Jazz in 2014: Themeless Leftovers

Welcome to the fourth and final look back at Jazz in 2014. So far we have considered the current state of piano trios, discovered that collaboration is still an important part of the genre, and also explored some of the best brass offerings of the year.

This final post is more of a grab bag of other interesting jazz-related odds and ends. Although there’s no specific theme, if I had to give it one then it would be ‘The Fringes’. Some of these tracks might not strictly be jazz, but that’s okay! As Geoff Dyer writes in his excellent novel But Beautiful, jazz is “about making your own sound, finding a way to be different from everybody else, never playing the same thing two nights running”. Hopefully this is something that has been evident throughout the series so far, but it should be even more pertinent this time around.

Zara McFarlane
“Open Heart”

From: If You Knew Her
Country: UK
Time: 4:43
Listen: YouTube
zaraWinner of ‘Best Jazz Act’ at this year’s MOBO Awards, the sophomore album by Zara McFarlane opens with the spellbinding sound of the hang drum ushering in her silken voice on “Open Heart”. It’s one of the most striking album openers of the year and casually sets the mood for the remainder of the album as McFarlane experiments with different sounds tailored according to the demands of each individual song. She also proves to be a talented songwriter and storyteller, with all but two of the eleven tracks written by McFarlane herself. As she notes, the songs on this album “represent a journey through a woman’s life” and this theme is best explored on the track “Her Eyes”: “If you look deep into her eyes, let them both reveal, all the strength behind them”. Not only does the album cover demonstrate the truth behind her words, but she could just as easily be singing about the depth of strength present in her own voice when you listen close enough.

Dobet Gnahoré

From: Na Drê
Country: Ivory Coast
Time: 3:19
Listen: YouTube
dobetSinger, dancer, and percussionist Dobet Gnahoré was born and raised in the Ivory Coast of West Africa. Although she has now lived in France for quite some time, the influence of Africa remains a strong presence in both her sound and spirit. “I’m afraid for my Africa”, she sings on “J’ai Peur”, which later features an excerpt from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s influential “I Have a Dream” speech that “…one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight”. The recent threat of the largest Ebola virus outbreak in history has also been of great significance to her, writing “Non à l’ébola” to support those helping to fight the epidemic and all other diseases prevalent in Africa. More than anything though, she shares a similar ethos with Zara McFarlane (featured above) since women, their sacrifices, suffering, grace, and strength inspire the great sense of hope that permeates her music.

Get The Blessing

From: Lope and Antilope
Country: UK
Time: 5:59
Listen: YouTube
Moving away from vocals and into the loosely defined realm of ‘nu jazz’, next up we have British quartet Get The Blessing. Presenting themselves like The Residents except with cellophane masks instead of bloodshot eyeballs, the band comprises members of the rhythm section from Portishead (i.e. Jim Barr on bass and Clive Deamer on drums) along with the sax-trumpet combo of Jake McMurchie and Pete Judge. The Portishead lineage is apparent through their heavy focus on groove, letting the songs develop naturally out of the interlocking rhythms of drum, bass, and horns. An experimental spirit also drives many of these new songs, including this opening track “Quiet” which feeds McMurchie’s saxophone through a distortion pedal to squeeze Theremin-like pitch bends out of the instrument.

Polar Bear
“Be Free”

From: In Each and Every One
Country: UK
Time: 4:36
Listen: YouTube
The fifth album from five-piece experimental jazz band Polar Bear is a bubbling hot pot of textured rhythms, sophisticated beats, and jittery saxophones. Led by prolific drummer Seb Rockford, the band has had an impressive string of successes since their debut a decade ago. In Each and Every One sees the band continue to be recognised as one of Britain’s most exciting young jazz bands with a nomination for the Barclaycard Mercury Prize ‘Album of the Year’, representing the genre in the awards alongside relative newcomers GoGo Penguin. It’s a complex album though, with abstract ideas buried deep in the mix beneath a swirling array of electronics and live instrumentation. Still, this track “Be Free” is one of more directly accessible songs as it frantically jumps between a succession of brief hooks that never get the opportunity to develop into a full song on their own but unite to form something greater than the sum of its parts.

