Jazz in the spotlight

Some old-timers impress with their strengths and some one-of-a-kind talents display growing versatility.

Michael Wilson courtesy of KOCH Records
Versatile violinist Jenny Scheinman.

Boz Scaggs: 'Speak Low'

Few artists defy pigeonholing like San Francisco's Boz Scaggs. He has sung blues, rock, pop, funk – even a little disco – all with singular style and impeccable chops. Now we can add jazz to that list. Actually, this is his second foray into the world of jazz vocals. His jazz debut, "But Beautiful," was a triumph of taste and restraint, topping the jazz charts in 2003. "Speak Low" (Decca Records) follows a similar, but more progressive thread, featuring strings and Gil Evans-style arrangements. And it doesn't hurt that Scaggs's unique voice sounds so much like a soothing baritone sax, gracefully caressing the lyrics of jazz chestnuts like "Skylark" and "Save Your Love for Me." "Speak Low" is further proof that the ageless Scaggs can do it all, but beautifully.

Jenny Scheinman: 'Crossing the Field'

Another one-of-a-kind talent is Brooklyn-based musician Jenny Scheinman. A first-call violinist and string arranger for artists such as Lucinda Williams, Norah Jones, and genre-bending guitarist Bill Frisell, she has simultaneously released two fine albums. One features her clear and guileless vocals. The second, the all-instrumental "Crossing the Field" (Koch Records), sounds like a soundtrack in search of a worthy movie. If it needed a label, it would be a long one: jazz/classical/funk/folk/Americana – imagine a happy mash-up of bopster Thelonious Monk, the lush soundscapes of Aaron Copland, and the big-footed funk of The Bad Plus. All that and it's drop-dead gorgeous. "Ana Eco" sounds like a great lost Samuel Barber adagio; "Hard Sole Shoe" rocks with gleeful abandon. And "Old Brooklyn" will toy with your heart, with trumpeter Ron Miles manipulating the valves.

– John Kehe

Bill Carrothers: 'Home Row'

Jazz piano trio albums have glutted the market for years. That might be the only imaginable reason why Pirouet Records kept "Home Row" by pianist Bill Carrothers locked in their vaults since 1992. Joined by the versatile veteran bassist Gary Peacock and splashy drummer Bill Stewart, Carrothers offers impeccably inventive playing on rarely heard tunes like Ornette Coleman's "When Will the Blues Leave." He even manages to inject Cole Porter's sugary "My Heart Belongs to Daddy" with an unsettling dissonance. And he proves his finesse as an original composer with "A Squirrel's Tale," the punning title a clue to the tune's rhythmic frenzy, wryly akin to a squirrel's frenetic movements. Also remarkable is the fact that Carrothers gives his bassist and drummer plenty of space to execute their own surprising twists on this ambitiously exhilarating romp by a major and neglected talent.

Cassandra Wilson: 'Loverly'

Wilson began her solo singing career in the 1980s with "Blue Skies," an exceptional album of jazz standards that showcased her exotically husky, dreamy, precisely sculpted tone – her hallmark ever since. After many albums replete with quirky material, ranging from faux-Beatles to Miles Davis instrumentals, she has returned to her roots with "Loverly" (Blue Note). She's back where she started, but even better, delivering old jazz and blues chestnuts, a measured "The Very Thought of You," a blazingly defiant "St. James Infirmary." There's no jazz chanteuse today performing with this prodigious level of deep feeling matched with minute attention to innovative craft. And her backing musicians believe (as does Wilson) old standards demand intensive revamping, and they do so lovingly, in delicate balance with the star.

Sonny Rollins: 'Road Shows, Vol. 1'

Preposterous that the (arguably) greatest living jazz saxophonist gains strength as he advances toward age 80. The strengths have always been best caught on live recordings, and this assortment of international performances from 1980 to 2007 comprises a sensational sampler (Doxy Records). With trombonist Clifton Anderson as a constant contrasting supporter, and a small nucleus of dazzling rhythm-section mavens, Rollins improvises his heady harmonic variations on tunes ranging from blues and calypso to Broadway, with "Some Enchanted Evening" (from the musical "South Pacific"), a tour de force of gleeful vocalization, a triumph of romantic virtuosity over cornball material. No jazz player has ever decorated commonplace melodies so royally while maintaining the rocking pulse of R&B-infused jazz so ecstatically.

Norman Weinstein

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