Steve Lehman Octet

The 25 Best Jazz Albums of 2014

Wondering Sound Staff

By Wondering Sound Staff

on 12.11.14 in Lists

To outsiders, jazz has the tendency to seem like an ossified genre — “serious” records for “serious” people, with anything significant having happened decades ago. If you needed any more proof that this thinking is absolutely ridiculous, this list is it. Here are 25 records from artists that are bold, brash, exciting and forward-thinking, unafraid of flirting with other genres, but reconfiguring them into something new and daring. The 25 Best Jazz Albums of 2014 represent the vanguard of contemporary music, pushing things forward one note at a time.

Check out the rest of our Best of 2014 coverage here.

Honorable Mention: John Coltrane, Offering: Live at Temple University

Offering is a supplicating title for this passionate, incendiary music from 1966. Better to call it Beseeching, or Rapture, or A Shove Supreme. But by any name it is Coltrane at age 40, both in his prime and in the final year of his life, on a quest to transform sound into a universal language. He blows through familiar tunes such as "Naima" and "My Favorite Things" with a split-toned intensity that inhales the musical scale, and even abandons his horn at times to sing as he pounds his chest. Long bootlegged and gossiped-about, this legendary concert is now remastered and available to all as the last meaningful chapter in Trane's thrilling, charismatic career. — Britt Robson

25. Rafael Karlen, The Sweetness of Things Half-Remembered

In recent years there has been a proliferation of chamber jazz recordings, as classically trained/jazz-enthralled musicians bring together two of their loves in the same expression. Rafael Karlen's recent example of this is a gorgeous display. It's one beautiful vignette after another, as waves of harmonies from a string quartet are swept along by the gusts of melodic interplay between saxophonist Karlen and pianist Steve Newcomb. There is an elegance and warmth to this music that abides when the music drifts languorously or grows animated with sudden bursts of motion. The balance between composition and improvisation gives the ear a bit of structure to rely upon while keeping on its toes. Most of all, this music is about as beautiful as it gets. — Dave Sumner

24. Angles 9, Injuries

Saxophonist Martin Küchen's Angles ensemble is all about the wild abandon of improvisation and the euphoria that is its byproduct. With each recording, he adds to the ensemble's numbers, and the crazy energy and bold sound keep getting bigger. Compared favorably to Charlie Haden's Liberation Music Orchestra, Küchen's crew goes more for a feel of celebration than political protest. With half the musicians on wind instruments and the other half taking on percussive responsibilities, each song is a melody trying to outrace the tempo to the finish line. The ebb and flow of this music creates an excitement that never subsides. — D.S.

23. The Cookers, Time and Time Again

Formed in 2007, the Cookers' fourth disc together marks their first personnel change — Donald Harrison steps in for Craig Handy on alto saxophone — but holds true to the vision of founder and trumpeter David Weiss (at 49, the youngest member) to recapture the magical zest of the classic "Night of the Cookers" albums featuring the likes of Freddie Hubbard and Lee Morgan from the '60s. Each member is a solid composer, resulting in a vast storehouse of original material, occasionally spiked with familiar favorites. There are brand-new tunes, such as McBee's "Dance of the Invisible Nymph," which has the horns orbiting around a central vamp from the rhythm section; and "Farewell Mulgrew," in which Cables writes and plays with penetrating clarity and purpose in honor of his fellow pianist, the late Mulgrew Miller. The Cookers may both honor and embody the old classics, but the music keeps roiling and reinventing itself into tomorrow. — B.R.

22. Tyshawn Sorey Trio, Alloy

For over an hour, Sorey holsters the percussion chops he normally delivers in other bands (like the Steve Lehman Octet), in order to focus on the compositions. There's a spacious, patient feel to Alloy's first two tunes. And groove work makes an appearance on "Template." But the stunner is the half-hour-plus album-ender, "Love Song," which is probably the most romantically compelling piece from the entire spare, post-Morton Feldman trend in American music. (This trio's pianist, Cory Smythe, who has recorded Anthony Braxton's classical piano music, deserves a lot of credit, too.) And the dynamic shift of the finale's resolution might leave your jaw hanging open. If you can accept the lack of solo histrionics on this record, you'll be richly rewarded by the subtle work throughout. — Seth Colter Walls

21. Jane Ira Bloom, Sixteen Sunsets

Jane Ira Bloom's round, overtone-rich, singing soprano saxophone never sounds better than on ballads. Here she plays more than a dozen, all choice, including two of her own. Bloom's sound is grand but never blandly pretty; she'll tailor the pitch, dynamics and vibrato of individual notes, and her high notes are thrilling. The band including drummer Matt Wilson knows better than to intrude when she's on a roll. It's a quiet tour de force. — Kevin Whitehead

20. Get the Blessing, Lope and Antilope

The new generation of jazz musicians is just as likely to reference the modern indie scene as they are the Great American Songbook, and just as likely to absorb the influences, too. U.K. quartet Get the Blessing is one such group to run with the modern crowd, and they offer up some of the most addictive grooves and heart-throbbing melodies encountered this year. That four days of pure improvising can result in songs that sound both strategically planned and off-the-cuff casual speaks as much to the level of musicianship as it does the inherent in-the-moment nature of the jazz creative environment. — D.S.

