A Consumer Guide to the Trailing Edge: November 2004 (in progress)

Recycled Goods

by Tom Hull

Since I've started writing a Jazz Consumer Guide for the Village Voice I've been inundated with jazz reissues, so they tend to crowd out everything else. With a big pile of newly pressed old Blue Notes left over on my to-do shelf, I expect this to be a permanent skew -- at least as far as Briefly Noted goes. World music has also picked up, partly because I've decided to give the few new releases that show up here a fair shot at the column. Thus far they, too, have mostly slipped into the Briefly Noted, but two very different items from Brazil have made the top section. (And there's a lot more Brazilian music in the backlog.)

The Abyssinians and Friends: Tree of Satta (1969-2003 [2004], Blood & Fire). Named for Emperor Haile Selassie's homeland, the Abyssinians were Jamaica's first vocal trio to turn rastafarianism into the roots-rock mythology that came to dominate our view of reggae. "Satta Massa Gana," cut in 1969, was their great song, and given Jamaica's culture of reuse the classic bass line and horn figure have been recycled hundreds of times ever since. When Bernard Collins, the Abyssinians' lead singer, conceived this album he had collected sixteen versions of the song, imagining it as a tree shooting branches off in every direction. The producers ordered up more versions, and this is a best-of a set that will include at least another volume. Twenty takes of "Satta Massa Gana" may sound like too much of a good thing, but only rarely does the concept become obvious -- most often just the first few notes of a new take. The rhythm carries you along with the overwhelming force and quiet subtlety of a gently-graded river, floating an extravaganza of sanctified dub. A

The Essential Louis Armstrong (1925-67 [2004], Columbia/Legacy, 2CD). Scott Yanow panned Legacy's early-Armstrong compilation, the 4CD Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, arguing that anyone who inadvertently purchased the box would be throwing their money away, because they'd wind up wanting to buy all of the source discs. That's a pretty extreme argument. Even if one were to concede that there's nothing that should be missed on Columbia's 7CD early Armstrong series -- which is truer than you can probably imagine -- the box did a brilliant job sorting out Armstrong's more marginal period work with King Oliver, Fletcher Henderson, and scads of blues singers (collected on 6CD by Affinity, but no longer in print). However, limiting Armstrong to two CDs, covering the same early period plus another thirty-some years, will definitely leave you wanting more. We can argue about omissions, but it's hard to begrudge anything that was selected. Notably, Legacy reached out to UMG for the 1936 "Shadrack" and the 1967 "What a Wonderful World," and to BMG for the 1947 "Rockin' Chair," filling in holes in Columbia's own catalog. A nice gift for the young person you know who don't know squat, as is the more cost effective (25 classics on one CD, vs. 37 on two here) Ken Burns Jazz: Louis Armstrong. But get The Complete Hot Five and Hot Seven Recordings (4CD, on Columbia/Legacy, or cheaper on JSP) and The California Concerts (4CD, on Decca) for yourself. And don't expect to be satiated. Yanow was being foolish, but not stupid. A

Gary Bartz Ntu Troop: Harlem Bush Music (1970-71 [2004], Milestone). This stitches together two more albums from the chance historical meeting of the jazz fringe with the black power masses, originally released as Uhuru and Taifa, but cut from the same sessions, with the same group, under the same rubric of "Harlem Bush Music." Bartz was a hard bop alto saxophonist who had done a tour with Art Blakey and would soon hook up with Miles Davis, but while his idiom was bop his fast and furious style came from the avant-garde. He is joined here by Andy Bey, whose polished jazz singing softens the edges of Bartz's agitprop lyrics. This renders "Vietcong" into a catchy hymn, although some lines bear repeating: "twenty years of fighting for his homeland/he won't give up the rights for no man." In "Blue (A Folk Tale)" Bartz critiques, "blues ain't nothing but misery on your mind"; but the blues he makes is a vehicle of strength and endurance and hope. A-

