Sunday, December 07, 2014

2014 jazz top 10, plus

Did I hear enough jazz records in 2014 to comment authoritatively on what the "best" were? Did I listen hard/long enough to those I did hear, even the ones that yielded great pleasure? I'm thinking more about that word, listen, these days, after having read my friend Nick Podgurski's recent critique/manifesto on the topic, as it pertains to processing, appreciating and writing about music. His thoughts are well worth your time.

No, I don't feel that my jazz listening this year was really adequate, whatever that means. And I think that's as it should be. Those of us who follow and respond to the arts can always do more. But in the present tense, all you can do is make note of what moved you and why. That's why I like the year-end list bonanza, simply because it's a time of celebration. And celebration is the ultimate goal, always, maybe the only goal. "Criticism"—haha. I'm a fan.

So here are some 2014 jazz records I loved. The first ten are the ones I submitted as my ballot to Francis Davis's annual survey. The order feels more and more arbitrary to me as I look over the list, but I'll count down backward to build in just a little suspense. All of these should be easily accessible via Amazon and/or iTunes; most of them—the ECMs and the Palmetto excepted—are streaming on Spotify. Now, on to the music:

10. Louis Hayes Return of the Jazz Communicators (Smoke Sessions)

Smoke, on the Upper West Side, is a cool club. I admit I haven't been there in ages. The recent flurry of albums from the venue's in-house label, Smoke Sessions, makes me want to remedy that asap. As Nate Chinen recently reported, Smoke Sessions has been on a tear lately, much like its downtown counterpart Smalls Records. Every Smoke disc I've spent good time with has been strong, but I admit I'm biased toward the ones that pair elder bop masters with killer younger players. (Along these lines, I also highly recommend Jimmy Cobb's The Original Mob, with Peter Bernstein, Brad Mehldau and John Webber.) As I've written here before, the intergenerational concept often makes for great jazz: conventional jazz that feels profound, not perfunctory. And that's exactly what this Louis Hayes session is. On paper, it's completely straightforward—a nice, varied set of jazz-club jazz, played live at Smoke by an all-star band. But the sound is excellent, and it allows me to focus on what I want to focus on, namely the gorgeous thump and crash of Hayes's kit, the strange, somewhat loose, rattly snare sound, the relaxed insistence of his ride-cymbal patterns. Three outstanding soloists—saxist Abraham Burton, vibist Steve Nelson and pianist David Bryant—all of whom sound so comfortable in Hayes's luxurious pocket, and in the general idiom of this music: soulful hardbop, ’50s-style, from burners to ballads, like the sort that the now 77-year-old Hayes was playing with Horace Silver nearly 60 (!) years ago. I hope I get the chance to see Louis Hayes live soon, and I thank Smoke Sessions for reminding me to catch players like him while I still can.

9. Bill McHenry, Henry Grimes and Andrew Cyrille Us Free—Fish Stories (Fresh Sound New Talent)

I didn't know this album existed until a couple weeks ago. I think I was searching, as I often am, for new Andrew Cyrille delights and stumbled across Us Free on Spotify. As I mentioned on Twitter recently, it's been a great year for AC on disc; for example, Syvmileskridt, a trio album led by Danish pianist Søren Kjærgaard and featuring the drummer, narrowly missed making this top 10 list and is well worth your time, as is Wiring, by the illustrious Trio 3 (Lake/Workman/Cyrille) with simpatico guest pianist Vijay Iyer. When I saw that Us Free was actually recorded in 2006, I wondered if it might have some sort of core drawback that kept it from release until now, but once you hear it, I think you'll agree that it's every bit as excellent as you'd expect given the musicians involved. As I've often written, I'm a big Bill McHenry fan; put him together with a drummer as classy, adaptable and distinctive as Cyrille (see: the current McHenry quartet with AC, Orrin Evans and Eric Revis) and an intense, unpredictable bass presence like Henry Grimes, and you've got serious potential. When I first came across Us Free, I was wondering if it would be more or less an open-improv session. I'd happily listen to a record like that made by these three, but I find Us Free's actual content—a diverse program of concise tracks, most of them originals—way more interesting.

