Jazz CD Reviews
Jazz CD Reviews, Part 1 of 2
Published on July 1, 2004
THE CONTEMPORARY RECORDS STORY – 4 CD Retrospective with illustrated booklet on history of the label – Tracks from Ray Brown, Benny Carter, Ornette Coleman, Buddy Collette, Curtis Counce, Art Farmer, Victor Feldman, Benny Golson, Hampton Hawes, Barney Kessel, Howard Rumsey’s Lighthouse All-Stars, Shelly Manne, Red Mitchell, Lyle Murphy, Lennie Niehaus, Phineas Newborn Jr., Red Norvo, Art Pepper, Andre Previn, Sonny Rollins, Bill Smith, Cecil Taylor, Leroy Vinnegar, Ben Webster and others – 4CCD-4441-2:
Many different small jazz labels have been kept alive and thrive on reissues under the umbrella of Fantasy Records, but Contemporary is one of my personal favorites and has been since their first stereo LPs came out in the late 50s. Founder Lester Koenig had been an assistant to famed Hollywood director William Wyler, but after refusing to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee he found himself blacklisted and decided to go into another business. Actually he had already started the Good Time Jazz label for Dixieland a few years before, but he was just as passionate about modern jazz. Jazz fans have thanked him ever since. Audiophiles too, because Koenig was one and he began recording some of his sessions in stereo as early as 1955 – three years before the stereodisc was launched. (Other labels such as Prestige took years to switch over.) He always maintained the highest sonic standards, and therefore this terrific reissue package lacks nothing sonically except for the first several mono tracks on Disc 1. The tall shape of the package ensures that it will stand out in your collection. Though the booklet bound inside (with a pair of discs nested on the inside front cover and another pair in the back cover) is not thick, it is crammed with wonderful black and white shots of the musicians by such famed jazz lensmen as William Claxton.
The first group to record for the label was Howard Rumsey’s Lighthouse All-Stars, and most of the earlier performers were of the West Coast Jazz School. Later a variety of more mainstream artists came to the label, such as Benny Carter, Ben Webster, Sonny Rollins. The label had a commendable mix of white and black jazz artists. Benny Golson and Curtis Counce took things into a harder bop area, and the first two albums Ornette Coleman ever recorded were for Contemporary. (I still play and enjoy both of them though later Coleman efforts sort of lost me.) Shelly Manne & His Friends (which originally included Andre Previn) and Art Pepper are the most frequently profiled artists in this collection of 57 tracks. The booklet carries a detailed listing of all the performers on each track and which album the track came from, along with a graphic of the original cover. Contemporary had a fresh and bright outlook about all their releases which was carried out in the notes and cover photos as well. It seemed to fit the West Coast culture but there was plenty of depth here too. There’s great stuff here for almost any taste in jazz, unless you’re only into some of the recent soul/hip-hop/funk/”acid jazz” trash I’ve been doing my best to avoid.
– John Henry
JAZZ MOODS – New reissue series from Sony – 12 of the most important jazz artists of the past 60 years – Designed as an introduction to the music of each – reissues from the 40s thru the 80s, all at mid-price on Sony Legacy:
This new series is divided into three “feelings of jazz:” Hot, Cool and the Midnight Hour. The first disc I put on really blew me over – The Count Basie tracks were certainly hot – just as advertised – and when I checked the booklet and found they dated from 1936 thru 1940 I was flabbergasted. This is one of the best jobs of remastering old 78s I have ever heard. The swinging impact of the Basie Band was strong and with very little surface noise. Many of the band’s big hits are here: Tickle Toe, Jumpin’ at the Woodside – and a bunch of them were recorded live, which I didn’t realize was being done much at that time. They have just as much impact as the studio tracks. This one is a real winner.
The Ellington disc covers all the way from 1927 to 1941 and isn’t up to the fidelity of the Basie. There are 14 tracks, including many of his biggest hits. It’s still a great Ellington sampler and if heaven forbid someone has not a single Ellington disc in their collection, this would be a great place to start. For my money, the three best of the Cool Moods category are the Stan Getz, Dave Brubeck and Miles Davis collections in this series. Getz’ tenor sax gems date from the 60s and 70s and include several Brazilian-flavored numbers, for which he was well known. 11 tracks, ending in a lengthy treatment of my favorite Gershwin tune, Who Cares – which has some fine exchanges with trombonist Bob Brookmeyer. Not all of the Brubeck album is so cool as Getz, with a spirited Basin Street Blues and of course Take Five. Most of the 11 tracks are from the late 50s.