James Brown: Soul on Top (1969 [2004], Verve). This clones Ray Charles' great concept, with Brown reinventing standards -- e.g., "That's My Desire," "September Song," "Every Day I Have the Blues," "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" -- in front of Louie Bellson's big band. Oliver Nelson arranges and conducts, but barely manages to discipline a band caught up in the singer's excitement. Compare "Your Cheatin' Heart": proof positive of Charles' genius, but no doubt here as to who was really the hardest working man in show business. A

Lenny Bruce: Let the Buyer Beware (1948-66 [2004], Shout! Factory, 6CD). I wonder how many people born after Bruce's death in 1966 have any idea who he was. Can't be many: comics don't have much of a shelf life, especially ones with no TV exposure. Older generations will know the name, even though few actually saw him perform, heard his LPs, or read his book. No, he was famous for getting busted -- 15 times in two years, mostly for saying bad words. Bruce was one of those Jews who adopted a goyische stage name to start his career, then spent nearly every moment on stage reminding you that he was Jewish: he savaged Barry Goldwater for changing his religion instead of his name; he ran through lists of entertainers ("the Mills Brothers were goy; Coleman Hawkins was a Jew; Ben Webster was so Jewish, he was an orthodox Jew"); he poured so much Yiddish into his act the box includes a dictionary. Most of his shtick has dated: even with the biographical notes you had to have lived through Lawrence Welk and the Lone Ranger to get those bits. He barely touches politics -- nothing on Vietnam or Israel, but lots on race and homosexuals and the hypocrisies of the pious and the merely liberal. And by featuring mostly unreleased tapes the box aims to flesh out a portrait that only his devoted fans can fully dig. But excessive and peculiar as it is, those fans fear it may become timely again. America in the '50s was a cloistered society of deeply repressed people, and Bruce sliced through all that, with a mischievous glee and an innocent's faith in simple justice. He didn't live to enjoy the liberation of the '60s, but he had something to do with making it possible -- in death as much as in life. For most of the years since he's just been history, but some bits here do seem to be coming back to life: take his "Religions, Inc." and substitute Jerry Falwell for Oral Roberts, or let him quote Will Rogers again, "I never met a dyke I didn't like." So maybe it is time to resurrect him; after all, Jesus wasn't the only Jew who died for our sins. A-

Seven Steps: The Complete Columbia Recordings of Miles Davis 1963-1964 ([2004], Columbia/Legacy, 7CD). Seven discs, starting with a nondescript L.A. studio session released as Seven Steps to Heaven, stepping through a series of live recordings including the date in Berlin when Wayne Shorter completed the Quintet, the most famous Davis group of all. As the pieces come together -- Ron Carter from the start, Herbie Hancock and Tony Williams to finish the studio album in New York -- the band starts to sizzle and Davis plays as imaginatively as ever. In retrospect one likes to see this period as transitional, but the one disc with Shorter is anticlimactic. One thing this box should do is give George Coleman, who plays tenor sax on five discs here, some well deserved respect. Even more intriguing is the road not taken: Sam Rivers lights up the stage in Tokyo, prodding Davis to play as far out as he ever got. All but six cuts are previously released, but only the studio album has been in print recently. When/if this gets cut up, look first for the Antibes and Japan sets. A-

Chris McGregor's Brotherhood of Breath: Travelling Somewhere (1973 [2001], Cuneiform). McGregor's South African jazz band, the Blue Notes, escaped the land of Apartheid to a festival in Europe in 1964 and never returned. In Europe the South Africans fell in with the avant-garde, and McGregor expanded his band to include more horns, including Evan Parker, Mike Osborne, and Malcolm Grifiths. The expanded band was called the Brotherhood of Breath -- with three trumpets, two trombones, and four saxes, it's easy to hear why. They had a lot of breath, and their recordings were dominated by multiple horns weaving in and out, making a exhilarating, riotous din. But they also had a lot of rhythm: their pieces were built from South African folk and pop figures, and they tend to keep the rhythm up regardless of how freely the horns wander. Compared to the more recently released 2CD Bremen to Bridgwater, this one has the advantage of sticking a bit closer to the framework, led off by Dudu Pukwana's marvelous "MRA." A-

