Welcome to part two of our look at some of the best new jazz music released over the last year. If you’re new here, please refer to ‘Pt, I: Piano Trios‘ for more details on what this is all about. In brief though, there’s a lot of great jazz music being produced but it can be a little overwhelming for newcomers to navigate and find an entry point. So hopefully these curated lists can help introduce you to something new.
The theme for this post is something a little different. Jazz is quite a complex genre with lots of defining characteristics which may be more or less relevant depending on the certain flavour in question. Improvisation, group interaction, and an openness to experimentation are perhaps some of the major ones that might first come to mind. However, I’ve chosen to focus on something else here: collaboration. Perhaps thanks to those aforementioned qualities, jazz seems to encourage collaboration between different artists more than any other genre. Just look at most of the major artists in the 1950s/1960s and you’ll see that most of them performed on albums by fellow musicians while also maintaining their own respective careers.
So after listening to a bunch of releases this year, it occurred to me that this collaborative spirit is still very much alive to this day. To help illustrate this, each track in the list below is taken from an album released in 2014 and shares a musician in common with the other track/s immediately adjacent to it (as indicated in italics between each entry). Think of it as a kind of ‘eight degrees of separation‘ experiment. Sure, it might sound unnecessarily restrictive (or even overly indulgent on my behalf), but it was actually quite fun to think about all of these links and how to construct a coherent playlist out of them.
The Dionne Farris Charlie Hunter Duo
Our journey begins with the collaboration between soulful singer Dionne Farris and inimitable guitarist Charlie Hunter. Farris had a fair degree of success in the early 1990s, first with her performance on “Tennessee” by hip hop band Arrested Development and then later with her hit single “I Know”. It was while touring with Arrested Development back in 1991 that she first met Hunter, who was touring with fellow hip hop band The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy. This album, their first and long overdue collaboration, sees the duo tackling the songs of Farris’ namesake Dionne Warwick. With a few exceptions, the set focuses particularly on Warwick’s output with Burt Bacharach and Hal David during the 1960s, such as the classic tracks “Walk On By” and “(There’s) Always Something There to Remind Me”. This playlist features the title track from the famous 1966 film Alfie starring the great Michael Caine. As good as this version by Farris and Hunter is, I particularly enjoy this version.
Charlie Hunter and Scott Amendola
From: Duke Ellington
Pursuing Charlie Hunter’s output for this year, next we have a feature from his mini-project with drummer and longtime collaborator Scott Amendola. The two released four EPs over four months this year, with each record focusing on the music of a different artist that has influenced them over the years. The selections are quite diverse and span a few styles: from jazz pianist Duke Ellington, to the musical theatre of Cole Porter, the country music of Hank Williams, and even the new wave rock of The Cars. Each individual EP contains just five songs, with Hunter commenting: “We started thinking why do we keep making 10-song CDs. I don’t necessarily want to do 10 Hank Williams songs, but five can work well.” Featured here is their take on Duke Ellington’s “Blue Pepper” from his highly-rated 1967 album The Far East Suite. The original big band composition translates really well to the duo format, especially in the hands of such skilled musicians and interpreters. And for those wondering, yes you do hear both guitar and bass in this song in addition to the drums. Hunter plays a custom-made guitar with four guitar strings and three bass strings, allowing him to play bass lines, rhythm guitar, and solos simultaneously. He’s one of the most unique guitarists around and his technique is stunning to watch.
Nels Cline Singers
In addition to his work with Charlie Hunter and a number of other artists, Scott Amendola is also the drummer for experimental jazz-rock band The Nels Cline Singers. Led by the prodigious guitarist Nels Cline himself (who may be better known for his work with Wilco), this is their sixth album together and first with bassist Trevor Dunn (similarly, who may be better known for his work with Mr. Bungle and Fantômas). The album is just as eclectic as one would expect from these three musicians, yet it still remains largely accessible for the casual listener. Nels also wrote quite detailed track-by-track descriptions for each song on this album, such as the description for this track where he outlines his gear used on the song and also dedicates it to his friend and chef Paul Canales. Presumably his Papas y Cabeza is particularly delicious.
Medeski Martin & Wood + Nels Cline
From: Woodstock Sessions, Vol. 2
One of the major piano trios absent from the previous playlist in this series was the jazz-funk outfit Medeski Martin & Wood (MMW). Although they didn’t release any albums as a trio this year, they have been very social and released two albums with different guest guitarists. The first and most exciting release of these was with Nels Cline joining them on guitar for Woodstock Sessions, Vol. 2. The Woodstock Sessions is a new series that aims to offer fans of established and emerging musicians an intimate live studio performance at Applehead Recording in Woodstock, New York. The other performances to date have included the funky Alan Evans Trio (Vol. 1) and Rich Robinson of The Black Crowes (Vol. 3). This collaboration between MMW and Nels is a hybrid of their live performance on 27 August 2013 with additional studio material they recorded together at around the same time. Sure, it might not strictly be jazz, but it’s a fascinating document of four incredible musicians melding together so naturally that their pairing seems so blindingly obvious in retrospect.
