BEST OF 2014: J Hunter’s Best Jazz Albums, Part II
Reviews by J Hunter
Okay, now that the Honorable Mentions are out of the way… DRUM ROLL, PLEASE!
ORRIN EVANS’ CAPTAIN BLACK BIG BAND: Mother’s Touch (Posi-tone)
Pianist Orrin Evans has two other discs that are showing up on more than a few Top 10 lists: The Philadelphia native’s own Smoke Sessions release Liberation Blues and Sean Jones’ killer Mack Avenue date im.pro.vise. As great as those discs are, I couldn’t ignore this tremendous set of 21st-century big-band jazz. Propelled by a powerhouse unit that includes Marcus Strickland, Duane Eubanks, Conrad Herwig and Luques Curtis, Evans’ blues-soaked “In My Soul” sets the wide-screen tone for the date; his soaring “Prayer for Columbine” finishes it off, and in between are monster arrangements of Wayne Shorter’s “Water Babies,” Eric Revis’ “Maestra” and Donald Edwards’ “Tickle.” Big Band ain’t dead – thanks to Evans and Captain Black, it ain’t even SICK!
CLARENCE PENN & PENN STATION: Monk: The Lost Files (Origin)
Drummer/educator Clarence Penn has firsthand knowledge of how tough it is to sell today’s young musicians on music that’s anywhere from 60 to 100 years old. It was that resistance to the “jazz canon” that sent Penn into the studio to give ten Thelonius Monk compositions a serious re-boot. Mixing sampling and studio wizardry with ragged-edge arrangements, Penn brings classics like “Well You Needn’t,” “Evidence,” “Bemsha Swing” and “Rhythm-a-Ning” into the 21st century while keeping them as savory and singular as the original recordings. And that’s not even the best part: Due to a mishap with a computer and some wine, Penn erased the tracks a few months after recording them; we only have them now because the Englewood, NJ studio Penn recorded them in hadn’t cleaned out its hard drive. WHEW!
JOEL HARRISON & ANUPAM SHOBHAKAR/MULTIPLICITY: Leave the Door Open (Whirlwind Recordings)
I honestly believe it’s a bad thing to hear music before it’s recorded, because it sets a standard that most studio versions don’t live up to. Happily, Leave the Door Open more than clears the high-water mark Harrison and Shobhakar had set at Lake George Jazz Weekend in 2013. The opening track “The Translator” is a multi-chapter suite that establishes the phenomenal dynamic between Harrison’s searing guitar and Shobhakar’s indescribably delicious sarode, and the accompanying title track sends us out into space with a massive smile. Willie Dixon’s “Spoonful” gets a stunning facelift, and “Devil Mountain Blues” is a bluegrass anthem sautéed in curry and saffron. While East meeting West has become a common occurrence in jazz, I don’t think the mash-up has been handled with this much artistry and subtlety; keyboardist Gary Versace, bassist Hans Glawischnig and drummer Dan Weiss should get big credit for building a foundation flexible enough to handle all the wonderful changes Harrison and Shobhakar put us through.
NELS CLINE SINGERS: Macroscope (Mack Avenue)
If you’re looking for the next Wes Montgomery, Nels Cline definitely ain’t your guy. If, however, you’re looking for a mind-bending guitarist who can make his axe do everything but sell popcorn during halftime, Wilco’s resident mad genius more than fits the bill. Cline doesn’t leave all his subtlety on his other Mack Avenue release Room; there are passages on “Canale’s Cabeza” and “Macroscopic” that ache with beauty. For the most part, though, Macroscope is about throwing jazz fusion into a steel cage with alternative rock and seeing how much carnage can be wrought – as it happens, quite a lot. “Seven Zed Heaven” is what might have happened if John McLaughlin had founded Led Zeppelin, and “Hairy Mother” sounds like what would happen if you pour hot coffee into a laptop full of samples. This is jazz that’s better suited for Solid Sound than it is for Freihofer’s or Newport… but, as I think you’ll agree, that’s kind of the point!
BEN FLOCKS: Battle Mountain (West Cliff Records)
If Battle Mountain hadn’t made the Top 10, Flocks would have run away with the Rookie of the Year award. This Santa Cruz, CA native has wunderkind written all over him: Before he worked with fellow saxman Joshua Redman, Flocks played with SFJAZZ’ All-Star High School Ensembles and the Monterey Jazz Festival Next Generation Band. Like fellow next-level thinker Bill Frisell, Flocks sees the connections between jazz, blues, rock and folk, and makes those connections through unbelievable reboots of Patti Page’s “Tennessee Waltz,” Jimmy van Heusen’s “Polkadots and Moonbeams,” Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” and the traditional “Shenandoah.” (The latter tune recalls Frisell before he got caught up with string quartets and surf music.) Ben Flocks is a bright young mind that can go anywhere he wants to. Hopefully, he wants to keep moving forward.
