The best jazz album of 2008 is such a clear choice—not just a stunning disc of music but a breakthrough in music history—that I will say this: If any jazz critics out there leave it off their Top 10 lists, don't trust another word that they say about anything.
1. The album is Sonny Rollins' Road Shows, Vol. 1 (on his own label, Doxy Jazz), a collection of live tracks from 1980-2007, and it's one of his three or four best recordings ever. Rollins, the greatest tenor saxophone player around, famously feels uncomfortable in studios; a good night in front of a live crowd beats nearly anything he lays down before a control booth. A fan named Carl Smith has been collecting bootleg tapes of live Rollins concerts for decades, but his overtures to the man went ignored—until the past few years, when the two joined forces. Rollins has been listening to the tapes. It also turns out that he's been recording some of his gigs as well, straight off the mixing board, and he's been listening to those, too. Rollins is deeply self-critical; he likes very little of what he's ever done. The seven tracks on Road Shows, Vol. 1 are his picks; they're the performances that he could at least tolerate hearing. They include a bravura ballad, "Easy Living":
a dizzyingly intricate solo (from "Blossom," an original that he'd never recorded):
a blowing number ("Tenor Madness"):
and an unusually pensive trio take of "Some Enchanted Evening," with bassist Christian McBride and drummer Roy Haynes, from their 2007 concert at Carnegie Hall. Sound quality isn't great, but that shouldn't deter.
2. Concord Records' series of previously unreleased live sessions from the Monterey Jazz Festival has been strangely uneven, but Shirley Horn, Live at the 1994 Monterey Jazz Festival is a classic. Horn, who died in 2005 at the age of 71, was an elegant pianist and a sultry singer—she could make a lyric feel as if it told the story of her life—known, above all, for her slow, simmering way with ballads. There are some of those here:
but also some upbeat swayers: