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Ben Gray's Favorite Jazz Releases of 2014

Ben Gray
Staff Writer

10. Medeski, Martin, and Wood with Nels Cline - Woodstock Sessions, Vol. 2 (Woodstock Sessions)
The payoff on this album is in the deep grooves that this quartet falls into, but the messy, abrasive jams that come before and after those grooves provide the necessary context. When MMW hooked up with John Scofield, the resulting album smoothed out some of the rougher edges - not so here, as Nels Cline provides some crunchy tones that Medeski is happy to play off of.

9. Melissa Aldana & Crash Trio - s/t (Concord)
Aldana got a good amount of buzz after winning the Monk saxophone competition in 2013, and her saxophone trio album makes good on that buzz. Crash Trio has this chordless trio improvising at a high level, bouncing ideas off of each other to push the tunes forward. Saxophonist Aldana is the bandleader, but her bandmates Francisco Mela and Pablo Menares are equal partners on this album and add much to the tunes here.

8. Eric Harland's Voyager - Vipassana (GSI Records)
Following on Voyager: Live By Night, Vipassana was in some ways a departure and in some ways a continuation of where Harland's Voyager group had been before. This band thrives on rhythmic complexity and can take a simple riff and turn it into an engaging jam like almost no other. So while some of these tunes (say, "Raghavan") would have made an excellent addition to their earlier output, others have fade-outs where it seems the jam could well have continued. The addition of vocals and inclusion of some beat-oriented tracks was a bit of a left turn as well. That said, there's no fronting on this band when they're driving forward on the momentum of Harland's drumming, and while longer jams might have been welcome, Vipassana has gotten quite a bit of play this year for good reason. When this band is in a groove, enjoy it, and when the beat knocks right, check any jazz pretensions at the door and watch the rearview mirror shake.

7. Eric Reed - The Adventurous Monk (Savant Recordings)
There are dozens of Monk repertory albums out there, and it can be a dangerous road to travel. On one hand, these are some of the best jazz tunes ever penned, so why not play them. On the other hand, these are Monk tunes, and so there's no way to improve on what the man himself did with them. Eric Reed found a way to both honor these tunes and to put his own very personal stamp on them.

6. Triveni - Dark Nights (Anzic Records)
As the album title implies, this is an album for nighttime listening. Having spent quite a bit of time with this one, I've found that it also tends to suit my darker moods (maybe that's just me, though - don't go starting fights so that you can enjoy the album). Trending toward far slower tempos than this trio's previous efforts and a moodier feel, and adding both overdubbed trumpet courtesy of Avishai Cohen and some guest musicians (Anat Cohen on clarinet, Gerald Clayton on keyboards, and vocalist Keren Ann), Dark Nights is a very worthy addition to the output of Avishai Cohen, Omer Avital, and Nasheet Waits as Triveni.

5. Owen Howard - Drum Lore, Vol. 2 (Bju Records)
This album came across as a complete surprise to this listener, and has just grown stronger after (many) repeated listens. Howard's quintet (with Howard on drums, John O'Gallagher on sax, Adam Kolker on sax and bass clarinet, Frank Carlberg on piano, and Johannes Weidenmueller on bass) runs through a number of originals from Howard as well as some classic tunes penned by other drummers (Philly Joe Jones, Paul Motian, Tony Williams, Joe Chambers, and Victor Lewis). Showcasing tunes written by drummers is the central conceit of the album, but the music absolutely stands on its own legs as excellent acoustic jazz ranging from fairly straight-ahead into some further-out territory.

4. Julian Lage and Chris Eldridge - Close to Picture EP and Avalon (Modern Lore Records)
This isn't even the most jazz-centric release from Lage to come out this year (see his guitar duets with Nels Cline released on Room for that), but the guitar duets between Lage and Eldridge on both the EP and the full-length have some incredible duet playing, with the two guitars melding to form one sound. Lage has put out some great duet records with Nels Cline, Chris Eldridge, and last year with pianist Fred Hersch, but the music with Chris Eldridge was some of my most-played music of the year. Maybe it's the cognitive dissonance from listening to these two young musicians playing old-time music made with vintage guitars on an ipod? Whatever, it works.

3. Sean Jones - - never before seen (Mack Avenue)
The quartet on this album (Jones on trumpet, Luques Curtis on bass, Orrin Evans on piano, and Obed Calvaire) put together one of the most engaging, repeat-listen-worthy albums of the year. It's not groundbreaking, genre-pushing stuff, but it turns out that a blues or a jazz standard played well and with conviction is as good as it gets. Proof? Check out "I Don't Give a Damn Blues" or "How High The Moon" here. The solos unfold with a perfect logic and melody to them and the tunes are full-blown tunes, not just sketches. Jones and company fill out each song on this album with beautiful playing, and their time together shows on (this is their fifth album together), as the group interaction is fantastic throughout.

2. Takuya Kuroda - Rising Son (Blue Note)
Trumpeter Takuya Kuroda played on Jose James' excellent 2013 album No Beginning, No End, and James shows up to produce Rising Son and add vocals to this group's version of "Everybody Loves the Sunshine". But this is Kuroda's album, and it's one that grows on you. The album has improvisation, but that's not the point here - the groove is front and center throughout, and the compositions are strong enough to carry the album. Of course this wouldn't be what it is without the musicianship of Kuroda on trumpet, Kris Bowers on keys, Solomon Dorsey on bass, Corey King on trombone, and Nate Smith on drums (plus a guest turn from Lionel Loueke one one track and Jose James on another). Some of the most memorable melodies of this year or any other and a strong beat throughout.

1. Stan Douglas - Luanda-Kinshasa
It's a crime that this never saw any sort of commercial release, based on the clips that were put online. Jason Moran, Jason Lindner, Kimberly Thompson, and Burniss Earl Travis, among others, all produced by Scotty Hard!!?? The groove on this is just insanely good. Consider this an appeal to the music gods to make this available in some form…

Stan Douglas - "Luanda-Kinshasa" Exhibition from Triple Martini Productions on Vimeo.