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Photograph by Michael Wilson
Glass Act: Violinist Jenny Scheinman's 'Crossing the Field' coaxes stellar work from pianist Jason Moran and guitarist Bill Frisell.

A Very Good Year

Andy Gilbert's take on the hottest jazz of the year

By Andrew Gilbert

The CD might be sailing rapidly toward history's dustbin, but none of the various forms of online distribution seems likely to replace the utility of the gleaming little plastic disc. For jazz musicians in particular, CDs continue to play an essential role in building a career. But albums serve more than a commercial function. The effort and expense required to produce a CD forces artists to hone a near evening-length body of material, thinking through every facet of the presentation. Here are my favorite 2008 jazz CDs this year, in no particular order.

Rova Sax Quartet, 'The Juke Box Suite' (Not Two Records) ROVA's baritone saxophonist Jon Raskin composed seven interrelated pieces as a tribute to musicologist Alan Lomax's wide-ranging sensibility. He doesn't so much borrow directly from Brazilian choro, blues, Balkan and Hebraic cadences as weave seemingly disparate strands into a sumptuous sonic tapestry.

Ed Reed, 'The Song Is You' (Blue Shorts Records) Bay Area vocalist Ed Reed shows he's no fluke with a captivating second album. The 80-year-old ballad specialist takes his time telling musical stories, unfurling standards like "Where or When," "It Never Entered My Mind" and "Lucky to Be Me" with a pleasingly weathered baritone.

Charles Lloyd, 'Rabo de Nube' (ECM) Accompanied by the superlative rhythm section tandem of bassist Reuben Rogers and drummer Eric Harland, saxophonist Charles Lloyd has never sounded more lyrical. The surprise here is pianist Jason Moran, whose typically bumptious attack turns lithe and caressing in Lloyd's company.

Kurt Rosenwinkel Group, 'The Remedy' (ArtistShare) With his limpid tone and expansive harmonic vocabulary, 38-year-old guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel is one of the most elegant composers of his generation. He's joined on this double album by a cast of equally gifted peers, most importantly tenor saxophonist Mark Turner, a player whose cool, dry sound is a perfect match for Rosenwinkel's long, spiraling melodic lines.

Dafnis Prieto, 'Taking the Soul for a Walk' (Dafnison Music) Cuban-born drummer Dafnis Prieto is a visionary bandleader with a capaciously creative book of original compositions. This kinetic, often unexpectedly angular session features a dazzling cast of Cuban compatriots, including saxophonist Yosvany Terry, as well as the brilliant Berkeley-raised saxophonist Peter Apfelbaum and commanding Israeli trumpeter Avishai Cohen.

Rob Schneiderman, 'Glass Enclosure' (Reservoir Music) A commanding bop-based pianist and professor of mathematics, Rob Schneiderman displays the breakneck fluency, harmonic wit and luxuriant touch that made him a favored sideman to jazz greats like Chet Baker, J.J. Johnson and Eddie Harris. Here he explores a bracing mix of originals and bebop classics with veteran alto sax master Charles McPherson, bassist Todd Coolman and underappreciated drummer Leroy Williams.

Donny McCaslin, 'Recommended Tools' (Greenleaf) Santa Cruz-raised saxophonist Donny McCaslin steps into the demanding bass 'n' drums trio format with absolute authority, delivering a taut program of theme and variation improvisation. With his brusque tone, muscular delivery, and bountiful flow of ideas, McCaslin is a worthy heir to Sonny Rollins' throne.

Jenny Scheinman, 'Crossing the Field' (Koch Jazz) Her simultaneously released Americana-steeped Koch album featuring her ravishing vocals received more attention, but fiddler Jenny Scheinman's instrumental session is the work of an immensely resourceful improviser and composer. Featuring the string quartet Brooklyn Rider, guitarist Bill Frisell and pianist Jason Moran, who responds to Scheinman's tunes with his most unabashedly lyrical playing, Crossing is a picaresque journey that moves gracefully from carnivalesque capers to Malian pastorals to cinematic elegies.

Rudresh Mahanthappa, 'Kinsmen' (Pi Records) The steely altoist Rudresh Mahanthappa takes another long step on a thrilling journey bridging the world of jazz and classical Indian music with this project featuring fellow Indian-American Rez Abassi on guitar and South Indian masters Kadri Golpalnath (alto sax) and A. Kanyakumari (violin) backed by bassist Carlo de Rosa, and longtime San Jose State professor Royal Hartigan on drums.

Kenny Washington, 'Live at Anna's Jazz Island' (Essentially Jazz) Long revered by his musical peers for his surfeit of soul and ebullient sense of swing, Oakland-based vocalist Kenny Washington has finally released an album under his name at the age of 51. Washington scats with the harmonic daring and rhythmic command of a bebop saxophonist and interprets standards with such intelligence and emotional commitment it's like Rodgers and Hart wrote "I Didn't Know What Time It Was" with him in mind.

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