Thursday, November 27, 2008

Christmas List 2: The Ten Best Jazz CDs You Never Heard

Buying CDs for a jazz fan is a perilous business. It reminds me of the baseball saying: "hitting them where they ain't." To give a jazz fan a good gift, you have to hit a good one by choosing some recording that is going to knock the socks off of the recipient. But you also have to pick one that he or she doesn't already have. There is no sure way to do this without measuring the tastes of your recipient, and carefully examining his collection.

With that in mind, I have complied a list of jazz CDs that don't usually appear in any top ten or top one hundred jazz recordings, and that you probably won't find in anything short of a fully stocked and dedicated jazz record store. I am looking for hidden treasures in my collection. It 's not hard to compile such a list. The hard part is weeding it out. I won't argue that the following really amounts to the top ten anything. They are just ten CDs that are as good or almost as good as their more famous counterparts, but that usually fly under the radar screen.
The first five are relatively unknown CDs by relatively under appreciated jazzmen. The second half are lesser known CDs by the jazz elite. Here goes:

1. Sonny Criss:
Sonny's Dream. Criss was a brilliant alto sax man who has no presence at all in the Barnes and Noble stacks. But this album, with a robust orchestra behind him, is a solid cornerstone of jazz. All the compositions are by Horace Tapscott, who conducts the orchestra. It thus stands apart from Criss's other fine recordings. If your friend has this one, it's going to be hard to surprise him. If he doesn't, he will be grateful for a long time. This is Criss, and Portrait of Sonny Criss are wee bit more conventional.

2. Booker Ervin:
That's It!. Like Criss, Booker Ervin is one of those jazz geniuses who doesn't have a file card at B&N or Borders. I have blogged about Ervin, with a special focus on his Book recordings: Space Book, Freedom Book, Blues Book, and Song Book. Any one of these would make a great gift to the hardbop fan who doesn't have them.

3. Pharoah Sanders, Crescent with Love. You aren't likely to find this one in the stacks, unless you are in one of the last remaining jazz stores. It's Sander's immortal tribute to the immortal Coltrane. But it is toe-curling good. Sanders is usually very frenetic and expansive, but in this recording he tones down to get the deep vein of Coltrane's composing. You will thank me for this one, or your Christmas friend will.

4. Arthur Blythe,
Focus. Blythe straddles hardbop jazz and avant garde jazz. This recording, with a mix of unusual instruments, is a pure joy. It's pretty adventurous. If you want something a little more conservative, wrap up Blythe's Byte.

5. Bobby Watson, Love Remains. Watson is another alto sax man. He played on a bunch of Jazz Messenger recordings in the 70's and 80's. He also has a very sharp web page: You can hear a bundle of his music there. Love Remains will warm the cockles of any hard bop or post bop heart.

6. Wayne Shorter, Juju. Shorter's Speak No Evil comes near the top of any best jazz list, and especially of Tenor Sax recordings. But Juju and Night Dreamer fall short of the former in the way that ninehundred and ninety grand is short of a million. Wayne's peak as a composer. Juju narrowly wins second, in my estimation.

7. Ron Carter, Herbie Hancock, Tony Williams,
Third Plane. This 1977 recording feels a lot like what Hancock was doing in the early sixties. But file it under Carter's bass, which comes through live and buzzing on the recording. This is happy, ice cubes in crystal music, with the kind of sympathy between musicians that makes for a classic.

8. Joe Henderson,
Relaxin' at Camarillo. Post-revival Joe. 'Y Todavia La Quiero' is so lyrical and deeply romantic, I feel like I have to listen to it in costume. It's delicious right down to the very end when you can hear Henderson breathing through his horn. Chick Corea is here and I wouldn't have expected that to work out. But Corea's keyboard is all concentration and no goofyness.

