A Consumer Guide to the Trailing Edge: November 2004 (in progress)
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 , 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 , 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 , 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 , 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 , 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 (, 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 , 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 (, 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 , 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 , 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-
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.
Copyright © 2004 Tom Hull.