers has fully bared its teeth. Their finest album since their early 80s heyday.
Tony Grey – Elevaton: Bolstered by a rotating all-star cast of guitar foils (including Uncle John McLaughlin), Grey demonstrates on his fourth album how to accomplish virtuosity with a high degree of listenability.
Marc Cary Focus Trio – Four Directions: Since Cary’s trio does something interesting on every track, the abrupt changes from track to track hardly matter. What matters is that the Marc Cary Focus Trio is back, and in a big way.
Dave Holland – Prism: Never thought I’d be putting a Holland record on a fusion list, but kudos to for still taking chances with a record that is certain to stand out in a deep, consistent and challenging discography. If Prism can be considered Dave Holland’s conception of jazz-rock fusion, then we need more of this kind of fusion.
Ben Monder – Hydra: The guitar chops are present and accounted for on this by one of the most in-demand jazz guitarists out there today. But there’s also a clear musical vision, unusual harmonic structures, vivid melodies and wordless vocals bolstering those melodies.
Daniel Rosenboom – Book Of Omens: Jazz-rock that exploits the musicianship of the former and the intensity of the latter, wrapped in a purposeful concept borrowing the classical music idea of a majestic, episodic suite.
Reut Regev’s R*Time – exploRing the vibe: The multi-ethnic rhythms, the sparse, raw sonic footprint and Regev’s own reliable feel for the direction of a loosely defined song gives the proceedings a James Blood Ulmer sensibility.
Volto! – Incitare: A rock-jazz side project led by Tool’s Danny Carey started as a fun outlet for knocking around old Jeff Beck and Weather Report tunes and ended up being something more, with all the fun retained. Think of a heavier, updated version of Billy Cobham’s Spectrum.
BONUS EP SELECTION
Mark Lettieri – Futurefun: A sharp set of five songs (and two brief bookenders) that show off Lettieri’s polished guitar attack in the context of tightly built melodies.
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