9. Bill Evans Trio with Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh,
Crosscurrents. Maybe I only like this one because it was one of the first jazz albums I purchased, probably not long after it was released. It certainly doesn't get much notice in the Penguin Guide, nor any mention elsewhere. But it still makes my heart sing. Evans' laconic Trio seems saturated by the sound of Konitz's alto and Marsh's tenor. Marsh is another jazzman who always seemed to be hitting above his ranking. Pensativa may be my favorite cut from the album.

10. The Red Garland Quintet,
All Mornin' Long. Okay, so the solos are a bit long. The title cut goes on for more than twenty minutes. The Penguin Guide likes Soul Junction better, but I find the pace that album rather lethargic. All Mornin' Long has Red Garland leading another excellent rhythm section (George Joyner on bass, Art Taylor on drums), with John Coltrane playing tenor and Donald Byrd on trumpet. Here's Trane and Garland both of 'em still shootin up, but showing us why it took so long for Miles to fire them. Byrd is said to be 'coming into form' here, but it sounds like in form to me. Besides, the album cover is pure jazz feeling.

You can listen to a couple of cuts by following the hotlinked song titles in numbers 8 and 9.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Ten Best Jazz Recordings for Christmas

I posted a list like this last year on my South Dakota Politics site, but I can't seem to find it now. So I am making a new list of the ten best jazz recordings. It's necessarily arbitrary, and it may not be the same as my last list, but it's not hard to come up with a list of CDs that any jazz fan simply must have. So here goes:

1. Miles Davis, Kind of Blue. Universally acknowledged as the finest jazz recording ever made, for what that's worth. It is just about perfect.

2. John Coltrane, A Love Supreme. A very unusual jazz album, divided into movements like a classical symphony. Extraordinary elevation and passion.

3. Wayne Shorter, Speak No Evil. My personal favorite. Spooky, lyrical, penetrating melodies.

4. Bill Evans, Sunday at the Village Vanguard. Evans was my first love. Introspective, but with a pressure of feeling that squeezes out every drip of passion from a melody.

5. Sonny Rollins, Saxophone Colossus. The title says it all.

6. Joe Henderson, The State of the Tenor. Laconic. Exquisite. Mesmerizing. I think this was not on last year's list. What do I push off?

7. Dexter Gordan, Our Man in Paris. He showed the French who was boss! Muscular jazz at its best.

8. Cannonball Adderley, Somethin' Else. Hearing Miles Davis (sideman!) say "was that what you wanted, Cannonball?" is worth the price.

9. Charlie Mingus, Mingus Ah Um. Good thumpin' jazz. 'Good Bye Pork Pie Hat' is not to be bested.

10. Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers with Thelonious Monk. Gotta get Monk in the top ten. Gotta get the JM in the top ten. 2Birds. 1stone.

If you are thinking that this is all impression and what I feel right now, you're right. But if you are making out a Christmas list for someone else to get you, or buying for someone who is new to jazz and wants some, you can't go wrong with this list.


11. Kenny Burrell, Midnight Blue. I am sorry, but this recording has to be squeezed into the list. The sound is excellent, and the bluesy jazz is exquisite. Just get it!

Sunday, November 23, 2008

More Mulligan, More Farmer

For some strange reason, the last two files uploaded to my site won't play with the player. They worked yesterday! It seems that you can still download the files and play them with some other software. It may be that there is some wicked file protection curse at work.

As a consolation, I have posted a couple of pieces from Art Farmer's Ph.D., and from Mulligan Meets Monk. The latter features Wilber Ware on bass, and Shadow Wilson on drums, but it is obviously a Mulligan/Monk duet. It is a splendid version of 'Round Midnight', and one can't have enough versions of that Monk classic. The sound of Mulligan's horn seems to me to be exactly right. It almost provides its own midnight mist. And for all his dominance of composition, and his world class idiosyncrasies as a soloist, Monk might have been the best accompniest in jazz. There is pure genius in the way he lays out strings of meditative notes under Mulligan's solo.

