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The Best Jazz of 2014

Will Layman and John Garratt

The skeptics who claim jazz is weaker than before simply aren't listening. As these 16 albums reveal, jazz remains on the cutting edge.

It was a year in which jazz might have seemed embattled. A comic piece from The New Yorker came off as mocking Sonny Rollins and jazz pretense. Several prominent articles in major newspapers or magazines questioned the continued relevance of the music. In response, there was a rash of defensive reaction in the jazz blogosphere, as well as a harried debate over a prominent trumpeter’s denunciation of the word “jazz” in favor of “Black American Music” (#BAM). Tough economic times for the musicians themselves continued.

But, please, put aside this angst, for the music itself has never been more vital, more thrilling, more richly varied, and more accessible to a new generation. The most pressing question about “jazz” in 2014 is not whether it is alive but whether the increasingly expansive range of styles that fit under the music’s wide umbrella of influences and manifestations feels unified.

The 16 releases chosen as our favorites for 2014 demonstrate this question. They move from singer-songwriter storytelling to an adaptation of Stravinsky, from complex mash-ups of jazz and electronics and “noise” to post-modern refractions of Fats Waller and Jelly Roll Morton. Hip-hop has its say on this list, but so does chamber music. There is free improvising and there is music with no improvising at all.

Some recordings left off the list also illustrate the increasingly knotty question, “What is jazz, anyway?” The Oversoul Manual by alto saxophonist and composer Darius Jones was the most astonishing and daring vocal album of the year, but it's probably not “jazz”. Drummer Dan Weiss astonished with his Fourteen, though it seemed kind of like classical minimalism on a new tip. Canadian singer and pianist Elizabeth Shepherd created a complex earworm in The Signal, but even she doesn’t call it “jazz” (referring to this as “the J-word” in an interview). We also left off the list saxophonist Michael Blake’s Tiddy Boom, not because it wasn’t wonderful but because in its straight-ahead pleasures it seems somehow less representative of the state of the music in 2014. (Though, for the record, the state of mainstream jazz in 2014 is also burnished and creative.)

Here’s the critical fact about jazz in 2014: while the music may not “sell” in big numbers, passionate and exciting musicians have never created such a beautiful breadth of great art. Some of this music a brilliant “acquired taste” and some would likely appeal to your fifteen year-old son or daughter who doesn’t really know what “jazz” (or #BAM, or whatever you want to call this music) is supposed to be. While the music lacks a central storyline that puts a handsome face on the cover of a magazine with the headline “Jazz is Back!”, the truth is that jazz is fresh and utterly alive right now. Skeptics simply aren’t listening.

But we’re pretty sure that the music itself is great enough to change that.

The picks are listed in alphabetical order.

Artist: Ambrose Akinmusire

Album: The Imagined Savior Is Far Easier to Paint

Label: Blue Note

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/a/akinmusire1.jpg

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Ambrose Akinmusire
The Imagined Savior Is Far Easier to Paint

The virtues of this second Blue Note recording from the 2007 Thelonious Monk International Jazz (Trumpet) Competition winner are varied and many. Ambrose Akinmusire cycles his music through four different vocal performances (including a gorgeous tune written and sung by Becca Stevens and another stunner inspired by Joni Mitchell featuring Theo Bleckmann), instrumentation from his quintet to a string quartet, mixing genres with abandon along the way. Still, the result is unified by Akinmusire’s voice on trumpet, which functions as a clear through-line that brings the same very interesting voice to every song. The variations in tone, form, and emotion make Imagined Savior a satisfying journey rather than an immersion in a single mood, such that listening to this album is a whole, marvelous experience. Also, the leader reasserts his claim to being a trumpeter with fluid technique that never sounds cliched or old fashioned. With its sweet from hard bop to folky art-song, from experiment to groove, Imagined Savior reminds us that, in 2014, “jazz” can expand its appeal without compromising individuality. Will Layman

Artist: The Bad Plus

Album: The Rite of Spring

Label: Sony Masterworks

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/music_cover_art/r/riteofspring.jpg

