Jazz Resolutions – Open your ears to something new for the new year

It’s almost 2015. Think of the possibilities and the potential that await us when the calendar flips over to a fresh new year! If you’re still looking for an attainable new year’s resolution, may I humbly suggest you bend your ear to something new. I’m thinking you should start listening to jazz! Or, if you’re already a bit of an aficionado, then I’d encourage you to listen to more of it. You can’t overdo it.

Ok, so jazz might not be in the midst of a Taylor Swift-ian ascent up the charts. Who cares – mass popularity is for the birds anyway. Jazz is the greatest art form to be produced in the Americas, and as such, it’s worthy of our attention. Plus it swings. It cooks. It’s hip. It’s cool and hot too, often at the same time. You might need to let your ears open up a bit; jazz musicians are fond of difficult and dissonant harmonic structures, but once you’re accustomed to it, you’ll realize how bland pop music pabulum can be. Remember the first time you ate a curry and exclaimed “I didn't know the world has flavours like that!”? Finding an appreciation for jazz harmony is a lot like that, just centred around your ears instead of your taste buds.

Jazz has been around for a century or so, meaning there’s grounds for nearly endless exploration. Here are some more recent sides, recorded by contemporary musicians.

Cecile McLorin Salvant – Woman Child
The best jazz singers – Ella, Billie, Sarah, Nina – have always been every bit the equal of their instrumentalist collaborators. McLorin Savant is only in her early 20s, but already possesses the vocal virtuosity of her legendary peers. Woman Child is playful at times, and McLorin Salvant has great fun with classic tunes like “John Henry” and “What a Little Moonlight Can Do.” But she’s not afraid to disrupt easy-listening expectations with powerhouse performances, as is most evident on the title track. Even more curious and compelling is her take on “You Bring Out the Savage In Me,” a track with troubling racial overtones – and not recorded since 1935 – that McLorin Salvant sings entirely on her own terms.

Brian Blade + The Fellowship Band – Landmarks
You could make a strong case that Brian Blade is the finest living jazz drummer. His touch is at times lyrical and melodic – not terms one typically deploys in conversations about drummers. The Fellowship Band is aptly named, too; the communal interplay of jazz is brilliantly on display here. Where so much jazz evokes the sounds of big cities – car horns, the dense, interweaving voice of crowds – Landmarks feels more spacious, sounding positively rural at times. The closer, “Embers,” has a strong country vibe, and “Ark.La.Tex.” opens before the listener like the vista over a long stretch of highway.

Ambrose Akinmusire – The Imagined Savior is Far Easier to Paint
Trumpeter Akinmusire’s latest effort sits alongside Woman Child as the finest jazz offering of 2014. Akinmusire’s playing is deeply rooted in the language of hard bop, and his jazzier compositions are moody and spacious like those written by the great Wayne Shorter. This album is even more stylistically diverse than his previous offerings, serving up spoken word pieces – “Roll Call for Those Absent” is stirring and taken straight from recent headlines – and there are some brilliant vocal performances too, including one from Canadian singer Cold Specks.

James Brandon Lewis – Divine Travels
James Brandon Lewis has one foot in the church and one foot in the avant-garde. The interplay between Lewis and his sidemen draws a lot from the free jazz tradition, but there’s blues figures and gospel evocations on this album that anchor listeners in something more familiar, too. Lewis avoids some of the screechier, harsher aspects of the avant-garde, resulting in an album that is simultaneously inviting and challenging.

The Bad Plus – Inevitable Western
The Bad Plus are always take their listeners on an adventure. Inevitable Western finds the post-jazz, post-rock, pigeonhole-resistant group back to more familiar terrain, after they tackled Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” earlier in the year. There’s usually something loping and irregular about the group’s compositions – unpredictable changes in meter, swift, dissonant crescendos – which provides a wonderful challenge to mere casual listening (one of my chief annoyances is when people refer to jazz as “background music”). Pianist Ethan Iverson sounds like a 21st century Thelonious Monk all the way across the album, and his work on “Self Serve” is a delightful tangle, and “You Will Lose All Fear” is hard driving and wonderfully messy.

Kenny Barron and Dave Holland – The Art of Conversation
If James Brandon Lewis pushed you to far, you can always come back to pianist Kenny Barron and bassist Dave Holland. An eloquent dialogue between two masters of the form, the album is an even-handed, controlled exploration of original compositions and some bebop classics. Barron is a wonderful interpreter of Thelonious Monk, bringing a supple smoothness to Monk’s acerbic style, and as such, the duo’s take on “In Walked Bud” is a standout track.

  • Brian Is CC’s Review Editor and a CRC chaplain at the University of Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier University.

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