It's that time to wrap it up and make some choices on the top jazz releases of the year. Here are my picks for the best of 2014, in no particular order, with the exception of the first listing, pianist Paul Bley's disc, which stands out. I do love piano jazz.
Paul BleyPlay Blue
Pianist Paul Bley's career got started in the 1950s, and he has recorded scores of albumsmany of them solo recordings like Play Blue
and many of those extraordinary, with Solo in Mondsee
(ECM, 2007) and Open, to Love
(ECM, 1973) coming immediately to mind. But Play Blue
, recorded live in Oslo, may be his best. It is organic, unrelentingly gorgeous and full of joy. This is solo piano perfection.
Marcin Wasilewski Trio /w Joakim MilderSpark of Life
Marcin Wasilewski and his trio rose to prominence via their ECM sets backing fellow Pole, trumpeter Tomasz Stanko
. This led to three trio outings on their own for the label: Trio
(2008); and Faithful
(2011). 2014 finds the Polish piano trio expanding to a quartet with saxophonist Joakim Milder
on five of the superb Spark of Life
's eleven tunes.
Jo-Yu Chen Stranger
This one surprised me. I found Chen's previous CD, Incomplete Soul
(Sony Music, 2011) an engaging set of sounds, very competently done, with lots of emotion coming through. It seemed a promising introduction to a rising talent. Stranger
is a huge step forward. It's got emotion, fire and supreme confidence. And it's got guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel
sitting in on three numbers, his sound seamlessly incorporated into Chen's focused artistic vision. One of the requirements for inclusion in the Top CDs list is how often a recording finds its way to the sound system. This one was always there; it's still on the current listening shelf.
Hal Galper TrioO's Time
This one didn't surprise me. Pianist Hal Galper
has put out a string of trio sets since 2006, mostly with this line-up featuring bassist Jeff Johnson
and drummer John Bishop
, and mostly on Origin Records. They explore the rhythmically challenging rubato
form and make music like no one else out there. O's Time
is another superb addition to Galper's discography.
Wadada Leo SmithGreat Lakes Suites
Trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith
has long been one of our most adventurous jazz artists. His The Great Lakes Suites
finds him in all-star companyalongside reedman Henry Threadgill
, bassist John Lindberg
and drummer Jack DeJohnette
on an expansive, free-blowing set. Smith is very prolific, but this may be his most engaging, most approachable music in the past five busy years. Definitely "out there," but also compelling.
Eric Schugren/Vin Scialla/Brian Charette/Mike DiRubboWake Up!
Lift Off Records
Another surprise. I wasn't familiar with these guys, but they produced the coolest organ jazz set of the year. Two saxophonists, Eric Schugren
and Mike DiRubbo
, rip it up over Brian Charette
's breezy B3, with a killer drummer in Vin Scialla
, and some inspired guests.
Arun Ramamurthy TrioJazz Carnatica
Violinist Arun Ramamurthy
is a man on a missionthat of bringing his somewhat hybridized take on Carnatic (South Indian) classical music to as many ears as possible. Jazz Carnatica
features his trio with bassist Perry Wortman
and drummer Sameer Gupta
, along with well-chosen guest spots from violinist Trina Basu
, keyboardist Marc Cary
and mridangam-ist Akshay Anantapmanabhan. The music sounds traditionalcenturies old, yet modern and dynamic at the same time.
Rich Halley 4The Wisdom of Rocks
Pine Eagle Records
Tenor saxophonist Rich Halley competes with Wadada Leo Smith for the most avant-garde offerings on this list. The saxophonist is as ferocious as late period John Coltrane
with a bit more containment, Halley's bop lines settling in surprisingly out of the maelstroms. Not that there aren't moments of repose and nuance slipped in along with the roaring. Halley's The Wisdom of Rocks
, his sixth CD in five years on his own Pine Eagle Records, finds him at the absolute top of his rip roaring game in the quartet's front line with his fellow free spirit, trombonist Michael Vlatkovich
, along with the rhythm team of bassist Clyde Reed
and drummer Carson Halley.
Sam NewsomeThe Straight Horn of Africa
Soprano saxophonist Sam Newsome
is the most innovative of jazz artists. Nobody has created anything close to what he has crafted with his "solo soprano sax" outings. His immersion in the art and possibilities of the straight horn is intense. On Art of the Straight Horn, Vol. 2: A Path to Liberation
, Newsome layers the sounds and colors of melody, rhythm and harmony, making something odd, beautiful and unique.
Fred Hersch TrioFloating
I'll wrap it up with one of the finest piano trio outings of the year: the Fred Hersch Trio's Floating
This is the type of spontaneous interplay, deep harmonics and deft exploration of the melody that has captivated piano trio fans from the late fifties, when Bill Evans
changed the game. Unabashedly beautiful music, from start to finish.