A Consumer Guide to the Trailing Edge: November, 2011
Recycled Goods (#91)
by Tom Hull
Got to the end of the month and didn't have much saved up. When I noticed the Perfect Jazz Collection sets, I figured they'd make for an interesting test of my own imperfect jazz recollection: the least I'd get out of it would be a laundry list of grades -- a few masterpieces worth remembering, some pretenders worth noting. Then it occurred to me that I could use Rhapsody to fill in the gaps. As it turned out, Rhapsody let me down three times. I did manage to scarf up a copy of the Helen Merrill, but had no such luck with the Martial Solal -- two records from RCA divisions in Italy and France that never crossed the Atlantic. On the other hand, the omission of Weather Report's 8:30 makes little sense: seems like a filing or search error.
My original plan, when I was thinking laundry list only, was to write up those boxes under Additional Consumer News, but it seemed odd to drop all those reviews so far down the page, so I promoted them to In Series. Then I noticed I only had two Briefly Noted. One was one of those old FMP albums Destination-Out has been hawking, so I wondered if there were more I hadn't heard, and found more than I could cram in this month. So Briefly Noted this month is effectively another In Series. Some records in this series I've reviewed in months past, and four more (including a Butch Morris 2CD) will have to wait for later. These are served up by Bandcamp, which means to sell you digital copies, but lets you stream -- presumably lower quality, but good enough for my purposes -- the whole album first. I've used them in a couple cases in the past, but have yet to figure out a good way to search and find things, so it's been very hit and miss. Still, a couple finds down there, plus a lot of the sort of noise you either hate or love.
The Plastic People of the Universe: Magical Nights (1969-85 , Munster, 2CD): Communist-era Czechoslovakia's only internationally noted rock and roll band -- the related band Pulnoc came later, after the Velvet Revolution, named for the ease and grace with which power was transformed, but also perhaps for how many Velvet Underground fans took part. PPU was always on the outs, drawing its name from Zappa, celebrating banned poet Egon Bondy in their first (foreign-released) album. Globus International wound up collecting 10 CDs of their work -- something I'll probably never get to, but this 2CD sampler makes a case for them. Although they originally attempted lyrics in English, their guttural Czech is more in tune with their growling bass lines, and with the sax that drifts into free jazz when it gets the chance, never forgetting that it was the primal voice of rock and roll. A
Heikki Sarmanto Big Band: Everything Is It (1972 , Porter): Finnish pianist, influenced by George Russell, ran an interesting avant-fusion band in the early 1970s, later became artistic director of UMO Jazz Orchestra. The latter was prefigured by this big band: long on reeds (including Eero Koivistoinen and Juhani Aaltonen, names you should know by now), short on brass (three trumpets, two trombones), doubled up on drums. Noisy as these things go, which is fine with me. Main problem for me is Taru Valjakka's soprano-diva vocals on the "Marat" suite. B+(*)
The Staple Singers: Freedom Highway (1965-67 , Columbia/Legacy): Roebuck "Pops" Staples formed this church group with his three not-quite-teenage daughters and son Pervis in 1948. Over the next forty-some years they had a checkered recording career, with some gospel for Vee-Jay in the late 1950s -- "Uncloudy Day" was their most memorable hit -- and a 1969-73 stretch with Stax when they edged into pop with the youngest daughter, Mavis, stepping up. In between they cut three albums for Epic in 1965-67, nicely excerpted here where they capture how gospel fueled the civil rights movement which in turn opened doors to a much more complicated world. Steven Stills' "For What It's Worth" seemed so much like progress when they covered it that they named their last album for it, but it seems dated now, while "Wade in the Water" and "What You Gonna Do?" still resonate. A-
I've noticed a pair of 25-CD boxes that came out of one of Sony's reissue operations in Europe (not sure exactly where) and are retailing on the web for something like $45 each -- less than $2/CD. The CDs are all old jazz albums from the Columbia, RCA, and affiliated catalogs that have been recycled many times before. The packaging puts each in a small sleeve resembling the original LP artwork, collecting them into a modest sized brick. Some include bonus cuts; others not -- presumably they went with whatever was cheapest to master, but I've had trouble getting down to that level of detail.
I thought I'd start out by listing the constituent albums and looking up my grades (where I had them). I wound up trying to listen to the ones I had missed, and include short reviews on them further down the section. In the end, I couldn't find three on Rhapsody, but managed to finagle a download of one of them, so only two escaped my survey: Martial Solal's In Newport '63 (released by RCA France and never picked up here), and Weather Report's 8:30 (no idea why this isn't available).
