Among the Living


The votes are in: Monk and Coltrane at Carnegie Hall in 1957, my choice as the best jazz CD released in 2005, is the winner in JazzTimes‘ critics’ poll, scoring 165 points to 87 for Dizzy and Bird at Town Hall in 1945—my runner-up as well. Number three with 73 points is Coltrane at the Half Note in ’65, followed by the highest-ranking living performers: Sonny Rollins (40 points) and Wayne Shorter (34), both septuagenarians.

Who could’ve imagined that finally becoming part of a critical consensus would leave me feeling so blue? If anything, the average age of the musicians on my list is higher, by virtue of including Gerald Wilson—at 87, only a year younger than Monk and Gillespie would be, and older than Parker or Coltrane. Wilson’s In My Time, a sequel to 2004’s New York New Sound, again featuring the Southern California–based bandleader with East Coast sidemen, was one of several triumphant 2005 orchestral releases by composer-arrangers pushing 80 or well past.

The most charming is Bebo Valdés’s Bebo de Cuba, a double CD of mambos and bembés and gorgeous, unabashedly romantic ballads by a pioneering Cuban jazz pianist (long ago emigrated to Sweden) old enough to remember when dancing meant holding someone in your arms. Being a little old-fashioned works to Valdés’s advantage in terms of melodic authenticity: Minus Coltranisms and an exaggerated clave, his music never sounds like the subgenre implied by the term “Latin jazz.” On these New York sessions, two different assemblages of Cuban exiles and white Americans with experience in Latin bands interpret his charts with flair—the standout soloists are Paquito D’Rivera, lyrical and dashing on both alto and clarinet, and Valdés, so sure of himself he can get away with quoting “The Theme From ‘A Summer Place.’ ”

Bill Holman, a West Coaster like Wilson, was the arranger who coaxed Stan Kenton’s 1950 behemoth to swing—no mean feat—and he hasn’t lost the knack; The Bill Holman Band Live‘s version of Parker’s “Donna Lee” is as impressive for its ease and unhurried momentum at a rapid tempo as it is for its embedded counterpoint and the maze of inner voicings behind the solos by trombonist Bob Enevoldsen and tenor saxophonist Doug Webb. Recorded in an airport Sheraton, of all places, Live isn’t as ambitious as Holman’s much admired 1997 album of Monk deconstructions, but it’s sleeker, and its more modest scale is truer to Holman’s gifts. And even if “A Day in the Life” at first seems to suggest only that practically any melody can be rearranged to sound like Basie, it’s no clunker—the moment the angular variations begin, we’re in Holman’s world, not Basie’s or Lennon and McCartney’s.

George Russell, his generation’s leading jazz theorist, celebrated his 80th birthday three years ago by taking a big band to Europe in 2003 and recording what amounts to a partial career retrospective—though Russell’s reputation as a visionary began with “Cubana Be” and “Cubana Bop” for Dizzy Gillespie’s big band in 1948, the earliest chart here is “Electric Sonata for Souls Loved by Nature,” from 1966. The synthesizer and electric-bass riffs in this and Russell’s subsequent works have become dated, and so has his boogaloo—but not the dissonant swagger that has always characterized his approach to modal harmony. His pieces receive crisper, more confident readings on The 80th Birthday Concert than they got on the original recordings, and this is especially true of his buoyant orchestration of Miles Davis’s trumpet choruses on “So What.” A piece that once seemed a toss-off stands revealed as major Russell.

Though Wilson’s In My Time also includes a version of “So What,” his arrangement is really just a vamp for solos, and if this and “Love for Sale” were all you heard from the CD, you might never guess how terrific the rest is. The track you should hear is “Dorian,” a modal romp (and opening movement of a three-part suite) whose headlong saxophone section writing and overall urbanity are worthy of comparison to ’60s Ellington. A product of the late swing era (he joined Jimmie Lunceford on trumpet in 1939, before “Yard Dog Mazurka” made it obvious that his real talent was as a composer and arranger), Wilson is best known for the numerous big-band LPs he recorded for Pacific Jazz in the 1960s, a decade during which he was also a pen for hire, arranging albums for Ray Charles and a variety of lesser singers. But In My Time is the one I’d reach for to persuade a skeptic that we’re talking about an overlooked major figure. With the usually drifty pianist Renee Rosnes digging in behind the horns, and Russell Malone, who usually tends toward the humdrum, strumming up suspense on his feature “Musette,” the ultimate proof of Wilson’s talent as a composer might be the way he gooses players to heights you didn’t know they could reach. Beginning with “Dizzier and Dizzier” for Gillespie in 1949, Wilson has always been especially deft at showcasing trumpeters, and some of the most penetrating moments here are from Jeremy Pelt, Jimmy Owens, Jon Faddis (fanning flames on the conquistadorial “Lomelin”), and Sean Jones (pride of place for his savvy quote from Gigi Gryce’s “Minority” on “Dorian”). It’s all beautifully recorded too.

Jazz musicians who are primarily writers—Wilson put his trumpet away years ago, ditto for Holman and his tenor, and Russell hasn’t played piano in ages, which leaves only Valdés—have been a breed apart since the 1920s, when working largely behind the scenes allowed them to cross color lines undetected. It somehow figures that many of them would slip into old age just as gracefully, unobstructed by the many infirmities (arthritis, emphysema, dentures) that wreak havoc on instrumentalists. Playing the optimist for once, I’d say that the vitality of these albums by four old men demonstrates why the spark still burns for jazz. Maybe the news last year wasn’t so alarming after all.

Gerald Wilson performs with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra at Rose Theater February 23 through 25.