Welcome to part three of our Jazz in 2014 series where we will be reviewing some of the best new jazz music released over the past year in case you missed out first time around.
Compared to last week’s post on collaboration in jazz, this one will be decidedly simpler in theme. If you’ve been following along so far, you may have noticed a distinct lack of one common ingredient in jazz throughout the last century: brass. I didn’t plan it this way, but only one of the sixteen songs featured so far has had a brass instrument. So I think it’s about time we remedy that with this playlist. Expect to find lots of brass in a range of configurations, from as small as a trio and up to a 28-piece experimental big band.
Mostly Other People Do the Killing
I know what you might be thinking once you hit play: “What the heck is this doing in a series dedicated to new jazz music?” Because for many jazz fans, this song will sound familiar. Indeed, very familiar. In a bold musical experiment, Mostly Other People Do the Killing have recorded a blue-note-for-blue-note replication of Miles Davis’ landmark 1959 album Kind of Blue. Much like Michael Haneke’s shot-for-shot remake of his own movie Funny Games, every single note of the original has been lovingly recreated again in the studio for this release. It’s even a little jarring to listen to these new versions side-by-side with the original cuts since they sound so similar. This of course begs the obvious question: But why? Apart from being an interesting thought experiment brought to life, listening to this new album gives an even greater appreciation of the original recordings. Not until hearing them replicated in minute detail did I realise just how much these songs and their solos are etched into my musical conscious. So should we consider these new recordings as ‘jazz’? Nope. So what? As the original drummer in the 1959 sessions Jimmy Cobb said recently, “classical has been doing this for centuries—playing the notes someone else wrote. If these guys took the time to do this, the music must mean something to them”.
Swedish nine-piece band Angles 9 have delivered one of the best jazz albums of the year with Injuries. The ensemble was originally formed in 2007 by saxophonist Martin Küchen as the Angles 6, with two more musicians joining in the following years to become Angles 8, before finally evolving into its final form as Angles 9 for this release. There is an undeniable energy to this band, with explosive melodies and infectious rhythms littered throughout the album. They particularly excel at the kind of jazz where each member is playing the same song, yet playing it entirely in their own style to coalesce into a turbulent mix that would completely fall apart in the hands of less skilled musicians. Of course though, an all-out and unbroken jazz fanfare would quickly become tiresome, so the band injects enough moody interludes and expressive solos to prevent fatigue from setting in. The opening track featured here is a perfect example of their sound. Give it a listen, and feel that that sweet urge to flail your body uncontrollably to the beat. Or ‘dance’ as some people like to say.
Matthew Halsall & The Gondwana Orchestra
“When the World Was One”
From: When the World Was One
British independent record label Gondwana Records had an amazing year in 2014, with catalogue numbers GONDCD009, GONDCD010, and GONDCD011 each offering some of the best jazz of the year. Two of those were featured in part one of this series dedicated to the piano trio (i.e. GoGo Penguin and Mammal Hands). While those two were exciting examples of very contemporary jazz, GONDCD010 by record label founder Matthew Halsall and his Gondwana Orchestra gazes further back with a fresh take on the spiritual jazz style pioneered in the 1960s and 1970s by the likes of John Coltrane, Alice Coltrane, and Pharaoh Sanders. While Halsall is a supremely gifted trumpeter, the album is very much an ensemble affair with each member of the eight-piece band contributing equally to the meditative atmosphere gently threaded throughout the album. Unsurprisingly, given its impressive maturity and sheer beauty, iTunes named When the World Was One ‘Jazz Album of the Year’ in the UK (the Australian pianist Paul Grabowsky and his sextet were awarded the same honour here at home for The Bitter Suite, another fine release). With such a rich pool talent, Gondwana Records is definitely one to keep an eye on in 2015 and beyond.
From: The Imagined Savior is Far Easier to Paint
Prodigious trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire and his core quintet have produced a very sophisticated jazz record here which may not be the most accessible album of the year, but it may just be the most rewarding. The singular mood throughout the album is one of understated grace as Akinmusire draws from some of the more traditional strands of jazz history. Yet there remains a distinctly progressive spirit driving the music forward. From the impressive compositions incorporating the Osso String Quartet to the striking social commentary of “Rollcall For Those Absent”, it becomes clear that Akinmusire has a strong voice that extends beyond the trumpet or the mere framework of jazz itself. So with solid performances by all musicians, thoughtful songwriting, and a precisely calculated tracklist, there is little difficulty required in recommending this album for those wishing to explore contemporary music at its finest.
