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For the most, part jazz has sucked for about ten years now. Stupid-ass record labels cheerfully shell out millions of dollars in studio time on sixteen remixes of a Christina Aguilera single, but won’t pay a jazz band for a week of pre-recording rehearsal. So what we get are five guys playing a theme, then each taking an interminable solo that may or may not be related to the tune, the chords, or what the other poor suckers are playing. JAZZ IS ENSEMBLE MUSIC. Great solos come from strong contexts. Group harmonics fill the well from which individual soloists drink. Every record on this list features a BAND playing at a very high level; the level at which Jazz becomes a transcendent art form. The soloing on all these records is spectacular, but that is to be expected.
These CDs were released or reissued in the year 2002…. as far as I can tell. If I messed up on a date, sue me...
NEW JAZZ ISSUES
Arthur Blythe-Focus-One of the greatest musicians I’ve ever seen live finally...I mean FINALLY…after like twenty-five years and 50 albums… gets it down on a disc. Black Arthur Blythe, as he was known when he hit NYC in the same wave that brought David Murray, Julius Hemphill and Oliver Lake was cursed with the “he’s the next Charlie Parker” compliment. It nearly killed him. But Blythe’s playing has always had the swagger of a master. His cutting, nasal tone IS reminiscent of Parker. His ability to come up with a knockout riff OR an effortlessly flowing chain of intense, lyrical invention IS reminiscent of Coltrane. Both are in ample supply here. Blythe has been experimenting with different kinds of rhythm sections for a couple of decades. The rest of this quartet, Marimba, tuba and drums, in various combinations and configurations (duos, trios, quartet) have the brains and brawn to punch the rhythm while adding harmonic and melodic color. The ensemble work is tight and light-fingered. There is no excess here. This is the work of a mature artist. The scathing tone of his youth now has a warm shimmer. Once overwrought improvisations now surge naturally, lean and taught; enlightened by experience. Don’t get me wrong, there’s still plenty of both bark and bite in Black Arthur’s wail. It’s the spectacular balance between wisdom and ferocity permeating this music that makes Focus so extraordinary. Brevity and wit are the soul of this disc.
Jason Moran-Modernistic-&-Jason Moran-Black Stars-Pianist Moran is the first of the post Wynton Marsalis-Nickolas Payton-James Carter-Josh Redman generation to break through and establish himself as major player. Modernistic is a bold, imaginative solo disc. Alone in a studio with a piano, he blasts through a set of originals; destandardizes a couple of standards and posits Planet Rock as the Body and Soul of his generation. Like all the young moderns, his fingers own the styles of his forefathers, from Albert Ammons to Cecil Taylor. Unlike most young virtuosos, the sounds of stride and swing and bop and cool and ca-razy dance in his head and out those fingers. So that historical knowledge isn’t pasted together into a demonstration of technique. Instead, knowledge and technique are folded into one another to flavor a new brew. The other disc he released last year, Black Stars, features Moran’s tart and tangy trio backing avant-garde legend Sam Rivers. Rivers is now seventy-something years old. By this time he shoulda mellowed or something. From the sound of this, though, old Sam’s been into the goat glands or hormone drip implants or massive doses of B-12. Suffice to say grandpa Rivers knows exactly how to torch up these funky children. He tramples out the vintage on tenor and soprano saxes and flute.
Branford Marsalis Quartet-Footsteps of Our Fathers-This s.o.b. has made a career out of releasing records just good enough to disappoint us. Then, just when I give up, he becomes the Ernest Hemingway of jazz. There’s not a milligram of excess or laziness here. Every note tumbles into its place. Every sound flows on the pulse and is essential to the overall work. Every move has a counterbalance. And he pulls it off sounding care-free instead of care-ful. The menu is music these men grew up with. Ornette Coleman’s Giggin’, Sonny Rollins’ Freedom Suite, John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme and John Lewis’ (of the Modern Jazz Quartet) Concorde provide juicy meat for hungry improvisers. The band flat-out nails the energy on the Coleman, the tempo shifts and mood swings on the Rollins, the breaded and deep fried pulse on the Lewis and for dessert, serves a serene, masculine and measured A Love Supreme. The ballad playing is a cool summer night with a fat yellow moon sitting low on the horizon…high above, the stars are selling dreams.
Keystone Trio-Newklear Music-Right now St. Louis born and raised John Hicks is the best jazz pianist on this particular planet. Want proof? Here he and George Mraz on bass and Idris Mohammed on drums whoosh the breath of life into a set of compositions by Sonny Rollins. These boys put each tune in a prism, separate the colors and reblend them over and over, for chorus after chorus. Warm, lush, full-bodied…sounds like I’m describing a fine wine. This disc is burgundy aged in oak.
