December 2, 2014

Can real art come out of such profound pain? Not just a recollection, but something beyond? Or are some tragedies too searingly personal to share with the public? How do we judge the work?

That's what New York Times music reviewer Nate Chinen wrestled with when he reviewed jazz saxophonist Jimmy Greene's "Beautiful Life," a tribute to the five-year-old daughter he lost in the Newtown shootings:

There’s a calmly heartbreaking moment near the close of “Beautiful Life,” a poignant new album by the saxophonist Jimmy Greene. It arrives in “Little Voices,” an original poem read by the actress Anika Noni Rose. “All those precious little voices,” she says over a fluttery gospel groove. “Brightening our day, stealing our hearts, shaping our lives.” Then: “In the blink of an eye, they’re gone. Now there’s just silence where those little voices used to be.”

The context behind these words is wrenchingly clear. Mr. Greene, a substantial figure in the modern jazz mainstream, was among the parents who lost a child in the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, in Newtown, Conn. His daughter, Ana Márquez-Greene, was 6.

“Beautiful Life,” out this week on Mack Avenue, is his attempt to reclaim her memory from the grip of tragedy. “Much attention has been paid to the way in which my precious Ana died,” he writes in the liner notes, “but this album attempts to paint the picture of how she lived — lovingly, faithfully and joyfully.” Featuring an array of notable singers and instrumentalists with ties to the Greene family, the album wears its purpose plainly. Its opening track segues from a ruminative duet between Mr. Greene and the guitarist Pat Metheny, playing “Come, Thou Almighty King,” to an audio clip of Ana singing that hymn at home with her older brother, Isaiah, on piano.

What possible evaluative response can there be to a work of art so painfully personal, so inexorably shaped by calamity?

I’ve been struggling with that question since I learned of Mr. Greene’s effort to make this album, more than a year ago. Enough, perhaps, to let the world know that it exists, and applaud the earnest fortitude behind it. That approach has guided most of the coverage around the album, often with thoughtful commentary from Mr. Greene himself.

I can’t explain why my instincts registered so strongly in favor of some other tact: a respectful distance, an observant silence, the tentative wait and see that ultimately led me here.

I wondered, too. Would the album be a sentimental piece of ephemera?

As it turns out, my fears were ungrounded. "Beautiful Life" recalls some of the soaring musical eloquence of the '70s Stevie Wonder, with impeccable backing supplied by jazz all-stars like Pat Metheny, Javier Colon, Cyrus Chestnut and Christian McBride. There are certain kinds of jazz I love, and some that only puts me to sleep. I was wide awake for this one.

So many of the songs are standouts, especially "Ana's Way" in the above video. But I was especially moved by his powerful version of the Broadway standard "Where Is Love?", performed with Kenny Barron.

If you have any jazz fans on your Christmas list, this is one you should get.

Note: A portion of the proceeds from Beautiful Life will be donated to the following charities in Ana's name:

The Ana Grace Project of Klingberg Family Centers -- initiated by Nelba Márquez-Greene, a licensed marriage and family therapist, to promote love, community and connection for every child and family through partnerships with schools, mental-health providers, community organizations and faith leaders.

The Artists Collective -- where generations of children and families in the greater Hartford area have gained access to world-class training in the arts.

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