Burning Ambulance’s week-long countdown of the year’s best jazz albums continues with #s 15-11. Shall we?
15. Rudy Royston, 303 (Buy It)
The players Rudy Royston’s assembled for his debut as a leader click almost preternaturally with his drumming. Guitarist Nir Felder cuts right on through, only to take on the choppy and fierce qualities of the rhythm he’s supposedly overlaying. The horns (Jon Irabagon on sax and Nadje Noordhuis on trumpet) let melodies glide over the steadier backbeats, and scatter when those melodies splinter apart under increasing pressure. Pianist Sam Harris plays like he’s weaving through traffic—sometimes against the traffic—in a way that makes his ultralight, endlessly agile maneuvering seem collision-proof. And bassists Yasushi Nakamura and Mimi Jones sneakily double up and (sometimes simultaneously) counterweigh the beats. There’s something lurking beneath even the more straightforward compositions on 303—it’s hard to predict when steadiness will take a turn for the freewheeling or chaos will reform into order, but that sort of distinction frequently ceases to matter. Royston’s exactly the kind of fearless guide you want through it all.
Guitarist/composer Eric Hofbauer’s paired reinterpretations of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring and Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time combine passages from the scores with jazz-based improvisation. The group—which also includes Todd Brunel on clarinet and bass clarinet, Jerry Sabatini on trumpet, Junko Fujiwara on cello and Curt Newton on drums—sets up an interesting blend of old-timey music, classical, and avant-garde clatter and squeak. The Messiaen piece requires more radical reinvention than the Stravinsky; the latter composer was injecting vernacular forms and concepts into a classical context, after all. Plus, Messiaen’s is much more of a simmering, slowly evolving piece, somewhat similar to Miles Davis’s “Nefertiti,” seemingly hypnotic but in fact constantly in transition rather than something that moves through multiple, radically distinct stages. But both provide opportunities for the various members of the group to take extended, introspective solos, or dialogue with each other, as the mood dictates.
13. Paal Nilssen-Love Large Unit, Erta Ale (Buy It)
Legendary Scandinavian out-jazz drummer Paal Nilssen-Love has formed a new band: the 11-piece Large Unit. This three-CD box mixes studio and live material, with the third disc containing a full set from the 2014 Moers Festival. Though it’s a lot to take in, Erta Ale is both subtler and less overwhelming than one might expect. As might be expected, with a double rhythm section, electric guitar, and noise master Lasse Marhaug in the lineup, this is not your typical big band, though it has its swinging moments, nor is it a “traditional” large-scale free jazz group in the bombastic, blaring vein of Michael Mantler‘s Jazz Composers Orchestra or William Parker‘s Little Huey Orchestra. Indeed, while it’s a frequently raucous and quite noisy Unit, with a hard-charging energy reminiscent of Charles Mingus crossed with the Melvins, there are numerous passages where individual instrumentalists take lengthy and at times quite meditative and exploratory solo turns.
12. William Hooker & Liudas Mockunas, Live at the Vilnius Jazz Festival (Buy It)
William Hooker is known as a human avalanche of a drummer, blurring the lines between free jazz, avant-rock and metallic noise. But in recent years he’s begun to explore quiet and subtlety more than ever, and this sax-drums duo performance is remarkably beautiful. Mockunas, a burly long-haired dude, is working in an incantatory zone somewhere between Peter Brötzmann and Evan Parker, blowing long, fierce lines full of relentlessly repeated notes and short phrases; Hooker, though, isn’t attempting to match his power or beat him down, but rather to bolster him and keep him going. In some ways the result recalls Max Roach’s 1979 duo with Cecil Taylor, the drummer supplying melody and rhythm so the other musician can wander as far afield as he chooses. Hooker makes the most of a minimal kit, his work on toms and kick particularly impressive. An intense but never blustery or macho performance, there’s real thought at work here.
11. Johnathan Blake, Gone But Not Forgotten (Buy It)
Drummer Johnathan Blake gathers a top-shelf quartet for his second release as a leader—Chris Potter and Mark Turner on saxophones, and Ben Street on bass. The latter two men also appeared on Blake’s debut, The Eleventh Hour, which was a little long and a little overstuffed with guest appearances, but an assured and enjoyable opening statement nevertheless. This follow-up feels a little looser than its predecessor, though it’s a concept album, each track a tribute to a deceased jazz musician except for one, “Born Yesterday,” which is dedicated to Ana Grace, the murdered daughter of saxophonist Jimmy Greene. It’s not a collection of weepy ballads, though; it’s a jumpy, energetic celebration of lives. Potter and Turner’s work is fantastic throughout, whether they’re blowing unison melodies, harmonizing with each other, or just stepping back to let the other man solo, and Blake’s as precise and energetic a timekeeper as ever, with Street an ideal partner.