Medeski Scofield Martin & Wood
Medeski Martin & Wood also teamed up with jazz guitarist John Scofield for another release this year. This is their third studio album together as a quartet, in what has now become an octennial tradition beginning in 1998. ‘Lanky’ is the only word I can use to describe this song “North London”. Something about Scofield’s rhythm makes me think of a tall, lanky, and very dapper gentleman strutting down the streets of Hackney early on a grey Sunday morning with not a care in the world. Most of the other original compositions on the album are also really good, although I’m not entirely convinced if we really needed any more versions of “Light My Fire”, “Sunshine of Your Love”, or “The Times They Are a-Changin’”. Either way, it will be interesting to see what their next meeting will bring (and if it happens before 2022).
John Zorn [perf. Nova Express]
“Song at Sunset”
From: On Leaves Of Grass
Pianist John Medeski is also a frequent collaborator with saxophonist and relentless composer John Zorn, with their association going all the way back to 1993 when Medeski was part of the early Masada family of bands. This particular release finds Medeski as a member of the Nova Express quartet with Joey Baron on kit, Trevor Dunn on bass (who was also in the Nels Cline Singers earlier in this list), and Kenny Wollesen on the vibes. This is one of Zorn’s most successful groups that he has put together and their sound might be a little bit of a surprise for those who may have only heard Zorn’s more abrasive music. Although he is perhaps best known historically for his more fiercely experimental styles, Zorn is first and foremost a composer of great melodies. The inspiration for the melodies on this album is the great American poet Walt Whitman, with many of the track titles drawn from Whitman’s seminal poetry collection Leaves of Grass. In the song featured here, Zorn does well to capture the essence of Whitman’s “Song at Sunset”; beginning with the delicate “Splendour of ended day floating and filling me”, steadily accelerating through the frenzied celebration of the illustrious good in all, and then a final prayer for the setting sun. “I still warble under you, if none else does, unmitigated adoration”.
John Zorn [perf. Gnostic Trio]
From: The Testament Of Solomon
Another one of John Zorn’s recurring bands, the Gnostic Trio must be one of the most uniquely beautiful ensembles put together. The blend of harp (Carol Emanuel) and vibes (Kenny Wollesen) with the peerless guitarist Bill Frisell to play Zorn’s mystical melodies is simply mesmerising. Most importantly though, the three musicians genuinely seem to operate as a single unit. It’s fascinating to listen to how each instrument weaves and swirls around the others in this trio. For this set of tracks, Zorn draws inspiration from the biblical “Song of Solomon” and it is a kind of companion piece to his wonderful work for a cappella voice Shir Hashirim released late last year. The “Song of Solomon” is a particularly sensual piece of scripture celebrating sexual love, and this is reflected in both the romanticism of the music itself and also in some of the Hebrew song titles lifted from the text: “Alamot” (young women), “Holat Ahavah” (faint from the intensity of erotic yearning), “‘Ayummah” (daunting, awesome beauty). Indeed, I think that last one is the perfect description of this music.
“Joy in Spite of Everything”
From: Joy In Spite Of Everything
Country: Italy / Denmark / US
On 6 May 2005, at the third live concert I ever went to, I saw an Italian pianist and his quintet open a show for popular Australian jazz trumpeter James Morrison (no, not that James Morrison) at the Forum Theatre in Melbourne. I remember being really impressed with their opening set, yet never listened to any more of their music in the years since. Now, in 2014, that pianist Stefano Bollani has released one of the finest jazz albums of the year with Joy In Spite Of Everything. Joining Bollani and his Danish Trio on this album are Mark Turner on saxophone and Bill Frisell on electric guitar. I could have easily chosen any track from the album for this playlist, but it was the tranquil melodies and organic interplay of “Ismene” is particularly lovely with its tranquil melodies and organic interplay. It feels like a big, warm, jazzy hug from friends unmet. Alternatively, if this kind of jazz is little too straight for you, Bollani also released a tribute to Frank Zappa this year called Sheik Yer Zappa including, among others, an impressive rendition of the now-standard “Peaches en Regalia” and also the crudely humorous “Bobby Brown”. Joy in spite of everything; even after an hour on the tower of power.
I could keep going with this collaboration theme but unfortunately I might have to leave it there. Sorry folks! I’ll let you continue the fun in your own time. If you need a helping hand, try tracing your way from somewhere in the above list to the elusive jazz bassist Henry Grimes, singer-songwriter Ani DiFranco, or Spanish tenor Plácido Domingo using only albums released in 2014. Alternatively, more great jazz from this year can be found below: