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Male jazz vocalists are a special breed of cat, determined to command the attention of record buyers, festival presenters or columnists examining the contours of jazz's most slippery category.

You find swingsters who sell truckloads of discs and work big-ticket arenas reserved for pop icons (Tony Bennett, Michael Buble, Jamie Cullum); guys enjoying emeritus status in the halls of traditional jazz singers (Jon Hendricks, Freddie Cole, Mark Murphy); and stud muffins sure to assuage our concerns about the art's future (Sachel Vasandani, Jose James, Gregory Porter).

Among the most influential, however, is a leading voice from the group of middle-agers whose mission includes affirmation of jazz's historical ethos and expansion of its repertoire. That avatar, Kurt Elling, now offers us The Gate, the ninth record of his illustrious career. Produced by soundscape artist Don Was, whose credits include projects for the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Bonnie Raitt, and Brian Wilson, The Gate is a musical excursion through the melodic forms of King Crimson, Joe Jackson, Stevie Wonder, and the Beatles, as well as Miles Davis, Bill Evans and Herbie Hancock.

Elling has created a thoughtful tableau, long on the cool emotionalism characterizing his prior work, yet delivering on a newer promise - that is, the examination of songs owned by baby boomers yet now treated as respected standards-to-be, worthy of jazz interpretation. Was is a crucial collaborator here, surrounding Elling with a support sound both moody and mediative. Among the album's stand-outs are "Steppin Out" and "After Our Love Has Gone."


Fred Hersch has been making sensitive piano music while combatting the stages of various AIDS-related illnesses. He has endured long comas and temporary bouts of dementia, yet throughout he has brought a compelling focus and clarity to his play.

In 2006 Hersch became the first artist in the 70-year history of the Village Vanguard to perform a week's worth of solo piano. Reportedly, Alone At The Vanguard is the twelfth and entire last set of a week-long engagement, and tellingly, it communicates a sense of development, with exacting detail and the gentle pull of urgency. Within it, we're afforded an unusually spare and intimate window into his artistry, characterized by a dignified air - poetic filagree over decorated melodies.

Hersch is most comfortable combining originals and standards. He pays homage to peers (Bill Frisell in "Down Home"), and heros (Lee Konitz in "Lee's Dream"), while he ruminates through classic compositions from Thelonious Monk ("Work") and Eubie Blake ("Memories of You").

The sum effect of this living room recital is restorative. There's great comfort here. Fred Hersch plays like he is home.


The air of inevitability connected with this record has less to do with the play of Joe Lovano, arguably the preeminent saxophonist of his generation, than with the subject around whom the project is built. Charlie Parker - the "Bird" of Bird Songs - stands as a touchstone among modern jazz artists. His works serve as a model, inspiration and irrefutable evidence that jazz's continuing vitality rests on foundational vocabularies - in this case, one originally codified by Parker.

Lovano is a near-perfect interpreter of Bird's music, presenting a design that celebrates the essence of Bird's melodic and rhythmic vivacity, yet honors his own group's creative invention; they conjure musical abstractions that Bird, no doubt, would have applauded. Bird Songs features group members who have worked together before - pianist James Weidman, drummers Otis Brown III and Francisco Mela, and this year's surprising Grammy Award-winner, Esperanza Spalding.

The group reimagines bouncy classics like "Yardbird Suite," cast here as a slow dance of hymn-like solemnity, and "Moose The Mooch," an elongated groove cycle studded by gems of Bird's recognizable licks. All in, Lovano has distilled the greatness of Charlie Parker and crafted a canvas showcasing his own greatness as well.

Jeff Levenson is a label executive, writer-producer, and jazz journalist. His affiliations include posts at Half Note, Sony, Warner Bros, Downbeat and Billboard. He currently produces the annual Thelonious Monk Instrumental Competition, and has authored and/or produced events for the NEA, the US State Department, the White House, the New School for Social Research and the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame. His credits include collaborations with Michael Brecker, Herbie Hancock, Branford Marsalis, Bela Fleck, Arturo Sandoval, and McCoy Tyner. He has produced and/or supervised six Grammy albums - 2 winners, 4 nominees. He currently chairs the National Jazz Committee for the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, serves as Board Governor for its New York Chapter, and digs the company of jazz musicians.

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