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:
and bouncy meditations:
Her longtime drummer, Steve Williams, was in typically fine form that day, giving Horn plenty of space, and her bassist, Charles Ables, stretched beyond his usual comping.
3. Frank Kimbrough's Air(on Palmetto) is the most remarkable solo jazz piano album in a while. An acolyte of Shirley Horn (see above) and Paul Bley (see below), Kimbrough combines something of the latter's analytic rigor with the former's romantic flourish. He's the pianist for Maria Schneider's jazz orchestra, several Ben Allison bands, and more. But Air shows him hitting new strides of virtuosity and wit,
mainly on originals but also with a Monk and an obscure, noirish Ellington.
4. Rudresh Mahanthappa's Kinsmen(on Pi Recordings) is one of the most startlingly original jazz albums in years. A young alto-saxophone player and émigré from southern India (and a member of pianist Vijay Iyer's quartet), Mahanthappa has tried to fuse his homeland's rhythms and modern jazz cadences a few times before, with engaging but somewhat monotonous results. Here, though, it works. Teamed with Kadri Golpalnath, an elder who recorded a wild album called Saxophone Indian Style a dozen years ago, and the Dakshin Ensemble, Mahanthappa carves out whole new paths. It cooks, it swings:
5. The Carla Bley Big Band's Appearing Nightly(Watt/ECM) meshes modern with retro, as the pianist-composer leads her 16-piece band through sumptuous arrangements,
equal parts Gershwin, Ives, and the circus: It's alternately, sometimes all at once, blistering, lyrical, blooming, and wry.
6. Paul Bley's About Time (Justin Time) is another in a series of the pioneering pianist's solo improvisations, this one riffing off cascading streams of consciousness—snippets of romantic themes, spontaneous eruptions, and bebop melodies that their originators wouldn't recognize but that they would probably find intriguing, even enchanting. Sorry, there's no 30-second sound bite that captures what he's doing; it's all in the progression … well, OK, here's a sample,
but only because I have to.
7. David Murray and Mal Waldron's Silence(Justin Time) offers an odd combination: Murray, a soaring, swooning improviser on tenor sax and bass clarinet who expands the laws of harmonic gravity with derring-do, pitted in duet with Waldron, a sonorous pianist who ekes orchestral colors from 88 keys yet lays down the law on rhythmic structure. Recorded in 2001 (Waldron died the following year), it's a duet of tension and resolution followed by more tension and resolution. On some tracks, it's a grind; on others, a glory; in some cases, a bit of both:
But, all the same, very satisfying.
8. Wynton Marsalis and Willie Nelson's Two Men With the Blues (EMI), is sheer delight, a seamless weave of jazz, country, and, above all, lightheaded blues, recorded live at Lincoln Center. Willie's voice has its break points, but he carries the spirit of the songs and he's having such infectious fun. Wynton firms up my long-held impression that he blows his freest jazz trumpet when the setting's most casual:
The whole band is tight and high-spirited.
9. Steven Bernstein's Diaspora Suite (Tzadik). This is the fourth and most ambitious Diaspora-themed album by trumpeter-composer Bernstein, on John Zorn's Tzadik label. Not simply "Jewish music," it has influences from everywhere. The first track opens with an electric guitar riff and bongo backup, straight out of Marvin Gaye:
before a klezmer clarinet comes punching in:
But no one strand dominates. Dark, bluesy, and you can dance to it.
10. Jeff Gauthier's House of Return(Cryptogramophone) is the year's surprise, a sinuously pleasing blend of rich melancholy, off-centered swing, and hazy blues,
from a quintet that features Gauthier on violin and Nels Cline on electric guitar (who also plays with Bernstein's band). Quirky and loose-cuffed, but there's no kidding around and the playing's airtight.