Nick DeRiso’s Best of 2014 (Blues, R&B + Jazz): D’Angelo, Paul Rodgers, Branford Marsalis

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There were surprises, and there were comebacks. There were consolidations, and amazing innovations. But what bound together these Best of 2014 selections was a streak of soulful emotion.

Tony Levin maneuvered through two left turns, making his first-ever album with sibling Pete Levin and — in a moment of familiar remembrance — returning to the cool jazz that defined their youth. Fans of Tony’s work with Robert Fripp will thrill to a swingingly reworked favorite from King Crimson.

At the same time, Roger Daltrey left arena rock behind to dig into a scruffy set of pub blues with Wilko Johnson, even as Brad Mehldau moved confidently away from straight-ahead jazz into hip hop-influenced experimentalism.

Dr. John paid tribute to Louis Armstrong, a fellow New Orleans hero but from a different era, and neatly avoided any hint of nostalgic boredom by adding his own spicy twist to that legacy. D’Angelo snuck an album in, very late — and very surprisingly. But he didn’t disappoint.

Walter Trout entered the studio certain of his own death, recording a fiery amalgam that pushed back — very hard — against that fate. The best news of all? Trout has made a miraculous recovery, in time to receive the justly deserved accolades that followed for The Blues Came Callin’.

The very ubiquity of Kenny Barron and Dave Holland has ended up granting them a strange anonymity and, as such, many may have overlooked their new album. We aim to fix that.

You may not have heard of St. Paul and the Broken Bones, an up-and-coming Alabama-based group of R&B shouters. We certainly aim to fix that, too.

Branford Marsalis stepped into the long shadow of Duke Ellington, even as Paul Rodgers journeyed into the legendary R&B-steeped environs of Memphis — and both emerged with striking examples of the way the past can inform a brilliant future …

No. 10 — DR. JOHN – SKE-DAT-DE-DAT: SPIRIT OF SATCH (R&B): Dr. John does as promised, working within the spirit of Louis Armstrong — rather than following the letter of the law. Perhaps only a native son like Dr. John has the right to take such liberties, being as he’s earned a kind of shared ownership of the New Orleans musical legacy. Or maybe he’s close enough to the spirit (there’s that word again) of Armstrong to intuitively know which chances to take. Whatever the circumstances, hoodoo or heritage, that originally surrounded its creation, Ske-Dat-De-Dat never stops experimenting, never stops surprising, and never stops entertaining.

No. 9 — TONY AND PETE LEVIN – LEVIN BROTHERS (JAZZ): Each is deeply respected, within his own world. But the worlds of Tony Levin (Peter Gabriel, King Crimson) and Pete Levin (Gil Evans, Jimmy Giuffre) haven’t often collided, and never in such a symbiotic fashion. And so we have two of the best sidemen in the business, men who just happen to be siblings, constructing a series of originals in a style they associate so viscerally with their youth. There’s only a delicate take on King Crimson’s “Matte Kudasai,” in fact, to remind you that you’re not listening some kind of mid-century found object. Such are the debonair joys of this Best of 2014 entry.

No. 8 — ST. PAUL AND THE BROKEN BONES – HALF THE CITY (R&B): Close your eyes, and there’s no way you picture this guy singing these songs. The guy with the glasses, the suit, the flushed cheeks. So, don’t look. Don’t judge. Put away the racial stereotypes, the age-ism, the hipster circumspection. Sure, it’s just an ex-bank teller, surrounded not by some grizzled gaggle of Stax vets, but by a group of similarly committed kids. But together as St. Paul and the Broken Bones, to put it as simply as possible, they blow their ever-loving asses off here.

No. 7 — KENNY BARRON + DAVE HOLLAND – THE ART OF CONVERSATION (JAZZ): This is an interesting combination of celebrated and overlooked, as Dave Holland and Kenny Barron paired off for an album that often masked its formidable technique with a quietly inviting sense of rapport. Holland is his generation’s best British bassist. Barron has been on so many albums that he’s become somehow forgotten. Still, they’d never before recorded as a duo. You wouldn’t know it from The Art of the Conversation. In part, this is because they are simply so very good. In part, this is because both are so very well versed in the artistry of small-group recordings, having done this countless times. Don’t be lulled, however, by its easy artistry. This is a keeper.