I'm not sure whose idea this session was; it seems like a sort of collective affair, but I'm just now realizing that in many ways it's a sequel to Grimes's underrated 1965 debut as a leader, The Call. Us Free reprises three of the Grimes tracks from that session, "For Django" (just called "Django" here; not to be confused with the John Lewis standard), "Son of Alfafa" and "Fish Story," clearly the new album's quasi-namesake. Like The Call, Us Three is a trio session that runs on a sort of jittery, dancing, almost whimsical energy, and juggles gritty, deep-pocket, hard-swinging freebop with more abstract styles. In the former vein, the trio's reading of Keith Jarrett's "Shades of Jazz" (an interesting choice; I'm guessing it might have been McHenry's call, since he's the only one who doesn't contribute original pieces to this date) almost reminds me of an Old and New Dreams performance, or maybe a particularly hard-swinging Paul Motian–led track; it has that same rough, rambling, freewheeling, celebratory vibe. McHenry, Grimes and Cyrille share a deep earthiness of aesthetic, and so, a conventionally swinging performance like "Shades" or "Django" feels completely of a piece with the freer, more intuitive style of improvising heard on "Son of Alfafa." Smartly, there are plenty of moments of deep repose here: a stupendously chill version of Cyrille's "Aubade" (which I remember from another excellent, not-well-enough-known AC reed/bass/drums session, the C/D/E album from 2000), which features the sparsest and most prayerful instrumental interplay I've heard on record this year. "Vibration"—one of several tracks on which Grimes plays violin (another is a moving solo rendition of "Come Sunday")—"Fish Story" and "With You in Mind" (featuring a narration by AC) exemplify a similar sort of texture-oriented balladry that's heavenly to get lost in if you're a fan of the softer side of these three players' sounds. Any trio album featuring these three players was going to catch my attention, but the fact that this turned out to be such a thoughtful, substantial, approachable, and, I'd be remiss not to mention, beautifully recorded album was a pleasant shock. Can't wait to spend more time with this one (and, for that matter, with The Call, an album I loved years ago but haven't revisited in quite a while).

8. David Virelles Mbókò (ECM)

Like many of my jazz-writin' peers, I was a big fan of Virelles's immersive 2012 set Continuum (see here and here). Mbókò is on a different label and features a different band—percussionist-vocalist Román Díaz is the sole holdover from Continuum—but to me it feels like a sequel to that session. David Virelles's work as a leader obviously has a very strong sense of mission. In the first write-up of Continuum linked above, I discussed how that record had an air of willful mystery. "I have also been asked about the meaning of Román Díaz’ words on this recording," wrote Virelles of Continuum, referring to the untranslated chant/narration that Díaz contributes to that album. "His poetry was created in Spanish, as well as ritual languages from the three main cultural lineages of African origin of Cuba:  Karabalí, Kongo and Yorùbá-Lucumí. He uses their inherited phrases by morphing and reorganizing them, contributing to these oral traditions. His words address issues particular to each song in a code-like fashion that would be challenging to understand even to Spanish speakers." (Emphasis mine.) In this newer interview, he discusses the Abakuá secret society and its influence on Mbókò. "…some of the information is available only to intitiates," he says at one point. And in this Continuum interview, he states, "I wanted to have access to the kind of information that people like Andrew Cyrille [who appears on Continuum] have, for example. I wanted direct contact with that."

