Recent listening, current

Sunday, March 31, 2013

67. Duke Ellington Meets Coleman Hawkins (1962)

By all accounts a long time in the making, the result of this collaboration is worth the wait. Scaled back arrangements showcase the soloists and focus, of course, on the eloquent, mellifluous tenor of Coleman Hawkins. It's a relaxed and familiar session, with some hot blowing by everyone, especially Ray Nance ("Wanderlust"), Johnny Hodges ("You Dirty Dog"), and Lawrence Brown, who are clearly inspired by Hawk's presence. The affair starts with the loose and tumbling Latin groove of "Limbo Jazz," recorded secretly by Van Gelder and capturing a riotous continuo scat vocal by Sam Woodyard. Late in the tune, Hawk is invited to join the fun. We are treated to a sublime "Mood Indigo," where the star takes chorus after chorus until bowing out in the last bar. This exhilarating performance always leaves me excited for what comes next. The record really feels like Duke during "Ray Charles' Place" when they do some ensemble figures in powerful, transcendent chords. Hawk dives right in the middle and has ample support from the group who seem to draw up the whole tune up around him. Lawrence Brown has some nice solos throughout the album, notably on 'Wanderlust" and "The Jeep is Jumpin'." I think Hawk's best moments occur in the aforementioned "Mood Indigo" but the honorary "Self Portrait of the Bean" runs a close second and is as near to Hawk's thesis as we're going to get this side of "Body and Soul." 

Saturday, March 30, 2013

66. Miles Davis / At Newport 1958 (1958)

This live disc features the sextet that recorded Kind of Blue a short time later. It's also the debut of Cobb and Evans with the group. Davis premiered his new lineup in the context of Newport's considerable inertia. The gloves are off right from the start. "Ah Leu Cha" is the fastest I've heard it played by anyone and Adderley, Davis, and Coltrane show off their chops in blistering runs of mind boggling accuracy. If you haven't heard this, I advise you turn up the volume to fully appreciate these musicians when they start blowing. I think their power even surprised the leader. It's like going from 0 to 60 in an instant. Davis is in high spirits, talking all throughout the set, encouraging his musicians. Evans is careful when he slips between Adderley and Coltrane, but offers excellent harmonic advice and makes a few pointed statements as with "Straight No Chaser." It's easy to see why Davis picked him, and to hear him outside of his role in guiding the modalities heard in Kind of Blue is quite exciting. A short-lived and critically under-documented group, I'm thankful to have this disc.

Friday, March 29, 2013

65. Clark Terry Quintet / Serenade to a Bus Seat (1957)

Whew! Nice rekkid. If you're wondering, the title is an homage to Terry's tenure in the Duke Ellington band. With Johnny Griffin on loan from Blue Note, a pre-flugelhorn Terry teamed up with Philly Joe, Paul Chambers, and Wynton Kelly to record this loosely swinging romp through the blues, bop, and ballads. It's quintessential hard bop, the kind of album your shelf should feel empty without -- for a comparison, this album feels very similar to Adderley's Somethin' Else, Davis' Steamin', or Sonny Clark's Cool Struttin'. Listen to Griffin and Terry trade fours on "Digits" and "Boardwalk," or the blizzard of unison playing in Charlie Parker's "Donna." There is a lot of familiarity between these musicians, especially the rhythm section which crystallized together under Miles Davis the previous year, and it comes through in the music. "Cruising" is a bluesy gem late on the second side, followed by a short but spicy "That Old Black Magic," which was given a shake of Latin rhythm for good measure. Terry also displays his prowess as composer on cuts like the beautiful the title track, "Boomerang," or "Boardwalk."