The ten Miles tracks date from the 50s and 60s, before he got into the electronic/fusion bag that lost him many fans. An 11-minute version of All Blues is here, plus Miles Ahead, Bye Bye Blackbird and So What. Thelonious Monk is in the ‘Round Midnight Moods category, and the 11 tracks are taken from his Solo Monk, Criss-Cross, Monk’s Dream and other albums. Such Monk classics as Pannonica, Crepuscule with Nellie and ‘Round Midnight are featured. The George Benson disc thankfully has some of his great instrumentals and not 100% his later vocal numbers, and the Herbie Hancock CD concentrates on his acoustic piano work rather than his electronic funk work. The Billie Holiday and Freddie Hubbard discs are also worthwhile, but how Grover Washington Jr. and George Duke’s soul/funk stuff got into this collection I don’t know.
– John Henry
Here’s three new ones from the label with three initials…
Arild Andersen (doublebass), with Vassilis Tsabropoulos (piano) & John Marshall (drums) – The Triangle – ECM B0002286-02:
Norwegian bassist Andersen was new to me although this is his 15th album for ECM as a leader. The trio is a fascinating melding of European jazz streams. Andersen is a specialist in Nordic jazz but he has worked with American jazzmen from Johnny Griffin to Sam Rivers. His drummer is British, admires the genius of Charles Mingus and though involved in jazz fusion groups leans toward the intellectual side of modern jazz. Tsabropoulos is a Greek classical pianist who came to jazz late – he began to improvise only while studying at Juilliard with later with Vladimir Ashkenazy. His phrasing and touch is more like a classical pianist and perhaps that’s why this trio appeals to me so much. His improvisations are not based on chords and his left hand often plays an independent line. The connection applies even to the selection of Ravel’s Pavane for a lovely arrangement as one of the tracks here. His classical repertory leans towards the Russians – Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev and Scriabin. Ah, hah! That’s why the feeling of this album is so appealing to me. Tsabropoulos composed five of the nine tracks on the disc. The exquisite clarity of the recording of the three instruments aids the listener in following the subtle lines of this very different jazz trio. A BBC commentator said the pianist is the first classical pianist he had ever heard who can play jazz with real understanding and great imagination. Tracks: Straight, Pavane (Ravel), Saturday, Choral, Simple Thoughts, Prism, Lines, European Triangle, Cinderella Song
– John Sunier
Marilyn Crispell Trio – Storyteller (with Mark Helias, doublebass; Paul Motian, drums) – ECM 1847:
Another classically-influenced pianist here and another departure from your normal jazz piano trio. I recall getting a previous Crispell album and only enjoying one track on it – the rest being Cecil Taylor-influenced free jazz full frontal attack on the piano. So I was pleasantly surprised by this mostly slow, thoughtful, very subtle collection of 11 tracks which are not terribly melodic but not painfully atonal either. Only three of them are Crispell originals and the rest are credited to either her bassist or drummer on the session. Motion once played drums with Thelonious Monk and the quirky pianist’s quality of being both naive and wise at the same time is heard in some of his original works on the disc. The word is that Crispell has re-evaluated the meaning of ‘intensity’ in her work and is rechanneling it into a more quiet and lyrical form. As usual with ECM, there are some fine photos but no notes. I gather this is not the first get-together of the trio – they read each other’s musical intentions skillfully and blend their three voices smoothly. It communicates in spades the introspective “2 AM in a quiet studio in Norway” feeling common to so many ECM recordings. But that’s not to say it doesn’t have plenty of energy-in-reserve, Tracks: Wild Rose, Flight of the Bluejay, The Storyteller, Alone, Harmonic Line, Cosmology, Limbo, Play, The Sunflower, So Far So Near.
