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Complete Communion

Complete Communion's Favoured Jazz Albums Of 2014
Stewart Smith , December 23rd, 2014 14:55

Stewart Smith looks back over 2014 to pick his 20-and-a-bit favourite albums in a round-up of the best jazz of the year

With so much creative and exciting jazz and improvised music out there, no single list could hope to represent it all. So, a disclaimer: this top twenty is an entirely personal selection, determined by my own tastes, knowledge and access. It's largely on the avant-garde side of things, but that doesn't mean this music is inaccessible or overly cerebral. This is some of the most beautiful, inventive and passionate music I've heard this year, and there's no shortage of great tunes, riffs or rhythms alongside the skronking and scraping. To reflect the global spread of this music, I've tried to cover a number of British, European and Japanese artists alongside the American masters. There will inevitably be great albums I've overlooked, so feel free to add your recommendations in the comments section below. We'll be back in January with the regular roundup of new releases, reissues and event previews. But for now, party on and free the jazz!

Wadada Leo Smith – Great Lakes Suite

Red Hill


Two tremendous albums from one of the masters of creative music. Great Lakes Suite sees the great trumpeter joined by the stellar trio of Jack DeJohnette on drums, Henry Threadgill on reeds, and John Lindburg on bass. It's one of Smith's most beautiful and accessible albums, full of gorgeous melodies and high-level collective improvisation. The more abstract and elemental Red Hill finds Smith in the company of a younger group, including former-grindcore drummer Balazs Pandi. Smith's artistry shines on both albums, as he condenses a lifetime of musical experience into resonant haiku-like lines. (Pictured above)

Akira Sakata & Giovanni di Domenico – Iruman

Sakata, Berthling, Nilssen-Love – Arashi


Two fine albums showing different sides of the remarkable Japanese altoist Akira Sakata. Iruman sees Sakata exploring realms of otherly beauty in the inspired company of Italian pianist Giovanni di Domenico, while Arashi teams him up with The Thing's rhythm section for a thrilling high-energy blow-out. As wonderful as his sax playing is, some of the most affecting moments are where Sakata uses his voice: on Iruman he sings in a high, cracked tenor and recites poetry, while on Arashi, he unleashes Hulk-like grunts over a hail of percussive fury.

Jemeel Moondoc – The Zookeeper's House
(Relative Pitch)

A superb album from undersung altoist Jemeel Moondoc, combining strong melodies and rhythms with advanced thought. Joined by a first-rate band that includes pianist Matthew Shipp, Moondoc offers several fine new compositions and a terrific version of Alice Coltrane's 'Ptah the El Daoud'.

Rodgrigo Amado Motion Trio & Peter Evans – The Freedom Principle / Live In Lisbon
(No Business)

Two great sets capturing Portuguese saxophonist Rodrigo Amado's Motion Trio live and in the studio with New York trumpet agitator Peter Evans. There's a giddy lightness to the rhythm section of Miguel Mira on cello and Gabriel Ferrandini on drums, while Evans dazzles with an array of bizarre trumpet effects: 'ah phooey' exhalations, squeegee noises, a dog grappling with an old pair of slippers. Taking in abstract free improvisation, drone, hard bop and fiery free jazz, these are two inspired sessions.

Billy Bang & William Parker – Medicine Buddah

(No Business)

Recorded two years before his death in 2009 Medicine Buddah finds the free jazz violinist Billy Bang in complete communion with the great bassist William Parker. The opening track is stunning, as Bang's violin vaults and swoops over torpid drones and oceanic swells of arco bass. On later tracks, Parker plays wood flute, taking the music into beautiful Zen territory. Even at its quietest, Medicine Buddah is an intense, almost overwhelming experience.

William Hooker & Liudas Mockunas

(No Business)

Lithuanian saxophonist Liudas Mockunas and New York drummer William Hooker work up a warm storm of gutsy yet lyrical free jazz in the vein of Rashied Ali and Frank Lowe's all-time classic Duo Exchange. The business.

Peter Brötzmann, Jason Adasiewicz, John Edwards, Steve Noble - Mental Shake

Recorded live at London's Cafe Oto, Mental Shake reunites German lung-champion Peter Brötzmann with the crack rhythm team of John Edwards and Steve Noble. Chicago vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz is the wildcard, opening up gorgeous purple-blue tone worlds under the Europeans' punky improvisations. This group barely stay still, continually developing new ideas over juddering grooves and abstract space music. Brötzmann is on magnificent form, sounding hunters calls on the Hungarian tarogato pipe, and, belying his wildman reputation, ending the set in romantic ballad mode, playing with an unfettered tenderness.

Kidd Jordan, Peter Kowald, Alvin Fielder – Trio And Duo In New Orleans

(No Business)

A fantastic collection from maverick New Orleans tenor saxophonist Edward 'Kidd' Jordan, drummer Alvin Fielder and the late German bassist Peter Kowald, recorded months before the latter's premature death in 2002. This is radical and soulful music, taking in gospel melodies, New Orleans blues dirges and brilliant speed-of-thought improvisation.

