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: Continue reading “Best Jazz Of 2014”

Top Ten (So Far)

I don’t love making those year-end top 10 lists (for more on why, look here).
But I got my first of what will be several requests, and here’s what I came up with. (And note: the Coltrane CD, which was of course recorded decades ago as a bootleg but never before commercially released, is tenth only because it’s of an earlier time—yet it also demanded inclusion.)
I’m sure my thoughts on this will change, as they always do, by year’s end.
Brandon Ross/ Stomu Takeishi Revealing Essence (Sunnyside)
Guitarist Brandon Ross fascinates for many reasons, including the humility he exudes in both meditative and frenzied musical moments. He’s been a key player in bands led by Henry Threadgill and Cassandra Wilson and the singularly wonderful collaborative trio, Harriet Tubman. Ross introduced electric bassist Stomu Takeishi to Threadgill, in whose Make a Move band they worked together. Here, it’s mostly meditative and all about texture, warmth and sonic possibility, with rhythms that speak of Threadgill used more as a through-line than a frame. Other albums this year may exert greater influence or even better stand time’s test, but this is the one I’ve returned to the most.
Yosvany Terry New Throned King (5Passion)
Arturo O’Farrill & The Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra The Offense of the Drum (Motéma)
Matthew Shipp Trio Root of Things (Relative Pitch)
Charles Lloyd Manhattan Stories (Resonance Records)
Henry Butler-Steven Bernstein & the Hot 9 Viper’s Drag (Impulse)
Ambrose Akinmusire The Imagined Savior Is Far Easier to Paint (Blue Note)
Fred Hersch Trio Floating (Palmetto)
Danilo Pérez Panama 500 (Mack Avenue)
John Coltrane Offering: Live at Temple University (Impulse/Resonance)