Perfect Jazz Collection: 25 Original Jazz Recordings (1933-88 , Legacy, 25CD):
Perfect Jazz Collection 2: 25 Original Jazz Recordings (1947-90 , Legacy, 25CD):
I'll let you work out your own averages, but will note that most of the misses in the first set are just that: misses (especially Billie Holiday's dreadful last record, although even that is much admired by some folks -- sadomasochists, I presume). On the other hand, the second set slips quickly into the generally mediocre CTI library and follows that up with a lot of crossover pablum, the rough roots of what came to be called smooth jazz.
To fill in some grades above, I went back and listened to a bunch of albums using Rhapsody. Further notes on them follow:
Chet Baker: Chet Is Back! (1962 , RCA): Cut in Italy with a European band including guitarist René Thomas and saxophonist Bobby Jaspar. The eight standards are a bit more upbeat, engaged even, than cool, a fine vocal-less trumpet showcase. The album was reissued unchanged as The Italian Sessions in 1996, but the 2003 reissue adds Ennio Morricone soundtrack schmaltz with strings and vocals, a dull ending. B [R]
The George Benson Quartet: It's Uptown (1966, Columbia): No jazz artist ever arrived with more hype. His first album was titled The New Boss Guitar of George Benson, and the cover on this one (his second) proclaims, in red type as large as the green title, "The Most Exciting New Guitarist on the Jazz Scene Today." A few years before John McLaughlin, not to mention Jimi Hendrix (and let's throw in Sonny Sharrock), his claim rested on nothing more than splitting the distance between Wes Montgomery and Grant Green (although "Bullfight" suggests a passing interest in Bo Diddley). Still, he's never been framed better, with Lonnie Smith's organ breathing funk, and Ronnie Cuber's baritone sax well on the ugly side. And while he sings on three cuts, they're vintage jazz standards and not without interest (e.g., "A Foggy Day"). Too bad this was his career peak. B+(***) [R]
Art Blakey: The Jazz Messengers (1956 , Columbia/Legacy): In the beginning, with Donald Byrd, Hank Mobley, Horace Silver, and Doug Watkins -- looks like the bonus cuts which double the length substitute freely. Mobley wrote the most cuts, Silver chipped in and gives the hard bop a little extra swing, Byrd shows his early promise. A- [R]
Clifford Brown: The Beginning and the End (1952-56 , Columbia): Trumpet player, dead in a car crash at age 25 after a four-year run that rivals any debut in jazz history. The two cuts with Jamaican singer Chris Powell make little use of Brown and would be long forgotten but for the title concept. The rest -- 3 tracks, 29:53 of the total 34:22 -- were captured live the day before the crash, and are little short of sensational. B+(***) [R]
Dave Brubeck: Jazz Goes to College (1954, Columbia): Live cuts from a tour of midwestern colleges, following the previous year's breakthrough Jazz at Oberlin, this one just a bit more scattered. Paul Desmond gets his picture (but not his name) on the cover, and plays his usual pivotal role. B+(***) [R]
Stanley Clarke: School Days (1976, Epic): Bassist, can play the bull fiddle but prefers bass guitar, especially here where he's looking for crossover funk. He has guitars and keybs at his disposal, plus a brass section and a string section and a short list of drummers that includes Billy Cobham, but doesn't make much use of any of them, so no matter what else is happening you hear the bass fuzz first. C+ [R]
Paul Desmond: Desmond Blue (1961-62 , RCA): One of those "sax with strings" albums, where the strings are so dull and uninteresting at first you try to tune them out and focus on the alto sax, then eventually they fade so completely into the background they cease to annoy. Meanwhile, Desmond just gets more and more gorgeous, as he's wont to do. The 2002 reissue adds a lot of alternate takes: on the plus side they let the whole effect settle in; on the other hand, you wonder if they'll ever end. B+(**) [R]
Duke Ellington and Count Basie: First Time! The Count Meets the Duke (1961 , Columbia/Legacy): Two full bore big bands, Basie's in its early post-atomic phase, Ellington's during a short period when he made a habit of collaborating with everyone from Armstrong to Coltrane. Four songs from each songbook, more show-and-tell than cutting, with everyone sharp, alive, swinging. B+(***) [R]
Stan Getz: The Best of Two Worlds (1975, Columbia): Title continues: "featuring João Gilberto" -- a return to the very popular bossa nova albums Getz cut with Gilberto in 1964, with Heliosa Buarque de Hollanda filling in for Gilberto's estranged wife. Strikes me as not all that well thought out: more Gilberto than Getz, but not enough for either to own it. B [R]
