Streamnotes: March 31, 2017

Feeling rather negligent this month. New records count dropped to 52 from 120 (February) and 138 (January). Of those 17 were 2016 releases, and 2 go back to 2015, so 33 are 2017 releases (63.5%). Of the 2017 releases, 6 were non-jazz (18.2%): five of those were Christgau picks (Nnamdi Ogbonnaya, Orchestra Baobab, Whitney Rose, Sunny Sweeney, Syd), so that leaves only one I checked out on my own hunch (Murs). So I seem to have moved past 2016, but not really into 2017. On the other hand, when I look at, say, Album of the Year's The Highest Rated Albums of 2017 I'm not real inspired (Mount Eerie? Magnetic Fields? Valerie June? OK, I liked the last Laura Marling album, and I have found three A- records among the top 25 -- Jesca Hoop, XX, Tinariwen -- but I've also wasted my time with Sampha and Loyle Carner; aside from Magnetic Fields, the only Christgau picks in the top 50 are Syd at 34 and Jens Lekman at 43). By the way, Napster only has 16 of Magnetic Fields' 50 songs, as if I didn't already have reasons enough to ignore the thing.

On the other hand, more old music this time than in quite some time. The deaths of Chuck Berry and Arthur Blythe triggered most of them. I knew Berry from his compilations (including the 3CD Chess Box, and the earlier LP-era Golden Decade volumes and Rarities, so I thought it might be interesting to work my way through his albums. I was fortunate to find (after some digging) all of them on Napster, but I did stop short of the "complete Chess recordings" boxes (two are online, the early one not).

Pickings for the late great alto saxophonist were harder to come by, with most of the Columbias unavailable (including the great In the Tradition), and nothing on India Navigation, CIMP or Savant -- his last masterpiece, Focus, appeared there in 2002. Also, he played a lot in groups (I knew about the Leaders, but the Roots albums below are finds) and as side credits, and not infrequently stole the show on the latter. (The John Abercrombie and Lester Bowie albums below feature Blythe; I'm listening to another by Gust William Tsilis as I'm writing this.)

Other things driving me to old music: collating the jazz guides got me to look up a few things -- Gato Barbieri, Bob Brookmeyer, Barney Kessel, Vic Juris. Old albums by Swans and Peter Van Huffel followed from new albums. I noticed Napster finally added Al Green Is Love, which Christgau had bumped up from B+ to A a few years ago (I've moved it to A- myself), so that got me looking at some albums I had missed -- mostly his mid-life gospel phase. Stopped when I couldn't find I Get Joy (1989), but I haven't missed much since then.

I also took a long look at Ken Vandermark's Bandcamp page, partly looking for new (or at least recent) material but also finding some older records I had missed (going back as far as 1993's Big Head Eddie, his first quartet). Still a few things I haven't gotten to on that page: especially the big boxes. If it all seems daunting, a good place to start is Spaceways Inc.: Version Soul. Or Vandermark 5's early risk-taking on Target or Flag (which was the one that convinced me).

Most of these are short notes/reviews based on streaming records from Napster (formerly Rhapsody; other sources are noted in brackets). They are snap judgments based on one or two plays, accumulated since my last post along these lines, back on February 28. Past reviews and more information are available here (9400 records).

Recent Releases

Greg Abate/Tim Ray Trio: Road to Forever (2016 [2017], Whaling City Sound): Saxophonist, credits here list soprano, tenor, and alto in that order, but he also plays quite a bit of flute. Ray is a pianist, also plays keyboards, and his bassist switches between acoustic and electric. Postbop, fluid and eloquent. B+(*) [cd]

AMP Trio: Three (2016 [2017], self-released): New York-based Piano trio: Addison Frei (piano, Fender Rhodes), Perrin Grace (acoustic bass), Matt Young (drums). Third album. Played it twice and it does nothing for me, but not bad when I force myself to concentrate. B [cd]

Courtney Marie Andrews: Honest Life (2016, Mama Bird): Singer-songwriter from Phoenix, based in Seattle, qualifies as Americana with its plain-spoken songs and modest (give or take some strings) accompaniment. B+(*)

Jason Anick & Jason Yeager: United (2016 [2017], Inner Circle Music): Anick plays violin and mandolin, Yeager piano. As a duo, or backed with bass and percussion, they make nice chamber jazz, but the occasional horns perk things up, most monumentally the cut with tenor saxophonist George Garzone. B+(**) [cd]

Animal Collective: Painting With (2016, Domino): Having observed (but I must say never understood) how their albums like Meriweather Post Pavilion (2009) captured critics' polls, I was surprised that the group's tenth album hardly generated a blip this year (only one vote in Pazz & Jop, tied for 279 in my EOY Aggregate). Also surprised that its bounciness no long annoys. B+(*)

Ballrogg [Klaus Ellerhusen Holm/Roger Arntzen/Ivar Grydeland]: Abaft the Beam (2014-15 [2017], Clean Feed): Clarinets, double bass, various guitars (first listed pedal steel, last banjo, also drum machine). Sort of avant-ambient fusion, which is to say it doesn't try to melt into background but doesn't really go anywhere either. B+(**) [cd]

Bat for Lashes: The Bride (2016, Parlophone): British singer-songwriter Natasha Khan, fourth album, full of weepy ballads sung in an artificially pretty timbre. B-

Battle Trance: Blade of Love (2016, New Amsterdam): Saxophone quartet, all tenors -- Travis Laplante, Patrick Breiner, Matt Nelson, Jeremy Viner). One piece (40:12) split into three parts, stuck in one narrow tone band bud they fiddle with it a lot. B+(*) [bc]

Sam Beam & Jesca Hoop: Love Letter for Fire (2016, Sub Pop/Black Cricket): Beam's own albums are released as Iron and Wine -- six since 2002, including a 2015 duo credited to Iron and Wine & Ben Bridwell. Hoop has a similar number of albums since 2007, including one this year I like a lot (Memories Are Now). Voices mesh nicely, which helps him more than her. B+(*)

