Best Jazz of 2014: Tom Harrell, Chick Corea, Frank Kimbrough, Snarky Puppy & more

In 2014, Jazz meant a profusion of intriguing and sometimes provocative releases by veterans (Tom Harrell) and young stars (Ambrose Akinmusire) alike, the music as the nominal subject and/or driving force of the score in several films (“Whiplash,” “Low Down,” “Birdman”), and several unfunny satires of jazzers, followed by dust-ups in the jazz community (the Sonny Rollins “interview” in the The New Yorker, etc.).

Full-time institutions of jazz — namely Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York, and SFJAZZ in San Francisco — continued to flourish, with many, varied events, as did several competitions (Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition, the Jacksonville Jazz Festival Piano Competition), and a profusion of festivals in the United States and abroad, although some of the festivals continued to lean heavy in the pop/rock direction while de-emphasizing their middle name.

Jazz clubs in NYC are still going strong, and still at the heart of the jazz world, as I was reminded during visits to the venerable Village Vanguard (for Christian McBride’s Inside Straight quintet; see my review) and Birdland (for Arturo O’Farrill’s Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra, with my friend and former bandmate Jonathan Powell on trumpet; see my review). There are dozens more great venues, of course, in NYC.

More great jazz was released than one person could hear, of course. Here are 10 stand-outs, in a list I was asked to contribute to JazzTimes, NPR Music, the Jazz Journalists Association. and elsewhere.

TOP 10

tom harrell trip

1. Tom Harrell, “Trip” (HighNote)

2. Chick Corea, “Trilogy” (Concord)

3. Frank Kimbrough, “Quartet” (Palmetto)

4. Snarky Puppy, “We Like It Here” (Ropeadope)

5. Henry Butler-Steven Bernstein and the Hot 9, “Viper’s Drag” (Impulse)

6. Brian Blade & the Fellowship Band, “Landmarks” (Blue Note)

7. Ambrose Akinmusire, “The Imagined Savior is Far Easier to Paint” (Blue Note)

8. Stanton Moore, “Conversations” (The Royal Potato Family)

9. Medeski Scofield Martin and Wood, “Juice” (Indirecto)

10. Keith Jarrett-Charlie Haden, “Last Dance” (ECM)

HISTORICAL/REISSUES

1. Charlie Haden and Jim Hall, “Charlie Haden-Jim Hall” (Impulse)

2. John Coltrane, “Offering: Live at Temple University” (Impulse)

3. Miles Davis, “Miles at the Fillmore — Miles Davis 1970: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 3” (Columbia/Legacy)

4. Jaco Pastorius, “Modern American Music … Period! The Criteria Sessions” (Omnivore)

5. Thelonious Monk, “Paris 1969” (Blue Note)

VOCAL

  • Tierney Sutton,  “Paris Sessions” (BFM Jazz)

DEBUT

  • Ben Flocks, “Battle Mountain” (West Cliff)

LATIN

  • Arturo O’Farrill, “The Offense of the Drum” (Motema)

 

Christian McBride Big Band, “That Good Feeling” (CD review)

(recently reviewed for Jazz Times; direct link)

 Christian McBride Big Band, The Good Feeling (Mack Avenue Records)

Christian McBride, one of two high-profile veteran bassists making debuts as big-band leaders this season (along with Ron Carter), offers 11 of his arrangements, a mix of original compositions and standards. McBride’s career orchestrating for large ensembles, as he recounts in the liner notes, began a little more than 15 years ago with a commission from the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. That piece, “Bluesin’ in Alphabet City,” is here, and it’s a charmer, a bluesy swinger with the trombone section’s melody answered by trumpet and saxophone rejoinders before opening up for solos, including a showcase for the leader’s speedy fingerboard flights and chopping-wood tone.

Bluesy swagger also marks “In a Hurry,” originally heard on McBride’s debut album and here building into a ferocious, criss-crossing bone battle between Michael Dease and James Burton. It’s topped off with the leader’s quick-witted bowed solo, a shouted chorus, and an extended, aptly explosive drum solo from Ulysses Owens Jr.

McBride turns in several more of his own tunes, originally played by smaller ensembles on his albums, including stomping opener “Shake ’N Blake,” with its unison melody shared between McBride and tenor saxophonist Ron Blake, and a conversational solo by trumpeter Nicholas Payton; the R&B-grooving “Brother Mister,” with solos by Payton and alto saxophonist Steve Wilson; the color-shifting “Science Fiction”; and “The Shade of the Cedar Tree,” a mellow McBride favorite.

When it comes to standards, there aren’t any letdowns. “Broadway” is all sweet swing, with a loose and likable McBride solo, while the slow-moving “When I Fall in Love” and “The More I See You” both benefit from singer Melissa Walker’s beautifully paced reading of the vintage lyrics. McBride takes the melody of “I Should Care,” which grants solo space to Payton and tenor saxophonist Loren Schoenberg.

Ron Carter, “Ron Carter’s Great Big Band” (CD review)

(recently reviewed for Jazz Times; direct link)

Ron Carter, Ron Carter’s Great Big Band (Sunnyside)

Given the thousands of recordings that Ron Carter has played on, it’s surprising that Ron Carter’s Great Big Band is the masterful bassist’s first session leading a large ensemble. Tapping the talents of prolific jazz and pop arranger Robert Freedman, pianist Mulgrew Miller, drummer Lewis Nash and a roomful of first-call hornmen, Carter turns in a 13-track program that makes a refreshing—not stuffy—jazz-history survey, with music dating all the way back to W.C. Handy. Underneath it all, Carter drives the tunes, including two of his own, with typically impeccable time, tone that’s woody and resonant, and adroit note choices.

The Latin-tinged pieces are among the standouts on the disc. A shimmering version of Dizzy Gillespie’s “Con Alma” opens and closes with a brass choir, and features a slipping-and-sliding Carter solo as well as dazzling, economical turns from Miller, trumpeter Greg Gisbert and alto saxophonist Steve Wilson. Jerry Dodgion’s bright, inquisitive soprano sax rides atop a version of Ellington’s “Caravan” characterized by a sneaky intro, staggered brass and some intriguing detours.

Freedman nods to the classic ’40s big-band sound on a couple of occasions, with an update of Sy Oliver’s “Opus One,” penned for the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra and here led off by bass trombonist Doug Purviance, and Tom Harrell’s retro-minded “Sail Away,” with relaxed solos by Miller, trombonist James Burton III, Carter and tenor saxophonist Wayne Escoffery. The band also ventures into hard bop, with a fiery take on Sonny Stitt’s “The Eternal Triangle”; cool-jazz climes, with Gerry Mulligan’s tuneful “Line for Lyons” and John Lewis’ “The Golden Striker”; and soul jazz, with a grooving take on Nat Adderley’s “Sweet Emma.” Carter even offers a pleasant return trip to Wayne Shorter’s “Footprints,” which the bassist, 74, helped make famous as part of Miles’ Second Great Quintet.