Monday, December 3. 2007
I didn't manage to do any new jazz prospecting this week, other than playing a couple of promising items in the car. December's Recycled Goods column is due, and I've made the rather momentous (to me, anyway) decision to stop writing it. I wanted to finish it off by clearing out as much of my pending shelf as possible -- especially the big ticket boxes -- so I spent the whole week on it. By week's end I had 92 records written up, so decided I might as well split them, making January the finale. That brings the final tally for five years to 51 columns, 2142 albums, 215,000 words. I've enjoyed doing Recycled Goods, but it has gotten to be a drag this past year. I've repeatedly found myself playing catch up with my shelf. The effort to cover everything I got kept me from chasing down the things I should have been getting, and the consequence was that the mix grown more idiosyncratic -- not that it was ever possible to comprehensively cover reissues, let alone the world music I tried so hard to work in. I also thought about dropping Jazz Consumer Guide, but ultimately decided it's worth continuing. The contrast between the two columns is pretty clear cut. I cover enough jazz to establish myself as something of an authority, and it also helps that Jazz CG appears in the Village Voice, benefitting from the rock solid reputation Gary Giddins built over several decades before I showed up, and from Francis Davis since Giddins left. It feels like I've made steady progress with Jazz CG, whereas Recycled Goods/Static Multimedia have been sort of languishing. I'm happy with a lot of the writing I've done there, but never got the sense that it was recognized. How much music writing I do in the near future will depend on whether any new opportunities appear. I'd fancy doing some kind of blog combining smaller, more frequent chunks of reviews with other notes and comments on music, but only if I can find a publisher who can bring an audience beyond what I bring myself. I also wouldn't mind doing some freelance reviews. Lately I've done none because I've been so booked with the two columns. If nothing else happens, I still expect to relaunch my Terminal Zone website sooner or later with a blog, a reference database, and several thousand reviews I've accumulated from RG, JCG, and a few other sources, but I'm not in a big rush on that. Most immediately, I need to finish this JCG and knock out a year-end piece for the Voice, as well as the usual end-of-year wrap up.
The reviews below are just the fallout from doing Recycled Goods. Not many titles, but I count 51 CDs: 36 for That Devilin' Tune, 6 for Davis, 3 for Barber, 2 for Freeman. Next week should be just about all new jazz, and I especially need to tackle the most promising prospects. I don't know that there's enough time to do anything about it, but I'd be especially interested in any serious top ten candidates readers might point out that are not already pending or rated in my 2007 list.
Bennie Maupin: The Jewel and the Lotus (1974 , ECM): Plays "reeds" which sounds like a sneaky way to slip the flute in, although soprano sax and bass clarinet are also featured in his toolkit; best known for headhunting fusion with Herbie Hancock, who returns the favor here, but this is an early exercise in ECM pastorale, what New Age would be if brains or guts were required. B
Dewey Redman Quartet: The Struggle Continues (1982 , ECM): With Ed Blackwell on drums, Joshua's esteemed father can work Ornette Coleman territory at will; with Charles Eubanks on piano, he can take a break, and occasionally wax lyrical on his tenor sax; with Mark Helias on bass neither impulse strays far from the edge. B+(*)