Rio Baile Funk: Favela Booty Beats ([2004], Essay). I've long suspected that there's a lot more to Brazil -- home of the world's second largest record industry, after all -- than bossa nova, and not just samba, forró, tropicalismo, and a few oddballs like Tom Zé and Os Mutantes. Like this, I suppose: raw Portuguese raps over hard dance beats. You can translate "baile" as party, as in rave; "favela" refers to the squatter settlements that cling to the hills surrounding Rio de Janeiro; "booty," well you know what that means. These cuts were collected by a German label -- reminiscent of Globalista, another German comp with ears open to the grit of globalization, not the feel-good retro of the tourist industry. I have no idea how representative or authentic they are: they sounds like they could have come from anywhere, but they make sense for their place and time. The political problem with globalization isn't how to halt it. We live in one world already, and that this fits as well in Germany or America as in Rio just proves the fact. A-

Moacir Santos: Ouro Negro (1965-92 [2004], Adventure Music, 2CD). It's tempting to think of Santos as some sort of Brazilian Quincy Jones, although he certainly doesn't have Q's business skills. But Santos is best known as as an arranger, composer and conductor, usually working behind more luminous stars -- Milton Nascimento, Gilberto Gil, João Bosco, and others sing a track each here. Santos plays tenor sax, but rarely draws attention to himself. (In fact, most of the sax here is played by others.) His own compositions are typically titled "Thing #N" (with some number for N) and they are remarkable for their simple and elegant textures -- the arranger's art, viewed in its own right instead of as a means to the usual ends of cranking out hits. This is all very mainstream music, but outsiders rarely get a chance to see so clearly how it works. A-

Talking Heads: The Name of This Band Is Talking Heads: 2CD Set (1977-81 [2004], Sire/Warner Bros./Rhino, 2CD). The original release of live tapes from 1977, 1979, and 1980-81 was one of those filler products that successful rock bands inevitably throw out when the touring saps the creative juices: the repertoire recycled, the sound diminished, the huck the usual exploitation. Sure, they weren't done: Little Creatures, the first time David Byrne actually appeared to be comfortable in his own skin, was still a few years in the future. But with Remain in Light they had peaked. Through four see-saw albums they grew from a tiny sounding trio of paranoids to a richly textured, rhythmically adventurous Eno-enhanced quartet, which grew to ten pieces for their 1980-81 concert tour. This release nearly doubles the amount of music on the original LPs, and more is more. The sound is adequate, too; the thinness common in live rock albums turns into a narrowing focus on Byrne, whose pain focuses the music powerfully. Two decades of subsequent history, with little of note from Byrne or Tom Tom Club, make the profit taking seem much more charitable. Like Stop Making Sense, this is an alternate way of focusing on an amazing band that fused punk and new wave disco into something unique. A-

