When I turn 96 I’ll be thrilled if I can still listen to a driving, bluesy, blustery, inventive alto sax–let alone play one, as Benny Waters does. Waters, who recently returned to the U.S. after 40 years in Paris, started out pretty much when jazz did, learning to play alongside such long-gone legends as King Oliver, Jimmie Lunceford, and Fletcher Henderson. (Blessed with good health, Waters quit smoking in 1935 and stopped drinking in 1969; he went blind after unsuccessful cataract surgery only a few years ago.) Yet on his ridiculously enjoyable new album–Birdland Birthday: Live at 95 (Enja), recorded last year–Waters still plays with exuberance and elan, compressing the century into one disorienting hour of music. Like Stephane Grappelli in his later years, Waters has begun to stumble slightly on the occasional fast-paced run, but amazingly you’ll hear few other concessions to his advanced age. He plays with a tangy and assured tone, uses fillips of technique to spark already sprightly solo lines, and fondly recalls the combination of courtliness and ribaldry that marked the swing-era altoists in general. And when he sings, as he does at least once a set, you would swear you’re hearing a youngster in his 60s. But remember, from Waters’s perspective, World War I isn’t really history, Basie and Ellington count as avant-garde contemporaries, and a career in music preceded the expectation of ever hearing your Edison cylinders over that contraption Marconi was fooling with around the time you were born. Tuesday through Thursday, 8 and 10 PM, next Friday and Saturday, April 3 and 4, 9 and 11 PM, and next Sunday, April 5, 4, 8, and 10 PM, Jazz Showcase, 59 W. Grand; 312-670-2473. NEIL TESSER
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): uncredited photo.