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Rearview Mirror #3
Rockers (and Jazzmen and Bluesmen) Uptown
by Tom Hull
East of the River Nile (1977, Shanachie)
Rockers Meet King Tubbys in a Fire House (1980, Shanachie)
Instrumentals were common in Jamaica in the '60s, but around 1970, thanks to the kind of remixing King Tubby was doing (extreme drop-outs, constantly shifting instrumental focus, foregrounding the bassline till it dominated the mix), they became a distinctive stream within the music: dub. The most interesting musician to come out of dub, Augustus Pablo started playing organ, but he also took up the melodica -- a toy wind instrument with a small keyboard -- and got out of it an eerie, flighty, dreamlike tonality often referred to as his "far east sound." Pablo's genius was how he wove his simple melodies into utterly beguiling tapestries of sound. This is clearest on East of the River Nile, perhaps because his dub-free self-production lets the music speak for itself. The earlier and later meet-ups with King Tubby do much the same, with Tubby's echo-laden effects merely accenting Pablo's mystic grooves. Uptown is widely touted as the greatest dub album ever, and I'm not about to quibble. But Fire House's slightly more spacious sound, as well as some newer rhythm tricks, matches up notably well.
THE JAKI BYARD QUARTET WITH JOE FARRELL
Sam Rivers has eked out a very long career on the tattered fringe of the avant-garde, making free-blowing solo and duo albums, and whenever he's gotten the chance, indulging his real love: big bands. However, his first album is remarkably straightforward: his is the only horn, and the Tony Williams-Ron Carter-Jaki Byard rhythm section provides exceptionally brisk support. What's astonishing about this album is how fresh Rivers' saxophone sounds 40 years after the fact, like he's mastered all the invention of the era's free saxophone styles while giving them his own distinctive stamp. All of the sidemen are superb, but Byard comes closest to matching Rivers' achievement -- like Rivers, he started in R&B bands, perhaps why even his most avant moves seem rooted in rhythm. Byard leads a similar group on The Last From Lennie's -- the previously unreleased conclusion to two live LPs released in the '60s. The live setting makes for both a rougher and more spontaneous encounter, with Byard squaring off against a vigorous, modal-influenced Joe Farrell on sax and flute. Farrell isn't well known these days, but before the fusion bug bit him, he was one of the first saxophonists to see the future as revealed to Saint John Coltrane, and Byard was sharp enough to bring out some Farrell's best playing ever.
Waldron was always most famous for having accompanied Billie Holiday in her waning years, but his own career survived Holiday by more than forty years, and the 80-plus albums that he released under his own name make up of the most impressive resumes in all of jazz piano. Early on, Waldron had a rare knack for crafting ballads and was exceptional skillful accompanying players as diverse as Gene Ammons and Eric Dolphy. Later on, he moved in more adventurous circles, cutting intimate duos with Marion Brown and Steve Lacy and leading larger groups to a Mingus-like fury -- cf. 1986's The Git Go, on Soul Note -- but his deep musicality always seemed to steady whatever mischief his sharp mind led him into. Waldron died in late 2002, and Soul Eyes, culled from the early work in the label's catalog, is a fine memento, pulling in sideman work that imprinted with his indelible mark, spotlighting his songs, and above all showing his protean range: Holiday's "God Bless the Child" for Webster Young, Monk's "Bye-Ya" for Steve Lacy, and ending with a gorgeous Gene Ammons take on Waldron's own "Light'n Up."
Most bluesmen sounded old even when they weren't -- cf. the early work from John Lee Hooker and Lightnin' Hopkins in this same series. On the other hand, when King was a strapping young buck, he sounded it. His singing gave Otis Redding a monumental challenge to top, and his guitar gave Eric Clapton a lifelong career to follow. He was recognized as a legend only later, but in the '50s he was the hardest working bluesman in Memphis. This intersects heavily with previous period comps, but is as solid as any.