Bird is the Worm Best of 2014: Albums 26-30

December 25, 2014


Today’s post reveals the 26nd through the 30th Bird is the Worm Top 30 jazz albums of 2014.


BitW square avatarA Best Of album has to hit me right in my heart and provoke a strong emotional reaction.  A Best Of album has to engage my head and elicit a cerebral connection.  Give me some intrigue.  Show me your music has got personality.  Extra points are awarded for doing Something Different.  I want to hear music that embraces the best qualities of creativity.  Strong musicianship alone is not enough.  Many excellent albums fall short of earning a slot on the list.  It literally pains me when I see some of the albums that aren’t included on my Best Of lists.  But I listen to a lot of music, and one of the rare downsides to encountering so much great Jazz is that some of it won’t receive the recognition it deserves.  So there you have it.

No matter how diligent a listener is and no matter how thoroughly that person covers the music scene, there will always be albums that slip through the cracks.  It’s a matter of the scarcity of time vs. the overflow of music.  It’s also a matter of subjectivity.  I try to instill an objectivity into the affair, judging each album’s qualities without consideration for my own personal preferences… at least, as much as I am able.  I can say for certain, my Best of 2014 list looks different than my personal Favorites of 2014 list.  No attempt to encapsulate the 2014 jazz album landscape will be fully comprehensive, but I humbly offer up my list with a confidence that these albums represent the best that 2014 had to offer.  But it’s a list that’s likely to gain a few addendums with the passing of time.

What you’ll read below are not reviews.  They are simple thoughts, reminiscences, fragments of recollections, and brief opinions about how each album struck me both now and when I first heard it.  There is a link to a more formal write-up following each entry… that’s where you go to find out what’s what about each recording.  Those write-ups are accompanied with embedded audio of an album track, as well as personnel and label information, links to artist, label, and retail sites, and anything else that seemed relevant at the time I wrote about the album.  Follow those links.  They might just lead to your next most favorite album ever.

So, with all that out of the way:  Let’s begin…



26.  Matt Wilson Quartet + John Medeski – Gathering Call

Matt Wilson - "Gathering Call"This album is all heart.  It swings and it’s best friends with the blues.  Every melody has a personality and the rhythm is an engaging conversation each time one is struck up.  This is the kind of thing Matt Wilson has a history of doing.  He doesn’t swing because it’s on a list of procedures for writing a jazz song or because it just seems like the thing to do… you can hear and feel his enthusiasm with each song.  His crack line-up is comprised of musicians (Jeff Lederer, Kirk Knuffke and Chris Lightcap) who have a track record of deconstructing the old into something new, and Wilson gives them some space to do just that, at times, while still sticking to a straight-ahead jazz path.  John Medeski sits in on this session, and the enthusiasm he brings to his own MM&W project is a perfect fit for Wilson’s positive attitude.  How do you not smile just listening to this music?  If someone ever says they don’t make jazz today like they used to, point them in this direction.

Released on Palmetto Records.

Read more on Bird is the Worm (LINK).


27.  Tineke Postma & Greg Osby – Sonic Halo

Greg Osby and Tineke Postma - "Sonic Halo"The duo saxophone attack of Tineke Postma and Greg Osby is captivating in any number of ways.  There’s the weaving of melodic fragments into an offshoot of even more beauty.  There’s the dialog between saxophone voices that celebrates the similarities and the differences with equal enthusiasm.  And then, perhaps, there’s the directional patterns and shape of the motion that is most captivating.  A quintet session that features an excellent line-up of bassist Linda Oh, drummer Dan Weiss and pianist Matt Mitchell, and the way they are able to express their individuality and remain essential parts of the group dynamic is no small reason for the album’s success.  Tunes are put into play and the activity and motion resulting from how each musician helps guide the song from first note to last results in an album that is seriously compelling.

Released on Challenge Records.

Read more on Bird is the Worm (LINK).


28.  Orrin Evans’ Captain Black Big Band – Mother’s Touch

Orrin Evans - "Mother's Touch"There is a “Kind of Blue” perfection to this album that’s not immediately evident.  I’m not claiming that Mother’s Touch is one of the all-time great jazz recordings, but Orrin Evans’ Captain Black Big Band makes all the profound complexities and statements, both nuanced and glaring, seem almost effortless.  That’s indicative of a certain mastery of the craft, and it’s why it might be easy to overlook the accomplishment that Mother’s Touch truly is.  There are some flirtations with different influences here, but mostly it’s clear sailing straight ahead… the kind of jazz that is just as likely to appeal to new-school fans as it will old-schoolers.

