Spelunking and Crooning in 2001


Reissues and reclamation projects are the oxygen in which jazz, as a living art, breathes. They are the classics, benchmarks, standards, soul, and history of the music. They are proof that an improvised art can defy time; an excuse or demand for re-evaluation; a prize for the curious, the nostalgic, the acquisitive; and an economic security blanket for record companies that can’t count on the sales of contemporary artists to satisfy their distributors or stockholders. Skeptics bewail the constant recycling of the old and reliable, rightly so when the only excuse is pointless tampering—like those embarrassing remixes by Rudy Van Gelder that are sabotaging his reputation as well as the music he so brilliantly documented. Novices complain at the number of reissues, though 20 years after the CD juggernaut many important performances have never been digitalized—try to find Teddy Wilson’s “Blues in C-Sharp Major,” Stan Getz’s “Diaper Pin,” The Jazz Odyssey of James Rushing, Esq., Sam Rivers’s Crystals, Pee Wee Russell’s Ask Me Now.

Proof of how much remains to be done is demonstrated by how much was done in 2001, a year so rich in spelunking expeditions that a mere list won’t do. Though I violated my own injunction against writing liner notes, I cannot fail to identify the choice classic-jazz box as Lady Day (Columbia), not only because it nails one of the preeminent achievements in the canon, including rejected takes that really mean something, but because its remastering wipes away the taste of the label’s abysmal-sounding 1980s Holiday CDs. In a year short of elaborate boxes, two others merit no less attention. Screamin’ and Hollerin’ the Blues: The Worlds of Charley Patton (Revenant) transcribes his lyrics, providing a new dimension to the most incomprehensible of seminal blues mumblers, and is packaged—like Holiday, only much more elaborately—in a 78-style album. It also features superior notes, not to mention a facsimile reprint of John Fahey’s 1970 Patton book.

Still, the most revelatory release of recent years was The Long Road to Freedom (Buddha/BMG), an investigation into African American music from the middle passage to the pre-jazz beginnings of the 20th century, created by Harry Belafonte at many recording sessions between 1961 and 1971, and then, for reasons never explored in the unsatisfying if attractive booklet, abandoned for three decades. Belafonte recruited choirmaster Leonard de Paur to arrange songs—some famous, many unknown and astonishing, especially the lost Civil War anthems—with historical authenticity in concert versions that mine the tradition of the Fisk Jubilee Singers. This amounts to a refutation of the old-folks-in-overalls approach that dominated the ’60s folk boom. Brilliantly engineered and performed by voices both raw and slick, from Joe Williams and Gloria Lynne to the Georgia Sea Island Singers and an unforgettable yet forgotten little girl named Sharon G. Williams, this immensely entertaining and thoroughly original voyage rewrites and expands exponentially what we think we know about black America’s music—all America’s music.

The leading purveyor of jazz boxes is the mail-order Mosaic, which enjoyed an inventive year with The Complete Vee Jay Paul Chambers-Wynton Kelly Session, 1959-61, and Classic Columbia Condon Mob Sessions. They are splendid, and so, I imagine, is the oddly edited The Complete OKeh and Brunswick Bix Beiderbecke, Frank Trumbauer and Jack Teagarden Sessions, (1924-36), which I have yet to work my way through. But the two sets I most value, and will discuss next time, are probably the most uneven—The Complete Roost Sonny Stitt Sessions, partly because it’s almost entirely new to me, beginning with a wild date arranged by Johnny Richards, and serves as an object lesson in the vagaries of a too prolific paladin, heard here at his best and near worst; and The Complete Capitol Bobby Hackett Solo Sessions, which to my great surprise, having spent several years and much money hunting down the original LPs, is more impressive in aggregate than any of the single albums ever seemed. Resisting its chronology fetish, Mosaic helpfully put two banal “concept” albums on disc five, which is worth playing once; discs one through four you will play over and over.

Other boxed discoveries include John Coltrane’s Live Trane (Pablo), the quartet in Europe from 1961 to 1963, most of it previously unissued; Art Pepper’s The Hollywood All-Star Sessions (Galaxy), small bands in L.A. from 1979 to 1982, previously issued only in Japan and including encounters with Stitt and Lee Konitz; and Miles Davis’s The Complete In a Silent Way Sessions (Columbia), a gorgeous little monument that made me reconsider what I had long regarded as a mildly involving transitional LP. Most notable reissues, however, simply revived long-deleted albums. The excellent Verve Master Edition series restored Louis Armstrong’s rare and controversial late Decca LPs, promenading the pop pleasures of Satchmo Serenades, I Like Jazz, the angels and Good Book concept albums, and the often incandescent Satchmo: A Musical Autobiography, which should have created more of a stir than it did.

Delmark discovered a lovely, unissued, mostly blues recital (1970s) by Art Hodes, Tribute to the Greats, and rediscovered the most obscure of ragtimers, Brun Campbell, taking off from barbering in 1947 to relive his heady youth on Joplin’s Disciple. In the obscurity sweepstakes, however, Fantasy’s OJC wins easily for Don Sleet’s All Members, an almost all-star 1961 session (Jimmy Heath, Wynton Kelly, Ron Carter), led by a 22-year-old trumpeter about whom little is known, except that he died 25 years later, having made this one impressive album. More significantly, OJC also got around to Jaki Byard’s Sunshine of My Soul, one of the great 1960s trio sessions (David Izenzon, Elvin Jones), even if hardly anyone knew it: Discover and marvel.

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.

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.