2011: Derek Taylor
R.I.P. Billy Bang & Paul Motian
Dealing indirectly with death is a regular part of being a jazz fan, in that we lose a number of elders every annum. This year the passings of Billy Bang and Paul Motian hit hardest for me. Both were active until their respective ends, evidence of the healing power of music. Motian didn’t release an album as a leader in 2011, but he did play a large part in evening out the uneven aspects of Live at Birdland, an all-star collaboration with Lee Konitz, Brad Mehldau and Charlie Haden for ECM, and performed regularly in proximity to his New York City residence. Bang also didn’t helm any new releases, but History of Jazz in Reverse, by FAB, his collaborative trio with bassist Joe Fonda and drummer Barry Altschul hits high marks and the Lithuanian label No Business did him the honor of releasing Black Man’s Blues/New York Collage, a two-disc archival set by his loft jazz-era Survival Ensemble in its warts-and-all glory.
This Danish label is an old reliable in my year-end round-ups: strong center-leaning jazz releases are their long-standing specialty. Saxophonist Stephen Riley’s Lucky Seven, a sophomore quartet date in the company of pianist Ernest Turner, bassist Neal Caine and drummer Jason Marsalis, has yet to leave my regular rotation. The blistering romp through Coltrane’s “26-2” with only Marsalis in tow consumes nearly enough creative capital for an entire additional album alone. Riley also turns in stellar guest work on the Danish GinmanBlachman Trio’s cut-to-the-chase-titled Let’s Call Stephen Riley. Brian Charette’s Learning to Count takes post-Larry Young organ to new peaks with the help of knife-toned altoist Mike DiRubbo and versatile drummer Jochen Rückert. Tenorist Rich Perry did what I’ve been hoping he’d do again for years and dropped piano from the equation for Grace, a gorgeous trio set in the company of Steeplechase staples bassist Jay Anderson and drummer Jeff Hirschfield. Lastly, there’s trumpeter Kirk Knuffke and pianist Jesse Stacken’s second duo outing, Orange was the Color, an intimate recital that delves deep into the Mingus songbook and comes out only slightly behind their earlier Ellington-centric session in terms of creative conversational catharsis.
Another predictable entry, but impossible to overlook given how completely this Lisbon-based label combines prolific output with carefully-gauged quality control. Sitting at the top of their 40(!) releases for the year by my measure is Aram Shelton’s There Was…, a striking quartet date with Chicago compatriots that sounds uncannily like a modern-day sequel to Dolphy’s Out to Lunch. Shelton’s also a big part of Cylinder, a cooperative effort with trumpeter Darren Johnston, bassist Lisa Mezzacappa and drummer Kjell Nordeson. Pianist Kris Davis turns in a terrific pair of efforts with the solo recital Aeriol Piano and as arranger/accompanist on saxophonist Tony Malaby’s large ensemble opus Novela. Cellist Daniel Levin’s solo Inner Landscape delivers a singular listening experience with the instrument sans amplification or adornments, while the merry freebop pranksters Mostly Other People Do the Killing show their unhinged live-performance side with The Coimbra Concert while cleverly aping cantankerous Keith Jarrett in the cover art. Rounding out my top seven for the label is trumpeter Nate Wooley who notched at least a half dozen releases over the year and has one of his best showings on his Quintet’s Put Your Hands Together.
Low-reed specialist Brian Landrus had a bit of a slow start to his career with earlier stints spent in safer improvisational realms, but his situation ramped up significantly this year with three strong releases. Everlasting teams his baritone saxophone and bass clarinet with trumpeter Jason Palmer and the no-nonsense rhythm team of bassist John Lockwood and drummer Bob Moses for a free-leaning set of originals. Two more entries on the Blue Land label feature further facets of Landrus’s art. Traverse is another quartet set, this time in the company of pianist Michael Cain, bassist Lonnie Plaxico and drum-doyen Billy Hart with compositions that hew closer to a post-bop framework. Capsule capitalizes on Landrus’s electro-acoustic interests, but remains the weakest of the three due to an occasional miring in the muddier side of fusion and jazz-funk. Baritone specialists are a rare commodity in improvised music, making Landrus’ continuing creative ascendancy all the more worth keeping an ear on.
Noah Kaplan’s been on record for a few years, but this Hat release was my first real exposure to his music. A pupil of dearly-departed, microtonal magician Joe Maneri, his sound on saxophones instantly brings the teacher to mind in a manner that few do. But Kaplan balances the palpable influence with a refreshingly overt jazz bent and his colleagues on the disc manage to follow his lead while making bracing statements of their own. Morris’s fret play reminds me of his early Riti work in its intricacy and spaciousness. Italian bassist Giacomo Merega’s electric strings bubble and pop in tandem with Jason Nazary’s, at times exuding a rock-injected energy. Kaplan keeps things imbued with a strange and intoxicating weightlessness that makes the set seem longer and more involving than its relatively conservative running time would suggest. Perhaps most endearing of all is the heartfelt hand-written letter from his mentor reproduced in the liners, a simple, but ringing endorsement fully substantiated by the music.
The Impulse reissue program launched in the early 1990s and continued after the label’s acquisition by Verve released a wealth of vintage New Thing jazz into the marketplace. Even with the boon though, there were some problems, namely a tendency to put out EP-sized albums at steep prices. Put another way, Three for Shepp is an amazing document, but at just over a half-hour, it can make for a frustratingly brief listen. Enter the label’s U.K. division and a new program that effectively rights this past slight. Several early releases suffer from odd pairings and a good chunk of the docket does mine the commercial fusion end of the label’s legacy fairly liberally, but there are a number of truly inspired choices as well, among them: Marion Brown’s Geechee Recollections/Sweet Earth Flying; Charles Mingus’s The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady/Mingus, Mingus, Mingus, Mingus; Duke Ellington’s Meets Coleman Hawkins/And John Coltrane; Gabor Szabo’s The Sorcerer/More Sorcery and Elvin Jones’s Illumination!/Dear John C.
