Preston Frazier’s jazz-focused survey of Best of 2018 albums includes key recordings by Mark Wade, Chris Carver, Max Moran, Peter Erskine, Stanley Clarke and members of Living Colour, among others …
No. 10. RANDY WALDMAN – SUPERHEROES: Randy Waldman had me from the moment he paired Carlitos Del Puerto on bass with drummer Vinnie Colaita. The strength of this Best of 2018 entry isn’t solely based in the outstanding players, though there are many – such as Chick Corea, Randy Brecker and Take 6. Waldman is skilled as an arranger and player in his own right. “Superman (Movie Theme)” is just a hint of how brilliantly Waldman ties the original theme into a lovely jazz piece which is fresh and vibrant. Randy Waldman’s piano solo could go on forever, but the tasty leads and solos provided by George Benson seal the deal. “Batman Theme (TV)” is just as much fun as the original but in a totally imaginative way which allows the horn section and Waldman to stretch beyond the song’s original limits.
No. 9. JOHANNES WALLMANN – LOVE WINS: Love Wins was a labor of love that combined sharp arrangements, stellar piano playing by Johannes Wallmann and compositions that feature both contemporary jazz and elements of hip-hop written with Bob Dz. Together, they tell the story of the march towards justice regarding marriage equality. Wallmann pulls no punches, yet the album is always engagingly moving. Check out the songs “Stonewall Was a Riot” and “Equality” for a taste of something special.
No. 8. PETER ERSKINE AND THE DR. UM BAND – ON CALL: Sure, Peter Erskine is a drumming legend. On Call became an unbeatable juggernaut by teaming him with sax vet and fellow Steely Dan alum Bob Sheppard, a big-time keyboard legend in his own right, as well as Steely Dan alum John Beasley and bassist Benjamin Shepherd. Part studio, part live album, this two-disc set is chocked full of stellar original compositions by the band members, along with Beasley’s formidable arrangements. “Uncle Don,” composed by Erskine, moves with authority; it’s buoyed by Shepherd’s electric bass, while Sheppard’s alto floats above it all. Beasley’s electric piano and keyboards are inventive and rich. His song “If So Then” flaunts tradition, yet defies convention. Peter Erskine and his compadres prove they are still at the top of their game.
No. 7. SOFIA TRIO – SOFIA: “Deriu’s Illusion,” this album’s opening song, captures the sounds of guitarist Mario Meloni’s melodic touches, and the African-meets-European touches of drummer Luca Deriu. Double bassist Fabrizio Fogagnolo quickens the pace and the listener is quickly taken down a fascinating rabbit hole of great jazz. The trio – whose name is derived from the Greek term Sophia, meaning wisdom – infuse a healthy dose of contemporary jazz elements, European flair and African passion. The result is inspired playing, fascinating original compositions like “Pino Pino” and the title song. There’s an enthusiasm which is embedded in the entire album.
No. 6. JAY LEONHART – DON’T YOU WISH: Jay Leonhard has been around a long time, yet seems to be as vibrant and relevant as ever. The double bassist is in typical fine form with this Best of 2018 finalist. Leonhart’s songwriting and vocals are tasty and a little twisted. Paired with pianist Tomoko Ohno, who’s played with the Dizzy Gillespie Alumni Big Band and is a mainstay with Sherry Maricle and the Diva Jazz Orchestra, Leonhart’s songs are fully fleshed and dynamic. Actually, some are downright funny. “Don’t You Wish” could be every bass player’s lament, while “Schadenfreude” has a rapier wit and Steely Dan-like sensibility. (Jay is the father of Steely Dan band members Michael and Carolyn Leonhart and appeared with Steely Dan on their Marian McPartland album.) This is good stuff for lovers of double bass, as well as the bass/piano combos. Actually, it’s just good stuff.
No. 5. DAVID GARFIELD – JAZZ: OUTSIDE THE BOX: This was a labor of love for the Los Angeles-based keyboardist. He has recorded more than four discs worth of music for the on-going Outside the Box project. Jazz: Outside the Box follows three singles released in 2017: A cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Go Home” featuring Kirk Whalum and Paul Jackson Jr.; “Jamming,” a Bob Marley cover with Mike Campbell; and the original tune “I Lied,” which he co-wrote with Smokey Robinson for vocalist J. Paris. Every song here is a treat, offering a new spin on well-known hits and demonstrating Garfield’s acumen as an arranger and keyboardist. Jazz: Outside the Box is a fascinating and often exhilarating look at David Garfield’s vision of straight-ahead jazz.