No. 6 — WALTER TROUT – THE BLUES CAME CALLIN’ (BLUES): This wasn’t an album surrounded by the light-filled redemptive power that it might have had today. After all, when Walter Trout was recording last year, the bluesman’s health was failing as he desperately awaited a liver transplant that seemed like it would never come. Then, less than month before the scheduled release of this scorching new project, that miracle happened. Trout is now in the midst of a miraculous recovery, even as Blues Came Callin’ — the first album in the second half of our Best of 2014 list — outlined the roiling emotions of someone facing dark prospects, a certain doom. In keeping, it was sometimes scary, but always scary good.

No. 5 — BRAD MEHLDAU AND MARK GUILIANA – TAMING THE DRAGON (JAZZ): Forget everything you know about Brad Mehldau, who rose to fame via contemplative classical-leaning re-imaginings of pop songs at an acoustic piano. This wasn’t that. It wasn’t even jazz, but rather a deep-space exploration into mostly forgotten synth sounds — combined with a very modern low-end courtesy of the hip-hop-ish percussionist Mark Guiliana. You might catch a whisper of what came before but, really, that’s grasping at straws. The intent on Mehliana: Taming the Dragon clearly isn’t to swing, but to experiment — to push at the boundaries until they give.

No. 4 — WILKO JOHNSON + ROGER DALTREY – GOING BACK HOME (BLUES): Roger Daltrey was reborn alongside the resilient Wilko Johnson, who transported the Who frontman to an era that predates bombastic rock operas — or even the period when his old band put the “maximum” in R&B. No, this was primordial, way before that. This was deep blues, reworked by a pub rock band for the ages. This aptly titled album couldn’t more perfectly fit Daltrey’s voice. Then there’s Johnson, the punky former Dr. Feelgood guitarist who’s been battling pancreatic cancer, smartly tangling with the harmonica, likewise energized by Roger Daltrey.

No. 3 — BRANFORD MARSALIS – IN MY SOLITUDE: LIVE AT GRACE CATHEDRAL (JAZZ): Never one to shy away from a big moment, Branford Marsalis brought his saxophones — and nothing else — to one of jazz’s most iconic settings. The results don’t supercede Duke Ellington’s initial 1960s-era Sacred Concert — held there, as well — so much as endeavor to expand the vocabulary of that stirring triumph. Ellington, back then, was focused on blending jazz, black gospel and classical into a kind of large-scale, yet intimate tapestry of emotion. Marsalis instead crafted more in miniature but at the same time, pushed in his own way to blur the lines between post-bop jazz and contemporary classical. In place of the sacred, he delved into modernity of free-form improv — and the results were stunning.

No. 2 — PAUL RODGERS – THE ROYAL SESSIONS (R&B): Paul Rodgers’ songs always betokened a foundational love for gritty R&B. But that embedded passion often found itself awash in other, more contemporary sounds — the heavy riffs of Bad Company, the sleek corporate feel of the Firm, the outsized stadium rock of Queen. The Royal Sessions, our penultimate Best of 2014 entry, stripped all of that away, leaving Rodgers to front a grease-popping house band of long-time Memphis sidemen, guys who played on the original sides featuring Al Green and the like. Paul Rodgers’ gift, taken perhaps for granted after so many permutations away from these core influences, is revealed anew.

No. 1 — D’ANGELO – BLACK MESSIAH (R&B): Calling this late-breaking moment of genius “R&B” is, of course, selling it decidedly short. After all, D’Angelo has been brilliantly blending old-school soul and contemporary hip-hop for some time. Same here, as he blended the vocal and intellectual prowess of Marvin Gaye with the nervy musical rawness of early Prince — while fast-forwarding all of those sturdy influences into today’s sounds, and today’s topics. In fact, Black Messiah had a kind of ripped-from-the-headlines currency, and not just via its lyric sheet. This was new music that contextualized the present even as it embraced the past. Timely in its message, nervy in its conception, it amounted to D’Angelo’s masterwork. So far, at least.

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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