Best Jazz Of 2014

First, my contrarian and uncool confession: I used to think that I hated lists. I just don’t think music is a competition. Nor is writing about it, for me, a ratings game. (I prefer telling stories and reviewing each recording in its own context.) Still, I see the point, know the drill and have my choices, which honor worthy recordings and form a guide to satisfying listening. And this time of year is about giving: What readers want is lists, so I should give accordingly.
Truth is, I’ve found that the making of these lists—the consciousness, conversations, even arguments they generate in the context of the many other lists made by critics, bloggers and even musicians—does in fact add up to meaningful context. That point was best driven home or me by actual public conversation at a “Year in Jazz” panel hosted by my colleague Nate Chinen and presented by the National Jazz Museum in Harlem. Nate’s list can be found among the 140 ballots in the 9th annual NPR Music Jazz Critics Poll, with thanks to my colleague Francis Davis, who does the friendly arm-twisting and diligent legwork required for such a thing. (The full results can be found here)
This year, I felt especially compromised by my current focus on New Orleans research, which meant that I wasn’t listening to a lot of the worthy CDs that came in, and I didn’t seek out new stuff as much as usual. But in truth, these days, considering the ease with which musicians and indie labels can put out unexpected and excellent stuff—considering the sheer volume and breadth of what comes out—no critic can claim to have truly surveyed the field. (And those who do must likely have given only the most cursory listen to a lot of music that demands closer attention.)
Two themes that run through my list (and that I find in a good many others, too):
—Afro Latin influence in jazz continues to flower anew. We’re hearing more complex and more finely wrought jazz built upon Afro Cuban traditions. We’re hearing the full range of Central and South American and Caribbean influences as distinct elements of this picture. What once might be called “Latin jazz” (and still is, on NPR’s poll) is no longer a cousin or an “other” but rather an elemental strand.
—Out is in, and in is out, or something like that: It’s not as easy as it once was to define a mainstream among jazz’s best recordings, and this atomization of style is liberating.
If nothing else, these lists steer us away from reflecting on the fact that some stupid stuff happened in print in 2014.
Ok, here goes:

