The Masters Have It

Ten to Live With While Waiting for Godot

The arbitrariness of annual top-10s always becomes clearer the week after, when you look at other lists and think, damn, how did I forget that album and why haven't I even heard this other one? Then again, maybe the most honest list you can come up with eschews research and second-guessing in favor of albums that instantly come to mind because you've returned to them time after time and filed them in that corner of your mind reserved for classics, or at least music you expect to live with more fully in the future. Every generation of critics is obliged to make cases for works neglected the first time around and puncture those that get a free ride on the wings of received wisdom. I don't know how 1999 will stack up, but in the past my 10-bests usually ran to about 17 albums, while this year I wasn't certain of reaching 10.

The fact that it was a grand year for reissues (a subject for later discussion, though in the interim do pick up Vanguard's magnificent restoration of From Spirituals to Swing) and that most of the new albums that pleasured me were by musicians over 70, puts me in mind of the early and middle 1970s, when posthumous Ellington or unreleased Clifford Brown routinely aced out the living as we waited for Godot. Godot and friends finally arrived from the heartland (R.I.P. Lester Bowie, Julius Hemphill, Phillip Wilson, Fred Hopkins, Steve McCall, et al.), and something similar will break up the academic malaise of the present. For now, there are the masters, though fewer than last year (R.I.P. Harry Edison, Red Norvo, Milt Jackson, Art Farmer, et al.). Of 10 CDs that made the cut, three stand out—see 2 and 3 below. Of these, one dominates: CD of the year, John Lewis's Evolution (Atlantic).

Only a pianist as mature, canny, and knowing as Lewis would have the nerve to play as few notes as he does in the 11 selections of this recital. Having winnowed his technique to an expressive core, he belongs to the tradition of Basie and Monk—rhythmically sublime, with an unmistakable touch, and positively wasteless. Evolution crosses the line between sonata and sonnet, its stray phrases and suspenseful caesuras ringing with images as specific as metaphors you keep turning over in the light. Though a 19th-century sensibility is apparent, everything Lewis plays suggests the imaginative rigors of a purebred jazz musician—in the voicings, in the ratio between composition and improvisation, in a swing that is vital even at the slowest tempos, and in an attack that encompasses much of the American keyboard tradition from rags and blues to boogie and bop and beyond.

John Lewis: Rhythmically sublime and positively wasteless
photo: Will Mosgrove
John Lewis: Rhythmically sublime and positively wasteless

I'm reminded of a passage in Moby Dick, when Ishmael remarks of Queequeg's table manners, "But that was certainly very coolly done by him, and every one knows that in most people's estimation to do anything coolly is to do it genteelly." No one ever questioned Lewis's gentility; indeed, it has been held against him. But his fastidiousness is so cool in the '90s sense of the word, which comports with Melville's, that he conveys an emotional authority rare in any art. Was there a wittier performance all year than the arrangement here of "Sweet Georgia Brown"? Or a more generously moving one than "For Ellington," perhaps the track of the year? Or a more inventively reimagined one than his total rethinking of "Django"?

For all the improvisational electricity he generates, these pieces, so concisely arranged and played, have the lacquered finish of composition; you can imagine a classical pianist transcribing and interpreting them, though he would have to have awfully good time—Jean-Yves Thibaudet won't do. But their real strength, what sets them apart, lies elsewhere. In a period devoid of melody, a genuine melodist like Lewis seems to have almost shamanistic powers. We are accustomed to calling anyone who can put together a hummable phrase lyrical. But Lewis is the real thing. He thinks tunefully, and whether he plays his own pieces ("Afternoon in Paris" and "Three Degrees East, Two Degrees West") or standards ("September Song" and "Don't Blame Me" get surprising facelifts), Lewis builds them from the ground up with winning melodies, often riveted with bravely considered rests. On top of that, every note rings like a chime: You don't often see an audio engineer billed in the same size type as the artist and his producers, but E. Alan Silver has created a state-of-the-art disc.

2. Lee Konitz, Another Shade of Blue (Blue Note). How many contemporary musicians play solos that can withstand the scrutiny applied to those single-chorus jewels of the 78 era? At his best, Konitz can and does. What distinguishes this performance—a concert with pianist Brad Mehldau (far more engaging here than on his recent disc) and bassist Charlie Haden—is how long the great alto saxophonist can sustain his high-wire act. He offers a glossary of unhackneyed blues licks on the title track and flies in from Mars to open "What's New?" If you're put off by his tart tone, get over it. And don't tell me about Motion—if somebody asks me to recommend a Konitz album, this will be the one.

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