What does it say about the state of jazz that the three best jazz albums of the year are previously unreleased recordings made some two to four decades ago? It doesn't say what you might be thinking—that jazz is dead or that today's musicians are less talented than those of yesteryear. A lot of top-flight musicians are out there today exploring new sounds or creatively fusing old ones.
Still, it's futile to deny that jazz had a golden age (though critics and listeners continue to debate precisely when it was and who wore the crowns). However one defines it, the age was marked by a palpable excitement in the new—fresh styles of composition and improvisation, young artists who devised ways to meld the two. And even at the time, everyone sensed the age was golden. All the musicians listened to the latest record by Charlie Parker or Miles Davis or John Coltrane and knew they had to deal with it—whether that meant to copy it, embellish it, or depart from it. The atmosphere was intensely competitive; the innovations were cumulative; the sense of revolution seemed permanent. The current jazz scene may be too fragmented, the awareness of music too global, to produce another golden age. Even so, the best jazz musicians continue to revel in what jazz has always done best: to dazzle, shock, or elate the listener.
Andrew Hill's Passing Ships (Blue Note), recorded in 1969, is a nine-piece big-band session that deserves a spot alongside top-drawer Mingus or Gil Evans. Hill was always a hard-sell artist—a pianist-composer who created his own intricate musical universes, riveting but not always easy to penetrate. Passing Ships is at once his most complex and accessible album: splashy up-tempo swing tunes with harmonies that should sound wrong but don't; gorgeous ballads with exotic tonal colors; Thelonious Monk-ish piano solos punctuated by the melodic fragments of horns blaring in the spirit of Charles Ives. Hill (who was 32 at the time and, at 66, is still very active) wrote all the tunes, and the band—a stellar bunch, including trumpeter Woody Shaw, bassist Ron Carter, and the unjustly obscure reedman Joe Farrell—navigates their shoals with vigor and precision. (Passing Ships.)
Jaki Byard's Last From Lennie's (Prestige), recorded live at a jazz club in 1965, is a rousing, raucous session that, like the most memorable club sets, leaves you sweating and smiling. Byard (who was mysteriously shot to death in 1999 at the age of 77) was a different sort of piano prodigy. He played in all styles with equal intensity, always pushing the boundaries of rhythm and harmony, stopping just short of crashing through them. There's a looseness to this session—you can hear Byard shouting out instructions to his quartet—but it's a joyful looseness, the crackling energy that fills a room when restraints are lifted and the musicians ride on their wits. Byard's quartet was a dynamo: Alan Dawson on drums, George Tucker on bass, and (once again) the dexterously high-flying Joe Farrell on saxophone.
Stan Getz's Bossas and Ballads: The Lost Sessions (Verve), dating from 1989, is a very different thing—a perfect, straight-ahead, romantic-ballads jazz album. Getz was in poor health when he made it (he died in '91), but he was blowing his tenor sax * as gorgeously as ever. There's nothing fancy in his playing; he veers close to the melody. But the way he stretches a note or holds it back, the poignant wisp of vibrato at the end of a phrase, the fine sense of rhythm in the placement of his pauses—he treats a song the way a great singer would. His quartet was a balladeer's ideal back-up band, providing ballast and contrast—George Mraz on bass, shifting the pivot of the beat; Victor Lewis, brushing rhythms within rhythms on the drums; and Kenny Barron, coaxing lush harmonies and color-tones from the piano. (Bossas and Ballads.)
Of the year's newly recorded jazz discs, the best is by a pianist in his 70s. I've already written in Slate about Ahmad Jamal's In Search of Momentum (Dreyfus). Suffice it now to say that, after 50 years of piano-playing, Jamal discovered he has a mighty left hand, a mad-dashing right hand, and a knack for pounding out high-energy tunes without losing his lyrical touch. His rhythm section (James Cammack, bass; Idris Muhammad, drums) goads him to new heights. It's the grand album of a long career. (In Search of Momentum.)
