Culture Currents Picks: Best Jazz and Roots Music of 2014


Miguel Zenon. Courtesy 

My literary side continues to pursue the best songwriting I can find, usually in a context of so-called roots music. But this year, jazz impressed me more across the board, signaling that America’s original art form is alive and quite well.

So I went more in depth in my commentary on the best jazz of 2014. My choice for jazz musician of the year is alto saxophonist-composer Miguel Zenon, for his ongoing work as the only-remaining founding member of The SFJAZZ Collective, which won the 2014 NAACP Images Award for best jazz album for 2013’s The Songs of Stevie Wonder. The SFJC’s Tenth Anniversary album topped my list and Zenon also released his brilliant new concept album Identities are Changeable.


“Mboko” by pianist David Virelles was our choice for jazz album cover of the year — and a top ten jazz album. Courtesy

My list of the top 10 roots music albums follows after the jazz commentary.

I hope you search out and enjoy plenty of this music. First, here’s my top ten (11 actually) 2014 jazz album list, including historical jazz, with commentary following:

1. SFJAZZ Collective — 10th Anniversary: Best of Live at the SFJAZZ Center, October 10-13, 2013 (SFJAZZ Records)

2. Christine Jensen Jazz Orchestra — Habitat (Justin Time)

3. Miguel Zenon — Identities are Changeable (Upcal/Mielmusic)

4. Andy Bey — Pages from an Imaginary Life (High Note)

5. David Virelles– Mboko (ECM)

6. The Bad Plus — The Rite of Spring (Masterworks)

7. Joachim Kuhn Trio Trio with Archie Shepp — Voodoo Sense (ACT)

8. Keith Jarrett/Charlie Haden Last Dance (ECM)

9. Jason Roebke Octet — High Red Center (Delmark)

10. (tie) No Fast Food — In Concert (Corner Store Jazz), Marcin Wasilewski Trio with Joakim Milder — Spark of Life  (ECM) 

Honorable Mention: Chicago Yestet — Just Say Yes, Devin Drobka, Bell Dance Songs, Jackie Allen — My Favorite Color, Tom Harrell — Trip, Fred Hersch Trio — Floating, Jack Bruce — Silver Rails, Pat Metheny Group — Kin, Bill Frisell — Guitar in the Space Age, Hafez Modirazadeh — In Convergence Liberation, Mitch Shiner and the Blooming Tones Big Band — Fly!, Wadada Leo Smith — Great Lakes Suite, Nels Cline and Julian Lage — Room, Tyshawn Sorey — Alloy, Ellen Rowe Quintet — Courage Music, Sara Serpa and Andre Matos — Primavera, Paul Bley — Play Blue: Oslo Concert, Myra Milford — Life Carries Me this Way, Steve Treseler Group — Center Song, Tom Gullion – Time It Is, Russ Johnson — Meeting Point.

BEST WEBSITE QUOTE, Chicago Yestet: “Whenever I become discouraged (which is on alternate Tuesdays, between three and four), I lift my spirits by remembering: The artists are on our side! I mean those poets and painters, singers and musicians, novelists and playwrights who speak to the world in a way that is impervious to assault because they wage the battle for justice in a sphere which is unreachable by the dullness of ordinary political discourse.” – Howard Zinn



1. 10th Anniversary: Best of Live at the SFJAZZ Center, October 10-13, 2013 —  (SFJAZZ) After a decade, this all-star band seems somewhat under-recognized nationally, while maintaining touring, recording and a world-class presence in the superbly-designed center inspired by it, which I visited this fall. This album exemplifies a group whose range and depth draws profoundly from the vast jazz tradition and invigorating inlets from cultural strains its diverse membership represents. No jazz group does this better today.

