Old Guys Yes, Retro Never

For it wasn't only retro that cast an assembly-line pall over much that passed for jazz. The record companies continued to sign the young and innocent, a generation schooled in classic recordings imported directly from the classroom into the recording studio— a generation that thinks the point is to master the music rather than express yourself. So on disc after disc, you have musicians doing a little Sonny or Trane or Wes or Cannonball or Miles, or worse, succumbing to producer albums, reclamations of music that the producers grew up with. How else to explain the weirdness of Nicholas Payton following Gumbo Nouveau, duets with Doc Cheatham, and a superb 1997 JVC turn with Payton's Place, a 1962 Blue Note album released by Verve in 1998. Blue Note's Bob Beldon showed how to imaginatively revisit the past in the "Blue Note Now as Then" volume in the 14-disc 60th-anniversary celebration, The Blue Note Years, but no label seems to recall the importance of apprenticeship recording, even though it was Alfred Lion who showed that in a post­touring-band world, you brought leaders along by training them as sidemen. Sherman Irby made an impressive return with Big Mama's Biscuits after his disastrous debut, while Stefon Harris proved that knowing one's way around a recording studio is not an inborn talent, as did Irby and Marcus Printup and Gregory Tardy before him. As for Impulse, revived only to fold into a new merger, it continued to make a mockery of its old credo, "the new wave of jazz," and won't be missed!

Still, some good, possibly great, records were issued last year. Here are a baker's dozen, in no particular order:

1-2. Tommy Flanagan, Sunset and the Mocking Bird (Blue Note). It was foolish not to banner the Village Vanguard, because this is one of those magical albums that fully lives up to the live-at-the-Vanguard legend. The pianist's every solo is spare and sculpted, hammered like fine silver, and Peter Washington and Lewis Nash have the motor-nerve responsiveness of Billy Higgins. The tunes, all but one by jazz composers, include two each by Dizzy Gillespie, Tom MacIntosh, and Thad Jones, whose "Let's" is a riot, but the subtext is Monk, referenced on the side. Martial Solal's Just Friends (Dreyfus), with Gary Peacock and Paul Motian, is a long-overdue opportunity to wallow in the razzle-dazzle of the genre-proof pianist who won this year's Jazzpar Award.

Carmen Bradford found her own voice in the best concert of 1998: David Murray's preemptive Ellington tribute.
R. Andrew Lepley
Carmen Bradford found her own voice in the best concert of 1998: David Murray's preemptive Ellington tribute.

3-4. David S. Ware, Go See the World (Columbia). Maybe his best record, in any case endlessly bracing, yet rife with serpentine details, not least in the reflexively witty rhythm section— Matt Shipp, William Parker, Susie Ibarra— which recalls the way Jaki Byard, Richard Davis, and Alan Dawson once covered the waterfront (as on Prestige's recently reissued The Jaki Byard Experience). The Ware threesome is out front on Matthew Shipp's The Multiplication Table (hatOLOGY), including a thinking-out-loud breakdown of "Take the A Train."

5. Gustav Mahler/Uri Caine, Primal Light (Winter & Winter). Far more than an exercise in jazzing the classics, this is a highly personal attempt to reclaim Mahler as a suppressed Jewish klez, whose charmingly woebegone minor-key melodies— wrested from aggressively confident major-theme opuses— engender swinging improvisations by a stimulated crew including David Douglas, Don Byron, Joey Baron, and a hand-drumming cantor.

6-8. B. B. King, Blues on the Bayou (MCA). Self-produced at 73, this is an ur-B disc, recommendable as a starter or refresher course, with no apologies to Live at the Regal or Blues Is King. With neat Phil Marshall string arrangements amplifying the band and James Sells Toney's rude keyboards, King's guitar is serenely cushioned and no one is singing better than he does on "Blues Man" or "If I Lost You." Mary Cleere Haran isn't a jazz singer, but Pennies From Heaven (Angel), her best record, splits the difference; her duet with Richard Rodney Bennett on "Sweet and Slow" should have been a hit and will surely be a classic. Maybe he was just ahead of his time, but Andy Bey is on a roll with Shades of Bey (Evidence), his voice so dark and grudging he takes you deep into the shadows.

9. Sonny Rollins, Global Warming (Milestone). I know and at first I agreed, but I couldn't keep away, until finally I realized that there is nothing seeming about those seemingly anarchic solos in which every phrase begins and ends somewhere other than where you expect, grinding through detours along the way. The facade may be neat, as is the gracefully adroit Stephen Scott, but the spine is embedded with the tingler.

10. Cecil Taylor, Qu'a (Cadence). Until I heard this performance, recorded at Sweet Basil in March, I underestimated how organic this quartet is. Taylor moves in and out of the lead in close accord with Harri Sjostrum, Dominic Duval, and Jackson Krall; he's insistently reflective, as though he were undergoing a personal passage surprising even to him.

11-12. Joe Lovano, Trio Fascination (Blue Note) and Randy Weston, Khepera (Verve). It may be tiresome to list them year after year, each time with a warranty that the latest is the best, but if these aren't, they're close. Lovano, with Elvin Jones and Dave Holland, has never sounded happier— those who thought Chu Berry had a lock on "Ghost of a Chance" will have to think again. Much as I admired Weston's Saga, the ferocity of the latest by his African Rhythms makes it sound like a warm-up; "Niger Mystery" and "Mystery of Love" keep picking up weight, like snowballs.

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