Dec 30 2014
Bird is the Worm Best of 2014: Albums 2-5
Today’s post reveals the 2nd through the 5th Bird is the Worm Top 30 jazz albums of 2014.
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. 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.
Beginning on January 25th, I will be revealing 5 albums a day, with the 2014 Album of the Year announcement occurring on December 31st. The posts will appear on the site’s main page. This list will get updated 24 hours after each post.
So, with all that out of the way: Let’s begin…
2. Rob Mazurek & Black Cube SP – Return the Tides: Ascension Suite & Holy Ghost
Recorded in the aftermath of the sudden passing of Rob Mazurek‘s mother, Return the Tides is creativity as the vehicle for the outpouring of pure emotion. The music influences are many of the usual suspects from Mazurek’s diverse, eclectic background… there’s the updated Tropicalia, there’s the space-y trip-rock, there’s the post-bop, there’s the avant-garde, there’s the electronica, the jazz-rock fusion, there’s the waves of improvisation, one after the other… and, really, all of that is secondary to the influence of personal loss, exposing all the raw emotions as one strives to heal and move on. It’s these interludes of intensity and transition that can lead to a place where little difference between art and artist exists. It’s from those moments of unity that the most sincere and honest creativity is generated, and this album is exactly that from first note to last. This album wears its heart on its sleeve. This is as powerful as music gets.
Released on Cuneiform Records.
Read more at Bird is the Worm (LINK).
3. Rafael Karlen – The Sweetness of Things Half-Remembered
In recent years, there’s been a huge uptick of musicians uniting their classical training and their jazz experience into the same expression. Rafael Karlen’s sublime 2014 release is one of the best examples of this trend at its best. On this chamber jazz session, the saxophonist is joined by pianist Steve Newcomb and a string quartet for an album so lovely it exists in a state of perfection. Striking imagery is framed in vignettes of harmonic warmth, susurrant rhythms and melodies of a heavenly elegance and grace. The flights of improvisation are just as strong as the compositional foundations they spring from. There’s an alluring languorous pace to this music… one that abides even when the ensemble summons up brief animated flurries. About as beautiful as an album can get.
This Self-Produced album was released on Pinnacles Music.
Read more at Bird is the Worm (LINK).
4. John Ellis & Andy Bragen – MOBRO
Saxophonist John Ellis and playwright Andy Bragen take the anecdotal story of a trash barge and turn it into an epic story. This exhilarating interpretation of the pop culture curiosity, MOBRO 4000 is adapted as the framework for a through-composed large ensemble work about environmentalism, isolationism and society. Loaded with wind instruments, guitars and vocalists, this piece originally meant for live performance loses none of its wild expressiveness on the recorded medium. So over-the-top theatrical at times that it’s transformed into massive serious dialog, not unlike how the comedy in satire reveals grave, hidden truths. A great story behind a great album, just overflowing with personality. Of all the albums on the Best of 2014 list, this is the one you want as your drinking buddy. This is pure, unabashed creativity here, reflecting the kind of vision we want all our artists to adopt.
Released on Parade Light Records.
Read more at Bird is the Worm (LINK).
5. Diego Barber – Tales
An amazing duo collaboration between guitarist Diego Barber and pianist Craig Taborn. Based on prior work, both musicians rate at the top of the class on their respective instruments, and this 2014 session only adds to their bona fides. Barber continues to expand on his inventive approach with classical guitar in a jazz setting. These four pieces are simultaneously meditative and excitable. Long interludes develop sequentially from the foundation of strong melodies, taking paths so far away from the opening sounds that it’s stunning when the duo return to the nest from which those melodies sprung. It’s the breathless creativity that carries long distances like a proud river from one melodic fragment to the next that signifies this album’s remarkable display of musicianship. Just outstanding.
Released on Sunnyside Records.
Read more at Bird is the Worm (LINK).
Worth noting that I’ll be publishing an overview of Barber’s entire catalog in January 2015, which will include a write-up of Tales. So, stay in touch.
Tomorrow’s post reveals the 2014 Bird is the Worm Album of the Year.
Dec 31 2014
Bird is the Worm 2014 Album of the Year: Fire! Orchestra – “Enter”
Enter is a massive creative statement. Everything Fire! Orchestra does is Big. The rises and falls of intensity have an epic presence. It also possesses an attention to detail, and no matter how big the sound becomes, it finds a way to reflect all the nuance and details of the varied musics that influence this thrilling album. It is challenging music that cloaks itself in a pop music persona. It’s why the clashes of dissonance and chaotic waves of intensity don’t detract from the album’s personable nature… not unlike how Tom Waits’ gravelly voice can sing perfectly of heartbreak, home, loneliness and love with more genuineness than any pop star.
No matter how many times the album is played, its impact is no less resonant or affecting. The avant-garde big band Fire! Orchestra goes all-in on Enter, guided by an astute intelligence and powered by a huge heart. Released on Rune Grammofon.
