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The Most Exciting Jazz Albums Since 1969: 2011-2014

The Most Exciting Jazz Albums Since 1969: 2011-2014
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Two joyous albums are followed by troubles, grace, exultation and deep sadness.
What ties the albums together on our ninth installment of 72 Jazz Thrillers is the depth of emotion. Two joyous albums are followed by troubles, grace, exultation and deep sadness—albums from one of the greatest jazz composers of her age to a ramshackle bar band with a wild sense of humor.

72 Thrilling Jazz Albums, Part 9: 2011-2014

49

Hearts Wide Open
Gilad Hekselman
Le Chant du Monde
2011

Gilad Hekselman is one of the greatest guitar slingers of his generation. He embraces all styles, knows how to groove and sing and has captured the sublime with his bell-clear tone. Hearts Wide Open was a breakthrough for him, with nine self-penned songs that float on a joyous breeze, hand-in-hand with sax master, Mark Turner spinning out one gorgeous solo after another. Four of the songs are by the guitar, bass, drums trio and all have compelling melodies spun out by Hekselman's fluid guitar. But the real thrillers here are the quartet songs with Turner where his sense of melody and rhythm are captivating, keeping you on the edge of your seat.

On "One More Song," Turner soars with abandon on his first solo, followed by a sly, bouncing solo by the leader that builds in intensity and then passes the baton to Turner again, for a long (five minutes) spiraling solo full of joy, light and passion. One of the most thrilling sax solos of all time. The titular song, "Hearts Wide Open" is a love story in six acts: first, the tender meeting, then the joy of togetherness, followed by some mild discord, a resolution with a gentle flow, the frantic step of a very busy life and then into a darker period of intensity. Hearts Wide Open is an album of great maturity and depth with wonderful melodies and feelings that tug at your heart.

50

On the Go
Matthew Halsall
Gondwana
2011

On "Music for a Dancing Mind," The pulsating five-note bass line segues into a rolling piano solo and then Matthew Halsall's clarion-like trumpet enters with majestic power followed by the same theme on Nat Birchall's sax. Halsall takes the next long and driving solo on top of the pulsating rhythm and tosses it off to Adam Fairhall's epic piano solo with shades of Randy Weston. The trumpet and sax trade solos on a triumphant close. This is the most thrilling song on Halsall's third album, but everything that follows is pretty spectacular. You can't help but think of the epic albums by Miles Davis, Freddie Hubbard and Lee Morgan where they played at the top of their game.

"Song for Charlie" is a mournful dirge for a life that meant something. "The End of Dukka" is a stately march to the infinite. "Samantha" is a deep and gentle love song. "The Journey Home" is a dancing ride of carefree play and adventure where Halsall, Birchall and Fairhall scale dizzying heights. "The Move" revisits the five-note bass opening of "Music for a Dancing Mind" as Halsall's trumpet sketches out a panoramic adventure. An album as rich and expansive as the sky.

51

The Troubles
The Troubles
Rattle Records
2012

The Troubles are a ragtag ensemble of wild and crazy musicians from New Zealand who, the liner notes explain, "developed and honed their quasi-anarchistic brand of meticulously composed music. From the crass to the sublime, the emotive to the absurd, their music is inventive, passionate, honest, and wholly life-affirming." Its opener, "Eastern Promises," feels like a nightclub in the Casbah with undulating dancers, and hazy hookah smoke. Then, the three horns and three strings soar with the intensity of Charles Mingus in full flight on "Les Oiseaux d'Amour." Drum and bass are in lock-step with delicious, dancing grooves.

What makes this music so striking, so fun, so thrilling is its loose and spontaneous feel, while never losing the thread of the exuberant melodies and undulating rhythms. We travel from a sultan's tent to a crackpot military pageant. In "It Starts With Silence," the melodic symphony unfolds with the delicate chirps and cries of woodland creatures seamlessly converging into a harmonious ode, reverently celebrating an enchanted forest realm.

"Aspasia" is a slinky tango led by a sinuous sax, backed by stirring strings. "Yekannywackit" sounds exactly like that and just as funny. Imagine a line of drunken dancers stumbling in perfect time. The finale, "Breadline Blues" finds a deep primitive groove, the horns swaying so perfectly and wildly that you are transported to a world oscillating between the sublime and the ecstatic, painting a canvas of elevated delirium. A blues for the ages and as thrilling as jazz can get.