Partial proof lies in the originals here —  generally stronger than the classics they interpret brilliantly, including vintage Monk, Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Herbie Hancock and Stevie Wonder’s “Visions,” fired up with an infectious vibraphone-based rhythmic pattern. Ex-collective member Dave Douglas’s “Alcatraz” evokes San Francisco’s infamous prison island by breaking out of jazz impressionism’s pitfalls by flaring to life, like the sun burning into the souls of its spiritually tortured inhabitants. Eric Harland’s “Union” has a warm and vast embracing quality and, in the middle, a dynamic, demonic dance between saxophonists Miguel Zenon and David Sanchez. And Zenon’s own “Lingala” proves further that this altoist is non-pariel today. His inflamed solo floats deftly amid supple textures of marimba and percussion.

2. Christine Jensen Jazz Orchestra — Habitat (Justin Time) Getting antsy for a Maria Schneider jazz fix? Try Jensen, another stunning creative painter with the large jazz orchestra palette. Yes, she’s influenced by Schneider who will bring out a new album in 2015 and who is creating the most beautiful jazz in the world. On Habitat you hear intimations of images, large sonic swatches breathe and vibrate with vivid life, though never overdone. Quebecian Jensen has a somewhat more austere northern sensibility than Minnesotan Schneider and nearly as strong lyrical gifts, for color, rhythm and melody.

The ensemble’s call-and response interplay on “Blue Yonder” is glorious stuff. And yet you might sense large birds soaring through wintry winds beneath snow-covered landscapes. Jensen finds her own specific thematic subject matter such as “tree lines,” or her emotional response to the horrible earthquake that devastated Haiti. “Tumbledown” conveys that tragedy’s angst and loss — building a picture with a static wall of structure — but still ends up sounding beautiful. And both Schneider and Jensen share a great soloist — trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, yes, Christine’s own sister, so the genetic blend has radiant personality.

3. Miguel Zenon — Identities are Changeable (Upcal/Mielmusic) The most ambitious concept jazz album of the year works superbly. Miguel Zenon, a MacArthur fellowship winner, alto saxophonist and composer explores the increasingly bifurcated nature of racial and national identity in America, typified no more strikingly than in our Puerto Rican culture. He Interviewed numerous people in New York City and Puerto Rico and their testimony about fluidity and duality of identity ring fresh and true. “I think more people are realizing that you can be more than one cultural self at the same time,” comments Juan Flores.

This translates into music well, perhaps no better than in the piece “My Home” in which musical lines commingle beautifully — they float, shift and melt together rather than the more typical countrapuntal interplay or harmony of multiple instruments. The mutating complexity suggests the day-to-day, breathing and laughing — living and growing. The power of the ending line has an implicit dual-yet-one tension. Zenon also captures genuine beauty, perhaps love and caring, especially in “The Second Generation Lullaby.” And his well-placed uptempo bebop alto conveys a vibrant human multiplicity, set against the urban sonic backdrops he paints. But for the interviews occasionally distracting from the music, this might have been my top pick of the year.

4. Andy Bey — Pages from an Imaginary Life (High note)

Hearing Andy Bey is a bit like stumbling upon a man alone with his heavy heart, or perhaps praying softly. The sense of intimacy — the stark piano and exquisitely naked voice — might feel too close for some, but it’s their loss. The singer follows his Grammy-nominated album The World According to Andy Bey with a recording conceived as a musical diary of four pages — three to four songs per page. He sounds like he was born to sing a song like “My Foolish Heart” or a lyric like “I could cry salty tears.” His poor heart may get him in trouble and he may shed tears. But, in the moment, he has strength enough to turn pain or complex emotion inside out, so it’s beautiful and moving for you, rather than merely private.

His roomy baritone of many octaves often massages a lyric with a grainy tenderness and sometimes hoists it into an aching yowl. Yet he does so intelligently, with the wisdom of lived life. And his piano self-accompaniment conveys a pungent presence, with piquant chords and ambling phrases that are scenes unto themselves. His self-possession and courage as his own confessor and accompanist suggests how he makes his own way in this world, according to Bey. (SE)

(NOTE: Other reviews marked (SE) at the end were originally published in The Shepherd Express in modified form.) 

