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Because It's Never Too Soon To Survey The Year In Jazz, 5 Songs For 2014

James Brandon Lewis' second album, Divine Travels, came out in early February. (Courtesy of the artist)

From the outside looking in, it may seem as if jazz recordings have slowed to a flurry. But it's really more like a blizzard, with dozens already coming down in the new year — including new efforts from big names like Pat Metheny, Danilo Pérez and Brad Mehldau. Before we're snowed under, here are a few others worth hearing.

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Edward Simon & Ensemble Venezuela

The Venezuelan pianist Edward Simon is part of a growing coterie of Latin American musicians both fluent in jazz and deeply engaged with the folk music of their native lands. His latest recording, Venezuelan Suite, is anchored by the eponymous four-part work. The adjective isn't impressionistic, but specific; each part of the work adapts a different folk form. (For example, "Caracas," heard here, is set in the 5/8 Venezuelan merengue.) It's also colorfully orchestrated, with flute, bass clarinet, maracas, the guitar known as the cuatro, and so forth. The particular combination of richness and lilt here seems unforced, the product of someone who's aimed at this target for a long time.

James Brandon Lewis

The tenor saxophonist James Brandon Lewis has a moderately bright and focused tone, a few higher education degrees, a few years in the gospel scene and a growing network within New York's free jazz community. You can hear all that on his new record Divine Travels, a trio date with William Parker (bass) and Gerald Cleaver (drums). Reductively, it could be described as one part conservatory, one part church, one part '60s "new thing" (complete with spoken-word overlays). A better way to actually listen to Divine Travels is to pay attention to Lewis' repetition — how he takes motifs or bits of melody and continually iterates. "Wading Child in the Motherless Water" mashes up two familiar spirituals. It's the longest piece on this album by far, completely justified by its continual flux.

Zara McFarlane

The singer Zara McFarlane can do a more-or-less jazz thing, with walking bass and ride cymbal and such, and sounds fundamentally comfortable doing so. But she's also interested in songwriting; owing to a Jamaican-British background, she filters reggae into the equation, either explicitly or as transformative covers. On her new recording, If You Knew Her, it's what she subtracts that distinguishes. Several songs are sparsely arranged as duets with acoustic guitar, or piano, or bass, or — in the first tune, "Open Heart" — kalimba and arco bass. That gives the whole record an intriguingly unsettled quality. It invites remixes, or a live performance to see how something so deliberate breathes outside the studio, or headphones on an overcast winter day.

Matt Wilson Quartet With John Medeski

The cheery drummer (and now public radio host) Matt Wilson isn't one of those recording artists whose career arc you can trace through a rapidly evolving solo discography, a la Miles Davis or John Coltrane; you pretty much know what you're going to get. In this case, that's a good thing. A Matt Wilson record will swing in a way that feels old-school but relevant; it'll feature Ornette Coleman-like free-floating melody and cleverly sourced covers; it will have a bit of outré improvisation and ornamentation, performed with love. Gathering Call, Wilson's latest for his quartet, adds a fifth member in pianist John Medeski (of Medeski Martin and Wood). Medeski's all-court game has synced well with his buddy since the late '80s, happily locking into hard-bop grooves.

Archie Shepp Attica Blues Orchestra

In 1971, a rebellion in New York's Attica Prison prompted a violent police crackdown, killing 39, including 29 inmates. It prompted saxophonist Archie Shepp to record his large ensemble oratorio Attica Blues, now a classic work, in early 1972. It was funky and pan-stylistic — this was 1972, after all — and it was a bluesy protest lament — again: 1972. The work (plus Archie Shepp arrangements from around then) was revived recently at a series of concerts in France, featuring French and American musicians of multiple generations. The disc I Hear The Sound, compiled from 2012 and 2013 jazz festivals, isn't quite as tight as the studio version, and some of the revisions don't feel necessary. But you do get the raw power and emotional yearning of songs like "The Cry of My People" (featuring Ambrose Akinmusire on trumpet). These pieces stood for something bigger than the sum of their many musicians, and that comes across here.

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