I have to confess that this year’s list of the best jazz albums feels somehow incomplete. The albums on the first list, posted in early August and the ones in this article are all outstanding but as much as I get to hear, due to my vocation and avocation, I still have missed so much this year.
In part, this is a good thing because artists now have more freedom than ever to self produce and release their works without having to beg for record company crumbs. However, one of the bad things is that the distribution of these projects often leaves much to be desired. So there’s much out there that I’ve heard of but haven’t been able to get my hands on in any format. Something tells me my “Ones I’ve Missed” list in 2014 is going to be pretty large.
That being said, here are the favorite releases that I’ve heard since July. As always, they are in alphabetical order by album title, not preference:
Aquarius – Nicole Mitchell’s Ice Crystals (Delmark)
It’s a marriage of several disparate elements that come together to create musical perfection: Ms. Mitchell’s flute playing off of Jason Adasiewicz’s vibes, producing the sound that gives the group its name; their AACM sensibility, leavened by a hint of Chicago Soul and some of the best compositions that I’ve ever heard from Ms. Mitchell. They have managed to stay true to their artistic roots yet make the music more accessible. No small feat but they pull it off with aplomb.
Creole Soul – Etienne Charles (MRI)
Mr. Charles, a young trumpet player originally from Trinidad, creates a successful marriage of straight ahead jazz and the musical styles of the Caribbean and New Orleans. Many have tried to do the same thing with only moderate success. Etienne Charles nails it, big time. Those who want to understand how to fuse groove and jazz without “selling out” should use this disc as a primer. (Read my full review for Jazz Inside Magazine HERE.)
I Wanna Be Evil (With Love to Eartha Kitt) – René Marie (Motéma)
Leave it to Rene Marie to wait until the tail end of the year to release a masterpiece. She clearly has a strong affinity for her subject and instead of imitating the legendary performer; she draws Ms. Kitt’s style inside of her own and creates some fresh renditions of some of Eartha’s classics. She also creates a smoldering original tune “Weekend” which might have made even the legendary Kitt blush. Ms. Marie’s performances are sexy, playful, charming, foreboding and thought-provoking; often at the same time. It’s Ms. Marie’s best album since Vertigo and it may even top that classic.
Liquid Spirit – Gregory Porter (Blue Note)
With his third outstanding album in three years, Mr. Porter continues to carve out a niche for himself as either the most soulful jazz singer or the jazziest soul singer working today. Porter has melded the low-key sensitivity of Bill Withers to the jazz sensibility of a young Al Jarreau. He is also a damn good composer, dropping a few of his own tunes on this album, such as “Hey Laura” and “Brown Grass” that I expect to hear being covered by other singers in the near future. Plus he does a dynamite cover of one of my faves from Max Roach and Abby Lincoln, “Lonesome Lover”. Will Porter take home the Grammy this year? Knowing Grammy’s unpredictability, who knows? But I think that he has a good shot in at least one of the two categories that he’s nominated in.
No Morphine; No Lilies – Allison Miller’s Boom Tic Boom (The Royal Potato Family)
The prodigiously gifted drummer takes us all over the jazz map in a little over 50 minutes; from swing to post-bop, to free, with numerous stops in between. Her working band of three years, which includes pianist Myra Melford; bassist Todd Sickafoose and the wonderful violinist Jenny Scheinman, has coalesced into a solid unit who play off of each other incredibly well. Their musical trust for each other has allowed them to bring out the best in Ms. Miller’s compositions and for them to turn performances in different directions on a dime.
Out Here – Christian McBride Trio (Mack Avenue)
It’s no surprise that Mr. McBride is a fan of James Brown, because he is the hardest working bassist in jazz. Besides being the first call sideman for almost everyone in jazz today, he managed also to release two albums in 2013 under his own name, one with his Inside Straight aggregation and the other was this album, a back to basics trio date with two very exciting young cohorts; pianist Christian Sands and drummer Ulysses Owens, Jr. There’s nothing new here but what they do, they do stunningly well. It’s three world-class musicians, playing some standards, some originals and a couple of fun surprises. I hope that this isn’t just a one-off but if it is, it’s an impressive one.
Saturday Morning – Ahmad Jamal (Jazz Village)
What has gotten into Ahmad Jamal? All of a sudden, in his eighties, Miles Davis’ favorite pianist has become not only incredibly relevant again but I daresay, downright funky. First on last year’s Blue Moon and now on Saturday Morning. Egged on by the percolating grooves laid down by bassist Reginald Veal and drummer Herlin Riley, the octogenarian reminds Robert Glasper and Co., where they got it from. His piano lines are still tasty and tasteful and not the least bit stale. Long live Mr. Jamal, I hope that he keeps going and continues to create music like this for many years to come.
Soul Brother Cool – Cyrus Chestnut (WJ3)
This album is here for two reasons: one is its remarkable leader, who I consider to be one of the best jazz pianists of his generation. Mr. Chestnut is the natural successor to Bobby Timmons in the “Soulful Jazz Pianist” category and his teaming over the last few years with bassist Dezron Douglas and drummer Willie Jones III seems to have re-energized him. The second reason is the presence of trumpeter Freddie Hendrix on this album. Mr. Hendrix is a remarkably talented musician who has been criminally under recorded. In fact, as of this writing, he has yet to lead a recording date. Hendrix stylistically (and even physically, somewhat) reminds me of another more well-known jazz trumpeter with the same first name and last initial. Throughout the album, he threatens to steal the show from the leader and at times, he does. And for bonus points, Chestnut and Jones used Max Roach’s rare album Drums Unlimited as an inspiration for the cover. Very cool indeed!
Tootie’s Tempo – Albert “Tootie” Heath (Sunnyside)
Here’s another jazz veteran undergoing a bit of a career renaissance. The youngest of the Heath Brothers has recorded abundantly as a sideman on some of jazz’s greatest albums and quite a bit with his brothers over the years but very little as a leader. So here we have the 78-year-old “Tootie” working with relative youngsters Ethan Iverson of The Bad Plus on piano and NY avant-garde scene darling Ben Street on bass. On paper it sounds like a mismatch but in reality it is pure magic. Tootie will never be accused of being a bombastic drummer but everything he does is exactly as it should be. You can hear Mr. Heath taking care of his musical partners and vice versa. This is one of the most interesting working trios out there today. If you like this, check out this same group’s 2010 live recording from NYC’s Smalls Jazz Club.
Wolfgang – Warren Wolf (Mack Avenue)
Vibraphonist Wolf’s follow up to his Mack Avenue debut is the most mature and cohesive album of his burgeoning young career. Split between tracks with his working band and an all-star group, Wolf’s growth as a musician, composer and arranger are all evident from first note to last. (Read my full review for Jazz Inside Magazine HERE.)
And in case you’ve forgotten, here are the albums/artists who were included in our post Best Jazz of 2013 (So Far), which first appeared in August 2013:
And I’m still not done! There will be one more post in which we will bring you a few more albums from 2013, that I still cannot get out of my head. Plus, in what has become an annual tradition, we will pay homage to some albums from 2012 that I somehow managed to miss until 2013.
As always, your comments, for and against, are welcome but spam is not.
Until the next time, the jazz continues…