I think any one of these releases would be received gratefully by a person who listens with both ears.
By Steve Elman
Two years ago in the Fuse, I provided thumbnail sketches of ten CDs that I thought would make great holiday gifts for the jazzperson on your list. I knew that I couldn’t possibly listen to even ten percent of all the jazz CDs released in the previous twelve months, and, even so, only time could determine whether any of them had lasting value.
So here’s my harvest of music for 2016. (And see below if you’d like to review my 2014 recommendations.) I think any one of these releases would be received gratefully by a person who listens with both ears. Because of the cruelties of the music biz, not all of them are currently easy to find; I provide notes on the availability of each below.
Jane Ira Bloom’s new CD Early Americans has already been recommended by my colleague Michael Ullman [http://artsfuse.org/152006/jazz-cd-round-up-jane-ira-bloom-robert-glasper-wadada-leo-smith-anna-webber-and-more/], and I can’t improve on his comments. So here are eleven more items (with one additional ringer) for your potential shopping list.
Jaki Byard (with Joe Farrell): Jaki Byard Quartet Live! (Prestige, 1966) and The Last from Lennie’s (Prestige, 2003)
Pianist Byard is a revered personality at the New England Conservatory, where he was a godfather figure to dozens of young musicians. To hear him at his rollicking greatest, find these two releases, recorded in 1965, which also capture saxophonist Joe Farrell at his most inventive and memorialize one of the great New England jazz clubs, Lennie’s on the Turnpike. The band is rounded out by another Boston saint of music, drummer Alan Dawson, and bassist George Tucker, the composer of “Comin’ Home Baby.” If you can snag both CDs, you’ll have two takes of Byard’s originals “Twelve” and “Dolphy,” and you won’t mind a bit. Live! is out of print, but it can be found, used and unfortunately expensive. The Last from Lennie’s is also out of print and available used, but it is hearable via Spotify and tracks are also available as MP3 downloads. (Note to producer extraordinaire Michael Cuscuna: these are perfect candidates for reissue on Mosaic, hopefully with bonus tracks.)
Shelly Manne (with Coleman Hawkins and Eddie Costa): 2 3 4 (Impulse, 1962) [reissued by Poll Winners (2013) as a single CD with Modern Jazz Performances of Songs from My Fair Lady [Contemporary, 1957])
Drummer Shelly Manne’s 2 3 4 shouldn’t have worked at all as an LP. It combined four tracks from a session with tenor saxophone master Hawkins with three from a session featuring Costa, a brilliant player of vibes and piano who died at 32. But every track had a vibrant individual identity, and this fact made the entire release a gem. Pianist Hank Jones, who appears here as a supporting player on the Hawkins tracks, has never sounded better. Even the hoary old standard “Avalon” gets a reading that will make you listen with both ears. Hearable via Spotify, with tracks also available as MP3 downloads. (The only available CD version, issued by Poll Winners, also contains a pleasant trio date of songs from “My Fair Lady” with Andre Previn and Leroy Vinnegar.)
Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane: At Carnegie Hall (Blue Note / Thelonious, 2005)
This live set, recorded by the Voice of America in 1957, took almost 50 years to be released commercially, and it preserves one of the most important collaborations in jazz history. Coltrane’s short stay in Monk’s band was crucial for both artists – Coltrane learned about “Chords! Chords! Chords!”(as he later said) from Monk, and Monk spent the rest of his life trying to find a tenor player who could match Coltrane’s genius. But, until this concert was rediscovered and issued, there was only a dreadful amateur recording of a club date to show what the group was like in its prime. This recording is The One to Have. It is inexhaustible in its artistic brilliance, and its sound quality is superb. Hearable via Spotify and available in CD form, with tracks also available as MP3 downloads.
