In some ways, the only thread that holds this Best of 2015 list focusing on blues, jazz and R&B together is some sense of searching. The albums, each one of them, find their emotional resonance it seems in their desire for something more true, more elemental, more personal and engaging.
And so you had Gavin Harrison turning familiar things into something utterly brand new, while Papa Mali returned to his loose-limbed Louisiana roots. You had Matthew Shipp and Marc Cary moving forward, even as they looked back.
There was Walter Trout, who taught us something about overcoming adversity. And Boz Scaggs, the model of effortless cool and soulful consistency. And the Alabama Shakes, who somehow kept getting better — and who knew that was even possible?
We thrilled to Robben Ford’s blues-soaked hootenanny, filled with famous and famously fun friends, and Dave Douglas as he continued into uncharted musical territories. Along the way, we also learned new things about an old favorite with the release of previously unheard recordings by Wes Montgomery.
No. 10. MARC CARY – RHODES AHEAD VOL. 2 (JAZZ): When you think Fender Rhodes, you probably think “old.” After all, this instrument — its very sound — brings to mind the yellow-and-brown-hued ’70s, and era of innovations as distinctive then as they are far away now. It also represents a long-ago period for Cary, as Vol. 1 (a then-surprising turn toward electronica for the hard-bop acolyte) arrived in 1999. But Vol. 2 isn’t sunk by nostalgia; instead it pushes forward by combining the wealth of musical knowledge that Marc Cary has gathered in the meantime. Credit, too, goes to his band, also called Rhodes Ahead, who encourage and support the keyboardist through a series of excursions outward from soul music’s direct and to-the-point riffs into more uncharted waters where the jazz of Lee Morgan and the funk of the HeadHunters all bob around.
No. 9. ROBBEN FORD – INTO THE SUN (BLUES/R&B): Ford invites a few famous friends over, and the results are loose, truly collaborative — the opposite of those emailed digital confections so often dubbed “duets” these days. Highlights include “High Heels and Throwing Things,” with Warren Haynes, a song that unfolds with a spacious attention to groove and feel — rather than as an eruptive outburst. It’s more like old friends sharing smartly interwoven anecdotes, each building on the other, with one thought flowing seamlessly into another. “Justified” features not one but two special guests in Robert Randolph and Keb Mo; the bubbling roux is completed by a honky-tonk turn from pianist Jim Cox. ZZ Ward and Sonny Landreth appear elsewhere.
No. 8. WES MONTGOMERY – IN THE BEGINNING (JAZZ): As its name implies, this Best of 2015 entry traces back to Montgomery’s pre-fame work as a sideman on a Gene Morris-led date for Spire Records, to recordings with his brothers Buddy and Monk Montgomery at Columbia Studios in 1955, to remarkable live performances at Chicago’s C&C Music Lounge from 1957 and a Indianapolis’ Missile Lounge in 1958. Naturally, some of In the Beginning is of variable sound quality. That’s the nature of long-lost recordings, after all. The magic, and the mystery, is in hearing Wes Montgomery begin his journey. There’s a sharper edge, a more countrified twang, a frisky looseness that had been bred out of his sound by the time Montgomery rose to fame in the more refined atmosphere of Pacific Jazz.
No. 7. WALTER TROUT – BATTLE SCARS (BLUES): It’s clear that he’s taken this miraculous rebound, keyed by a May 2014 liver transplant, as a sign to redouble his efforts. Few are the records in which Walter Trout has played with more focus, determination and searing power. At the same time, this Best of 2015 entry lives up to its name as an examination not of the contentment that follows a long-hoped-for discharge but of the awful passageway which brings us there. In so doing, Battle Scars offers a resiliency and sense of purpose that moves beyond expectation. Trout, even after everything he’s been through, is still pushing back — hard.