Briefly Noted

  • The Essential Roy Acuff (1936-49 [2004], Columbia/Legacy): shorter than 1992's The Essential Roy Acuff (1936-1949) (same label), constricting his legacy ever more to his preaching; me, I thank God for "Wabash Cannonball" and "Tennessee Waltz." A-
  • Early Chet Atkins (1949-50 [2004], Country Routes): radio shots, half with gals named Carter singing, all with what passed in those days for the heights of erudite guitar; replete with crowd noise and bad jokes, which cut the antiseptic sheen of his studio albums. B+
  • The Essential Chet Atkins: The Columbia Years (1983-97 [2004], Columbia/Legacy): after nearly 40 years with RCA, Columbia got his living legend period, a trite dotage for a guitarist who built his reputation selling simple as simplicity; exception: John Lennon's "Imagine" -- where simple is sheer elegance. B-
  • Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers: 'S Make It (1964 [2004], Verve): cut loose from Blue Note after an incredible ten year run, this coasts a bit; new find John Hicks contributes a waltz and a ballad, but isn't hard bop spozed to be hard? B
  • Lenny Bruce: Thank You Masked Man (1958-63 [2004], Fantasy): early bits, mostly unreleased, most with extreme voices, including the semitic Lone Ranger and the antisemitic Fat Boy car salesman; mostly of its time, too, but note that the bleeped out four-letter word in "The Sound" (the story of a jazz musician, the funniest thing here) is "Welk." B+
  • Candido Camero: Candido Featuring Al Cohn (1956 [2004], Verve): Joe Puma's guitar adds as much latin flavor as Candido's congas, but in the end all the salsa just sets up Cohn's genteel mainstream sax. B+
  • Duke Ellington: Piano in the Foreground (1957-61 [2004], Columbia/Legacy): he wasn't a great pianist, but he was a smart one, with a marvelous touch; these simple trio pieces focus on his piano and draw him out a bit. B+
  • Duke Ellington: Piano in the Background (1960 [2004], Columbia/Legacy): on the other hand, maybe he was right that his real instrument was the orchestra, which blasts these old warhorses past new arrangements meant to spotlight his piano. B+
  • Duke Ellington: Blues in Orbit (1958-59 [2004], Columbia/Legacy): a whole album of blues forms, some old but mostly new, with a nod to the age of Sputnik, but Ellington's orchestra never needed an ICBM to reach escape velocity -- "C Jam Blues" was occasion enough. A
  • Dexter Gordon: Dexter Calling . . . (1961 [2004], Blue Note): a quartet with his old bop chums including Kenny Drew, leaving him a lot of space to blow, and with eight pieces he casts his net wide enough to show his stuff. B+
  • Dexter Gordon: One Flight Up (1964 [2004], Blue Note): cut in Paris on his way out, the line-up with Donald Byrd a matter of convenience, the pieces stretched out into long hard bop jams; almost ordinary, for Gordon, that is. B
  • Johnny Griffin Quartet (1956 [2004], Verve): way too short at 26:15, especially since each of the eight songs is so sharply etched that you expect much more to develop. B+
  • The Essential Merle Haggard: The Epic Years (1981-87 [2004], Epic/Legacy): years that saw him getting older and crankier ("Big City," "Are the Good Times Really Over"), but also wistful ("I Had a Beautiful Time") and frisky ("Let's Chase Each Other Around the Room") and blessedly fortunate ("I Always Get Lucky With You"). A-
  • Freddie Hubbard: Breaking Point (1964 [2004], Blue Note): his everyday band instead of the usual superstars, pushing a bit outward instead of cashing in. B+
  • Freddie Hubbard: Blue Spirits (1965 [2004], Blue Note): the half with Big Black's congas excels in soulful groove, the other half stretches gracefully beyond hard bop, the bonuses tread further out, further proof that Hubbard could do it all. A-
  • Freddie Hubbard: The Night of the Cookers (1965 [2004], Blue Note): the live match-up with Lee Morgan promises fire but mostly delivers good-natured groove, the trumpets joshing rather than jousting. B
  • Illinois Jacquet: Desert Winds (1964 [2004], Verve): from "When My Dreamboat Comes Home" to "Canadian Sunset," a relaxed stroll in the park, with the grand master of Texas Tenors stepping high, but never breaking a sweat. B+
  • Machito and His Afro-Cuban Orchestra: Vacation at the Concord (1958 [2004], Verve): polite, undistinguished mambos, just the thing for a weekend in the Catskills, affirming that Cuba was still the secure, well-behaved colonial outpost it had been since 1898. B-
  • Mike Marshall & Choro Famoso (2004, Adventure Music): an Oakland-based mandolinist falls in love with Brazilian choro, but can't play it without reminding you of bluegrass, and to make the fusion even more auspicious, throws in a klezmer-ish clarinet; Marshall doesn't only play -- he launched a record label to mix things up, and named it appropriately. B+
  • Tommy McCook: Blazing Horns/Tenor in Roots (1978-80 [2003], Blood & Fire): the titles don't serve these instrumentals, from Jamaica's great tenor saxophonist, especially well; this is dub, not roots, and insouciantly grooveful, but not blazing. B+
  • Jack McDuff: The Prestige Years (1960-65 [2004], Prestige): pumping organ, wailing sax, slick guitar, runs the gamut from "Mellow Gravy" to "Rock Candy" to "Hot Barbeque"; sure, that's not a lot of range, but no organist of his era was more dependably funky. B+
  • Chris McGregor's Brotherhood of Breath: Bremen to Bridgwater (1971-75 [2004], Cuneiform, 2CD): more South African themes launch even more avant improvisations as the global unity of Europe's most radical musicians gets serious and has fun. B+
