By Ted Gioia
Jazz Appreciation Month gives us an opportunity to celebrate musical milestones of the past. But it also ought to serve as a reminder that jazz is a vibrant art form in the current day. Here are 25 recordings released during the last few months that are well worth hearing.
1. Ambrose Akinmusire – The Imagined Savior Is Far Easier To Paint
Akinmusire is one of the most talented young trumpeters on the jazz scene. This release also represents a ‘return to its roots’ for the Blue Note label, which has increasingly strayed from mainstream jazz in recent years, but shows here that it hasn’t forgotten its heritage.
2. Greg Amirault – East of the Sun
Many of the most interesting new jazz albums are self-produced or issued by small indie labels. Montreal guitarist Amirault’s new CD is a case in point. He is hardly a household name in the jazz world, but this is one of the best guitar albums released in recent months.
3. The Bad Plus – The Rite of Spring
Stravinsky has been inspiring jazz artists for decades, but this ranks among the most creative reinterpretations of his work that I’ve heard.
4. Jeff Ballard – Time’s Tales
Check out the funky 9/4 groove that opens this leader date for drummer Jeff Ballard—joined byguitarist Lionel Loueke and saxophonist Miguel Zenon.
5. Joe Beck – Get Me
Guitarist Joe Beck died in 2008, but this posthumous release (coming out in a few days) is likely to reignite interest in a very talented and underrated artist.
6. George Cables – Icons and Influences
I’ve been a fan of Cables’ piano work since I was a teenager. He has been in poor health in recent years, but this new albums finds him playing at top form.
7. Regina Carter – Southern Comfort
Carter combines jazz with traditional Southern music on her latest release. Even listeners who don’t think they like jazz might find themselves enjoying this appealing album.
8. Matt Criscuolo – Blippity Blat
This is another self-produced album that merits close listening. Criscuolo is formidable saxophonist with a sweet tone and supple phrasing.
9. Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe – New Ammo
With this high-octane funk-oriented release, Denson proves that jazz can still work as dance music. This album might make a good entry point into jazz for rock fans who want to broaden their tastes and expand their ears.
10. Nir Felder – Golden Age
The recently revived OKeh label is releasing a number of outstanding jazz albums, but this CD from up-and-coming guitarist Nir Felder may be its most ambitious project of 2014, pushing beyond conventional boundaries of jazz and popular music.
11. Craig Handy – Craig Handy & 2nd Line Smith
Handy mixes elements of New Orleans party music and Hammond organ soul jazz in a very exciting hybrid. In a fair and hip world, this album (and the Denson release mentioned above) would be generating lots of radio airplay.
12. Vijay Iyer – Mutations
Iyer’s debut album with the ECM label is one of his best to date, revealing his maturity not just as a jazz player but also as a composer of jazz-oriented chamber music.
13. Christian Jacob – Beautiful Jazz
Here’s another smart self-produced jazz album that you could easily miss. Pianist Jacob is a master at updating and reharmonizing the traditional jazz repertoire.
14. Erik Jekabson – Live at the Hillside Club
Jekabson is one of the most promising young trumpeters on the West Coast, and continues to impress with this new album.
15. John Lurie – The Invention of Animals
John Lurie has never gotten the respect he deserves for his jazz work with the Lounge Lizards. He subsequently abandoned music to focus on painting, but these rediscovered tracks testify to his brilliance as a jazz improviser.
16. Pete McGuinness Jazz Orchestra – Strength in Numbers
I have heard several outstanding jazz big band albums this year, but this one is the best of breed.
17. The North – Slow Down (This Isn’t the Mainland)
Fans of mid-period Keith Jarrett and E.S.T. will enjoy this trio album. This band is still a well-kept secret in the jazz world, but their music has clear crossover potential.
18. Danilo Pérez – Panama 500
Pérez has long ranked among the leading Latin jazz artists. Here he draws on the Panamanian music tradition for a theme album commemorating the 500th anniversary of Balboa crossing the Isthmus of Panama.
19. Matthew Shipp – Root of Things
Pianist Shipp possesses an expansive vision of jazz that, over the years, has encompassed everything from hip-hop to electronica. In his latest album, he returns to the acoustic trio format, where he is joined by bassist Michael Bisio and drummer Whit Dickey.
20. Revolutionary Snake Ensemble – Live Snakes
This Boston-based band is a throwback to the earliest roots of jazz, when hornplayers often performed in parades and brass bands entertained at social gatherings.
21. (718) – Sputnik
The group’s name comes from its phone area code, and the album title honors a 1950s spacecraft. But the music here is rock-oriented funk jazz in the spirit of the best 1970s fusion bands.
22. Helen Sung – Anthem for a New Day
I’ve been following Sung’s career with interest for a number of years, but this is her best album to date.
23. Daniel Szabo – A Song From There
Daniel Szabo is one of the most impressive young pianists on the scene today, but even in jazz circles most won’t recognize his name. I suspect they will soon. I highly recommend his new album.
24. Norma Winstone – Dance Without Answer
Norma Winstone has been a major force on the British jazz scene since the 1960s. At an age when many jazz singers start showing wear and tear in their voices, Winstone is recording some of her finest work.
25. John Zorn – Psychomagia
It’s easy to take John Zorn for granted. He records prolifically, and puts very little effort into marketing and promoting his projects. But this 2014 release deserves your attention.
Ted Gioia is a musician, author, and leading jazz critic and expert on American music. The first edition of his The History of Jazz was selected as one of the twenty best books of the year in The Washington Post, and was chosen as a notable book of the year in The New York Times. He is also the author of The Jazz Standards, Delta Blues, West Coast Jazz, Work Songs and The Birth (and Death) of the Cool.