As we have reached a little bit past the halfway point of the year, it’s about that time to look back on some of the releases of 2014 and highlight some of our favorites, jazz and non-jazz alike (and maybe a few you may have missed).
Ambrose Akinmusire – The Imagined Savior is Far Easier to Paint
After his remarkable, and often unsettlingly emotive debut (see: “My Tear Stained Suicide Manifesto”), chances are Oakland-born trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire couldn’t push too much further into the impassioned. Wisely his Blue Note followup shifts the balance towards a more atmospheric, though no less affecting, approach.
I could probably do without the vocal numbers (okay, absolutely could do without them), but the caliber of Ambrose and his fantastic quintet’s performances keep Imagined Savior from ever being anything less than engaging.
BADBADNOTGOOD – III
Having just discovered BBNG this year (yes, really), I find their voice and direction to be singular and unique. While they’re obviously ever-evolving, creating new ways to re-imagine the trio setting, they’re not afraid to play into certain tropes giving them an intriguing yet familiar sound. The balance between tension and release is constantly in flux as each track goes through its own mini-development within the context of the entire album’s development.
Brian Blade & the Fellowship Band – Landmarks
There’s a certain freedom that comes with being universally recognized as one of the greatest drummers in the world, and that comes with never having to prove you’re one of the greatest drummers in the world. That’s really the story of Brian Blade on his latest record with his Fellowship Band Landmarks, his understated presence behind the kit focused more on controlling the flow of the sounds than impressing with his own chops. Landmarks is a plaintive record, one that feels at home on open stretches of Midwest highway, and doesn’t mind taking its time getting to its destination. Bringing to mind Kendrick Scott’s equally fantastic Conviction from last year, the album best soars when Blade deftly leads his men skyward towards a carefully crafted crescendo, the dynamic power of which only further proving why Blade is one of the best in the business, even when he’s not trying at all to prove it.
Die Antwoord – Donker Mag
This album is like everything else Die Antwoord does– artistically fascinating and downright terrifying. With a track consisting only of female vocalist Yo-Landi Vi$$er laughing in her implike voice and another featuring male vocalist Ninja verbally intimidating someone via voicemail, Donker Mag keeps things weird throughout while still bumping the bass and providing fantastic verses in part-English, part-Afrikaans, and part-Xhosa. Highlight of the album? Probably the collaboration with DJ Muggs.
Eric Reed – The Adventurous Monk
There a million albums of Monk repertoire out there, and Eric Reed has made three of them (The Dancing Monk and The Baddest Monk, and now The Adventurous Monk). I think it’s fair to say that the most successful interpretations of Monk’s music don’t play the tunes as Monk would, but take the tunes to new places, and The Adventurous Monk certainly does that. Reed (on piano, along with Ben Williams on bass, Gregory Hutchinson on drums, and Seamus Blake on sax for some of the songs here) has rearranged these tunes to make his own thing. Check out their fractured take on “Evidence” or the almost Calypso feel to their version of “Nutty” for examples of these great rearrangements. Ben Williams shows why he is one of the most in-demand bassists today with some great playing on this straight-ahead session (as compared with some of his work on things like Etienne Charles’ Creole Soul or Harvey Mason’s Chameleon), Reed puts in some casually virtuosic piano lines (check him out on “Pannonica” and “Ba-lues Bolivar Ba-lues Are” for some amazing piano playing) and Gregory Hutchinson’s drumming makes sure that the whole group swings throughout. This might not be the album to turn to for definitive versions of Monk tunes (really, if you want that, you turn to Monk himself), but it’s great piano-led trio and quartet playing on a consistently great album.
Excision (Various Artists) – Destroid – The Invasion (Remixes)
If you’re like me and secretly (or not-so-secretly) like dubstep, then you know that Excision brings a lot of depth to his music. This lends his music to remixing, and he brings on some equally deep musicians (such as perennial favorites Datsik and Bassnectar) to do just that. It’s always fascinating to hear the remixes of an artist I spend a lot of time listening to because, in so many ways, it reveals more about the artist than he himself ever could.
