The Best Jazz of 2014

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

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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. img-856 Will Layman


Artist: The Bad Plus

Album: The Rite of Spring

Label: Sony Masterworks

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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. img-856 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. img-856 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. img-856 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. img-856 Will Layman

Chat Noir to John McLaughlin

Artist: Chat Noir

Album: Elec3cities

Label: RareNoise

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Chat Noir

To say that Chat Noir plays jazz is a bit like saying Pizza Hut specializes in breadsticks. There’s too much other stuff on the menu for you to stuff your stomach with cheese-dusted bread, although that is a highlight for many customers. Chat Noir serves a maddeningly appealing buffet of jazz, post-rock, trip-hop, and electronica and Elec3cities finds them excelling in all concerned areas. This Italian trio deserves to be on a best-of-2014 list somewhere, and this is as good a place as any for people to hopefully pick up on its brilliance. img-857 John Garratt


Artist: Mark de Clive-Lowe

Album: Church

Label: Mashibeats/Ropeadope

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Mark de Clive-Lowe

Ease is a tell-tale sign of a master mashup artist. If a musician’s work doesn’t constantly stutter with the sound of effort, then there is hope for a new genre of music. Mark de Clive-Lowe has been steadily tending to and mining from a nexus where jazz and electronics meet for a while now, and his reputation as a producer precedes him. Church is an album filled with bright colors and charged circuitry, leading one to believe it’s the product of a meticulous studio hermit. Yet a bulk of the album fell together within two days, demonstrating de Clive-Lowe’s gift of not overreaching. Church is an electronic/organic keeper. img-857 John Garratt


Artist: Doctor Magnum

Album: Magnum Carta Holy Grail

Label: Self-Released

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Doctor Magnum
Magnum Carta Holy Grail

Doctor Magnum is a relatively new band that doesn’t appear to take itself too seriously. As far as I’m concerned, Doctor Magnum can record their next album in their underwear for all I care. The group’s hybrid of smooth jazz with funky hip-hop beats raises the question of why this genre crossover wasn’t scouted even further after Guru’s death (was Buckshot LeFonque shamed into retirement?). Doctor Magnum’s debut release Magnum Carta Holy Grail is chock full of these insistent little moments that stay with you long after you’ve given up on what label you should give the music. Jazz that swings is good, but you can’t neglect the art of the dirty groove either. img-857 John Garratt


Artist: Dave Douglas and Uri Caine

Album: Present Joys

Label: Greenleaf

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Dave Douglas and Uri Caine
Present Joys

This is the first-ever recorded set of duets between Dave Douglas and his longtime collaborator, pianist Uri Caine. The material, however, is unique: songs either from or inspired by the American “shape-note singing” tradition. Drawn from hymnals such as The Sacred Harp, Ye Olde New England Psalm Tunes, The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion, this source material boasts a simplicity and direct beauty that Douglas and Caine spin into adventurous variations. In some ways, then, this recording is a successor to Be Still from Douglas’s quintet, another example of jazz improvisors taking off from a slightly different old American source. It can be too easy to embrace the tendency of adventurous musicians to move back to lyricism and tradition, but Present Joys is not a retreat from bold playing at all. It swings, it flies free, it hunts down feeling inside of the listener. Dave Douglas and Uri Caine are good enough to stand up to making “pretty” music, even traditional music. They pass the test here and come out still surprising us. img-857 Will Layman


Artist: Darius Jones and Matthew Shipp

Album: Cosmic Leider: The Darkseid Recital

Label: Aum Fidelity

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Darius Jones and Matthew Shipp
Cosmic Leider: The Darkseid Recital

This is the second collection of duets between the singular pianist and this rising alto saxophonist, whose utterly incomparable vocal quartet album, The Oversoul Manuel, was 2014’s most daring project, but maybe not “jazz”. Focused and highly structured, the tunes of the Darkseid Recital are nevertheless entirely improvised. Jones contributes his gorgeous tone and steely sound on the alto saxophone, a player who uses total control of his instrument to make clear that any “funny notes” he plays are intended and fully felt. Shipp is equally intentional and powerful in his pianistic attack. Like his partner, he purposefully conjures harmonies, intervals, and phrases that sit outside standard jazz tradition, but they all have a clear logic of their own — a beauty, in fact, that comes partly from jagged originality. As ever with Matthew Shipp and apparently now also with Darius Jones, our assumptions about what it means for jazz to “sound good” are challenged and expanded, hearing structure amidst dissonance and beauty in surprise. img-857 Will Layman


Artist: John McLaughlin and the 4th Dimension

Album: The Boston Record

Label: Abstract Logix

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John McLaughlin and the 4th Dimension
The Boston Record

