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Listening Post: The Best of 2015

Tony Bennett will be 90 in August.

Stop and contemplate that. Ninety.

Tell me if you have ever heard an American popular singer his age who’s even a third as accomplished and delightful as Bennett is in his Jerome Kern duet record with pianist Bill Charlap, “The Silver Lining” (Columbia). In another jazz area entirely, tell me if you’ve ever heard a young jazz player from Buffalo more ambitious and exciting than James Braden Lewis in his “Days of Freeman” (Okeh).

Try this: Not since the best days of Keith Jarrett and the late Michel Petrucciani has there been a box of solo piano jazz as magnificent as Brad Mehldau’s “10 Years: Solo Concerts” (Nonesuch.) You’re unlikely to find 300 minutes of music more exemplary of the recording world in 2015 than Mehldau’s box of live solo performances. It came out first as eight records on vinyl, then on a four-disc CD box and can be heard on digital streaming. Before the decade is finished, there will probably be a version you can hear through your back teeth as you slice Velveeta in your kitchen for some instant queso for the kids.

The music business is broken, says musical sage Quincy Jones. Some young kids and older folks still buy records, but he says no one knows what to buy anymore. The digital world has blown everything to pieces.

It doesn’t mean, though, that music is broken. Hardly. Recorded music is pouring out in all kinds of formats.

On the grounds that just telling you what’s good is more important than it’s ever been, here is some recorded music I was happiest to write about last year.

Jazz Singers: The wondrous Cecile McLorin Salvant’s “For One to Love” (Mack Avenue), Cassandra Wilson’s “Coming Forth by Day” (Sony Legacy) and what seems to me Karrin Allyson’s best record ever, her Rodgers and Hammerstein tribute “Many a New Day” (Motema.)

The Rebirth of the Major Jazz Orchestra: They’re everywhere. Would you believe what may be the coolest “ghost band” ever – the late Sun Ra’s revived Arkestra on the delightful “Babylon Live” (Inandout, disc plus DVD)? Please do. Believe, also, Maria Schneider’s great orchestra in “The Thompson Falls” (ArtistShare), one of the year’s very best and a couple more too – Chris Potter’s Underground Orchestra playing “Imaginary Cities” (ECM) and John Hollenbeck’s gorgeous “Songs We Like a Lot” (Sunnyside). Jose Gurria’s “Gurrisonic Orchestra” (Three Kinds Music) isn’t quite on that level but there’s nothing wrong with the level it’s on.

Duos, Trios and More: The late bassist Charlie Haden was sublime with Gonzalo Rubalcaba on the long-delayed “Tokyo Adagio” (Impulse). Antonio Sanchez’ “Three Times Three” (CamJazz, three discs) presented the terrific drummer in some of the most inventive trios of the year. The Bad Plus trio found ideal company with Joshua Redman (Nonesuch). Kenny Wheeler’s “Songs for Quintet” (ECM) is a rending farewell from the late, great trumpet player who was raised in St. Catharines, Ont.

International Jazz Leaps and Bounds To Places It’s Never Been: On Rudresh Mahanthappa’s incredible “Bird Calls” (ACT), Vijay Iyer’s “Break Stuff” (ECM) and Tigran Hamasyan’s completely unexpected “Mockroot” (Nonesuch).

Stephen Sondheim the Way No One Suspected, Least of All Sondheim Himself: On Anthony de Mare’s three-disc “Liaisons: Re-Imagining Stephen Sondheim” (ECM).

A Masterpiece Reborn: Not only did Branford Marsalis perform John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme: Live in Amsterdam” (Okeh/Marsalis Music, with DVD), “The Complete Masters” of Coltrane’s original “A Love Supreme” itself came with the remastered original record, with all the outtakes with Archie Shepp and Art Davis, for the first time ever and the treasure of the three discs, a live 1966 jazz festival performance of the composition by the classic Coltrane Quartet in Antibes (Impulse).

Classics Revisited: We always knew OF them. But we’d never actually heard them before until discovering Weather Report’s “The Legendary Live Tapes, 1978-1981” (Columbia Legacy, four discs). Erroll Garner’s first available version of “The Complete Concert by the Sea” (Columbia/Legacy three discs) reraises the puzzling question of why Garner’s once-Olympian reputation collapsed precipitously after his death.

And from the world of classical music:

Immense Collections Of Unique Instrumental Mastery: Organist Marcel Dupre first made a historically indelible impression on Western music on “The Mercury Living Presence Recordings” (Mercury, 10 discs). The virtually unchallenged supremacy of Martha Argerich among living pianists can be explored on the singular 48-disc box “Complete Recordings on Deutsche Grammophon.”

Posthumous Debut Of The Year: Few could contend more seriously than Vladimir Horowitz’s two-disc “Return to Chicago” released for the first time (Deutsche Grammophon.)

Savviest Disc Programming: Young pianist Igor Levitt figured out that a great three-disc box could be made of Bach’s “Goldberg” Variations, Beethoven’s “Diabelli” Variations and Frederic Rzewski’s daunting, contemporary variations on the Chilean anthem “The People United Will Never Be Defeated” (Sony Classical). A close second to that box is Andris Nelsons’ program of Shostakovich music written “Under Stalin’s Shadow” with the Boston Symphony Orchestra (Deutsche Grammophon).

Contemporary Masterworks: There is no piece of musical “minimalism” more powerful than Steve Reich’s “Music for 18 Musicians,” newly recorded by the Ensemble Signal (Harmonia Mundi). Nothing Morton Feldman ever wrote quite matched, in his lifetime, his “Rothko Chapel” newly recorded by Kim Kashkashian and others on ECM.

The Beginning of the Serious Blooming of a Previously Obscured Hometown Hero: Jackson C. Frank, the late, hugely influential folk singer from Buffalo, has not only had his biography published definitively but can now be heard in a credible “Complete Recordings” (Badabing, three records) and can be celebrated for his long-delayed entry into the Buffalo Music Hall of Fame. All that awaits us now is the arrival of the French team working on a film biographical portrait of Frank’s tragic life. They may be in Buffalo shooting scenes this very minute.