The streak continues. I’m not talking about the losing ways of the New York Knicks, but rather the influx of new CDs suggesting that 2014 will match or surpass this year’s excellent output. Here are a few more reasons to be cheerful:
Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra The Offense of the Drum (Motema, April 2014): When pianist and bandleader Arturo O’Farrill celebrated his orchestra’s first decade, he said this: “Ten years of existence is a milestone for the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra—not so much because we survived, but because we’ve created a new entry point into the cultural conversation. Our embrace of the bigger picture in jazz has welcomed many more people into the fold.” As a pianist and small-ensemble leader, O’Farrill is very much his own man—listen to 2009’s Risa Negra (Zoho) for proof. As arranger and leader of the large ensemble he inherited from his father, the late Chio O’Farrill, he embodied that legacy: to celebrate the shared identity of Afro-Latin music and American jazz with originality and at the highest musical standards. With his own orchestra as instrument and through the many activities of his nonprofit organization, the Afro Latin Jazz Alliance (not least its ambitious concert seasons), he has upped the ante into something deeper and larger still. On first listen, this CD sounds like both manifesto of that mission and manifestation of all his talents.
Rudy Royston 303 (Greenleaf Music, Feb. 4): If the rhythmic shifts of trumpeter Dave Douglas’s quintet sound especially supple, if the homespun sound of guitarist Bill Frisell’s recent CD “Big Sur” rides a gently seductive swing, if the bands led by saxophonists J.D Allen and Tia Fuller achieve rare propulsion while avoiding conventional beats, drummer Rudy Royston is the main reason why. Here’s his debut as a leader, on Douglas’s Greenleaf label, with a septet that includes two basses and a songlist that, aside from his original compositions, takes on Radiohead and Mozart.
Nir Felder Golden Age (Okeh, Jan. 21): Guitarist Felder contributes mightily to the distinctive sound of Royston’s new band. Brooklyn-based Felder has been employed by discerning musicians of wide-ranging inclinations, including saxophonist Greg Osby, drummers Jack DeJohnette and Terri Lyne Carrington, bassist/singers MeShell Ndegeocello and Esperanza Spalding, singer Jose James and by the New York City Opera. On some tracks here, he uses spoken-word samples drawn from political speeches: Let’s see if it works.
Edward Simon Venezuelan Suite (Blue Note, March 11): I first appreciated pianist Simon’s gifts in bands led by saxophonist Bobby Watson and trumpeter Terence Blanchard. Simon was born and raised in in the small coastal town of Cardón, Venezuela and educated at some of the best music schools in the U.S. since moving here in high school. Like so many jazz musicians with roots in Latin, Central or South America, Simon has consistently advanced jazz’s language while exploring his native legacy. This, his most overt example of such to date, was supported by a grant from Chamber Music America, and it seeks to cross borders between jazz and classical forms as well.
Frank Wess Magic 101 (IPO Recordings, Feb. 11): Based on his early work with Billy Eckstine, Lucky Millinder and others, his decade-long tenure with Count Basie, his authority and grace on tenor saxophone and his pioneering work on flute, and his memorable musical rapport with fellow saxophonist Frank Foster, Frank Wess deserved pride of place in jazz history books. But last year’s “Magic 101,” recorded when he was 89, sounded like his story was far from told. These further studio takes, featuring the same fine quintet, will form a final coda, following his death in October, at 91.