Despite the passing of its legendary giants, and its dwindling presence in print, TV and radio, the death of jazz, as Mark Twain would say, is “greatly exaggerated.”  If this year’s early crop of new releases is any indication, the music is constantly renewed by its amazing masters, and its equally incredible apprentices. As Chaka Khan sang on her immortal lyrics to “Night to Tunisia,” “the melody lingers on.”

Jose James, No Beginning, No End, Blue Note, 1/22/13

This Minnesota-born, 2004 Thelonious Monk Vocal Competition finalist looks like Billy Eckstine, has Jay-Z’s swag and sounds like Gil Scott-Heron! For the past few years James has been building his jazzy, hip-hop-tinged/Quiet Storm brand, gig-by-gig, and indie label. And on his major, debut, featuring producer/bassist Pino Palladino; pianist Robert Glasper; R&B singer/songwriter/guitarist Emily King; French-Moroccan chanteuse Hindi Zahra; and pianist Kris Bowers.  James’ bop/B-day baritone hits the sweet spot that tickles the sweet spot where musical borders melt, morph and merge. Tracks: “Make it Right,” “Trouble” “Vanguard.”

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Wayne Shorter Quartet, Without a Net, Blue Note, 2/5/13    

Saxophonist/composer Wayne Shorter, who turns eighty in August, played with Art Blakey and Miles Davis, wrote standard-setting compositions like “Footprints,” and co-created the fusion group Weather Report. In 2001, he assembled a superband of emerging jazz titans: pianist Danilo Perez, bassist John Patitucci and drummer Brian Blade. On this live CD, Shorter drops his serpentine-fired, saxophone science into his combo’s telepathic, quantum-level, mystic brew of improvisation and revelation; that’s what jazz Gods do. Tracks: ‘Pegagus,” “Aboard the S.S. Mean,” “Zero Gravity.”

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Terri Lyne Carrington, Money Jungle: Provocative in Blue, Concord Jazz, 2/5/13 

Duke Ellington said “a drum is a woman.” And the Grammy winning, Boston-area born drummer Terri Lyne Carrington is living proof of Ellington’s dictum. So it’s only fitting that Carrington who’s gigged with everyone from Dianne Reeves to Esperanza Spalding, and was Arsenio Hall’s drummer, would put her sepia-tinged spin on Ellington’s legendary 1963 Money Jungle LP, which featured jazz immortals drummer Max Roach, and bassist Charles Mingus. Fifty years later, Carrington, pianist Gerald Clayton and bassman Christian McBride add their tantalizing, tantric two cents to the Ellingtonian mix, with special guest trumpeter Clark Terry, flutist/saxophonist Tia Fuller vocalist Lizz Wright, and Herbie Hancock. Give the drummer some! Tracks: “Fleurette Africain,” “Backward Country Boy Blues,” “REM Blues.”

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Omar Sosa, Eggun, Ota, 2/13/13

Miles Davis’ mellow, 1959 masterpiece Kind of Blue is the best-selling jazz album of all time. And pianist Omar Sosa puts his Santeria-syncopated, Afro-Cuban stamp on that legendary LP and makes it dance and trance. Backed by an eclectic array musicians from the Diaspora, Sosa- a conservatory-trained, Caribbean wunderkind equally at home with Thelonious Monk and the mambo – transforms  KOB’s modal, blues-based compositions into a soulful, syncopated séance  that summon the African Gods; the real composers of the drum-songs  that began in the Motherland and continue in the Americas. Tracks:  “Alejet,” Rumba Connection,” “Alternativo Sketches.” 

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Next Collective, Cover Art, Concord Jazz 2/26/13

Despite what you might read from some critics, jazz has always interacted with, and occasionally improved pop music, as evidenced by John Coltrane’s “My Favorite Things” Miles Davis’ “Someday My Prince Will Come,” and Ahmad Jamal’s “Poinciana”. So in that sense, this aggregation of under-forty musicians: guitarist Matthew Stevens, drummer Jamire Williams, bassist Ben Williams, keyboardists Gerald Clayton and Kris Bowers, saxophonists Walter Smith, III and Logan Richardson; and trumpeter Christian Scott,  are indeed in the tradition when they flip the script on these present-day hits by Meshell Ndegeocello, Jay-Z, Kanye West, Drake, N.E.R.D. and D’Angelo. All told, this crew operates like improvisatory, CSI forensic scientists: unlocking, decoding and transforming the rhythmic, harmonic and melodic DNA of these songs, by activating the dormant swing genes, putting whole new moods and grooves that are foreign and familiar; which remind us once again why jazz is the sound of surprise. Tracks: “Oceans,” “Africa,” “Come Smoke My Herb.”

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– Eugene Holley, Jr.