19. Sam Newsome, The Straight Horn of Africa: A Path of Liberation

Newsome, the soprano scientist, always looks for more possibilities in the straight saxophone. His split-tones are as precise and punchy as a train-whistle, and he gets a range of percussive textures from his keypads and reed attack. (Soprano saint Steve Lacy is one hero.) Here Newsome plays (short) steely solos and overdubbed dances, where repetitive figures emerge and crisscross, conjuring varied West African drum choirs. His natty spiral patterns recommend him to fans of bass sax marvel Colin Stetson. But Newsome's his own man, self-sufficient: a circular-breathing sopranoist who doesn't try to be Evan Parker. — K.W.

18. Omer Avital, New Song

Over the course of eight albums, Israeli-born New York bassist Omer Avital has brought the rich melodies and churning rhythms of his homeland to forward-looking spiritual jazz. New Song is an extension of his previous release, 2012's Suite of the East, wherein Avital forged a sound that was equal parts celebratory folkdance and straight-up jazz. Supported by his longtime band that includes fireball drummer Daniel Freedman, pianist Yonathan Avishai, trumpeter Avishai Cohen and tenor saxophonist Joel Frahm, New Song opens with "Hafla," its piano, trumpet and saxophone spiraling skyward over spirited funk. His dreams for Israel's future seem to inspire his work. There is an underlying tension, a simmering thread throughout New Song, as though the musicians are holding back, lest their emotions overwhelm the music's understated but potent power. — Ken Micallef

17. Steve Wilson/Lewis Nash Duo, Duologue

In this stripped-down and heavily swinging duo, every note counts. On "The Mooche" the drummer and saxophonist are the whole Ellington band, the ever-enterprising Lewis Nash playing tom-tom countermelodies as Steve Wilson's soprano sax ticks off the themes and solos. The drummer makes Duologue a master class in melodic trap-set playing and spontaneous orchestration; Wilson (also on alto sax) brings the blues and never lets you lose the trail back to the melody. Great and familiar tunes help, including "Caravan" and four by Monk. They're razor sharp and window clear. — K.W.

16. The Bad Plus, The Rite of Spring

On For All I Care, the Bad Plus famously covered the likes of Nirvana and Pink Floyd. The obvious next-level project would be for the band to learn and play a version of a big-canvas classical item. And so, after years of touring and workshopping, the Bad Plus now bring us a 40-minute performance of Stravinsky's notorious, riot-starting ballet. And by the time the trio digs into the jagged second movement, "The Augurs of Spring," any doubts about the wisdom of the project should be set to rest. Wisely, the band doesn't blitz through the hard-driving sections just because they can. There's a bit of a slowdown happening at some junctures of the movement, which allows listeners to linger in the grind — something that just juices the drama for fans of the Rite. This adaptation, which immediately vaults over the familiar two-pianist version, is the best way to hear a non-symphonic take on Stravinsky's early masterpiece. — S.C.W.

15. John Ellis & Andy Bragen, MOBRO

This is one of those projects where the grasp actually achieves the measure of the reach. Saxophonist John Ellis and playwright Andy Bragen frame their project in the context of the crazy tale of the MOBRO 4000 trash barge, which became something of a pop culture icon back in the 1980s as it traveled from Islip, New York down the coast to Belize and then back to whence it began. The MOBRO's journey highlighted themes of isolationism, environmentalism and societal interactions, all qualities addressed in the hour-plus through-composed piece. Heavy on the brass instruments and armed with four different vocalists, this large ensemble switches between wildly theatrical effusiveness, heartbreaking sadness and drifting passages of contemplative reverie. The intended scope of the project is impressive in its own right, but that the ensemble is able to successfully pull off so many WTF risky moments and never lose their footing along the precipice of song form is simply outstanding. About as expressive as you could ask of a creative endeavor. — D.S.

14. The Westerlies, Wish the Children Would Come On Home

Wish the Children Would Come on Home

The Westerlies

All four members of the trumpets-and-trombones Westerlies had studied or played with Seattle composer/pianist Wayne Horvitz. No dummy, he suggested they devote an album (their first) to an assortment of his old and newer earworms. None were written for brass but you'd never know it, so beautifully do the players voice (and solo on) his minor-key-ish melodies, with their small-town-bandshell echoes, and repeated figures that linger like minimalist pop hooks. Horvitz joins in on atmospheric synth here and there, but the brass players can sound electronic even without him; their textural sense is that acute. A serious debut. — K.W.

