A Consumer Guide to the Trailing Edge: Mar. 2003
by Tom Hull
This is the second installment of this monthly column, in which I round up a dozen choice new releases of more-or-less old music, covering as much stylistic terrain as I can handle.
King Sunny Ade: The Best of the Classic Years (1967-74, Shanachie). This picks two LP sides and four shorter pieces from the first dozen albums that Sunday Adenyi recorded, dating back to the tumultuous years of Nigeria's civil war and its aftermath, years that saw the collapse of highlife and the triumph of Ade's juju as the music of choice in Lagos. Still, what this has to do with politics is well nigh impossible for an outsider to discern: what we hear today are complex rhythms accented by sweet guitar and precise vocals, not urgent as with Fela, nor exuberant as with highlife, but firmly in control of a relaxed, spacious musical tapestry. It took another eight years and thirty-some albums before Island Records tried to hype Ade into the first great African crossover hope, his one brush with international fame. And it's taken another twenty years before this first smidgen of his early genius has appeared on an American label. Who knows how much more awaits discovery? A
Blue Series Essentials (2000-02, Thirsty Ear). As far as I know, this label sampler is only available at Borders Book Stores for a measly $1.99. Which is to say, it should be trash, but it isn't. That's because it is consistent, rooted in a single well-defined musical concept, and because its variety adds to the picture instead of fragmenting it. In other words, it is exactly what you'd want in an introductory genre-exploring compilation. That this is a single-label thing is due to its executive producer and omnipresent pianist, Matthew Shipp. The concept is to reconceive avant-jazz on a framework of electronics, or alternatively to push electronica into improvisation by lining up extraordinarily sensitive and savvy acoustic musicians. Shipp himself swings both ways, with his characteristic heavily-chorded piano on Nu Bop and dense synthesizer elsewhere. And while the high point is acoustic -- Tim Berne's bracing saxophone from The Shell Game -- the last word goes to the roiling industrialism that Spring Heel Jack forged from a who's who of Europe's most creative corps. I've never heard a sampler before that made me want to hear a third of the product, but this one makes me want to hear it all. A-
John Coltrane: A Love Supreme: Deluxe Edition (1964-65, Impulse, 2CD). The original album, standing alone on the first CD, unadorned in its scant 32-minute length, remains one of the most astonishing pieces of music ever recorded. In Coltrane's discography, A Love Supreme is on the cusp, his last fully coherent album before his free fall into cacophony, and a good part of what makes it so great is its pregnant tension -- Elvin Jones' feathered drums and Jimmy Garrison's bass patching up the surface of a music that Coltrane threatens to rip asunder. The second disc combines a remarkably pungent live performance in France seven months hence with alternate takes, for once adding measurably to the focal work. A
Cuisine Non-Stop: An Introduction to the French Nouvelle Generation (1996-2000, Luaka Bop). Compiler David Byrne has complained that viewing other people and cultures as exotic creates an artificial distance between "us" and "them," but this distance doesn't seem artificial at all: it seems like the point. Whereas Byrne's "Brazil Classics" series, at least until he discovered Tom Zé, picked surefire hits from big stars, these artists must be nearly as obscure in Paris as in Paducah. And they sure don't sound nouvelle either; if France had its own organic country (as opposed to folk) music, this might be its alt. But since France (unlike the U.S.) is consciously part of the world, this is worldlier. Which does make it exotic, and does make it elusive, even when I can follow the parlez. I just wonder why I like the two songs with English words (not lyrics) best, and why I can't stand the one called "La Politique." I think it's because nothing overcomes distance like a good beat. B+
Finger Poppin' and Stompin' Feet (1960-62, Capitol). Allen Toussaint's reign at Minit Records was the real shine on the golden age of New Orleans r&b: while his piano merely carried on the tradition from Champion Jack Dupree to Fats Domino, Toussaint's genius was in how he orchestrated voices and horns to add drama and humor to novelties by a motley group of minor artists -- Jessie Hill, Ernie K-Doe, Benny Spellman, Aaron Neville, Irma Thomas, the Showmen. As Minit comps go, I still prefer the first disc of EMI Legends' (out-of-print) The Minit Records Story (1994), which is longer and odder, but this comes very close. A
Coleman Hawkins: The Bebop Years (1939-49, Proper, 4CD). The Grammophone Guide called Hawkins "the fount of all worthwhile saxophone playing." When Hawkins died, Sonny Rollins said, "This about my master and idol. I should like to be sad now at his passing, but alas this thing is impossible for instead I find myself happy. Forever happy and grateful that he came." Those quotes refer to Affinity's box set of early Hawk, but that just gets you to the edge of the modern age of jazz. This budget box plunges straight into the primest of all Hawkins eras, cherry picking from his famous "Body and Soul" through his famous "Picasso" -- the art of the saxophone. Magnificent. A+