Jeff Ballard Trio – Time’s Tales feat. Miguel Zenon & Lionel Loueke
Folks may know Ballard best for his work with Brad Mehldau’s trio but his various influences shape his polyrhythms on the kit and have consistently made him a surprising delight to hear. The veteran drummer has always been a bombastic joy but his work here with Zenon and Loueke (who just can’t lose, no matter what he does, no matter where he appears) is leaps and bounds above much of what I’ve heard this year. There’s an adventurousness that here with this rather unconventional grouping, an approach to these songs like Ballard’s longstanding composition “Beat Street” or the outright marvel that is “Free 3” that linger in the brain for months at a time.
That Jesse Fischer version of “Chameleon” that’s so ill (and in fact all the Vein Melter sessions)
Not an album, but Jesse Fischer really goes in on his version of “Chameleon”. Last year, Darryl Reeves put together a pretty amazing set of Herbie Hancock covers; it seems that 2014 is Jesse Fischer’s year.
José James – While You Were Sleeping
Even more than No Beginning, No End, While You Were Sleeping will beg the question “Is this jazz?” (It’s released on renowned jazz label Blue Note Records, but that’s not really an answer.) James’ beautiful vocals are backed by jazz musicians like Kris Bowers, Solomon Dorsey, and Richard Spaven, along with the newly added guitar of Brad Williams, but that’s not really an answer. There are things here that sound like rock (“EveryLittleThing”), and some things that build off of some obviously Dilla-influenced drums (“U R The 1”), but not much that sounds like Jose James doing jazz music… so is this jazz? Eh, whatever. Great music and Jose James’ vocals are not to be missed. A guest vocal from Becca Stevens on “Dragon” seals the deal.
Juan Pastor – Chinchano
This is one of those albums that makes me proud to live in Chicago. Pastor put together an excellent group of area musicians and wrote an album worthy of study or dancing the night away or both. The joyous melodies float over the top of the roiling boil of the rhythm section, and each groove is more infectious than the last.
Mark de Clive-Lowe – CHURCH
This album hasn’t stopped amazing me yet, and every time I listen, I find new treasures. On my last listen through, I found the change in harmonic landscape of “Ghaziya” feels like looking through a powerful telescope for the first time. The seamless blending of jazz, hip-hop, electronic, and at least a dozen other kinds of music make CHURCH an adventure worth taking over and over again.
Medeski Martin & Wood + Nels Cline – Woodstock Sessions, Vol. II
This album has some of that MMW groove (think “Bubblehouse”), but the presence of Nels Cline on this session (recorded in a studio, but live, one-take, without overdubbing) makes for a significantly messier end result than, say, MMW’s collaborations with John Scofield. The album opens with a blast from Cline’s guitar and the quartet never settles down too much from there. Even when they settle into a groove, it always feels like there’s the potential for things to veer off wildly (that potential is realized pretty often here). That said, there’s definitely a method to the madness here – when they hit on something, they dig in and come up with some pretty stunning results.
Nels Cline Singers – Macroscope
Nels Cline is a guy who can do, or more specifically, play just about anything. He shows that on Macroscope‘s eclectic song cycle plenty, from the Zappa-freakout “Hairy Mother” to the cracked porch light Americana of the title-track. But Cline and his Singers made my list primarily because he and his trio of bassist Devin Hoff and drummer Scott Amendola have gotten really, really good at very specific thing. “The Wedding Band,” an 8-minute acid-wash odyssey wedged right in Macroscope’s middle, is perhaps the best single track I can pin to this style: part Y2K-era Medeski, Martin and Wood, part Vijay Iyer-inflected slow-build dynamics, and a whole heaping load of Cline’s endlessly charismatic guitar sorcery.
Parquet Courts – Sunbathing Animal
Parquet Courts’ 2012 effort Light Up Gold was so casually incredible, it left me thinking that surely they could pull off that caliber of release again whenever they wished.
Phronesis – Life to Everything
Phronesis have always been a great trio, this cannot be denied. Their Scandinavian rhythms make them something special, that’s for sure. Yet for their live album, there’s this feeling that they went extra hard on this one. There had to have been some magic in the air for those three nights in November at London’s The Cockpit. Anton Eger just crushes it on the kit. It’s damn near overwhelming.
