Saturday, March 01, 2008

Non-Classic Classics

There's a whole category of recordings that are agreed-upon classics, records in every genre that are must-haves. Kind of Blue, A Love Supreme, Ellington at Newport, etc. There are, however, recordings that do not attain iconic status that are, for one reason or another, to me every bit as essential, every bit as classic as those more well known discs. I thought I'd share a few of my favorites.

Booker Little was an amazing musician, and should be more well-known. This recording was done when he was only 22, I believe. His own playing on it is breath-taking. The top notch band includes Wynton Kelly and Tommy Flanagan sharing piano duties, and Roy Haynes on drums. What makes this record so special for me, though, is the contribution of bassist Scott LaFaro. Not only his playing, but the way the recording was made it has trumpet panned hard to one side, bass hard to the other with piano and drums center. You get to hear LaFaro more clearly than on any other recording I know of, including his classic collaborations with Bill Evans. His tone is also better captured. On some of the Evans sides, his action must have been very low, and you can hear the strings bouncing off the fingerboard of his bass. Not so here. His tone is rich and full, and you can get a fuller appreciation for how he functioned as accompanist in a more traditional role. His time when walking is something to behold.

This live Stanley Turrentine recording, "Up at Minton's" features guitarist Grant Green in a co-staring role. Stretching out on standards and blues, this record captures all that is good about jazz. Spontaneity, communication, cooperation, in-the-moment excitement. Funky, soulful, swinging - pick any positive adjective that should be applied to a jazz recording and it will fit this one.

Elvin Jones was a force of nature. This post-Coltrane recording features a trio with George Coleman on tenor and Wilbur Little on bass (with Hannibal Marvin Peterson guesting on trumpet on one tune). I love trios. Probably goes back to an early affection for Cream and Jimi Hendrix, and certainly in jazz Jim Hall's trios and Bill Evan's trios are responsible for some of my favorite music. But sax-bass-drums trio is a trickier animal. The most obvious comparison to this recording would be Sonny Rollins' "A Night at the Vanguard" which also features Elvin Jones. This is a different beast, though. What's so remarkable about the Rollins is that you get to hear him think, you can almost hear the process, you can hear him becoming himself in this trio context, finding a way to make it a viable ensemble. There's an edginess, a "will this configuration even work?" searching to the Rollins. Those questions had all been put to bed by the time of this recording. Everyone is on FIRE on this. Even the ballads burn! I love hearing players so exposed, and the trio gives Elvin all the room he needs to color the music, drive the energy, lay down the law. This is one of my favorite GC recordings, the stark trio context gives him space to show his truly distinctive voice.

Next to trios, my favorite ensemble is quartet with a horn (usually tenor) and guitar, with bass and drums. Sort of the best of both worlds, you have the harmonic support of a chord instrument, but you also have a better front-line partner than piano quartet provides. This record is half live, half studio, but it all has a very live feel to it. There's a story in the liner notes about the difficulties they were having in the studio and how their frustrations and anger came out in their performance - but in a good way! Sco's band with Lovano is more well known, and ultimately a more integrated outfit, since they were a regular working group. Listening to Scofield and Lovano phrase melodies together - the way they would breath as one - that can only happen with a lot of playing and a lot of listening to one another. This has an edgier, flying by the seat of your pants feel that works for it. Not famous, and hard to find, this is one CD I keep handy and return to often.

Coleman Hawkins' "The Hawk Flies High" is a typical blowing date type of recording. There are a number of key elements that raise it for me to classic status. First up, the presence of Barry Galbraith on guitar. His comping gives the date a Basie/Freddie Green feel. But Hawk was a swing-era player who wasn't afraid to evolve, and here he surrounds himself with boppers - Oscar Pettiford, Hank Jones, J.J. Johnson and Idrees Sulieman. There's a great relaxed vibe to the performances, but it seems like everyone is at the top of their game, like Hawk brought out the best in all of them. This is one of those records that you can play for people who think they don't like jazz, and they'll like it. Like the Turrentine, it swings, grooves, moves, is fun, earthy, but not simple or simple-minded. It's easy to connect to, but the details reveal all the beauty and intricacy that make jazz more art than entertainment. But it can be entertaining, too.

Speaking of Basie and Freddie Green, here we have a great Pablo Basie small group recording. I think it was during Basie's extended stay in Vegas, this is from the 70's I'm guessing, without looking at the CD. I love later, small group Basie things because you can really HEAR Freddie. And putting his photo on the cover indicates how important he is to this date. Again, you have swing era vets playing with younger boppers. A great, unpretentious record, this presents brilliant musicians doing what they do best. And of course, it swings like a MF!

This record of Bob Brookmeyer compositions played by the Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra is, in my opinion, one of the great records of the 80's. Brookmeyer was taking big-band writing, and turning it into jazz orchestra composition. This, along with it's sister recording (that I couldn't find an image of, but that includes a haunting arrangement of "My Funny Valentine" and a tune with the wonderful title of "The Nasty Dance" that features Joe Lovano playing his butt off!) are high water marks. That Brookmeyer could make the advances he was, and pull it all off so successfully, amazes me to this day. These are not just great jazz records, these are important pieces of 20th Century art.

This package contains 2 albums by the last incarnation of the Jimmy Giuffre 3, the one with Paul Bley and Steve Swallow (then still playing upright). Not as grating as "Freefall" which would follow it, this recording (called "1961" but originally the albums "Thesis" and "Fusion") would meld chamber jazz and free jazz into a wonderful and seriously neglected composite. Quiet almost to a fault, this is closer to Boulez than Basie. But it showed a different approach to what could be accomplished with the new found harmonic freedom jazz musicians enjoyed. The path not taken. Regrettably.

This record and the one below ("Doin' It Again" and "If They Only Knew") feature Dave Liebman's Quintet with John Scofield and Terumasa Hino. Another piano-less ensemble, this one has a more traditional 2 horn front line, but it's anything but traditional. Again, from the early 80's, a much maligned and/or ignored period in jazz, these should show just how unjust that is. Each record has a standard ballad (Stardust and Autumn in N.Y.) that gets a fresh reharmonization. There's a sense of discovery on these sides, a sense of moving beyond the very electric, heavy handed fusion of the 70's, but still finding a way to incorporate what was good about it with a more straight-ahead jazz.

The only flaw with either of these is the recorded bass sound. It has that very in-your-face bass sound that was ubiquitous throughout this era. Happily, bass sounds have become more natural. It's funny to contrast the bass sound on these records - made during a much more technically advanced period - with the bass sound on "Booker Little", where they probably stuck a microphone in front of Scotty LaFaro and said "stand HERE".

Someday, someone will have to build a monument to Don Thompson. If it weren't for his penchant for recording gigs we wouldn't have "Jim Hall Live!", the Paul Desmond recordings from Bourbon Street in Toronto, a whole host of essential Ed Bickert recordings, and the present disc. Frank Rosolino's "Thinking About You" features Bickert, Thompson and drummer Terry Clarke. This is quite possibly my favorite Ed Bickert recording, which is saying a lot because I have most of them, and love them all. But there's real magic here. Now a 2 CD set, with 8 tunes that weren't on the original LP, these are the cream of the crop of Rosolino's stay at the Toronto club. Maybe Don will release everything he has? Someday? Please? The liner notes mention that for the whole engagement (I forget if it was one week or two) they decided not to play any tunes twice. They played different tunes every set, every night, the whole time. I got to speak to Terry Clarke and he confirmed this. So everything on here is a "first take". There's so much music on here, it's almost too much to digest. But take your time, go slowly through it all, and enjoy. This is improvisation of the highest order, with one of the great rhythm sections in jazz history.

The Hammond B-3 organ is one of the most glorious sounds in the known universe. Those keys are little tiny black-and-white angels, the Leslie the gives forth their angelic voices like rotating heavenly hosts. And no, I don't think I'm overstating it. Another record featuring Grant Green, Big John Patton's "Got a Good Thing Goin'" is a great party record. Great tunes, great playing, a great vibe throughout, and a cover that has a cute go-go dancing girl. What more could you ask for?

This one just came to mind the other day. Sort of an update on the Big John Patton record, if you will. Rodney Jones' "Soul Manifesto" features Maceo Parker, Arthur Blythe, Dr. Lonnie Smith, Lonnie Plaxico and Idris Muhammad. Not too shabby! Overwhelmingly funky, this record grabs hold of you like a physical force, and doesn't let you go. Rodney is one of the great guitarists of this generation, and my favorite along with Kurt Rosenwinkel and Adam Rogers. Those are the 3 guys that I want to hear everything they do. RJ is in the Benson/Grant Green mold, but with a Coltrane-like intensity, fervor, that's just powerful.