Is jazz getting old, or is it just me? Looking over my picks for the year's 10 best jazz discs, I see that the leaders on only two of them are under 50 (though I should note that they're barely 30), four are over 70, and one of them is damn near 90! Still, youthful spirits are wafting all through this music. Abandon morbid thoughts, and drink the potion.
Ornette Coleman, Sound Grammar (Sound Grammar) Ornette Coleman is 76, but rarely in a half-century of music-making has he blown his alto sax with such brio or sheer beauty. Through sweat-soaked ballads, languorous blues, serpentine dance beats, and boisterous hi-fly, what shines through most keenly is his feel for melody—still a surprise to many who expect nothing but dense chaos from "the father of free jazz."Sound Grammar is one of his most accessible albums, and his quartet (son Deonardo on drums, and two bassists, Greg Cohen plucking and Tony Falanga bowing) is his most supple in decades. (I wrote at about this album at greater length in Slate two months ago, replete with sound clips, here.)
Keith Jarrett, The Carnegie Hall Concert (ECM)
I've begun my reviews of Keith Jarrett's last three albums by saying something like, "I'm usually put off by his self-indulgence but this one's really good …" Time to change the preface: Jarrett is the most magisterial jazz pianist around, and this album marks a peak. He was 60 when he played a rare solo date at Carnegie Hall on Sept. 26, 2005, and this two-disc album captures its entirety—an hour of 10 improvisations, followed by five encores of his old hits. I was there that night, a bit wary at first but won over a few minutes in. His rhapsodic tone clusters, like something out of Ravel or Debussy, are still riveting, but more appealing, in a way, are the jauntier ballads and the way he can craft a simple line into a sumptuous gem.
Fred Hersch, In Amsterdam: Live at the Bimhui (Palmetto)
Fred Hersch, 51, is another grandly lyrical pianist, though more in the school of Bill Evans and more prone to flex his virtuosity over the songbook of American standards. This live solo date at a Dutch jazz club finds him more restlessly propulsive than usual. There's a muscularity in his playing, yet he preserves his romantic touch. The highlight might be a 12-minute meditation on Jimmy Rowles' ballad "The Peacocks," but listen as well to the zest he can muster with two fingers, Chopsticks-style, from the intro to "A Lark."
Sonny Rollins, Sonny, Please (Doxy)
Sonny Rollins, the tenor saxophone colossus, 76, remains on his finest days the most inventive improviser in jazz. Sonny, Please stands as his best studio album in a few decades, which, yes, says more about his other recent studio albums than about this one (most of his great records are live), but even so. The usual complaints: He gives too much solo time to his bandmates, who are OK but way beneath him; and Sonny himself doesn't always push himself to the max. But he's on way more than he's off, and his solos are intense. Listen to the title tune, where he probes in deep, dark territory but resurfaces with a return to the melody, followed by a quote from "O Susanna"—and it works!
Omer Avital, Asking No Permission (Smalls)
Israeli-born bassist-composer Omer Avital was 25 when he recorded this live session in 1996 at the very small Greenwich Village jazz club called Smalls with a sextet that included a drummer and four saxophone players. Much hype surrounded the band's weekly sessions, but they played the 2 a.m. set, so few heard them. With this album's long-overdue release, it's clear the hype was warranted. There's a bit of Mingus in this music—the dark rumbles beneath the merrily dissonant harmonies—but some of World Saxophone Quartet's lush turbulence, too, all topped with sweet tones and swaying melodies.