best of 2014

The Top 10 Jazz Albums of 2014

Featuring Houstonians Jason Moran and Walter Smith III.

By Justin Mitchell December 5, 2014

I wasn’t impressed with a lot of the stuff I heard by big name veteran jazz musicians in 2014. This year belonged primarily to the slightly obscure, the underrated, and the up-and-coming. Wait, I hear you say, isn’t that how it’s supposed to be? Ah, well, sometimes we lose sight of this in the jazz world. Anyway, these cats killed it this year. Don’t sleep on them. 

To listen to samples from the Top 10 list, click here

1. Jamie Saft – The New Standard

I’m not sure why pianist/organist Jamie Saft’s latest album has not been widely reviewed or celebrated in jazz circles. Anyway, I’m here to tell you: this record is an absolute masterpiece. Saft, who works in a number of other genres and plays multiple instruments, is joined here by Bobby Previte on drums and Steve Swallow on bass. Their chemistry is astounding. They lay down groove after groove, drawing on a whole slew of down-home music, from blues shuffles to gospel. Saft, who studied with the pianist Geri Allen and has played with John Zorn, is like Red Garland, Bobby Timmons, and Mary Lou Williams all rolled into one, a blues player of the highest order. And the mix is excellent. Swallow’s electric bass has probably never sounded better. I can’t praise this album enough. If you love blues-based music of any kind, go out and cop it. Now. 

2. Jason Moran – All Rise: A Joyful Elegy for Fats Waller

Native son Jason Moran returns with a lively tribute to the great Harlem stride pianist Fats Waller. I consider this his best album yet. Check out my full review of it here




3. James Brandon Lewis – Divine Travels

H/T Patrick Jarenwattananon of A Blog Supreme, who mentioned this album in his survey of top jazz releases during the summer. On his second album as leader, saxophonist Lewis holds his own alongside two veteran players: drummer Gerald Cleaver and bassist William Parker. That’s right, this is a trio album—a brilliant one at that. Lewis is a virtuosic player, but it’s not simply his remarkable technique that grabs you. It’s the emotional aspect of his playing and songwriting, both of which are anchored firmly in the liturgical traditions of African American Protestantism. Be careful, this is powerful stuff. 

4. Sylvie Courvoisie – Double Windsor

Swiss-German Brooklynite Sylvie Courvoisier is one of the few young pianists who seem to be wrestling seriously—and successfully—with the legacy of Cecil Taylor. Her trio blends elements of traditional straight-ahead jazz with contemporary classical music to create something truly original. I haven’t heard anything in the trio format this fresh and startling in a while. Witness the ferocious pianistic attack, the driving rhythm, and melodicism on the title cut, or the brazen vacillation between old-fashioned swing and avant-garde improvisation on “The Charlier Cut.” This album took brilliance and guts. 

5. Armen Donelian – Sayat-Nova: Songs of My Ancestors

If you’re a true Houston jazz aficionado you’ve heard Armen Donelian. He’s responsible for those winsome, Bill Evans-esque piano solos on The Believer, that classic spiritual jazz album by Third Ward native Billy Harper. Donelian’s latest effort celebrates his Armenian heritage. The double album offers jazz-inspired interpretations of songs by the Armenian ashik (folk singer) Sayat-Nova. Donelian performs solo on the first album and switches to the trio format on the second. This album has everything I want in contemporary straight-ahead jazz: original ideas; a sense of tradition; enchanting melodies; and flawless, thoughtful playing. 

6. Azar Lawrence – The Seeker

On this live album the former saxophonist for Miles Davis and McCoy Tyner is backed by an incredible band: Nicholas Payton on trumpet, Essiet Okon Essiet on bass, Jeff “Tain” Watts on drums, and Benito Gonzalez on piano. Payton and Watts belong to the generation of jazz artists who ruled the mainstream New York scene in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Both are phenomenal players. Gonzalez and Essiet are less well known, but their support on Lawrence’s catchy, deeply spiritual, and groove-heavy originals is outstanding. Imagine Coltrane’s classic quartet playing jazz laced with fusion and Latin influences. 

7. Brian Blade & The Fellowship Band – Landmarks

Blade is the rhythmic force behind Wayne Shorter’s Footsteps Quartet. The Shreveport native is a powerhouse drummer and he really lets you know it in the Shorter group. Fellowship—a sextet that has been together for 14 years—is a horse of a different color. These guys care mainly about crafting songs, not mind-blowing solos. The aesthetic is progressive and southern—blues, rock, and country filtered through modern post-bop. It’s hard to pick a favorite tune on this one, since the album tells a story, but “Ark.La.Tex,” which pays tribute to Blade’s home turf, a place where many important folk traditions intersect, stands out for this listener.    

8. Matthew Shipp Trio – Root of Things

This indefatigable, uncompromising innovator always deserves your attention, especially when he’s playing in the trio format. Shipp is a bona fide master, the most important and influential figure in avant-garde jazz piano after Cecil Taylor, and the trio setting accentuates the best aspects of his style—the color, the angularity, the ferocity, and the wit. His trio places a greater emphasis on swing this time around. Highlights include “Jazz It” and “Solid Circuit.” Be sure to also check out Shipp’s excellent recording with Houston’s The Core Trio, also from this year. 

9. JD Allen – Bloom

Allen is an extremely versatile tenor saxophone player. He writes abrasive, dissonant originals in the style of mid-to-late Coltrane (except his tunes are much shorter), but plays ballads more skillfully and memorably than almost all of his contemporaries. The Monk-like Orrin Evans, arguably the best pianist of his generation, is a good match for Allen, who usually records with just bass and drums. Their duet on “Pater Noster” is hauntingly beautiful and brings to mind the sanctified sounds of Archie Shepp and Horace Parlan’s classic album Goin’ Home

10. Walter Smith III – Still Casual

The Houston native’s second studio album is a mostly mellow affair. That’s fine by me: Smith has the kind of rich and soothing tone on tenor saxophone that I can listen to all day. He’s also one of the few saxophonists of his generation with a recognizable voice. My favorite joint on here is “Apollo,” followed closely by “Greene,” a powerful tribute to the saxophonist Jimmy Greene, whose daughter was murdered during the Sandy Hook shooting spree. 




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