BEST OF 2015: J Hunter’s Top 25 Jazz Recordings, Part I



By J Hunter

Be careful what you wish for. Between my review work and my radio show “Jazz2K @ The Saint” on WVCR-FM, I get more free music than I ever dreamed of. It’s terrific, provided I can make it through the towering piles of CDs and get out of the house to buy food. Truth to tell, not all of the music is great; in fact, some releases I’ve gotten make me wish I’d taken up skeet shooting as a hobby. But in that mass of music there are recordings and performances that can make my heart stop and die with a big ol’ grin on my face. Deciding which of those are the best is definitely like figuring out which of your kids you like the most. Nevertheless, let’s start by handing out a few trophies:

This almost-septuagenarian reed wizard continues to not just stretch boundaries, but also ignore them entirely. In the first part of the year, Liebman gave us Ceremony (Chesky), a mesmerizing date that takes the Afro-Cuban sound back to its West and Central African roots. Then in the fall, his latest iteration of the Dave Liebman Group spun heads around and around with The Puzzle (Whaling City Sound), a knockdown, drag-out, Old School fusion record. Keep on truckin’, Dave. You give us fellow gray-hairs no excuse to sit around and do nothing.

Hill SmallsThe ROOKIE OF THE YEAR Award goes to… THEO HILLLive at Smalls (smallsLive)
As usual, there are plenty of young cats sprouting up and putting out their own music, with Kamasi Washington and Troy Roberts getting the biggest love. But for me, this Albany High School alum had the best debut as a leader in 2015. Already a veteran of the NYC scene, Live shows Hill’s exemplary skills as player, composer and arranger. Myron Walden proves (once again) that he is the maddest reed player on the planet, and Hill lets Dayna Stephens display the EWI (Electronic Wind Instrument) in the best light it’s seen since the late Michael Brecker put it in his bag. This disc could be the start of something big – at least, that’s the way I’m betting!

Wade OfferingThe BEST VOCAL RELEASE Award goes to… CHARENEE WADEOffering: The Music of Gil-Scott Heron & Brian Jackson (Motema)
This was a tough one, especially considering the stellar work Cecile McLorin Salvant did on her sophomore Mack Avenue release Like Someone to Love. At the end of the day, though Wade’s powerful reboot of the world’s first hip-hop artist just would not be denied. With impeccable production by SiriusXM jazz program director Mark Ruffin and killer performances by vibes master Stefon Harris and altoist Lakecia Benjamin (a name you NEED to know), legendary tracks like “Home Is Where the Hatred Is” and “Ain’t No Such Thing as Superman” are brought into the modern-day jazz canon with a perfect mix of soul, style and love.

Corea FleckThe BEST SOLO OR DUO RELEASE goes to… CHICK COREA & BELA FLECKTwo (Stretch Music/Concord)
Watching these two masters play (and play around) at Proctors in 2007 was an absolute joy. So when I heard they were going to release music from tours they’ve done over the past seven years, I was all over it like a cheap suit. Maybe the concept of piano and banjo as a duet platform seems strange to you, but Corea and Fleck make those disparate instruments walk hand in glove through their own respective originals, as well as brilliant takes on Flatt & Scruggs (“Bugle Call Rag,” also recorded by Benny Goodman) and the French classical composer Henri Dutilleux. Two is always elegant, sometimes wild and – once again – an absolute joy.

Catalano chamberlinThe BEST PARTY DISC Award goes to… FRANK CATALANO/JIMMY CHAMBERLINGod’s Gonna Cut You Down (Ropeadope)
Try this on for size: A badass Chicago sax player getting together with the drummer from Smashing Pumpkins to make one of the hardest-rocking sets of Hammond B3 party music since the halcyon days of Jimmy Smith and Captain Jack MacDuff. While Catalano & Chamberlin’s 2014 release Love Supreme Collective didn’t light my fire (probably because of my affection for Coltrane’s original recording), this date made me smile from the first note. Demos Petropoulos makes the B3 shoot fire at all and sundry, and Eddie Roberts’ guitar work and Mike Dillon’s vibes add the accents that make this the perfect background for your next social throwdown. Turn it up!

We were gifted with some truly sweet homegrown recordings in 2015, with the Tim Olsen Band and the Dave Spadaro Group showing just how varied the Greater Nippertown sound is. For me, though, this outstanding follow-up to guitarist Todd Nelson’s 2010 release Here rose to the top and stayed there. With equal helpings of jazz and rock and some Latin, folk and African accents here and there, Nelson and his partners (bassist Kyle Esposito and drummer Manuel Quintana) have created a riveting group dynamic that manages to be both elegant and expansive. Just like NEQ itself, None of the Above snarls like a pit bull even as it shines like a star.

While I’ve got the bit in my teeth, here are the 15 discs that didn’t make the final cut for the Top 10… and let me tell you, just whittling this list down to 25 was like pulling wisdom teeth from a non-sedated mountain lion:

25.) Donny McCaslinFast Future (Greenleaf Music)
24.) Gary McFarland Legacy EnsembleCirculation: The Music Of Gary McFarland (PlanetArts)
23.) Tom TallitschAll Together Now (Posi-tone)
22.) St. GermainSt. Germain (Nonesuch)
21.) Alex CondeDescarga for Monk (Zoho)
20.) Rez Abbasi Acoustic QuartetIntents and Purposes (Enja)
19.) Antonio SanchezThree Times Three (CamJazz)
18.) Ben WilliamsComing of Age (Concord)
17.) John ScofieldPast Present (impulse!)
16.) Vijay Iyer TrioBreak Stuff (ECM)
15.) Essiet Okon EssietShona (Space Time Records)
14.) Miguel ZenonIdentities Are Changeable (Miel Music)
13.) Lionel LouekeGAiA (Blue Note)
12.) Oran EtkinWhats New? Reimagining Benny Goodman (Motema)
11.) Christian McBride TrioLive at the Village Vanguard (Mack Avenue)

To be continued…

J Hunter will play the Top 10 Jazz2K Discs of 2015 (as well as tracks from the award winners above) on the “Jazz2K @ The Saint” Holiday Show, Saturday December 26 from 12midnight–2am on 88.3 WVCR/Albany, NY… and if you miss it then, you’ll have another chance to hear it on Saturday, January 2 from 12midnight–2am.

Stanley Johnson’s Favorite Things

  1. Todd Nelson says

    Thank you J. and Nippertown from me, Kyle an Manuel! It’s gratifying to have our music recognized.

  2. Stanley A. Johnson says

    Good to see John Scofield on the list. Although it wasn’t recorded last year, Sco-Mule, the collaboration by John and Gov’t Mule was one of my most played discs of 2015.

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