Surrounded by a Sea of Silver Foliage
Year-end lists are usually premature, both in terms of formulation and publication. But even taking that obvious built-in flaw into account, I’ve been reading a surprising amount of commentary carping on what a disappointment 2007 has been record crop-wise. Not so from my admittedly jazz-tilted perch, as hopefully the purple-tinged blurbs below will persuade…
A saxophone is little more than an assemblage of vacant metal without breath and embouchure to bestow life to it. South Carolinian Stephen Riley is a master at supplying these vital agents. Rather than build his musical persona from the well-sanded blocks of Coltrane and Rollins, Riley rifled back further in the jazz canon to Don Byas and Paul Gonsalves, borrowing rudiments from each and devising a highly personal sound just as instantly identifiable and easy to get lost in. His pair of 2007 albums for the Danish Steeplechase imprint have returned to my player more times than I can accurately measure, a condition that earns him the pole position in this column. Easy to Remember teams him with estimable peers Neal Caine and Jason Marsalis (easily the coolest of that much-hyped clan) while Once Upon a Dream amplifies intimacy through a series of duets with the prosaic-named John Brown, a bassist who’s approach is anything but. Standards are Riley preferred forte, but he funnels them through an age-eradicating filter that joins lush idiosyncratic phrasing to a highly textured articulation. Again, in Riley’s world it’s all about the sound.
Jazz music earns the epithets of “egghead” and “graybeard” to an inordinate degree. Mostly Other People Do the Killing is an ensemble designed to decimate such dismissive assignations in a hail of irreverent improvisatory artillery. Under the erstwhile leadership of bassist Moppa Elliott, the quartet takes its cue from the collage and cut-up experiments of the aging New York downtown community but is hardly mimetic in its extrapolation. Add to that chops that most peers would kill for and the recipe quickly becomes a sure thing. Drummer Kevin Shea has a penchant for roundabout referents and a seemingly encyclopedic grasp of sampled hip-hop beats rendered through the old-fashioned vehicle of sticks on drum skin. Trumpeter Peter Evans and saxophonist take a similar full circle approach, bouncing blithely from Bubber Miley to Don Cherry and Johnny Hodges to Julius Hemphill on their respective horns. Elliott acts as equal parts anchor and inexhaustible creative trampoline. Their sophomore disc Shamokin!!! is a reservoir of self-replicating fun that I’ve yet to even remotely tire of.
Brooklyn-based bassist Reuben Radding quietly set a precedent this year with his populist and unbelievably generous “12 in 2007” project. Starting in January, he maintained a monthly schedule of uploads from his personal archive, making all available gratis to anyone with an Internet connection that might be interested. The quality and breadth of the music is spectacular, showing multiple sides of Radding’s artistry and also containing exemplary work from a legion of impressive improv collaborators, among them: vibraphonist Matt Moran, clarinetist Oscar Noriega, drummer Harris Eisenstadt, trumpeter Nate Wooley, bassist Damon Smith, flautist Robert Dick and others. Radding’s only request for recompense: constructive feedback on the sounds. All twelve entries are still available through the end of this month so get ‘em while you can.
The deaths of Derek Bailey in December of 2005 and Paul Rutherford in 2007 left craters of musical creativity that can’t be filled. Rutherford’s passing was all the more painful with the awareness of his insolvency and anguish at the time of his demise. The mammoth 3-disc Iskra 1903 - Chapter Two and the posthumous Solo in Berlin 1975 served as fitting bookends to the year as well as monuments to his memory. Producer Martin Davidson expressed some trepidation with the latter, not wishing to appear to cash in on his friend’s legacy. It’s a concern without cause as Solo brings to light some of the trombonist’s finest playing on record. The set also illustrates what Rutherford was up against in the form of hecklers, the audible presence of whom Davidson has judiciously diminished. Bailey’s memory was served by the release of Standards on Tzadik, a solo session initially shelved in favor of the more accessible Ballads. As it turns out the first stab is an even better prospect than its successor with Bailey in more familiar form throughout a wry plectral stroll through the American Songbook.