STANTON MOORE: Conversations (Royal Potato Family)
As I’ve said before, it takes a lot to get me interested in a piano-trio date nowadays. Happily, 2014 delivered sterling sets from Danny Fox, Hal Galper and Adam Kromelow that were serious attention-getters. What sets Conversations apart is that none of those recordings had that singular New Orleans attitude which maintains that technical prowess and big fun are not mutually exclusive. But what do you expect when the leader of this pack is Stanton Moore, the co-founder of the NOLA jazz/funk monster Galactic? Moore’s muscular drumming never lets Conversations get maudlin or sedentary, James Singleton’s bass is rock solid, and David Torkanovky’s laughing piano drives wicked tunes like Michael Pellera’s “Carnival” and James Black’s “Magnolia Triangle” right down Beale Street. Once again, there ain’t no party like a New Orleans party, even if there’s no brass band to start the ball.
THE JEFF BALLARD TRIO: Time’s Tales (OKeh)
Speaking of trios, how’s this for a configuration: Drums, guitar and alto sax! Sounds kind of incomplete, let alone non-traditional, right? Well, “non-traditional” goes without saying when the drummer is Jeff Ballard, the guitarist is Lionel Loueke, and the altoist is Miguel Zenon. If there’s anyone who literally knows about the art of the trio, it’s Ballard, who’s been backing piano-trio innovator Brad Mehldau for quite some time. Both Zenon and Loueke have made terrific discs of their own this year (Zenon with the epic Identities are Changeable, Loueke as a co-producer of Kavita Shah’s brilliant debut Visions), but the otherworldly music and hypnotic language this trio creates simply boggles the mind. Loueke’s extraordinary guitar style gives Ballard a liquid foundation and eye-crossing solos that are only matched by the steel-edged lines Zenon usually delivers in front of big units like SFJAZZ Collective. If something is this good AND you can dance to it, it’s a fave of mine without a doubt!
RYAN KEBERLE & CATHARSIS: Into the Zone (Greenleaf Music)
Trombonist Ryan Keberle had already done some serious spadework in the first quarter of 2014 with the inspiring Alternate Side release Music is Emotion. Apparently, trumpeter/Greenleaf majordomo Dave Douglas knew Keberle had a lot more music in him, so when fall came marching in, so did Into the Zone. This date had the same piano-free front line and bubbling harmonic teamwork of Keberle and trumpeter Mike Rodriguez, with bassist Jorge Roeder and drummer Eric Doob paving the way for rampant pieces like “Inevitable Blues” and “Without a Thought.” Scott Robinson’s stellar tenor sax adds muscle to the front line on the bouncing “Cheryl,” but the real X Factor on Zone is vocalist Camila Meza, whose matchless vocalese gives beautiful texture to the charging “Gallop” and the pulsing “Zone” (which features Keberle on melodica). Young tigers like Keberle make me feel more secure about jazz’s future, particularly when they’ve got the Dave Douglas seal of approval.
THE COOKERS: Time and Time Again (Motema)
The (Not Yet) Over The Hill Gang’s second date for Motema comes with the band’s first line-up change: Multi-instrumentalist Craig Handy went back into business for himself this year, knocking out the effervescent OKeh release Craig Handy & Second Line Smith. A loss like that would stagger most groups, but the Cookers simply plugged Big Chief Donald Harrison Jr. into the alto sax slot, and away they went. While Harrison doesn’t offer the instrumental flexibility of Handy, Harrison’s flame-throwing solo on the opener “Sir Galahad” shows he’s more than ready to earn his keep in this richest of front lines. Powerhouse tracks like pianist George Cables’ “Double or Nothing,” trumpeter/mastermind David Weiss’ “Three Fall” and bassist Cecil McBee’s epic “Dance of The invisible Nymph” show the Cookers’ still haven’t lost that step people have been waiting for; in fact, Cables’ heartfelt “Farewell Mulgrew” proves you can pay a tribute to a lost friend without getting teary-eyed and mushy.
And the NUMBER ONE JAZZ RELEASE OF 2014 is…
JAMES FARM: City Folk (Nonesuch)
With all the irons saxman Joshua Redman, keyboardist Aaron Parks, bassist Matt Penman and drummer Eric Harland have in the fire, there was the distinct possibility that James Farm’s eponymous 2011 release was going to be one of those wonderful one-off dates that keep conversations going about “what might have been” if this group or that group had just stayed together. Well, brutal days are here again, as this 21st-century acoustic supergroup comes together one more time to steal the brass ring at (almost) the last possible moment. James Farm struts in with “Two Steps,, dazzles us with the soaring “North Star” and the funked-up “Aspirin”, and gives the deep blues with “Farms” and the disc’s haunting coda “What Remains.” Once again, four leader/composers leave their egos behind in the name of making our heads spin one more time, and BOY, is the dizziness worth it!
That’s it for now, but like I said in Part I, the stack for 2015 is already starting to grow – which means we’re gonna need a bigger truck! Either way, thanks for listening, and I’ll see you next year!
NOTE: J Hunter plays selections from his Best of 2014 list on his radio show “Jazz2K” on WVCR (88.3FM) at 12midnight on Saturday (December 27). The show will also be re-broadcast at 12midnight on Saturday, January 3.
READ OTHER “BEST OF 2014” LISTS:
The Capital Land Crate Digger’s Cultural Top 10
J Hunter’s Best Jazz Albums, Part I
Stanley Johnson’s Favorite Things
Rudy Lu’s Top 10 Concerts
J Hunter’s Top 10 Concerts (And More)
Tim Livingston’s Top 10 Albums