The best music I heard in 2014

Like the books list, this is my list of my favorite music that I heard for the (mostly) first time in 2014, not of things commercially released by the music industry in 2014. Generally I spend a lot more time listening to old music than new music, not because I don’t like new music but because I still don’t feel like I’ve listened to all the good stuff already out there. For a guide to newly-released music, you can’t do better than Ted Gioia’s — I still haven’t worked my way through the recordings he recommended from 2012. In no particular order, the music that stood out for me this year:

  • Jelly Roll Morton – Last Sessions: The Complete General Recordings. This is cheating a little bit, since I did not hear this for the first time in 2014, it’s been sitting in my house for years. But it didn’t make as much of an impression when I was first heard it. When I went back to it this year, it was,well, wow. The usual top-jazz-albums-of-all-time lists tend to name his Red Hot Peppers sessions as the must-hear classics, but I think these later recordings are probably more listenable for most people. For me their greatness comes from how they showcase Jelly as a fantastic blues singer, an aspect of his talents you will not hear on the early group recordings.
  • Bob Marley’s live albums. I came to reggae through the back door, so to speak, first getting interested in the more experimental dub side of things and then working my way into roots and more mainstream stuff. So I used to be somewhat sniffy about Bob Marley (“too popular”), an attitude I am now happy to completely reject: the songs are just good. The first Wailers album in particular is fantastic, but the live albums that I stumbled across this year are a revelation. Live! is the more famous recording, but Live At The Roxy may in fact be better — certainly the setting is closer and more intimate, less stadium rock. And I actually prefer the version of “No Woman No Cry” to the one on Live!, which everyone knows because it was included on the ubiquitous Legend compilation. The other great reggae I discovered this year was Israel Vibration’s The Same Song, a roots classic.
  • Warne Marsh – All Music. One of the truly unique voices on the tenor saxophone, who sounds utterly unlike any other jazz player (and how often is that really true?). This is probably my favorite of his recordings though pretty much all of them are worthwhile. In fact it’s another rediscovery — I picked up the LP many years ago at a library sale, but it’s been sitting unheard in a box since I’ve been living in China.
  • Exploding Star Orchestra – Sixty-Three Moons of Jupiter. I love everything this Chicago outfit has put out: they are the true contemporary heirs of Sun Ra and the free-jazz big-band concept he more or less invented. The latest recording is split between the big band work and a CD of leader Rob Mazurek’s electronic compositions. I’m not so into the electronic stuff, but the swinging polyphonic spree of the full orchestra has few equals on this planet.
  • Randy Weston – Little Niles and Highlife. I am a sucker for the African-themed jazz of the 1960s, not because it is really African but because invoking Africa was so often a great excuse to beef up the percussion, focus on rhythm, and generally break into new compositional territory. A series of Weston’s albums are now easily available as part of the Capitol Jazz Vaults MP3 reissue series, and these two were the ones that stood out: Little Niles has great tunes (the title track is a classic) and orchestration, while Highlife busts out the heavy percussion and horns.
  • Barney Wilen – Tilt. A great but largely lost album of 1950s mainstream jazz, played with startling confidence by the then very young French tenor sax star. I wrote more about Wilen here.
  • Fania All-Stars – Live At The Red Garter, Vol. 1 & 2. Kicking salsa recordings from the 1970s. Vol. 1 is the more consistent disc, but “Noche” on Vol. 2 is quite possibly the best Latin jazz track I have ever heard. This year I also went back and listened again to some other Latin jazz I had not heard in a while, and must give a plug to Sabu Martinez’ Jazz Espagnole album from 1958: truly fantastic, a peak of the genre.
  • Lee Konitz & Red Mitchell – I Concentrate On You. A very unlikely concept: Cole Porter songs played by a minimalist duo of alto sax and bass. But I found myself going back again and again to this recording for its pure, melodic beauty. This and other recordings are leading me inexorably to the view that Lee Konitz is one of the most consistently surprising and delightful saxophonists in jazz.
  • Khan Jamal. I love the vibes, but was not familiar with him until I came across two of his classics of the 1970s avant-garde: Drumdance to the Motherland, an indescribable mashup of vibes, guitar, dub echo techniques and freaky clarinet, and The River, a ravishing duet of Jamal on vibes and Bill Lewis on marimba, on the legendary lost Philly Jazz label. Only half of Drumdance is really listenable but that half is great fun, and The River is pure beauty.
  • The dB’s – Falling Off The Sky. An actual new release, just to mix things up. These are just legitimately great, catchy guitar-pop songs, but those are an impossibly rare commodity these days.

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