The Benny Goodman Quartet: Together Again! (1963 , RCA): With Lionel Hampton, Teddy Wilson, and Gene Krupa, each a major star after playing with Goodman in the late 1930s, but only Hampton is fully up to snuff at this late date -- not that the clarinetist has lost his touch. Starts off with a piece from Charlie Christian, another Goodman alumnus long gone. B+(**) [R]
Dexter Gordon: Round Midnight [Original Motion Picture Soundtrack] (1986, Columbia): A low budget arty movie about the jazz life, based loosely on Francis Paudras' memoirs of a down-and-out Bud Powell in Paris, the lead reconceived as a tenor saxophonist, played by real life sax giant Dexter Gordon in a performance so nonchalant you're tempted to believe it's his own story. Says something about popular culture's pecking order of fame that so many major jazz stars could be assembled for so little money. (Herbie Hancock's small role is especially memorable, again because it so perfectly fits type.) Soundtracks are normally mere byproducts of the film industry, but this one promised to lure in people who don't normally trust their taste in jazz. Still, those who did dive in found themselves in a mess: only 5 of 11 tracks feature Gordon, who in the film only pulls himself together when blowing into his horn. The rest is atmosphere -- unless you're into starspotting best mulling away in the background. B+(*) [R]
Herbie Hancock: Thrust (1974, Columbia): Never any doubt about his talent, nor his nose for what sells, which following Miles Davis's fusion breakthrough meant electric keybs pounding out tight funk rhythms. Headhunters was his big break, and this just pushes the formula further, its redeeming merit that he was cranking them out tighter than anyone else. B+(**) [R]
Helen Merrill: Parole e Musica (1960, RCA [Italy]): Eleven sterling standards, at once authoritative and seductive even on songs you've heard everyone else do. Cut in Rome with a couple local groups delighted to back the visiting star, with a spoken intro before each track, translating the lyrics into Italian. For me that doesn't add to the allure, but I can see where it might. B+(**) [download]
Gerry Mulligan/Chet Baker: Carnegie Hall Concert (1974, CTI): Their co-led "pianoless quartet" was important in establishing the cool jazz mystique in the 1950s, but their big reunion concert is mellowed out almost to the point of stasis, albeit a rather pretty one. And this being a CTI joint, the band is expanded, with Bob James electric piano, John Scofield guitar, and Dave Samuels vibes. The discography here is confusing: as best I can tell, the original was a 2-LP set, later split into two volumes, then recombined on a single 77:46 CD, sometimes as Volume 1 & 2, and I've seen it variously with black, blue, or orange covers, filed under either name. B [R]
Charlie Parker: Bird [Original Motion Picture Soundtrack] (1945-88, Columbia): Produced by Lenny Niehaus for Clint Eastwood's Charlie Parker biopic, extracting Parker leads from the 1940s (but also note alto sax credits for Donald Harrison and Charles McPherson), cleaning them up, mixing them with contemporary musicians -- Ray Brown and Ron Carter on bass, Barry Harris and David Hazeltine on piano, John Guerin and Tony Reedus on drums, Red Rodney as himself, and who else but Jon Faddis as Dizzy Gillespie? -- and dubbing in crowd noise where the plot called for it. Requires some suspension of disbelief, as did the movie -- which was worth it, and within which this simulacrum of history was essential. If I revered Bird I might get upset, but this gives you the basic idea about as pleasantly as possible. B+(*) [R]
Return to Forever: Romantic Warrior (1976 , Columbia): Chick Corea's florid fusion group, which started as the title of a pretty good album (with Flora Purim, Joe Farrell, Stanley Clarke, and Airto Moreira) and evolved through several changes to this quartet with Clarke, Al Di Meola, and Lenny White, until its demise shortly after. Lots of Spanish tinge with this crew, but it's layered over mock classical schmaltz, so much so that the main group they remind me of is ELP. C+ [R]
Sonny Rollins: Sonny Meets Hawk! (1963 , RCA Victor): One of two tenor sax matches in Rollins' long discography, and a more interesting one than his bout with John Coltrane on Tenor Madness. Rollins is out to impress Coleman Hawkins, often by playing around him, although Hawkins is focused in the game, even when the rhythm floats free. Last three cuts add Don Cherry and move even further out. A- [R]