5. David Virelles  — Mboko (ECM)  The most refreshing and probing pianist to hit the scene in some years. He works in a shadowy, often dissonant harmonic realm but with a private touch and measured attack. This music emerges, arises and erupts from his keys, often seeming to be conjured or braized. This is an evocative honoring of a “masked dance” Cuban “male initiation society,” which sounds esoteric and mysterious but not forbidding or chauvinistic here, more quietly celebratory, a cultural gesture his gender needs desperately.

6. The Bad Plus — The Rite of Spring (Masterworks) The propulsive “Augurs of Spring” rhythms and the contorted “Ritual of Abduction” must’ve called out to Minneapolis’ muscular alt-jazz trio. They bravely delve into Stravinsky’s transformative epic The Rite of Spring. Yes they boil down the orchestra; yet Ethan Iverson brilliantly funnels Stravinsky’s glittering, dissonant orchestration through his keyboard. Bass and drums stoke the suspense and ecstasy, the thunderous drama, the sense of wonder at life and the planet’s riches, strangeness, madness and beauty.

This amounts to one of the most seamlessly successful jazz fusions of classical material, And that’s partly because the group has a strong rock sensibility, and if The Rite isn’t classical rock music in its essence, I don’t know what is. It may not be metal, but it sure is stone. And a good bad plus, you gotta like Iverson’s tongue-in-cheek unpretentiousness when recently identifying the piece after they had performed the 45-minute work live in Boston. “That was a tune by Igor Stravinsky called The Rite of Spring,” he deadpanned. As a paean to paganism that spurred a riot at its May, 1913 premiere, The Rite still casts naked light on its world, and never grows any older than springtime. (SE)

7. Joachim Kuhn Trio trio with Archie Shepp — Voodoo Sense (ACT) I love hearing Archie Shepp do almost anything. He’s evolved into one of the most satisfyingly mature masters of the tenor sax, bringing Ben Webster well into the 21st century. Pianist Kuhn, still full of unfettered chops, and one of Europe’s finest modernists of Shepp’s generation, makes an inspiring choice for the lead-off and centerpiece of Voodoo Sense. The mid-late-era John Coltrane vehicle “Kulu Se Mama” unfolds as a 20-minute exploration of the Juno Lewis African-esque ritual composition. Majid Bekkas adds the enchanting vocals, the guembri and kalimba (African thumb piano) on the piece. Shepp, for all his inherent balladic warmth, still can still drive his tenor into the deepest sonic wilds, but his phrasing almost always retains a pleasingly discursive and often witty vocal earthiness. The annotator says that Kuhn has “retained his childlike curiosity even at the age of 69,” and that trait takes him and his band into freely burning Afro-Arabic realms too-infrequently heard these days.
The late Charlie Haden and Keith Jarrett recording “Last Dance.” Courtesy

8. Keith Jarrett/Charlie Haden Last Dance (ECM) What did they know when they titled the last recording released before Haden’s death on July 11? That his boyhood polio had returned, fatally as it turned out. Polio long ago robbed his young singing voice. So he became perhaps the most songful of bassists. That instrumental voice captures the nostalgia of “My Old Fame” with the gruff huskiness of a burly romantic , whispering the song in her imagined ear, or dancing in his dreams — an uncertain step or two, then finding his inner Astaire. The rhythmic poise carries a resounding, muscular  tone — Haden dwelled in the bass fiddle’s natural depths, rather than trying to make it zip around like a guitar, as so many contemporary bassists try to.

So he became one of the best duets players ever, going back the quiet revelation of these musicians’ duets on Haden’s 1976 recording Closeness. Nobody listened or responded more closely than Charlie Haden. In this 2007 session, he fleshes out pianist Jarrett’s every lyrical turn of phrase with splendid harmony, or spare counter-melody. Some striking substitute chords make the overplayed Round Midnight beam like a new moon.