52

Trios
Carla Bley
ECM
2013

How can such a low-key album be so thrilling? Carla Bley, the dearly departed composer, bandleader and pianist, plays five special Bley songs picked out by Manfred Eicher for her first album produced directly by ECM. They include the classics, "Utvilingssang," "Vashkar," "Wildlife" and "The Girl who Cried Champagne." Backed by her crack team of longtime partner Steve Swallow on bass and Andy Sheppard on saxophone, they accomplish what every Jazz musician wants but few achieve: commanding rapt attention while eliciting both tears and laughter.

On "Utvilingssang" Carla's funereal melody resonates vividly, each member delivering compelling solos on a song as sad and deep as life itself. "Vashkar" finds a wonderful, sinuous groove, in a South Asian-inspired melody full of intrigue and mystery. It's one of those songs you are compelled to revisit again and again. "Wildlife" is a languid, yet poignant journey, a suite humorously subtitled, "Horns/Paws Without Claws/Sex with Birds." It gives some insight into Bley's wacky imagination. The lively finale "The Girl Who Cried Champagne," conjures images of a debutante on Park Avenue with a penchant for indulgence and a flair for drama. Carla, we miss you sorely.

53

Live in Larissa
Nat Birchall
Soul Sound and Spirit
2014

Nat Birchall first gained attention on Matthew Halsall's first three albums, whereupon he started spinning out his own alums in rapid succession, 15 since 1999. The fifth album in that series is Live in Larissa, possibly one of the best John Coltrane-inspired spiritual jazz albums of all time. Birchall plays with a searing passion and tenderness on this double album that never lets up and keeps you transfixed until the final note.

Fittingly, the opening, "John Coltrane," that first appeared on Clifford Jordan's Glass Bead Games, is a true homage, making you wonder if Coltrane had returned to this mortal coil. "Divine Highway," one of four songs that appeared on Birchall's 2012 World Without Form, is spacious and searching. "Return to Ithaca" with Birchall on soprano, is a twisting and turning journey back home. "Journey in Satchidananda" revisits Alice Coltranes spiritual jazz classic and "World Without Form" traverses the emotions of passion, intensity and chaos. The closer, "Sacred Dimension" visits the domains of peace and tranquility with one of the most memorable melodies of the set. With this album, Birchall set a standard for Coltrane-inspired albums that will be hard to match.

54

Harmonious Creature
Sarah Manning
Posi-Tone
2013

Sarah Manning delivers one of the most emotional and soul-satisfying albums ever recorded with Harmonious Creature. In her fourth album, she enlists the talents of Eyvind Kang on cello and Jonathan Goldberger on guitar to great effect. "Copland on Cornelia Street" sets the tone with cello and sax in a lockstep, herky-jerky rhythm and snaky melody. "Tune of Cats" and "Floating Bridge" complete the opening trilogy that feels full of conflict, confusion and intensity. "I Dream a Highway" is a dreamy blues, drenched with love that brings a calm and peace to the boiling, inner turmoil... and then fades into a dark sleep.

The story here is deep, conflicted emotions, that flow from the depths of despair to the melancholy longing for a better future. "Grey Dawn, Red Fox" has a sense of drama, exploration and adventure into the unknown—experiencing both joy and fear simultaneously. Pure beauty. "Radish Spirit" is a song whose title is a mirror image of the song itself in its spicy-hot energy. The stark return of a three-note figure marks a change in tempo and direction over four wonderfully poignant movements seamlessly woven together—my pick for the most thrilling composition and performance on this astounding album.

The album as a whole might be experienced as a kind of divine jazz opera of both deep tragedy and triumph. Dark passions dominate light ones, and deep longing infuses everything. But when the light makes an appearance, it is often of the ecstatic variety. An album to be savored for decades.

Next week

The Jazz Thrillers of next week span the years of 2015-2017 with four very different albums from Europe, a spiritual jazz modern classic from Canada and one from an American bassist.

To see all the albums in this series, scroll down the page and click on the blue MORE button.

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