John Sharpe's Best Releases of 2014

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Here are eleven new releases, reviewed at All About Jazz, which stood out from those I heard this year, in no special order.

Nicole Mitchell
The Secret Escapades of Velvet Anderson
(Rogue Art Records)

Sonic Projections must be flautist Nicole Mitchell's hardest blowing band. On their second outing she draws inspiration from another hard blowing source in Chicago legend Fred Anderson. who ran the storied Velvet Lounge tavern. That required negotiation, organization, graft and resourcefulness in the face of gangsters and obdurate City officials. All that is grist to Mitchell's mill as she envisions the late reedman as a comic book superhero. It sires in an exhilarating program of multifaceted jazz-based structures which blossom in the hands of her gifted ensemble. Mitchell jams so much excitement into the 70 minutes duration that it defies description.

Rodrigo Amado Motion Trio and Peter Evans
The Freedom Principle
(No Business)

The success of this freewheeling date stems from the contrast between the two horns. Evans comes on like a supercharged mosquito menacing an angry bear. His extreme virtuosity gives rise to a litany of drones, squeals and multiphonics as he hovers, darts and parries. Amado deals more in broad brush smears compared to Evans' splattered jabs, with something of Archie Shepp about his earthy melodicism and strangulated overblown textures. Nonetheless they play simultaneously lots, and that horn interchange remains at the core of proceedings. Given the participants predilection to ignite, although a track might begin quietly it's an odds on bet that it won't end that way.

Wadada Leo Smith
The Great Lakes Suite

Trumpet and composer Wadada Leo Smith remains in one of the most fertile phases of his long and storied career. For this latest extended work sparked by the Great Lakes of North America, Smith enlists the help of fellow AACM alumnus Henry Threadgill, an acclaimed bandleader and composer in his own right. In fact the whole group boasts a stellar pedigree, including as it does the celebrated drummer Jack DeJohnette and master bassist John Lindberg. There's a lot happening at every level, yet the overall impression is one of serenity, just as a swan smoothly gliding across the water belies the frantic activity of its paddling feet. It's a neat trick that few can pull off so triumphantly.

Barry Guy
Amphi + Radio Rondo

The disc showcases the BGNO's rendition of the two titular charts by the British bassist. Renowned as a composer who makes space for improvisation an integral part of his scores, Barry Guy has followed a well-established template by retooling existing works specifically for the BGNO. Though influenced by contemporary classicism as much as jazz, the end result is unique to Guy. He begs the question of what an improvising ensemble in the 21st century can be and provides an answer which satisfies both the head and heart: cerebral yet packing a visceral punch.

Matthew Shipp
The Root of Things
(Relative Pitch)

The third album by pianist Matthew Shipp's trio with bassist Michael Bisio and drummer Whit Dickey persuades as their strongest yet, no mean feat after a series of superlative discs. Over the six cuts from this 2013 studio session they restate their case to be considered one of the premier contemporary piano threesomes, supremely cohesive and thoroughly convincing in Shipp's singular idiom melding insistent themes, darkly thunderous voicings and crystalline romantic lyricism.

Peter Brötzmann
Mental Shake

German saxophone powerhouse Peter Brötzmann favors the trio format to deliver the optimum combination of energy and directness. Over the years he's sought incitement from many illustrious rhythm teams, however one of his most potent units in recent times has been the English twosome of John Edwards and Steve Noble. With Mental Shake, their discography doubles, though with the addition of Chicago vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz. While not at first sight an obvious match for Brötzmann's lung busting exploits, the American deploys such a heady physicality to his instrument that he more than holds his own.

Alexander Hawkins
Step Wide, Step Deep

You don't need to spend long in the company of pianist Alexander Hawkins to realize that his encyclopedic knowledge of jazz encompasses everything from Duke Ellington to the avant-garde. That's as true of recordings as it is in person, and amply demonstrated on Step Wide, Step Deep, where the feelings range from lazy Sunday afternoon to bristling polyphony. Even though the line up has changed since the excellent All There Ever Out (Babel Label, 2012), the amalgam of fierce musical intelligence and unfettered creativity remains the same.

Joëlle Léandre
(No Business)

Whether one rates a free improv album or not can be notoriously subjective, depending as much on the listener's state of mind as any musical attribute. So when a recital comes along by two of France's most adventurous musicians where everything seems to just click, it's worth teasing out what makes it such an achievement. Let's be clear, it's not background music. To get the most from it requires some concentration. Perhaps headphones. That way the near perfect interaction between Daunik Lazro's supple baritone saxophone and Joëlle Léandre's virtuoso bass fizzes between the ears, triggering synapses as it goes.

Edward "KIdd" Jordan
Trio and Duo in New Orleans
(No Business)

Saxophonist Edward Kidd Jordan and drummer Alvin Fielder have been a fixture in their southern outpost for nigh on forty years, but they've rarely been heard to such good effect as on Trio and Duo in New Orleans. This wonderful two CD set brings together music from three separate dates. The first disc (also available as a double LP) comprises a 70-minute exchange between the American pair and hugely talented peripatetic German bassist Peter Kowald in April 2002, five months before his untimely death. But fine as the trio meeting is, it's the 2005 studio set from the Americans which constitutes the highlight of the double header.

Max Johnson The Prisoner
(No Business)

NYC-based bassist
Max Johnson already possesses an impressively strong discography. With a new crew on board for The Prisoner, he tackles that hoary chestnut the concept album, stimulated by the 1960s British TV series of the same name. Unfamiliarity with the show is no barrier to enjoyment of the disc. But by using the storytelling arc as a framework, Johnson comes up with a sequence of pieces which frequently verge on the mysterious, begetting unexpected configurations and moods. While Johnson suggests that the work should be approached as a suite, each track stands amply on its own merits, revealing more on every subsequent listen.

Sylvie Courvoisier
Double Windsor

Swiss-born New York-based pianist Sylvie Courvoisier hadn't tackled the piano trio, until she put together the combo on Double Windsor comprising bassist Drew Gress and drummer Kenny Wollesen. With his rich sound and strong melodic sense allied to rhythmic nous, Gress helps ensure that Courvoisier's mysterious charts, full of unexpected twists and turns, remain anchored in the jazz tradition. In that he's aided by Wollesen's mastery of timbre and broken grooves, which lengthen and play with time, bending it to the group will. Solos and improvisation are so well incorporated into the ingenious writing that they can escape notice so integral are they to the magnificence of the overall flow.

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