  • Jackie McLean: Action (1964 [2004], Blue Note): a showcase for young avant trumpeter Charles Tolliver, who wrote two pieces, and a rhythm section with Bobby Hutcherson that whips McLean into fine shape. A-
  • Blue Mitchell: The Thing to Do (1964 [2004], Blue Note): good showcase for Horace Silver's trumpet man, with Junior Cook and Chick Corea kicking out the hard bop; starts loose, with a calypso. B+
  • Lee Morgan: The Sixth Sense (1967-68 [2004], Blue Note): distinctively brilliant trumpet at the service of a hard bop already hardening into orthodoxy. B+
  • Oliver Mtukudzi: Shanda (2004, Alula): soundtrack to the career retrospective of the other guy from Zimbabwe -- the booklet has a picture of a young Mtukudzi alongside Thomas Mapfumo, tribute and cred; enough to show off the sweet and sour guitars that motorvate chimurenga, to remind you he's still knocking on our doors. B+
  • Hank Penny: Flamin' Mamie (1938-41 [2004], Krazy Kat): early studio recordings from a singer-guitarist-bandleader who jumped into western swing as the tide was going out; one clue to the limits of this band is that the slap bass keeps foursquare time but doesn't swing, but the leader is going places. B+
  • Hollywood Western Swing: The Best of Hank Penny (1944-47 [1999], Krazy Kat): the improvement here is in the band, which really puts the swing into western swing; the horns, fiddle, steel guitar, and accordion all stand out, and the leader has a blast riding herd. A-
  • Dave Pike and His Orchestra: Manhattan Latin (1964 [2004], Verve): cocktail vibes add to a rhythm section that includes Cachao and Patato, all wasted when they slow things down. B-
  • Bud Powell: Bebop (1948-64 [2004], Pablo): third installment in the Francis Paudras tapes, one old airshot from the bebop revolution, like so many you've heard before, plus some later boptunes, like only Powell could play. B+
  • Putumayo Presents Greece: A Musical Odyssey (1993-2003 [2004], Putumayo World Music): released in time for the Olympics, souvenir music if you didn't get creeped out by the forecasted terrorists or the guaranteed counterterrorists; softer than the real thing, which for once is nice. B+
  • Putumayo Presents Music From the Chocolate Lands (1990-2004 [2004], Putumayo World Music): after tea and coffee, another recipe for easy-listening albeit rather generic worldbeat, the specialité de la maison; I'd suggest they try Music From the Cocaine Lands next, but they'd probably put Susana Baca on it, too. B
  • Putumayo Presents Women of Latin America (1999-2004 [2004], Putumayo World Music): the homogenization is less annoying here than on Women of Africa, perhaps because Latin America is much less diverse; the good thing about Putumayo is that they have an ear for making mix tapes that just flow and flow, but that's also the bad thing, because they never risk surprise. B
  • Tony Scott (1967 [2004], Verve): a clarinet on a mission to seek out the future in the past, exploring old jazz standards like Ellington and "My Funny Valentine" and trans-Asian exotica with oud, dumbek and sitar. A-
  • Zoot Sims With the Joe Castro Trio: Live at Falcon Lair (1956 [2004], Pablo): Sims plays alto sax here, lighter and airier than his tenor, but his innate sense of swing keeps him from floating off into the stratosphere. B+
  • The Incredible Jimmy Smith: Home Cookin' (1959 [2004], Blue Note): same old chitlins, cornbread and collard greens, but a rare guest appearance from r&b saxophonist Percy France (the "5" Royales, Bill Doggett) is as fine as sweet potato pie. B+
  • Studio One Classics (1964-81 [2004], Soul Jazz): more obscure (excepting "Simmer Down") than I'd expect from "classics," but the vintage Jamaican groove is indeed classic, the ringing sound, the ability to do the same basic things over and over again and never let them go stale. A-
  • The Best of Talking Heads (1977-88 [2004], Sire/Warner Bros./Rhino): an overview for the uninitiated, this favors the odds over the evens (the albums most worth owning whole: More Songs About Buildings and Food, Remain in Light, Little Creatures), does what it can with their dead end, and starts with their first single, omitted from their first album so they can cash in here. A
  • Rokia Traoré: Bowmboï (2004, Nonesuch): so delicately stated she won't overwhelm you, which is usually how African (in this case Malian) music has to break through, but so beguiling that you feel the need to search her out, to nail down the nuances -- balafon, ngoni, discreet strings from the Kronos Quartet. A-
  • McCoy Tyner: Tender Mercies (1967 [2004], Blue Note): a nonet with a lot of brass and James Spaulding flute, thickly arranged but rather impersonal, without much space for the pianist; this was the first of Tyner's many efforts at extended orchestration, and has its moments. B
  • Robert Wyatt: Solar Flares Burn for You (1972-2003 [2003], Cuneiform): mostly early '70s tracks, billed as the missing link between Matching Mole and Rock Bottom; if you know those references you probably recognize Wyatt as a truly wonderful singer, as opposed to the more common perception that he is an extraordinarily wretched one, but be warned that this is a very mixed bag of odds and sods, some of which (e.g., his impersonation of "Little Child" and the agitprop of "Righteous Rhumba") I find painful to listen to, others I'm glad to own ("Blimey O'Riley," "'Twas Brillig," "I'm a Believer"). B-

