Nate Chinen’s “The Year in Gigs 2014”

From Marsalis to Lage to Iyer, plenty of memorable nights

Fabian Almazan
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Julian Lage at Winter Jazz Fest 2012
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Steve Lehman
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What is it, exactly, that makes a superlative gig? I ask myself that question near the close of every year, in preparation for this column, and the answers don’t always line up. But one thing I can say with confidence is that a gig only rises to the level of greatness when there’s a moment-ideally, a handful of them-that stays with me long after the applause dwindles and the check is paid.

Looking back over my calendar months later, those standout moments spring instantly to mind, with an almost sensory presence that puts me right back in the room. If I can’t conjure even one of these, chances are that the gig in question was merely very good, which, for the purposes of this conversation, isn’t quite good enough.

Not to imply a causal relationship here: A performance needs more than a few bright moments to clear the quality threshold. I can rattle off more than a dozen of them from gigs over the past year that still don’t appear on the honor roll below. For example: Jason Moran and Robert Glasper engaged in playful, sparring pianism at a 75th-anniversary concert for Blue Note Records at the Town Hall. Gerald Clayton and Kris Bowers doing much the same, with style to spare, as part of a Mary Lou Williams tribute at Harlem Stage. Trombonist Joe Fiedler, in a bar gig with his trio, prefacing a tune called “Moving in Silence” with a grungy row of multiphonic plunger growls.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t throw some shine on Miguel Zenón’s “Identities” Big Band, whose late-morning set at the Newport Jazz Festival contained some of the most thrilling music I heard this year. But because I was being pulled in other directions by two small children, I could only lock in to about 20 minutes of that performance-catching up with what I missed months later, via a webcast posted by NPR’s Jazz Night in America. Had I been fully present in the moment, you’d see Zenón on the list below. Maybe that’s putting too much stock in a technicality, but a guy’s gotta have his standards.

Wynton Marsalis Septet, Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola, Dec. 26, 2013. Surprise, surprise: Though it came with the price tag and pedigree of an uncomplicated holiday splurge, Marsalis made the reunion of his old flagship band resonate like a depth charge-with a hard-swinging assist from drummer Herlin Riley and pianist Eric Reed, both obvious MVPs.

Steve Lehman Octet, The Stone, Jan. 15. Just before recording its gripping second album, Mise en Abîme (Pi), this state-of-the-art chamber-jazz unit hunkered down for a week at the Stone, where Lehman’s alto saxophone was one dartlike constant in a bop-futurist set full of rhythmic feints and sly tonal intrigue.

New York Hot Jazz Festival, The Players, May 18. A cheat, perhaps, in that I’m not singling out an artist so much as hailing an experience, a marathon overspill of trad-jazz enthusiasm. Still, my eight-hour shift here was full of those moments I mentioned above, via the likes of clarinetist and saxophonist Ken Peplowski, trumpeters Bria Skonberg and Jon-Erik Kellso, and spiffy young bands like Mike Davis’ New Wonders.

Jacob Sacks Trio, Weill Recital Hall (Carnegie Hall), May 28. Pianist Jacob Sacks, bassist Thomas Morgan and drummer Dan Weiss have extensive history as a trio, and it showed beautifully in this concert, largely made up of Sacks’ songlike but slippery compositions. The action was brilliantly subdued, a matter of clockwork intricacy made to feel smooth and deceptively simple.

Julian Lage Trio, Jazz Standard, July 16. The virtuoso guitarist Julian Lage had mostly eschewed a conventional trio format before this stand with Scott Colley on bass and Kenny Wollesen on drums. Playing a Fender Telecaster with the same sensitivity he brings to an acoustic archtop, he evoked his heroes without losing his distinctive footing.

Vijay Iyer Sextet, Newport Jazz Festival, Aug. 3. This was a year of multiphase output for Iyer, of meticulously realized work for new-music ensembles and string quartets. But that’s not to say he shied away from briskly incendiary sets like this one, which he led from the piano with a frontline of cornetist Graham Haynes and saxophonists Steve Lehman and Mark Shim.

Fabian Almazan Trio, Village Vanguard, Aug. 13. As on his recent album Rhizome (Blue Note/ArtistShare), Almazan spent most of this weeklong run supplementing his trio with a string quartet. I caught the trio alone, with no regrets: Almazan’s bond with drummer Henry Cole and the aforementioned Morgan was mysterious, deft and deep.

Kirk Lightsey Quartet, Village Vanguard, Sept. 23. There was a sentimental reason to get excited about Kirk Lightsey’s return to the Vanguard-his first stand there in more than 25 years. He quickly showed that there were other reasons, too, like his clear touch at the piano, his crisp harmonic erudition and his joyous rapport with several assertive partners, especially bassist Rufus Reid.

Very Very Threadgill, Harlem Stage, Sept. 27. The first of two concerts in honor of visionary composer Henry Threadgill was a heady delight, curated by Moran and executed by a smart coalition of musicians including Lehman, Haynes and the downtown power trio Harriet Tubman, with and without Cassandra Wilson.

The Bad Plus, Skirball Center for the Performing Arts, Oct. 23. This repertory charge through Science Fiction, the 1972 Ornette Coleman album, found the Bad Plus in elite company, its ranks augmented by Ron Miles on cornet and Sam Newsome and Tim Berne on saxophones. But the root of the matter was still the band’s rhythm core, as much in the tumult of a freeform scramble like “Rock the Clock” as in the regal entreaty of a song like “What Reason Could I Give?”-a rhetorical question posed here by bassist Reid Anderson, properly singing his heart out.