Two years ago, on the night of the Sandy Hook Elementary massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, the poet Yusef Komunyakaa wrote: “Guardian angels, wherever you’re hiding, / we know you can’t be everywhere at once. / Have you corralled all the pretty wild horses?” One of the slain children was Ana Márquez-Greene, the only daughter of Jimmy Greene, an inventive and deeply thoughtful saxophonist. His latest album, Beautiful Life, pays tribute to Ana’s spirit, which is to say, the music emphasizes the best of humanity over the worst.
Despite the enormity of his loss, Greene performs with unwavering brilliance. He seems as comfortable propelling a quartet as he does offering meaningful filigree behind spoken word. Perhaps because of the album’s honest and vulnerable nature, the small group sessions resonate the most, including Greene’s duet on the opening piece with guitarist Pat Metheny, who has never sounded more tender. Even before hearing the tune “Seventh Candle,” how can we not imagine the birthday Ana will never experience? His soprano melody line seems to keep reaching for a resting place that’s not quite attainable.
In light of what Greene has suffered, criticizing an album dedicated to his daughter seems monstrously insensitive, and with trepidation I must say that, ironically, the most ambitious efforts on this CD — including the cuts with a children’s choir — work least well because of obvious and sometimes trite poetics. But this is secondary to the stunning instrumental tracks, including Greene’s two duets with pianist Kenny Barron: On “Maybe” (imagine “Edelweiss fused with “Rock-a-bye Baby”), Greene plays against an eerily repeated piano note; and the standard “Where Is Love?” may never be rendered more hauntingly.
— Sascha Feinstein