Von Freeman: The Best of Von Freeman on Premonition (1996-2006 , Premonition, 2CD+DVD): You could call Freeman a late bloomer, but one could also argue that he's always been around but never caught a break until in his 70s. Born 1922, he played with Horace Henderson before the war, the Navy during, and the Pershing Ballroom house band when he got out. He joined Sun Ra in 1948 and hung with the AACM later, but he was also chums with Gene Ammons and Johnny Griffin, and Rahsaan Roland Kirk liked him enough to produce his debut album (1972, age 50). He had one of the most idiosyncratic, instantly recognizable tenor sax sounds ever -- he attributes some of that to being a poor boy playing cheap saxophones, and there's a legend that he built his first sax at age 7 out of a Victrola horn. But he's mellowed since he hit 80, developing a richer, cleaner sound that still falls far short of lush. He cut a couple of 1970s records for AACM-connected Nessa, and two more in 1992 for Steeplechase in Denmark, but didn't get much attention until Half Note released his 75th Birthday Celebration. Then Premonition picked up his 1996 Live at the Dakota and started recording him regularly. The material anthologizes well -- it's all quartets with piano or guitar excepting a solo and a duo with Jason Moran -- and includes a couple of previously unissued bait tracks. The DVD just shows him speaking, first in an interview and then to a street crowd at the dedication of Von Freeman Way. He's a natural comic, mature like his music, which sums up a short century of saxophone wisdom -- he reminds me of Sonny Rollins, even if at best he's more like Newk's scrawny little brother. A-
Patricia Barber: The Premonition Years 1994-2002 (1994-2002 , Premonition, 3CD): Jazz singer, pianist, and composer, her career forms something of an underground parallel to Diana Krall's -- her voice dusky and shrouded where Krall's is bright and articulate, her piano more substantial but still secondary, a successful niche player whereas Krall crossed over. This takes five albums and reshuffles them by category: pop songs, standards, and originals. All are slow and somber, but at least the rock-era pop songs start with some bounce as well as catchy melodies -- "Use Me," "You Don't Know Me," "Black Magic Woman," "The Fool on the Hill" are given especially learned readings. The older vintage standards are less surprising. The originals are less obvious, but thoughtful and sometimes haunting. I see little value in sorting them this way: her albums are mixes of all three -- trending toward more originals over time -- and often work just because these mulitple facets fit. A fine example is Modern Cool (1998). B+(***)
Ronnie Earl and the Broadcasters: Hope Radio (2007, Stony Plain): Winner of an honorary "shut up and play yer guitar" award. Filed under blues, although they could pass as a soul jazz organ group -- trio plus two extra bassists, one also playing a bit of piano. Earl's blues guitar is clean and fluid. Still, at its best it reminds me of the guitar breaks in blues-infatuated rock records -- like Big Brother and the Holding Company with no Janis Joplin. B
Putumayo Presents: New Orleans Brass (1989-2006 , Putumayo World Music): Jazz may have originated in the Crescent City, but by 1930 virtually every great jazz musician who grew up there had moved on to Chicago, New York, California -- hell, Sidney Bechet went all the way to Paris; 70 years later you can hear the same songs the town couldn't support back when it had musicians who could play them and make them sound fresh. B
And these are final grades/notes on records I put back for further listening the first time around.
That Devilin' Tune: A Jazz History: Volume 1 (1895-1927 , WHRA, 9CD): Whereas Martin Williams, in his canonical The Smithsonian Collection of Classical Jazz disposes of where jazz came from by juxtaposing two versions of "Maple Leaf Rag," one by composer Scott Joplin and the other by Jelly Roll Morton, compiler Allen Lowe digs deep into many roots besides ragtime -- minstrels, songsters, march bands, James Reese Europe's orchestra. The Original Dixieland Jazz Band (1917) doesn't appear until the 3rd disc. Ethel Waters and Mamie Smith (1921) make the 4th, and Jelly Roll Morton (1923) the 5th, but the series doesn't start to sound predominantly jazzy until the 6th or 7th disc. While he sprinkles in early bits of Fletcher Henderson, Duke Ellington, and Bennie Moten, he holds Louis Armstrong back until the last cut -- maybe top play down the notion that Armstrong invented jazz, or just because he couldn't find anything to follow "Hotter Than Hot" with. A-