The Farmer recording features "
This sextet outing (which also includes guitarist Kenny Burrell, pianist James Williams, bassist Rufus Reid and drummer Marvin "Smitty" Smith". That's from the eMusic site. I have posted Mr. Day's Dream. You can listen to them at this link:
Let's hope it is working tomorrow.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Gerry Mulligan & Art Farmer

Okay, so I like the low horns. Guttural grunts and honks. A bass clarinet or baritone saxophone is visceral and earthy. It gets me where I digest. I like Coltrane's Africa/Brass Sessions mostly because the brass is all bass and slithering.

I also like Art Farmer. So I can say I am very pleased with What There is to Say, by the Gerry Mulligan Quartet. This is really a duet, with Farmer's trumpet and Mulligan's baritone engaged in a platonic dialogue above Bill Crow on bass and Dave Bailey on drums. The conversation between Mulligan and Farmer is exquisite. When they are not directly addressing one another, one is singing while the other writes footnotes into the margins of the text.

I have uploaded a couple of pieces from What There is to Say. One of Mulligan's finest compositions, is 'Festive Minor.' It's a beautiful ballad, and here you can see their dialogue most clearly. It opens with the two horns talking to one another, followed by a Farmer solo with Mulligan moaning beneath, and then the baritone says what it has to say. Then it's back to the duet.

I also uploaded 'My Funny Valentine,' to give some reference to Miles. It's much the same story.

You can listen to the two at my site.
If you like what you hear, you can get the whole album at iTunes.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Heavy Jazz and Not So Heavy

My dear friend Ken Laster, who produces the best jazz podcast going, In the Groove: Jazz and Beyond, sent me this note:
Man, looking at your last few Jazz Notes, I see you are getting down to some very heavy listening lately. Dolphy, Blythe, Lacy, Ascension... man that is some heavy shit.

I'm feeling like a real jazz lightweight... Your tastes have sure come along way in recent months. You are giving me a real jazz education now. I'm enjoying going along for the ride.
This was perfectly reasonable and accurate, not to mention complementary, but I have to admit that it disturbed me a little. Am I losing touch with my hardbop roots? I have certainly been listening to a lot of jazz that I wouldn't have listened to in the past, and I have been enjoying it. But there is a cost to that kind of thing. Avant Garde jazz is to most of jazz what jazz as a whole is to more popular musics: the province of increasingly smaller audiences. Have I been marginalizing myself even within the jazz world?

Well, maybe. But it occurs to me that a lot of what is produced by avant garde jazz folks like Dolphy and Blythe fits quite well into mainstream hardbop. And likewise, many hardbop heroes ventured into avant garde, sometimes doing both on the same album. Sonny Rollins The Bridge is mostly straight ahead, but it has two pieces on it that are very challenging compositions.

Arthur Blythe, one of my recent infatuations, produced a lot of very edgy jazz. But I don't think he was all that far out. Focus had a very unusual set of instruments, but consider Blythe's Bytes. Anyone who likes most of Miles Davis or Coltrane could appreciate this recording. One thing that links Steve Lacy and Arthur Blythe, and most of the Avant Garde champions, to bop, is the work of Thelonious Monk.

Check out Blue Monk, from Blythe's Bytes, on my site:
Blythe on Alto, John Hicks on piano, Dwayne Dolphin on bass, Cecil Brooks III on drums. This is four square hard bop. Maybe the moral here is that modern jazz was saved by Thelonious Monk. I have to say that my admiration for Monk is one thing that has only grown with time and eMusic downloads.

Anyway, I thank Ken for the note and the thoughts it provoked. God, but jazz is wonderful stuff!

Saturday, November 15, 2008

More than a dollop of Dolphy

More than a dollop is what you will get if you get your ears around Eric Dolphy: The Complete Prestige Recordings. This box set consists of 9 discs, and when you have got it you have by God got Dolphy. It doesn't include his most famous recording, Out to Lunch. But it does include Far Cry, perhaps his second most famous album. Far Cry is what first interested me in Dolphy.