Additional Consumer News

Many times I don't ask for (or don't get) reissues of music that I already know from previous editions. Since those reissues are often more important than the ones that I do ask for, I thought it would be fair and useful to note some of what's missing above -- the Blue Notes being the case in point. All of the following have been reissued in their RVG series, remastered, some with bonus cuts. Beware that I haven't heard the new packages: my notes and grades are based on older issues. As a rule of thumb, bonus cuts make the record longer, not better, but usually not worse either. But each case is likely to be different, so caveat emptor.

  • Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers: Buhaina's Delight (1961, Blue Note): something for everyone, including fancy three-part horn arrangements and drum solos; I prefer the drum solos, but the whole group bursts with ideas. A-
  • Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers: Free for All (1964, Blue Note): three parts as intense as Blakey ever got (which is saying something), the fourth a light latin thing which Freddie Hubbard aces. B+
  • Dexter Gordon: Doin' Alright (1961, Blue Note): Freddie Hubbard adds little to this one, and the rhythm section is run of the mill, but Gordon on his own is glorious, as big and bold as ever. B+
  • Joe Henderson: Inner Urge (1964, Blue Note): not quite as great as Rollins or Coltrane, but in a quartet with Sonny's bassist and Trane's pianist and drummer he shows you how close he can get. A-
  • Joe Henderson: In 'n Out (1964, Blue Note): adding Kenny Dorham is a mixed blessing -- Henderson has always been very responsive to other horn players, but it means his sax is less central, as does the fact that McCoy Tyner is on such a roll. B+
  • Andrew Hill: Black Fire (1963, Blue Note): an auspicious debut album by a major pianist, progressive but not far out of mainstream, a quartet with superb piano and Joe Henderson in fine form. A-
  • Jackie McLean: Destination . . . Out! (1963, Blue Note): one of McLean's most adventurous records, yet subtle and eminently listenable, with major roles for Grachan Moncur III (trombone and principal writer) and Bobby Hutcherson (vibes). A-
  • The Horace Silver Quintet: Serenade to a Soul Sister (1968, Blue Note): the usual unmistakable gospel-tinged funk, with the odd pairing of Charles Tolliver and Stanley Turrentine (or Bennie Maupin) as naturally comfy as the lion and lamb in Peaceable Kingdom. B+



Copyright © 2004 Tom Hull.