From: The Book of Angels, Vol. 22: Adramelech
The fourth and final John Zorn composition to appear in these posts is a selection from his ongoing Masada Book 2: The Book of Angels series. The first songbook was written in 1993 and contained approximately 200 tunes that were recorded by various ensembles in the following years. Unbelievably, Zorn wrote about another 300 more in 2004 for this second book. The twelve-piece band Zion80 led by Jon Madof bring the afrobeat influences of Fela Kuti to Zorn’s Jewish melodies for Volume 22 of the series. Named after the sun god Adramelech, this might just be the most celebratory and easily danceable that Zorn’s music has ever sounded. The angelic namesake for the opening track featured here is ‘Araziel’, one of the fallen angels who rebelled against God by taking an earthly woman as his wife and I guess some of that rebellion is reflected in this piece. Two other Book of Angels albums were also released this year: Volume 21 by multi-instrumentalist Eyvind Kang and Volume 23 by Cuban percussionist Roberto Rodriguez. Zorn has also recently completed another 92 compositions for Masada Book 3: The Book of Beriah, bringing the total number of tunes to 613 (i.e. the same number commandments in the Torah). So expect more Masada albums for many years to come.
Scaling things back a little, next we have British trio The Grip with Finn Peters on sax and flute, Oren Marshall on tuba, and Tom Skinner on the kit. Inspired by American saxophonist Arthur Blythe and his live debut album The Grip, the trio offers a collection of nine tracks demonstrating skilled musicianship and intricate songwriting while still maintaining a playful sense of fun along the way. Although this is their debut album, they have been playing together either as a trio or through other collaborations for several years now. Indeed, this track appears to date back to at least 2011 with a duet between Peters and Skinner at an impromptu performance in Greenwich Royal Park. Their years of playing together has culminated in a very accessible album with tight interplay that only took a single day to record. If you like this, then also check out the complementary mixtape for a different take on the album with covers, re-workings, and remixes of material recorded during the sessions for this album.
The Ed Palermo Big Band
“Good Night, Everybody! God Love Ya!”
From: Oh No! Not Jazz!!
Who starts a song with a trombone solo? The Ed Palermo Big Band does. And who else thinks humour still belongs in music? Again, The Ed Palermo Big Band does. As his bio says, Ed Palermo is not a “business as usual” musician. He and his 18-piece big band have been interpreting and performing the musical canon of Frank Zappa for about 20 years now. After three albums of Zappa covers, this double album pairs one disc of Zappa songs with a second disc of Palermo’s own original compositions for the first time. On the Zappa disc, the band comfortably handles his complex compositions such as “The Black Page #2” and “Inca Roads” (which features lead vocals by Napoleon Murphy Brock, who played on the 1975 original). Palermo proves to be a talented songwriter himself on the second disc though. Zappa’s influence may be obvious with track titles like “Why is the Dog Barking?” and “Let’s Reproduce”, yet Palermo retains his own distinctive voice and the big band delivers his original songs in style. Mike James’ brilliant ranting on “Good Night, Everybody! God Love Ya!” steals the show though and provides some of the funniest moments in jazz this year. “Why do you have to change this shit up all the time like this?”
“Enter Part Four”
It’s unusual for a band to exit before entering. But then, Fire! Orchestra is no usual band. The 28-piece orchestra developed out of the Fire! trio led by Mats Gusfasson (of The Thing) on saxophone, Johan Berthling handling bass, and Andreas Werliin on drums (both of whom are part of the Angles 9 featured above, amongst other bands). Their debut live album Exit! was one of the more exciting releases last year, and they have followed it up with the equally adventurous Enter this year. This time around, the band uses a more riff-heavy approach as a platform for launching into their manic full-band freak outs. The vocals may be even more divisive on this album though; not only because they’re prone to extended bouts of squeaking and squalling but also because some of their three vocalists are stronger than the others. Regardless, the music itself is intoxicating and their live performances look like a blast.
That’s all folks. Well, that’s not all really. There were plenty of other great brassy offerings this year which may not have made the cut but are equally worth your time. I’ll let you explore at your own pace from here on though. Next week, we’ll be wrapping things up with an assortment of interesting odds and ends that might not fit neatly into a themed playlist yet couldn’t be ignored in a retrospective review of jazz in 2014. In the meantime, more posts can be found below if you desire: