Following up collections from Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, and Russia, the latest stop on Cosmic Sounds’ jazz tour of Eastern Europe is 1960’s Poland. And it’s a rousing success. Among my favorites are the four tracks featuring vibes player Jerzy Milian: three under his own name and a fourth as featured soloist with Jan Wroblewski and the Polish Radio Jazz Orchestra. Then there’s a really swingin’ track by the Novi Singers, one of the all-time greatest jazz vocal groups’from any country! Pianist and film composer Krzystof Komeda, perhaps the most familiar name here, is oddly represented by two versions of the same composition (“The Kitten”), both programmed on the same side of the record. Aside from that minor quibble, BAZAAR really is a valuable and entertaining document of a mostly ignored part of jazz history.
Forging their own unique musical path, Germany’s Tied + Tickled Trio blur the boundaries of jazz and electronic music on this outstanding debut album. Spearheaded by Enja recording artist Johannes Enders on tenor saxophone and piano, the five-member trio (plus guests) create moody, layered, jazz soundscapes that owe as much to classic Blue Note as they do to dub and ambient techno. Sampled beats, echo-laden production, and tweeky electronics collide with classic jazz instrumentation on this all-too-short album. Every track is a winner, but “Mutant,” “Nordlied,” and “Constant” earn bonus points for extreme genre confusion. This is truly jazz for the 21st century…an amazing debut.
Acid jazz, much like trip hop, seems to be one of those genre labels that unintentionally demean the style of music it s trying to categorize. So we won t call this acid jazz; how about “60’s-influenced groove jazz?” Whatever you call it, it’s damn fine music from Victor Axelrod, aka Ticklah. Mostly instrumental, with the occasional soundbite and female vocals on one track, this will probably appeal to fans of the Greyboy Allstars or Medeski, Martin and Wood. Highlights include the funky “Toe Foo,” the organ-based “Ray Castoldi World Tour,” the soulful and sample-heavy “Japanese!!!,” and the reggae groove of “Ticklah’s Swing.”
After his stint with Carl Craig’s Innerzone Orchestra, it should come as no surprise to find keyboardist Craig Taborn joining the other forward-thinking jazzbos from Thirsty Ear’s “Blue Series.” This quartet session features Aaron Stewart on tenor sax, Mat Maneri on violas, and David King from The Bad Plus on drums, with Taborn multi-tasking on acoustic piano, electric keyboards, and a healthy dose of laptop tricknology to spice up the mixture. “Junk Magic” is the perfect opening salvo, starting off with a slow and plaintive melody, then slowing morphing into a funky digital groove before the track grinds to an abrupt halt. “Mystero” features some stuttering (sampled?) drums, earthy sax, and sci-fi keyboards. On “Shining Through,” Maneri’s viola is processed to sound like its emanating from an ancient Victrola. “The Golden Age” is an 11-minute denouement, eschewing the rhythmic complexity found elsewhere in exchange for layers of spacey electronic textures. Another fine addition to the Blue Series: grasping at the future of jazz and pulling it into the here and now.
A stunning solo debut and contender for jazz album of the year from this former member of The Pharoahs. FROM THE NILE could almost be considered a concept album, incorporating (as it does) such a huge chunk of black musical history. The album opens with a poem in honor of Egyptian ancesters, then goes on to borrow from African, Afro-Cuban, Caribbean, and black American musical traditions, closing out with a couple of cover tunes from John Coltrane and Eddie Harris. Derf plays flute, sax, and a variety of African instruments. Every track on this album is a gem. Listening to it, I’m reminded of the Art Ensemble of Chicago’s motto: “great black music — ancient to future.” This is truly great black music, full of passion and spirituality.
Vibes player Dave Pike has spent a lifetime in jazz: recording his first album in 1956; working with Herbie Mann during the bossa nova craze of the early 60’s; touring and recording in Europe with the Dave Pike Set from 66 to 73; returning to the States and recording three albums for Muse in the 70’s; and finally, after several personal hardships forced an early retirement, releasing a well-received comeback album in 1998 on San Francisco’s Ubiquity label. This long-unavailable session from 1969 is 3/4 funk, 1/4 lounge, and 100% groovin’. Organ and vibes dominate the set of original tunes and instrumental cover versions of everything from James Brown to Burt Bacharach. And pay no attention to that buzzing sound in your speakers–it’s just an un-miked Dave singing along with his vibes!
HEART OF A LEGEND is both a new work and an exuberant summation of the 55-year career of latin jazz composer, arranger, and conductor Chico O’Farrill. Twenty years ago, O’Farrill composed the score to a film by Cuban filmmaker Jorge Ulla. Now Ulla returns the favor by producing both a documentary film on O’Farrill and this accompanying album, which re-scores many of the pieces from that original film, along with some unreleased material and some latin jazz classics. The album is bulging with talent, including appearances by Gato Barbieri, Arturo Sandoval, Paquito D’Rivera, and others. Some personal favorites: a swing blues with vocals by Freddy Cole (Nat’s brother); the multi-sectioned “Trumpet Fantasy;” a streamlined version of the classic “Manteca;” and “Sin Tu Amor” a bossa-like confection with sultry female vocals. But there’s much, much more to enjoy here. On Milestone Records, and this truly is a milestone for Chico O’Farrill.
If ESP-Disk was the original home of free jazz, then the French label BYG/Actuel was its summer vacation home. Between 1969-1971, BYG/Actuel recorded and released 52 essential documents of boundary-breaking music, including this exhilarating quartet recording led by drummer Sunny Murray. A frequent sideman to Cecil Taylor and Albert Ayler, Murray is accompanied here by the double saxophone assault of Byard Lancaster and Kenneth Terroade, with the Art Ensemble’s Malachi Favors on bass. Spiritually grounded yet totally “out there,” this is free jazz at its apex.
Another jazz masterpiece from Joe McPhee, courtesy of Atavistic’s Unheard Music Series. This trio date from 1971 (following McPhee’s equally-essential UNDERGROUND RAILROAD and NATION TIME LPs) features McPhee on saxophones, trumpet, and pocket cornet, Mike Kull on keyboards, and Harold Smith on percussion. Appropriately recorded in a church parish hall, this music is spiritual, soulful, and uplifting. “Ionization” is a sprawling, 28-minute opus that begins with a powerful interchange between McPhee’s bellowing sax and Smith’s muscular drumming, then moves into much quieter territory with a subtle dialogue between piano and percussion. McPhee then rejoins and the piece ultimately concludes as a blues. Of the two shorter tracks, “Astral Spirits” is a quiet, reflective piece featuring multi-tracked saxophones as an homage to the Ayler brothers, and “Delta,” with its psychedelic-tinged electric piano, reminds me at times of Sun Ra in a small combo setting. An interesting technical note: due to the length of its tracks, the original vinyl release of this album had to be sonically compressed. This is the first time these recordings have been heard with their full dynamic range.
In 1979, the top-selling jazz album of the year was Herb Alpert’s RISE. And the Steve Lacy 3 played a concert at Soundscape in NYC. Coincidence? You decide. But seriously, this Steve Lacy concert sounds as fresh now as the day it was recorded. I’ve always loved the jazz trio format, especially for free improv. (Three instruments are about all I can hear simultaneously without losing the plot!) And here we’ve got three first-class jazzbos: Steve Lacy on sax, Ronnie Boykins on bass, and Dennis Charles on drums. The conversation is freewheeling but not too noisy, experimental but grounded in melody. Proof once again that valuable music was being made in the 70’s…if you only knew where to find it.
Steve Lacy is, without a doubt, one of the most important jazz artists of the last 40 years. A master of improvisation and composition, he is also stylistically restless, and has explored virtually every avenue of jazz, from traditional dixieland, to the work of Monk and Mingus, to free jazz and modern electronic improvisation. CLICHES is a reissue of an album from 1982 (originally entitled PROSPECTUS), though it’s missing a few tracks due to deterioration of the master tapes. It features the great George Lewis on trombone, in addition to the sextet that Steve has recorded with many times since the early 80’s. The tracks here showcase some impeccable ensemble playing as well as exhilarating spontaneity. Of particular note is the title track, which begins quietly with some African percussion and French vocals, then gradually builds in intensity throughout its 22-minute length. The bluesy “Wickets” is also a particularly fine showcase for soloing. It’s nice to have this album back in print.
David Hillyard, sax player for ska bands The Slackers and Hepcat (among others), fronts his own group for this outstanding collection of ska-based jazz. The album opens and closes with two dixieland jazz tracks that highlight ska’s connection to the New Orleans sound. In between those tracks you get eight rousing instrumentals and two vocals, including an instrumental cover of The Beatles “Norwegian Wood.” Recorded “live in the studio” to preserve that spontaneous feel, the band’s vitality comes through in spades. With elements of R&B, reggae, and even Latin music spicing the mix, this is one hell of a joyous record that will make you want to see the band live.
Jamaican-born saxaphonist Joe Harriott was an influential figure on the British jazz scene of the 1960’s. Unfortunately he died of cancer at the tragically young age of 44, and most of his recordings have long been out-of- print…until now. Harriott was a contemporary of Ornette Coleman and in fact developed his own unique style of “free jazz” at roughly the same time, documented here on FREE FORM. Compared to our modern expectations of “free form,” this 1960 recording is more “form” than “free.” Musical themes are introduced and re-stated to begin and end a piece, time signatures are followed fairly strictly, etc. But there is a great exuberance to the solos here that keep the recording from sounded dated in the least. Harriott went on to even more original projects, fusing classical Indian ragas with jazz in a series of albums with John Mayer, before his death in 1973.
