A Consumer Guide to the Trailing Edge: August, 2009

Recycled Goods (#65)

by Tom Hull

Back in January 2008 I put Recycled Goods on the shelf, figuring it was taking up too much of my time and not doing me enough good to make it all worthwhile. In April 2008 I found myself with enough notes piled up I decided to resurrect it as a monthly blog post, with no guarantee of how much I'd cover from month to month -- it wound up ranging from 3 to 34 records. In April 2009 I again pulled the plug, this time in anticipation of getting back in the game. I wanted to get a co-author working with me to split the load, and to find a new publisher who would give us some pull to cover reissues and vault finds more systematically than I had ever managed in 64 columns (adding up to 2401 records reviewed). I haven't given up on that, but we haven't gotten it done either. And stuff is piling up, so I'm back running monthly posts on the blog until something breaks. What follows is mostly jazz, and nowhere near all the jazz I could have culled from my Jazz Prospecting blog, plus the occasional world music more often new than old -- another unsettled issue hereabouts. Tracking reissues remains a big job, and it's always been hard to get a real grip on it. One would, for instance, like to weigh in on the Neil Young archives and the latest reported sonic upgrades to the Beatles catalog, a more scattered series of Rolling Stones reissues, the recent repackaging of Bob Wills' Tiffany Transcriptions, Mosaic's big box of Louis Armstrong's Decca Sessions, and any number of other items. The problem, at least in those cases, isn't lack of background familiarity but plain old logistics. With no more venue than my blog, I gave up trying to hustle those items. Still, it would be nice to get the exposure to make this work. The appetite, at least, is back.

Dave Brubeck: Time Out [Legacy Edition] (1959-64 [2009], Columbia/Legacy, 2CD+DVD): Every song in a different time signature -- the sort of neat trick an egghead like Brubeck with the degree to back it up might do. The big surprise is how little notice you'd give to the concept, for the simple reason that the pieces seem so organic and complete. "Take Five" sounded so timeless it broke through the charts and sold over a million copies. Brubeck's popularity, like Keith Jarrett's a couple decades later, always seemed a bit excessive: not undeserved, just not fairly distributed. But you couldn't charge his group with selling out or pandering. Maybe you'd complain that Paul Desmond played the most simply gorgeous alto saxophone since Johnny Hodges, but that sounds more like a compliment. Time Out's success encouraged sequels -- the five discs collected in For All Time hold up pretty well (especially Time Further Out). A best-of might have made good filler for the second disc, but Legacy opted instead to plunder the previously unreleased live archives instead, picking from 1961, 1963, and 1964 sets at Newport. Mostly standard in the usual time -- "St. Louis Blues," "Pennies From Heaven," "You Go to My Head" -- they showcase a superb group fleet on their toes. Closes with slightly stretched versions of their two best-known Time Out classics, tying the package up neatly. As for the DVD -- 30 minutes of interview, performance footage, and an "interactive, multi-camera piano lesson" -- another day. A- [single disc: A]

Miles Davis: Sketches of Spain [Legacy Edition] (1959-60 [2009], Columbia/Legacy, 2CD): The third of three major collaborations between Davis and Gil Evans, following Miles Ahead and Porgy and Bess. Spiced with Spanish themes, leading offwith Joaquin Rodrigo's slow and moody "Concierto de Aranjuez (Adagio)" -- 16:20 on the original album -- and fleshed out with Evans compositions. The first disc leaves the album intact, signing off after 45:36. Evans keeps his cleverness under tight wraps, producing a subtle background tapestry that never distracts you from the leader's trumpet -- the saving grace here. The second disc adds 70:10 of alternate takes and miscellaneous scraps -- more of the same, but without the flow. B [single album: B+]

