Top 5 Albums of 2006–Eric Benson

By Eric Benson

Odean Pope Saxophone Choir,

Locked & Loaded: Live at the Blue Note

There are few sounds as bounteous as nine saxophones roaring and swooning in joyful unison. Yet it’s the striking precision of this album—the dazzling collective virtuosity of “Prince Lasha” and “Coltrane Time” and the seamless integration and rich performances of guest soloists Michael Brecker, Joe Lovano, and James Carter—that makes it so joyfully engaging. Each track is distinct and nearly perfect, but the Choir’s rendition of “Central Park West” is the album’s finest moment. It conjures the full romantic force of one of Coltrane’s lesser-known gems, and in the process does the unthinkable—improves upon the master’s original work.

Keith Jarrett, The Carnegie Hall Concert

Keith Jarrett can be a surly performer. He’s been known to gripe about coughing audience members and can lose focus when the environment around him is not ideal. Jarrett’s thin skin can be detrimental to his performance, but it can also have a positive effect, propelling him to tremendous heights when he receives the support he’s looking for. By all accounts, the concert that took place on September 26, 2005, was a magical evening. Jarrett’s playing was as good as it’s ever been, the audience was gracious, and five encores followed a dazzling 10-part cycle of solo improvisations. When it goes right, Jarrett is the most self-assured and daring pianist in jazz. This was a night when everything was right.

Trio Beyond, Saudades

Jazz-rock fusion often results in the worst of both worlds as unfocused electronic sounds meander through a musical no-man’s-land. Saudades, a jazz album with deep rock sensibilities, has nothing in common with these diluted fusion efforts—from the first track onward it pulses with vitality and beauty. The album documents a concert dedicated to the legacy of Tony Williams’ Lifetime, an innovative ’70s trio that raised the bar of electronic jazz. The members of the band—drummer Jack DeJohnette, guitarist John Scofield, and keyboardist Larry Goldings—are all in top form, crafting a strikingly diverse set that tackles hard-driving grooves and pristine ballads with inventiveness and care.

Pat Metheny and Brad Mehldau, Metheny/Mehldau

For a musician so preternaturally talented, Brad Mehldau has produced more than his share of frustrating albums. His solo piano efforts have been maddeningly indulgent, and some of his trio dates, especially in recent years, have been merely ho-hum. But there are moments on even his worst albums that are so enchanting that I keep listening, keep buying his albums, and keep hoping. Metheny/Melhdau is not Mehldau’s best album, but it’s his freshest and most compelling effort in a long time. Pat Metheny’s presence pushes Mehldau into new creative zones, resulting in a complex interweaving conversation between two of the premier artists in jazz.

Andrew Hill, Time Lines

Andrew Hill’s knotty, shifting improvisations haven’t lost their depth or precision over his long career. Neither have his dense compositions, which bring out new potential in the players lucky enough to become immersed in Hill’s idiosyncratic rhythmic conception. Time Lines is a very fine addition to a remarkable career, featuring an excellent quintet and showcasing Hill’s mature and searching piano playing.