Thursday, March 28, 2013

64. Artie Shaw / The Last Recording: Rare and Unreleased (1954)

This two-disc set is a wonder. It includes the final recorded performances of the gifted clarinet. Why pack it in? According to Shaw, the demands of perfectionism were just too much to continue. With Hank Jones, Joe Roland, Irv Kluger, and either Joe Puma or Tal Farlow on guitar, Shaw's last Gramercy Five makes wonderful music. On clarinet, he's such a colorful player, using a wide range of dynamics to swing hard ("Sad Sack") or put impart special sentimentality to the ballads ("My Funny Valentine"). His licks and interpretations of the melodies are always engaging and inventive. His style touches on elements of dixieland, blues, swing, classical, and even exotica or novelty music, while fully embracing none of those styles. When someone takes a chorus, listen closely to Shaw and Jones, who can't resist entertaining each other with Third Streamish inclinations and suggesting the quotations they happen upon, a bit like Brubeck and Desmond (as in "Pied Piper"). Such playfully eclectic musical behavior should be expected from Shaw, who believed it was his responsibility to bring out areas of a composition not defined by the composer, to interpret and arrange life into the music. Thus while many are well served by relaxing and enjoying what they hear, a lucky few will be rewarded by listening to what Shaw has constructed... and off the cuff, at that.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

63. Lester Young Trio with Nat King Cole and Buddy Rich (1946)

This is Lester Young right after the war, 1946, and leading a piano trio with Nat King Cole and Buddy Rich. It's the comfort food of jazz, and very satisfying. Young's lines are the epitome of their form, sweetly imagined, and sound as much like lines in a conversation as they do lines of melody on a saxophone. It's a good example of Young's casual, easy swinging style, and with just two other guys in the group, it's everywhere on the record. Nat's left hand does somersaults in playful runs, inventive patterns and good rhythmic chording, making the idea of a bass player obviously redundant. Cole interacts with Lester a lot. The pair is constantly trading ideas and listening to one another intently. Rich mostly uses the brushes but makes a relaxed vibe, keeping tempos taut and encouraging the soloists. There's a lot to choose from. The CD issue has two versions of "I Cover the Waterfront" and a handful of outtakes at the end of the disc which are nice. 

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

62. Orchestra Jazz Siciliana / Plays the Music of Carla Bley (1985)

I scratch my head and wonder what type of band feels up to the task of taking on the Carla Bley catalog -- the feel, the humor, the attitude, the fun, the mayhem of it all -- and not just "doing" it, but actually doing it justice? It's a tall order not for the feint of heart, a matter complicated by the fact that you need a pretty big band to come even close. And then I find this CD, I take one look at the cover, and I know I've found the group. They might be nuts, you don't know, but you're surely not going to ask. Maybe you'll just listen and let the music do the talking. More to the point, I open up the disc and there's a photo... four photos! of Carla mugging with the band in some Mediterranean backstreet, plus a credit to her name for conducting and arranging the selections. As if that wasn't enough, Steve Swallow and Gary Valente are on hand as guests. Alto Orazio Maugeri blows my mind. In fact, they all do. I'm not a newcomer to the Carla Bley discography but somehow I missed this one completely. It's the closest anyone will ever get to doing Carla, and in a sense, it is Carla. In a word, it's perfect.

Monday, March 25, 2013

61. Grant Green / Grant's First Stand (1961)

Green's debut for Blue Note, his first disc as leader, frames him in a swinging organ trio with Baby Face Wilette and Ben Dixon. It's a good crew to support Green, two players who are very much in the same frame of mind. It's not a crowded sound, although everyone is busy, but when one member takes a chorus, the inherently sparse nature of the trio puts the soloist front and center for your enjoyment. Wilette's organ gives bluesy grooves like "Miss Anne's Tempo" or "Blues for Willarene" a heartier texture and emotional urgency that Green balances with velvety smooth and bop influenced melodic runs on the guitar. He's not a chord freak, so his music has a different feel than some other jazz guitarists. Dixon is very active, fleshing out the trio's overall sound and making his presence loud and clear. He's a great drummer who is no stranger to the format, and does an admirable job here, his affinity for the work of Art Blakey rumbling loud and clear. While it isn't really fair to call a guy's first record his best, especially when he made so many others after it, this album may be just that good.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