That Devilin' Tune: A Jazz History: Volume 2 (1927-34 , WHRA, 9CD): Bix Beiderbecke leads off with 3 of the first 9 tracks, contrasting with 2 cuts by obscure trumpeter Louis Dumaine. The book takes on the always annoying question of race in jazz, plugging numerous whites -- including an argument that Beiderbecke was the first cool jazz proponent -- without ceding any arguments to Richard Sudhalter's Lost Chords. The records wend their way through numerous intimations of swing to come, punctuated by occasional blues and country tunes that are hardly less jazzy. A-
That Devilin' Tune: A Jazz History: Volume 3 (1934-45 , WHRA, 9CD): Swing is here, announced by Jimmie Lunceford, Red Norvo, Chick Webb, Fletcher Henderson, Benny Goodman, and Ray Noble on the first disc. Second disc tees off with Bob Wills, a westerner who swings too, and moves on to Count Basie. The most consistently satisfying of the boxes, at least until 1940 (disc 7) when Lowe starts looking for premonitions of bebop -- Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie show up on disc 8, but disc 9 (1944-45) is a broad smorgasbord of retro dixieland (Kid Ory, Bunk Johnson), elegant Ellington, singers like Billie Holiday and Nat Cole, saxophonists like Coleman Hawkins and Don Byas. A
That Devilin' Tune: A Jazz History: Volume 4 (1945-51 , WHRA, 9CD): Bebop takes over, but of course it isn't that clean a cut. Disc 4, for instance, starts with Bing Crosby and Al Jolson singing "Alexander's Ragtime Band" -- the fourth take, following Collins and Harlan (1911), Louis Armstrong (1937), and Bunk Johnson (1945). Then, after Sidney Bechet, comes Chano Pozo's "Ritmo Afro Cubano." That disc wanders especially wide: Art Tatum, Ella Fitzgerald, Lenny Tristano, Mutt Carey, Astor Piazzolla, Hank Penny, Nelly Lutcher, Buddy Rich, Benny Goodman, Charlie Parker. But before long bebop has driven most of the other contenders from the depopulated clubs -- exceptions are the occasional throwback like Kid Thomas, and an especially ugly bit of projectile vomit from Stan Kenton. I suppose there's a lesson there: I would have picked something listenable, but if you have to acknowledge Kenton, why whitewash him? A-
Miles Davis: The Complete On the Corner Sessions (1972-75 , Columbia/Legacy, 6CD): The eighth, and reportedly last, of Legacy's deluxe metal-spine multi-CD box sets, which have attempted to reframe the Davis catalog in its broader studio context. While some of the earlier boxes did little more than repackag well known material, the later sets undid Teo Macero's edits, returning to the original session tracks. That hasn't always been a plus: the Bitches Brew and Jack Johnson session boxes largely vindicated the edits. But here it is a plus. On the Corner was rudely dismissed by virtually all jazz critics at the time, even those who bought into the earlier fusion albums. Indeed, by Ornette Coleman's rule-of-thumb it wasn't a jazz album at all -- Coleman argued that in rock the band plays with the drummer, while in jazz the drummer plays with the band. But rewrite that rule to make funk bassist Michael Henderson the focal point, with the drums (including congas and tabla) just the first layer of elaboration. Davis by the early 1970s was a pop star as well as a jazz legend, which led him to conceive of his evolution in terms of James Brown and Sly Stone, but unlike his fusion followers, he had no intention of watering anything down. He spent this period working with British avant-gardist Paul Buckmaster, listening to Karlheinz Stockhausen, neither offering any pop potential. What Davis learned here was to be comfortable with repetition, a very unjazzlike attitude. He let the bass line stretch out endlessly, opening up space that he could pierce at will with his trumpet. Over three years, he took various groups into the studio 16 times, releasing the edited down On the Corner and two more bundles of scraps, Big Fun and Get Up With It. The edited albums never quite let the music breathe, which turns out to be key. Until now the period was best represented by live albums, and Dark Magus is still the one to turn to first -- no doubt because audience rekindled the jazz legend's love of improvisation. But this history fleshes out the story. Those waiting for Davis to stumble will have to look further. A-