Ted Nash's Still Evolved (Palmetto) is, finally, an album made by today's young jazz musicians (or relatively young: in their 30s and 40s). Nash plays tenor saxophone and clarinet in New York's most vital, but very different, jazz ensembles—the repertory-rooted Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra and the more adventurous Jazz Composers Collective—and this album explores the links between tradition and innovation, composition and improvisation. The music, all written by Nash, has a soulful swing reminiscent of Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, but spiced with more freedom—an inclination to alter meters, shift keys, stretch the tension of a dissonant chord, even leave a loose end untied. The extraordinary rhythm section consists of JCC members who play with Nash frequently and know where he's going (Ben Allison, bass; Frank Kimbrough, piano; Matt Wilson, drums). Trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, the LCJO's leader, sits in on half the numbers and turns in more daringly accomplished solos than on his own albums. Indeed, this is, among many other things, the best Wynton Marsalis album in ages. (Still Evolved.)
The Bad Plus'These Are the Vistas (Columbia) is that rare thing: a pop-jazz crossover album that works on both levels, and swings. The trio (whose name remains a mystery) has gained fame for its covers of Nirvana's " Smells Like Teen Spirit" and Blondie's "Heart of Glass," but they're not the ironic po-mo wink-and-nudge jobs you might expect. Bassist Reid Anderson and drummer Dave King have roots in jazz and progressive rock; their fusion is authentic. (King can do Keith Moon backbeat and Elvin Jones klook-a-mops all at once.) Pianist Ethan Iverson is the wild card: a serious practitioner of jazz and 20th-century classical music, he likes Kurt Cobain for his open harmonies and translates them in a way Stravinsky would understand. This is deliberately theatrical jazz, and the trio's own compositions have an anthemic quality, like a cool soundtrack from a film at Sundance. (These Are the Vistas.)
Dave Douglas'Freak In (RCA Bluebird) marks the trumpeter-composer's first extended experiment with electronica, but he uses the synth sounds for their textures, not as a centerpiece. The title tune is a clear homage to early-'70s Miles Davis, with Douglas blowing frenzied triplets over Marc Ribot's wah-wah guitar licks. But the rest of the album roams the map. Highlights are " Culver City Park," a melancholy melody over Spanish-tinged rhythms, and " November," a gorgeous ballad with shades of doo-wop. This is mid-level Dave Douglas, which still means high-level jazz. (Freak In.)
Martial Solal's NY-1: Live at the Village Vanguard (Blue Note) marks a rare session by a French jazz pianist who's come stateside just three times in the last 30 years. (I've written about this album in Slate before.) Solal is best at breaking up the melody of a standard into its component parts, whittling it down to its sparest essence, then embellishing each chord with a dozen variations, all while gripping the song's tempo like a vise. His rhythm section—Francois Moutin on bass, Bill Stewart on drums—follows suit with agility. (NY-1: Live at the Village Vanguard.)
James Carter's Gardenias for Lady Day (Columbia) is a tribute album to Billie Holiday: It consists of songs she sang—or, Carter thinks, should have sung—set to quartet-plus-strings, fronted by Carter, blowing a bandstand-full of saxophones (alto, tenor, baritone, or soprano) in his fullballadeer's regalia—Ben Webster's lusty tone crossed with Don Byas' hard-bop cadences crossed with David Murray's free-flights to the horn's upper and lower limits. The album tends toward the formulaic, but Carter takes the formula on fresh spins. (Gardenias for Lady Day.)
Dave Holland's Extended Play: Live at Birdland (ECM) is a double disc of showstoppers from recent live sessions by Holland's celebrated quintet (Chris Potter, reeds; Robin Eubanks, trombone; Steve Nelson, vibes; Billy Kilson, drums; and Holland, bass). The tunes are all on earlier studio albums, but, excellent as those albums were, some had a studied quality, as if the band were still mastering the music. On this live recording, the band tears loose; the tunes sound fresher, the solos zestier, the ensemble work both freer and tighter. If Charles Mingus, the model for all great bassist-composers, had had a happier childhood and a cooler psyche, his music might have sounded like Dave Holland's. Which is to say, Holland's music is rife with rich harmonies, criss-crossing melodic lines, and shifting rhythms, but it lacks a certain tension. Even when the lines get dense and border on chaos, there's never much doubt that they will all come together at the end of the phrase. Still, the compositions are so beguiling and the players so commanding, they make happy Mingus a heady pleasure. (Extended Play: Live at Birdland.)