I've had to cut back my concert-viewing schedule this year -- down to just under 100 shows -- yet paring them down to a Best of 2014 list is still excruciating.
To my ears, these were the essential 16 performances over the last 12 months. Roughly half of them involve national or international talent; the other half (and seven of the Top 10) come from the rich San Diego jazz community. [Links link to full reviews -- Ed.]
1. Mark Dresser Quintet @ Dizzy’s, Dec. 12: This 90-minute concert featuring Nicole Mitchell, Michael Dessen, Joshua White and Kjell Nordeson was over far too soon.
2. Joshua White (((Codes))) @ The Loft, Feb. 7: White’s fusion of free jazz with gospel music was nothing short of astounding, especially his duo feature with vocalist Janet Wilson.
3. Jeff Ballard Trio @ Athenaeum Music & Arts Library, June 12: Ballard is a drummer’s drummer, and his trio with guitarist Lionel Loueke and saxophonist Miguel Zenon had me levitating in my seat.
4. Mark Dresser Solo @ UCSD, Feb. 12: There is nothing more glorious than the opportunity to hear one of the finest bassists the world has ever known communicating in the vocabulary he invented.
5. Han Bennink Quartet @ The Loft, Feb. 4: The madcap Dutch drum legend electrified the crowd, and his band, comprised of Mary Oliver, Michael Dessen and Mark Dresser never let up.
6. Kjell Nordeson Solo @ UCSD, May 22: Nordeson’s solo show featured the percussionist flying around on drum kit, vibraphone and marimba, and orchestral instruments. Never a dull moment.
7. Nicole Mitchell Sun Dial Ensemble @ Athenaeum Jazz at the Studio, March 7: Mitchell’s group, her singular compositions and dazzling acuity on flute were all on display in this Fresh Sound performance on Park Boulevard.
8. Gilbert Castellanos Trio @ Westgate Hotel, Sept. 5: Castellanos performs with a different trio each Friday night throughout the year, and practically any one of those gigs at this acoustically superb venue could have made the list. This one, with bassist Rob Thorsen and pianist Joshua White was special.
9. Robin Adler & Mutts of the Planet, Nov. 8: Adler’s group featuring Dave Blackburn, Joshua White, Tripp Sprague, Rob Thorsen and Duncan Moore took on one of Joni Mitchell’s most challenging albums, "Mingus," and knocked it out of the park.
10. Joe Garrison & Night People @ The Loft, Dec. 2: Composer Garrison’s 18-piece ensemble loaded with star soloists interpreting top-notch creative music was nothing short of joyful.
11. Mike Wofford + Holly Hofmann Quartet @ Croce’s Park West, Feb.16: Wofford is sublime and devastatingly tasteful, and Hofmann is as deep as mainstream jazz flute can get. This married couple always makes beautiful music together.
12. Marty Ehrlich & Ned Rothenberg @ The Loft, April 2: Another amazing night of music from concert promoter Bonnie Wright’s Fresh Sound series, which, despite operating on a shoestring budget, managed no fewer than four entries on this list.
13. Chris Speed Trio @ The Loft, April 20: Saxophonist Speed’s trio with Dave King and Chris Tordini brought a taste of NYC jazz in yet another Fresh Sound production. Lots of drummers in the crowd.
14. Tord Gustavsen Quartet @ Athenaeum Music & Arts Library, Feb. 23: Quintessential ECM recording artist Gustavsen brought his introspective group into La Jolla for a night of deep listening.
15. Joey Baron & Mark Dresser @ UCSD, Oct. 14: This drum and bass performance drew upon the long history these two musicians share, and it was probably the most fun-to-watch show of the year.
16. Thollem McDonas & Alex Cline @ Bread & Salt, Sept. 6: After nine months of wandering, Fresh Sound returned to its home base in Logan Heights with an electrifying duo concert.
There were a lot of truly great shows that didn’t make this list, but the 16 that did really represented the wide range of jazz experiences available to San Diego concertgoers throughout the year.
Robert Bush is a freelance jazz writer who has been exploring the San Diego improvised music scene for more than 30 years.