Released on Posi-Tone Records.

Read more on Bird is the Worm (LINK).


29.  Joris Roelofs – Aliens Deliberating

Joris Roelofs - "Aliens Deliberating"What is best about this album is how every motion from this trio is an awkward one, even when they swing, and yet they remain so crazily tuneful as to deny that they were ever awkward in the first place.  There’s the sense that, at any moment, any one of these musicians (Joris Roelofs on bass clarinet, Ted Poor on drums and Matt Penman on bass) could suddenly peel off and careen wildly into the paths of the others, and yet they all stick to some vague flight pattern, which is mesmerizing to see develop in its way.  Besides, it’s great to hear another example of bass clarinet’s range.  Too often it’s used, either, as the soulful voice in a melodic soup or the lighter-fluid for a free jazz conflagration.  On Aliens Deliberating, it’s about a song voice, a storyteller’s disposition, and a melody that is given no less care by bass clarinet than that of a more traditional wind instrument.  And most of all, this album is about creating seriously compelling music that is strange, unconventional and positively alluring.

Released on Pirouet Records.

Read more on Bird is the Worm (LINK).


30.  Brigaden – Om Alberto och Några Andra Gubbar

Brigaden - "Om Alberto Och Nagra Andra Gubbar"An album with a huge heart.  All of Brigaden‘s expressions are Big, even when the quintet (plus a bunch of guests) pours out a love song.  The Swedish folk influence is strong, and there’s a pop music sensibility to the music that is terrifically arresting.  The Spanish influence plays more than just a supporting role, and it’s a wrinkle that adds to this album’s already distinct personality.  The album’s boisterous enthusiasm and unguarded earnestness are the qualities that get this album a Best of 2014 slot, but that the music is innately tuneful is the clincher.

Released on Havtorn Records.

Read more on Bird is the Worm (LINK).



Tomorrow’s post reveals the 2014 Bird is the Worm #21-#25 albums of the year.


Bob Stewart – “Connections: Mind the Gap”

August 28, 2014


Bob Stewart - "Connections- Mind the Gap"More often than not, it’s the visionaries of jazz that are likely to incorporate the non-traditional instruments into their sonic lexicon.  Bob Stewart plays the tuba.  And while it’s not uncommon to see the tuba as part of the lower register section of a jazz orchestra, there’s going to be a certain number of forward-thinkers and avant-garde statesmen who will view instruments like the tuba in a different frame of reference.  It’s why, in addition to more straight-ahead projects by artists like Wynton Marsalis and Nicholas Payton, Stewart and his tuba have been enlisted to work with a number of artists whose work situates itself out on the fringes… musicians like Muhal Richard Abrams, Don Cherry, Charlie Haden, Lester Bowie, David Murray, Arthur Blythe, Bill Frisell and Charles Mingus.  It’s those last three names that have a particular relevance to Bob Stewart’s new release, Connections: Mind the Gap.

Back in 1992, music producer Hal Willner spearheaded a tribute album to the late great Charles Mingus, bringing together a wide cross-section of different musicians from different genres (of which guitarist Bill Frisell was a key component) to reinterpret Mingus’s music.  Bob Stewart, who had performed with and recorded for Mingus, was a part of that recording, entitled Weird Nightmare: Meditations on Mingus.  Its mix of jazz, avant-garde, folk, rock, classical, pop and spoken word created an intoxicating blend of music that sounded a bit like each of those genres, but in its totality sounded like something completely different, entirely new.

Over twenty years later, and Stewart’s Connections: Mind the Gap has created an album that utilizes a similar recipe while devising a meal that, in and of itself, is no less mesmerizing and inimitably singular.  The music is a thick fog of influences, creating a wall of impenetrability out of something that shifts focus from one passage to the next.  Tracks like “Simone,” “Bush Baby” and “Odessa” express themselves with an odd tunefulness, behaving like a sonic Rube Goldberg contraption where disparate moving parts incomprehensibly function in concert to guide the song from first note to last.

