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Ten Best Jazz/Funk/Jam Rock Albums of 2015 by Lea LeFebvre

By Lea LeFebvre

December 28, 2015

Chick Corea and Béla Fleck – Two

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The beautifully complementary amalgamation of Chick Corea’s piano and Béla Fleck’s banjo proves that the well of jazz still runs deep. The duo finds a conversational balance on this live double album that puts playful interludes, dissonant chord progressions, and impromptu harmonies at the forefront. The duet uses tunes from their Grammy-winning album, The Enchantment!, as a springboard to launch into intertwining improvisational excursions that meld zydeco, bluegrass, bebop and gospel influences with awe-inspiring precision. The two are able to reach new heights, all while honoring each musician/composer’s signature sound.

Favorite Tracks: “Menagerie,” “Mountain,” “Señorita”

Bright Light Social Hour – Space is Still the Place

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In Bright Light Social Hour’s second album, the band takes listeners on a psychedelic, yet tightly composed exploration of the band’s many influences. Think of Bright Light Social Hour as the bastard love child of Pink Floyd and My Morning Jacket with just a touch of The Black Keys blues-rock flair. Space is Still the Place is a dexterous, yet fluid effort that effortlessly flows between dance-ready electro-pop beats, patiently building euphoric soundscapes, and ethereal euphoric ambience–oftentimes within a single track (“Sweet Madeline”). Delving below the layers of synthesizer pedals and vocal reverb, a closer listen to the lyrics reveals concise, poetic songwriting that laments the societal and economic woes plaguing the younger generation (“Stay until we call it home/Distant western gazes/Swollen hearts in vases/Fugitive embraces/Packed away in cases”). With pulsating bass lines, fearless guitar riffs and prominent, yet tasteful electro-rock nuances, Space is Still the Place is sure to appease a diverse spectrum of musical palettes.

Favorite Tracks: “Infinite Cities,” “Dreamlove,” and “Sea of the Edge”

Grace Potter- Midnight

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Vermont-based singer/songwriter, Grace Potter, has undeniably made a name for herself in the jam-rock circuit with The Nocturnals. But a quick listen reveals that Midnight is a bold departure from the band’s Americana-rock roots. Potter’s second solo album is an extension to the pop-rock exploration of her 2012 album, The Lion the Beast the Beat and is further evidence that Potter has the creative prowess to forge a new musical identity. In Midnight, Potter is both a gutsy blues-rock maven and a lustrous pop icon, without being too feministic. The album ebbs and flows between her signature soulful sound with Stevie Nicks-esque howls in “Look What We’ve Become” and a new take on pop-rock with electro-infused bass drops in “Delirious.” This is certainly not a Nocturnals album, and never claims to be, but that rock goddess that we all know and love is still spreading her infectious energy and you-go-girl vibes that will have you belting your soul out from behind the wheel of your car.

Favorite Tracks: “Your Girl,” “Instigators,” “Biggest Fan”

The Marcus King Band – Soul Insight

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While 19-year-old guitar virtuoso, Marcus King, has already made a name for himself on the Southern rock circuit, the band’s first album, Soul Insight, solidifies King’s future as a fixture on a national level. The Greenville native has been touted as a natural successor to the likes of Derek Trucks and Jimi Hendrix and it’s easy to see why. The band’s blues-drenched rock is driven by King’s multilateral guitar work and raspy, soulful voice. The instrumental track “Fraudulent Waffle” showcases superior slide guitar work with the majesty and poise of the master himself, Derek Trucks. “Always” puts King’s complex compositional guitar riffs at the forefront with the precision and dexterity of Jimi Hendrix. So, just how good is Marcus King and Soul Insight? Good enough that Warren Haynes picked up the album for his Evil Teen label and has already committed to producing its follow-up. If this is the first you’ve heard of this music phenom, take note. Marcus King is destined for stardom.

Favorite Tracks: “I Won’t Be Here,” “Honey,” and “Opie”

Warren Haynes Ft. Railroad Earth – Ashes & Dust

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Warren Haynes is a man of many talents. With a resume that includes guitarist, singer/songwriter, record producer, and philanthropist, it’s no surprise that well into his fifties he is still pushing musical boundaries and expanding on an already impressive repertoire. His most recent feat? A 13-track stripped down acoustic compilation of the Asheville native’s most introspective work yet. Haynes’ delightfully woeful voice, delivers masterfully written lyrics that examine the all-too-real issues of racial adversity (“Hallelujah Boulevard”), working class life (“Company Man”) and loneliness indebted in today’s connected society (“New Year’s Eve”). The evocative lyrics paired with Railroad’s Earth rustic banjo and mandolin make Ashes to Dust a departure from Haynes’ traditional Southern rock roots for a decidedly Americana flair.