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The Bad Plus
The Rite of Spring

This is not the usual “jazz version” of a classical composition with the melodies and harmonies from a classical work used as the written “song” for a standard jazz performance. This version of Stravinsky’s iconic work by the Bad Plus finds Ethan Iverson playing the score with remarkable faithfulness on piano. Reid Anderson plays pizzicato “jazz” bass in conjunction with Iverson’s parts, taking on melody elements and counter-melodies as appropriate. Dave King keeps things dancing and full of atmosphere. The jazz trio becomes the whole orchestra, but it doesn’t add improvised jazz solos, taking off on its own, spinning new melodies over Stravinsky’s “changes”. Rather, this is in every respect a jazz record because it imbues The Rite of Spring with the elastic and magical rhythmic approach of jazz -- a very modern kind of “swing” -- that is much more than shifting Stravinsky into a 4/4 shuffle. If this piece has been waiting for its jazz interpretation all along, then the Bad Plus would have to have been Igor’s choice. Impeccable and astonishing, this joyful interpretation has a natural feeling that denies any suggestion that this kind of tightrope act -- "Jazz Trio Plays Stravinsky Note-for-Note!" -- is a gimmick or mere schtick. Will Layman

Artist: Battle Trance

Album: Palace of Wind

Label: New Amsterdam

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Battle Trance
Palace of Wind

Travis Laplante must get bored easily. When not making an album with noise-jazz collective Little Women, he wanders off into saxophone la-la land where he records albums with nothing but his horn or, in the case of Battle Trance, nothing but four horns. Palace of Wind, the quartet's debut recording, features the saxophone almost being used not as an instrument for cool but rather as a textural, ambient tool. It's easy to get lost in the Reich/Glass trills as they achieve an Eno-like trance amidst euphoric circular breathing. A Palace of Wind indeed. John Garratt

Artist: Brian Blade & the Fellowship Band

Album: Landmarks

Label: Blue Note

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Brian Blade & the Fellowship Band

After playing prominently with both Joni Mitchell and Wayne Shorter, Brian Blade is a drummer equally cozy with folky Americana and driving swing. This band -- two reeds out front, piano, guitar, rhythm -- has been recording since 1998, but Landmarks is its best work. The fellowship melds pop structures and a wide variety of rhythmic patterns to tuneful melodies that still sway with a jazz cadence. Most of the tunes are mid-tempo and contemplative, etched with a dark blue tint of emotion. Blade thinks like a filmmaker, and Landmarks tells a story in waves or episodes, with Blade coaxing and cajoling, showing off his strength is as a colorist, a drummer who would likely choose watercolors rather than oils if he had to face a canvas. He lets pianist Jon Cowherd or reed player Myron Walden steal the spotlight a few times, but mostly this is an entire band of cooperators, of ego-less team players. This is their gem. Will Layman

Artist: Henry Butler/Steven Bernstein and the Hot 9

Album: Viper’s Drag

Label: Impulse

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Henry Butler/Steven Bernstein and the Hot 9
Viper’s Drag

Viper’s Drag takes a set of tunes from the early years of jazz and revs them into the present without losing the joy and the fun of the old days. Butler’s fingers fly all over material by Fats Waller, Jelly Roll Morton, and himself, and Bernstein has crafted arrangements for an 11 piece band that rags and romps and rolls with kick-ass joy. It’s old music made fresh with energy and imagination. Although Bernstein sometimes slathers some avant-garde freedom atop the tradition, the vocabulary of the band remains highly tonal in most places. But this is not a period piece, quite. Butler plays like a New Orleans master who knows his modern jazz just fine, thanks, but here he is glorying in something different. Bernstein’s little-big band is right with him, loud and loose and well aware of rhythm-and-blues and rock and funk even as they evoke the past. Many of the tunes on Viper’s Drag knowingly mix music that is very up-to-date with other passages that glint with the rhythms or styles of early jazz. The arrangements are so intelligent, however, that the songs don’t sound like mash-ups. A joy, an education, a gas. Will Layman

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