Real Estate – Atlas
Atlas isn’t just a great album because of its beach bum breeziness; it’s great because it does it all so seemingly easily. It’s not just a delight, but it’s exploratory. The hooks are catchy enough, jangly enough, and bouncy enough, while all the guitar work plumbs depths never anticipated. It welcomes more and more love.
The Roots – …and then you shoot your cousin
Well, no, it’s not jazz, but I’m loving this album. Black Thought is now sounding like a grizzled veteran MC (it’s been 20 years since Do You Want More??!!??…), The Roots band sounds like a finely calibrated machine, the album flows along so, so well, and “Tomorrow” is as catchy a way to end an album as is humanly possible. Dice Raw’s lyrics have come a long way since “The Lesson” on DYWM.
Sly5thAve – Akuma
Saxophonist Sylvester Onyejiaka’s debut album runs like a well-oiled machine. Of course, one would expect such a thing from a musician who plays with Prince and whose band includes a member of Snarky Puppy (they themselves a group that works with what many consider charming efficiency). Yet Akuma greatness isn’t in its mere function alone but also in how great these songs work together and apart. Each instrument and each song serves a perfectly pleasing purpose. What else would one expect from the House of the Purple One?
Sylvan Esso – Sylvan Esso
This collaboration by singer Amelia Meath and producer Nick Sanborn has proven to be one of the best mash-ups of recent history. Meath layers her Appalachian folk vocals over Sanborn’s dance-oriented pop-electronic music to create a wholly modern record using elements from some old-ass songs. You’ll listen and hope the next time you’re out dancing the DJ plays at least one of these tracks.
Takuya Kuroda – Rising Son
The obvious reference points for Rising Son are Robert Glasper’s and Jose James’ recent Blue Note albums (with Jose James’ No Beginning, No End and While You Were Sleeping both notably featuring Kuroda on trumpet), but Rising Son stands on its own legs. Each of the band members here has put his own ego aside to make the whole band’s sound work – there are few places on this where the solos stretch out. Instead, the tunes on Rising Son push along on the strength of the groove. Jose James’ vocal turn on “Everybody Loves the Sunshine” and the instrumental “Afro Blues” are two highlights, but the whole album moves along nicely.
Taylor McFerrin – Early Riser
A bit spacey, a bit jazzy, a bit soulful, but all good. McFerrin’s long-awaited debut long play takes advantage of market for records that belong in no set genre but musically for a wide audience. McFerrin proves that he can be as good a composer as his father, the legendary Bobby McFerrin, with this smooth ride of an album.
Teebs – E S T A R A
E S T A R A, like all of producer/artist Mtendere Mandowa’s work (audio and visual), is like a fuzz-covered dream in the perpetual state of fading into an awakening. It always seems like this short album is surrounded in a fog. Even in mp3, it has the warmth of vinyl. One would say its brevity invites repeat listens but really its how the whole album embraces the ears that invokes the need to press play again and again.
Todd Tarje – It’s Album Time
Producer Todd Tarje took his dear sweet time getting around to releasing a full-length under his own name, 10 years, in fact, by my watch. His long awaited debut, cheekily titled It’s Album Time, turned out even more gleefully weird than we could have imagined. There are marimba led lounge disco send-ups, Tomorrow-Land styled synth odysseys, and even a Robert Palmer cover as sung by dude from Roxy Music. There’s an over-the-top factor here that certainly leans hard towards cheesy, but dammit if Tarje doesn’t have the touch to make it all work, a feat that’s ever more apparent on repeated spins (trust me, I’ve tested plenty).
The War on Drugs – Lost in a Dream
In a year that so far has seemed devoid of ‘big’ releases, The War on Drugs’ latest feels like a welcome elixir. Lost In a Dream certainly sounds like a big record, with its extended track lengths, richly layered instrumentation and big-question lyrical considerations. But its also small and cozy in the right ways, with bandleader Adam Granduciel pilfering the best parts of the Springsteen, Dylan and Petty playbooks to result in 2014s (so-far) best top-to-bottom release.