Wayne Shorter: Native Dancer (1974 , Columbia/Legacy): From 1959-70 Shorter released a ton of work under his own name while starring in Art Blakey's and Miles Davis's most legendary groups. Between 1970 and 1985 he was preoccupied with Weather Report and limited himself to this one Brazilian-themed release. Milton Nascimento croons, Airto Moreira nudges the rhythm along, Herbie Hancock slums, the saxophonist occasionally rises above it all, but more often toys with his soprano. B- [R]
Sarah Vaughan: In Hi-Fi (1949-53 , Columbia/Legacy): Mostly 1950 recordings with a jazz group including Miles Davis, Tony Scott, Benny Green, and Budd Johnson, a big improvement over the orchestral dreck Columbia usually favored (can we blame that on Mitch Miller?). Originally collected in 1955, and padded out in the reissue with alternates to 21 tracks. Not her best timing or intonation, but she hits most of the standards distinctively. B+(*) [R]
Weather Report: Heavy Weather (1977, Columbia): The title seems so inevitable you wonder it took them eight albums to get to it, and why they slapped it on such a lightweight piece of plastic. B- [R]
Marilyn Crispell: Pianosolo -- A Concert in Berlin (1983 , FMP): Avant-pianist, early in her career, attacks the piano boldly, with thick, resonant chords and choppy melodic runs. B+(**) [bandcamp:destination-out]
Marilyn Crispell & Irène Schweizer: Overlapping Hands: Eight Segments (1990, FMP): Two major avant-garde pianists, improvising with, around, and against each other, full of dazzling runs and occasional wrecks; definitely, life in the fast lane. B+(***) [bandcamp:destination-out]
Bill Dixon: Berlin Abbozzi (1999 , FMP): Ten years after the Berlin Wall fell, the avant-trumpeter pokes his way through the fog created by two bassists (Matthias Bauer and Klaus Koch) and drummer Tony Oxley; three long pieces -- the middle "Open Quiet/The Orange Bell" running 40:14 -- exhibit no great hurry; rather, an atmospheric tension ominous enough to rivet your attention but pregnant with sensual wonder. A- [bandcamp:destination-out]
Georg Gräwe Quintet: Pink Pong (1977, FMP): An early, little noted album by the German pianist as he was finding his way to rhythmic freedom, punctuated by scattered trumpet and soprano/tenor sax (Horst Grabosch and Harald Dau, two names I don't recall running into elsewhere). B+(*) [bandcamp:destination-out]
Gumpert Sommer Duo Plus Manfred Herring: The Old Song (1973 , FMP): Pianist Ulrich Gumpert and drummer Günter Sommer, who continued to work as a duo throughout the decade, add Herring's alto sax to the mayhem here; Herring's in high screech mode, while the principals do a rousing job of smashing things up; could have degenerated into noise, but builds something out of every lurch and crash. B+(***) [bandcamp:destination-out]
Ulrich Gumpert & Gunter 'Baby' Sommer: . . . Jetzt Geht's Kloß (1978 , FMP): The Gumpert Sommer (piano-drums) Duo on their own doing what comes naturally: the pianist pulling all sorts of striking melodic fragments out of the aether, fast and hard-edged, with the drums accenting their inherent percusiveness; two long improvs, only thinning out a bit well into the second. B+(***) [bandcamp:destination-out]
Ulrich Gumpert/Günter Sommer: Versäuminisse (1979 , FMP): Piano-drums duo, something the label liked to crank up and smash together, in this case drawing on a pair with nearly a decade's experience of doing just that. B+(**) [bandcamp:destination-out]
Peter Kowald Quintet (1972 , FMP): German avant-bassist in one of his first albums, deploys an alto sax (Peter van de Locht) for some screech and two trombones (Günter Christmann and Paul Rutherford) to keep it dirty. They create a Godawful racket at first, then tone it down without sacrificing the tension. B+(*) [bandcamp:destination-out]
Hans Reichel/Achim Knipsel: Erdmännchen (1977, FMP): Two meerkats on the cover, translating the title; two electric guitarists, playing without pedals or effects or overdubs or whatever, a point made because they're making sounds you don't expect, their interaction a see-saw rhythm the individual sounds bounce off from. A- [bandcamp:destination-out]
Legend: B+ records are divided into three levels, where more * is better. [R] indicates record was reviewed using a stream from Rhapsody ([X] is some other identified stream source; otherwise assume a CD). The biggest caveat there is that the packaging and documentation hasn't been inspected or considered, and documentation is especially important for reissues. But also my exposure to streamed records is briefer and more limited, so I'm more prone to snap judgments -- although that's always a risk.
For this column and the previous 90, see the archive.
Copyright © 2011 Tom Hull.