I don't pretend to understand the subtleties of Virelles's rich statements, either verbal or musical, but it's clear that his work is about communion, both with jazz tradition and with Afro-Cuban ritual tradition. And if you don't necessarily fully grasp all the references, you can still get lost in the music, feel its meditative composure and shadowy intrigue. Mbókò takes me to those same places, but to my ears, it's a less esoteric album than Continuum, more aligned with Jazz Piano proper. Part of that has to do with the fact that Díaz's verbal element is downplayed; his chant is featured, but in a less central role than it was on Continuum. I admit that this appeals to me; I enjoyed the vocals on the earlier record, and I understand their centrality to the project, but I found myself relishing the straightforward piano-bass-drums interplay the most. More than Continuum, Mbókò feels like a jazz album that has a strong Afro-Cuban ritual element, rather than an Afro-Cuban ritual album that has a strong jazz element. Some of the pieces, like the opening "Wind Rose (Antrogofoko Mokoirén)," feel like spirit-raising soundscapes, but other tracks here, like "Aberiñán y Aberisún," "Stories Waiting to Be Told" and "Seven, Through the Divination Horn" really let us hear Virelles the piano player and bandleader, as opposed to, for lack of a better term, Virelles the channeler-of-vibe. Díaz's percussion is beautifully integrated into the record's piano-bass-bass-drums fabric, and there's something really compelling about hearing his folkloric percussion set against kit drummer Marcus Gilmore's futuristic, electronica-inspired grooves on "Transmission," to name one example of how Díaz's contributions play out on Mbókò. If I had to venture a guess, I'd suspect that ECM's Manfred Eicher might have had something to do with the somewhat more conventional bent of this album with respect to its predecessor. (Interestingly, in the newest interview mentioned above, Virelles discusses how some listeners told him they felt Continuum wasn't traditionally "pianistic" enough; is Mbókò simply a response to that?) But whatever the reason for this slight shift in orientation, the important thing is that Mbókò delivers a lot of what I liked about Continuum, while telling us even more about the David Virelles aesthetic. This budding visionary clearly doesn't make records casually, and I can't wait to see what he comes up with next.

7. Dave Douglas and Uri Caine Present Joys (Greenleaf Music)

I'm not all that familiar with Dave Douglas's enormous body of work. I've enjoyed the handful of his records I've checked out during the past few years, and there are a few back-catalog titles I remember digging many years back (including the Booker Little tribute In Our Lifetime and the Tiny Bell Trio's Songs for Wandering Souls), but I'm no expert. That's even more true re: my knowledge of Uri Caine. But Present Joys immediately felt familiar and inviting to me, and it's stuck with me since its release over the summer. I think this is because it falls into a certain category of record that I have an affinity for—not just a horn/piano duo album, but one with a powerful unifying mood, a reason for existing. There's a good amount of variety on Present Joys, but its prevailing mood is a sort of churchy somberness, stemming from the fact that several of the pieces are from the Sacred Harp songbook. And some of the tracks that aren't drawn from that source clearly take cues from this tradition. Much like Branford Marsalis and Joey Calderazzo's similarly hued Songs of Mirth and Melancholy, Present Joys is a document of two badass jazz musicians getting together and deciding to do something other than simply play some tunes. Douglas and Caine are zeroing in on a wavelength, using their gifts to set, and burrow into, a mood, rather than just perform. As with Songs of Mirth, the album isn't all one thing; there's some nicely jaunty, bluesy, swinging, sometimes abstract material ("Ham Fist," "Seven Seas," "End to End") to season the mix. But the slower pieces seem to me to be the meat of the album. "Bethel" is one of the originals that's clearly indebted to the Sacred Harp material; it's intensely lovely and funereal. There's delicateness to the playing here and also great gravity. This performance, along with the other slow pieces, is the sound of two musicians playing a song, sitting with it and meditating on it, rather than perfunctorily stating a theme as a prelude to improvisation. I've always been a fan of, for lack of a better term, sad jazz: Booker Little's "Man of Words," Grachan Moncur's "Evolution," Andrew Hill's "Dedication" and much of the aforementioned Marsalis/Calderazzo set. If you, like me, love it when jazz slows, quiets, grows still, bears down emotionally, bares its heavy heart, then Present Joys will likely do for you what it does for me. I'm sitting here listening to the final track, "Zero Hour," and I'm feeling like I could live in this music. It's not some relaxing-background-music vibe; it's the power of jazz to embrace sparseness and patience and real reflection. A zone beyond ballads, approaching pure feeling. That's what Dave Douglas and Uri Caine achieve here.