The Prestige Box also includes the justly famous Five Spot sessions, with trumpeter Booker Little. The latter might be Dolphy's finest hour. The Prestige Box has a lot more. About six complete albums, by my count, with a lot of pieces from other stuff, like four cuts from Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis'
Trane Whistle. It also has Ron Carter's Where?, and Mal Waldron's The Quest. Oh, and there are two discs with Oliver Nelson as lead.

That is a lot of solid if frequently challenging jazz. I have written before of the problems that jazz box sets present to the collector. One new problem is very evident here: when the collection includes several sets recorded under someone else's name, they get scattered all over your iTunes library. In this case I decided to change the album information on the tracks to reflect what was originally issued, and file it under the leader's name. This means that I have several partial albums, since no tracks were included from the Lockjaw Davis disc that Dolphy wasn't on. It's really great that I can pop a disc into my computer and iTunes will get the track names for me. But we really need some better conventions for file tags.

Dolphy had a short but magnificent career. His first recording listed on the Jazz Discography Project is in 1948, when he was twenty. He died in 1964 from undiagnosed diabetes. In between, he records a lot of very basic music, and shows up on a lot of seminal discs by other jazz giants. He is on Andrew Hill's Point of Departure, Oliver Nelson's Blues and the Abstract Truth, George Russel's Ezz-Thetics, and Coltrane's Live at the Village Vanguard and the Africa/Brass Sessions. He was equally adept at the alto saxophone, the flute, and the bass clarinet.

I think it was the latter that should have been in his funeral boat when it was shoved out to sea. The deeply hollow sound, sucking up all reality around it, was what Dolphy was about. He is clearly associated with free jazz, and sits behind Ornett Coleman on, well, Free Jazz. Dolphy's Out to Lunch is a basic document of that movement. It's pretty chaotic and occasionally down right mysterious. Almost all of it has the character of a machine producing a lot of noise as it does one is not quite sure what. But I find I can listen to it now with interest.

Dolphy was clearly a genius of improvisation. He has a persistant fondness for a slightly sour, unexpected sound; but his compositional weaving mostly produces a tapestry that is coherent and compelling. I have loaded three Dolphy pieces onto the current site.

One is the title number from Far Cry. Dolphy's opening presents the sound mentioned, but the tune as a whole is mainstream hardbop. Booker Little plays trumpet, Jackie Byard piano, Ron Carter bass, with Roy Haines on drums. "Fire Waltz" is a classic Dolphy composition, recorded at one of his live sessions at the Five Spot Cafe. Booker Little again on trumpet, Mal Waldron on piano, Richard Davis on bass, and Ed Blackwell on drums. Waldron's solo is especially worthy of note. Live at the Five Spot 1&2, and the Memorial Album, might be Dolphy's best recordings.

"God Bless the Child" is a solo piece, with Dolphy playing the bass clarinet, also recorded in 1961 at the Five Spot. It is included on a hodge podge album, Here and There, which is all in the Prestige box. Dolphy spins the powerful, buzzing and sqeaking horn so fast at times, it's a wonder he wasn't being followed by storm chasers. But then he spins it out slow and thoughtful, as if to wonder what all the action was about.

Eric Dolphy is worth investing in. I can recommend without reservation: Far Cry, Live at the Five Spot 1&2, and The Memorial Album. One more recording that in the box set but, mysteriously, doesn't appear in the Penguin Guide, is Mal Waldron's The Quest. Booker Ervin is on that one, and that can't be bad. A fine version of "Fire Waltz" is also there.

There are two stories about Dolphy's death. One has it that he collapsed into a diabetic coma in his hotel room, and died from insulin shock at the hospital. Another is that he collapsed on stage, and when they brought him to the hospital, the doctors assumed it was drugs. They left him in bed to sleep it off. If the latter is true, chalk up one more jazz fatality to heroin.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Jazz Library 10: Chico Freeman & Arthur Blythe

If you want to get Ken Blanchard to spend a few of his eMusic downloads on a couple of albums, one way to do it is to put Wayne Shorter compositions on both of them. Another way is to recruit Arthur Blythe to play alto.