Tzadik also deserves applause for its spotlight on Invite the Spirit, a multicultural improv ensemble comprised of guitarist Henry Kaiser, kayagum virtuoso Sang Won Park and percussionist Charles K. Noyes. A 2006 reunion date hit the racks late in ’06 followed shortly thereafter by a reissue of the trio’s original 1983 double album. Most striking in a juxtaposition of the two dates are the changes in Kaiser’s playing, the effects of a quarter century of globe-trotting coming through in variegated fretwork that maps a spectrum from Derek Bailey pointillism to Malagasy blues while never losing sight of the band’s initial inspirations in contemporary Korean court music.
Delmark continues its dogged crusade of releasing air shots and location recordings of traditional jazz from what seems like a bottomless trove. Out of a number of tough contenders, my choice amongst this year’s offerings is the Jazz O’Maniacs’ Sunset Café Stomp, available in dual disc and DVD formats. Despite their unequivocally goofy moniker these Deustch Dixielanders are all about bringing the irreverent spirit of the music to the masses. The bulk of the disc comes from a gig at Bixfest in Racine, Wisconsin where the band proves the wisdom inherent to its drastically retooled rhythm section, dispensing with string bass and trap kit and getting it done with banjo, tuba and washboard. The visuals on the DVD bring all the raucous lunacy into even bolder focus and the disc caps with a single selection from another gig at a Chicago area hardware store! As party records go, I’d be hard pressed to name a better one released this year.
Both a return to roots for ECM and ample evidence of Roscoe Mitchell’s ambitious composerly aims, Composition/Improvisation, Nos. 1, 2 & 3 assembles a Transatlantic dream band in the company of his British counterpart Evan Parker. Ever wonder what a drum dust-up between Paul Lytton and Note Factory-regular Tanni Tabbal would sound like? Look no further. A choir of soaring coruscating strings featuring Philipp Wachsmann, Craig Taborn, Barry Guy and Jaribu Shahid? It’s here. Mitchell guides the massive group with a maestro’s touch and the signature starkness of ECM production makes everyone cleanly audible, even the most dissonant and cacophonous passages, of which there are a surprising number. Release of the Parker-led portion of the project is slated for early next year.
The Smalls label is still low on radar of most jazz listeners, this despite several euphonic coups, chief among them the stewardship of deceased bebop doyen Frank Hewitt’s recorded legacy. Producer Luke Kaven isn’t shy about expounding on unsung talent and in addition to sheparding new releases by the likes of erudite saxophonists Ned Goold and Chris Bryars he also pressed his promoter’s acumen in the service of one Zaid Nasser. Nasser’s back-story, full of colorful character details like a glass eye and several years spent as an expatriate in Armenia, is the usual one of a great talent gone largely ignored. He’s since departed these shores again, this time for Dubai, and while there’s no telling when he’ll return, at least he left behind a debut album, one prophetically titled Escape From New York.
A fascinating set of bookends to the recurring partnership Roswell Rudd and Steve Lacy shared over the years, the bulk of Early and Late discs is given over to concert clips from a 2002. In the company of regular confreres bassist Jean-Jacques Avenel and drummer John Betsch the pair runs through the usual set lists of Lacy and Monk numbers. The conversational interplay between the horns is lengthy and illuminating. The icing is a handful of extant studio sides by the epochal School Days band. No Henry Grimes, but that’s a small quibble and the music manages to match expectations brought by its historical import.
Poll those who attended the 2003 Vision Festival and the set named most often as deserving of keynote merit is probably the one captured on this Ayler release. Chicagoans Fred Anderson and Harrison Bankhead took the cluttered Orensanz Art Center stage and gave a master class in improvisatory rapport. Initially, Fred rolls out his customary cerulean peregrinations, but Harrison’s subtle coaxing pulls the older man out of his comfort zone. The recorded document The Great Vision Concert may not rival my rarified memory of the event, but it’s still a handy facsimile and simultaneously one of the most satisfying entries in either man’s discography.