60. James Carter / Jurassic Classics (1994)

On Jurassic Classics, Carter embraces seven of the most preeminent tunes and treats them the way they want to be treated. It's not a statement of Carter's ideas, and less an honor to the composers than a celebration of the music's essence. The title is funny. Because time-wise these tunes are old, but through Carter's explorations, they live and demand respect on the same tier as their composers. Throughout, the leader does lengthy solos on soprano, alto and tenor sax. Craig Taborn (piano), Jaribu Shahid (bass), Tanni Tabbal (drums) perform seamlessly as a group. Taborn's frenetic and percussive piano keeps the blood up and frequently encourages Carter in wild, searching runs. Like Carter, Taborn is a talented player who coaxes many moods and textures out of his instrument. I like the group's mimicry of a train in "Take the 'A' Train." It's novel, but effective. "Equinox" is the album's game changer, Carter using extended techniques in fitful statements of power. Clifford Brown's "Sandu" is a swanky touch, so is the short but unforgettable "Oleo," which has roots with Mr. Rollins.

Friday, March 22, 2013

59. Gato Barbieri / Chapter One: Latin America (1973)

Early on, Barbieri did a series of albums focusing on Latin American music. Chapter One is the first and perhaps the most brilliantly conceived of the bunch, and it is also an album that brought him considerable acclaim outside of Argentina. "Encuentros" and "India" assemble a diverse assortment of instruments and musicians from South America. The proceedings are played on bombas, harps and the charango (yes! a charango). Barbieri's tenor presides over all, weaving in strands of melody and little riffs. At times, the group sounds as if they are imitating the sounds of the jungle, or myriad voices in a crowd. Listening to these pieces together is exhilirating time after time. The second side is comprised of a suite, and several short works. The former is a vast and sweeping work that I don't see having a successor in the Barbieri discography. It's noisy but sometimes gentle, roaring but not overwhelming, with great musicality. I see Chapter One as being of those records that shouldn't be played unless I unplug the phone and don't plan to leave the room until it's over. Aaaaah, that.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

58. John Coltrane / My Favorite Things (1961)

Coltrane's fluidity and eloquence with modal jazz hit a stride during these sessions, and the resulting albums (including also Coltrane Plays the Blues, Coltrane's Sound and Coltrane Legacy) are watershed recordings in the Coltrane oeuvre. And who better to support his statement of purpose than Elvin Jones and McCoy Tyner? Tyner's creative inversions and voicings rain down with a lush selection of harmonic possibilities and the mystically driven Jones shuffles through several rhythms at once, giving Coltrane maximum flexibility for his improvisations. Steve Davis plays wonderful bass, sometimes suggesting a single static harmonic element while Coltrane and Tyner wrap blizzards of changing ideas around it. The music is pleasant and listenable, infused equally with strains of Eastern ragas and the blues. Coltrane's soprano sax is haunting and delicate, assertive but not an overriding presence. It's remarkable that such individualistic music comes from a set without a single original. "But Not For Me" deftly reharmonized with Coltrane changes, and his long tenor solo is one of my favorite choruses from any musician, hands down.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

57. Bud Freeman / Swingin' with the Eel (1998)

If you like listening Hawk and want to hear the preeminent tenor who predated him, or if you like old Chicago jazz and robust swing, then this very nice collection of Bud Freeman sides should merit your attention. The sound quality is excellent, and there is a variety of material to hear, all recorded from 1927 to 1945. Freeman's hard driving and assertive style on the tenor pops right out among the fold on freewheeling dixieland improvisations and the cooler swing tunes. They called him "The Eel" because of the long, meandering, "serpentine" solos he would take. For the price of admission you also get the leaders and sidemen Freeman recorded with like Eddie Condon, Benny Goodman, Pee Wee Russell, Joe Venuti, Tommy Dorsey, and a score of others. I like the sides where Russel's tortured, sopping wet clarinet trades places with Freeman's dry and direct statements on the tenor sax, driven hell bent for leather by Eddie Condon's guitar. Wow, that sound!