(Incidentally, I'm curious to know what other duo albums in the vein of Present Joys folks might be able to recommend. Off the top of my head, I can think of three LPs I know of, but don't know so well, that might do the trick: Archie Shepp and Horace Parlan's Goin' Home, Hank Jones and Charlie Haden's Steal Away, and Haden and Metheny's Beyond the Missouri Sky. Now that I think about it, Haden's classic duets collections, Closeness and The Golden Number, fit the bill too.)

6. Johnathan Blake Gone, But Not Forgotten (Criss Cross)

Plenty of conventional jazz appeal on this record by drummer Johnathan Blake, another player I'm not super familiar with in general. I don't typically see promos from Criss Cross, but I sought this one out after reading Ethan Iverson's rave on Do the Math. I'll second his praise and state that I love the way this album both fulfills and subverts the paradigm of brawny, hard-swinging two-tenor jazz. There's no denying the thrill of hearing the clearly very Elvin-inspired, and sometimes (as on "Broski") beautifully bashy Blake light a fire underneath Chris Potter and Mark Turner. The former, who seems to really excel at soul-volcano catharsis, fits comfortably into this context, while Turner finds ways to match Potter's intensity while at the same time bringing his usual feeling of thoughtful composure into the mix. (Interestingly, I was just reading this Turner Ted Panken Blindfold Test, where Turner says of Potter, "I wish I could play that well. He’s totally incredible.") Blake clearly designed this as a playing date. In contrast to Present Joys, there is a feeling here of "Get the head out of the way so we can jam" on pieces such as "New Wheels" and monster opening track "Cryin' Blues." But the simple assuredness with which Blake and bassist Ben Street swing, and with which all the players solo (I'm listening to a killer Street bass feature on final track "Two for the Blues" right now) makes this record a moment-to-moment delight, whether the band is ambling or cooking.

The pianoless-quartet format yields a great feeling of openness; in that sense, this is free jazz, literally jazz that's free to do what its architect, Blake, clearly loves to do most, which is hang out in the pocket and just jam. (Not to play the pointless pigeonholing game, but I'm having a hard time placing this brand of jazz; there's a lot of hardbop in here, but the pianoless element takes it out of the realm of super-conventional jazz-club jazz; maybe you could liken the format heard on Gone, But Not Forgotten to some of the Elvin-led bands of the ’70s, including the Liebman/Grossman/Perla quartet from Live at the Lighthouse.) Blake picked the right players; as Iverson noted, he picked the right repertoire (a cool smattering including pieces by Eddie Harris, Cedar Walton, Paul Motian and Jim Hall) and he picked the right arrangements, just meticulous enough to create an appealing framework for the solos; and he clearly picked the right studio and engineer, because this album sounds excellent. I've got the Trudy Pitts ballad "Anysha" on now, and much like the Louis Hayes album, it just sounds good, in a simple, nourishing way. This is an uncomplicated jazz album—familiar though not, to my ears, particularly retro-feeling—but one with a really savvy design and a very clear, consistent appeal. I would love to see this music performed live.

5. David Weiss When Words Fail (Motéma Music)

Speaking of clear, consistent appeal, I'm really starting to recognize David Weiss's name as a mark of quality, a brand that implies a certain amount of seriousness and sophistication, and a determination to produce top-quality small-group jazz that summons an orchestral grandeur without skimping on the improvisational fire. I'm a big fan of his work with the Cookers, which released its latest robust, powerful disc this year, Time and Time Again, an album I wish I'd been able to spend more time with. Part of the reason I didn't, though, might have been that this disc under Weiss's own name really sated my appetite for that trademark Weiss sound that's so evident on the Cookers albums: big, lush, little-big-band arrangements bookending passionate solos. There's nothing particularly radical about the David Weiss aesthetic, but I do hear in his work a certain defiant spirit, an insistence that contemporary jazz ought not to shy away from being jazzy: big and bold and dramatic and flashy and hugely spirited, while taking on a range of emotions with a broadly shaded palette that clearly takes cues from the composerly likes of Wayne Shorter, an artist Weiss paid tribute to on last year's Endangered Species.

