I had an afternoon free at the end of a hectic week, and I needed just the right sounds to put me straight for the weekend. That’s a harder task than it seems: I have a massive library from which to choose (well–so do you, if you’re reading this), and sometimes that can be paralyzing to the point of opting for…silence. Also, I often get caught between choosing things I need to listen and things I want to listen to, and things I need to understand better and things I know so well they will unquestionably deliver pleasure and enlightenment. Obligation–phooey!
On this day, I lucked out. I pulled four records, one I hadn’t listened to for so long I didn’t remember it well, one that was a sure shot of delight, one I hadn’t yet removed from the shrink wrap, and one that I’d in recent years ranked very highly on a poll but wanted to hear whether I was off the beam or not. Every single one was a wonderful experience. And it was a perfect celebration of Jazz Appreciation Month.
Billy Bang and Frank Lowe (top left and top right above): Above and Beyond–A Night in Grand Rapids. Not a particularly auspicious album title, plus considering the men in play and the title, it might be a free scrum. Actually, this is a beautiful and moving record. Bang and Lowe could indeed go out, with serious fire, and here they occasionally do, but the set list is full of tunes, with a long, hypnotic, brooding but catchy masterpiece (“Dark Silhouette”) at its core. On that track, Lowe conjures a quiet series of snuffling, whimpering, muttering, pleading sounds from his horn, which not only fit the mood but, in a sense, are heartbreaking: the saxophonist was dying of lung cancer–in a few months he’d be gone–and operating on a single lung, though his playing is masterful and those noises were obviously quite deliberate. Bang is inspired, and bassist Todd Nicholson is a wonder.
Sonny Criss (with Horace Tapscott) (second from top, left and right): Sonny’s Dream (Birth of the New Cool). That’s an audacious title, but Criss, a great and currently very unsung West Coast alto saxophonist, and Horace Tapscott, the legendary L.A. bandleader and teacher, and pianist, composer, and arranger here, earn it. It’s an answer, I think, nearly two decades later, to Miles’ Birth of the Cool; quite honestly, I prefer this record and have played it three times as much in my life. Criss’ playing is intense but disciplined, Tapscott’s writing is characteristically imaginative and idiosyncratic (try “The Golden Pearl” or “Daughter of Cochise), and the orchestra contains such luminaries Teddy Edwards, Conte Condoli, and Tommy Flanagan. It’s a masterpiece knockin’ on the canon’s door.
Sun Ra and His Arkestra, featuring John Gilmore (second from bottom, right): Of Abstract Dreams. I’ll be the first to admit that there is too much Ra on the market; though the music he created over forty years is amazingly consistent in its quality, he wasn’t foolproof: he (and to a lesser extent the Arkestra) could noodle, tinkle and futz around, and the navigation of / communication from the cosmos does not guarantee excitement or even simple interest. However, this new Strut find, a ’74 Philly radio station performance, has three things I like: Ra on acoustic piano, Gilmore expressing himself on tenor, and three compositions available elsewhere that are actually in significantly different (and more focused form).
JD Allen (bottom): Americana. Guess what, kids? The contemporary album I’d most strongly recommend to music fans who, for jazz, only go to Coltrane…is not available for streaming on any platform! I can dig it! I ranked this album in my Top 10 for the year 2016, and yesterday it forced me stop everything else I was doing and lock in–I actually may have underrated it. Allen and his ace fellows, Rudy Royston on drums and Gregg August on bass, dive DEEPLY into Black America’s past–and into the blues. Americana delivers something contemporary jazz often struggles with: unfettered emotional depth. If you don’t believe me, just listen to it. (Also, you could read David A. Graham’s sharp piece from The Atlantic.)
The Swan Silvertones: My Rock / Love Lifted Me: I’m still crying holy unto their lord. My second-favorite edition of the Swans, but that’s like saying peanut butter is my second-favorite to chocolate. Rawer, purer maybe, with Reverend Jeter very much on the case.