Battle Trance
“Palace of Wind: Part I”

From: Palace of Wind
Country: US
Time: 13:49
Listen: YouTube
Battle Trance (bat(ə)l trɑːns) noun a state in which individuals virtually lose their ego and acquire a new collective identity. The term was coined by Georgia-born and Melbourne-based evolutionary musicologist Joseph Jordania in his 2011 book Why do People Sing? Music in Human Evolution to describe how early music may have developed as an evolutionary tool for survival through its ability to foster a feeling of group identity, especially when faced with the threat of imminent danger. In many ways, this concept of a collective identity couldn’t be any more appropriate for Travis Laplante’s ensemble comprising four tenor saxophonists. Over the course of 40 minutes, these four musicians unite to become a single organism of pulsating air currents, gentle zephyrs, and cacophonous storm fronts. Like the Hawa Mahal itself, it is a grand piece of work; its technical intricacies transcended by its own singular grandeur.

Bohren & der Club of Gore
“Im Rauch”

From: Piano Nights
Country: Germany
Time: 5:29
Listen: YouTube
I’d like to think that piano nights could be fun. Friends gathered around the instrument, drinks in hand, some people singing, others imploring that you don’t make them sing. Sounds like a great time, right? Bohren & der Club of Gore have an entirely different idea of what constitutes a piano night though. Dripping with atmosphere, their eighth album soundtracks the single feeling of complete and utter despair. It is in many ways quite a sensuous album. You can almost taste the smoke floating in the air, just as you can smell the sting of bad whiskey and feel the rough bristles of unshaven flesh beneath hollowed out sockets. It might not sound like something that anyone would want to listen to, but it can be simply perfect given the right combination of time, place, and mood.

“Ah! Ça Ira”

From: Moloch
Country: Poland
Time: 4:15
Listen: YouTube
Named after the throne-chariot of God described in Ezekiel 1:4–26, Polish five-piece band Merkabah offer an interesting blend of free-jazz and noise-rock on their second studio album Moloch. Adding saxophone to heavier material certainly isn’t anything new (cf. Painkiller, Kayo Dot, et al.) but Merkabah have created their own unique sound in the process. Saxophonist Rafał Wawszkiewicz fits quite naturally among the pounding rhythm section and thickly distorted guitar, which all build to a manic finale in this closing track from the album. It’s heavy and it might not exactly be jazz in the traditional sense, but who cares when it sounds this good?

Josh Hickman & The Hickmen
“Recipe for Love”

From: Something for the Ladies
Country: US
Time: 4:48
Listen: YouTube
How about we finish this series with some sensual word jazz for the ladies? I don’t care what anyone says to the contrary, I’m convinced that “Recipe for Love” is far and away the best song of the year. Josh Hickman is some kind of genius as he details the perfect romantic cocktail with a series of food-related puns delivered in his rich, sonorous voice. The puns themselves range from the fairly obvious (“Lettuce be together forever”) to the delightfully clever (“With you, a walk by the bay leaves me speechless”). The next track (“Across a Crowded Room”) is equally funny with its running commentary of Hickman speaking Optical with the pretty lady across the room. What makes the album though is the sprinkling of Hickman’s satisfied groans and hearty chuckles as he humours himself with his own debonair demeanour. In my books, you don’t need to be a high profile recording artist to write the song of the year. Well, not nececelery.

That’s it! That’s my small sample of jazzy highlights from this year. Of course, there are many more great albums which I didn’t feature in this series. Hopefully I’ve provided a good walking baseline for you to work with if you wish to dig any deeper into past releases or to keep an eye out for what 2015 might have in store. And in case you missed any of the previous posts, they can be found below:

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