Spelunking and Crooning in 2001

Reissues by the Boxful, Singers by the Cut

BMG Bluebird offered the positively last word on Charles Mingus's immortal Tijuana Moods and Coleman Hawkins's neglected The Hawk in Hi-Fi, arranged by Billy Byers, which turns out to be one of the best jazz-and-strings dates ever, the great man bristling with invention. The finest and most comprehensive reissue program of the 1960s was RCA Vintage, a 100-LP series that erased the boundaries between, say, Fats Waller and Woody Guthrie, and was crassly dropped by BMG. Now Koch had issued one—count 'em, one—Vintage entry, Things Ain't What They Used to Be, 194O Ellington small-group dates led by Johnny Hodges and Rex Stewart that are truly sublime (Hodges) and darkly witty (Stewart). Koch is also issuing the complete Ralph J. Gleason Jazz Casual broadcasts. The one with the famously taciturn Count Basie is the most talkative and intriguing.

The interviews aren't always as easy to hear on the big-band-bebop-meets-tango-and-bossa-nova State Department concert captured on Dizzy in South America, Vol. 3 (CAP), but you have never heard a trumpet break like the one Gillespie plays on this stunning "Night in Tunisia," which inspires Benny Golson to heights of his own. A more recent yet no less exuberant big band find is Travelling Somewhere (Cuneiform), a 1974 concert by Brotherhood of Breath, the irreverent U.K. avant-garde orchestra created by transplanted South African pianist Chris McGregor. Jazz Unlimited has collected key Jubilee Armed Forces broadcast numbers on Jumpin' Jubilee, complete with archaic Ernie Whitman intros—it's the only place to hear Hawkins and Lester Young side by side—or Charlie Parker, Benny Carter, and Willie Smith side by side by side with Nat Cole. Forgotten works by forgotten but engaging singers were also disinterred, notably the lamented Teri Thornton's Open Highway (Koch), with its inspired selection of frequently obscure songs, arranged by the obscure Larry Wilcox; This Is Lucy Reed (OJC), who turned down a spot with Ellington to stay home with her family, but managed to get Gil Evans and George Russell to arrange her album; and Miss Helen Carr (Bethlehem), a Holiday-influenced skylark who died at 38 in a car accident.

OK, singers. My God, there are a lot of them, often displaying more cheesecake than early issues of Nugget. Generally I found myself less disposed toward albums than particular cuts. Rene Marie, on Vertigo (Maxjazz), does not always know when to give a riff a rest and can scat with more abandon than is strictly necessary, but her incredibly nervy medley of "Dixie" and "Strange Fruit" is chilling, superbly executed, and not to be missed. Jeanie Bryson's Deja Blue (Koch) is more consistent, but her "Am I Blue," interpolating "Con Alma," is so inspired I end up cutting to the chase, which is also the final track. Tony Bennett's Playin' With My Friends (RPM/Columbia) offers almost as many pleasures as guests, but the pièce de résistance is "Everyday," with a wailing Stevie Wonder. You won't find a bad cut on Shirley Horn's You're My Thrill (Verve), yet there is an epiphanic moment, "My Heart Stood Still," as there is on Rosemary Clooney's elegiac and robust Sentimental Journey (Concord), its title number.

Karrin Allyson: the Moxie to remind us that Coltrane chose good tunes
photo: Pak Fung Wong
Karrin Allyson: the Moxie to remind us that Coltrane chose good tunes

Several tracks reverberate on Bob Dylan's "Love and Theft," including "Bye and Bye," with its partial steal from "Blue Moon," complete with "sugarcoated words," or "Floater," with its melodic bridge and touch of "The Whippenpoof Song"—Dylan singing changes, Dylan coming as close to jazz as he ever has, when he isn't singing blues, including "Summer Day," which may be his best Louis Jordan jump tune since "Maggie's Farm," and "High Water," which begins in Joe Turner's Kansas City and travels to Charly Patton's Mississippi. I wish he had let the players solo, especially guitarist Charlie Sexton, but then, the words are important too.

The big surprise for me was Karrin Allyson's Ballads (Concord), because though she's been around, I'd been unaware. A singer who has the moxie to cover John Coltrane's 1962 smouldering classic of the same name, however, is going to get noticed. Supported by a James Williams rhythm team and saxophonists James Carter (who sounds a bit stir-crazy in his entrance on "Say It [Over and Over Again]" but makes a shifty comeback), Bob Berg, and Steve Coleman, Allyson coolly stakes her claim on almost every number, reminding us that not the least part of Coltrane's genius was his ability to choose good tunes. She brings a timbre that is part ice and part grain, and lilting high notes for which she drops her vocal mask in favor of a near falsetto liberation, always accurately pitched. Her versions of "I Wish I Knew," "What's New" (stellar Berg solo), and an unexpectedly expressive "Nancy" are incisive, original, and emotionally convincing. And by cheesecake standards, she provides a photo that is actually sexier than it is silly—vocalist in bed in pink sweater, left nipple pointing at camera. Did Coltrane ever pose like that? Oh, right, forgot about that phallic soprano saxophone.

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