Carlos Bica & Azul: More Than This (2016 [2017], Clean Feed): Portuguese bassist, currently in Berlin, released a record called Azul in 1995 and kept the name. Group is a trio with Frank Möbus on guitar and Jim Black on drums. B+(***) [cd]

Chicago Edge Ensemble: Decaying Orbit (2016 [2017], self-released): Guitarist Dan Phillips composed all the pieces here, but the edge comes from Mars Williams on saxophones and Jeb Bishop on trombone. They can crack up, loose, or any which way. A- [cd]

Alex Cline's Flower Garland Orchestra: Oceans of Vows (2016 [2017], self-released, 2CD): Drummer, staged a monumental work here, lots of strings and gongs and a soprano singer, Areni Agbabian, and other sampled voices, all things I normally detest, yet it's all quite lovely and unaccountably moving -- well, maybe if I figured out the packaging and followed the text and all that . . . B+(***) [cd]

DIIV: Is the Is Are (2016, Captured Tracks): Brooklyn indie rock band, initially called (and presumably still pronounced) Dive, second album, with Zachary Cole Smith lead singer, and keyboards adding a bit of dream pop catchiness to the guitar grind. B+(**)

Dinosaur Jr: Give a Glimpse of What Yer Not (2016, Jagjaguwar): One of the genre-defining alt/indie bands back in the 1980s, slogged on despite Lou Barlow's departure in 1989 to 1997, then regrouped with J Mascis' solo career going nowhere and Barlow returning in 2006. Eleventh album, sounds like they could go on forever. B+(*)

Akua Dixon: Akua's Dance (2016 [2017], Akua's Music): Third album, launching a career after turning 60, plays baritone violin and cello this time, backed by guitar, bass, and Victor Lewis on drums -- she certainly has a good sense of how to layer strings together. Sings one too, and not bad at that. B+(**) [cd]

Marc Ducret Trio+3: Métatonal (2014 [2015], Ayler): French guitarist, cuts with a sharp metallic edge, his trio adding double bass and drums, the "+3" horns: saxophonist Christophe Monniot, trumpeter Fabrice Martinez, and trombonist Samuel Blaser, but they only let loose when following the leader. B+(**)

Krzysztof Dys Trio: Toys (2014 [2016], ForTune): Polish pianist, has at least one previous album, this a trio with bass (Andrzej Swies) and drums (Krzysztof Szmanda). One original piece at the end, one Jobim, the rest bop classics (Monk, Davis, Coltrane, Silver, Evans, Hancock, Shorter), all handled with aplomb. B+(**) [bc]

Gorilla Mask: Iron Lung (2016 [2017], Clean Feed): Avant-jazz sax trio, the leader alto saxophonist Peter Van Huffel (Canadian, Belgian roots, based in Berlin), with Roland Fidezius (electric bass, effects) and Rudi Fischerlehner (drums). The bass gives this a certain rockish foundation, which the saxophonist regularly blows up. A- [cd]

Bill Hart: Touch of Blue (2016 [2017], Blue Canoe): Guitarist, plays fusion, backed by bass, keys, drums, and percussion, a lot of riffing up and down. B- [cd]

Jill Jack and the American SongBook Band: Pure Imagination (2016, UpHill Productions): Singer from Detroit, has a dozen albums since 1997, evidently wrote most of her songs previously but for this project she picks prime standards from "All of Me" to, ugh, "Bridge Over Troubled Water." Pianist Dale Grisa leads a solid jazz combo with guitar and sax. Some interesting twists, but basically as good as the songs. B+(*) [cd]

Sarah Jarosz: Undercurrent (2016, Sugar Hill): Austin singer-songwriter, plays mandolin and banjo, originally slotted as bluegrass, fourth album, doesn't seem to belong to any genre, just the work of a talented and sometimes touching songsmith. B+(**)

Norah Jones: Day Breaks (2015 [2016], Blue Note): I've collected her reviews for my jazz guide, mostly given her label, but she's never fit very well. Still, the band here is jazzier than ever, as are her originals, and she covers Ellington and Silver (and Neil Young), all the while sounding remarkably sweet. B+(**)

Jü: Summa (2016 [2017], Rare Noise): Avant-fusion trio: Ádám Mészáros (guitars, kalimba, percussion), Ernö Hock (bass guitar, bass ukulele, percussion), and András Halmos (drums, bells, kalimba), with a couple guests on one track. Kjetil Mřster's sax is a nice touch, but that's about it. B [cdr]

Doug MacDonald: A Salute to Jazz Composers: Jazz Marathon 2 (2016 [2017], BluJazz, 2CD): Guitarist, based in Los Angeles where this was recorded live, has a dozen albums going back to 1981 -- no evidence of a Jazz Marathon 1. Horn players are mostly names I recognize -- sax section is Lanny Morgan, Pete Christleib, and/or Ricky Woodard (some churn from cut to cut). Compositions mostly date from the 1950s, roughly Charlie Parker to Sonny Rollins, with one original (MacDonald's "Bossa Don") and an Ellington medley on the margins. So nothing new here, but it's all pretty delightful. B+(***) [cd]

Kirk MacDonald Jazz Orchestra: Common Ground (2015 [2017], Addo, 2CD): Tenor saxophonist, from Canada, discography goes back to 1990, fronts a big band with five trumpets and a couple extra reeds, none of which especially stand out. B [cd]

Ben Markley Big Band: Clockwise: The Music of Cedar Walton (2016 [2017], OA2): Pianist, has a couple of previous albums, teaches as Director of Jazz Studies at the University of Wyoming, his big band leaning on Denver musicians plus guest trumpet player Terrel Stafford. Walton always had a knack for writing for horns, so his music scales up easily here, a very brassy concoction. B+(*) [cd]

Lisa Mezzacappa: Avant Noir (2015 [2017], Clean Feed): Bassist, has a couple albums, leads a sextet here with just one horn (Aaron Bennett on tenor sax) and no piano: the other spots are electric guitar, vibes, electronics, and drums. B+(**) [cd]