I have written before about the "pub crawl" method of jazz collecting: when you find someone you like, see what else he has done or been in on. I was very impressed by Arthur Blythe's Focus, a brilliant mix of hard bop and avant garde jazz, with an eccentric set of instruments. So I crawled around the outlets for more Blythe. I discovered two wonderful recordings by Chico Freeman, with Blythe on board: Luminous, and The Unspoken Word. Both are treasures for any jazz library, and they are available at eMusic.

I already one Freeman recording in my collection: Destiny's Dance. It is one of the Core Collection picks in the Penguin Guide, which I heavily rely upon. But the Penguin Guide is more fond than I am of very edgy jazz. One of the numbers on DD, "Crossing the Sudan," is typical free jazz. What passes for melody is pulse: a repeated rhythm around which the solos play. It would make a good soundtrack for one of those High Definition nature shows on the 600 channels: "the Amazon pools are teaming with life". But the next number, "Wilpan's Walk," is a fusion piece of the sort that I like to think of as "beach club jazz." Drinks and smoked meat with the surf out the window, and a guy dressed in white playing the sax. Easy listening, by jazz standards.

Luminous and The Unspoken Word are compelling examples of straight ahead jazz. The former opens with "Footprints," Wayne Shorter's most celebrated composition. You can find it on Shorter's album Adam's Apple. The latter Freeman/Blythe album includes "Infant Eyes," which is probably my favorite Shorter song. You can find it on Speak No Evil. It's deep and spooky and haunting. Freeman and Blythe do it justice. The recordings are excellent. You can listen to the two Shorter compositions here:
If you like what you hear, shell out some drachmas for the albums. You won't be disappointed. It is well worth your time to compare the original Shorter recordings with the Freeman/Blythe versions.

ps. Here is a nice YouTube clip of Freeman and Blythe playing with Sam Rivers.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

The Abstract and the Sensual in Jazz

One of those very forgettable movies that I have never been able to forget is The Turning Point. I remember it for personal reasons (my wife of more than 25 years and I talked about it back when we were dating), and for a scene where Anne Bancroft, playing an aging ballet dancer, is taking directions from a young, arrogant choreographer. She wants to express emotions in her dance. He scolds her for this. He wants just the geometrical form of her body. Or at least that is how I remember it.

But there is something like this going on in avant garde jazz. Thelonious Monk, the greatest composer of Bop jazz, was famous for breaking music up into its constituent parts, and then recasting it in novel ways. But Monk's genius was to keep the full emotional content, along with the juke joint echoes, in each of the parts. Avant garde tends to abstract from the emotional content of musical forms, to concentrate on the weight of the forms alone. Something is gained from that, in terms of focus. I am reminded of an artist who carved ordinary objects (a pair of old boots, a mailing envelope) out of wood. This revealed the form with extraordinary clarity. But something is lost as well.

Compare the following: "Reflections," from Thelonious Monk The Complete Blue Note Recordings, with the same beautiful tune by Steve Lacy and Mal Waldron. Monks early version is alive with passion, perspiration, and place. Lacy and Waldron have left all the wood shavings behind. Theirs is an abstract, geometrical chart by comparison. Again, something is gained and something is lost. You can compare the two at
But don't let me deliver it. Get the music for yourself.

Zen Noir: Jazz, Buddhism, & the Hard Boiled Detective


A second piece of Buddhist cinema showed up today in its bright red Netflix jacket. Zen Noir, directed by Marc Rosenbush, and staring Duane Sharp (who looks disturbingly like Will Farrow) as the detective. It's a clever piece of film making, and one of the best film presentations of the Dharma that I have seen. Interested readers should be warned that the movie is done in a mildly surrealist style (more about that in a moment) which means that it is temporally disjointed, with a context somewhere between waking and dreaming. I have a very low tolerance for that sort of thing, but I found it largely working here.

Zennoir It's a clever idea: a blend of film noir clich├ęs with the story of the teacher/student relationship right out of classic Zen literature. It opens on the unnamed detective, hat on head in a tank top undershirt, gazing at himself in the mirror. "The morning fog clings to the city like the scent of desperation to an aging drag queen." Not quite trusting the humor yet, the detective says: "why do I talk like that?"