It’s become criminally easy to forget that fusion rocks. Just the genre’s name alone should remind us all that jazz is fusing with something else, and the the verb “fuse” is a much more exciting one than “combine”. And while younger bands probably need to woodshed for God-knows-how-long before capturing fusion’s optimal intensity, guitarist John McLaughlin and his 4th Dimension captured that proverbial lightening in their collective bottle right away. The Boston Record documents the 4th Dimension’s set with songs from To the One, Now Here This and the Mahavishnu Orchestra barnstormer “You Know You Know”. McLaughlin may have entered his 70s, but he’s pushing his band at a rate of a musician half his age. img-857 John Garratt

Jason Moran to Mark Turner

Artist: Jason Moran

Album: All Rise: A Joyful Elegy for Fats Waller

Label: Blue Note

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Jason Moran
All Rise: A Joyful Elegy for Fats Waller

This collaboration between jazz pianist Moran and singer/bassist MeShell Ndegeocello, who has navigated the grey area between popular music and jazz, refracts the music of Fats Waller through a modern lens. Conceived as a dance party to reflect Waller’s legacy as a “provocateur”, All Rise ranges from sultry funk to cubist modern jazz, and it avoids sounding over-familiar even as it uses songs that we’ve heard countless “modern jazz” version of already. Moran and Ndegeocello have enlisted not only Moran’s band (“Bandwagon”), but also a diverse array of talent including funk drummer Charles Haynes, several vocalists in addition to Ndegeocello, vanguard saxophonist Steve Lehman, and the engineer Bob Power, who helped to fashion the studio sound of hip-hop through his work with A Tribe Called Quest and the Roots. The result is a flat-out joy that samples a dozen rhythmic attacks as it proves that today’s jazz is without boundaries even as it interprets its tradition. img-858 Will Layman


Artist: PRISM Quartet

Album: People’s Emergency Center

Label: Innova

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PRISM Quartet
People’s Emergency Center

People’s Emergency Center finds PRISM Quartet “frontman” Matthew Levy stepping out of the shadows, though not in a way that you would think. After spending their career collecting pieces to perform from outsiders, PRISM has now recorded a double album of Levy originals. I’d be shortchanging it to say that it’s “too big to fail”. No, People’s Emergency Center is too awesome to do anything else but succeed. Beefed up by the presence of Tim Ries, Rudresh Mahanthappa, Jason Moran, Richard Belcastro, Ben Monder Jay Anderson, Bill Stewart and François Zayas, Levy and his three sax partners are almost reaching out to grab chamber jazz greatness. img-858 John Garratt


Artist: Marc Ribot Trio

Album: Live at the Village Vanguard

Label: Pi

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Marc Ribot Trio
Live at the Village Vanguard

Albums with this title have quite a historical hurdle to clear, but this unique modern guitarist goes straight at the challenge with a gutsy trio and a willingness to tackle material both melodic and beyond the stratosphere. With bassist Henry Grimes and drummer Chad Taylor, Ribot records two mature Coltrane tunes (“Dearly Beloved” and “Sun Ship”), two Alber Ayler compositions (“The Wizard” and “Bells”), and two “American songbook” standards (“Old Man River” and “I’m Confessin’”). Ribot harnesses a guitar sound that can be pretty and can be raw, and always emotional. Some of the music is raucous and some is tender, but it’s all about what’s real and feeling. The scramble of “Sun Ship” feels as right as “Old Man River”, and it is certainly just as clearly a product of the great jazz tradition, which simply asks the musicians to play in the moment against both the elastic rhythm and the released feeling that rhythm makes possible. In year when there was plenty of great jazz guitar music from many sources, this disc seems most timeless. img-858 Will Layman


Artist: Louis Sclavis Quartet

Album: Silk and Salt Melodies

Label: ECM

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Louis Sclavis Quartet
Silk and Salt Melodies

Reedist Louis Sclavis has continued his search for the most sublime currents of the Third Stream/Fourth World and for that we should be grateful. Without that sense of dissatisfaction, we would never have had the note-perfect Silk and Salt Melodies, chamber jazz at its finest. With Benjamin Moussay on piano, Gilles Coronado on guitar and Keyvan Chemirani on percussion, Sclavis’s compositions take flight in a dream state where consecutive listens can only improve upon the nine masterpieces. Silk and Salt Melodies isn’t just one of the best jazz releases of the year, it’s one of the best releases, period. img-858 John Garratt


Artist: Mark Turner Quartet

Album: Lathe of Heaven

Label: ECM

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Mark Turner Quartet
Lathe of Heaven

A lathe is a tool that creates shapes. When the protagonist in Ursula K. Le Guin’s novel The Lathe of Heaven fell asleep, the dreams in his head altered reality on the outside. His subconscious was not playing with existing shapes, it was creating new ones for which the outside world was not prepared. This may be a high-minded way to perceive musicians, especially a quartet that names its album after Le Guin’s novel, but saxophonist Mark Turner has been walking the talk since the early ’90s and Lathe of Heaven is a hypnotic demonstration of his quartet’s telepathic abilities. And we as listeners owe it to ourselves to keep an eye on Israeli-born trumpeter Avishai Cohen, a musician who carries the sound as prominently as Turner. img-858 John Garratt