Four in One (Afternoon) (April 13th, 2018, Columbia, MO)

 

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 RapidsNot 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.)

Short-shrift Division:

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.

 

 

Good to My Earhole, January 10-16: Wailin’ in the New Year with Jazz

Kamasi

In response to the strong showing of Kamasi Washington’s The Epic, a three-CD jazz expression of what might be companion sentiments to Kendrick Lamar’s to pimp a butterfly, a bit of controversy has emerged among music wags regarding whether a) Washington’s project deserves the rankings it’s getting, and b) he really ranks as a jazzman. Rather than be a curmudgeonly old fart shooting my mouth off after a listen and a half, I decided to give it two-and-a-half more listens–it takes up an afternoon, folks–sandwiching each disk between past jazz projects that have similarities with the project’s design. Obviously, it’s sprawling; its inclusion of human voices (sometimes in light chorus) and Washington’s touching at the edges of a Pharoah Sanders-like cry signal that it might be about the endless incidents of black men being shot dead in the street; its cast of players (and Washington’s appearance on to pimp a butterfly) (and its ground zero being Central L. A., long an influential cultural nexus of black America and the classroom turf of Horace Tapscott) could indicate that the record is a statement about community. Here are the records I used in my listening experiments, and my thoughts, for what they are worth (scores given from the ear-brain-gut obstacle course out of 10):

The Sonny Criss Orchestra/SONNY’S DREAM – BIRTH OF THE NEW COOL – 10 – Truly, one of the most underrated records of the late ’60s. Great blowing by alto man Criss, driving and inventive arrangements and compositions by Horace Tapscott (see above, and note subtitle), and some interesting nonverbal social commentary, the most striking in solidarity with Native Americans. Should be a part of every jazz aficionado’s collection.

Booker Ervin/BOOKER ‘N’ BRASS – 9.5 – I have been binge-listening to Denison, Texas’ finest tenor saxophonist this week, and, of the six records or so of his I’ve played (a couple multiple times), this has been the shining star. Nuthin’ fancy: Ervin in front of a powerful orchestra, wailing away on pieces like “Harlem Nocturne” and “Do You Know What It Means (To Miss New Orleans)?” Those selections might not fill you with excitement, but if you want to understand the term “Texas tenor” you’ll want to seek it out. Booker stepped on a rainbow far too soon at 39 years.

Dexter Gordon/MORE THAN YOU KNOW – 9.1 – Like THE EPIC, this album not ineffectively bolsters its star with strings, orchestrations, and occasional vocals. Unlike THE EPIC, the star is consistently inventing, in a wry, knowing, allusive flow of notes that could only emanate from Long Tall Dexter. Also, it’s clear HE’S the show, though I suppose Washington may have intended to be more of a team player on his record.

Charles Mingus Sextet with Eric Dolphy/CORNELL ’64 – 10 – If you haven’t heard this amazing but oh-so-short-lived band at length, and you like powerful music, sorry–you may not have fully lived. Tenor isn’t the show, though Clifford Jordan plays fine: it’s Dolphy’s scintillating tripartite inventions on alto, bass clarinet, and flute, Jaki Byard’s shape-shifting piano (which kicks things off with the rollicking “ATFW”–that’s short for “Art Tatum Fats Waller”), the leader’s muscular bass, inspiring, funny, and exciting vocal encouragements–the recording is very intimate, but the playing and exhorting are explosive–and the repertoire, a mix of addictive Mingus compositions the band had become deeply invested in, nods to Ellington/Strayhorn and Waller, and a post-St. Pat’s “When Irish Eyes are Smiling” (a March 18th show). To have been there. This band was ALIVE on stage.

David Murray/SOUTH OF THE BORDER – 9 – Just prior to hitting middle-age, I overdosed so much on Murray’s great run of mid-’80s-to-early-’90s recordings that I eventually had to wean myself off of them and regard them as fine wine for special occasions. Complicating that is his habit–slowed a bit recently–of churning out pretty powerful and often conceptually different records at a dizzying pace. This 1995 recording features the tenor giant surrounded by a large orchestra of the last quarter-century’s greatest players, conducted by the late great Butch Morris to put a Latin/Spanish tinge on covers like Sonny Rollins’ “St Thomas,” future standard repertoire (I’m betting) like Wayne Francis’ “Calle Estrella,” and Murray’s on durable, flexible “Flowers for Albert.” One to turn up. LOUD.

Hannibal Peterson/CHILDREN OF THE FIRE – 10 – Like Washington’s record (in part), Peterson’s suite is a response to violence and an attempt at reconciliation–in this case, the children who became collateral damage of the war in Vietnam. One of jazz’s greatest statements about that time, criminally underrecognized, and really, really, really good. Peterson’s on trumpet, Richard Davis is on bass, David Amram’s the arranger, and poetry and voices deepen rather than distract from the message. For more on Vietnam from jazz musicians, look into the work of Billy Bang and Leroy Jenkins.

Pharoah Sanders/TAUHID – 8.8 – Washington’s playing recalls Sanders, though Kamasi doesn’t quite ever enter the all-out scream zone that is/was (?) Pharoah’s domain. On this late ’60s recording, Sanders had something similar to say, and a secret weapon on guitar named Sonny Sharrock to help me get it across. Sharrock’s wellings and wailings at the record’s opening make it all worth it.

Kamasi Washington/THE EPIC – 8.3 – That’s a high score for three discs’ worth of studio recordings of tenor-driven “Compton jazz” with occasional vocals and chorale. Kamasi needs to figure out a more distinct and consistently inventive way to say what’s on his mind (something damned important), but some hard r&b in the middle of disc two and bassist Thundercat’s submarine pulse have gotten me through three full listenings without pain. I will return to it.