My Favorite Jazz CDs of 2014 (Michael Quam)
It’s that time of year, basically November through January, when people are publishing their “best of” lists. I can’t say which were the best jazz CDs of 2014, since I’m keenly aware that I didn’t hear many fine recordings. But I can say which ones I found most compelling.
Because of publishing deadlines, many of the “best of” lists in the jazz press included recordings from late 2013. So, I’m going to begin my list with A Trumpet in the Morning (New World Records 2013) by Marty Ehrlich’s Large Ensemble. This work involving 24 musicians is brilliantly conceived and performed with dramatic orchestral passages and impassioned solos. The title track is a concerto for J.D. Parran who narrates Arthur Brown’s poem and plays both soprano and bass saxophones.
Felipe Salles’s Uganda Suite (Tapestry) employs an octet for this five-movement work. Each movement is named for and creates a musical image of one of the iconic wild animals of East Africa (buffalo, elephant, leopard, rhinoceros, and lion). Salles is a fine soloist on reeds, and has invited Dave Liebman to join him in this recording. His traditional quartet is augmented by African musicians playing indigenous instruments and percussion. The music is often thrilling.
One of the tracks on Floating by the Fred Hersch Trio is titled “Arcata.” Hersch composed this number after he performed here in November 2013. It’s a lovely piece, as are all the other tracks of this elegant and lively performance. Once again, the trio with John Hebert on bass and Eric McPherson on drums, is a perfect example of jazz as a creative conversation.
Chicago is home to some of our finest jazz vocalists, for example, Patricia Barber and Kurt Elling. Add to that list the wonderful Dee Alexander, with her rich alto and her deep sense of rhythm and nuance. We’ve waited five years since her last album, but now we have Songs My Mother Loves (Blujazz), and her mother has impeccable taste: along with several beautiful standards, her selections include songs by Julian Priester and Tommy Turrentine, Junior Mance, Billie Holiday, Max Roach and Abbie Lincoln, and Juan Tizol. Alexander can shape a song and improvise with the best, and her band is the finest of mainstream Chicago jazz musicians.
Ever since his Lucky Thompson project, it’s been clear that Michael Blake has a deep respect for the giants of the tenor sax. His latest, Tiddy Boom (Sunnyside), is a tribute to Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young (with a nod to Wardell Grey). He’s put together a quartet of terrific New York downtowners: Frank Kimbrough on piano, Ben Allison on bass, and Rudy Royston on drums. And his compositions are not retro imitations, but engaging tunes that bring the contemporary spirit of those tenor sax ancestors to life.
Each year trumpeter Tom Harrell issues an album, usually of original compositions played with great elan. And each year that record makes it onto many “best of” lists. This year was no exception. Trip (High Note) is unusual for Harrell, his first without a pianist. The addition of Mark Turner on tenor is a strong element in the quartet’s sound. At the center of the CD is a six-part suite based loosely on a Don Quixote theme. Harrell sounds amazing, as usual.
My favorite big band album of the year is Mother’s Touch by Orrin Evans’ Captain Black Big Band (Posi-Tone). From track to track, burners and ballads, the band is a high energy machine propelling the soloists (especially Tatum Greenblatt on trumpet, Stacy Dillard on tenor, and Evans himself on piano) to new heights. Of special note: the closing track “Prayer for Columbine.”
As more young jazz musicians from the Caribbean come to the States, we are experiencing a revolution in what “Latin jazz” can be. Cuban pianist David Virelles’s new record Mbókò: Sacred Music for Piano, Two Basses, Drum Set and Biankoméko Abakuá (ECM) is a celebration and imagining of Abakuá, “a magic-religious male initiation society in Cuba, based on a West African ethnolinguistic identity and its emblematic masked dance performance.” Even without this background, the music itself, especially Virelles’ remarkable piano work, is riveting, highly charged and mysterious.
Another example of the forms Cuban influence can take in the American jazz setting is The Invasion Parade (Mack Avenue) by Alfredo Rodriguez. Rodriguez on keyboards is joined by bright stars like Esperanza Spalding, Pedrito Martinez, Henry Cole and Roman Filiu. You may recognize several of the tunes, standards in Latin jazz, but Rodriguez has found fascinating reharmonizations. The Latin feel is still rhythmically powerful.
Trio 3 (old lions Oliver Lake on alto, Reggie Workman on bass, Andrew Cyrille on drums) has been recording and performing together for quite some time. In the last few years, they’ve been inviting guest pianists to record with them, notably Geri Allen and Jason Moran. Their latest is called Wiring (Intakt) by Trio 3 + Vijay Iyer. As one might expect, there’s some free blowing, but also some very moving ballad work. Iyer plays on all tracks and contributes four compositions, most notably his three part “Suite for Trayvon (and Thousands More).”
Although the roots of jazz remain American, as creative improvised music it has become an international art form. Some of my favorite European jazz musicians are Italians, and trumpeter Paolo Fresu is high on my list. He plays in a variety of settings, but his quartet has been together for thirty years (hard to believe—they seem like such young guys), and this year they issued a CD called 30 (Bonsaï) which is an excellent example of their musical rapport and the range of their compositional skills. Every member of the quartet contributes at least two numbers, and their spirited performance is delightful.
This past year I had the pleasure of discovering a new European jazz group, the Matthias Tschopp Quartet. This Swiss band has released their first album, Plays Miro (Unit Records), nine Tschopp compositions inspired by specific paintings by Joan Miro. Tschopp on baritone sax is clearly the leader, but he gets fine support from his rhythm section, and the pieces are inventive and evoke the images of the paintings’ titles.
The “best of” lists sometimes include historic reissues. I haven’t heard most of those that appeared this year, but one caught my attention, and I’m glad I bought it: The Giant Is Awakened (Flying Dutchman) by the Horace Tapscott Quintet. Horace Tapscott was a legendary jazz pianist who eschewed fame in New York to remain in South L.A. leading community jazz groups and developing young musicians. This recording was first issued in 1969 as an LP, and then disappeared. The quintet has two bassists, a drummer, and a young Arthur Blythe on alto. They’re playing Tapscott’s compositions, and the music is as fresh as if it were recorded just yesterday.