Bird is the Worm Best of 2015: Albums 2-5


Today’s post reveals the 2nd through the 5th Bird is the Worm Top 30 jazz albums of 2015.


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. 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…

Let’s begin.


2.  Rudresh Mahanthappa – Bird Calls (ACT Music)

Rudresh Mahanthappa - Bird CallsThis is not a Charlie Parker tribute album, though Parker’s music is the reason this album rolled out of bed.  This is not a Charlie Parker covers album, though Parker’s music can be found in this music in one form or the other.  Bird Calls is about the attachments and connections forged when an artist’s creative vision is a direct mainline to your heart, your brain, your soul… and when the source of inspiration is almost as overwhelming as all of the thoughts and feelings and imagery that result from the connection.  Rudresh Mahanthappa plants seeds of fellow-alto-saxophonist Parker’s music in these compositions, then nurtures those seeds into a bloom all his own, often sounding nothing like the source material and often sounding very much planted in the modern day.  In my original write-up of this recording, I mention that there is something very Now about Mahanthappa’s music and there is something very Next about it, too, and the way he’s able to bring the past into the fold is about as impressive as anything done in 2015.  This album totally captures the spirit of what previous Album of the Year recipients have achieved… the simultaneous embrace of Jazz past, present and future, via past influence, present perspective and a mix of organics and technology, to create something that is both timeless and Now in a masterful display of top-shelf musicianship, undiluted creativity, and drop-dead, stunning beauty.  This album has such a sharp intelligence, both in its formation and execution, and just as importantly… maybe even more… it’s all heart, too.  Joining Mahanthappa on this recording are trumpeter Adam O’Farrill, pianist Matt Mitchell, bassist François Moutin and drummer Rudy Royston.  I believe I’ve taken a moment on all of my previous #2 selection synopses to shake my head in disbelief that the album didn’t receive the top slot.  Add Bird Calls to that list.  Just an amazing recording, both in spirit and sound.

Read more on Bird is the Worm (LINK).


3.  Kamasi Washington – The Epic (Brainfeeder)

Kamasi Washington - "The Epic"Okay, I’m not gonna get too deep right now into giving the rundown about how I feel about this album in this column.  During the first week of January 2016, I’m gonna be publishing a series of columns that look back on 2015 with a year-in-review theme… and Kamasi Washington’s The Epic is gonna get a column all to itself.  What I will say now is that this 3-part mini-series of hard bop, spiritual jazz and both old-school and new-school experimentalism with avant-garde jazz, soul and funk fusion comes as admirably close as one could ask of someone who used the word “epic” in the title of their recording.  There’s a joyfulness to this music that so willfully embraces jazz’s past and present, both, that it’s hard not to fall for no matter whether you’re an old-school jazz fan or just a present-day-whatever-sounds-cool music fan.  This music has got plenty of heart and soul, and when it smiles at you, you’ll know it means it.

Read more on Bird is the Worm (LINK).

Also, check back in on Jan. 2nd, when I talk more about this album in my 2015 In Review column.


4.  Prism Quartet – Heritage/Evolution Vol.1 (Innova)

Prism Quartet - "Heritage Evolution"So, the four saxophonists that comprise the Prism Quartet (soprano Timothy McAllister, baritone Taimur Sullivan, alto Zachary Shemon and tenor Matthew Levy) decided they’re gonna celebrate their thirtieth anniversary together by inviting a bunch of other saxophonists (Rudresh Mahanthappa, Miguel Zenón, Tim Ries, Steve Lehman, Dave Liebman and Greg Osby) to bring along some of their own compositions to the party.  But instead of celebrating Prism Quartet’s anniversary, they instead celebrate their raison d’etre… the saxophone.  What follows is a remarkable succession of pieces, where not only the endless beauty of the saxophone is captured by the Quartet and each guest, but also celebrated is the limitless possibilities to be tilled from each composition, and then nurtured through each musician’s potential to develop and give voice to their own, unique sound.  With the gruffles and growls, the Steve Lehman pieces sound like Steve Lehman pieces, the Dave Liebman pieces are immediately identifiable to him with those sharp edges and abrupt pivots, the Mahanthappa pieces reveal their source creator either right at the outset or at well-placed intervals, Osby, yeah, that’s Osby for sure with the nifty shift between a solemn presence and that of punctuated phrases that see the value of the insinuation of force as havng greater effect than the execution of it, the Tim Ries piece with its dancing motions and delightful song form flirtations, and the Miguel Zenón pieces are marked both by his fluid lyricism and graceful motion.  And perhaps most remarkable of all is the immaculate fluency of the Prism Quartet members in meshing seamlessly with each guest saxophonist and their creative vision.  So many of these pieces have a huge presence and a jaw-dropping beauty, and are so often delivered with the noble grace of sacred music.  It’s one of those recordings that you want to go on forever, and it almost does, and, of course, those closing notes still come too soon.  These Best Of lists really call for a minimum twenty years of acclimation time to really judge how the albums from a particular year size up against one another.  In twenty years time, I guarantee, this album will still have earned its #4 slot.  Nor would it surprise me if this album was widely regarded as one of the top saxophone albums of the first half of the century.  Just amazing work.

Read more on Bird is the Worm (LINK).


5.  Giovanni Francesca – RAME (Auand)

Giovanni Francesca - "Rame"There’s this thing about Denver, Colorado sunrises in the wintertime.  Due to some mix of influences of altitude, the sun’s zenith, the arc of the Rocky Mountains, the smog that accumulates in the foothills of the Rockies, and the way clouds seem to hang just above the ceiling of the downtown skyline… before the sun ever got out of bed, the darkest blue would just hang there and stare at you like a mirror reflecting the clean, undisturbed surface of the sea.  Then, suddenly, different shades of blue would pock its surface, creating a rich display of how vast the color blue can spread its wings.  This sudden transformation is startling to witness, as well as to ponder how something so nuanced can also possess such a massive beauty.  The sky coasts along like that for awhile, allowing you to just exist under that gorgeous canopy for a half-hour eternity.  And then, just as suddenly as the explosion of blues, suddenly the sky is shot through with streaks of dark pinks and powder reds… which, in turn, also just hang out there for a half-hour eternity, allowing you to marvel at it until, again, quite suddenly, huge washes of oranges and light reds and yellows materialize out of nowhere, with a huge presence and massive beauty, and only leaving when the fat yellow sun rises up over the horizon and sets the entire Rocky Mountain range aglow in its final act of sunrise.  That is how the melodies of guitarist Giovanni Francesca’s RAME play out over the course of this terribly gorgeous album.  A strong Frisellian influence hangs over this recording, and its an influence that Francesca carries well as he goes about creating his own exceptional and singular voice.  It’s one stunning melodic transformation after the other, and the emotional punch this kind of effort generates is definitely not something to be undervalued.  That, plus the album’s unconventional sound while doing it rates the recording an additional notch or three.  Nothing but beauty here… a strange and curious beauty, but one that is awe inspiring as the best sunrise you’ve ever seen.  Joining Francesca on this session is Alessandro Tedesco on tenor trombone, Dario Miranda on bass, Aldo Galasso at the drums (and a couple guests on horns and piano).

Read more on Bird is the Worm (LINK).



Tomorrow’s post reveals the 2015 Bird is the Worm Album of the Year.

Check out the entire Best of 2015 List