The Milwaukee Jazz Orchestra: Welcome to Swingsville! (2016 [2017], BluJazz): Big Band from University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, "managed" by Kyle Seifert (tenor sax) and Julia Rose Bustle, main name I recognize trumpeter Russ Johnson. Notes brag about this program being played "live and unrehearsed." That may explain why this gets a slow start, but they hit their stride on "Caravan." B+(*) [cd]

Nicole Mitchell: Mandorla Awakening II: Emerging Worlds (2015 [2017], FPE): Flute player, based in Chicago since 1990 although since 2001 she has taught at University of California Irvine. Booklet credits this to her Black Earth Ensemble, a group with shakuhachi, viola, cello, guitar, bass, and percussion. Effectively this is two records, and long enough that both are well developed: it begins and ends with instrumental grunge, something like a jazz elaboration on industrial but a bit more ethereal; in between, we get an extended vocal harangue from "avery y young." I've played this four times, and I'm still ambivalent about both halve, but this is pretty unique, and for once I'm not bitching about the flute. B+(**) [cd]

Murs: Captain California (2017, Strange Music): LA rapper, underground, has a couple albums I like a lot, more I never heard. This one, packed with featured guests I've never heard of and nine different producers, wanders all over the place. B+(**)

Bill O'Connell: Monk's Cha Cha: Live at the Carnegie-Farian Room (2016 [2017], Savant): Solo piano, the title tune an original, the other material -- originals plus covers of "Afro Blue," "Dindi," and "The Song Is You" -- not pushing either interest very hard or far. B [cd]

Nnamdi Ogbonnaya: Drool (2017, Father/Daughter/Sooper): From LA (or Chicago), sings more than he raps, a Christgau pick but while some of this prog trickiness sounds promising I find much of it unlistenable. B-

Miles Okazaki: Trickster (2016 [2017], Pi): Guitarist, has an airy style with a slight metallic tinge, leads a quartet here with pianist Craig Taborn impressive as usual. B+(**) [cd]

Eivind Opsvik: Overseas V (2016 [2017], Loyal Label): Norwegian Bassist, based in New York, has released four Overseas albums with a core group of saxophonist Tony Malaby and pianist Jacob Sacks, joined here (as on Overseas IV by Brandon Seabrook (guitar) and Kenny Wolleson (drums). Dense and intricate, the guitar and sax blunted and folded back into the group, where the focus is more on sustaining rhythmic force. B+(***) [cd]

Orchestra Baobab: Tribute to Ndiouga Dieng (2017, Nonesuch/World Circuit): One of Senegal's most important bands, their 1970s shrined in multi-volume compilations called La Belle Epoque, with more albums since 1992, one of the best (Specialist in All Styles) from 2002, the last before this in 2008. Dieng (1947-2016) was the group's long-time singer, though he is ably replaced here. A-

The Radio Dept.: Running Out of Love (2016, Labrador): Swedish electropop group, a bit of a throwback to 1980's new wave (with a dash of shoegaze), the final cut a hint of Pet Shop Boys but rather austere. B+(**)

Rocco John: Peace and Love (2014 [2017], Unseen Rain): Alto saxophonist (also soprano and piano) Rocco John Iacovone, leading a group he calls the Improvisational Composers Ensemble in a tribute to Will Connell (1938-2014), a saxophonist with a slim discography (most notably the 1981/83 Commitment recordings with William Parker) who "lived his music." Group is an octet with Ras Moshe Burnett (bells, tenor sax, flute), violin, bass clarinet, guitar, double bass, drums, and percussion. Group hits hard, but is equally interesting when they spread out, chill out, or aim for the heavens. A- [cd]

Whitney Rose: South Texas Suite (2017, Six Shooter, EP): Singer-songwriter from Prince Edward Island up in Canada, moved to Austin and after two albums I never noticed came up with this remarkable six cut, 22:19 EP. B+(***)

Adam Rudolph's Moving Pictures: Glare of the Tiger (2016 [2017], Meta/M.O.D. Technologies): Percussionist, mostly hand drums here, with two other drummers (Hamid Drake and James Hurt) in the ensemble, along with horns -- Graham Haynes (cornet, flugelhorn) and Ralph M. Jones (flutes, clarinets, saxes) -- keyboards, guitar, and electric bass. Strong suit is rhythm, colors changing from darker to lighter. B+(***) [cd]

John K. Samson: Winter Wheat (2016, Anti-): Singer-songwriter from Winnipeg, came out of a couple bands I've heard of (Propagandhi, The Weakerthans), third solo album. B+(*)

Jenny Scheinman: Here on Earth (2017, Royal Potato Family): Violinist, working on a soundtrack for the film Kannapolis: A Moving Portrait, based on 1936-42 archival footage by H. Lee Waters of small town folks in North Carolina during the Great Depression. Some scenes included fiddle-banjo-guitar, so she recruited Danny Barnes, Robbie Fulks, Bill Frisell, and Robbie Gjersoe -- reminds me that Frisell hired Scheinman for his very similar Arkansas-based Disfarmer. B+(***)

Andy Shauf: The Party (2016, Anti-): Singer-songwriter from Saskatchewan, started out as drummer in a "Christian pop punk band," third solo album here. This is pretty sedate, or pretty but sedate. B

Swans: The Glowing Man (2016, Young God, 2CD): Michael Gira's industrial/noise group, toiled in near-complete obscurity from 1983's Filth through 1996's Soundtracks for the Blind, but since regrouping in 2010 they've garnered effusive press and even a bit of commercial acceptance. That fell off a bit on this fourth post-hiatus album, perhaps because its length reinforces the sense of sameness. B+(*)

Sunny Sweeney: Trophy (2017, Aunt Daddy): Country singer, cowrote most of her songs -- don't have the credits but evidently Lori McKenna was involved. The backing is nondescript, and they drag a little, but every one hits its mark, even a couple I'd rather not deal with. B+(***)