– John Sunier
John Abercrombie, guitar; Mark Feldman, violin; Marc Johnson, doublebass; Joey Baron, drums – Class Trip – ECM 1846:
Abercrombie has also recorded many times for ECM over 30 years, with 24 albums to his credit. His album with this particular quartet, “Cat’n’Mouse” of 2000, was very well received. This one continues the unique sound-world provided by the combination of violin and guitar. Abercrombie views their music as “improvised chamber music rooted in the jazz tradition.” The group was originally formed six years ago when Abercrombie first heard versatile violinist Feldman, who is at home with classical, bebop, swing, free jazz, and has worked as a Nashville studio musician. The violinist also appears with his wife pianist Sylvie Courvoisier, and we reviewed their Abaton album a few months ago. The classical influence is also found many places in this session, including the group’s improvisation on Bartok’s Soldier’s Song from his 44 Duos for Two Violins. The clever tune Cat Walk seems to be left over from their previous ECM album. Track titles: Dansir, Risky Business, Descending Grace, Illinoise, Cat Walk, Excuse My Shoes, Swirls, Jack and Betty, Class Trip, Soldier’s Song, Epilogue.
– John Sunier
The David Berkman Quartet – Start Here, Finish There (with Dick Oatts, saxophones; Ugonna Okegwo, bass; Nasheet Waits, drums) – Palmetto Records PM2098:
In his fourth disc for this label, pianist/composer/arranger concentrates on nine of his own highly original compositions plus a Woody Guthrie tune to close. The Cleveland-born pianist started out as a fiction writer but after study at Berklee College of Music moved into jazz professionally. He’s been playing with this quartet for some time and they sound like it. A UK reviewer pointed to his “Ellingtonian sense of grace.” Berkman feels his compositions are almost abstract stories, so perhaps his career hasn’t switched so greatly. He says he hopes to make his music more compelling by giving it a kind of emotional weight. English As a Second Language was titled with his wife Shoko in mind, Iraq was unusual in that Berkman was trying to express a non-abstract political viewpoint, and Old Forks is not a typo on Old Folks but an original that recalls Keith Jarrett’s work in the 70s. Thought-provoking but still swinging music. Tunes: Cells, Triceratops, Iraq, Stone’s Throw, English As a Second Language, Penultimatum, Only Human, Old Forks, Quilt, Mean Things Happening in This World.
– John Henry
Benny Green, piano & Russell Malone, guitar – Bluebird – Telarc Jazz CD-83604:
If you heard this duo’s previous Jazz at the Bistro CD you’ll be a pushover for this sequel. I love the idea of two instruments which fit together so beautifully in syncopated chamber music, working without the usual rhythm section or even a horn. Both players are exceptionally gifted and seem to know exactly the right note to play at any moment without overstating anything – sort of a Count Basie keyboard approach. Green has played with Art Blakey, Ray Brown and Betty Carter among others, and Malone has been with Jimmy Smith, Diana Krall and Freddy Cole. Recorded onto DSD – as Telarc does most of their original recording now – fidelity is tops, though I suppose the eventual SACD version will pull back yet another of those sonic veils we didn’t realize was there until it was gone. The title tune is from Charlie Parker and there are tracks by Cole Porter, Stevie Wonder, and Oscar Peterson. Nice balance of standards and originals; their very light-hearted treatment of the hackneyed Love for Sale is a kick. Tracks: Reunion Blues, It’s Alright With Me, You Are the Sunshine of My Life, Who Can I Turn To?, Love for Sale, Flowers for Emmett Till, Bluebird, Feel Like Makin’ Love, Passport, Moonglow, Where Is the Love?, Wheatland
– John Henry
Joshua Breakstone, guitar – A Jamais (with Louis Petrucciani, bass; Joel Allouche, drums) – Capri Records 74065-2:
Another great guitarist and mostly original compositions. Have to admit this was my introduction to Breakstone, whose third recording for Capri this is. He’s been a leading exponent of the single-note technique and a straight-ahead jazz guitar stylist for over 20 years now. He recorded the album in France, which explains the French title, with a pair of French musicians. They sit it out for two of the tunes: Bud Powell’s Hallucinations and Breakstone’s Song of the Cervennes, inspired by the mountains of southeastern France. Breakstone is also breaking big in Japan, making a couple trips a year there now, and he’s doing a European tour this summer. If you dig bebop guitar from a master, dig this CD. Tracks: A Jamais (Forever), B’s Way, Taken for Granted, Tomorrow’s Hours, Raids on the Unspeakable, 1802, Song of the Cervennes, Arriverderci MOMA, Sittin’ on the Thing with Ming, On the Wall, Hallucinations.
– John Henry