A Consumer Guide to the Trailing Edge: November 2003
by Tom Hull
A few months back I thought about doing a box set special around Thanksgiving -- given the usual pomp and bloat of most pop box sets, the in-joke was that this would be our Turkey Shoot. But the publishing schedule slipped and we didn't bag our quota of box sets anyway: Rhino never sent the Chicago box, Universal didn't cough up the Joan Baez, and all we've seen of EMI's Glen Campbell is the advance. So no turkeys this month: mostly jazz and reggae -- getting near the end of that queue -- plus a pair of geezers who are still doing good work 35 years after we first noticed them. . . . Next month is blues month. After all, Congress declared 2003 the Year of the Blues, and you can't bitch that the politicians didn't deliver on that promise.
Count Basie and His Orchestra: America's #1 Band: The Columbia Years (1936-50 , Columbia/Legacy, 4CD). John Hammond "discovered" Basie's orchestra while listening to short wave broadcasts emanating from Kansas City, but when he brought the band to New York they wound up recording their most spectacular work for rival Decca. Basie's orchestra was one of many territory bands working the heartland of America, but by 1936 it had accumulated a staggering array of talent -- Herschel Evans and Lester Young on tenor sax, Buck Clayton and Sweets Edison on trumpet, Dickie Wells on trombone; the peerless rhythm section of Jo Jones, Walter Page, and Freddie Green; singer Jimmy Rushing; and the most idiosyncratic pianist of the decade (at least if we overlook his polar opposite, Art Tatum). But aside from the Jones-Smith Inc. spinoff session in 1936, Hammond wasn't able to lure Basie into Columbia's studios until 1939, by which point Evans had died and been replaced by fellow Texan Buddy Tate. Basie's Columbia years were marred by World War, recording bans, economic problems, and wandering stars, and Columbia's handling of Basie's records has been checkered at best. This package belatedly attempts to set things right. The first disc-plus covers spinoff groups from Jones-Smith to a superb 1950 session with Clark Terry. The middle two discs chronicle the full orchestra, highlighted by Young's saxophone and Rushing's vocals. The fourth disc rescues some live shots, including three cuts with Billie Holiday. For sheer energy and inventiveness the Deccas may still have the edge, but the restored sound here is excellent, and the band is rarely less than dazzling. A
The Big Horn: The History of the Honkin' & Screamin' Saxophone (1942-52 , Proper, 4CD). The story that the blues had a baby and they named it rock and roll is apochryphal. Blues were a building block, as evinced by the second song on this box, a Jazz at the Philharmonic jam called "Blues" for its bare concept. But the musicians who played those blues were jazzmen, like Illinois Jacquet and Arnett Cobb. From the early '40s to the mid '50s the jukeboxes were dominated by small black bands with hot saxophones, playing rhythm & blues, jump blues, plain ol' race music. Wild Bill Moore's "We're Gonna Rock, We're Gonna Roll" (1947) spelled it all out in terms Bill Haley would eventually cash in on. While Charlie Parker was a pied piper leading jazz into artful obscurity, Big Jay McNeely was writhing on the floor in an orgy of honking, screaming saxophone glory. There was a lot more to this music, but this box concentrates so fervently on the sax that hits by Wynonie Harris and Bull Moose Jackson are attributed to their saxophonists. The 1952 cutoff was arbitrary, but focusing on these early years keeps the material fresh. These guys are mostly forgotten now, but in their time they made the jukeboxes rock. A-
Cedric Im Brooks & the Light of Saba (1974-76 , Honest Jons). Brooks is a Jamaican saxophonist who got lost in the shuffle. He played in C.S. Dodd's house band in the late '60s; in 1970 he joined Count Ossie to form the Mystic Revelation of Rastafari, forging a primitivist music of drums and reeds. But he was too pop for nyahbinghi, too rootsy for ska, and too enamored with the jazz of Sonny Rollins and Sun Ra for either. He never made much of a mark as a jazz musician either, and has since wound up in the latest edition of the the primordial ska band, the Skatalites. But this Dutch compilation, which rescues most or all of two or more mid-'70s albums so obscure I can't find them in any discography, is perhaps the most remarkable of the many dozens of Jamaican albums I've heard lately -- on a level with Screaming Target (Big Youth) and Two Sevens Clash (Culture), yet utterly distinct. The drums and reeds are a bit fancier than anything that could have come out of the hills, yet they are rooted there. Most of the cuts have vocals, and the words are rooted in rastafarian devotion, but here "Satta Massa Gana" meets its match and complement in the cosmopolitan "Nobody's Business," and both are transcended in "Words of Wisdom." And instrumentals like "Sly Mongoose" both evoke and transcend their folk roots as surely as anything by South African sax masters like West Nkosi and Dudu Pukwana. A