Though not even a sexagenarian yet, bassist/composer/poet/activist/etc. William Parker still holds the status of elder statesman in creative improvised music. He’s well removed from anything to prove, but that’s hardly slowed him down in terms of dishing out rigorous challenges to listeners. This three-disc box is a perfect case in point containing as it does two recent solo sets and a timely reissue of his first solo album, Testimony, first released in 1994. There’s also a book of poetry penned by Parker included, but truthfully, I’ve spent most of my time trying to crack the hard sonic carapace surrounding the recent recital. Opting for bow(s) over pizzicato for protracted spans, Parker’s fierce conjuring of cement-dense arco swathes can be punishing and disorienting. What sounds on the surface like ceaselessly abrading repetitions reveals teeming cyclones of tone colors and harmonics upon closer inspection. As with the some of the best music, getting to the bottom of it all is a process at once exhausting and edifying, often in equal measure. I’m a far cry from finished yet, but the pleasures abundant in trying have yet to abate.
Released at the end of last year to little official fanfare and a limited pressing, this massive box set is also the German label’s epitaph of sorts. That second fact is a sad one, but what a way to go out. The music is a mix of reissues and previously unreleased material the likes of which sets any free improv fan worth their salt to salivating on sight. An exhaustive phonebook-sized tome runs down each and every FMP-sponsored session and concert in gloriously gratuitous detail. Illuminating essays by Bill Shoemaker, Peter Brötzmann and Ken Vandermark and others (including one detailing the protracted and contentious pathway to the label’s demise) offer editorial icing on the farewell cake. Though now out-of-print in box form, the bulk of the music is still available in single-disc servings. My favorites include: Peter Kowald’s solo Was Da Ist (Live), Schlippenbach Quartet’s At the Quartier Latin 1975/77, and Steve Lacy’s Solo/Quintet 1975/77.
Sonny Rollins Trio
I’m probably going to catch some heat for including this one in light of the likelihood that Rollins seeing a dime from its release is next to nil. Add to that the inverse probability that given his perfectionist impulses his preference is almost certainly to see the music shelved permanently rather than making the rounds in gray market circulation. Even with these harsh realities, this stuff is just way too good to let conscience countermand consumption. At three discs and just over three hours, it effectively renders an earlier (authorized?) single-disc compilation on the Swedish Dragon imprint obsolete. The majority finds Newk in the fast company of then twenty-something bassist Henry Grimes and either Pete LaRoca or Joe Harris on drums, spinning out improvisations that are bursting with humor and energy. Sound quality isn’t stellar, particularly on the lengthy jams with Kenny Clarke at the kit that concluded the March tour, but so what? In the realm of jazz history, this is the stuff of legend and it certainly lives up to that assignation.
The Jimi Hendrix Experience
Like the Rollins set, this one is saddled with complications and smells sharply of commercial opportunism. Intrusive edits abound across the set’s four discs and the various guests joining The Experience on the Winterland stage are pretty much uniformly pushed way back in the mix. An Amazon.com exclusive fifth disc is nothing more than half of an earlier Dagger Records release repackaged, and a virtually insight-free essay by David Fricke stretches embarrassingly thin across the accompanying booklet’s pages. But for those like me who never acquired the full-show bootlegs and only have the antiquated and truncated Ryko releases of this material, this box is a no-brainer. Surprisingly, what I find most impressive outside the copious amounts of ridiculously satisfying Hendrix fretwork (gaffes, goofs and all) is the bass playing of Noel Redding, particularly on the mammoth “Tax Free” jams. I’ve never been a fan of the man, but damn if his inventive contributions here don’t demand a re-evaluation.
Omni Recording Company
This low-flying Australian imprint has been quietly and reliably reissuing some of the best in weird classic country for a while now. This year was no different, and my pick amongst their output is the excellent New Beginnings/Let Me Sing My Song to You, pairing two early-’70s platters by country soul stalwart Larry Jon Wilson. Instantly recognizable as the baritone-voiced badass with an eye patch, Dick Curless is also well-served with a reissue of his 1968 booze-soaked, trucker song masterpiece The Long Lonesome Road, which contains an additional 19 tracks. Porter Wagoner protégé Norma Jean puts a double-x spin on some of the same themes throughout Heaven Help the Working Girl, the second release on the label bearing her name. A 30-track compendium of chart-placers and rarities, it includes the perfect Wagoner riposte “The Future Ex-Mrs. Jones,” along with “I Cried All the Way to the Bank” and “Your Alibi Called Today.”
Tompkins Square has been inching up in my estimation over the past few years, but the combined release of This May Be My Last Time Singing and To What Strange Place pretty much cemented its place as my favorite reissue label of the now. I wrote a lot more about both sets in Dusted’s regular pages, but the former is a near perfect assemblage of what’s weird and wonderful about fringe gospel music. The latter corrals a vibrant Middle Eastern musical diaspora into a cohesive package while simultaneously speaking to cultural truths that transcend time and space. Suffice it to say that compilers/custodians Ian Nagoski and Mike McGonigal are new additions to my pantheon of heroes.
25 more for good measure in no particular order…:
Other Dimensions in Music featuring Fay Victor – Kaiso Stories (Silkheart)
By Derek Taylor