Howlin' Wolf: Moanin' at Midnight: The Memphis Recordings (1951-52, Fuel 2000). Way back before Sam Phillips found his "white boy who could sing black," he settled for blacks. The one standout on those Sun Blues comps is Chester Burnett, who didn't get to record before he turned 40, but by then had combined Charley Patton's growl, Sonny Boy's harp, and Funny Papa Smith's nickname into the wholly original package known as Howlin' Wolf. These are some of his earliest recordings, a tad less commanding than his prime Chess recordings (start almost anywhere, but Howlin' Wolf/Moanin' in the Midnight and The Real Folk Blues/More Real Folk Blues are especially choice), but not just for completists. A-
New Order: Retro (1981-2002, London, 4CD). The box set craze was built on the conceit that a lavish box would be the ultimate in career validation, something we should thank some Academy for, as opposed to the usual forces that drive capitalism. But like most monuments, they tend to be useless: even when they aren't larded with trivia they are often redundant, poorly conceived, or downright perverse. Still, this set works better than most, for two reasons: the first is that New Order is a rather anonymous sounding dance-singles band, trading in minor variations on major beat; the second is that rather than try to rationalize their careers, they threw up their hands and invited four outsiders to compile four separate views of the band. The reshuffle is endlessly listenable, even "Live," which makes up in raw personality much of what it loses sonically. A-
Amy Rigby: 18 Again: An Anthology (1996-2000, Koch). This condenses three albums worth owning whole, and tacks on a previously unreleased song (marginal) and a demo (intimate) for the handful of fans who love her enough to buy anything; which is to say that the album's unnecessary, unless you missed out before Koch consigned her albums to oblivion. But it does focus on her songwriting, deconstructing marriage ("Beer and Kisses," "20 Questions"), reconstucting "The Summer of My Wasted Youth," and puzzling over the enigma of her non-stardom: "I put some makeup on/I dress like someone half my age/I write it in a song/I even get up on a stage/I'm still invisible." A
Jimmy Rushing: Cat Meets Chick/The Jazz Odyssey of James Rushing Esq. (1955-56, Collectables). Rushing was the prototype for the Kansas City blues shouter, but he never meant to be anything but a jazz singer. This may have been because he never had to shout to make a point: his timing and delivery were so natural, his swing so effortless, that his staple blues just defy gravity. This resurrects two '50s albums that he cut with his fellow Basie alumnus Buck Clayton, and Clayton provides joyous lift throughout. The first set has Rushing trading songs with the competent Ada Moore, but if the idea there was to use her as a foil like Velma Middleton was for Louis Armstrong, they never go anywhere with it. But Clayton and Rushing sound terrific, and the second set is a tour de force. A
Wayne Shorter: The Classic Blue Note Recordings (1960-89, Blue Note, 2CD). Shorter's Footprints Live album was clearly the jazz critics' consensus album of the year in 2002, but much of the praise heaped onto it smells like anxious relief that Shorter may indeed still be worthy of the pantheon for which he was earmarked forty years ago. The fact is that after auspicious turns with Art Blakey and Miles Davis and a series of highly regarded solo albums, since 1970 Shorter all but vanished into the watercolors of Joe Zawinul's Weather Report. This set at last puts the picture back into focus: the first disc distills Shorter's solo albums, heavily emphasizing his muscular tenor over his atmospheric soprano; the second disc highlights sideman performances, mostly with Blakey, but the two relatively late pieces with pianist Michel Petrucciani are lovely. And team player that Shorter is, his own sidemen get a lot of licks in, especially trumpeters Lee Morgan and Freddie Hubbard. A
James Talley: Touchstones (2002, Cimarron). Sure, I'm cheating here: these are new recordings of old songs, a practice that normally deserves its own circle in hell. But in Talley's case he's not so much reclaiming old catalog for new label as he is trying to figure out the crisis that occurs to so many of us when we realize that our lives are mostly shot with not nearly as much to show as once we had hoped for. Talley's career peaked with the four albums he recorded for Capitol in 1975-77, the source of these simple, plainspoken, elegant songs. After that he pretty much vanished, until he set up his own label in 1999 and recorded a fine set of Woody Guthrie songs. He's in good voice here, and takes delight in the music as well as the memories. Hope he finds his muse again. A-
Additional Consumer News
The Coleman Hawkins box reviewed above is only the second 4CD box from Proper that I've heard. The other one is called Doughboys, Playboys and Cowboys: The Golden Years of Western Swing, and it's the best overview of the genre I've heard. These sets sell for about $21 where I shop, and I'd love to hear more.
Anyone who wants to follow up on Hawkins should especially be on the lookout for: Coleman Hawkins Encounters Ben Webster (1957, Verve); Soul (1958, Prestige); Very Saxy (1959, Prestige); Duke Ellington Meets Coleman Hawkins (1962, Impulse); and Today and Now (1962, Impulse).
Copyright © 2003 Tom Hull.