The Bird is the Worm 2014 Album of the Year
Here is a reprint of the album recommendation I wrote earlier this year…
The trio of Mats Gustafsson, Johan Berthling and Andreas Werliin has expanded into something much more than its original vehicle for improvisatory music. Now repped as Fire! Orchestra, the 25+ member ensemble is reminiscent of avant-garde big bands from the previous century, but their infusions of pop music and avant-rock keep this music planted in the soil of Today. Their previous album, Exit, presented the ensemble in a live setting. I used to think that it was a thrilling album. But now, after spending the better part of this year listening to their 2014 studio release Enter, that live recording just doesn’t hold quite the same magic it once did.
Enter is about as thrilling as it gets.
And whereas the ensemble brings to the studio the same combustible personality and the dense walls of dissonance and harmonies, they produce a tighter sonic bundle, whereas the live recording tended more to formlessness and wandering. But don’t misinterpret… thankfully, Fire! Orchestra is still all over the place, but there is a greater sense of focus and unison in how they go about it. The term “organized chaos” is undoubtedly apt… a crowd of moving parts in perpetual states of collision, and yet possessing a pop music sensibility that makes this recording supremely embraceable.
“Part One” begins with the slow exhalation of melody, growing increasingly combustible. The lovely harmony of voices ignites into a flash of dissonance, returning only later, now heavy with the blues and not a little bit aggressive. The dissonance lights back up, this time with horns and saxes providing the flame while bass and drums go to town.
“Part Two” grinds out a catchy groove, which, in turn, gives way to a wall of dissonance… the sound of a bank of circuitry crashing down, lacking subtlety, a hard unforgiving poetry. But this is just another moment for a big reveal, as the dissonance sputters out and the peaceful harmony of wind instruments fills the void. It’s these shifting tides and the way listenability isn’t sacrificed for raw energy that elevates the album up a notch or three. The build-up to the grand finale inches forward, gaining strength through accretion and perseverance.
“Part 3″ is all about the vocal experimentalism, in particular how voices and woodwind shrieks become almost indistinguishable, leaving the ears to figure out who is true and who is the chameleon. The rising tides go out with one final big wave, and that it crests heavy with the blues makes all of the unconventional sounds and expressions sound comfortingly familiar.
In the 90s, a group of disparate artists made a proclamation about a new movement. They called it Avant-Pop, and its goal was one in which challenging art, rich with complexities and nuance, would be shrouded in a populist sensibility, and thus subversively become entrenched in the minds and hearts of the masses. When I hear a song like “Part 4,” I can’t help but think that this was something that the Avant-Pop creators had in mind. A delectable melody, cooed out by vocalists and shouted out by instruments, an easy melody to ride as an army of avant-garde musicians march an avant-garde album to a close… with a song that seems almost simple, a final impression on an album that is anything but. The song repeats that catchy melody, sometimes gently, sometimes in a powerful surge, and the song’s momentum becomes almost mesmerizing as a result. The final surge, however, is sufficiently fierce to break any hypnotic state, but, amazingly, the song retains its tunefulness amidst the jarring intensity of the finale. It’s amazing, until one considers that Fire! Orchestra began doing it right from the album’s first note.
Immeasurable and transcending classification, this is creativity that crashes through boundaries and preconceptions. So damn good.
Your album personnel: Mariam Wallentin, Sofia Jernberg, Simon Ohlsson (voices), Goran Kajfes (cornet), Niklas Barnö, Magnus Broo, Emil Strandberg (trumpets), Mats Äleklint (trombone), Per Åke Holmlander (tuba), Anna Högberg (alto sax), Mats Gustafsson (tenor sax, conductor), Elin Larsson (tenor sax), Fredrik Ljungkvist (baritone sax, clarinet), Martin Kuchen (baritone sax), Christer Bothén (bass clarinet), Jonas Kullhammar (bass sax), Andreas Söderström (lap steel), Sören Runolf (electric guitar), David Stackenäs (electric & acoustic guitars), Martin Hederos (Fender Rhodes, organ), Sten Sandell (keyboards, mellotron), Joachim Nordwall (electronics), Johan Berthling (electric bass), Joel Grip, Dan Berglund (basses), and Andreas Werliin, Johan Holmegard, Raymond Strid (drums).
Released on Rune Grammofon.
Music from the Scandinavian scene.
Available at: Amazon
You can also purchase directly from the label, Rune Grammofon.
By davesumner • Jazz Recommendations, Jazz Recommendations - 2014 Releases, Recap: Best of 2014 • 2 • Tags: Album of the Year, Andreas Söderström, Andreas Werliin, Elin Larsson, Fire! Orchestra, Goran Kajfes, Jazz - Best of 2014, Johan Berthling, Martin Kuchen, Mats Gustafsson, Rune Grammofon