S. Victor Aaron’s Best of 2014 (Part 4 of 4, Fusion Jazz): Nels Cline Singers, Jaco Pastorius, Elizabeth Shepherd

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My last Best of 2014 list is reserved for those falling into the “fusion jazz” category, which for me is a catch-all bucket for jazz-like music that isn’t straight-ahead and not quite “wack,” either. Thusly, the records chosen as the best under this broad class are inventive in so many different ways.

It’s been a very good year for fusion — I’m of the opinion that every year is a good year for fusion — and like the avant-garde/experimental list, it was a struggle to keep the number of entries down to a manageable size. Selecting the top album overall was no easy task, either, but hey, somebody’s gotta do it. On another day, it might be Anthony Pirog’s utterly fantastic Cuneiform Records debut instead of the prime one that ultimately got the prize.

Here are the Best of 2014 choices, unranked except for number one, with a special shout-out to an archival release and the still-excellent honorable mentions. To read the full reviews on any of these, just click on the album titles…


ALBUM OF THE YEAR

Nels Cline Singers – Macroscope: The Nels Cline Singers is the primary vehicle for Cline’s unbounded imagination and indulgence into widely diverse music forms. Along with co-founding drummer Scott Amendola and new bassist Trevor Dunn, Macroscope continues the band’s vigorous pursuit of outdoing their prior release. The new ideas this time around include a guest keyboardist (Yuka C. Honda) and Cline actually singing, wordlessly, to enhance the melody. The genre-hopping makes stops in Rural America, India and even Smooth Jazz Land.

The anything-goes attitude is the longstanding hallmark that carries over, which is why even when things sound pretty, there’s always a sense of danger lurking just around the corner. The Singers take chances on every track and the gambles consistently pay off. Cline shows so many sides of himself on guitar that it’s difficult to imagine it’s all coming from the same guy, and Amendola’s loose, pliable drums and Dunn’s attentive bass provides the optimal rhythm section.

Macroscope grabs many of the major ideas of the other great albums presented here and stuffs them into a single release, usually executing the same idea with a sharper focus. No other album chosen below can boast that.



THE BEST OF THE REST:

Anthony Pirog Trio – Palo Colorado Dream: A record that’s equally capable of enchanting you and pummeling you with many shades of aura in between, Palo Colorado Dream catapults Anthony Pirog into the corps of elite experimental guitarists.

Scott Feiner & Pandeiro Jazz – A View From Below: Feiner successfully transfers his own creation pandeiro jazz into electric fusion in producing a breezy concoction that goes down as easy as rum punch, and is just as intoxicating.

O (Circle) – When Plants Turn Into Stones An enchanted alchemy of post-rock, ambience and new age advances Germany-based O immediately to the head of the class for these styles of music.

Tohpati, with Jimmy Haslip and Chad Wackerman – Tribal Dance: Tohpati proves he can hang with the best America has to offer while serving up his own, Indonesian-brewed concept of fusion.

Lorenzo Feliciati and Colin Edwin – Twinscapes: Steeped in a rich complexion and gleaming musicianship that serves the song, not the ego, Twinscapes is the one you save for your good headphones and just get lost in it.

Ferenc Nemeth and Attila Laszlo [featuring the Yellowjackets’ Jimmy Haslip + Russell Ferrante] – Bridges of Souls: Backed strongly by two founding Yellowjackets, is a tasteful fusion excursion that leaves no doubt that Ferenc Nemeth has barely scratched the surface on an already impressive career and Attila Laszlo shows no sign of winding down his.

Arun Ramamurthy Trio – Jazz Carnatica: For all the exotica oozing from this kind of jazz, there’s never the feeling that this is some offbeat experiment becuase of Arun Ramamurthy himself. Carnatic jazz is practically his life’s calling and he answers that call to virtual perfection.

Mole – RGB: By fully accommodating new bassist Stomu Takeishi while remaining true to themselves, Mole is renewed and the ten-year partnership between Mark Aanderud and Hernan Hecht is nowhere close to running out of steam.

Elizabeth Shepherd – The Signal: A bold, personal and completely lucid audio art from Elizabeth Shepherd. It wouldn’t be overstating it at all to assert that this is the most important vocal jazz record released all year.

Vinnie Sperrazza – Apocryphal: Yes, it’s ethereal, an adjective that might be overused a tad, but it’s all about the way Vinnie Sperrazza and his three accomplices give the music that quality. It puts Sperrazza’s formal debut in a far corner of jazz that’s rarely occupied with so much moxie.

Troker – Crimen Sonoro: Muscular and brainy, this tight little band from south of the border shows how to mine the culturally rich tradition of Mexican music and work it ingeniously into fusion jazz.

Interstatic – Arise: The rougher edges of the guttural Arise revisits the period when jazz and rock collisions created explosive music and rekindles the old magic with new vigor.

Joel Harrison – Mother Stump: Unappreciated guitarist Harrison gives us a engaging history lesson on underappreciated composers and performers from Blind Willie Johnson to Paul Motian in this crisp update of their songs.



Best Archival Release

Jaco Pastorius – Modern American Music…Period! The Criteria Sessions: With precious few recordings prior to his staggering, self-titled 1976 debut, Jaco Pastorius’ The Criteria Sessions is a set of demos that, for once, really do matter and matter a lot.


HONORABLE MENTIONS:

Erik Friedlander – Nighthawks
Ross Hammond + Grant Calvin Weston – Blues and Daily News
Burnt Belief (Colin Edwin + Jon Durant) – Etymology
Medeski, Martin & Wood + Nels Cline – Woodstock Sessions, Vol. 2:
Butcher Brown – All Purpose Music
Rik Wright’s Fundamental Forces – Red
Nicholas Payton – Numbers
Medeski Scofield Martin Wood – Juice
Ensemble, Et Al. – Present Point Passed
Peripheral Vision – Sheer Tyranny Of Will
Dylan Ryan Sand – Circa
Chicago Underground Duo – Locus
Bill Laswell, Chad Smith + Jon Batiste – The Process
Daniel Rosenboom Quintet – Fire Keeper
Carl Weingarten – Life Under Stars
John Zorn – Psychomagia


< S. Victor Aaron’s Best of 2014 (Avant-garde and Experimental Jazz)

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SVictorAaron
S. Victor Aaron
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