Miles Davis: The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions (1970 , Columbia/Legacy, 5CD). Back in the early '70s we used to listen to Bitches Brew as late night chill-out music -- about the only jazz I ran into at the time. Jack Johnson never achieved that measure of utility, in large part because it rocked so hard. The addition of funk bassist Michael Henderson kicked the roiling rhythms up a notch, but above all the record was a tour de force by guitarist John McLaughlin, and Miles shaped his sizzling trumpet work to complement the guitar. But just how this masterpiece came about wasn't clear: the finished record consisted of two side-long suites pieced together from 16 weeks of studio jams with a revolving cast adding to the confusion. This box sheds a lot of light on the creation. The final edited version closes the 5th disc here, closing like the album with its powerful epitaph. The rest of the box chronicles the sessions leading up to the record. In principle this should only interest specialists, but the first two discs are some of the strongest electric Miles on record, and the next two fill in the gaps, including some utilitarian chill-out from Hermeto Pascoal on the fourth. That these jams weren't intended to be released is clear from their lack of structure -- especially the abrupt starts and stops. Anyone not yet converted to electric Miles might be better off starting with Live-Evil or Dark Magus -- live albums that unroll organically -- or wait for the inevitable re-release of the remastered Jack Johnson. But aficionados will love this. A-
Desmond Dekker: Rudy Got Soul: The Early Beverly's Sessions (1963-68 , Sanctuary/Trojan, 2CD). Known outside Jamaica for his danceable "Israelites" and maybe his rude boy anthem "007 (Shanty Town)," Dekker was one of Jamaica's most prolific ska stars. Leslie Kong produced, the Beverley's house band pumped out the classic beats, and the Aces backed up. When the rude boy craze hit Dekker hopped on, but his first hit was the perfectly respectable "Honour Your Mother and Father." The completism here includes doo-wop and soul moves that don't stray far enough from their American models to make their mark, but it also reaps precious hits not found on his other, mostly redundant comps. Perversely, it draws the line just short of "Israelites" itself, perhaps because Trojan already had two comps named Israelites in its catalog -- a 25-cut Best Of and a 50-cut Anthology, the latter stretched out with '90s remakes. I haven't heard either, but on paper the Best Of looks like a bargain. This one's for folks who just can't get enough. B+
High Explosion: DJ Sounds From 1970 to 1976 (, Sanctuary/Trojan, 2CD). From the early '60s Jamaican music was propagated through the sound systems -- portable equipment for playing records in public places. The early producers -- C.S. Dodd, Duke Reid -- were sound system operators at first: they needed records to play, so got into producing. At first, DJs just played records, but soon they were talking and singing over the records, and eventually their performances were recorded too. A good example here is Junior Byles' sweet "A Place Called Africa," which is served here in two versions, one with Winston Prince rapping over it, the other with Dennis Alcapone. As the DJs caught on, the producers started turning out dub plates for the DJs to rap over. It was (and is) a system that favors good, functional grooves over pop genius, so it very rarely shows up on the major compilations of Jamaican music, and the DJ stars themselves -- most prominently here: Alcapone, Big Youth, U-Roy, I-Roy -- are little known. Dancehall came out of here; less obviously, so did hip-hop. This comp of early '70s tracks is critical history, if you're into that sort of thing, but it's also endlessly listenable and often amazing. A
Lou Reed: NYC Man: The Collection (1967-2002 , RCA/BMG Heritage, 2CD). In the early '70s Lou Reed was the great hope and dread of the rock underground -- you can read all about that in the works of Lester Bangs. In the early '80s Reed righted a career that had evidently slipped into cheap sarcasm and produced the best albums of his post-Velvets life. In the early '90s Reed faced the deaths of Andy Warhol and Delmore Schwartz with darkly literary albums, a pattern which he has pursued idiosyncratically up through his take on Edgar Allen Poe's The Raven. All the while his early work in the Velvet Underground has gained stature and legend, rivaling Dylan, James Brown, the Beatles, and the Stones as the most influential rock of the '60s. Compilations are usually the work of marketing hacks, but Reed's hands are all over this résumé, and his mission impossible is to convince you that every twisted career step was driven by a deep sense of artistic integrity. That's a crock, of course, but what he does manage to do is to build a set of astonishing segues, often jumping across stretches of time to make just the right connection. This isn't a best-of -- one of his finest albums, New Sensations, doesn't appear at all. Many of his picks are unobvious -- he went with a crummy live version of "Heroin" because he didn't want to overdo it, and because it was time to shift to something crummy. I doubt that people who don't know Reed like the back of their hands will get quite the same kick out of how he put this together. But even they will see how perfect it is to close with "Pale Blue Eyes." A-
