Best of 2014

So mostly this blog is about tax. But I don’t spend all of my time thinking about tax: sometimes, I think about music. And, as 2014 comes to a close, I thought it would be worth laying out my top five albums of the year.

These aren’t necessarily the best albums of 2014—though my number one pick is, unequivocally, the best album of 2014—but they’re all great albums, and albums I find myself returning to over and over.[fn]

Of course, being a law professor, I have to add some complexity in. So there are six albums in my top five, plus three that might have made it only I haven’t listened to them enough, plus one that, while not in my top five, is probably the most interesting conceptual listen of the year that is also terrific fun to listen to.

And, without further ado: 

Top Five of 2014
5. Jon Irabagon, It Takes All Kinds [Spotify]. I love Irabagon. He’s one of the most interesting contemporary saxophone players out there, and this is a great trio. They play really hard-hitting free jazz, and they work together really, really well. It’s strange in places (because free jazz), but it’s also funky and has hooks.
4. Matt Wilson Quartet + John Medeski, Gathering Call [No Spotify; Review]. This is an odd one for me. I’m not a huge Medeski Martin & Wood fan, but I love what each of them do in other settings. Here, Medeski (the pianist from MMW) is joining a pianoless quartet of bass, drums, trumpet, and saxophone. The sound of the album (and, frankly, even the cover art) remind me a lot of hard bop, and especially albums by the Jazz Messengers. But it’s not straight-up derivative; the sax and trumpet don’t take full solos, instead trading off pretty quickly. But it’s really great, really fun, really funky jazz with a very 1960s front line, and great grooves underneath that line. I assume the Matt Wilson Quartet is generally a free jazz group, but this outing (mostly) isn’t free.
3 (take 1). Tom Chang, Tongue & Groove [No Spotify; Review]. I love this album. It reminds me a lot of, say Chick Corea Elektric Band stuff. Chang has a heavy, distorted guitar–he can shred with (and better than) the best hard rock guys. The reviews say he’s mixing jazz, rock, Indian classical music, and other genres. And it works together. This is really crunchy, really aggressive music.
3 (take 2). Tyler Blanton, Gotham [No Spotify; Review]. I listen to that pretty much as often as anything else. I love vibraphones, but most vibraphonists try to sound like Milt Jackson. Which is great, because he’s an incredible player. But Blanton has an entirely different sound; there’s an undercurrent of hip-hop/R&B there.

2. Wadada Leo Smith, Great Lakes Suite [No Spotify; Review]. I don’t know how much praise I can heap on this record. It’s not like any of the others–Smith is one of the great avant garde musicians. And there’s pretty much nothing funky on this double album. Instead, you have wonderful long tones in the trumpet and sax over a roiling rhythm section. The long notes in the trumpet and sax are mostly straight tones, without any vibrato. Even in unison, the two don’t attack or end their notes together. In some situations, that would indicate poor playing; here, it works perfectly and I love it.

Occasionally on the record, the roiling comes to the fore, and you have an aggressive, hard-hitting melody. And then the roiling goes back underneath. Living near one of the Great Lakes, I think he’s spot-on: mostly, Lake Michigan is smooth, but if the winds hit it just right, it can wash over Lake Shore Drive.

1. The Bad Plus, The Rite of Spring [Spotify]. I guess you’re allowed to disagree with my previous four picks. But this is unquestionably the best album of 2014, and here I will brook no dissent.
The Rite of Spring is one of the greatest compositions from the 20th century (and a pretty amazing ballet). If you’re not familiar with it, you need to listen to it, but you also need to read about its premier to understand how radical it was.
The Bad Plus is a jazz trio (piano, bass, drums). They make pretty interesting and aggressive music, and most of the time it works well. Here, though, they don’t jazzify the song–they play it completely straight. And the three of them (plus, at the beginning, some electronics to replicate the beginning of the song, which sounds like the orchestra warming up) manage to incorporate a whole orchestra in their (not overdubbed) recording. Like, they get every theme, every nuance. There’s no cheating, and nothing is left out. And this is three people playing an orchestral piece.
I said the best album of 2014; I’d be hard-pressed to think of a better 21st century album, frankly.
Possible alternatives; I really like these albums, but haven’t spent the same amount of time with them:
Gregory Porter, Liquid Spirit [Spotify]
Cecile McLoren Salvant, WomanChild [Spotify]
Jason Moran, All Rise: A Joyful Elegy for Fats Waller [Spotify]
Most Interesting (and Supremely Listenable) Album of 2014:
Mostly Other People Do the Killing, Blue [No Spotify; Miles Davis’s album on SpotifyReviewone track]. In 1959, Miles Davis released A Kind of Blue, an album that radically changed the course of jazz (and an album that every household, even those who hate jazz, should own, both for cultural literacy and because even my sister–an avowed hater of jazz–likes it). Basically, Miles said, in the past, jazz songs have changed chords every two to four beats. What if I write songs that keep the same tonality for a lot longer–songs with only a couple chords, that change every sixteen or more measures? He had a stunning band, and they recorded a stunning album.
Mostly Other People Do the Killing decided to remake the album. So they did: each member of the band transcribed (that is, listened to and figured out) every note on the album. Then they rerecorded it, note for note. Also, tone for tone: on “So What,” when John Coltrane comes in, there’s this really interesting echo on his saxophone. MOPDtK has recreated the echo when Irabagon comes in with the solo.
They admit it’s not perfect: there are a couple points where they don’t get the inflection or the tone perfect. But I don’t hear those spots in my casual listening.
So what’s tremendously interesting about this project is a major question it raises: is it jazz to play Kind of Blue note for note? One of the central aspects of jazz is improvisation; Miles’s band was improvising when they recorded the album. Miles claims he didn’t even let them see the music until they were in the recording studio. And clearly Miles’s album is jazz.
But is it still jazz if it’s not improvised?
Whether or not it is, though this album is unnecessary, it’s amazing. It sounds good, and it raises real art-philosophical questions, in the most virtuosic way possible.
[fn] Note that, where an album is available on Spotify, I’ve included a link. If it’s not available on Spotify, I’ve at least included a link to a full review of the album.

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