Best jazz albums 2014, plus reissues: Sonny Rollins, Ambrose Akinmusire, Fred Hersch, Frank Kimbrough, and more.

The Best Jazz Albums of 2014

The Best Jazz Albums of 2014

Pop, jazz, and classical.
Dec. 12 2014 6:14 PM

The Best Jazz Albums of 2014

Plus the best reissues.

Photo illustration by Ellie Skrzat. Photos by Christophe ALARY/Flickr, Valery Hache/AFP/Getty Images, Eva Hambach/AFP/Getty Images, and Spokart/Thinkstock.
Sylvie Courvoisier, Sonny Rollins, and Ambrose Akinmusire.

Photo illustration by Ellie Skrzat. Photos by Christophe Alary/Flickr, Valery Hache/AFP/Getty Images, Eva Hambach/AFP/Getty Images, and Spokart/Thinkstock.

Any year with a new album by Sonny Rollins is a very good year for jazz, and this third volume of self-selected highlights from his previously unissued live performances is the best of the bunch. Recorded from 2001 to 2012 (when Rollins was 71 to 82 years old), the songs show the saxophone colossus in top form: teeming with a joyous blues, still the most inventive improviser in jazz, playing a mix of standards, originals, and, in one track, an 8½-minute solo roller-coaster ride through the history of song and the encyclopedia of styles, unleashed with jaw-dropping seamless aplomb.

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These are piano-bass duets of an exquisite order. They’re mainly standards and ballads, Jarrett exploring melodic avenues with more graceful sweep than usual, Haden not just comping but shaping the music, segueing from bass walks to countermelodies to off-centered rhythms, as the mood fits. It’s also Haden’s final album before he died this past July, and fittingly elegiac.

Another piano-bass duet, Barron sprightly and elegant, Holland maybe the most versatile bassist around, now that Haden’s gone. Not quite the gorgeous stunner of the Jarrett-Haden disc, it’s more straight and steady, in a good way: consummate musicians who can do almost anything, engaging in what the album’s title says.

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Akinmusire’s first album on Blue Note, three years ago, revealed a trumpeter with a sterling sound, an arranger of unusual harmonic flair. This sequel shows him, at age 32, making huge strides forward, a star in the making. The songs, all originals, exude a dark lyricism, a moody swing. His bandmates, some of them friends from his Oakland childhood, match him with near-clairvoyant tightness.

Fred Hersch’s new piano trio album finds him as vibrant as ever, weaving in and out of Latin-tinged standards, bittersweet ballads, and wistful Americana, all capped with a rousing barrel roll through Monk.

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This is Courvoisier’s first piano-trio album, a bank-shot departure from her usual avant-classical sessions, and it’s a twisty delight, full of hairpin curves and furtive rumblings, something like what Cecil Taylor might do if he took some breaths, had a sense of humor, and engaged in deeper interplay with the trio. She’s a superb pianist, ranging from brio to crystal delicacy, and her top-notch bandmates (bassist Drew Gress and drummer Kenny Wollesen) amble about with precise, keen energy.

Is this jazz? I don’t know, but the Bad Plus are jazz musicians, so here it is. Yes, this is Stravinsky’s symphony, rearranged by Ethan Iverson, Reid Anderson, and Dave King, for piano-bass-drums trio. But forget about TBP’s occasional madcap tendencies: This is a serious adaptation, maybe serious fun, but not camp by any stretch. It gets at the original’s savage core with an authenticity that certain French conductors didn’t quite manage. Check it out!

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Matt Wilson is one of the most versatile drummers out there; I once saw him play in four very different bands on the same night, one after the other, and he sounded as if he’d toiled a master’s lifetime in each. His quartet has long combined festive wit with quiet virtuosity, and, joined here by the pianist from Medeski Martin & Wood, they leap to new heights while keeping things down home.

Kimbrough, one of the great underrated jazz pianists, usually plays solos, duets, or trios, to the extent he leads at all, but here he expands the ensemble to a quartet, adding an alto sax, and the move opens up terrain for interweaving melodies, richer harmonies, and shifting rhythms. The songs, mainly originals, range from clamorous to rapturous to mellow, all infused with unsentimental beauty.

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Paul Bley is a pioneer improviser. (He’s played with Charlie Parker, Charles Mingus, and Ornette Coleman.) His piano solos are a major influence on Keith Jarrett (as well as many of the pianists in this list), though Bley churns less on rhapsody than on propulsive drive. This live concert was recorded in 2008, when he was 75, yet few pianists a fraction of his age match his pulse for adventure.

The Year’s Best Reissues and Historical Recordings:

The Dial sessions, mainly by Charlie Parker, with a few by Dexter Gordon and others, are seminal recordings. In this Mosaic boxed set (re-mastered with the aid of massive proprietary computer processing by Steve Marlowe of Tonality Tools), they sound as clear, clean, and dynamic as they’ve ever been heard. Historic and essential.

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Made in 1950, this is Ellington’s best (and best-sounding) album (as I wrote earlier this week), and this reissue on vinyl is hypnotically vivid.

The moderns poked fun at Satchmo for his clowning at these Newport Festivals, but, with a half-century’s distance, the slams are puzzling. This is Armstrong at his late-era peak, as trumpeter and singer, and his band is sensational. A rousing album, with wonderfully restored sonics, too.

See all of Slate’s coverage of the best culture of 2014 here.