Freddie Hubbard: Without a Song: Live in Europe 1969 (1969 [2009], Blue Note): Few jazz men made a bigger splash when they first broke in than Hubbard. From 1960 through 1965 he seemed to be everywhere, straddling hard bop and the avant-garde, filling in Miles Davis slots and adding a little extra splash, dropping a series of good-to-very-good records under his own name. He made his mark with chops and flexibility, and declined rather quickly after that, first losing opportunities, then losing his touch. In 1969 he was still a force, with a couple of good fusion-oriented albums still ahead of him -- Red Clay and Straight Life in 1970. He died in 2008 after a belated and unspectacular comeback shot, pushed largely by David Weiss, who helped assemble this set from three concerts in England and Germany. Seems fairly typical of his repertoire, but his "A Night in Tunisia" doesn't eclipse Gillespie's, and the other standards are unexceptional. But he does break through with expansive solos on the two originals at the end, "Space Talk" and "Hub-Tones." And Roland Hanna's fans will find his fills of interest. B+

Charles Mingus: Mingus Ah Um [Legacy Edition] (1959 [2009], Columbia/Legacy, 2CD): Frantically label-hopping in the late 1950s, Mingus landed at Columbia for two albums: the title album here on the first disc, and the erratic follow-up, Mingus Dynasty, that fills most of the second disc. The former is an undoubted masterpiece. Mingus learned jazz from the ground up, playing trad with Kid Ory, swinging with Red Norvo, apprenticing with Duke Ellington, bopping with Bird and Max Roach, finding his own path through the avant-garde. The nine neatly trimmed songs on the original Mingus Ah Um take a postmodern tack on jazz history, with gospel welling up in "Better Get It in Your Soul," nods to "Jelly Roll" and "Bird Calls" and an "Open Letter to Duke" and a gorgeous remembrance of Lester Young called "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat." But they don't imitate the past; they subsume it, catapulting it into the future as urgent testimony, which was most explicit in "Fables of Faubus," heaping scorn on the segregationist governor of Arkansas. Mingus was never more Ellingtonian, but everything was updated: his septet thinner but more rambunctious, the gentility and elegance giving way to cleverness and fury. While the first disc -- even fleshed out with the edits restored and padded with redundant alternate takes -- was as perfect as jazz records get, the second slops back and forth between aimless sections and wildly inspired ones. The new edition omits three alternate takes from the 3-CD The Complete 1959 Columbia Recordings -- no great loss -- and it frames Mingus Dynasty better by starting it off with alternate takes to "Better Get It in Your Soul" and "Jelly Roll." A [single albums: Mingus Ah Um A+; Mingus Dynasty A-]

Olatunji: Drums of Passion [Legacy Edition] (1959-66 [2009], Columbia/Legacy, 2CD): One of the first albums of African music to appear in the US, no doubt because Babatunde Olatunji, a Yoruba from southwest Nigeria, got a scholarship to study at Morehouse College in Georgia, then moved on to New York, where he set up his percussion ensemble as a side project while studying public administration. With its dense percussion and crude, chantlike vocals, this seems geared to contemporary stereotypes of Africa, but it doesn't pander: it stands tall and forthright. The album became a huge bestseller. The band expanded, with some notable jazz names joining in on the bonus tracks: Clark Terry, Yusef Lateef, Jerome Richardson, Bud Johnson, Ray Barretto. Second disc features the long-out-of-print More Drums of Passion. Cut 7 years later, it seems less of a novelty, especially with the irresistible groove of "Mbira." A- [single albums: Drums of Passion B+(***); More A-]

Tito Puente: Dance Mania [Legacy Edition] (1956-60 [2009], RCA/Legacy, 2CD): A Puerto Rican timbalero from Spanish Harlem, Puente jumped onto the Cuban bandwagon in the mid-1950s, releasing albums like Cuban Carnival and Cubarama before this breakthrough party album. The band is huge, the blaring brass rather clunky, and the beats a bit more basic than what the real Cubans were doing -- Pérez Prado, in particular, managed to sound more pop and at the same time more radical -- but the energy is cranked up high and the vocals exude passion. This package expands the original 12-cut 37:50 album to 22 cuts to fill the first disc, then offers Dance Mania Vol. 2, again pumped up from 12 to 23 cuts. The prime slice is slightly leaner and cleaner, but it's hard to nitpick the rest: more is truly more. A- [single albums: Dance Mania A-; Vol. 2 B+(***)]

