Dan McClenaghan's Best Releases of 2014

Dan McClenaghan BY

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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 Bley—Play BluePaul Bley
Play Blue
ECM Records

Pianist Paul Bley's career got started in the 1950s, and he has recorded scores of albums—many 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 Milder—Spark of LifeMarcin Wasilewski Trio /w Joakim Milder
Spark of Life
ECM Records

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 (2005); January (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—StrangerJo-Yu Chen
Okeh Records

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 Trio—O's TimeHal Galper Trio
O's Time
Origin Records

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 Smith—The Great Lakes Suite Wadada Leo Smith
Great Lakes Suites
Tum Records

Trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith has long been one of our most adventurous jazz artists. His The Great Lakes Suites finds him in all-star company—alongside 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 DeRubbo—Wake Up! Eric Schugren/Vin Scialla/Brian Charette/Mike DiRubbo
Wake 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 Trio—Jazz CaranticaArun Ramamurthy Trio
Jazz Carnatica
Self Produced

Violinist Arun Ramamurthy is a man on a mission—that 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 traditional—centuries old, yet modern and dynamic at the same time.

Rich Halley 4—The Wisdom of RocksRich Halley 4
The 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 Newsome—The Straight Horn of AfricaSam Newsome
The Straight Horn of Africa
Self Produced

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 Trio—FloatingFred Hersch Trio
Palmetto Records

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.

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