Pharoah And The Underground – Spiral Mercury

(Clean Feed)

Spiral Mercury is a joy, with the great saxophonist Pharoah Sander sparking off cornettist Rob Mazurek's supergroup to produce his finest, and most suprising, work in years. Combining his Chicago Underground and Sau Paulo Underground groups, Mazurek conjures a hazy tropical atmosphere in which cosmic jazz, improv, funk and electronics dance freely.

Large Unit – Erta Ale


Massive three disc set from The Thing sticksman Paal Nilssen-Love's big band of Scandinavian jazzers, punky improvisers and noise fiends. All the brash riffs, wailing horns and electronic skronk you could hope for, plus some exploratory passages of quiet abstraction.

Max Johnson, Ingrid Laubrook, Mat Maneri, Tomas Fujiwara - The Prisoner
(No Business)

Inspired by Patrick McGoohan's psychedelic television classic, The Prisoner captures impressions of the show's mystery through a deft fusion off free-improvisation and avant-garde classical music.

Black Top feat Steve Williamson

(Babel Label)

Rethinking free-improvisation through the music of the African diaspora, Black Top's #One sees the London-based duo of pianist Pat Thomas and marimba player Orphy Robinson joined by the fine saxophonist Steve Williamson. Shades of Cecil Taylor, Satie and Coltrane are played off Caribbean rhythms and lo-fi electronic textures from Thomas's laptop.

Farmers By Nature: Gerald Cleaver, William Parker, Craig Taborn – Love & Ghosts

(Aum Fidelity)

An avant-garde piano trio led by drummer composer Gerald Cleaver; beautiful.

Nicole Mitchell's Sonic Projections – The Secret Escapades Of Velvet Anderson

(Rogue Art)

Flautist Nicole Mitchell mythologises the late Chicago saxophonist and club owner Fred Anderson as black superhero Velvet Anderson, 'a secret agent working against forces of musical demise'.

Raymond MacDonald & Marilyn Crispell – Parallel Moments

(Babel Label)

A long-time associate of Anthony Braxton, Marilyn Crispell's playing is avant-garde, but with a strong romantic sensibility, making her an excellent foil for Scottish saxophonist Raymond MacDonald, co-founder of Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra. An intimate and richly imaginative duo set.

Alexander Hawkins – Song Singular

Alexander Hawkins Ensemble - Step Wide, Step Deep

(Babel Label)

Featuring members of the mighty Sons of Kemet, Step Wide, Step Deep, is a playfully knotty set of tunes from the brilliant young Oxford pianist and composer Alexander Hawkins. His solo piano disc, Song Singular is perhaps even better, synthesising avant-garde and classic jazz strategies, in an aslant homage to Ellington.

East West Collective – Humeurs
(Rogue Art)

If the name East-West Collective suggests a worthy global fusion, be not afeared, for Humeurs journeys deep into its own remarkable tone world, where reeds, and sometimes voices, babble and hum about the twangling strings of the koto and ghuzeng. At its most spectral, this set's avant-garde co-mingling of eastern and western instruments recalls the acoustic work of Toshi Ichiyanagi or the godfathers of Japanese improv, Group Ongaku.

Nate Wooley, Hugo Antunes, Chris Corsano – Malus
(No Business)

This trio's impeccable sense of timing, texture and space makes for an inspired study in post-noise atmospherics. Wooley turns his trumpet into a hissing steam engine and a bubbling cauldron, channelling electricity to create groggy lo-fi textures, while Corsano creates queasy high-pitched drones and dull metallic rings by dragging objects across amplified skins. Double bassist Hugo Antunes steadies the ship while Wooley and Corsano scramble up the rigging, yet he's far from conventional: hear him loom into orbit on 'Seven Miles From The Moon', carving monolithic obsidian slabs out of deep space silence.

Dave Liebman & Steve Dalchinsky
(Rogue Art)

A beautiful conversation between New York poet Steve Dalachinsky and saxophonist Dave Liebman, veteran of Miles Davis's electric bands. While Dalachinsky delivers Beat visions in a splendid Noo Yawk accent, Liebman provides inspired commentaries on a range of instruments: swooping, spiralling soprano on 'The Breath (For Evan Parker)', clattering drums on 'Cosmic', airy flute on 'Magical Realism'.

Dead Neandthertals & Colin Webster – Prime
(Gaffer Records)

Prime, from brutal Dutch duo Dead Neanderthals and British reed obliterator Colin Webster is a relentless onslaught of thunder and scorch... This is a supremely focussed performance, with an intensity and drive that reflects the Dutchmen's love of grindcore and black metal... Fusing the textural and tonal freedom of jazz and noise with the linear attack of metal, Prime is an absolute blast.