In 1962, veteran jazz drummer Chico Hamilton re-aligned himself with a more modern style of jazz by recruiting a lineup of talented young players for his new Quintet. Included among them were Gabor Szabo on guitar and Charles Lloyd, the group’s musical director, on alto and tenor sax, flute, and clarinet. The resulting album, DRUMFUSION, is a relentlessly rhythmic and bluesy album sure to keep your feet tapping. All six tracks are great, but I’m particularly fond of the three on Side B: the growling sax lines on “Homeward,” the more subtle flute and guitar duets on “A Rose for Booker,” and the hard-swinging finale, “Transfusion.” This quintet was very successful at the time, and the two members mentioned above went on to even more success in solo careers. A great reissue, even if it is a bootleg.
The Ethnic Heritage Ensemble is the brainchild of AACM member Kahil El ‘Zabar, who has provided the rhythmic foundation for a revolving cast of band members since the group’s inception in the mid-70’s. This time out the lineup includes trombonist Joseph Bowie (brother of Lester and founder of Defunkt), saxophonist Ernest Dawkins, and guitarist Fareed Haque: an exemplary group of jazz musicians, creating soulful, spiritual music. I can never get tired of the funky, Eddie Harris-penned title track. Guitarist Haque swings mightily on “Mama’s House,” and the voice-and-percussion treatment on “This Little Light of Mine” really shines. (Ouch.) Seriously, this is great stuff.
One of the busiest trumpeteers in modern jazz, Dave Douglas has recorded with everyone from Braxton to Zorn, and released several albums under his own name with various instrumental configurations. This time it’s a quartet, featuring Douglas on trumpet, Chris Potter on tenor sax, James Genus on bass, and Ben Perowsky on drums. The result is a melodically sophisticated but perhaps too polite collection of nine original Douglas compositions, ranging from the swingin to the moody and meditative. On “Padded Cell” the band plays a little more freely and this, for me, was the most interesting track.
The evolution of New York jazz continues with this latest release from the infant AUM Fidelity label. Whit Dickey is a first-class drummer best known for his work with Matthew Shipp and David S. Ware. On his first recording as a leader, he is aided and abetted by Rob Brown on alto sax and Chris Lightcap on bass. Inspired by the music of Thelonius Monk and David S. Ware, the trio skitter and squonk through eight tracks of exhilarating free jazz. All three players are equal partners on this recording, creating an intricate conversation of rhythm and mood. While challenging at first, the record opens up upon repeated listening. Favorite tracks: the intensely moody Penumbra, the drums/bass/flute combination of “Tableau,” and the excellent ensemble piece “Kinesis.”
Repeating the success of his brilliant album of Jimi Hendrix covers (THIRD STONE FROM THE SUN), renowned flautist Robert Dick again teams with the Soldier String Quartet to re- interpret the work of others. This time the goal was to cover songs that had, up until now, remained relatively uncovered, including compositions by Coltrane and Coleman, Wayne Shorter, Eric Dolphy, and Hendrix (again). The arrangements by David Soldier are stellar and the performances, particularly by flautist Dick and violinist Regina Carter, are awe-inspiring. Of special note: the blues jam of Hendrix s Machine Gun, the complex eastern funk of Coleman’s “Three Wishes,” and the cinematic exotica of Coltrane’s “India.” An album that refuses to be ignored.
Build an Ark is a spiritual jazz mega-group led by one Carlos Ni’o, DJ at Los Angeles’ Pacifica radio station KPFK and member of the bands Ammon Contact and Hu Vibrational. Joining him on his quest for universal unity are seasoned jazz vets like percussionist Adam Rudolph, Tribe Records founder Phil Ranelin, and Derf Reklaw of The Pharoahs. Fans of that other Pharaoh (Sanders) will feel right at home from the album’s opening track, a swingin’, squonkin’ cover of “You’ve Gotta Have Freedom”. From that upbeat beginning, though, the album turns more quiet and reflective, with different combinations of the group’s 28 members featured across a total of 18 tracks. Instrumentation is varied, as you might expect from an ensemble this large, but percussion is featured most prominently. Much respect for “Love is Our Nationality,” a timely spoken word track based around Funk, Inc.’s “Let’s Make Peace and Stop the War.” And the album closes brilliantly with a jam session on Ronnie Laws’ “Always There,” as band members chant, clap, and shout out the names of their favorite jazz heroes. In channeling their inspiration from the past, Build An Ark has created a future classic.
It’s impossible for me to review this CD without first saying how incredible the sound quality is on this recording. This is the kind of CD you’d want to take to your nearest high-end audio shop and play on their $20,000 sound system. Just close your eyes and YOU ARE THERE! The clarity, the separation, the depth…wow! Fortunately, the performances here are indeed equal to this marvel of recording technology. Anouar Brahem is a Tunisian oud virtuoso who has spent years learning Arab classical music, but who also seeks to explore new contexts for his instrument. On this album he is joined by two near- legends in jazz: John Surman (on bass clarinet and soprano sax) and Dave Holland (on double-bass). The result is an incredibly beautiful and intimate trio recording, blending jazz and Arab classical musics into something wholly original. Five stars!
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