Simply put, many of these pieces (e.g., "The Intrepid Hub," "MJ") sound like they could be standards from somewhere between about ’65 and ’75—"White Magic" is actually a 1973 tune by pianist John Taylor—but the way Weiss's band performs them, they sound utterly urgent. I'm particularly impressed by altoist Myron Walden's voicelike wailing on "Aftermath." (You can sense Walden and the other sidemen's devotion to the Weiss enterprise in this promo video.) Does this jazz sound old? In a certain sense. When Words Fail makes me think of those proud, determinedly classy, brassy, swinging jazzmen of the ’70s, the Charles Tollivers and Woody Shaws, say; it's an album that asserts Weiss's unshakeable belief, expressed in Cookers liner notes I've read, that hardbop is an infinite and infinitely durable medium. So this record is not "cutting-edge" in any obvious way. What it is, though, is simply sturdy and superb and confident in its idiom and in control of its materials. Does hearing music this flawless sometimes make me want to grasp for something rawer, chancier, less pristine? Sure, but if you're in the mood for jazz with polish and grandeur and heart, and these sort of skyscraping, spirit-stirring themes—and I find that I often am—When Words Fail is an excellent bet.

4. Sarah Manning Harmonious Creature (Posi-Tone)

Like the Smalls and Smoke imprints mentioned above, L.A.'s Posi-Tone has a strong label identity, mostly orbiting around straight-ahead hardbop. While I've often enjoyed their output in the past, I've never felt as strongly about any of their records as I do about this one, and that might be because it stands so far apart from what they usually release. I have to thank Phil Freeman, a passionate Posi-Tone advocate, for turning me on to Harmonious Creature, via this interview with saxist-composer Sarah Manning. (The album ranked highly on Phil's very comprehensive and worthwhile year-end jazz list over at Burning Ambulance.) All of the albums on this list are, in one way or another, strong, individualistic statements, but to me, none of them feels as distinctive as this record. Harmonious Creature is an entire world; everything, from the makeup of the ensemble to the character of the writing, and Manning's alto-saxophone style and improvisational approach—and even the cover art/design—feels deeply personal. I can recall hearing jazz with strong overtones of chamber music, Americana or Eastern European folk, all currents I hear in this music, but there's a certain sense of fantasy, of elegant reverie, that pervades Manning's aesthetic and sets it wholly apart from any other soundworld I can think of. The themes are sturdy and instantly memorable; I'm particularly taken with the swaying, twisting, piquant "Radish Spirit" and the blazing, dervish-like "Floating Bridge." And the grouping of musicians, particularly the frontline of Manning, violist Eyvind Kang and guitarist Jonathan Goldberger, is an exemplary feat of bandbuilding. There's just such a synergy between material and format; you can tell that Manning crafted this music to be played by this band. The sax and viola solos, which often overlap, can feel like a single improvising brain expressing itself in two different voices: Manning's gorgeously liquid, almost stringlike sound—imagine Sonny Simmons's register-jumping daring combined with the calmly inspired flow of Lee Konitz—mingling with Kang's woody, super-emotive flights. Guitarist Johnathan Goldberger adds a luminous haze to the performances; he's particularly effective on the quasi-ambient ballad "I Dream a Highway" and the excellent cover of Neil Young's "On the Beach," which explodes into a blur of swimming colors.

Harmonious Creature stands apart from most jazz the way that Young song stands apart from most "roots rock." It expresses a very private vision, but also a very openhearted and inviting one, beautifully rendered by a profoundly sympathetic band. I have no idea who to compare Sarah Manning to soundwise, but spiritwise, I'm tempted to mention Booker Little, Kenny Wheeler, Bill Frisell and Paul Motian. The first two for specificity of vision, depth of affect and richness of texture, and the latter two for their championing of a deeply romantic, dreamlike vision of jazz—jazz that seems at once nostalgic and fantastical. I think Harmonious Creature embodies all of that. I love this record, and I'm fascinated to hear future dispatches from Sarah Manning's singular brain.