Briefly Noted

Amadou & Mariam: Welcome to Mali (2009, Because Music/Nonesuch): The famed "blind couple from Mali" have crossed over worldwide, the guitar and keyboard hooks as surefire here as anywhere, the Mali they welcome you to pretty much the same world as the Paris and London and New York and Los Angeles they inhabit equally well, in large part because they never give you the sense of being uncomfortable in their own skin. A-

Mulatu Astatke: Éthiopiques, Vol. 4: Ethio Jazz and Musique Instrumentale (1969-74 [2004], Buda Musique): An Ethiopian jazz student in London, New York, and Boston, returns full circle with an exceptionally beguiling twist: rumbling rhythm, sly guitar, gently rolling horns; works as jazz, exotica, easy listening. A-

Mulatu Astatke/The Heliocentrics: Inspiration Information Vol. 3 (2009, Strut): A lifetime of Ethiopian jazz moves recycled by Sun Ra-centrics into something resembling dub, with less echo, less Haile Selassie, more subtle groove. A-

Naftule Brandwein: King of the Klezmer Clarinet (1922-41 [1997], Rounder): Came to New York in 1908 from Galicia via Turkey, picking up some tunes along the way; his old 78s are tightly focused on his clarinet, klezmer that may well have been novel at the time but in his readings is classic now. A-

Kenny Burrell: Prime Kenny Burrell: Live at the Downtown Room (1976-2006 [2009], High Note): Six cuts as advertised, from a prime period between when Burrell recorded his two Ellington Is Forever volumes, but everyday fare, in an intimate quartet with the equally decorus Richard Wyands on piano; no Ellington there, but the seventh cut is a much later solo guitar take on "Single Petal of a Rose," which hardly seems out of place. B+

Béla Fleck: Throw Down Your Heart: Tales From the Acoustic Planet Vol. 3: Africa Sessions (2009, Rounder): Takes his banjo back to its mother continent, where it blends in seamlessly, especially in rural folk backwaters like Uganda and Tanzania, whose stars get a rare and remarkable airing. A-

Andrea Fultz: The German Projekt: German Songs From the Twenties & Thirties (2009, no label): Four songs by Friedrich Hollaender, the balance as expected by Brecht and Weill or Eisler, in German except for "Alabama Song," neither framed reverently nor updated lavishly, just as eternally amusing as those bestial acts. B+

Bobby Hutcherson: Head On (1971 [2009], Blue Note): An album from Blue Note's dog days, the great vibraphonist working with classical pianist Todd Cochran on suite things with a large band; the reissue adds 40 minutes of extras that blow away the original album, including the exciting 15:40 fusion romp "Togo Land" and some serious bebop soloing from Harold Land. B+

Jimmy Rushing: The Scene: Live in New York (1965 [2009], High Note): Nothing new or surprising for anyone who knows the great blues shouter's standard set, which doesn't make it one whit less delightful; cut with a couple of instrumentals from his opening act/backing band, featuring Zoot Sims and Al Cohn. A-

Oumou Sangare: Seya (2009, World Circuit/Nonesuch): From Mali, she pulls together all the various strands of her national music -- the desert blues, the authority of the griots, the chants and soft strings -- then kicks them up a notch, crossing wassoulou with mbalax and then some; eleven songs, most so finely balanced they already feel classic. A

Wayne Shorter: The Soothsayer (1965 [2009], Blue Note): One of his later Blue Note Sessions, unreleased until 1980, probably because the pieces didn't add up until we started to yearn for classic performances from Freddie Hubbard, McCoy Tyner, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams, and the leader, but not necessarily alto saxophonist James Spaulding, who seems like the odd cat out. B+

Ramana Vieira: Lágrimas de Rainha / Tears of a Queen (2008 [2009], Pacific Coast Jazz): A Californian contender for the queen of Portugese fado, weaned on the classics, separated from all the modernizing fads in Lisbon, remembering that the root of opera is work. B+

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Copyright © 2009 Tom Hull.