Haden’s extended solo on “Where Can I Go Without You?” magnificently extends the melodic contours and the meaning of the song as if the rhetorical question had been deposited directly in the heart of the listener. Yet his epitaph might be another standard, “Everything Happens to Me.” Not as a solipsistic whine, this was a humble man. Rather, he was person who lived a full creative life, embracing all life’s wonders, cruelty and strangeness with his artful gifts and passion for justice, while battling the infidels of his body and spirit, to the end. Haden could also swing and fast-walk the bass buoyantly, as on Bud Powell’s “Dance of the Infidels.” Last Dance’s uninvited infidel was polio,* and by the time it ends — with “Every Time We Say Goodbye” and then “Goodbye” — you know how he and Jarrett hate saying goodbye, and yet can’t stop saying it, and singing it. (SE)

9. Jason Roebke Octet — High Red Center (Delmark) Mingus and Ellington managed this sort of deft blend of deep history and modernist reimagining and expansion. The concept and sound spiral from the depths of sensual jazz harmony grounded with pivot-on-the-heel precision, sashaying looseness and unfettered awareness — that is, being as free while remaining contained in the music of the moment. Perhaps this band is creating the Chicago equivalent of its greatest forebears.

10 (tie, see below) No Fast Food — In Concert (Corner Store Jazz) — This two-CD set is a godsend for the lover of unadulterated modern jazz blowing. There are some fine compositions framing the improv and the liner strives to align them with the trio tradition begun with Bill Evans in the late 50s. It’s about playing, listening, energy and musical telepathy. The bigger names are saxophonist-flutist Dave Liebman, a fiery expressionist, and bassist Drew Gress, nimble, strong and inventive. But often the least-known member, drummer Phil Haynes, steals the show. Partly its due to him having composed all the pieces. But with uncanny skill, Haynes has appropriated Elvin Jones’s triplet-based drumming style. Many have attempted this, but I’ve heard none accomplish it with such loose-limbed, off-kilter deftness, akin to Jones. And yet, like his model, this drummer almost always swings, in his own way.

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10. (tie) Marcin Wasilewski Trio with Joakim Milder — Spark of Life  (ECM) Speaking of Bill Evans, this piano trio more clearly exemplifies the Evans Trio tradition. They’re best known as the backing group to the great Polish trumpeter Tomasz Stanko. I saw Wasilewski’s trio plat live a few years back — with a rare sense of one-ness that allows them to sing together like a crystalline choir without ever opening their mouths. That almost mystical cohesion continues on Spark of Life with the addition of tenor saxophonist Joakim Milder, whom I was unfamiliar with. He’s clearly an artful veteran with a superb, glowing tone akin to Stan Getz and Jan Garbarek. This creative music is ruminative, but romantic and often quietly cinematic. They cover Sting’s “Message in a Bottle,” Herbie Hancock’s “Actual Proof,” and Krzysztof Komeda’s “Sleep Safe and Warm,” from the late Polish composer’s superb soundtrack to the classic horror film “Rosemary’s Baby.”


1. John Coltrane – Offering: Live at Temple University (Resonance/Impulse Records) Coltrane album image from


2. John Coltrane — Afro Blue Impressions (Pablo) — Less revelatory and challenging than “Offering,” nevertheless this two-disc set compiles live recordings from late 1963. So the classic Coltrane quartet flies in high telepathy, with McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones following Coltrane to nether realms of modal jazz, into deep spiritual yearning and testifying. Yet this set provides the listener comfort factor of familiar fare, including “Naima,” “Chasin’ the Trane,” “My Favorite Things,” “Afro Blue,” Cousin Mary,” “I Want to Talk About You, etc.



ros1.   Rosanne Cash — The River and the Thread (Blue Note)  My recent long road trip helped me relate to the perspective of traveling musicians. They roundaboutly get a manageable take on America, and points far beyond. Cash’s POV is among the best, among reflective, poetically inclined singer-songwriters. First, she deftly recast and personalized Norman MacLean’s metaphor of the river: “A feather’s not a bird/The rain is not the sea/A stone is not a mountain/but a river runs through me.”

