S. Victor Aaron’s Mid-Year Best of 2014 (Modern and Mainstream Jazz): Steve Lehman, Jamie Saft, Matthew Shipp, Joe Beck

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There was a time when I wouldn’t assign any jazz to the “modern and mainstream” bucket, unless it conformed to what the Stanley Crouch types called jazz. But the whole idea about modern jazz has been to seek to break out of the long-established constructions of mainstream jazz while still maintaining a connection back to tradition. Monk, Mingus and Kirk all made those connections, evident even as they blazed new trails. Oftentimes, modern is the mainstream of tomorrow.

Most of what was chosen below have come from artists have forged their own paths within the realm of jazz, some with a long-established reputation for doing so, others who are just getting started making waves. After putting this compilation together, I noticed this curious pattern: there are a lot of debut and near-debut records: five first time outs in all and another two that are only their second studio releases. Those are typically the kind of records that get me stoked the most about the future of jazz.

The future of jazz, in terms of who are poised to lead the way, looks blindingly bright, and I feel that some of those leaders of tomorrow are represented in this tally.

Here’s a bushel of 2014 jazz releases that stood out, unranked and unordered but also anything but unremarkable. Click through on the titles to read the full reviews.

Steve Lehman Octet – Mise En Abîme: This would be a stunning achievement for just about anybody else, but Lehman is a rare commodity who consistently has both genuinely original, compelling ideas and the wherewithal to carry them out to their fullest potential.

Jamie Saft, with Steve Swallow and Bobby Previte – The New Standard: Gentler and much more melodic than Saft’s other recent outings, Jamie Saft with Swallow and Previte nevertheless finds ways to put an edge into the prosaic piano (or organ) trio.

Peter Brendler – Outside The Line: By at once going inside and outside, as well as respecting tradition and racing toward the frontier, Brendler makes his long overdue first album well worth waiting for.

Joe Beck – Get Me Joe Beck: By far the best case made for why anyone who likes jazz and/or guitar should miss Beck is made by Joe Beck himself.

Andrew Hadro – For Us, The Living: Perhaps the best thing about For Us, The Living is that it doesn’t rely on solos to make it a success as the alluring set of straight jazz that it is. There’s much to be said about heartfelt, soulful delivery and on that count, Andrew Hadro has said a mouthful.

Matthew Shipp – Root Of Things: Like prior Matthew Shipp Trio recordings, Root extends Shipp’s unique qualities to a three-man unit. Also like those prior releases, they find new ways of standing apart.

Brian Blade Fellowship – Landmarks: The the down-home harmonic charms of these songs and a lot of band democracy quietly defies the rules of what great jazz is supposed to be like. A welcome return of Blade’s tastefully understated unit.

Billy Hart Quartet – One Is The Other: Even better than the critically lauded All Our Reasons, partly because Hart’s band has meshed together so well.

Shawn Maxwell’s Alliance – Shawn Maxwell’s Alliance: Overflowing with ideas, Shawn Maxwell’s Alliance is a large jazz band album that’s made for those skeptical about large bands.

Randy Ingram – Sky/Lift: Ingram seems to be finding his inner Bill Evans this second time around. With nothing approaching filler in it and full of understated, gleaming performances, this is an album deserving of a lot of notice.

Sly 5th Ave – Akuma: There’s an aura, a lofty aura that Akuma attains without the need for being outrageous or pretentious. Sly 5th Ave minded the details and came through with an album well worth all the effort he channeled into it.

Jeff Ballard Trio with Lionel Loueke and Miguel Zenon – Time’s Tales: This longtime notable sideman strives hard to make a big first impression and does so with key help from Loueke and Zenon. This is an early, strong entry in the jazz debut of the year sweepstakes.

Pete Robbins – Pyramid: The consistency of Robbins’ art shines through no matter what kind of record he chooses to make, even when he’s channeling his inner child.

Ian O’Beirne – Glasswork: Making the labored sound simple must be one of the tallest orders for any jazz musician, but that seems to come naturally to this Philadelphia-based saxophonist and composer. Like Dave Binney and Donny McCaslin, his sax is very modern, very palatable and most importantly for his songs, very melodic.

Sarah Manning – Harmonious Creature: Manning seems to be seeking to achieve a certain kind of harmony, feel and improvisation, not a certain kind of music. This up-and-coming sax player succeeded with that and in doing so, she offers something that breaks free of artificial constraints.

Next up: avant-garde and experimental music

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