3. Kenny Barron and Dave Holland The Art of Conversation (Impulse!)

I came around to Dave Holland's 2013 release, Prism, pretty late. It was only a month or so ago that I really had a moment with that record, a fun, swaggery funk-fusion romp. This LP couldn't be more different from Prism. It's not anything like the other duo album on this list, Present Joys, either. In some ways, The Art of Conversation has a lot in common with the Johnathan Blake session above. Both are about providing elegant frameworks in which master improvisers can simply play—get down to business and be themselves. Kenny Barron's playing on this record is so assured, so swinging and bluesy and virtuosic, that it almost feels unassailable. I'm not sure how jazz piano could be played any better than this. Of course, there are a million more idiosyncratic ways it could be played, but Barron's playing seems free of quirk. The passion I hear in his playing is the passion of assurance; he's nailing this music and making it look easy. Holland solos too—and handles the melody statement on the exquisite Barron ballad "Rain"—but mostly, he's playing a straightforward pizzicato bassist's role on this program of originals by both men, plus a couple standards.

I truly don't mean to take anything away from this pair or minimize the album's appeal—even in a year of particularly strong jazz releases, this stood way out for me—when I say that The Art of Conversation seems like the platonic ideal of cocktail jazz. The performances are uniformly tight, pleasant and—again, I don't mean this as a value judgment—polite. The repertoire is well-balanced, from witty and urbane (Monk is clearly a touchstone; the duo plays "In Walked Bud," as well as Barron's very Monkish "The Only One") to stirring and romantic (Holland's "The Oracle," Ellingon/Strayhorn's "Daydream). And these pieces do work just fine in a background mood-setting capacity, but when you take the time to zero in, The Art of Conversation just sounds sublime. The album title is at once a) cliché and b) completely true. To listen closely to a piece like the gorgeous Holland ballad "In Your Arms" is to hear two players interlocking, exchanging, dancing together, reinforcing one another in turn.

The Art of Conversation contains a lot of music that will sound familiar to anyone with even a passing knowledge of jazz. It's tempting to gloss over an album like this, even if you find it appealing. It's great jazz musicians playing jazz, right? But beneath the almost casual, offhanded facade, its seeming effortlessness, is a deep conviction about how jazz ought to be done. There are obviously many more conventionally exciting and distinctive Dave Holland records than this chill and dynamically narrow release, and while I don't know the Kenny Barron catalog well, I'd guess that the same goes for him. But taken on its own merits, The Art of Conversation rewards every second you spend paying it close attention. Listen hard enough, and its straightforward excellence starts to sound almost radical. This album achieves urgency by simply being its own unassuming self.

2. Frank Kimbrough Quartet (Palmetto) 

There's an illustrious jazz tradition of building on tradition, wearing one's influences proudly, whether that's Mingus channeling Duke, or Steve Lacy channeling Monk. You tell the listener where you're coming from, and you demonstrate how you're starting there and taking them somewhere new. I hear so much loving homage on this Frank Kimbrough album. The first three tracks he selects on this desert-island list are by Keith Jarrett, Paul Bley and Andrew Hill, the latter two being former mentors of Kimbrough's. And his aesthetic, as expressed on Quartet, bears traces of all three. Like those three pianists, and I'm generalizing wildly here, Kimbrough operates at the intersection of modernism and the blues, creating radical music that's full of earth and hearty pulsation. He's a kind of eccentric/romantic—in some ways my favorite kind of jazz musician, Andrew Hill being my No. 1 example—who relishes freedom but also values rapturous emotion. The result is that you get a piece like "The Call," which opens Quartet. The performance operates in what I think of a post-Jarrett/Bley/Haden/Motian mode of free jazz, stumbling along in propulsive yet metrically free time while also embodying an intense sentimentality, so that the players enter into a kind of sweet delirium, pouring out a song as if it were so much sweat. I can't help but see Keith Jarrett's super-soulful, Afro-topped ’70s countenance when I hear much of this music, such as "The Call" or the clearly American Quartet–indebted blues-soul workout "Kudzu."