To me, the road, her history, experience and wanderlust add up to “the thread” tying her fluid consciousness together in time and space. Her quietly dazzling Blue Note label debut often has a blues feel without kowtowing to that form. A song like “The Sunken Lands” evokes her ancestors’ hardscrabble roots in an Arkansas region that sank during the earthquake of 1811. Still, during FDR’s New Deal, her father’s family survived — her grandmother’s the hero of the song. Cash shows some global synchronicity in “Modern Blue,” a lyric that ties a trip to Barcelona to a Memphis experience. Several songs evoke the Civil War, most notably “When The Master Calls the Role,” as Cash has ancestors on both sides of the war. So she draws from “the best tradition of heartbreak, like the old Celtic or Appalachian story ballads,” as she comments in the notes. This mini-epic co-composed with her ex-spouse, the great singer-songwriter Rodney Crowell, and her current husband, multi-instrumentalist-producer John Leventhal (Music can muster complex harmony!).

The the song title’s gospel context also suggest the solid faith Cash retains, in life’s strange unpredictable miracles — her recovering her voice and certain brain functions after devastating illnesses, and finding a mid-life soulmate in the resourceful Rosenthal, who contributes greatly to the music’s beauty and tempered power. As for powers any higher, Cash seems to not presume to know for sure, and yet prayer or, as she says, “Tell Heaven,” is in her ongoing strategy, unsurprising considering the rocky but solidly spiritual life of her late father, Johnny Cash.


2.   Magic Sam — Live at the Avant Garde, June 22, 1968 (Delmark) No Chicago blues star burned brighter, or flamed out faster than Magic Sam Maghett, “The King of West Side Blues.” In 1968, he electrified Milwaukee’s east side Avant Garde, the folkie coffeehouse evolving into a blues, progressive and roots music venue. This powerhouse, well-engineered recording proves that Sam’s gig was meant to be, as the embodiment of blues avant-garde. Nobody had ever heard such hair-raising vocal vibrato and guitar tremolo, a man possessed.

His exuberance infected audiences and these 16 excellent tracks crackle with striking mood-shifts. The pure, percolating boogie “Feelin’ Good” finds Sam wailing “Woooaaahh ah feel so good!”  Then he unfurls a slow, thick-as-a-swamp blues “It’s Still Your Fault Baby,” his vibrato groveling in the pit of suffering self-defense. His primal singing, sometimes in double-edged guitar harmony, simultaneously soared and plunged toward hell. Reactionary locals forced The Avant Garde to close a few months later. In December 1969, Sam died of a heart attack at 32. This Milwaukee milestone remains, a magic beacon, his last great recorded gasp of impassioned genius. (SE)

3. Michael Bloomfield – From His Head to His Heart to his Hands (Sony Legacy) Here’s a Culture Currents feature review of the Bloomfield box set: (Published in shorter form in Shepherd Express)

4  Richard Thompson — Acoustic Classics

5  Rodney Crowell — Tarpaper Sky

6  John Hiatt – Terms of My Surrender

7  Look Again to the Wind: Johnny Cash’s “Bitter Tears” Revisited — Gillian Welch, Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle, Kris Krisofferson, Bill Miller and others

8  Willie Nelson — Band of Brothers

9. Field Report – Marigolden

10 Sarah Jarosz — Build Me Up from Bones

BEST ROOTS MUSIC CULTURE BOOK: I just got around to reading singer-songwriter-author Steve Earle’s 2011 novel I’ll Never Get Out of this World Alive, but it will stick with me. With a 1963 setting, Earl imagines the doctor who was rumored to have given Hank Williams the morphine shot that killed him, a decade earlier. The doctor himself is an addict who performs abortions and is vividly haunted by the ghost of the great hillbilly singer, and blessed with a living spirit of redemption, Graciela, a young Mexican immigrant. Incorporating the Kennedy assassination feels like genuine human response.


Andy Bey CD cover courtesy

Marcin Wasilewski Trio CD cover courtesy soksuwalki. eu

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