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

56. Count Basie / Count Basie at Newport (1957)

This set is a giant. Basie already has a power packed orchestra with Thad Jones, Frank Foster, Frank Wess, Sonny Payne, Freddie Greene, and a handful of others. But he invites superstars from his past bands to join them. Lester Young, Jimmy Rushing, Jo Jones, Joe Williams, and Illinois Jacquet all have a few moments to play with the current band. It's powerful music that is energetic, exciting, inspired, and obviously enjoyed by everyone on the stand and in the crowd. The tracks with Basie's reformed orchestra -- sleek and modern, young but steeped in swing and the blues -- are a nice contrast with older, swing-based musicians like Lester doing "Polka Dots and Moonbeams" followed by a frenetic "Lester Leaps In" and Jimmy Rushing singing the jaw dropping blues "Sent for You Yesterday and Here You Come Today." Rushing's gigantic voice demonstrates what it takes in terms of volume and stage presence to stand out in front of the most motley orchestra in the business. The old chemistry is still there, and this album, like Duke's record from Newport '56, demonstrates that big band wasn't dead yet.

Monday, March 18, 2013

55. Martin Denny / Exotica! The Best of Martin Denny (1990)

Is it jazz? Well, it might as well be, if we accept that Louie Armstrong and John Zorn occupy the same section at the record store. Martin Denny purveyed a style of lounge music that re-imagined common melodies with elaborate orchestration to create atmosphere with an "exotic" flavor. It was ideal background music for transporting you to another place. So Tiki culture, African drumming, cha-cha, tribal chanting, bird calls, etc., are all fair game. Exotica albums were made by hundreds of composers and orchestras, but Denny's work was always a few cuts above the rest, maintaining a unique sensibility that was frequently imitated by others. Exotica! The Best of Martin Denny was compiled from several LPs released in the 1950s. It begins with the quintessential "Quiet Village" and Denny's signature bird calls, howling, and other aural oddities sure to raise eyebrows at your next cocktail party. They do a lot of Lex Baxter compositions, but typical of Denny's style, there are other chestnuts, too. For instance, Duke's "Caravan," the town bicycle, is treated here with sufficient aplomb (which means a grab bag of interesting percussion and a wry grin). I was initially concerned that without the thematic context of each album, this compilation would sound disjointed. But surprisingly, I found that not just the pieces themselves, but their themes, dovetail nicely. And Denny keeps listeners awake during each song by scoring for a bewildering array of world percussion instruments. More academically inclined listeners might notice the mischievous melodies, ever present vibraphone, and humorous character all point toward Danny Elfman and Frank Zappa. If you made the mistake of thinking grown men who call like monkeys, birds, and tropical insects can't influence musical history, perhaps think again.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

54. Count Basie / The Essential Count Basie, Vol. 1 (1990)

Like some other Columbia reissues, the sound quality of this disc lacks, given the NR that Columbia used to remove imperfections in source material. It's a baffling misstep. I agree, the sonics of the Complete Decca Recordings are far superior and the differences are plain. That's a shame, because the music is great. Here you get the legendary late 1930s Basie band, with the usual suspects and buoyant arrangements. But try as they might to lift you off the floor, the particular digital medium has sucked the life and dynamics right out of it. Regardless, you've got a heart of stone if you can't enjoy "Taxi War Dance," "Goin' to Chicago Blues," "Miss Thing," or "Lady Be Good." Regarding that last number, and the iconic Lester Young solo: what is his first, I've also heard called his finest solo on disc. Such reductive comments leave me wondering if critics ever listened to the rest of his career, especially that period following the war when his playing acquired a mature, refined sensibility that was intensely personal and wholly unique. Sometimes it feels like I am the only person who feels this way.   