A lot of what helps Quartet transcend its influences is Kimbrough's shrewd choice of sidemen. Steve Wilson's alto work is in some ways the most appealing thing about this album. The dude absolutely soars on Quartet, drenching the pieces with sweet songfulness. And bassist Jay Anderson and drummer Lewis Nash do an excellent job of providing the molten rhythmic lava—not violent so much as restless, joyously multi-directional—that jazz like this so desperately needs. A performance like "Afternoon in Paris" here, essentially interpreted as free jazz (in the same sense as "The Call"), perfectly illustrates the album's blend of romance and abstraction. Like Present Joys and Harmonious Creature above, Quartet is a hugely openhearted album, a document of virtuosos getting down to meat of song. The ballad "November," with its dark, sensuous melody, might be my favorite track; it's such a delight to hear the way the band burrows into the material, scooping out all possible emotion and meaning. That goes for Quartet as a whole; the compositions are love letters to Kimbrough's forebears, and the solos are love letters to the compositions and the moods that inspired them. The effect is radiant and intoxicating.

1. Mark Turner Lathe of Heaven (ECM)

Whenever I see Mark Turner's name on an album or gig listing, I take notice. I suspect I'm not alone in this. He's been a musicians' and critics' favorite for some time. (See this great 2002 Ben Ratliff profile.) Every time I've seen him live—with several different bands, including Fly and quartets led by himself, Billy Hart and Gilad Hekselman—he's been, for me at least, the music's center of gravity. There's a composed, shaded purity to his solos, a patient, unshowy determination.

Those same qualities also apply to his bandleading, to the extent that Lathe of Heaven barely registered with me on the first couple listens. The same thing happened when I saw this particular band, a quartet with trumpeter Avishai Cohen, bassist Joe Martin and drummer Marcus Gilmore, at the Vanguard earlier in the year; the group honestly didn't make much of an impression. But duh, it's Mark Turner, so you have to look more closely. I doubt I could describe Lathe of Heaven in a more appropriate and evocative way than Turner himself does in this video profile: "…mystery and tension"; "In a lot of these songs, you're not going to hear the whole [story] from the beginning; it's going to develop over the course of the song."

I love all six tracks on this record, but there's something about the final one, "Brother Sister 2," that has me particularly enthralled. There's a version of this track on Fly's third album, 2012's Year of the Snake, yet another Mark Turner dispatch that I haven't quite gotten my head around yet. But the Lathe reading is one of the most enthralling puzzlements I've heard on any record this year. This notion Turner mentions of not revealing the whole story from the beginning comes through strongly here, though I'm not sure he and the band reveal the whole story even by the end. A simple, bluesily melancholy horn theme—played first by Turner, then by Cohen, then by both—set against an exaggeratedly slow Gilmore backbeat, which keeps petering out, losing steam. Martin meanwhile, plays what sounds like an entirely independent line, as though he's walking his fingers along to a whole other track that's piping through his headphones. The overall effect is extremely odd, almost as if the whole band is playing in a drowsy trance. Then, right as you're starting to orient yourself to the wavelength of the piece, its strange start/stop hypnosis, the piece shifts into another theme, played in a very slow, murky 6/8 that unravels into a pool of swirling sound. Turner and Cohen begin soloing at once, with the rhythm section barely implying the pulse, really letting the music swim. (I should make it clear here that Cohen is a dream foil for Turner throughout this record; Lathe really got me excited about the trumpeter, and sent me back to his own very good 2014 leader session, Dark Nights.) If you're one of those listeners who, like me, loves to relish jazz as pure sound, this section will be a deep delight for you. I could listen to this band sprawl out in collective, controlled freedom—as they do from around 4:00 through around 6:30 in "Brother Sister 2"—all day. There are hints of abandon, but this isn't "free jazz"; it's thoughtful, listening-oriented abstraction. Then around 7:20, the original drowsy-backbeat passage returns. Joe Martin really lets go here, stretching the tempo like taffy with his weird, oblique walking pattern. Then the rhythm section drops out, and Turner and Cohen lay the piece quietly to rest.

