I didn't have enough free time in 2014 to review nearly as many of last year's prolific output of fine jazz albums as I wanted to. Here's a small step toward catching up, plus two 2015 releases (Ligeti/McDonas, The Side Project Saxophone 4tet).
Tom Varner: Nine Surprises (Tom Varner Music)
Composer and French horn player Tom Varner is indeed full of surprises, and they are not confined to the suite of that name (which, surprisingly, has 15 movements). I was most surprised by the outburst of New Orleans jazz in the last piece on the CD, "Mele," which Varner calls "a Gil Evans-influenced variation on the harmonic structure of a pop Hawaiian Christmas song." In general the music here seems highly composed -- these are not heads with strings of solos -- but still allowing for improvisation. The soloists who make the biggest impression are trombonist David Marriott and, no surprise here, Varner himself, but everybody in his nonet acquits himself admirably. Occasional aberrations aside, the style is "inside-outside," advanced harmony with a fair amount of dissonance, most often during solos. Many of the sections of the suite are quite short (eight are under a minute each, most of them with just one player), seemingly character sketches, but the longer sections are thematically compelling.