No. 4. JUAN DHAS – CATHARSIS: I was unfamiliar with Bogata, Colombia-based jazz guitarist Juan Dhas until a friend mentioned his 2014 debut Embracing Clarity in a post. I was immediately captivated. His just-released new album Catharsis is even more striking. The self-produced collection of all original material showcases Dhas’ fluid guitar runs, excellent tones and sense of economy. Catharsis also showcases his skill as a writer and arranger. Recorded in one day in March, the album puts bassist Kike Harker, and drummers Ramon Berrocal and Jacobo Alverez in a wonderfully imaginative setting, creating sheer audio joy. Listen to the songs “Deeper Sprit” and “Story of Night” if you don’t believe me.
No. 3. MAX MORAN & NEOSPECTRIC – MAX MORAN & NEOSPECTRIC: New Orleans-based bassist Max Moran brings 10 original songs which combine his formidable jazz chops with a good dose of swampy down-home funk. Our next Best of 2018 honoree has groove for days, but does not forsake Moran’s arranging sensibilities nor his fine songwriting skills. The result is an unmistakable and irresistible groove, which is built from a foundation of great songs by Moran. Add to this soloists like saxophonist Donald Harrison and guest Nicholas Payton on trumpet, and it’s a win-win. Check out “All Right” and “Far and Away,” but be prepared to dance.
No. 2. CHRIS CARVER – WONDERLAND: These 11 tracks find Chris Carver flexing his writing, arranging and producing muscles while moving his craft one step further ahead. Wonderland seems like a more focused effort than its strong predecessor. The title track acts as a shot across the bow. Smooth trumpet and flute work are provided by Philip Lassiter and Jeff Coffin, respectively. Adam Nitti’s bass stands out, and the percussion of Stephen Maass adds just the right amount of fire as Jeff Coffin’s flute solo contributes to the vibe. Carver arranges a tight vehicle for the musicians, and provides an equally inspired Fender Rhodes solo. Is there one song which fully encapsulates Chris Carver’s Wonderland? Maybe not, but as a body of work, it is compelling, excellent listening.
No. 1. MARK WADE TRIO – MOVING DAY: My top Best of 2018 album reaffirmed why Mark Wade was voted as one of the Top 10 bass players by DownBeat readers. The album is a collection of mostly Wade originals, based loosely around the theme of movement. Along for the ride again is the Mark Wade Trio: pianist Tim Harrison and drummer Scott Neumann. It’s obvious that they have played together for a while, as there is an unmistakable telepathy. Check out Wade’s “Another Night In Tunisia” and the title track.
BEST OF 2018 (JAZZ) HONORABLE MENTIONS
ROD HARRIS JR. – EXITS & OPTIONS EP: Rod Harris Jr. has released a worthy follow up to The Counsel of Elders, his debut. Exit & Options is a fascinating look behind the Atlanta-based guitarist’s inspirational curtain. Arranged and produced by Harris and expertly recorded and mixed by Marlon Patton, this EP includes just one original, the memorizing “El Presidente.” However, the four remaining songs are of substantial musical heft, and are buoyed by Rod Harris’ arranging and playing. Check out his version of the Eagles’ “I Can’t Tell You Why.”
STANLEY CLARKE – THE MESSAGE: Stanley Clarke has earned the right to stop making great music and rest on his considerable laurels. Yet with this Best of 2018 honorable-mention album, it’s clear he still had something to say. Ever the mentor, Clarke takes his young band through a genre-shifting ride on The Message, with songs composed in just two days. “Combat Continuum” and “Lost in a World” are but taste of what this stellar album has to offer – and further proof of why Stanley Clarke is a national treasure.
ZIG ZAG POWER TRIO – WOODSTOCK SESSIONS: Shade by Living Colour made it to the top of my Best of 2017 list. Given the tour and promotion behind that album, it’s hard to believe that Living Colour guitarist Vernon Reid and drummer Will Calhoun had time to participate in the Zig Zag Power Trio’s instrumental album with bassist Melvin Gibbs from the Rollins Band. What’s even more amazing is that this live-in-studio recording is so stellar. Then again, knowing these players, it shouldn’t be: Each is a force to be reckoned with. The Zig Zag Power Trio is one unexpected treat I found on PledgeMusic.