I don't know exactly what to make of "Brother Sister 2," but I do know that it exemplifies Turner's stated objectives of mystery and tension extraordinarily well. And not in obvious or obtuse ways. It draws you in, but it doesn't tip its hand. That doesn't mean there's not an order there. The rest of the pieces on the record are somewhat more conventional, but the whole album feels, to me, sort of infinitely worthy of regard, if that makes sense. (I think I know what Ben Ratliff meant when he wrote this of Lathe: "It does something that jazz records used to do more: you might hear it, feel there’s really nothing to add, and decide not to listen to records—including this one—for, say, a week.") It creates an atmosphere, a vibe, a hazy yet super-sturdy intensity, and sustains it, just like Mark Turner solos tend to do. I particularly love "Ethan's Line"—with its slyly shimmying rhythm, complex yet catchy theme and, similar to "Brother Sister 2," daringly but not chaotically abstracted midsection—and "Sonnet for Stevie" (another version appears, along with Turner himself, on Billy Hart's very good 2014 album, One Is the Other), an extremely laid-back, balladlike piece that slowly builds up swagger during the solos. The whole record is just pure content and composure and, thus, is a perfect summation of the Mark Turner aesthetic so far. I recommend that you spend serious time with Lathe of Heaven. And secondarily, I recommend the Ursula K. Le Guin novel that gives the album its name, which I picked up after falling for the disc.


Honorable mentions:

At one point or another, I considered each of these ten albums for the above list.

Ginger Baker Why? (Motéma Music)
The fiercely individualized, incomparable-to-anything-else wonder that is Ginger Baker Playing Jazz.

Nels Cline and Julian Lage Room (Mack Avenue)
In other settings, Cline sometimes loses me with what I hear as fussy faux-weirdness, but there's a delicacy and thoughtfulness to the best material here that I find completely disarming.

Jeremiah Cymerman Pale Horse (5049)
Minimalist meditation and sinister mind control from an increasingly vital experimentalist and two expertly attuned collaborators. (Hear/buy on Bandcamp.)

Kris Davis Trio Waiting for You to Grow (Clean Feed)
One of the most formidable and formidably weird pianists on earth reaches new heights of exacting insanity—jarring and meditative in turn.

Donald Edwards Evolution of an Influenced Mind (Criss Cross)
State-of-the-art virtuoso postbop, deepened by excellent writing from the leader and an extraordinary lineup including ubiquitous geniuses Orrin Evans and Eric Revis.

Billy Hart One Is the Other (ECM)
The third album, and third straight essential statement, from one of the best working bands in contemporary jazz, featuring Turner, Street and Ethan Iverson.

Søren Kjærgaard, Andrew Cyrille and Ben Street Syvmileskridt (ILK)
A wonderful surprise, which finds a Danish pianist continuing his rich collaboration—and furthering a truly collaborative, subtly individualistic trio—with two American masters (incidentally also the rhythm team behind David Virelles's Continuum). (Hear/buy on Bandcamp.)

Kirk Knuffke and Jesse Stacken Five (Steeplechase)
A handsome trumpet-piano companion to the Douglas/Caine above: warmth, intimacy and inspired, unconventional repertoire, via a pair whose ongoing duo project really feels like a proper band.

Rudy Royston 303 (Greenleaf)
Lush, funky, confident postbop that isn't afraid to go for big emotion or pop-friendly slickness—this one's a delight when you're in the right mood.

Tyshawn Sorey Alloy (Pi Recordings)
Deepening mystery and stubborn patience from a drummer-composer who's making a habit of demanding and rewarding sustained attention.

P.S. I feel like I should mention one record I was dying to hear but haven't yet managed to get ahold of: Tarbaby's Fanon, on RogueArt. Hope to be able to check it out soon!



I haven't spent as much time with any of these as I'd like, but I adore what I have heard of them. The first two offer further proof of what we already knew about these giants' respective genius; the latter shows us yet another facet of an unpigeonhole-able original.

Keith Jarrett, Charlie Haden and Paul Motian Hamburg ’72 (ECM)

John Coltrane Offering: Live at Temple University (Resonance)

The Jimmy Giuffre 3 and 4 New York Concerts (Elemental Music)



The 2014 jazz shows that stand out most strongly in my mind are the Ornette tribute at Celebrate Brooklyn! and Farmers by Nature at ShapeShifter Lab. James Blood Ulmer at Vision Fest was also a revelation.

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