Can an instrumental album be simultaneously close enough for jazz and close enough for John Lennon, solo and with the Beatles? Apparently not-that is, unless the interplay of Frisell's electric guitar, Greg Leisz's steel guitar, and Jenny Scheinman's violin counts as jazz. But, even if it does, drummer Kenny Wolleson's timekeeping anchors the performances in traditional territory. Besides, unlike jazz musicians, Frisell, Leisz, and Scheinman tend just to play, rather than to play with, the melodies. And, because the melodies are Lennon's, just playing them is enough.
Bob James' ability to play classical as well as jazz has been a matter of record since he released his elegant, electric-keyboard Rameau album in 1977. Now, by teaming with the Japanese pianist Keiko Matsui to extend the centuries-old "four-hands piano tradition," he proves adept at bringing together not only his two main musical obsessions but also Matsui's Eastern sensibility and his Western one. And if the whole isn't consistently greater than the sum of its parts, it's subtly dazzling in its own right.
Most of the "songs of mirth" come from the pianist Calderazzo and most of its "songs of melancholy" from the saxophonist Marsalis (and, in the case of the one-minute, 45-second "Die Trauernde," Brahms). But Marsalis' "Endymion" is also mirthful, if not as jauntily so as Calderazzo's "One Way" or "Bri's Dance." And Calderazzo's "Hope" is as melancholy as any of this album's other songs-as if Calderazzo understands that only by not having what one wants or needs can he hope in the first place.
The subtitle of this album for two jazz pianists, "Composed and Arranged by Patrick Zimmerli," is not entirely accurate. Brad Mehldau composed "Unrequited," Kevin Hays composed "Elegia," Ornette Coleman composed "Lonely Woman," and the minimalists Steve Reich and Philip Glass composed the excerpts from Music for 18 Musicians and String Quartet #5 respectively. That leaves four Zimmerli pieces, which both unify the others and establish a mood that's no more jazz than it is "modern." Postmodern is more like it. Post-postmodern more like it still.
Wynton Marsalis can be too formal; Eric Clapton can be too laid back. But on the vintage-blues showcase Play the Blues: Live from Jazz at Lincoln Center (Warner Bros.), it's their strengths that come to the fore. And not only theirs. Taj Mahal-as close to common ground between Marsalis and Clapton as one man can be-shows up to pick, grin, and sing for the two lengthy, climactic songs at disc's end ("Just a Closer Walk with Thee," "Corrine, Corrina"), and members of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra (most crucially the bassist Carlos Enriquez and the drummer Ali Jackson Jr.) swing for the Dixieland fence.
So while the two stars play and sing enough (and well enough) to earn top billing, their main purpose on the April 2011 evenings during which these performances were taped seems to have been to cut loose and to blend in with the exuberant raucousness going on all around them. They succeeded.