The detective gets a call warning of a murder in a temple. The caller sounds vaguely Chinese, but doesn't give his name or the temple. "Three synagogues later it occurred to me that there aren't many Chinese Jews."

Once he gets to the temple, he finds that his rational methods of investigation don't work there. When he asks one student where he was at the time of the murder. "What do you mean by time?" When questioned, the master will only show him an orange.

It helps to know a little bit about Zen. The orange is common metaphor for the here and now reality. If you can eat an orange, really tasting its color, fragrance, and flavor, that is enlightenment. Most of us can't. We are always drifting away from reality into daydreams, or worse, building screens against reality. A few of the jokes won't work on you if you don't have some familiarity with the Zendo.

The reason we build screens is to escape the truth about death. The detective, it turns out, is still mourning his late wife, and that is what he has really come to the temple for.

I find the surrealist devices cheap. Bouncing back and forth between the detective context (hat, trench coat, gun) and the Zen context (shaved heads and robes) is frequently jarring. But they do serve well enough to bind the two genres, film noir and Zen story, together. Almost all the action takes place in two or three rooms, and the cast is limited to six characters (all but two of whom die or are already dead). It is respectable meditation on death and mindfulness, at least by Hollywood standards.

Finally, there is some beautiful cinematography. The orange is frequently shown burning in reverse, with the flames falling rather than rising, which is makes for a gorgeous image. Also, the soundtrack on the DVD is excellent, alternating between a Miles Davis like Noir jazz line and a lot of Eastern bamboo flute and percussion. There is a brief sex scene involving the detective and a shaven headed nun (cross legged with spines erect, if that is possible) and the high pitched flute thingy does a pretty good job of registering the climax.

It's a clever movie, with more than a little weirdness. It's one way to find out what the Dharma is about. I recommend it.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Cool Struttin' with Sonny Clark

A very useful jazz site for jazz collectors is 100 Greatest Jazz Albums. The page includes detailed reviews of a lot of great jazz recordings. It has a lot of recordings listed that I haven't listened to yet, and a lot I have. One recording caught my eye: Cool Struttin' by Sonny Clark. The cover, produced at the right, was very effective: a woman's legs, calves exposed,walking down a city street. There are any number of existential angles to explore there.

The all star cast is impressive enough: Clark on piano, Art Farmer on trumpet, Jackie McLean on Alto sax, Paul Chambers on bass, and Philly Joe Jones on drums. Of course I checked the Penguin Guide to Jazz Recordings, and it gets four stars. That was good enough for me, and I downloaded it from iTunes. 100GJA has this:
With the single exception of "Kind of Blue", Sonny Clark's "Cool Struttin''' is almost certainly the coolest jazz album of all time. Whereas "Kind of Blue" gets its vibe from modal jazz, "Cool Struttin''' depends mainly on the blues, relatively simple and straight ahead. Calling this 'hard bop' is correct but this does not do justice to the chemistry at work here. It is one of those rare recorded moments, as on "Kind Of Blue", where everything is in a state of sublime balance, when the music making is made to seem so effortless that you could easily miss the brilliance of it all. The two albums were made within twelve months of each other.
I am not sure yet that I am that impressed with the recording. Despite the fact that the "two albums were made within twelve months of each other," this is nothing like Kind of Blue. But it is clearly very good. Art Farmer takes to the game very well, carrying on a breathy dialogue with himself on "Deep Night." McLean is as brilliant as one would expect. On that same number he keeps coming at the melody and then backing off.

Cool Struttin' is surely a fine recording. Sonny Clark was born in 1931 and died in 1963. Alcohol and heroin did him in. It is curious that heroin takes second place to rock and roll as the causes of Jazz's near demise after the fifties. God help us all.
I have loaded Deep Night onto my site.
Take a listen, and shell out a few drachmas for Sonny Clark.