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Spring Break

 I formerly referred to the university's Spring Break as "Spring Interruption." Humbug, correct? To me it made more sense to continue classes as usual and end the semester a week early, instead of taking off seven days in the middle and ending the semester on time. Well, not this year. I need a break, so I look forward to seven days with no work and no worries. I will be disconnecting from the matrix (gasp!) and spending some time with my family. After Friday I'll resurface here to resume my activities. Until then, you can probably find me in the park. Ciao!

Thursday, March 7, 2013

53. Alice Coltrane / Journey in Satchidananda (1970)

Alice plays harp and piano, with help from two lineups of New Jazz practitioners (one band for the studio, and one recorded at the Village Vanguard). Coltrane's harp is wild and free, and the diverse instruments of her band make a colorful backdrop of shifting textures and rich tonalities. Pharoah Sanders' tenor and soprano saxes are played with an ear toward Middle Eastern or north African themes, but no on. If you've ever questioned or been curious about the influence of the former on the latter, this as close to a living, breathing side-by-side comparison that you're ever going to get. The liner says something about Coltrane's association with Swami Satchidananda and his doctrine of universal love. While we listen, we are invited to envision ourselves floating on his love for humanity. I'm not sure I prefer to do that over listening to how the musicians choose to stretch out and cooperatively interpret music that is entirely modal in form. I always hear something new, especially from McBee.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

52. Gerry Mulligan Meets Johnny Hodges (1959)

Once upon a time, Verve (and the other labels, too) did a handful of records where one player "meets" another. These albums are like fantasy baseball for jazz. Some are really good, while others start and finish without really accomplishing anything. This time it clicks. Together, Mulligan and Hodges do a smooth and balanced set comprised of six originals, three from each. On Side 1, Mulligan's "Bunny" and the self-descriptive "What's the Rush?" set the mood, before moving into the swank, bluesy territory of Hodges' "Back Beat" and "What It's All About." Claude Williamson, Buddy Clark and Mel Lewis are the rhythm section, and are good at keying in on what the leaders are doing. Sonically, the saxes are a sweet blend with Claude Williamson and the carefully considered bass lines of Buddy Clark. When Mulligan and Hodges take choruses, the one will start developing where the other left off. There's no requirement for this, it's just good artistry. So instead of going in two personal directions with the rhythm section plodding in tow, Mulligan and Hodges make the album a cohesive and jointly constructed product. No surprises musically speaking, nothing groundbreaking, no one trying to bring down the roof. But does there need to be? It's just really good jazz from five great musicians.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

51. Freddie Hubbard / Open Sesame (1960)

I think: Open Sesame. The title says, as if by magic, Freddie Hubbard has arrived. It's is a very strong debut and an easy mark for the core collection. We also get a great band. Tina Brooks on tenor really tears it up. On the title track, Brooks sinks his teeth into the riffs, blowing these long, stretchy phrases that step across the bars like hurdles and land back in time when he runs out of breath. He's a good man on ballads, too, like the droopy "But Beautiful." Behind the traps is Clifford Jarvis, two years shy of becoming a Saturnian. His energy, polyrhythmical claptrap and close work with Hubbard's improvisations add depth that is a few cuts above the standard hard bop set. Sam Jones plays big round notes in a sentimental and melodic style which at times reminds me of Ray Brown. He's aided everywhere by McCoy Tyner's drizzling fills and colorfully voiced chords. "Gypsy Blue" has a Latin tinge. The head has a cool arrangement where Hubbard and Brooks play in, and then slightly out of phase, hypnotically swinging it along. Hubbard's centerpiece is the rollicking "All or Nothing at All," where he shows off his chops in wild, flashy runs, rubber fingered flourishes, and big brassy blasts in the upper register. The guy's a natural who learned to improvise before he learned to read, and it shows.