Russendisko: Hits (, Trikont). The music is Russian, but Russendisko itself is a Berlin disco. That's a plus, because it means that this music has already been tested on people who don't understand the words -- all the better to weed out the hypersensitive poets. That leaves what we want from world music: beats. The approach here is the same one Dave Edmunds used when he rocked out "The Sabre Dance" -- just play it faster, and louder. Of course, there's more horns and accordions than the norm for garage rockers, but don't discount the Russian language's ability to convey raw grunge. The unfashionably named Leningrad's oustanding cut is a dupe from Globalista, but Sveta Kolibaba, Leonid Soybelman, and the Red Elvises come close. Even when they go klezmer on you they rock out. That's why they're called hits. A-
Donna Summer: Bad Girls (Deluxe Edition) (1977-80 , Mercury/Chronicles, 2CD). Summer's first hit wasn't much more than moans over eurodisco beats, but within two years she had taken control of her music, writing her underrated 2-LP Cinderella story Once Upon a Time, which she quickly followed with three other double LPs that moved her from disco icon to the crosshairs of rock, soul, dance, and showbiz pop that Madonna would later exploit. The key album in this sequence was her best-ever, the widely praised Bad Girls, but the others -- Live and More and On the Radio: Greatest Hits -- each added major new pieces to her oeuvre, mostly by collecting her 12-inch singles. These 2-CD "deluxe editions" are generally a rip-off: usually a reputable album with a second disc of trivia that is supposed to convince you into paying twice as much for the album. And this one couldn't have taken them more than 15 minutes to conceive and program: the Bad Girls disc closes with a demo version of "Bad Girls," while the second disc reissues The Dance Collection: A Compilation of Twelve Inch Singles with three changes that even a marketing weasel could have figured out: drop "With Your Love," add yet another "Bad Girls" to follow "Hot Stuff," and close with "On the Radio." And that's all it took to produce the most consistent, most awesome disc in Summer's catalog: even with the only "MacArthur Park" that anyone can stand, and the only Barbra Streisand vocal that anyone needs. A
The Vandermark 5: Free Jazz Classics Vols. 1 & 2 (2000-01 , Atavistic, 2CD). These two discs originally appeared as bonus discs packaged with the first 1000 copies of the group's Burn the Incline and Acoustic Machine albums, so that makes this a reissue, right? Since he moved to Chicago in 1989, Ken Vandermark has conceived of dozens of bands, ranging from the pure funk Crown Royals to the purely improvised FME, but the Vandermark 5 has been his most consistent venue: the concept there was to have an explosive quintet fronted by two saxes (sometimes switching to clarinet) and trombone, which would exclusively play Vandermark's own compositions. So the idea of doing standards is out-of-concept, but even if you've heard these pieces before -- Ornette Coleman or Sun Ra maybe, Frank Wright very unlikely -- the arrangements here are startling. Vandermark describes these live recordings as an experiment to see what the band could do. The verdict is that this band plays free jazz like the Rolling Stones (at least used to) play rock and roll: they make it sound classic, and at the same time they make it sound bigger and bolder than ever before. A-
Watch How the People Dancing: Unity Sounds From the London Dancehall, 1986-1989 (, Honest Jons). Jamaican music happens everywhere there are Jamaicans, so it's not surprising to find dancehall evolving in England. England had its sound systems, its DJs, its dancehalls. The book here contains a long interview with Ribs (Robert Fearon), who was already in love with Jamaica's sound systems when he came to England at age nine; in England he apprenticed, working his way through low-level jobs until he became a DJ himself, working the Unity sound system. With Ranks and Red Eye at Unity, he produced these dance mixes with singers like Kenny Knots and Mikey Murka. Even experts are unlikely to know who these people are, yet this collection is marvelously coherent: its ambitions simple, its groove steady, the lack of a egomaniacal toaster if anything a plus. This just goes to show that the tightest feedback loop in the music business is between DJ and dancer. A-
Neil Young & Crazy Horse: Reactor (1981 , Reprise). The high-points of Neil Young's career are pretty easily agreed upon: After the Gold Rush (1970), Tonight's the Night (1975), Rust Never Sleeps (1979), Freedom (1985); you could throw in Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere (1969) and Comes a Time (1978) and few folks would raise an eyebrow. Compared to those, the four 1974-81 albums that had to wait until 2003 for CD reissue are, relatively speaking, flawed and minor -- when critics detect a little tentativeness they itch to pounce. But as often as not, Young's flaws are just part of his character. And minor relative to what? For all of 9:14 Young pounds out a hardcore riff to the words, "got mashed potato/ain't got no t-bone" -- had it not been preceded by Flipper's "Sex Bomb" it would have been the most visceral rock and roll of the year. The other songs each have a shape and message, even if the shape is blunted and the message a bit muddled -- but "Shots" is the great war song he has long ached for, in all its romance and terror. I still think this is one of his great ones. A
Copyright © 2003 Tom Hull.