No. 6. DAVE DOUGLAS – HIGH RISK (JAZZ): Though Detroit’s Shigeto is best known today as an electronic musician and producer, he’s actually a product of the New School in New York. Those foundational chops no doubt came in handy when he found himself at a session with the rangy, always exciting Dave Douglas and his new electro-acoustic quartet High Risk. Their endlessly engaging blend of melody and deep groove is completed by Mark Guiliana and bassist Jonathan Maron. In this space, beats blend with sharp improvisation, samples and manipulated sounds with hard-crafted groove, mystery and funk and things unexpected. It’s an exciting race to the edge of jazz’s modern frontier, and no place for the foolhardy or unprepared.
No. 5. PAPA MALI – MUSIC IS LOVE (R&B/BLUES): Papa Mali has been, more recently, combining his deep-fried Bayou State musical sensibilities with a distinctly psychedelic West Coast vibe — writing with Robert Hunter and performing with Bill Kreutzmann, both legendary figures in the Grateful Dead. Forget all of that. As we hear on this Best of 2015 entry, Papa Mali still knows how to slow cook a tangy groove. He recorded in New Orleans, with a crack local crew, but it’s Papa Mali — obviously, thankfully and completely recovered now from a health scare — who sits in the middle of this cauldron of funky coolness. Music is Love is an intriguing voodoo of passion and desire, fun and frolic, sex and danger, something that seems to always surround the best Louisiana music.
No. 4. MATTHEW SHIPP TRIO – CONDUCT OF JAZZ (JAZZ): The names changed, as the pianist reformulated his group, but the adventurous approach remained steadfast. The feel shifted, as he turned his attentions this year — both here, and on a Duke Ellington-themed project — more toward traditional jazz sounds, but not the swashbuckling attitude. We’ve long felt that Matthew Shipp was one of the music’s most delightfully adventuresome figures, and that holds true even when he moves inside the pocket. Because, and this is made so very clear on the epic triumph of “The Bridge Across,” there’s simply no pocket that can hold him.
No. 3. BOZ SCAGGS – FOOL TO CARE (R&B/SOUL): Boz Scaggs made his name in the 1970s with sophisticated and urbane grooves, making the perfect chill music after a night of sweaty disco grinding. But it wasn’t always that way. Scaggs initially emerged, as the gritty “Hell to Pay” reminds, with a murkier, bluesier sound — something far more elemental, and far more dangerous. At the same time, Fool to Care still features plenty of suitably silky asides, and more than its share of heartfelt moments — including the citified and sleek “Last Tango on 16th Street”) and a touching take on the Band’s “Whispering Pines.” Throughout, Boz Scaggs’ wistfully urbane vocals fill in the corners of every enveloping narrative. Every element of his genius, for a change, is found right here.
No. 2. ALABAMA SHAKES – SOUND AND COLOR (R&B): A bravura performance from the huge-voiced Brittany Howard, who shows an ever-growing sense of control on this perfectly attenuated outing. Always a belter, standout tracks like “Don’t Wanna Fight” and “Future People” show her reaching for striking new depths. That helped Alabama Shakes further define their music’s delicate balance between the lusty and hurtful, the anthemic and damaged. Howard’s vulnerability, these surprising moments of quiet resignation, gave Sound and Color a new emotional staying power. Even on “Gimme All Your Love” and “Shoegaze,” songs that might have been more straight-forward barnburners, we find a more completely realized, darkly human combination of exhausted passion and defiant resiliency. Alabama Shakes just keep getting better, no small feat.
No. 1. GAVIN HARRISON – CHEATING THE POLYGRAPH (JAZZ): Working in a manner that recalls Philip Glass’ sweeping redesign of David Bowie’s Low, this Best of 2015 charttopper renders familiar themes from Harrison’s band Porcupine Tree in an entirely different light. You could call it jazz at times, but with touches approaching neo-prog. You could describe it as a classical update at others, or fusion on a big-band scale. But whereas Glass tended to work with light orchestral brush strokes, Gavin Harrison’s reconstruction charges forward with knifing brass and drumming that startles in its inventiveness without ever becoming a tumultuous distraction. He radically expands on the big-band model too, adding bass clarinets, tuba and harmonium to what is typically a steady diet of trumpets and saxes. The effect is as cinematic as it is surprising.
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