The easiest thing about putting together a listing of the best modern and mainstream jazz records for the year is finding enough albums worth shouting out about. The most difficult thing is deciding which of these are the very best and which are ‘merely’ excellent honorable mentions. This happens every damned year, which is why the notion that jazz is ‘dead’ or ‘dying’ from an output standpoint seems pretty silly to me.
And it wasn’t any easier this time around, either. A wide range of musicians with a wide range of ideas made records that struck me in different ways. Sometimes it was a perfectly executed fealty to tradition, other times it was expanding the boundaries of jazz and still others did it with astounding displays of chops. A few had more than one of these things going to for it, and the very best — including my choice for the album at the top of the heap — excelled in every imaginable area.
Here is that one uniquely outstanding album, plus twenty other straight-ahead jazz records that my ears told me were the finest of those released in 2014 (that is, among the ones I sat down and wrote a review on). Plus, an unexpected but much welcome archival release and fifteen primo honorable mentions. Click through on the titles to read the full reviews of these records.
ALBUM OF THE YEAR
Steve Lehman Octet – Mise En Abîme: The use of microtonality, jagged rhythms and hypnotic patterns might make one think this is too ‘out there,’ to call Mise En Abîme a modern/mainstream jazz record. Perhaps that case can be made, but the Jackie McLean in alto saxophonist, composer and leader Steve Lehman had never left him. This is what modern jazz becomes, when left in the hands of those who aren’t afraid to let it continue evolving. Certainly that can be said for Lehman, who pushes the idiom forward with the help of like-minded members of today’s jazz vanguard: Tyshawn Sorey, Drew Gress, Chris Dingman, Jonathan Finlayson, Mark Shim Tim Albright and Jose Davila.
The dynamism of Lehman’s compositions is relentless; they start with an idea and explode with smaller ones from a central core. He distilled the innovations of Anthony Braxton, Henry Threadgill and Andrew Hill to come up with a super-charged alchemy that draws from the best facets of them. And yet, this music swings, so some of the ideas borrowed are much older.
There’s nothing that comes off ‘old’ about Mise En Abîme, however. 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.
THE BEST OF THE REST:
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.
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.
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.
Myriad3 – The Where: Myriad3 put little in the way of constraints when they get together to create music; the only steadfast rule they appear to be following is that they conjure it up all together as a group. No one should think jazz is stuck on neutral after listening to this trio, and one senses that they are just getting started.
Anna Webber, with John Hollenbeck and Matt Mitchell – Simple: “When one writes for a trio,” explains Webber, “everything’s exposed.” She laid bare her compositions, leaving it in a few, capable hands and in doing so, made them flourish.
Oliver Lake Organ Quartet – What I Heard: A small combo featuring the Hammond B3 led by most anybody else wouldn’t be such a big deal but this is Oliver Lake we’re talking about, here. He fearlessly draws from blues, bop, RnB and avant-garde, making this unlike any of organ jazz you’ve heard. But you’ll want to hear more of it.
Kendall Moore – Focus: This is how you do mainstream jazz, friends. ‘Focus’ is the first album by jazz newcomer trombonist, composer and arranger Kendall Moore, but this rookie’s got it all together on the first try.
Marcin Wasilewski Trio with Joakim Milder – Spark of Life: As a trio or a temporary quartet with saxophonist Wilder, the Marcin Wasilewski Trio are masters in finding the beauty found in a melody and instead of overplaying that beauty, they simply absorb it.
J.J. Wright – Inward Looking Outward: Uncommonly fresh and quietly inventive, Inward Looking Outward breathes new life into the venerable ol’ piano trio without having to step outside to achieve that. A rare achievement, to be sure.
Wil Blades – Field Notes: Every song from this B-3/guitar/drums trio finds a different way to soothe, groove and satisfy the soul. Blades and his combo never seem to run out of ideas.
Dave Douglas + Uri Caine – Present Joys: It feels as if Dave Douglas and Uri Caine had a private, warmhearted meeting of minds and we were allowed to listen in on it. The music here either comes from an idea of the distant past or inspired by that past, but Present Joys lives in the here and now.
Fred Hersch Trio – Floating: The highly lyrical and entrancing beauty of Fred Hersch’s piano and his empathetic rhythm section makes Floating another winning outing for this extraordinary combo.
Best Archival Release
Keith Jarrett + Charlie Haden and Paul Motian – Hamburg ’72: As a document of a talent that was in the process of fanning out in so many directions, Hamburg ’72 is no redundant, vault-clearing release. This is an important recording of Keith Jarrett bringing his first great trio to a peak.
Nels Cline and Julian Lage – Room
Pete Robbins – Pyramid
Matthew Shipp – I’ve Been To Many Places
Avishai Cohen’s Triveni – Dark Nights
Joe Beck – Get Me Joe Beck
Ian O’Beirne – Glasswork
Ada Rovatti – Disguise
Jimmy Greene – Beautiful Life
Omer Avital – New Song
Ron Miles – Circuit Rider
Karen Mantler – Business Is Bad
Jacob Young – Forever Young
Paul Bley – Play Blue, The Oslo Concert
Dan Weiss – Fourteen
James Brandon Lewis – Divine Travels
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