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.

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):

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.

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.

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.

Vijay Iyer, Reimagining (Savoy Jazz)

Vijay Iyer is a daunting young pianist. Holding advanced degrees in physics as well as music, he composes in mathematical patterns, with sometimes overly schematic results. But not on this album. Reimagining, featuring his quartet, is a quiet scorcher; it simmers rather than boils. His playing relies on repetition, to the point where slight variations take on a riveting drama. He and his saxophonist, Rudresh Mahanthappa, are sons of Indian immigrants, and they work South Asian rhythms into the mix. Iyer ends the album with a hauntingly dreamlike solo take on John Lennon’s “Imagine.”

Keith Jarrett, Radiance (ECM)

The keyboard king, Jarrett has been known to turn a concert, especially a solo concert, into a festoon of self-indulgence: He moans, hums, spasmodically leaps from the bench, whether hitting a simple C-minor-7 chord or flailing about the ivories with abandon. Yet this two-disc solo concert, recorded live in Tokyo, is a gem: virtuosic yet not preening, it swings, sways, fascinates, and moves, emotionally and otherwise. The music is entirely improvised, and Jarrett occasionally shoots off one of those rhapsodic flares, familiar from his many solo sessions of the ‘70s—but he reins them in, never losing sight of the form he’s laid down. Some of his tracks seem more like Ravel than jazz, but jazz harmonies after all have Ravelian roots, and Jarrett’s touch is unerring. My favorite tracks are the ballads: slow, sweet, and lovely.

Wynton Marsalis, Live at the House of Tribes (Blue Note)

The trumpet star’s last album, The Magic Hour, was the worst of his career (I called it “stupefyingly mediocre” in an April 2004 Slate review), so it should be a relief to fans that his new work, Live at the House of Tribes, is his best in nearly 15 years. Maybe it’s because he’s playing standards (Pulitzer notwithstanding, composition’s not his strong point); maybe it’s because he’s playing before an enthusiastic live audience (a factor that gets many jazzmen’s blood bubbling); maybe it’s because the concert was a loose hoot that nobody intended to release as a CD (no pregame huddle with Stanley Crouch on how holy history’s about to be made). Whatever’s going on, Wynton Marsalis has rarely sounded in such fine tone and spirit: so nimble, sly, witty, and bold. Check out, in particular, his insouciant strut through Monk’s knotty “Green Chimneys.”

Brad Mehldau, Day Is Done (Nonesuch)

Mehldau, 35 and the most assured young pianist on the block, does what jazz musicians pre-1964 used to do routinely: He assimilates the pop and show tunes of the day into jazz idiom. It’s a different approach from, say, the jazz-rock fusion of Miles Davis or the po-mo irony of the Bad Plus. What the classic jazz musicians did with Gershwin, Berlin, and Cole Porter, Mehldau does with Radiohead, the Beatles, and Nick Drake. He swings through “Knives Out” with a manic insistence. On “Martha My Dear,” the album’s one solo number, he traverses the song’s multiple rhythms all at once, the way Art Tatum (channeling Bach) might have done. His trio-mates, bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jeff Ballard, provide just the right shades of swing, support, and tension. This may be Mehldau’s best album.

Jason Moran & Bandwagon, Same Mother (Blue Note)

The era’s piano wunderkind, just turned 30, Jason Moran can play anything, in any style, with brilliance—and more, with originality. His 2002 Modernistic was the best solo jazz piano recording in a decade (and it hasn’t yet been eclipsed). Same Mother doesn’t reach those heights, but it’s Moran’s most satisfying group album. The title refers to the common roots of jazz and the blues, and the quartet he’s assembled (his regular Bandwagon trio, augmented by guitarist Marvin Sewell, best known for his work with Cassandra Wilson) fuses the two strands with grace and zest. On “I’ll Play the Blues for You,” listen to how Moran and Sewell slide in and around the rhythm but come out of the maze right on time. They can also swoon through a ballad, Moran delicately coaxing the keyboard while Sewell plucks the skylark passages.

Sonny Rollins, Without a Song: The 9/11 Concert (Milestone)

Sonny Rollins, the greatest living tenor saxophone player, hits his widest strides in live concerts. (Some of his best albums— A Night at the Village Vanguard, Our Man in Jazz, G-Man—have been recorded live.) This concert, in Boston a few days after the Sept. 11 terrorist attack, is middlin’ by the standards of live Rollins, but that still ranks high by the standards of most jazz. Rollins gives too much time to his sidemen (though pianist Stephen Scott gets off some wild solos), and he sometimes takes several choruses to get his jets going. But there are many hair-raising moments here, not least the final bars of “Why Was I Born,” where Rollins barrels through some harmonic wormhole before settling solidly back to earth.

Jenny Scheinman, 12 Songs (Cryptogramophone)

Jenny Scheinman—who plays in guitarist Bill Frisell’s moodier ensembles—bows the violin with a mix of jazz, Celtic, country, klezmer, blues, and prairie Americana. She’s joined by an equally eclectic sextet that includes Ron Miles on trumpet, Rachelle Garniez on the accordion, and the great Frisell himself, strumming twangy Twin Peaks atmospherics. The song titles tell much: “Song of the Open Road,” “Little Calypso,” “Sleeping in the Aquifer,” “She Couldn’t Believe It Was True,” and—the oddball opener—”The Frog Threw His Head Back and Laughed.” This is a warm, quirky, disarmingly delightful album.