Syd: Fin (2017, Columbia): Vocalist for the Internet tries a solo album. Small voice, matter-of-fact beats, picks up toward the end with a couple of featuring credits (who is this Steve Lacy?) and a song about "Insecurities" -- whoever's doing that low voice is helping a lot. A-

Teenage Fanclub: Here (2016, Merge): Alt/indie band from Scotland (or "Northern Britain" as one title put it), long time since anyone here was a teenager, their tenth album losing much of their jangle but keeping light pop harmonies. B-

University of Toronto Jazz Orcherstra: Sweet Ruby Suite (2016 [2017], UofT Jazz): Subtitled The Music of Kenny Wheeler featuring Norma Winstone and Dave Leibman (lyricist/singer and soprano saxophonist), so this is a minor milestone in the evolution of jazz repertory, as well as a sentimental tribute to one of Canada's greatest jazz figures (1930-2014). Not a direction I relish or a piece of opera I'm particularly fond of, but I'm not unsentimental (nor unimpressed). B+(*) [cd]

University of Toronto 12Tet: Trillium Falls (2016 [2017], UofT Jazz): Terry Promano directed and composed a couple pieces, and Noam Lomish added his piano to his track. Notable covers come from Strayhorn and Ellington. Nice flow, but sometimes I wonder why bother? B [cd]

Keith Urban: Ripcord (2016, Capitol Nashville): Country singer-songwriter, born in New Zealand, moved to Australia when he was 17 and broke through there, released his first US album in 1999, married actress Nicole Kidman in 2006, moved to Nashville at some point and became a US citizen, becoming a judge on American Idol. Ninth studio album, first I've heard. A formidable voice and a flexible student of pop hooks, mixing in Carrie Underwood on one track and Nile Rodgers and Pitbull on another. Could catch on if I gave it the chance, but I can remember so little of it after one play I doubt I will. B

Velkro: Too Lazy to Panic (2016 [2017], Clean Feed): Recorded in Portugal but mixed in Norway, don't know anything about the trio -- Bostjan Simon (sax, electronics), Stephan Meidell (guitar, bass, percussion, electronics), and Luis Candelas (drums, percussion) -- other than that their 2014 debut blew me away. They describe this one as "a step forward and a dive inward," which is to say the deep sound of their dense fusion takes much longer to sink in. A- [cd]

Nate Wooley/Ken Vandermark: All Directions Home (2015, Audiographic): Duets, trumpet and reeds, recorded over two nights in Milwaukee. This actually works out quite nicely, either likely to set up rhythmic vamps the other can slide against, neither in a mood to burn the joint down. B+(***) [bc]

Michael Zilber: Originals for the Originals (2016 [2017], Origin): Saxophonist (tenor/soprano), originally from Canada, now based in San Francisco after a long east coast stay (Boston and New York -- his debut seems to have been 1992's Stranger in Brooklyn). Originals dedicated to other saxophonists -- most obviously Michael Brecker, Sonny Rollins, Wayne Shorter, John Coltrane, Paul Desmond), mostly backed by piano-bass-drums (David Kikoski, James Genus, Clarence Penn). B+(**) [cd]

Recent Reissues, Compilations, Vault Discoveries

Count Ossie and the Mystic Revelation of Rastafari: Tales of Mozambique (1970-75 [2016], Soul Jazz): Born Oswald Williams (1926-76), he was one of the innovators of nyabinghi, a primitivist hand drumming style wrapped up in the Rastafari cult. His drumming with chants and the occasional horn are simple and seductive. A-

Nigeria Soul Fever: Afro Funk, Disco and Boogie (1970s-80s [2016], Soul Jazz): A big country, roughly the population if not nearly the physical size of Brazil (173.6 vs. 200.4 million people), its diversity another reason for adopting so many western musical styles. Label has a good record for compilations, but this often sounds second-hand, even if more energetically so. B+(*)

Old Music

John Abercrombie/Arthur Blythe/Terri Lyne Carrington/Anthony Cox/Mark Feldman/Gust Tsilis: Echoes (1996 [2005], Alessa): All names on front cover, in alphabetical order, but Blythe (alto sax) only appears on two (of ten) cuts, and Feldman (violin) on one. On the other hand, they dominate their cuts to the point of suggesting the album could turn into something. Otherwise, the guitarist is most chameleon-like, leaving Tsilis' vibes to shine. B+(*)

Gato Barbieri Quartet: In Search of the Mystery (1967, ESP-Disk): Tenor saxophonist from Argentina, played with Lalo Schifrin in the late 1950s/early 1960s before following John Coltrane into the avant-garde, leading to this debut album, with Calo Scott (cello), Norris Jones (bass), and Bobby Kapp (drums). Strong stuff, but mostly his screech is barely controlled, and sometimes it slips. B+(*)

Gato Barbieri: The Third World (1969 [1970], Flying Dutchman): Front cover just says "Gato" under the title. Album opens with flute, then a little vocal, before blossoming into one of the most identifiable tenor sax tones ever. Interesting line up here, with the first hints of his Latin/tango rhythm melded with Roswell Rudd's trombone growl. B+(***)

Gato Barbieri: Fenix (1971, Flying Dutchman): This is where he set the pattern for his best albums of the following decade: he cranked up the Latin percussion (adding Gene Golden on bongos and congas and Na Na on congas and berimbau), let the rhythm section (Lennie White III on drums, Ron Carter on electric bass, and Lonnie Liston Smith on keyboards) ham it up, and blew his sax way past them all. A-

Gato Barbieri: El Pampero (1971 [1972], Flying Dutchman): Same instrumental lineup with considerable shuffling of personnel (Lonnie Liston Smith on piano and Na Na on berimbau are the constants), with the saxophonist if anything even more towering. A-