The latter two of those three tracks are Arthur Blythe compositions.  The history between Stewart and Blythe goes back over thirty years to the NYC loft scene, and has included some excellent sax-tuba-percussion trio sessions, as well as larger unit works, both serving to expand the horizon line of jazz and the role of tuba in it.  The fact that Stewart is able to breathe life into these pieces in a modern setting and with a new vision says a lot about the staying power of the original music as well as Stewart’s ability to show new facets of that vision with the changing of time.

Also front and center on Connections is the five-part suite “In Color,” dispersed throughout the recording, and featuring Stewart’s tuba interacting with the swirling harmonies of the string quartet, PUBLIQuartet, of which his son Curtis is a founding member (as well as a member of Stewart’s working unit, First Line Band).

The rendition of Mingus’s “Jump Monk” comes out swinging and allows the traditional elements to rise to the surface.  This is also the case with three other renditions.  One is of Henry Thomas’s “Fishin’ Blues,” which has guitarist Jerome Harris taking a turn at vocals on a blues track with a lazy afternoon charm.  Another is an inspired rendition of “Monk’s Mood,” with its boozy disposition and a melody viewed through a haze and rhythms staggering with an impossible fluidity.  And then there’s Astor Piazzolla’s “Libertango,” with its bursts of propulsion and unqualified grace, adding a nice dose of differentiation to the album while remaining part of its confluence.

Just a brilliant album, serving up something quite different without turning its back on all that has come before.  It’s a testament to the diversity of projects that Stewart has been a part of and his ability to transcend conventions imposed upon his instrument.

Your album personnel:  Bob Stewart (tuba), Matt Wilson (drums), Jerome Harris (guitar, vocals), Randall Haywood (trumpet), Nick Finzer (trombone), and the PUBLIQuartet: Curtis Stewart (violin), Jannina Norpoth (violin). Nick Revel (viola), and Amanda Goekin (cello).

Released on Sunnyside Records.

Jazz from NYC.

Available at:  eMusic | Bandcamp | Amazon CD | Amazon MP3


Matt Wilson Quartet – “Gathering Call”

March 28, 2014


Matt Wilson - "Gathering Call"Drummer Matt Wilson has a style and sound that just naturally seems to result in bouts of euphoria.  Whether swinging like mad or hard driving head first, Wilson is emphatic in his approach, and the logical reaction is to sit up, take notice, and smile.  Even on a rare moody track, there’s a joyfulness that’s tough to miss.  With a stellar line-up and simpatico modes of communication, Wilson’s crew burns through a set of straight-ahead tunes that just sing with a wild enthusiasm.

Your album personnel:  Matt Wilson (drums), Jeff Lederer (tenor & soprano saxophones, clarinet), Kirk Knuffke (cornet), Chris Lightcap (bass), and John Medeski (piano).

Wilson opens the album with a rendition of Duke Ellington’s “Main Stem,” and gets things off to a brisk pace.  Lederer and Knuffke trade volleys on sax and cornet, feeding off the high voltage established with the very first notes.

“Main Stem” is one of a couple Ellington tunes he hits upon, of which about half of the album’s thirteen tracks are renditions, the other half Wilson originals.  Second track “Some Assembly Required” falls into the latter category, with the kind of crazed motion and serious concentration associated with children skipping rope in tandem… and equally as fun.

“Dancing Waters” is another Wilson original, and illustrates that his writing talents aren’t all just a matter of high octane.  Opening with a nifty Lightcap bass solo, this leads into long slow sighs from the wind instruments… a place where the melancholy is a construct of beauty and nothing about its expression is bittersweet.

This leads seamlessly into the thick groove and funky swagger of the Hugh Lawson tune “Get Over, Get Off and Get On.”  Channeling the spirited charm of Yusef Lateef’s late-60s outfit, Medeski incites the act of motion with his lively piano work and sets the groundwork for some crack solos by Knuffke and Lederer.

As a tribute to recently deceased jazz legend Butch Warren, Wilson includes the Warren composition “Barack Obama” on this session.  Intriguingly, Wilson delivers it with light tones of delicate sadness, of that meeting point where sorrow and celebration come together and transform into something of a wistful, comforting blues.