The Philadelphia Experiment-Back in the ‘60’s there was a style called soul-jazz or funky soul. It showed up everywhere from the Afro-pop fusion of Hugh Masekela to blaxploitation movie soundtracks, to those stuttering instrumentals that filled the b-sides of James Brown 45’s. Soul-jazz was about the groove and the solos were about rhythm. Well, soul-jazz just grew up. Uri Caine is an Avant-garde classical (is that an oxymoron) pianist. Christian McBride is the young lion of the jazz bass and Ahmir Thompson is known as “?uestlove” when he drums for hip-hop heroes, The Roots. They are The Philadelphia Experiment. There’s nothing new here, but it all sounds fresh as spring rain. From laying down a jungle beat for guest lecturer Pat Martino to soliloquize over on guitar to reinventing Sun Ra’s Call for all Demons as a funk/fusion instrumental (Martino does an ecstatic fretboard dance, here too) to the transmutation of Elton John’s Philadelphia Freedom into a sentimental elegy to their home town, it’s all on the money. Marvin Gay’s Trouble Man sets up guest Trumpeter John Swana to simmer sweet and low. Caine turns Grover Washington’s Mr. Magic into a solo blues sonata…and that’s just the beginning. Intelligent fusion yoosta be an oxymoron, too, but this disc has passion fire, street corner smarts and youthful chutzpah.
Thelonious Monk-Paris at Midnight-Any newly discovered tape of a Monk concert is a gift from above. The quartet that defined the pointy angular sound of beatnik bebop i.e. totally chilled (but never frigid), acoustic jazz in the late ‘50’s and early ‘60’s was Monk’s crew, this crew. They inhaled urban nights and streetlights and car horns and sweating, screaming back country preachers and choirs of sweet black angels and gutbucket blues and “what is it tastes like gravy, but mama smells just like fish” and exhaled exquisite hipness and the lightness of being and the heaviness of knowing. In this show the quartet is expanded, adding, in various combinations, Phil Woods, Clark Terry, Johnny Griffin, Jimmy Cleveland, and Ray Copeland, all of whom open up their toolboxes and get to work. There are moments when the lack of rehearsal shows, but these guys are the best, in their prime and working to keep up with Monk’s unique sense of rhythm and quirky tunes. This is one of those rare concert discs where the electricity in the air that night runs right out of your speakers and up your spine.
Cannonball Adderley-The Definitive Cannonball Adderley-Cannonball was the great all purpose jazz musician. He had juke box hits. He played in what many have called the greatest band of all time with Miles Davis and John Coltrane. He put out one of the top ten jazz records of all time (Somethin’ Else). He was artist in residence at Harvard. This is the first anthology to capture the range and extremely high quality of Cannon’s work. It’s a great introduction to the bouquet of superb records in the Adderley catalogue.
Clifford Brown-The Definitive Clifford Brown-Brown’s been my favorite trumpeter since I first heard him in the ‘60’s. Because he died young,(in a car wreck, while on tour) he is almost a forgotten figure. Brown was the Ben Webster of the trumpet. His huge glowing tone, slashing swing, and the deep harmonic sense of his improvisational style combine the wistfulness of Miles Davis, the pure swing of Louis Armstrong, the improvising artistry of Dizzy Gillespie and the burnished virtuosity of Wynton Marsalis (whose tone is most like Brown’s). This new set covers the decade of his jazz life, is totally satisfying on it’s own and is the kind of introduction to Brown’s work that will have you chasing down more of his discs. You won’t be disappointed when you catch up with them. If you can’t find this title, Clifford Brown’s Finest Hour, released a couple of years ago, is just as good.
Joe Henderson-The Definitive Joe Henderson-My surprise of the year. It turns out if you take the one or two perfect cuts off of seven good, but not great albums; you get a killer Joe Henderson record. Lots of different settings here-duet, trios, quartet, quintet, septet, big band. Henderson’s solo’s are lyrically expansive in the mode of Lester Young or Dexter Gordon, without being long winded. The sidemen are mostly trusted veterans like McCoy Tyner, Ron Carter and Lee Morgan who turn in fabulous and measured performances. They are leavened and livened by jazz youth like Christian McBride, Robin Eubanks and Elaine Elias. The tunes range from Strayhorn to Miles Davis to Sam Rivers to Antonio Carlos Jobim. You could put this one on for your mom’s dinner party and still enjoy every note.
Sun Ra-Angels and Demons at Play/Nubians of Plutonia-Evidence Records is building its corporate karma by reissuing the dozens and dozens (or is it hundreds and hundreds?) of records cut by Sun Ra and his various bands over the fifty odd (and some were very odd) years of its visit to this particular astral plane (or is it plain?). Ra knew that his music could be hard to get into, so he always made it fun. The fun is more out front on this set than it is in of some of his more earnest and challenging later work. This pair of LPs is pretty early (the ‘50s,I believe) and has lots of Ra-only harmonies and jungle earthquake throw-down rhythms. It’s easier to get into than some of his later stuff since the debt Ra owed to swing rhythms and R&B harmonies is out in the open here. It’ll still twist yer head around, though.
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