Chuck Berry: After School Session (1955-57 [1957], Chess): I discovered Berry through compilations -- Chuck Berry's Golden Decade, which later morphed into The Great Twenty-Eight and the slightly enlarged 30-cut (picking up his 1972 novelty hit "My Ding-A-Ling") The Definitive Collection -- and I've heard the 3-CD Chess Box, but on his death, I figured why not check out as many old LPs as I could find? This was his first, only the second issued by the label, with five classics ("School Days," "Too Much Monkey Business," "No Money Down," "Brown Eyed Handsome Man," "Havana Moon"), a forgotten single ("Wee Wee Hours" from 1955), and filler -- plucky instrumentals plus less developed ballads. B+(***)

Chuck Berry: One Dozen Berrys (1957 [1958], Chess): Second album, follows the same formula, with four classics -- "Sweet Little Sixteen," "Oh Baby Doll," "Reelin' and Rockin'," "Rock and Roll Music" -- and mostly instrumental filler (though "It Don't Take but a Few Minutes" is a charming oddity). B+(***)

Chuck Berry: Chuck Berry Is on Top (1955-59 [1959], Chess): Third album, possibly his best known, rounded up non-album singles as far back as "Maybellene" (1955) and "Roll Over Beethoven" (1956). Eight of twelve songs made The Great Twenty-Eight, two other singles dropped from the canon ("Anthony Boy" and "Jo Jo Gunne"), and there are two odd little pieces of filler ("Hey Pedro" and "Blues for Hawaiians"). A-

Chuck Berry: Rockin' at the Hops (1960, Chess): Only one canon song ("Let It Rock"), but three other songs were released as singles, and they and a couple others (including a cover, "Too Pooped to Pop") are unmistakable Berry. B+(**)

Chuck Berry: New Juke Box Hits (1961, Chess): Not really: "I'm Talking About You" is the only canon song, and some of the covers had been around the block too many times ("Route 66," "Rip It Up"). B+(*)

Chuck Berry: Twist (1955-61 [1962], Chess): A stopgap released with Berry in jail, the title suggesting something new to cash in on Chubby Checker's twist craze, the fourteen songs old singles (though this was the first album for three: "Oh, Baby Doll," "Come On," "Back in the U.S.A."). It's all brilliant, but docked a bit as misleading, and because later compilations were able to double the length without slipping one bit. [Reissued a year later as More Chuck Berry. That title was then recycled for a 1964 UK release with a different songlist -- only "Reelin' and Rockin'" appears on both.] A-

Chuck Berry: On Stage (1963, Chess): Berry was in jail in August when this was released -- had been from February 1962 up to October -- so the label faked this, dubbing applause in over studio tracks, with "Surfin' USA" highlighted on the cover but not in the song listings (oh, yeah, "Sweet Little Sixteen"). Napster adds 12 cuts, probably from a later CD reissue I can't locate -- they appear to be the undubbed originals. B-

Bo Diddley/Chuck Berry: Two Great Guitars (1964, Chess): Each side of the original LP starts with a sub-three-minute instrumental, followed in turn by 10:39/14:23 jam, the first side leaning toward Berry, the second McDaniel. A reissue added four bonus tracks, longest 3:44. Grooveful, but might have been more exciting if not just a duo. B+(*)

Chuck Berry: St. Louis to Liverpool (1957-64 [2004], Chess): Back from jail, buoyed by royalties from the Beatles and the Beach Boys (after having sued the latter), he wrote ten (or twelve) songs, including three of his greatest ("No Particular Place to Go," "You Never Can Tell," and "Promised Land"). The forgotten songs are pretty solid too, and the reissue adds three cuts. A-

Chuck Berry: Chuck Berry in London (1965, Chess): Cover says "recorded in England" but offers no further details -- no evidence of an audience, nor that the recording location matters. But it does feature new material, only three covers (two name-checking St. Louis), nothing that wound up in the canon (although "Dear Dad" and "I Want to Be Your Driver" come close), but the guitar is sui generis even when the blues are generic. B+(***)

Chuck Berry: Fresh Berry's (1965, Chess): Last album for Chess, effectively the end of the era, but none of the songs here made the canon, the only one coming close "My Mustang Ford." Ends with a reworking of an early single, this time called "Wee Hour Blues" -- a fitting end. (Berry returned to Chess in 1970, and had a one-shot hit single in 1972, but never regained his 1957-64 genius.) B+(**)

Chuck Berry: Chuck Berry's Golden Hits (1966 [1989], Mercury): Freed from Chess Records, the first thing Berry's new label has him do is re-record a dozen of his Chess hits (well, eleven, as "Club Nitty Gritty" is new, a non-hit single in 1966; expanded to 15 songs for the reissue). While I can't swear the songs are vastly inferior to the originals, they do feel a bit off. And while the back cover notes they were recorded "in October and November, 1966" and "Chuck himself was in full charge of the sessions from beginning to end," this can't escape the whiff of fraud (although this practice wasn't unusual -- I'm still soft on The Very Best of the Everly Brothers, recorded for Warners in 1964, because that's where I started with them). Chess answered almost immediately with the 2-LP 24-cut Chuck Berry's Golden Decade, which is where I dove in. B-

Chuck Berry: Chuck Berry in Memphis (1967, Mercury): The second of five post-Chess albums Berry cut for Mercury (two live plus that bogus Golden Hits). Two more re-recorded hits, a couple of passable outtakes, a batch of soul ballad covers which are pure filler, and more stress on the horns. B+(*)

Chuck Berry: Live at Fillmore Auditorium (1967, Mercury): A proper live album, but Berry had already fallen into the mode of working with whatever local pick up band he could find, drawing what was still known as the Steve Miller Blues Band here. Someone must of whispered in Berry's ear that the hippies dug blues, because he leads off with a long string of blues covers before delving into his own catalog, with only the last three songs recognizably his own (one of them his first recorded take of "My Ding-a-Ling"). B

Chuck Berry: From St. Louie to Frisco (1968, Mercury): Seems to be working hard, wrote a batch of new songs -- though "My Tambourine" is just a gloss on "My Ding-a-Ling," and he that's far from the only recycling -- but he's falling behind and further into obscurity. B+(*)