Monday, March 4, 2013

50. Modern Jazz Quartet / Fontessa (1956)

Atlantic must have been happy with this debut, because Fontessa is a shot of distilled MJQ magic. It's got one piece from every area the group excelled in: an amalgam of blues and bop, with judicious musicality and nods toward classical forms. Fontessa swings deep and loose, with sharp jabs from Lewis and Milt playing his slick and bluesy best. "Versailles" is a fugal-bop Frankenstein with a seamless transition that starts with interesting counterpoint from Lewis and Jackson, before the band wraps around juicy bass lines from Heath, while Lewis and Jackson throw ideas at each other. "Angel Eyes" is next, a sly ballad with a noirish touch. The elegant, 11-minute suite "Fontessa" closes with a sweep unlike anything else on the record. It is an imaginative interpretation of commedia dell'arte, music having been assigned to each stock character, and each representing a different musical period in the shifting sands of jazz. Reading the notes, it's fun to pick out which moods Lewis chose for each era. Side 2 is a set of contemporary well-knowns but the natural improvisors and provocative interplay make them worth the time. It's a great set with enough ideas to keep experienced listeners interested, and a nice destination if you've had enough of Django lately.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

49. Thelonious Monk / The Thelonious Monk Orchestra at Town Hall (1959)

I like to think I can hear the splice in "Little Rootie Tootie," although I'm probably imagining it, a necessary evil because of a tape flip that missed the middle. Are there any tapers out there? You can identify. It's a good set, and arrangements for the 10-piece band showcase the soloists, like liquid Charlie Rouse, Phil Woods, Pepper Adams, or Donald Byrd. They also blow good ensemble figures and frame Monk's angularisms and wild chords within a richer ocean of sonority, so there's a lot of lift in the music. Some of these tunes, warhorses for small groups, sound as if they've found home at long last in a big band, like the majestic take of "Monk's Mood" or the jumping "Rootie." Just listen to ten guys blowing the head of "Rootie" around the 7-minute mark. Holy cow! That's tight! I think it works wonderfully. This performance finds Monk emerging from the '50s as mature and bursting with new ideas, about to enter his most productive decade just a few months ahead. For the full effect of the band, you've really got to turn up the volume on the stereo so it sounds like you're in the hall. It's electrifying.

48. Don Wilkerson / Complete Blue Note Sessions (2001)

A nice release from Blue Note, culling tracks from the four LPs they released for Wilkerson from 1960-63. It's a double disc and the remastered sound is on par with the other excellent Blue Note re-releases. Wilkerson was a tenor who worked with a variety of artists including Ray Charles and Cannonball Adderley (no surprise) and was at home playing blues-based and danceable soul jazz that was easily related to ("Senorita Eula," "Drawin' A Tip,"). With a sophisticated sense of melodic variation and good use of legato dynamics, he steps beyond the prereqs for soul jazz and creates a unique blend that rewards if you listen closely. He's also fond of repeated, motivic phrases that carry the groove. The bands he plays with, especially the combo with Graham Greene, know right where he's at, and turn up the heat when he finishes a chorus. Wilkerson's "San Antonio Rose" (with a cooking solo by Greene) stands out to as a particular good take, so does the interesting "Pigeon Peas" which has me listening a few times over to catch what Wilkerson is doing with the drums. It's fine stuff, top to bottom.

Friday, March 1, 2013

47. Thelonious Monk / Solo Monk (1965)

It's Thelonious, plain and simple. Playful, snarky, diabolical. He does tunes that you know, tunes that he knows, and maybe some that only he knows. Certainly, he does them all the way he knows how -- lopsided phrasing, disjointed rhythmical constructions, boulders for punctuation marks, and a philandering left hand that's off doing who-knows-what while the right hand runs away without him. Sometimes they meet up again, and sometimes it takes an indiscriminate forearm full of notes to remind them they belong to the same piece. I used to have a job doing outsourced library cataloging, where I would wear a headset while working. Listening to this CD brought joy to my dismal occupation, which was situated in a dimly lit room without windows or a heater in the middle of winter, and it even brought a smile to my face. I recommend contrasting this with Monk's first solo set, Thelonious Himself, which was recorded for Riverside a few years earlier. This is a much livelier set, whereas on the other, Monk seems almost self consciously quiet and even reserved.