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Year in Review

Mark Sullivan’s Best Releases of 2015

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This is my first year end list as an AAJ contributor, hopefully the first of many! I reviewed a lot of great music, major label and independent productions alike. Here's the ten that rose to the top of my list of favorites, in no particular order.

Eberhard Weber
Hommage à Eberhard Weber
(ECM Records)

Terrific tribute to bassist Eberhard Weber, anchored by Pat Metheny's title composition for big band, soloists, and prerecorded Eberhard Weber video. Amazing integration of Weber's playing into the live performance, with exceptional contributions by Metheny, vibraphonist Gary Burton, bassist Scott Colley, and drummer Danny Gottlieb. Accompanied by additional Weber arrangements for big band by Michael Gibbs and others, with soloists Burton and reedman Paul McCandless.

Stefano Battaglia
In The Morning
(ECM Records)

Absolutely gorgeous interpretations of music by American composer Alec Wilder from Italian pianist Battaglia and his trio. Just a perfect match between composer and interpreter. Wilder's music is rich and eclectic, and not played nearly enough by jazz players.

Ran Blake
Ghost Tones: Portraits of George Russell
(A-side Records)

Pianist/composer Ran Blake presents a loving tribute to his late colleague George Russell in a diverse program anchored by his sensitive piano playing. Fascinating kaleidoscope of Russell compositions and relevant standards, with varied, creative arrangements.

The Sirkis/Bialas International Quartet
Come To Me
(Stonedbird Productions)

The The Sirkis/Bialas International Quartet demonstrates how well a vocalist can work as the featured soloist in a quartet. Even better, they make you forget the instrumentation in the beauty and joy of the music they make. The group truly deserves the "International" part of their name. Drummer Asaf Sirkis is an Israeli living in England; vocalist Sylwia Bialas is a Pole living in Germany; keyboardist Frank Harrison is English; and bassist Patrick Bettison is from the United States. A wonderful record, one of the year's most pleasant surprises.

Unhinged Sextet
Clarity
(OA2 Records)

Smoking hot hard bop debut from a collective drawn from all over the U.S. While there's nothing groundbreaking here, it's a first-class collection of modern jazz, with strong playing and exciting, varied original compositions. One of three releases this year involving talented keyboardist Michael Kocour.

Gary Peacock
Now This
(ECM Records)

It was bassist Gary Peacock's 80th birthday, but he gave us all a present. Peacock (with pianist Marc Copland and drummer Joey Baron) revisits some past repertoire, along with new tunes and a memorable cover of bassist Scott LaFaro's "Gloria's Step."

Alex Conde
Descarga for Monk
(Zoho Music)

Spanish pianist-composer Alex Conde (currently residing in the Bay Area) unites his love of flamenco and the music of Thelonious Monk with these creative arrangements. Conde is an excellent pianist with a crack rhythm section. For any lover of Monk or Latin music this is an irresistible combination, with the added spice of a unique Flamenco flavor.

Mike Holober
Balancing Act
(Palmetto Records)

Pianist/composer Mike Holober set himself an ambitious goal with this recording: to feature a vocalist, but as another frontline instrument rather than the primary focus. Vocalist Kate McGarry appears on all eight tracks (often singing wordless vocalise), and proves herself equal to the challenge. The arrangements are complex, treating this octet much like a big band. It's an ambitious project, but the music never shows it. The compositions and arrangements are wonderfully realized—full of joy and energy, regardless of their complexity.

Jon Irabagon
Behind The Sky
(Self Produced)

One of two albums released the same day, this finds Irabagon at his most accessible, backed by an empathetic quartet (with guest trumpeter Tom Harrell on three tracks). The album's theme is grieving and the way we deal with loss, but the music is uplifting all the way.

John Abercrombie
The First Quartet
(ECM Records)

Three of my favorite John Abercrombie records, finally all available on CD. If you're a fan and haven't heard them—which would be easy to do, since they've been either difficult to find on CD, or unavailable—do yourself a favor.

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