It's been a bad year for jazz sales, even by jazz standards. Data from the Recording Industry Association of America show that fewer than 3 percent of CDs purchased this year were jazz albums. Columbia and Atlantic Records, labels for the biggest jazz stars in history, closed their new-jazz divisions (though they retained their vast back catalogs). Industry insiders say that Blue Note would have shut down as well, had it not been for the wild success of Norah Jones, by no stretch a jazz singer. Verve, the most prolific of jazz labels a decade ago, has stripped its roster to less than a handful of artists, all of them sure-fire hit-makers, not a gamble among the bunch; its ratio of reissues to new recordings is approaching 10-to-1. This is what happens when the ownership of record companies moves from music lovers to liquor salesmen.
The shame of it is that, by measures other than the marketplace, this is an exciting time for jazz. Old masters—Sonny Rollins, Clark Terry, Wayne Shorter, Lee Konitz, Cecil Taylor, Max Roach—are playing stronger than they have in years or decades. Middle-aged musicians are refining their craft or redirecting their course. Younger ones are redefining the field, drawing on the full range of jazz tradition as well as on new cadences from pop, hip-hop, classical, and "world music," and melding it all with their own visions, naturally, spontaneously. The year's five best jazz CDs show signs of all these bright lights burning.
Exhibit A is Jason Moran, a 27-year-old pianist, whose Modernistic (on the Blue Note label) stands as not only the best jazz album of 2002 but probably the best solo jazz album in a decade—gorgeous, lyrical, adventurous, and, even to the non-aficionado, accessible. The album starts with James P. Johnson's rarely played stride from the '20s, "You've Got To Be Modernistic." In the first verse, Moran plays it virtuosically straight. By the third, he's exploring the dissonant harmonies of the bass line. At the end, he deconstructs the piece (as Picasso might have, had he played music), then reconstructs it, fusing the discordant and the sprightly, without losing a beat.
Before we've had time to recover, he takes up a challenge that few have managed since Coleman Hawkins in 1939—performing a novel rendition of "Body and Soul." For the first minute he noodles a slow, soulful riff; it's unclear where he's taking us. Then, suddenly, the closing phrase of the riff segues into the opening phrase of "Body and Soul," and the road is clear, even if it's surrounded by unfamiliar foliage and it takes some unexpected Alpine curves.
Then, just to confuse everybody, Moran takes up "Planet Rock," Afrika Bambaataa's 1982 rap hit, playing on four overdubbed tracks, three of them after rigging the piano to simulate electronic sound effects. It's a kick. Then, to show us it's a lot more than that, he heads into something he calls "Planet Rock Postscript," in which he peers more deeply at that rap song's descending scales. Six tracks later, when he plays a respectable rendition of Schumann's "Auf Einer Burg," we hear striking similarities. This is what Moran does: He connects a century of music with his own, amazingly agile hands.
Dave Douglas, by comparison a veteran at 39, has spanned nearly as wide a range in the decade since he started attracting notice, first as the trumpeter in John Zorn's Masada, then as the leader of half-a-dozen bands, each with its own distinctive sound. His album of this year, The Infinite (RCA), is in some ways his riskiest, an attempt to come to grips with Miles Davis, who looms over all modern trumpeters, whether they acknowledge it or not. Douglas' trick is not to assemble an explicit "tribute album" with covers of tunes from the Miles songbook. Instead, he writes his own compositions—or does covers of his own choice of contemporary pop tunes (Rufus Wainwright's "Poses," Mary J. Blige's "Crazy Games")—with a Milesian flavor: the plangent tone, the romantic ballads, the anthemic preludes with their moody harmonies, and a daring flair for extended solos that stretch the harmonic boundaries without snapping them. To his standard quartet he adds Uri Caine on the Fender Rhodes keyboard, an instrument that Miles plumbed in the mid-'60s—though here Douglas applies the sound to a Miles much earlier (including a stylish steal from the theme of his 1949 "Boplicity") and later (a cover of Björk's "Unison" that has the same feel of Davis' mid-'80s take on Cyndi Lauper). Yet none of this seems derivative; it's a synthesis of tradition and modernity in the most creative sense.
Cassandra Wilson, 47, is the jazz singer who has most avidly gone after a similar sort of synthesis, with Latin rhythms and Delta blues thrown in the mix, and with Belly of the Sun (Blue Note), she's finally pulled it off. I've already written about this album once in Slate;suffice it to say that this generation has found its Ella Fitzgerald and its Betty Carter—though, as seems completely appropriate, Wilson is nothing like either of them.
Wayne Shorter's CD Footprints Live! (Verve) is a case of the Old Master in self-renewal. Shorter is 70. He was musical director of Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers in 1960, of Miles Davis' quintet in '65. This is his first acoustic jazz album as a leader since '67, his first live album ever. And it cooks, mainly because of the free interplay with his superb new band (pianist Danilo Perez, bass player John Patitucci, and drummer Brian Blade, each driven to improvisational heights never before heard from them). These are not polished performances; you hear the creativity in the making, you feel the tension and the release, as you often do at live performances by experimental artists at their peak. At its best, it's thrilling—not just to hear Shorter sprint through his old standards, like " Footprints," but to hear him doing so with such freshness.
Finally, there's underrated bassist-composer Mario Pavone, whose Mythos came out on the undernourished label Playscape Recordings. Pavone is 61, a longtime denizen of New York's rebellious "downtown" music scene and, for many of those years, a sideman to Thomas Chapin, the late saxophonist whose ballad "Sky Piece" is one of the disc's loveliest pieces. Pavone plucks a big sound out of his bass; he lets the strings vibrate longer than customary, and he moves from melody to harmony to counterpoint to sheer texture with grace and energy. He plays here with wonderful, younger, and equally underrated band-mates. The styles are varied: Latin, blues, free-form, all of it heavily percussive. But for a sample of Pavone's versatility, his insouciant indifference toward musical borders, listen to " Isobars," which moves from a dirty blues with a slap bass to a soulful groove with a 4/4 bass walk to a pure, almost Ellingtonian swing, all in the casual course of 30 seconds. This is what modern jazz is all about.