13. Darius Jones and Matthew Shipp, Cosmic Lieder: The Darkseid Recital

Proving that the brawny, sprawling splendor of their first series of Cosmic Lieder duets three years ago was no fluke, alto saxophonist Darius Jones and pianist Matthew Shipp once again rumble and roar with playful aplomb on The Darkseid Recital. As with the first collection, Jones is more often the provocateur, while Shipp, the elder statesman, counterpunches and refracts the music into dazzling shifts of tempo and intensity, accomplished with the bold, casual confidence of an acknowledged shared sensibility. This is large music, from the hopscotch bleats of "Granny Goodness" to the thrilling locomotive skronk that climaxes "Lord of Woe" to the subterranean chamber stylings of "Divine Engine." It frequently sounds like more than two people, rafting on the white water of their surging imaginations. — B.R.

Read our interview with Matthew Shipp.

12. Billy Hart Quartet, One Is the Other

When pianist Ethan Iverson and saxophonist Mark Turner hired drummer-to-the-stars Billy Hart for their band with bassist Ben Street a while back, Hart liked it so much they made him leader. Their tunes bring out his prodding, interactive best, like Hart's own "Yard," spun from a scrap of Charlie Parker, or Turner's snaky "Lennie Groove" that gets 'em all shimmying. (For his trouble Turner gets a knockout tenor feature on "Some Enchanted Evening.") This is bop-based music with a modern sheen. Hart's cymbal work is so crisp and poetic, you wish ECM had used a smidge less reverb. — K.W.

11. Miguel Zenon, Identities Are Changeable

This saxophonist's conceptual jazz album about Puerto Rican experiences in America — with all the political ambiguities involved — makes a compelling structural choice by seeming, at times, to be ambivalent about whether it wants to be a regular jazz album at all. And that's the point: the people Zenon's album chronicles don't have to have a rigid understanding of their complex identities — and neither does this 70-plus-minute set of music and documentary. Clips of interviews with members of New York's Puerto Rican community alternate with Zenon's sparkling soloing and group arranging. It's a bold choice, and on highlights like the title track and "Through Culture and Tradition," it pays off. — S.C.W.

Read our interview with Miguel Zenon.

10. Farmers By Nature, Love and Ghosts

A two-hour master class on spontaneous collective improvisation, Love and Ghosts captures back-to-back live concerts in France from June 2011, each with a distinct arc and array of moods. Pianist Craig Taborn and drummer Gerald Cleaver met in college decades ago, and have played in "free jazz" ensembles with and without each other and William Parker, the premiere bassist and balancing rod for these musical journeys across the tightrope. Sometimes the trio blazes forth, as in the early stages of the Marseilles concert. Sometimes they swirl and churn to gather energy, as occurred near the onset of the gig in Besancon the next night. Rarely are fine details so majestic. — B.R.

9. Kris Davis Trio, Waiting for You to Grow

Until this record, it was fair to say that Davis's utterly distinct piano playing was best heard on her solo outings, like 2013's Massive Threads. But this trio, which includes bassist John Hebert and drummer Tom Rainey, shows that Davis's percussive touch — reminiscent but not overly indebted to Cecil Taylor — can work brilliantly in a small group setting. The long, winding opener "Whirly Swirly" swings hardest; "Berio" nods to Davis's modern-classical fascinations. Written (as the title hints) during her recent pregnancy, this album also marks the development of an exciting new chapter in Davis's art. — S.C.W.

8. Orrin Evans’ Captain Black Big Band, Mother’s Touch

Captain Black Big Band's debut was collection of live dates, while Mother's Touch is a purposefully tailored studio project. The lead track, "In My Soul," meshes the rich big-band horn sound of Charles Mingus and Oliver Nelson with the deep but sprightly soul-blues of Ray Charles and Count Basie. Its companion piece arrives three songs later with the soulfully serene "Dita," an exquisitely calming, poignantly nuanced variation on a classic big-band ballad. And don't sleep on Evans's "Explain it to Me," featuring a whirlpooling soprano sax line by Marcus Strickland and some African beats from guest timekeeper Ralph Peterson. — B.R.

7. Melissa Aldana & Crash Trio, Melissa Aldana & Crash Trio

Melissa Aldana's bold and brilliant Latin bop enriches the jazz tradition. The bandleader and tenor saxophonist won the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz competition in 2013, and her father is a renowned saxophonist in Chile, who was taught by his father. (Aldana still plays her grandfather's horn.) Together with Cuban drummer Francesco Mela and fellow Chilean Pablo Menares on bass, she makes sonorous splendor a la Sonny Rollins on her calypso-inflected original tune, "M&M," reconstructs Monk's "Ask Me Now" with irresistible flair, and stamps Crash Trio as a working band to be reckoned with for years to come. — B.R.

