Dec 28 2015
Today’s post reveals the 11th through the 15th Bird is the Worm Top 30 jazz albums of 2015.
A 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. The equation of scarcity of time vs. the overflow of music always leaves a trail of victims in its wake. It’s also a matter of subjectivity. I do my best to make objectivity the guiding force of all my decisions, judging each album’s qualities without consideration for my own personal preferences… at least, as much as I am humanly able. I can say for certain, my Best of 2015 list has ended up much different than my personal Favorites of 2015 list. No attempt to encapsulate the 2015 jazz recordings landscape will be fully comprehensive, but I humbly offer up my list with a confidence that these albums represent the best that 2015 had to offer. But it’s a list that’s likely to gain some addenda with the passing of time. The process of discovery never truly ends.
As with any Best Of year, 2015 is more accurately represented by the date range of November 1st, 2014 to October 30th, 2015. This ain’t no damn pop music… there’s definitely love at first sight with these recordings, but for a Best Of list, there’s gotta be some time allowed, also, for assessing the times for acclimation, absorption and endurance of these recordings.
What you’ll read below are not reviews. They are simple one-take thoughts, reminiscences, fragments of recollections, and brief opinions about how each album struck me both now and when I first heard it or anything I just felt like noting about the album as I quickly typed up these tiny synopses. I’ve provided a link to a more formal write-up following each entry, and 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…
11. Reuben Bradley – Cthulhu Rising (Rattle)
When I first heard this recording, what mostly grabbed me was how deftly drummer Bradley, pianist Taylor Eigsti and bassist Matt Penman captured the spirit of this HP Lovecraft themed album… the sense of mystery and hidden danger within the quaint & picturesque countryside… a sort of crosshatch of straight-ahead jazz warmth and rhythmic tension infused with some rock and pop action to boot. But over time and with repeated listenings, what startles me most about this excellent recording was, plain and simple, the top shelf musicianship. The interplay between the trio members, whether focused on a unified goal or wandering off in their own directions is about as masterfully executed as anything on this year’s Best Of list. This plus the vivid lyricism, sometimes emotionally jarring, sometimes gorgeous and sublime, is a huge reason for this album’s massive success. Each time I listen to this album, my esteem for it grows, and even as I type this on the eve of publishing my Best of 2015 list, slotting it at #11 doesn’t seem to do the album justice.
Read more on Bird is the Worm (LINK).
12. Marike van Dijk – The Stereography Project (Brooklyn Jazz Underground Records)
There’s a wonderfully foggy definition to this large ensemble chamber jazz recording from composer & saxophonist van Dijk. Heavy doses of strings and wind instruments at unexpected intervals keep the ear guessing at what is happening now, what’s coming next, and consequently, sits in a perpetual state of re-examination of what has come before. The fullness of harmony eclipses everything else at first, and it’s only over the course of time and listens that the deft melodic phrasing and playful rhythmic gifts fully reveal themselves. One beautiful moment after the other… some clear as day, some quite stunning when they slowly descend upon the ear.
Read more on Bird is the Worm (LINK).
13. Tomeka Reid – Tomeka Reid Quartet (Thirsty Ear)
By no means is this a conventional album. Cellist Reid seems to abide by her own rules of geometry, and all the tempos turned at strange angles and all the melodies twisted into unexpected shapes mark this recording as something wonderfully different. But the thing of it is, the odd math is only a subtext to the lovely motion that guides this recording with remarkable fluidity from first note to last. Reid is joined by bassist Jason Roebke, drummer Tomas Fujiwara and guitarist Mary Halvorson… three musicians who typically don’t utilize straight-ahead equations on their own projects, either. There’s a pleasant bounce to this music as it scoots along and zig-zags suddenly and heads for a horizon line before a sudden pivot reveals an entirely different horizon of possibilities. The quartet maintains a pretty active chatter, and it’s a big reason why the moody “The Long Wait” resonate so damn strong. I typically bemoan how albums in the #11-#13 slots don’t make my top ten. The talent pool has so much depth year in and out that some top ten quality albums land just outside looking in. Add this recording to that bunch.
No further write-up planned at this time.
14. Jakob Bro – Hymnotic / Salmodisk (Loveland)
I’ve put down more than a few words about the music of guitarist Jakob Bro on this site (and others), and without exception, it gets tagged with words like “tranquility” and “serenity”… and in bunches. And there’s good reason for that, since so much of his music possesses a lullaby quality that ushers in only sweet dreams after the final note has sounded. So, it’s a thrilling turn of events to hear him bring a much bigger, much louder sound with this tentet recording. He either doubles or triples-up with drummers, bassists and saxophonists, plus adds a keyboardist and his own guitar. The fine details are still there, but they’re wound up tight in thick harmonies, and they spring to life with the slightest flicker of a match. Adding intrigue to the mix is the occasional contribution of poet (and fellow Dane) Peter Laugesen, whose recitations provide a needed respite from the ensemble’s waves of intensity, but also whose deep register is almost a susurrant counterbalance to the wailing and shouting of instruments reaching for the skies. This music possesses a wild, crazy euphoria, and somehow Bro is able to bottle it up and serve it neat, no kick, no recoil. Outstanding.
Full write-up scheduled for January 2016.
For now, read about some of Jakob Bro’s other recordings (LINK).
15. Ben Goldberg – Orphic Machine (BAG Production)
Ben Goldberg seems to abide by his own rules of gravity. So many of his projects are unusual and so many of them seem destined to land him splat right on his face. But each time, he just nonchalantly navigates one unconventional project after the other, performing a balancing act that defies expectations… and gravity, too, it would appear. His most recent has him employing the words from a book about poetry written by a former mentor, and then focusing those words through the natural refraction of Goldberg’s curious mix of modern and traditional. It should be awkward. It should be challenging. It probably shouldn’t work. Yet each time I take this album for a spin, I’m perpetually amazed at the grace revealed with each motion, of how tuneful each of these songs (songs!) are, how simple Goldberg and crew make each song seem, and just how damn charismatic it all is. If the 2015 Jazz bin is a 1980s John Hughes flick, then Orphic Machine is the geeky kid who turns out to be the coolest dude in the room. Joining Goldberg and his clarinets for this session are trumpeter Ron Miles, tenor saxophonist Rob Sudduth, pianist Myra Melford, guitarist Nels Cline, vibraphonist Kenny Wollesen, bassist Greg Cohen and drummer Ches Smith.
Read more on Bird is the Worm (LINK).
Tomorrow’s post reveals the 2015 Bird is the Worm #6–#10 albums of the year.