Previously unreleased archival finds are becoming something of a cottage industry. This Blue Note set this year’s standard with nearly 135-minutes of unheard Mingus, and not just run-of-the-mill Mingus (is there such an animal?), but prime material by arguably his greatest band. A Dusted review goes into greater detail, but pretty much anyone who’s heard about this release probably has a copy on the shelf by now. An ideal complement, the Jazz Icons’ Charles Mingus - Live in ‘64 DVD entry delivers an additional two hours of footage by the same band minus trumpeter Johnny Coles. The extended opportunity to watch the dapper and debonair Dannie Richmond bang the cans up close and personal, working drags from cigarette into his acrobatic stick play, is just one reason to bring this one home.
One of the more aggravating trends in the music industry is the repeated repackaging and resale of material to consumers under marginally different guises. In simpler terms, how many times does a person have to purchase A Love Supreme before they possess the “definitive” version? Two projects of this sort that actually evinced common sense fell under the Coltrane rack card. My Favorite Things: Coltrane at Newport scrubs down material from two of the saxophonist’s pivotal stands on the East Coast Festival stage, the first from ’63 with Roy Haynes adroitly filling in drum duties for an AWOL Elvin Jones and the second featuring the classic quintet intact and roaring in ’65. Interplay, the second in Concord’s scheduled trilogy of Trane sets covering the Prestige years boxed up his co-leader sessions with better sound and copious annotation.
The year was also another banner annum for everyone’s favorite Saturnian. Ra holdings bulged yet again with archival releases from Transparency, Atavistic’s Unheard Music Series, Leo’s Golden Years of New Jazz and the British Art Yard imprint. All were likely essential acquisitions to Ra fanatics, but my personal picks include Strange Strings, Night of the Purple Moon, Disco 3000 and the just released Some Blues But Not The Kind That's Blue. The latter three focus welcome attention on Ra’s small group experiments and contain an abundance of his far-flung keyboard musings on Rocksichord, piano and Moog, respectively.
Between and ongoing reissue series under engineer Rudy Van Gelder’s aegis and a number of other conduits, the Blue Note vaults are pretty well scoured and disseminated by this point. That commercial saturation still leaves room for the occasional surprise. Cue strains of the Introducing Kenny Cox Contemporary Jazz Quintet. Joe Henderson’s brother Leon handles tenor. The charts are firmly in the modal postbop territory contemporaneously advanced by Miles and Coltrane. What’s most edifying to me is how this band illustrates that process of cribbing from said giants started almost immediately and has continued ever since. Though working from derivative sources, Cox and his colleagues exude plenty of enthusiasm and the disc’s nearly maxed out running time brings value right along with it.
I shored up a conspicuous hole on Nigerian Afrobeat shelf of my music collection this year with the release of King Sunny Ade’s Gems From the Classic Years (1967-1974). Ade had been on my list ever since buying and quickly misplacing a cassette copy of Live Live Ju Ju way back in 1988. The Shanachie compilation clocks at nearly 80-minutes and presents an excellent cross section of song medleys capped off with two singles. Ade’s layered electric guitar arrangements are amazing, threading atop an undulating blanket of talking drums and other hand percussion. Meandering and repetitive? Most certainly, but that’s a big part of what makes these sounds so magical.
There’s a huge amount of worthy stuff I’m leaving out, so in the interest of hitting as many pins as possible and still keeping the word count close to two grand, here’s a not-so-short list in no particular order of others that easily earn the Taylor stamp of approval:
Joe McPhee/Peter Brötzmann/Kent Kessler/Michael Zerang – Guts (Okkadisk)
By Derek Taylor