The best jazz albums of the year.

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Dec. 20 2005 2:20 PM

The Jazz A-List

The best albums of the year.

The three best jazz albums of 2005 were recorded 40 to 60 years ago, but that doesn't mean jazz is dead. The year saw plenty of terrific new music, too, from masters young and old, traditional and daring, fledgling and reviving, or simply implacably persistent.

It's a mere, if wondrous, coincidence that those three recordings of yore were all discovered this year. And they are discoveries; nobody had even known they existed. Dizzy Gillespie-Charlie Parker, New York, Town Hall, June 22, 1945(Uptown Jazz), recorded shortly after the two fathers of be-bop formed their quintet with Max Roach on drums, is as electrifying as anything they would set down ever again. Thelonious Monk Quartet With John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall (Blue Note), made in November 1957 shortly before that group broke up, finds Monk playing his most archly elegant piano and Coltrane his most relaxed yet searching tenor sax. John Coltrane'sOne Down, One Up: Live at the Half Note(Impulse!), recorded in the spring of 1965, in a Manhattan club that Trane used as a sort of workshop, captures his great quartet streakingon the knife-edge between structure and freedom.

Fred Kaplan Fred Kaplan
Fred Kaplan, Slate's "War Stories" columnist, has written about jazz for the New York Times, The New Yorker, and others.
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All three easily rank among the best jazz albums of all time. Almost none of this—or any year's—entries could compete with them. Besides, I've written about them in Slate already. So, to be fair, and to avoid redundancy, this list is restricted to new recordings, in alphabetical order (because I can't make up my mind how to rank them):

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Bar Kokhba Sextet, 50th Birthday Celebration, Vol. 11 (Tzadik)

John Zorn—composer, saxophonist, downtown impresario—has made an industry of his Masada songbooks, and who can blame him? In the early '90s, he wrote 100 tunes, each built around one of the two Jewish scales, and the Masada quartet that he formed to play this music evolved into the decade's tightest, liveliest jazz band. So, he wrote more tunes and created spinoff ensembles: Masada String Trio, Electric Masada, Masada Guitars, and—this one—Bar Kokhba Sextet, an expansion of the string trio (violin, cello, and bass) to include electric guitar, drums, and percussion. In September 2003, to mark his 50th birthday, Zorn staged a month's worth of concerts at the music club Tonic, and he's gradually been releasing the tapes on his own Tzadik label. Bar Kokhba played three sets, and this three-disc album contains every note. It's heady, raucous stuff—richly textured, high-spirited, even spiritual. The band—Mark Feldman, Erik Friedlander, Greg Cohen, Marc Ribot, Joey Baron, and Cyro Baptista—is top-notch.

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Dave Douglas, Keystone (Greenleaf Music)

A veteran of the original Masada quartet, Douglas is the most versatile trumpeter in jazz. Every album brings a new group, every group a new sound or theme. The one constant is his own horn: the plangent tone, the penchant for minor keys and dark, rich harmonies. Keystone was composed as a soundtrack to a pair of Fatty Arbuckle silent comedies (a bonus DVD contains the movies!), and the music is eerily droll and otherworldly. The album opens with a mysterious clanging, as if a gate to a time warp were opening. Once the strange, electronica-tinged world gets spinning, Douglas shifts from romantic melancholy to zany cartoon to off-centered R&B and more, as the mood fits.

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Marty Ehrlich, News on the Rail (Palmetto)

Marty Ehrlich is an accomplished reedman and a sophisticated composer—it's a puzzle why he isn't better-known. News on the Rail is his best album to date. The tunes (all written and arranged by Ehrlich) are boisterous, bluesy, knotty, and breezy, sometimes all at once. The band—a sextet including James Zollar on trumpet, Howard Johnson on tuba, and Greg Cohen on bass—is loose and tight, hot and cool. The album boasts the niftiest up-tempo opener in years, and things don't go downhill from there.

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Vijay Iyer, Reimagining (Savoy Jazz)

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