The Best Jazz Albums of 2006

Time and tide wait for no man, except maybe jazz musicians.

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.

Bill Frisell/Ron Carter/Paul Motian (Nonesuch)
Guitarist Bill Frisell, 55, strums his customary mix of jazz, Twin Peaks, and wah-wah bluegrass, joined by bassist Ron Carter (69) and drummer Paul Motian (75—could it be?!) in an unexpectedly convivial trio. The disc begins with a very spacey rundown of “Eighty-One,” a blues that Carter wrote with Miles Davis when they played together in the mid-’60s; follows up with the oddest-ball version of ” You Are My Sunshine” that you’re likely to hear; and segues into a bluesy, twangy Frisell original called ” Worse and Worse,” with Carter plucking the bass more imaginatively than I’ve heard from him in years. Motian swirls his brushes and keeps pushing the beat off-center like nobody. A wiggy delight.

Mario Pavone, Deez to Blues (Playscape)
Mario Pavone, 66, a veteran staple of New York’s downtown jazz scene, may be the most unjustly obscure bassist-bandleader-composer. There’s some Mingus here, too—and not just in the way Pavone slaps the bass strings and lets their overtones mingle with the stacked harmonies. His aptly peculiar sextet (a trumpet, tuba, and violin, meshed in with the piano, bass, and drums) navigates the shoals with airtight verve. They do the knotty and the noir-ishly lyrical with equal aplomb and weird beauty.

Jason Moran, Artist in Residence(Blue Note)
Jason Moran, at 31 the most inventive and versatile jazz pianist around, wrote most of these tracks as commissions for art centers, and the album comes off as a sonic Chelsea art-gallery tour: alternately quirky, adventurous, maddening, wondrous, sometimes all at once. ” Cradle Song,” in which Moran expertly recites a Carl Maria von Weber tune over the sound of pencil-scribbling (in memory of his mother’s furious note-taking while he practiced as a child) is pure Dada. ” Artists Ought to Be Writing,” in which he mimics an artist’s monologue, highlighting the music of natural speech, is like a wittier-than-usual mixed-media installation. But there’s also the brisk melody of ” Arizona Landscape,” which evokes a crisp dawn photo of, well, an Arizona landscape.

Fred Anderson, Timeless: Live at the Velvet Lounge (Delmark)
Tenor saxophonist Fred Anderson, 77, is a fixture on the Chicago music scene, which may be why he’s less known than he should be in the Manhattan-centric jazzosphere. Imagine mid-’60s Coltrane with a few squirts of R&B, and you’ll be in the ballpark: incantations with a downbeat. His drummer, Hamid Drake, familiar to New York denizens for his work with William Parker and David Murray, spins rhythms within rhythms. Bassist Harrison Bankhead, who seems to play only with Anderson, is astonishing: soaring and diving through octaves and hitting notes as right as they are unexpected. This was recorded live at the Velvet Lounge, a South Side club that Anderson has owned for decades and where he plays routinely. It’s worth a trip, or at least a purchase.

Hank Jones/Christian McBride/Jimmy Cobb, West of 5th(Chesky)
Here’s the contest-winner: Hank Jones, 88 (!), who played piano with Charlie Parker and just about every great jazz musician since, still prowling the keyboard, maybe not quite as forcefully as he once did, but hardly less briskly or lyrically. His harmonies sing, and he’s still got that touch. No mind-benders; just a fresh, breezy set of standards, masterfully laid out, backed by Jimmy Cobb brushing the trapset as crisply as he did 47 years ago on Miles Davis’Kind of Blue and young Christian McBride plucking the bass more energetically than he has lately.

Finally, respeck to Mosaic Records, the mail-order record company in Stamford, Conn., for continuing to produce the liveliest, loveliest jazz reissue boxes. Highlights this year: the 7-CD Verve/Philips Dizzy Gillespie Small Group Sessions from the mid-’50s to mid-’60s (which, despite uneven material, confirms Diz’s standing as the greatest jazz trumpeter ever); the 3-CD Andrew Hill—Solo (long out-of-print, always hard-to-find ruminations from 1978 by one of the most imaginative pianist-composers); and a single-disc Duke Ellington, The Cosmic Scene, an obscure 1958 session featuring a handpicked few from Duke’s big band, ripping through classics in a muscular, streamlined sound (and, with this reissue, in stereo for the first time).