Chuck Berry: Concerto in B-Goode (1969, Mercury): First side offers four new songs, all blues, far from bad but not especially memorable. Second side is an 18:40 instrumental, built from familiar licks, evidently intended to roll Beethoven back over. Neither strikes me as a good idea, but he makes them work (sort of). B+(*)

Chuck Berry: Back Home (1970, Chess): Well, back in Chicago with Chess, anyway, leading off with "Tulane" -- probably his best song since 1964. Follows up with blues and instrumentals, both better than par. B+(***)

Chuck Berry: San Francisco Dues (1971, Chess): I'm curious why Berry has so many San Francisco titles, especially given that whenever he thinks of that town he slows down and melts. B-

Chuck Berry: The London Chuck Berry Sessions (1972, Chess): One side (five songs) cut in the studio, including a Little Walter cover. The other side was live, just three songs: "Reelin' and Rockin'" and "Johnny B. Goode" sandwiched 11:33 of Dave Bartholomew's "My Ding-a-Ling" structured as an audience sing-along. Berry had recorded the song before (as well as its alter-ego "My Tambourine"), but this was somehow turned into Berry's one and only chart-topping single ("Sweet Little Sixteen" peaked at 2, "School Day" at 3, "Maybellene" at 5, with three more cracking the top ten). B

Chuck Berry: Bio (1973, Chess): Seven original songs show a lot of care if not much genius, but I find the easy and almost effortless pace rather appealing. The band, which fills in seamlessly, also does business as Elephant's Memory. B+(**)

Chuck Berry: Chuck Berry (1975, Chess): Mostly covers, a mix of blues and country and "Shake Rattle and Roll," with "Swanee River" adapted to be most Berry-like. It's schlock, but he makes it sound easy and natural, like he's figured out the art of coasting. B+(**)

Chuck Berry: Rock It (1979, Atco): Having left Chess for the second time, his first and only album for the Warners combine, and it would turn his last album before his death in 2017 (although a new one is rumored, the posthumous market for legends never richer). Christgau liked this one much more than his previous five (or maybe, probably, more), and it certainly is cheerier, but too much rubs me the wrong way -- not least the "Havana Moon" accent -- to get at all excited. B+(*)

Chuck Berry: Rock 'N Roll Rarities (1957-64 [1986], Chess): I wouldn't have bothered with this except I recall having it on vinyl. Some misdirection in that the songs themselves are far from unknown -- 11 of 20 are on The Great Twenty-Eight, which was the standard compilation at the time, and 4 of the remaining 9 were chart singles. Still, the fine print explains that most are demos or alternate takes, some just stereo remixes. And none of the variants stray far. Still, one terrific song was previously unknown ("Time Was"), and I hadn't noticed "Oh Yeah" elsewhere. B+(***)

Arthur Blythe: Put Sunshine in It (1985, Columbia): The late great alto saxophonist, came out of Horace Tapscott's circle in Los Angeles, cut a couple albums on small labels, then got a shot on Columbia and responded with two of the major jazz albums of the late 1970s, Lenox Avenue Breakdown and In the Tradition. This was his eighth album at Columbia (out of ten up to 1988), and by then he was struggling for something bright and pleasing. With cello and tuba instead of bass, guitar, and drums (congas on one track), this doesn't push anyone's buttons. B

Lester Bowie: The 5th Power (1978, Black Saint): AACM trumpet player, with Arthur Blythe (alto sax), Malachi Favors (bass), Amina Myers (piano), and Phillip Wilson (drums). Five pieces, Myers wrote and sings a "traditional gospel" that doesn't stay true, the rest of the pieces are sketchy and tentative. C+

Bob Brookmeyer: The Dual Role of Bob Brookmeyer (1954-55 [1990], Prestige/OJC): The valve trombonist's first album, cobbled together from two four-cut sessions: the first featuring guitarist Jimmy Raney, with Teddy Kolick (bass) and Mel Lewis (drums); the second with Teddy Charles (vibes), Kolick, and Ed Shaughnessy (drums), plus one nondescript vocal. Leader plays some fancy piano too (opposite Charles). B+(**)

Double Tandem [Ab Baars/Ken Vandermark/Paal Nilssen-Love]: OX (2012, dEN): Two tenor saxes (Vandearmark also on baritone, both also switching off to clarinet), jousting mightily with the drummer refereeing. B+(***) [bc]

FME: Live at the Glenn Miller Café - Feb. 27, 2002 (2002, Okka Disk): Ken Vandermark free jazz trio, active 2002-05, with Nate McBride on bass and Paal Nilssen-Love on drums. Terrific example of Vandermark in avant-honk mode, weakened only by a couple spots of regrouping. B+(***) [bc]

FME: Montage (2005 [2006], Okka Disk, 2CD): Last album for the group, although Vandermark has recorded a half-dozen or more duo albums with drummer Paal Nilssen-Love, and has often employed bassist Nate McBride, so it wouldn't take much for them to regroup. Problem here is that at double the length, they space out the moments of brilliance, and while the anticipation may add something to live performance, it just makes us impatient here. B+(**) [bc]

Al Green: Truth N' Time (1978, Hi): His last album before switching over to gospel music. Shows some but not a lot of decline, voice still extraordinary, groove compelling, but nothing really great, and pretty short for an LP (8 songs, 26:39). B+(**)

Al Green: Tokyo . . . Live (1978 [1981], Motown): Live double, should fit on a single CD (76:49). Great songs, the two covers long owned, the band proficient, the sound a bit distant compared to the studio cuts you know like the back of your hand. B+(***)

Al Green: Precious Lord (1982, Myrrh): Green's third gospel album, after the tentative The Lord Will Make a Way and the more sure-footed Higher Plane. Traded his Memphis groove section for Nashville and more choir, which turned off some, but this is chock full of familiar songs which have rarely been raised so high to the rafters. B+(***)

