We don’t like to say “best” around here. We’re limited people with limited knowledge, fans with a platform. There’s no way we have heard everything released this year or are able to assess what’s truly “best” from this year. But there are some things we’ve listened to more than others. Things that have moved us more, emotionally or physically. There are albums that overall have worked for us better than others. There are things that we have considered our favorites, some more than others. That’s the assessment we’re making here, as we do every year, and we’re glad you so esteem the opinion of these people with limited knowledge, fans with a platform.
10 tie. Julian Lage & Chris Eldridge – Close to Picture EP & 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.
10 tie. Otis Brown III – The Thought of You (Blue Note/Revive Music)
True to his complementary role on Robert Glasper and Derrick Hodge’s recent releases, fellow Blue Note-based drummer Otis Brown III opted for a similar stylistic direction on his debut. Post-bop jazz, R&B, gospel and pop all work their way in and out of the mix across The Thoguht of You’s 11 carefully segmented tracks. Brown and his band–featuring Glasper at the piano, and Hodge in the producer’s chair–don’t always get the formula right (I’m looking you, Shania Twain cover). But when they do, as on the multi-part Bilal showcase “The Thought of You”, and the propulsive workout “Stages of Thought”, they find a high ground worthy of over-riding even the record’s most wince-inducing moments.
10 tie. Harvey Mason – Chameleon (Concord)
Harvey Mason charms on this album. He surrounds himself with youthful talented musicians like guitarist Matthew Stevens, keyboardist Mark de Clive-Lowe, trombonist Corey King, vocalist Chris Turner, and trumpeter Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah, among many others, and they’re all great, but there’s Mason in the cut, just doing his charming razzle dazzle. He’s subtly brilliant throughout Chameleon, which seems odd since it’s his own album as a leader, his first in over a decade, but call it gregariousness with his bandmates or an interesting way to frame himself, but Mason amazes as though through peripheral hearing, charming his way into your heart.
9. Sean Jones – im.pro.vise – 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 im.pro.vise (this is their fifth album together), as the group interaction is fantastic throughout.
6 tie. Ryan Keberle and Catharsis – Into the Zone (Greenleaf Music)
I moved to Oregon a couple months ago, which in addition to familiarizing me with farm shares and the Grateful Dead catalog, has introduced the concept of gray days to my life. And for these gray, rainy winter months, Into the Zone has been a soundtrack of sorts: its wilting, placating texture recalling Matthew Halsell’s equally excellent 2013 tone poem, Fletcher Moss Park. There’s also a quirky tunefulness at play throughout all , a trait likely picked up during Keberle’s time touring with quirky masterminds Sufjan Stevens and David Byrne. Even singer Camila Meza, who contributes wordless vocalizations to a number of key tracks, works her way in to the mix like another horn, weaving in and out of Keberle’s trombone and Mike Rodriguez’s trumpet on “Inevitable Blues” and “Sheryl”.
6 tie. Steve Lehman Octet – Mise en Abîme (Pi Recordings)
Steve Lehman has a doctorate with distinction in Musical Composition. He’s Dr. Steve Lehman. His latest release continues to apply spectral harmony, a compositional style previously only used in contemporary classical (oxymoronic, I know) music in jazz. I have no idea what spectral harmony is (though I damn sure am going to read up about it), but I do know that the man also has a concentration in rump shaking. Chris Dingman on an augmented vibraphone has never sounded better. Tyshawn Sorey keeps everything tight on the kit to keep it all together. It melds a century-old still innovative compositional method to a genre known for constant permutation, adds electronic elements to it, and it still has soul. Robots could have made this through overfeeding baby hamsters, for all I know– I don’t know how Steve Lehman and this octet made an album this good, but I don’t have a doctorate in composition with a concentration in rump shaking.
6 tie. The Bad Plus – Inevitable Western (Okeh/Sony)
The Bad Plus released two albums this year. The first, their take on Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, is inspired, riveting, and unapologetically TBP. It still sounded like a natural thing for them to do as artists, even as they were doing something incredibly difficult. Their second release of the year, Inevitable Western, also naturally sounds like what they would continue to do as artists and it’s just as unapologetically TBP. It proves once again why Iverson, Anderson, and King are the trio they are today.
4 tie. James Farm – City Folk (Nonesuch)
For all its starpower — sax giant Joshua Redman, powerhouse drummer Eric Harland, first-call bassist Matt Penman — I’ve long suspected that the true force in James Farm is its most unassuming member, pianist Aaron Parks. From the careful construction of the compositions, to the pacing of its dynamic ebb-and-flow, City Folk largely confirms that theory. Parks’ regulating role proves the crucial glue for James Farm, bringing it well beyond the level of just four prime players getting together to jam out a quick record. More so than their 2012 eponymous debut, City Folk also builds in space within those tight arrangements for the band’s other personalities assert themselves. Matt Penman chips in perhaps his snappiest work to date, adding the necessary bounce to opener “Two Step”. Eric Harland makes a case as jazz’s most unrelenting catalysts, his eruptive fills pushing Redman and Parks further and faster from his kit on the title track. And Redman shows himself every bit the heir to Ben Webster and other reed masters before him with “Unknown”, a soprano showcase up there with “Don’t Be Sad” among his top performances.
4 tie. 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…
2 tie. 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.
2 tie. Eric Harland’s Voyager – Vipassana (GSI Records)
After years of piano dominance, we can now definitively call 2014 the year of the drummer. Otis Brown III, Brian Blade, Ulysses Owens and a number of other skinsmen all logged killer records this year, but it was Eric Harland’s Voyager that struck first. The first studio release of his four years in the making band, Vipassana also marks the full emergence of Harland as a leader. After two decades spent logging crucial assists in other people’s bands, Harland seems to pour every idea he’s had into Vipassana: Indian meditation mantras, hip-hop meets far-east rhythms, vocal melodies. But the traits that have long endeared Harland — his penchant for efficiency over flash, his way of both complementing and prodding soloists — that help sort these ideas in a way that keeps Vipassana grounded. Harland has proven himself a leader in the top tier; let’s hope it’s a role he continues in with plenty more Voyager projects.
1. Phronesis – Life to Everything (Edition Records)
Every song on Life to Everything is a banger. Even the ballads are bangers. The live album, recorded over two nights at The Roundhouse in London, captures the electric energy pianist Ivo Neame, bassist Jasper Høiby, and drummer Anton Eger generate and maintain live in some of their best compositions yet. Phronesis have never sounded better than this, never more trapping, never more infectious. You don’t want to miss a moment of this album.You’ll want to pore over it repeatedly to completely extract its brilliance.
Nextbop Editor-in-Chief Anthony Dean-Harris hosts the modern jazz radio show, The Line-Up, Fridays at 9pm CST on 91.7 FM KRTU San Antonio and is also a contributing writer to DownBeat Magazine and the San Antonio Current.