The title-track “Gathering Call” is a short piece, and it comes on fast and furious.  This differs from Wilson’s other rendition of an Ellington tune… on “You Dirty Dog,” Lightcap’s walking bass line develops a cadence not unlike a cool stroll down the street, where motion has both a confident bravado and a light touch.  On tenor sax, Lederer belts out a solo, loading up with each punch.

Wilson’s “Hope (for the cause)” takes a minute to reveal itself before coalescing into a beautiful, drifting melodic passage.  His interlude “Dreamscape,” on the other hand, gets right to the point with a clattering of sticks, piano twittering excitedly, and wind instruments punchy and irrepressible.

Perpetually overlapping lines of communication highlight the animated “How Ya Going?”  It gives the sense of one conversation breaking off into complementary fragments, reuniting at strategic words and phrases, and revealing that it has always been one conversation from the very start.

Wilson continues the Jazz tradition of adapting modern pop songs for Jazz performance with a rendition of Beyonce’s “If I Were A Boy,” and like those who came before him, Wilson susses out the melodic facets and possibilities unaddressed by the original.  Wilson sticks to the melody’s original path, allowing tangential diversions from its course to add some depth and nuance.  Substituting the original’s melodramatic flourishes with a bit of intense deconstruction is a nifty swap of emotional devices, and brings out a new aspect of the song’s character.

“Pumpkin’s Delight,” an up-tempo burner of Charlie Rouse’s from his Sphere days, sees the album in its homestretch.  The quintet toys with tempo a bit here, as a fierce Lederer sax solo feeds into a Medeski piano solo that leaps and lags with an enticing playfulness… an effect punctuated by a thrilling Wilson drum solo.

The album ends with the traditional love song “Juanita,” a lovely tune expressed with a loving grace and noble elegance by the quintet, concluding the album on a quieter note but no less evocative than its predecessors.  Outstanding.

Wilson’s newest is what Jazz is all about.  This album has all kinds of heart.

Released on Palmetto Records.

Jazz from NYC.

Available at:  eMusic | Amazon CD | Amazon MP3


While most of this review is original to Bird is the Worm, some of it was written when I originally recommended Gathering Call in my weekly eMusic Jazz Picks column… so here’s some language protecting eMusic’s rights to the reprinted material as the one to hire me to write about new jazz arrivals to their site…

New Arrivals Jazz Picks,“ reprints courtesy of, Inc.
© 2014, Inc.

As always, my sincere thanks to eMusic for the gig.

Ken Peplowski – “Maybe September”

January 27, 2014


Ken Peplowski - "Maybe September"There’s an abounding warmth and intimacy to the new recording by reed man Ken PeplowskiMaybe September is the kind of sublime outing that pulls the listener right into the studio session and forges a connection with not just the music itself, but a sense of closeness, as if it were being listened to in the moment of its creation.

Of the album’s eleven tracks, only one is a Peplowski original (the swinging “Always a Bridesmaid,” on which drummer Matt Wilson absolutely takes flight), but the quartet’s caring touch to all the compositions lends each a personal sound and allows the renditions to breathe on the quartet’s terms.  It’s a mater of embracing the original, then letting go as if it were a part of you to begin with.

Your album personnel:  Ken Peplowski (clarinet, tenor sax), Matt Wilson (drums), Martin Wind (bass), and Ken Rosenthal (piano).

The quartet’s rendition of Artie Shaw’s “Moon Ray” adopts the casual sway at the heart of the original, then kicks up the pace a bit, swinging where the original’s orchestration often soared.  Peplowski adapts another jazz orchestra piece with Ellington’s “Main Stem,” though where the original stomped exuberantly, Peplowski’s quartet keeps the chipper attitude, but moves lighter on their feet.

But it’s not all music from Jazz past.  Peplowski’s clarinet accentuates the prevailing heartbreak expressed by Paul McCartney’s lyrics on “For No One.”  And the quartet extends that heartbreak with a rendition of Nilsson’s “Without Her,” where Martin Wind’s bass provides a dark edge to Peplowski’s clarinet’s melancholy tone.  They perform an extended rendition of the Beach Boys’ “Caroline, No,” and while Peplowski’s tenor sax captures Brian Wilson’s fragile vocals, it’s pianist Ken Rosenthal’s striking piano work that resonates strongest, presenting an elegance to a moody tune.