Al Green: I'll Rise Again (1983, Myrrh): Back in Memphis so sure, a better groove record. Not sure of the credits but nothing I recognize, or listened to closely enough to get turned off or on. Wish the title prophesied the soul singer, not Jesus. B+(**)

Al Green: Trust in God (1984, Myrrh): His gospel albums have become so perfunctory I only noticed one song here. Looking at the credits there should have been two. B

Al Green: He Is the Light (1986, A&M): Discogs says this was originally titled Going Away (after the lead song), but I doubt the record was released in the UK before the US, where this has always been the title. Willie Mitchell returns as producer, helping to focus the groove. Favorite lyric: "I feel like shoutin' for joy." B+(**)

Vic Juris: Songbook (1999 [2000], SteepleChase): Guitar trio with Jay Anderson (bass) and Jeff Hirshfield (drums). Title piece is an original, plus two standards by Kern, one each by Jobim and Mancini, the rest jazz touchstones from "Nuages" to "Milestones," all played so modestly none stand out. B

Barney Kessel With Shelly Manne and Ray Brown: The Poll Winners (1957 [1988], Contemporary/OJC): Guitar-drums-bass trio, not sure what poll they claimed but at ages 30-36 they were early in their careers, and milked that group title for several more albums. One original, eight standards, Kessel's thin lines and mild metallic tone fast on their way to becoming hegemonic. B+(*)

Barney Kessel With Shelly Manne & Ray Brown: Poll Winners Three! (1959 [1992], Contemporary/OJC): Third group record for the guitar trio, Kessel having released a couple albums on his own between each. Again, one Kessel original, another by Brown, the rest standards swung a bit harder this time out. B+(***)

The Leaders: Unforseen Blessings (1988 [1989], Soul Note): All-star group came together in 1986 with Lester Bowie (trumpet), Arthur Blythe (alto sax), Chico Freeman (tenor sax), Kirk Lightsey (piano), Cecil McBee (bass) and Don Moye (drums). Third album with that lineup -- they'd go on to cut one more in 1994, but their 2006 reunion replaced Bowie and Blythe with Eddie Henderson and Bobby Watson. The rhythm section also recorded an 1988 album as the Leaders Trio, and Lightsey also seems to be in the helm here -- the horns tentative until they close with a blues. B+(*)

Lean Left: Live at Area Sismica (2012 [2014], Unsounds): Ken Vandermark and drummer Paal Nilssen-Love, their duo joined by two guitarists from the Dutch punk band Ex, left to play free and joust with the sax. Group came together in 2008 and recorded four live albums up to this one. B+(***) [bc]

Rara Avis: Mutations/Multicellulars Mutations (2012 [2013], dEN, 2CD): Ken Vandermark group recorded in Rome, with Stefano Ferriari as a second saxophonist (soprano/tenor), Simone Quatrana (piano) Luca Pissavini (double bass), and SEC_ (Mimmo Napolitano: electronics, effects). First disc are group improvs. Second, much shorter, breaks down to duos and trios. Some sonic surprises, as well as hard-charging sax. B+(*) [bc]

Rara Avis: Rara Avis (2013 [2015], Not Two): Same Vandermark in Italy group, some months later on the road in Poland, improvising nine unnamed pieces. Piano is more prominent, and SEC_'s electronics prod things in interesting directions, while second saxophonist Stefano Ferriari does a pretty solid Mars Williams impression. B+(**) [bc]

Reed Trio: Last Train to the First Station (2008-10 [2011], Kilogram): Another live Ken Vandermark in Poland album (this time Gdansk), joined by Mikolaj Trzaska and Waclaw Zimpel who like Vandermark keep a couple clarinets in their toolkits (Zimpel also has a tarogato). Much less aggressive than Sonore (Vandermark's trio with Peter Brötzmann and Mats Gustafsson), partly because the softer reeds predominate, partly because the group often drops down to solo or duo. B+(*) [bc]

Roots [Arthur Blythe/Sam Rivers/Nathan Davis/Chico Freeman/Don Pullen/Santi Debriano/Tommy Campbell]: Salutes the Saxophone (1991 [1992], In+Out): Four saxophones plus piano-bass-drums, doing nine standards every saxophonist must know by heart, with swing-era warhorses like "Cottontail" and "Lester Leaps In" raising the hottest jams. Still, the breakout star is the pianist, especially on his first two solos. A-

Roots: Stablemates (1992 [1993], In+Out): Names remain prominent on front cover, the only change Idris Muhammad moving in on drums. Mostly pieces by band members, others merely arranged. Pullen has several jaw-dropping moments, but as impressive this time is the sax layering, especially the exquisite altos (mostly Blythe, but also Freeman and Davis). A-

Swans: Public Castration Is a Good Idea (1986 [1999], Thirsty Ear): Michael Gira's noise rock band, had a run from 1982 to 1997 then regrouped in 2010. This was their first live album, heavy, plodding, not without a certain rogueish charm but nothing that might qualify as wit. B

The Vandermark Quartet: Big Head Eddie (1993, Platypus): I think this counts as Ken Vandermark's first album, recorded shortly after he moved from Boston to Chicago, credited with "reeds," joined by Michael Zerang (drums), Kent Kessler (bass), and Todd Colburn (guitar). Some parts feel overdubbed, but maybe it's just not clear what the guitar is up to. B [bc]

Vandermark 5: Drink, Don't Drown (1997, Savage Sound Syndicate): Practically a bootleg, recorded live at the Empty Bottle in Chicago and released in a jewel case with photocopied artwork. Front cover reads, above the title: "Every Tuesday at the Empty Bottle the VANDERMARK 5 will pour an ocean of sound into your bucket." This is the original lineup with Ken Vandermark and Mars Williams (reeds), Jeb Bishop (trombone, guitar), Kent Kessler (bass), and Tim Mulvenna (drums), shortly after their . Sound rather dampened, but they do have their moments. B+(*) [bc]