6. Oliver Lake Organ Quartet, What I Heard

A gaggle of today's organ groups tweak the chooglin' Jimmy Smith paradigm. But few wipe the slate as clean as vet Oliver Lake's two-horn combo with sometimes-stark Jared Gold at the keys and bass pedals. They don't bypass groove and blues roots, they just arrive by other means — a misterioso open style, with glimpses of Mississippi fife-and-drum bands, Native American chants and cavernous Jamaican-dub textures. Drummer Chris Beck puts Rasta in the rhythm; trumpeter Freddie Hendrix tunes to Lake's raspy alto and flute. — K.W.

5. Mitchell/Taborn/Baku, Conversations II

This pickup trio — for all intents and purposes led by Mitchell, the legendary multi-reed player and a founder of the Art Ensemble of Chicago — recorded a double-album's worth of material, and spread it over two releases this year. Both volumes offer much the same aesthetic: long stretches of eerie near-quiet scraping up against heroic avant-thrash. But the second record in the series offers a little more variety — check the hookup between drummer Baku and Mitchell (on baritone sax) during "They Rode for Them" (which all fans of hyperactive Chicago footwork should enjoy). Taborn switches between acoustic and electric keyboards, as the mood dictates. And despite all the jagged shifts of mood, the sequencing of tracks on this album manages to create its own unique flow. — S.C.W.

4. Pharoah & the Underground, Spiral Mercury

Pharoah Sanders is one of the visionaries of the avant-garde and spiritual jazz movements of the '60s. Rob Mazurek is one of the visionaries of the modern improv scene. Together, their music unites into a thrilling mix of trip-psych grooves, free jazz intensity, Brazilian rhythmic textures and space-haze ambiance, and it winds up sounding like the music of past, present and what comes next. That they pull it off in a live setting makes it that much more impressive, but the real value lies in their bringing the high-voltage electricity of a live show to the recorded medium. The expected clash of generations and influences is, instead, a powerful unison. — D.S.

3. Trio 3 With Vijay Iyer, Wiring

The latest guest pianist to join this trio of elders — saxophonist/poet Oliver Lake, drummer Andrew Cyrille and bassist Reggie Workman — is one of the hottest names in contemporary jazz (and in classical music, as well). On paper, that's a supergroup; in practice, they notch a near-classic on their first time out. Iyer penned the swinging opener "The Prowl" and the three-part "Suite for Trayvon (and Thousands More)," which, though wordless, is tragically easy to follow on a narrative level. Meantime, the Cyrille-driven feature "Tribute to Bu" (that is, to Art Blakey), is a deeply joyous and life-affirming closer. — S.C.W.

2. Sean Jones, Im•pro•vise (Never Before Seen)

On Im•pro•vise (Never Before Seen), Sean Jones shows a phenomenal mid-career growth spurt as a trumpeter, composer and artist. He hasn't reinvented himself or his style — he's just become a much better version of the musician he used to be, fueled by a calm but self-animating confidence. He's long been capable of the stately melodrama and technical aplomb reminiscent of one of his mentors, Wynton Marsalis. But the depth of his communication with pianist Orrin Evans (who is enjoying his own chrysalis in 2014) on "Dark Times," and his choice of "Dr. Jekyll" as a way to honor both Jackie McLean (the composer) and Miles Davis (the song's best-known interpreter) are examples of how his collaborative vision has ascended into leadership. Im•pro•vise is the best of the seven albums Sean Jones has made for Mack Avenue in the past 10 years. Perhaps he'll top it, but it has the heft, vigor and timeless verities to stand comfortably as his masterpiece. — B.R.

1. Steve Lehman Octet, Mise en Abime

Progressive jazz heads had been waiting for the second album from this group ever since their first one came out, back in 2009. The long wait was worth it. Lehman's potent sax playing and strange harmonic writing — influenced by studies in the avant-classical school known as "spectralism" — is back, as expected. But this time, the interplay of his group is even tighter (drummer Tyshawn Sorey's subdivision of the beats is both wild feeling and razor precise). Compelling Lehman originals like "Segregated and Sequential" and "13 Colors" alternate with a series of interpretations of Bud Powell pieces. But this group approaches the familiar material in odd ways; their remake of "Glass Enclosure" starts not with its famous theme, but with an isolated fragment from Powell's playing in the middle of the original Blue Note recording. None of this is disrespectful to history. As Max Roach once said, in the course of defending Cecil Taylor, "Cecil to me is more like Bud than an imitator of Bud Powell, because Bud went away from what everybody was doing." With this madly original record, Lehman and Co. inherit more than a bit of the old-school tradition by going thrillingly far afield of what everyone else is currently doing. — S.C.W.