However, it may be the quartet’s take on Francois Poulenc’s clarinet sonata that may represent the album’s shining moment.  There is an appealing formality to the abounding grace of “Romanza,” and an austere presence to its palpable warmth, all lending textures to a song that seeks to envelop completely while still maintaining a distance… something to observe and feel, simultaneously and neither at all.

A sublime outing, conveying an intimacy and warmth that is positively embraceable.

Released on Capri Records.

Jazz from NYC.

Available at:  eMusic | Amazon CD | Amazon MP3

Recommended: Steven Lugerner – “For We Have Heard”

August 2, 2013


Steven Lugerner - "For We Have Heard"Steven Lugerner made a hell of a splash by releasing co-debut albums to lead out the 2011 year, utilizing two different ensembles and presenting two divergent sounds.  One of those recordings, Narratives, was a lesson in potent melodies and story-like song construction.  The second of those two simultaneous debuts was These Are the Words, an album of sharp angles and clipped conversations… a perfect counterbalance to its partner album.

With his new release For We Have Heard, Lugerner returns with the same quartet from These Are the Words, and builds on that album’s pricklier nature.  Basing this album’s compositions on a numeric approach to biblical text, Lugerner presents music that challenges the ear, just as it must have challenged the composer as he went about the task of crafting the songs.  And as it is with any challenge, the effort to engage comes with its rewards.

Your album personnel: Steven Lugerner (Bb clarinet, bass clarinet, oboe, English horn, soprano & alto Saxophones, flute & alto flute), Darren Johnston (trumpet), Myra Melford (piano), and Matt Wilson (drums).

The album opens with “Us and Our Fathers,” a contemplative piano-led piece with some saxophone accompaniment.  It channels the stillness of the morning.

“When a Long Blast Is Sounded” begins with a strong martial cadence.  This holds fast, so that when the ensemble strays from a tight formation, there remains a sense of marching straight ahead.  Drummer Matt Wilson, who brings a joyful swing to many of his own projects, displays yet again the breadth of his talent by contributing essential parts to an album with an acerbic disposition and one that employs an unconventional geometry in shaping songs.  On subsequent track “Drove Out Before Us,” Wilson picks up right where he left off on the previous track, driving the tune with a cadence that crackles and pops with electricity, and partners with Lugerner’s sax in raising up and calling out into space.

There are several themes that act as threads throughout this recording, but it may be Wilson’s drums that serves as the unifying force.

On “Be Strong and Resolute,” the quartet’s development of an edgy groove breaks suddenly into a mesmerizing piano solo, which marks one of several occurrences of Myra Melford infusing a song with an austere beauty, providing a lightness to counteract the music’s tendency to go heavy and hard.  Later, on the title-track, Melford adds some gentle accompaniment, partnering with the whisper of Wilson’s drums as Lugerner and Johnston work a melodic line that is about as fluid as any on this album of unpredictable motion.  A musing ballad, the title-track is a bit of a throwback to Lugerner’s previous albums.

Trumpeter Darren Johnston fits in with this project easy-peasy.  Whether it be with his quintet on a recording like the Clean Feed Records release The Edge of the Forest or a collaboration with top-tier players from the Chicago free-improv scene on an album like The Big Lift, Johnston is right at home with compositions that demand an aggressive expressiveness within an atypical framework of genially displayed ferocity.  On “All Those Kings,” Johnston punches woozy notes through the spaces in between Lugerner’s flailing sax lines, giving illusory form to a song that presents an illusory dispersion.

Half of the album’s ten tracks clock in around two minutes in length each.  They behave as vignettes, rather than simple interludes between songs, and as a result, express themselves as flash fiction… glimpses of imagination, with a brief life and an evocative punch.  They have the added feature of being the most effective doorways into connecting with this album.

Of all of Lugerner’s work to date, this is easily the most challenging.  But patience brings familiarity, and that leads to changes in how the album is perceived.  It’s one of those albums that rewards effort.  And considering Lugerner’s relative newness to the recording scene, it marks an intriguing chapter in his development.

Released on the Primary Records label.

Jazz from the Brooklyn scene.

Available at eMusic.  Available at Bandcamp.  Available at Amazon: CD | MP3