Ambrose Akinmusire/EVA HAMBACH/AFP/Getty Images

Ambrose Akinmusire The Imagined Savior Is Far Easier to Paint (Blue Note) Even the trumpeter’s brilliant 2011 Blue Note debut was not adequate preparation for the depth, range, beauty and boldness of this album, which blends small-group jazz, string quartet and sung songs into a graceful whole, and even manages a daring pause for social commentary.
Marc Ribot Trio Live at the Village Vanguard (Pi) This continues a legacy of albums recorded in performance at the Vanguard, including a 1966 date by Albert Ayler, leading a band that included bassist Henry Grimes. Grimes is a key player in this trio, alongside drummer Chad Taylor. Here’s a great window into the growing communion between Ribot and Grimes, and the ways in which the legacies of Ayler and others manifest anew in the hands of a true guitar master.
Yosvany Terry New Throned King (5Passion) The alto saxophonist, who also plays chekeré (a beaded gourd used for percussion), is among a new generation of Cuban musicians in New York bent on exploring new possibilities for folkloric traditions within jazz contexts. And he is perhaps the best composer in the lot. Here, he focuses on arará culture, drawn from the former West African kingdom of Dahomey.
David Virelles Mbókò (ECM) The Cuban pianist frames the music of the Afro Cuban religious ritual system abakuá within contemporary creative-music, drawing as well on the ritual aspects of modern jazz, and making use of dual bassists, trap-set drums and the biankoméko, a set of four-hand drums.
Brandon Ross/ Stomu Takeishi Revealing Essence (Sunnyside) Guitarist Ross and bassist Takeishi Ross have worked together in Henry Threadgill’s band, and you can feel that influence in the cannily shifting rhythms. But this music is all texture, warmth and sonic possibility, with those beats implied more as through-line than organizing principle. Kept me coming back.
Arturo O’Farrill & The Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra The Offense of the Drum (Motéma) Reflects not jus the fire and savvy of pianist O’Farrill’s orchestra, but the expansive aesthetic that plays out through commissioned pieces for its concert seasons.
In my world, there’s Peru and Colombia and Ecuador and Venezuela and more—plus, of course, Cuba,” Arturo told me. “For the past seven or eight years, I’ve explored these connections for all their beauty, power and range.” That such range forms a coherent musical whole lends credence to his mission.
Henry Butler-Steven Bernstein & the Hot 9 Viper’s Drag (Impulse) The group’s name is a nod to Louis Armstrong’s Hot 5 and Hot 7 groups, but its patron saint is Jelly Roll Morton, whose catalog provides three of the album’s tracks. It’s the best showcase yet for the overflowing talent and mesmerizing skills of Henry Butler, a New Orleans pianist now living in New York City, and an outgrowth of his friendship with trumpeter Steven Bernstein, whose creativity as an arranger and bandleader turn what could have been a repertory project into a fresh expression of collaboration and musical daring.
Steve Lehman Octet Mise en Abime (Pi) To say that alto saxophonist Lehman’s compositions and his octet combine the philosophy of spectral music with the strategies of improvised jazz while blending acoustic and electronic elements is correct but a smokescreen that blurs the music’s evident pure pleasure and instinctual logic—which require no special knowledge.
Kenny Barron & Dave Holland The Art of Conversation (Blue Note) Pianist Barron and bassist Holland are two eminences whose styles complement more than contrast and whose technical mastery is matched by their humility.
Danilo Pérez Panama 500 (Mack Avenue) This ambitious suite focused on the grand sweep of legacy related to the pianist’s homeland, Panama, extends a personal arc that began 20 years ago, with the album, “The Journey,” on which a multicultural cast explored African identity throughout the Americas. Pérez succeeds where other such grand expressions fall flat through lyricism, attention to detail, and the liberated feeling he’s developed in Wayne Shorter’s band.
Craig Handy Craig Handy & 2nd Line Smith (Okeh) With his first CD as a leader in more than a decade, the saxophonist blends the visceral pleasures of jazz organ and New Orleans second-line parade beats. It works and he shines, in part due to drummers like Herlin Riley.
Honor Roll:
Sonny Rollins Road Shows: Volume 3 (Okeh/Doxy)
Matthew Shipp Trio Root of Things (Relative Pitch)
Fred Hersch Trio Floating (Palmetto)
Matthew Shipp I’ve Been to Many Places (Thirsty Ear)
Farmers by Nature Love and Ghosts (AUM Fidelity, 2CD)
Miguel Zenón Identities Are Changeable (Miel)
Mark Turner Lathe of Heaven (ECM)
Tyshawn Sorey Alloy (Pi)
Rufus Reid Quiet Pride: The Elizabeth Catlett Project (Motema)
Jason Moran All Rise: A Joyful Elegy for Fats Waller (Blue Note) Note: you owe it to yourself to hear at least the 2:38 of “Lulu’s Back in Town”
Paul Shapiro Shofarot Verses (Tzadik)
Kris Davis Trio Waiting for You to Grow (Clean Feed)
Dave Douglas/Chet Doxas/Steve Swallow/Jim Doxas Riverside (Greenleaf Music)
Andy Bey Pages from an Imaginary Life (High Note)
The Microscopic Septet Manhattan Moonrise (Cuneiform)
Elio Villafranca, Caribbean Tinge (Motéma)
Volcán, Volcán (5Pasion)
Cookers, Time and Time Again (Motéma)

Reissues or Historical albums:
John Coltrane Offering: Live at Temple University (Impulse/Resonance)
The Jimmy Giuffre 3 & 4 New York Concerts (Elemental)
Charles Lloyd Manhattan Stories (Resonance Records)

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