Archie Shepp: The Way Ahead (Impulse, 1969)
Archie Shepp was the first post-Coltrane saxophonist to establish an identity distinct from that of his mentor, and this release is one of his greatest recordings, so firmly grounded in the tradition that even listeners afraid of “the avant-garde” will find lasting pleasure in it. The showpiece is “The Stroller,” a slow, slow blues with Shepp’s tenor shouting and moaning above rock-solid rhythm. Other pleasures: he mimics the creature’s clomping footsteps (and its rampage) in “Frankenstein,” and acknowledges his debt to Ben Webster in a definitive version of Ellington’s “Sophisticated Lady.” The 1998 CD reissue is remastered perfectly, and it contains two more tracks recorded a year after the original session. Hearable via Spotify and available in CD form, with tracks also available as MP3 downloads.
Art Tatum: 20th Century Piano Genius (Verve, 1996)
If you (or your potential giftee) only know Art Tatum by reputation and are curious about how a musician could inspire such passionate encomia, this set (two and a quarter hours long!) will bring you enlightenment. It’s not just his astonishing piano technique. The real reason you want to hear Tatum is the sound-world he created. No other musician in any genre so completely defined a particular way of thinking about music; once you have visited his world, you will want to return whenever your aesthetic batteries need a recharge. Not to mention Tatum’s overwhelming understanding of the piano and his ability to make it into his personal orchestra. You may ask: why this set over other, bigger collections? Because this is the complete edition of the recordings made by Ray Heindorf, musical director for Warner Brothers films, with Tatum playing for a few invited guests at Heindorf’s home. The gasps you hear at the end of some tunes are the honest reactions of the listeners, who, after all, were mere mortals like yourself. Hearable via Spotify and available in CD form, with tracks also available as MP3 downloads.
Steve Kuhn (with Steve Slagle and Sheila Jordan): Life’s Backward Glances – Solo and Quartet (ECM, 2008; a boxed-set reissue of Ecstasy (1975), Motility (1977), and Playground (1980)
This three-CD set is the best introduction to Steve Kuhn that you can buy. It includes a masterful solo piano album, an instrumental quartet date with the fiery alto saxophonist Steve Slagle, and one of the three CDs Kuhn made co-leading a quartet with singer Sheila Jordan. Each of the CDs alone is deeply satisfying; together they are a banquet. And if you don’t know Kuhn’s work, you should buy this for yourself. The set is available in CD form and tracks area available as MP3 downloads. Only the solo-piano set, Ecstasy, is still available separately as a CD.
SF Jazz Collective: Live 2010 – 7th Annual Concert Tour – The Works of Horace Silver plus New Compositions (SF Jazz, 2010)
This octet, composed of an annually-shifting group of artists who are all leaders in their own right, is at its absolute peak (and that’s saying something) in this three-CD set. It contains the entire repertoire from their 2010 tour – eight superbly inventive arrangements of classic Horace Silver tunes (including “Song for My Father” in 7/4!) and eight road-tested originals. The players include immensely talented alto saxophonist Miguel Zenón, vibes star Stefon Harris, trombone virtuoso Robin Eubanks, Israeli bass whiz Avishai Cohen, and four other outstanding musicians working as a seamless team. Available only as a CD set.
Martial Solal: Live at the Village Vanguard – I Can’t Give You Anything but Love (CAM Jazz, 2009)
French pianist-composer Solal turns 90 in August next year. This set, recorded when he was 80, perfectly documents one aspect of his work – his solo piano recitals – and it is as fresh as anything played by an artist half, or even a quarter of, his age. At the time of this performance, his technique seemed undiminished by time, and his sense of humor was sharper than ever. (I hesitate to call it Gallic, but that’s the way it seems to me: simultaneously wise, wry and charming.) Who, other than Solal, would have the guts to insert a stride piano passage into Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Corcovado” and make it work so well? Hearable via Spotify and available in CD form, with tracks also available as MP3 downloads.
