I listened to more than 120 albums released by California jazz artists in 2014 (and around another five dozen representing other styles and traditions), and there’s been no shortage of memorable music. Looking back over the year, what’s most impressive is the number of musicians seeking to expand their expressive capabilities while burrowing into well-established forms or pushing at jazz’s already blurred borders.
These are my 10 favorite California jazz releases this year, in alphabetical order. (An asterisk indicates I reviewed the album for the California Report.)
Ambrose Akinmusire - The Imagined Savior is Far Easier to Paint*
East Bay-raised, Los Angeles-based trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire continues to live up to his vast promise with a brooding, thoughtful and ultimately sublime album that builds upon his sterling working quintet featuring pianist Sam Harris, bassist Harish Raghavan, tenor saxophonist Walter Smith III, and drummer Justin Brown (a fellow Berkeley High alum). With settings for string quartet and special guests like folk/jazz vocalist Becca Stevens and Canadian singer/songwriter Cold Speck, The Imagined Savior contains a multitude of sonic moods while never feeling fractured or disjointed.
Laurie Antonioli - Songs of Shadow, Songs of Light
Several of Joni Mitchell’s songs are firmly established in the jazz repertoire, but no singer before Bay Area veteran Laurie Antonioli has wrought as fine a balance between the original sources and her own vivid emotional and improvisational palette. It’s a journey that wouldn’t be possible without her supple American Dreams Band, with saxophonist Sheldon Brown, pianist Matt Clark, guitarist Dave MacNab, bassist John Shifflett, and drummer Jason Lewis.
Wil Blades - Field Notes
(Royal Potato Family)
Berkeley Hammond B-3 organist Wil Blades gets his groove on with his fierce and inventive trio featuring guitarist Jeff Parker and drummer Simon Lott. Lithe and earthy, Blades’ shack-shaking music never strays far from its dance-inducing roots, though he’s adept at slipping piquant new vintages into familiar bottles.
Billy Childs - Map to the Treasure: Reimagining Laura Nyro*
Hands down my favorite album of the year, this passionate love letter to the late singer/songwriter Laura Nyro from Los Angeles pianist/arranger Billy Childs is a spectacularly ambitious project that succeeds on every level — particularly casting. From Renée Fleming and Yo-Yo Ma’s magnificent “New York Tendaberry” and Ledisi’s “Stoned Soul Picnic” to Shawn Colvin and Chris Botti’s “Save the Country” and Alison Krauss and Jerry Douglas’ killer closer “When I Die,” Childs’ beautifully wrought arrangements feature consistently inspired matches of songs, singers, and instrumentalists.
Crossing Borders - Mess Around
Combining three South Bay stalwarts—saxophonist Kristen Strom, guitarist Scott Sorkin and drummer Jason Lewis—with two British Columbia mainstays in the form of vocalist/pianist Jennifer Scott and bassist Rene Worst, "crossing borders" describes the band’s stylistic proclivities as aptly as its bi-national membership. A working ensemble that’s honed material designed to showcase burnished lyricism, subtle interplay and supple phrasing, the band has a compelling cohesion which might flow from featuring two married couples (Lewis is the odd man out).
Holly Hofmann - Low Life: The Alto Flute Project
Long recognized as one of jazz’s premier flutists, San Diegan Holly Hofmann devotes an entire album to the lustrous alto flute, an appealing instrument with a fatter tone and lower register than the far more familiar C flute. Working with her husband, the brilliant pianist Mike Wofford, and an all-star rhythm section of bassist John Clayton, drummer Jeff Hamilton, and guitarist Anthony Wilson, she mostly focuses on strong contemporary material by the likes of Mulgrew Miller, Pat Metheny and her bandmates.
Azar Lawrence - The Seeker
Well into his career’s welcome and impressive second act, tenor and soprano saxophonist Azar Lawrence has returned to the prodigious form of the early 1970s, when he kept company with powerhouse masters like McCoy Tyner, Woody Shaw and Elvin Jones. His fourth release since his revival, The Seeker hurls him back into a spiritual quest accompanied by hi-octane players like trumpeter Nicholas Payton, bassist Essiet Okun Essiet, drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts, and Venezuelan pianist Benito Gonzalez, a rising star to watch.
Hafez Modirzadeh - In Convergence Liberation
An undersung Bay Area treasure, saxophonist/composer Hafez Modirzadeh is an artist who reveals unexpected connections between notes, scales and entire traditions. With three disparate suites, this dauntingly ambitious project features the adventurous string quartet Ethel and a host of singular improvisers, including Iraqi-American trumpeter Amir ElSaffar and vocalist Mili Bermejo, who combines a deep knowledge of jazz with Mexican and Argentine song.
Michael O’Neill & Kenny Washington - New Beginnings
Quite simply the most exciting male vocalist in jazz, Oakland-based Kenny Washington has collaborated fruitfully over the past decade with saxophonist/arranger Michael O’Neill, who leads a top-shelf band here with trumpeter Erik Jekabson, bassist Dan Feiszli, drummer Alan Hall, and special guest pianist Geoffrey Keezer. With well-worn standards like “Stella By Starlight” and “Fly Me to the Moon,” the program might look unadventurous, but O’Neill creates wondrous settings in which the supremely soulful Washington can soar.
Denny Zeitlin - Stairway to the Stars
The inimitable Bay Area pianist Denny Zeitlin and his East Coast bandmates Buster Williams (bass) and Matt Wilson (drums) have recorded several superlative albums together, but this release goes back to the beginning, capturing the birth of one of the 21st century’s most rewarding trios. Recorded at the Jazz Bakery in 2001 — the band’s first club date — the 10 exuberant, joyful tracks alternate between rhapsodic discovery and headlong, ferociously swinging jaunts.
Another 10 Highly Recommended Albums:
Bristle - Future(s) Now(s) (Queen Bee)
Jeff Denson & Joshua White - I’ll Fly Away (pfMentum)*
Bobby Hutcherson - Enjoy the View (Blue Note)
Erik Jekabson Quartet plus John Santos - Live at the Hillside Club (Jekab’s Music)
The L.A. Treasures Project - Live at Alvas Showroom (Capri Records)
Mo’Fone - ‘Fonology (Evander Music)
Joshua Redman - Trios Live (Nonesuch)
Wadada Leo Smith - The Great Lakes Suite (TUM)
Tierney Sutton - Paris Sessions (BFM Jazz)
Harvey Wainapel - Amigos Brasileiros Vol. 2 (Jazzmission Records)