Favorite Tracks: “Stranded in Self Pity” and “Is It Me or You”

My Morning Jacket – The Waterfall

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My Morning Jacket’s seventh studio compilation offers listeners a new creative focus that many found lacking in 2011’s Circuital and 2008’s Evil Urges. The Waterfall is uncharacteristically melancholy yet optimistic, as the protagonist comes to terms and, ultimately accepts, life’s complexities. It is profoundly reflective and surprisingly relevant. The Waterfall contemplates broken hearts (“Get The Point”) and nostalgia for easier times (“Only Memories Remain”), while evoking mental images of pastoral landscapes and simple living in natural surroundings that would make Henry Thoreau proud. Through the blues-drenched lyrics, My Morning Jacket remains loyal to its prog-rock, indie folk roots that is sure to transfer to the live setting with ease.

Favorite Tracks: “In Its Infancy (The Waterfall),” “Spring (Among the Living),” “Compound Fracture”

The Grateful Dead – 30 Trips Around the Sun: The Definitive Live Story 1965-1995

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This four-hour, four-disc collection is a perfect introductory sampler of The Grateful Dead’s massive live performance arsenal (2,318 shows). It features one song from each year the band was together through 1965 to 1995. While the chronological composition fails to encapsulate the fluidity of a live show, the set offers a vivid representation and interesting perspective of how the band’s live repertoire evolved from LSD-induced psychedelia to tighter progressive rock. Notable inclusions, such as the ’83 Madison Square Garden “Morning Dew,” ’73 Lindley Meadows “Franklin’s Tower,” and ’77 Capitol Theatre “Estimated Prophet,” paint a poignant snapshot of what makes The Grateful Dead one of, if not the most, influential rock bands of all time with enough surprises to appeal to even the most veteran fans.

Favorite Tracks: ’66 Fillmore Auditorium “Cream Puff War,” ’68 Greek Theatre “Dark Star,” ’87 Shrine “Viola Lee Blues”

TAUK – Headroom

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New York-based improvisational rock-fusion group, TAUK, is undoubtedly one of the most noteable acts on the jam circuit today. Headroom, the quartet’s first live album, features some of the band’s most exploratory performances yet, cherry-picked from their ambitious 2015 touring cycle. The 16-track double disc set delves into every nook and cranny of band’s sonic playground, spanning dance-ready funk, dissonant jazz, climatic prog-rock, and euphoric ambient in a surprisingly seamless manner. “Tumbler,” the longest track on the album (13:48), even manages to meld most of these genres into one cohesive whole without wandering too aimlessly. Headroom is a breath of fresh air from the monotonous and exhaustive “instrumental fusion” phenomenon and a testament to the band’s well-deserved ascension in a remarkably short time period.

Favorite Tracks: “16 Battle Without Honor or Humanity,” “Collateral,” “The Spot”

The New Mastersounds – Made for Pleasure

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Like many sub genres, “funk” has become an umbrella term slapped on to any band with a horns section and groovy bass line. But as music and the nomenclature we use to classify these bands continue to evolve, there are not many “funk” bands that do it with the poise and consistency as The New Mastersounds. This aptly named effort is chockful of fleeting blissful free-form grooves (“Pho Baby”) that appeals to jam enthusiasts, all with a distinct New Orleans spunk that would make even The Meters proud (“Tranquilo”). “Cigar” and Iggy Izalea’s “Fancy” give listeners a taste of the island life with reggae-infused bass lines and steady melodious guitar riffs, without straying too far from their funk-flavored, jazz-tinged roots. Twelve albums later, this British quartet is still forging new ground, while keeping one foot firmly planted in the good ‘ole funk we all know and love.

Favorite Tracks: “Pho Baby,” and “Joy”

Yo Mama’s Big Fat Booty Band – Funk Life

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Asheville, NC-based self-proclaimed “intergalactic funk” group, Yo Mama’s Big Fat Booty Band, lets it all hang out with their fourth studio album, Funk Life. Where The New Mastersounds falls on the classy and more traditional funk spectrum, Booty Band has unabashedly carved their own niche on the other. At the helm of their fearless keytar-playing, booty-rocking leader, Mary “Mama Funk” Frances, the band unleashes eight tracks of contagious dance floor-ready beats and raucous NSFW lyrics. This may not be the most sonically diverse or sensible collection of music, but it will certainly get the party started.

Favorite Tracks: “Funk Life,” and “Living the Dream”

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