Tierney Sutton Band: On the Other Side (Telarc, 2007)
This CD should satisfy anyone who craves good jazz singing by a canny song interpreter. It seemed a well-wrought concept album when it came out – the tunes are all associated in one way or another with “happiness,” and nearly all are given dark and/or clever twists. It’s an idea at least as old as Barbra Streisand’s version of “Happy Days Are Here Again,” which Sutton covers here, in two dramatically different versions. But after 54 years, Streisand’s idea seems a little fey and forced, while Sutton’s concept has gained gravitas. By the way, her band, led by pianist Christian Jacob, is a model of sensitive support. The only flaw on this CD is the singing of trumpeter Jack Sheldon, whom I have always thought of more as an entertainer with jazz edges rather than a serious player. Fortunately, he sings on only one track, and you can skip that one easily. Available only in CD form.
Matt Wilson’s Big Happy Family: Beginning of a Memory (Palmetto, 2016)
Drummer Wilson impresses me more every time I hear him, and he has made several outstanding CDs, but this one is almost beyond category. Even if you loathe the idea of a “concept album” (see Tierney Sutton’s CD above) you cannot fail to recognize the iconoclastic brilliance of Wilson’s tribute to his late wife Felicia. It’s a multi-player extravaganza that exuberantly celebrates her life, almost without a tear. In fact, the seventeen short tracks (including some with studio chatter) are something like a wake after the booze has been flowing for an hour or so. Wilson has twelve other friends along for the party, including trumpeter Terell Stafford, a long-time colleague and definitely a talent worthy of wider attention. At the heart of the CD are two deeply touching performances, “Flowers for Felicia,” with Wilson taking a brushes-only solo that is an unmistakable valentine, and “No Outerwear,” Wilson’s wry contrafact on “I Remember You.” This could be the most original In Memoriam ever recorded. Available in CD form, with tracks also available as MP3 downloads.
Albert Murray, Collected Essays and Memoirs, edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Paul Devlin. Library of America, 1049 pages. $45.
Not a CD, of course, but filled with music nonetheless. In these times of public venom, it is a tonic to open this massive volume of Albert Murray’s non-fiction and read his piercing observations on American culture that never doubt the greatness of the American character. Murray is often thought of as a novelist, or a music critic, or a civil rights crusader, but he described himself as an “ever nimble and ever resourceful mythological Alabama jackrabbit in the no less actual than mythological Alabama briarpatch”; “an all-purpose literary intellectual”; and an “omni-American.” Each of those descriptions is richly fulfilled by this collection. If you’ve come close to losing faith in the American experiment, here is a man of slave heritage (he hated defining people by their color) who will renew it.
Here are the CDs I recommended in 2014:
Jane Ira Bloom: Sixteen Sunsets (Outline, 2013)
Ornette Coleman: Sound Grammar (Phrase Text, 2006)
John Coltrane: Coltrane’s Sound (originally Atlantic, 1964)
Ella Fitzgerald: Twelve Nights in Hollywood (Verve, 2009)
Bobby Hutcherson: Wise One (Kind of Blue, 2009)
Keith Jarrett & Charlie Haden: Jasmine (ECM, 2010) and Last Dance (ECM, 2014)
Sheila Jordan: Portrait of Sheila (originally Blue Note, 1963)
Modern Jazz Quartet: European Concert, Vols. 1 and 2 (Collectables Jazz Classics, 2006)
Horace Silver: The Jody Grind (originally Blue Note, 1967)
George Russell: The African Game (Blue Note, 1983)
Steve Elman’s four decades (and counting) in New England public radio have included ten years as a jazz host in the 1970s, five years as a classical host in the 1980s, a short stint as senior producer of an arts magazine, thirteen years as assistant general manager of WBUR, and currently, on-call status as fill-in classical host on 99.5 WCRB since 2011. He was jazz and popular music editor of The Schwann Record and Tape Guides from 1973 to 1978 and wrote free-lance music and travel pieces for The Boston Globe and The Boston Phoenix from 1988 through 1991.