Nearly every day I fall in love with a record from the outer regions of jazz, or all of music, for that matter. It’s fun to hear sounds that are so far apart from the norm, by musicians who try harder than anyone to come up with something truly unique and creative. That’s why it’s hard to keep the annual Best of 2014 Avant Garde & Experimental Jazz list down to a manageable size. In choosing thirty of the best, I nevertheless left off some really goods ones.
Below is my choice for the most beastly wack jazz record of the year, followed fourteen of the runners up (in no particular order), a couple of archival releases deserving of a hat tip and finally, another baker’s dozen of highly recommended honorable mentions.
Every selection listed here has been previously reviewed here, too. Those fuller assessments are just a mouse click away via the album titles.
ALBUM OF THE YEAR
Brandon Seabrook – Sylphid Vitalizers: Holy crap, what fresh sonic psychosis is this? Brandon Seabrook has built a reputation as an outside-the-box guitarist and even moreso as an outside-the-galaxy banjo player, mainly though his Seabrook Power Plant. But this first album under his name only takes the punk-jazz of that band to the nth degree by ratcheting up and melding together technology, virtuosity and — most importantly — a deviously fertile mind.
Terry Riley-isms abound, with weird, repetitive sounds anchored by banjo-sourced loops that are layered, mutated and pepper sprayed with stinging, machete-metal guitars. Due in part to the minimalist means to make these sounds, this is manic music rooted in precision instead of chaos. Using primarily an instrument widely regarded as earthbound as the banjo to make such alien noise is a delicious paradox probably not lost on its creator. The song titles — like “Ballad of Newfangled Vicissitudes,” “Selfodomized Poltergeists” and “Cabeza Spasms & Aural Championships” — are themselves just like the music they label: undecipherable and impenetrable but visceral all the same.
In 2014, it doesn’t get any more avant garde, experimental and cunning than this. That’s the short answer for why Sylphid Vitalizers gets the nod.
THE BEST OF THE REST:
Jamie Saft & Joe Morris – Plymouth: Saft and Morris follow up last year’s Slobber Pup with a supporting cast that’s even more dangerous. Mary Halvorson, Chris Lightcap and Gerald Cleaver are no bystanders in this new ensemble; this is a supergroup with a capital “S.”
Raoul Björkenheim / eCsTaSy – eCsTaSy: eCsTaSy roams just inside and outside the perimeter of jazz, and virtuosic players subscribe to the gospel of impulse as much as they adhere to even the outer regions of the genre.
Roscoe Mitchell, with Craig Taborn and Kikanju Baku – Conversations I: An album that revels in its random, extemporaneous intonations, offering proof that ideas Roscoe Mitchell first put forth in the mid-60s are nowhere near exhausted. Conversations II is more of the same, terrific stuff.
Digital Primitives – Lipsomuch/Soul Searching: Cooper-Moore on mouth bow, fretless banjo and a diddly bo? It all goes to show, that sometimes the best inspiration for a fresh, new kind music can be rooted in some very old and simple ideas.
Gato Libre – DuDu: Amid outbursts of free playing are plenty of moments of quiet beauty. It was undoubtedly not an easy decision to carry on with Gato Libre after the loss of a key member, but DuDu assures us that it was the right decision.
Jeff Cosgrove, with Matthew Shipp and William Parker – Alternating Current: It was tempting to put this in the “Modern and Mainstream” Jazz list, but listen closely to Cosgrove’s impulsive, instinctual drums; it’s clear he’s not thinking jazz, he’s thinking about turning his kit into a mood shaper and an instrument of tonality. With Shipp and Parker by his side, it’s a concept that’s turned into blissful reality.
Ivo Perelman and Mat Maneri – Two Men Walking: Of the excellent trio of records that Perelman issued in March, this one gets the nod for the unpredictable and delightful way the saxophonist is able to blend in with Maneri’s discerning viola.
Aram Bajakian + Julia Úlehla – Dálava: The idea of a jazz artist recasting the traditional music of central and eastern Europe isn’t a new one, but Aram Bajakian and Julia Úlehla have combined the richness of the old with the freshness and boldness of the new like no one else has done before. This is why Dálava cannot be dismissed as another exotic music genre exercise.
Haitian Rail – Solarists: This immediately establishes Haitian Rail as a fearsome battery of inscrutable noise with terrific give-and-take. And trombonist Dan Blacksberg’s presence assures that they hold up the jazz part of the experimental metal-jazz equation, losing none of their ferocity along the way.
Nathan Parker Smith Large Ensemble – Not Dark Yet: Don’t let the eighteen-member size of this jazz band scare you. This isn’t Grandpa’s big band, nor your Dad’s. Nor necessarily anybody else who’s into big band jazz. The Nathan Parker Smith Large Ensemble, perhaps the world’s only modern creative heavy metal horn band, is for the rest of us.
Rob Mazurek + Black Cube SP – Return The Tides: Ascension Suite And Holy Ghost: Mazurek pours his heart out with a very sympathetic squad for this paean to his mother. As unbound and weighty as the music sounds here, it might be only slightly more so than some his prior work. Here, his usual brilliance becomes a tortured brilliance.
Wadada Leo Smith, with Jamie Saft, Joe Morris, Balazs Pandi – Red Hill: Wadada Leo Smith albums rarely attempt the same thing twice but the consistent aspect across all of these works is Smith’s God-given ability to reach deep inside of himself with every puff of his horn. Leading by example, he inspired Saft, Morris and Pandi to reach even deeper into themselves as well.
Indigo Mist [Cuong Vu + Richard Karpen] – That The Days Go By And Never Come Again: By abstracting the music and style of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn far from their roots, Cuong Vu and Richard Karpen actually brought the spirit of those two closer to us.
Ross Hammond – Humanity Suite: A stunning document of Hammond’s sound exhibit, a forty-seven minute opus that takes ideas already put forward on those prior albums and adapts them to a larger, longer-form platform. It’s a long, kaleidoscopic ride, with enough interesting developments along the way to make that three quarters of an hour go by quickly.
Best Archival Release
The Jimmy Giuffre 3 & 4 – New York Concerts: One of the most exciting finds of lost jazz recordings in recent years, New York Concerts confirms Giuffre’s foresight and insight within the realm of free jazz just as the music was beginning to race out to the edge of what was possible. He was there all along, but few were truly aware of that until now.
Best Archival Release #2
Albert Ayler Trio – Spiritual Unity: Fifty years later, there’s not much out there that is truly “out there” as Ayler’s masterpiece. There are scant few among those that possess its uncanny focus and unified purpose. To go way forward in music, you have to go back fifty years.
Aram Bajakian – there were flowers also in hell
Novellino / Rosi / Mazurek / Barnes – Objects In Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear
Wadada Leo Smith – The Great Lakes Suite
Satoko Fujii Orchestra New York – Shiki
The Core Trio – The Core Trio with Matthew Shipp
JÜ – JÜ Meets Møster
Nick Millevoi – Numbers On The Side
John Dieterich, Ben Goldberg, Scott Amendola – Short-Sighted Dream Colossus
Daniel Blacksberg Trio – Perilous Architecture
Rich Halley 4 – The Wisdom of Rocks
Johnny DeBlase – Guided Motion
Farmers By Nature – Love And Ghosts
Peter Van Huffel’s Gorilla Mask – Bite My Blues
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