Vandermark 5: Thinking on One's Feet (1998 [1999], Savage Sound Syndicate): Same deal, a year later, with Dave Rempis (alto sax) in lieu of Mars Williams. Front cover, above the title, reads: "Every Tuesday at the Empty Bottle the battle for supremacy continues: the VANDERMARK 5 vs. SANTO, El Enmascarado de Plata." A bit chaotic, but group was in a feisty mood, especially trombonist Jeb Bishop. B+(**) [bc]

Ken Vandermark/Tim Daisy: August Music (2006 [2007], self-released): Reeds/drums duo, Daisy at the time was drummer in Vandermark 5, live at the Empty Bottle in Chicago, originally a limited edition of 200 copies. Album cover has two sets of initials, "td" on left and "kv" on right, and Discogs fell that way, but I went with the spine. The sax is as powerful as ever, and Daisy makes the clarinet work as well, pecking adroitly around the edges. Applause is enthusiastic, but I doubt the crowd numbered over two dozen. A- [bc]

Ken Vandermark/Tim Daisy: The Conversation (2010-11 [2011], Multikulti): Cover suggests the drummer should be listed first, but Bandcamp page belongs to Vandermark. More duos, drums and various reeds, recorded on two dates in Chicago clubs, impressive work although the high clarinet came off a bit constrained. B+(***) [bc]

Ken Vandermark/Paal Nilssen-Love: Letter to a Stranger (2011 [2012], Smalltown Superjazz): Sax-or-clarinet and drums duo, by my count the eighth between these two (half list the drummer's name first), not to mention a couple dozen group albums. Strongest on tenor sax, also impressive on baritone, and the drummer is always attentive. B+(***) [bc]

Peter Van Huffel/Michael Bates/Jeff Davis: Boom Crane (2013 [2014], Fresh Sound New Talent): Alto sax trio (plus some clarinet), with bass and drums. All three originally hail from Canada, though are now based in Berlin (Van Huffel) and New York (the others). Not as aggressive as the leader's Gorilla Mask group (formed at the same time), but a good showcase for the individual talents. B+(**)

Witches & Devils: Empty Bottle Chicago (1997 [2000], Savage Sound Syndicate): The first of several Ken Vandermark groups to take the name of a famous album (cf. School Days, Free Fall), this one was more conventionally a tribute album, with three of four pieces written by Albert Ayler. Sextet, Mars Williams joins in on reeds, Jim Baker on keyboards, Fred Lonberg-Holm on cello, leading to collisions and pile-ups, but in the end you'd swear the Holy Ghost is tapping feet. B+(*) [bc]

Jimmy & Mama Yancey: Chicago Piano Volume 1 (1951 [1991], Atlantic): A boogie woogie pianist of some note, playing solo (bluesy but not terribly fast) on more than half of the tracks, with Estelle Yancey (wife, not mother) singing on the rest -- a straight up blues singer. B+(*)

Additional Consumer News:

Previous grades on artists in the old music section.

  • John Abercrombie: 15 other albums
  • Gato Barbieri: 13 other albums
  • Chuck Berry: The Great Twenty-Eight (1955-64 [1984], Chess): A+
  • Chuck Berry: The Definitive Collection (1955-72 [2006], Geffen/Chess/Chronicles): A+
  • Chuck Berry: The Chess Box (1955-73 [1988], Chess, 3CD): A
  • Arthur Blythe: In Concert: The Grip/Metamorphosis (1977 [1991], India Navigation): B+
  • Arthur Blythe: Lenox Avenue Breakdown (1978 [1998], Koch): A
  • Arthur Blythe: In the Tradition (1979, Columbia): A-
  • Arthur Blythe: Illusions (1980, Columbia): B+
  • Arthur Blythe: Basic Blythe (1987, Columbia): B
  • Arthur Blythe: Retroflection (1993 [1994], In+Out): A-
  • Arthur Blythe/David Eyges/Bruce Ditmas: Synergy (1996 [1997], In+Out): B+
  • Arthur Blythe: Night Song (1997, Clarity): B-
  • Arthur Blythe/David Eyges: Today's Blues (1997, CIMP): B-
  • Arthur Blythe: Spirits in the Field (2000, Savant): A-
  • Arthur Blythe: Focus (2002, Savant): A
  • Arthur Blythe: Exhale (2003, Savant): B+
  • Lester Bowie: 5 other albums
  • Bob Brookmeyer: 3 other albums
  • FME: Underground (2004, Okka Disk): A-
  • FME: Cuts (2004 [2005], Okka Disk): A-
  • Al Green: 27 other albums
  • Vic Juris: Blue Horizon (2002-03 [2004], Zoho): B
  • Vic Juris/Jimmy Bruno/Corey Christiansen: MB3 Jazz Hits Volume 1 (2006, Mel Bay): B+(*)
  • Barney Kessel: To Swing or Not to Swing (1955, Contemporary/OJC): B+
  • The Leaders: Mudfoot (1986, Blackhawk): A-
  • The Leaders: Out Here Like This (1986, Black Saint): B+
  • The Leaders Trio: Heaven Dance (1988, Sunnyside): B+
  • The Leaders: Spirits Alike (2006 [2007], Challenge): B
  • Lean Left: The Ex Guitars Meet Nilssen-Love/Vandermark Duo, Volume 1 (2008 [2010], Smalltown Superjazz): A-
  • Lean Left: The Ex Guitars Meet Nilsson-Love/Vandermark Duo, Volume 2 (2008 [2010], Smalltown Superjazz): B+(***)
  • Lean Left: Live at Café Oto (2011 [2012], Unsounds): B+(**)
  • Swans: 5 other albums
  • Ken Vandermark: 90 other albums
  • Peter Van Huffel: 4 other albums


Everything streamed from Napster (ex Rhapsody), except as noted in brackets following the grade:

  • [cd] based on physical cd
  • [cdr] based on an advance or promo cd or cdr
  • [bc] available at