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Jazz favorites of 2014

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Dean Magraw and Eric Kamau Gravatt
Dean Magraw and Eric Kamau Gravatt have played together on and off over the years, but something clicked when Gravatt filled in on one of Magraw's weekly standing gigs. Now they have released an album of just guitar and drums called "Fire on the Nile."
Larry Marcus / Courtesy Red House Records

It should come as no surprise that much of the year's best music came from artists who specialize in improvisation.

From straight-ahead jazz to funk and fusion, Minnesota artists and those with strong connections to the state delivered intriguing and inspiring recordings. Here are some of my favorites, in no particular order:

Dean Magraw and Eric Kamau Gravatt, "Fire on the Nile"

It may surprise a lot of people to hear that an album of guitar and drums can hold an audience's attention. But guitarist Dean Magraw and drummer Eric Kamau Gravatt went into the recording studio and engaged in the kind of collaboration that does just that, with "Fire on the Nile." 

Magraw and Gravatt recorded the album in just three days, composing all but one of the 11 tracks in the studio. The album features solo tracks by both performers, but mostly it is built on the duo's improvisations. With engaging melodies and stirring rhythm, theirs is a great musical conversation.

Peter Vircks, "What You Believe is True"

Saxophonist Peter Vircks captures the spirit of some of the best jazz of the 1970s in his first self-produced album. Its tunes — eight written by Vircks and one by bassist Roman Evaniuk — fuse funk with accessible rhythms. Enhanced by pianist Brian Ziemniak, drummer Kevin Washington and others, the music isn't overwhelming. Instead, it lures listeners with head-bobbing grooves.

Bruce Henry, "Live and Natural"

Backed by some of the best improvisers in the Twin Cities — among them pianist Peter Schimke, drummer Kevin Washington and bassist Jay Young — Henry  takes jazz fans back to some of his best performances. 

The album, recorded at the Dakota Jazz Club, Ruby's Cabaret and McNally Smith Studios, features classic jazz standards, "message songs" and an R&B classic in Sly Stone's "Thank You."

Adam Meckler Orchestra, "When the Clouds Look Like This"

Along with composers from across the nation who are ushering big band music into the 21st century, Adam Meckler unveils a sparkling recording full of modern tunes that reflect varying influences. Fusing swing with modern jazz, touches of chamber music, R&B and hip-hop, Meckler inspires his band with stimulating compositions. 

Chris Lomheim, "Timeline"

In one of the most anticipated recordings of the year, pianist Chris Lomheim recreates the magic of a recording he made two decades earlier. Again joined by bassist Gordy Johnson and drummer Jay Epstein, Lomheim shines on "Timeline," an excellent platform for his lush compositions. 

Like the pianist Bill Evans, Lomheim builds on opening melodies, adding structure and character along the way.

Chris Bates, "Good Vibes Trio"

Bassist Chris Bates is joined by two longtime collaborators in vibraphone player Dave Hagedorn and drummer Phil Hey. 

Exploring the music of Charles Mingus, Ornette Coleman and others, they create a novel mix of tradition and imagination that is fresh and alluring.

Courageous Endeavors, "Prototypes"

Bassist Brian Courage joins saxophonist Nelson Devereaux, pianist Joe Strachan and drummer Miguel Hurtado on this unique approach to original music. 

Instead of building on melodies with artful improvisations, they rely on the composed pieces that spell out much of their sound. But the result still leaves plenty of room for creativity — and spontaneous magic.

"Twin Cities Jazz Sampler, Volume One"

Spearheaded by trumpeter Steve Kenny and crowd-funded through Kickstarter, this recording gives jazz fans a taste of some of the 13 jazz ensembles in the Twin Cities — from the Atlantis Quartet and the Bryan Nichols Quintet to the Illicit Sextet. 

Each has a tune on the recording, which covers expansive territory. From straight-ahead jazz to big band music, fusion and modern jazz, the CD presents the broad array of styles that can be heard regularly at local clubs.

Firebell, "Impossible Vacation"

In the ensemble's debut album, guitarist Park Evans, drummer Jay Epstein and bassist Graydon Peterson give their collective imagination to 11 graceful tunes. 

Their interpretation of nine originals and two covers allows each to shine, with Evans' expansive vision, Epstein's expert pacing and Peterson's warm tone combining to produce perhaps the most inviting local jazz recording of the year.

Casey O'Brien, "Ghost Dance"

One of the best surprises of the year came in December, when bassist Casey O'Brien announced a new recording that includes Nathan Hanson on saxophones and Davu Seru on drums.

On "Ghost Dance," the trio performs eight original compositions by O'Brien, the house bass player for the soul and R&B label Secret Stash. On the album's moody and flowing tracks, the musicians produce sounds that dance in the air. 

They will unveil the tunes at a CD release party at the Icehouse restaurant in Minneapolis.