Jazz in the '90s can be a scary thing. There are hundreds if not thousands of so-called "jazz" CDs released each year, but only a handful are of a quality and originality that warrants a place in the collection next to the likes of Charlie Parker, Eric Dolphy or Henry Threadgill (see sidebar reviews on new Threadgill and Dolphy releases). So what's a fan to do? Trust the word of the glossy industry rags which survive off of industry ad dollars?
Consider this: In an effort to stand out in a saturated market place, record producers, label bigwigs and even the artists themselves strive to come up with creative hooks specifically intended to lure consumers. Many of these marketing strategies are misleading and some are way out there. Let's face it, the jazz phenomenon in America is far more strange in numerous ways than most folks realize. Just look at Joe American. Nearly one hundred years since the birth of the genre he still shuns and disrespects the broad range of music implied by the term jazz (often without ever seriously listening to it) even though the idiom is internationally acknowledged as our country's indigenous classical art form. And wannabe hipsters embrace execrable fuzak or diluted retrogressions as their contemporary jazz of choice because they just don't know any better. Is this ignorance remediable? We can only pray.
So, what does all this mean to the curious newcomer? Basically, beware. And don't believe the hype. For example, why would anyone want to buy trumpeter Freddie Hubbard's tribute disc to Monk, Miles, Trane & Cannon (MusicMasters Jazz) when the original master works of these players are readily available? Octet arrangements of the Hubbard-penned homages and classic covers ("Naima," "Off Minor," "All Blues") no doubt posed a challenge to arrangers Bob Mintzer, Bob Belden, David Weiss and Pete Yellin, but these straight-ahead reworkings don't begin to approach the magical vibe of the original recordings. Hotshots Javon Jackson (tenor sax) and Robin Eubanks (trombone) may give the CD a "young lion" appeal (for those who buy into that hype), but when I purchase a new jazz disc I want to be steam-rolled by the sounds, especially if said disc claims to be on the mighty level of Monk, Miles, Trane and Cannonball Adderly. Unfortunately, steam-rollin' this ain't.
To hear Hubbard in a more honest setting, you may want to check out his guest solo spot on baritone saxophonist Cecil Payne's Delmark debut Cerupa. The 72-year-old Payne has seen the comings and goings of the jazz evolution of the past half-century and he comfortably swings in the bebop mode of his formative years. In the late 1940's, the baritonist held down the bottom end of Dizzy Gillespie's famous big band. He also worked with notables Tadd Dameron, Randy Weston and Kenny Dorham back in the day, and from the '60s through the '70s recorded a few albums under his own name such as Bird Gets the Worm and Shaw Nuff.
For this return to the studio as a leader, Payne put together a sympathetic sextet with well known veterans pianist Harold Mabern (Miles, Sonny Rollins) and bassist John Ore (Monk, Bud Powell), little known yet worthy trumpeter Dr. Odies Williams III, and youngbloods Eric Alexander on tenor saxophone and Joe Farnsworth on drums. The multi-generational exchange is smooth and easygoing, and the music precisely what you'd expect from a bop-lovin' septuagenarian with a really big horn.
Cerupa was recorded in the summer of 1993 as was Eric Alexander's up, over & out. Producer and Delmark Records CEO Bob Koester no doubt dug the syncopated quartet sound of Alexander, Mabern, Ore and Farnsworth, and decided to get them back in the studio as soon as possible. However, this is one of those "strange" recordings to which I referred a few paragraphs back. First of all, Mabern, not Alexander, is the one who really shines on this outing. His sassy swing is in effect most prominently on the Hank Mobley title track, the two Monk tunes "Eronel" and "Ba-Lue Bolivar Ba-Lues Are," and on his original "Blues For Mabe."
The twenty-something Alexander invokes a warm, sensuous tone from his tenor, but his improvisations lack the "fire" promised on the CD jacket. And he didn't even write a single composition. Moreover, the saxophonist admits to performing at a less than optimum level throughout. But the botched takes are the ones we get here. It's as if the saxophonist's youth and associations (with Mabern and Ore) are supposed to sell this disc--not the music. And to top it all off, dig this promo hype: he reportedly placed "second (to Joshua Redman) in the 1991 saxophone competition sponsored by the Thelonious Monk Institute." So what does this say about the jazz establishment?
Redman is another twenty-something player whose promotional baggage far outweighs his skills as a composer and improviser. Similar to Alexander, the young Berkeley native readily owns up to making mistakes all the time. Yet unlike Alexander, Redman is touted by "prestigious" critics in industry rags such as Down Beat as a formidable new voice on the tenor sax. Even in the liner notes to the new Eric Dolphy 9-disc box, Complete Prestige Recordings, LA Times writer Zan Stewart says that Joshua Redman is "charting new directions." Where, I ask? I'm listening, but I hear nothing new. Yet largely on hype and name recognition, Redman's sold nearly 200,000 units of his first three records--formidable numbers for any jazz artist. And yet there's little "new" behind the hyperbolic propaganda. Perhaps the audience has been conned again.
Granted, Redman's newest CD Spirit of the Moment: Live at the Village Vanguard (Warner Bros.) is his best effort to date. But it suffers from the same formulaic song/solo structures of his previous releases. Namely, all of his improvs (on ballads and post-bop cookers alike) crescendo in nearly identical patterns, with a methodical turn of phrase or two at predictable moments throughout. If he hits a climax in the upper register, his tone invariably bottoms out and the few high energy improvisations never sustain for more than a few bars--if they last that long.
If Joshua Redman's improvisational style were akin to his coital moves, he long ago would have been kicked out of bed. It's not that his chops aren't sometimes tasty, but the redundancy of his approach wears thin after a couple of songs.
While one naturally expects a few nods here and there toward the jazz greats, it often sounds as if Redman's merely kicking out recycled riffage, though I'm sure that's not his intent. But how could the saxophonist ever expect to expand his vocabulary of licks if by his own admission he hardly ever practices? Not practicing is a sacrilege in the church of music exploration. Yet many Johnny Critics in the land of Jazz Journalism applaud his skill and vision. (Is there some kind of payoff going on that I'm missing?)
The truth? Redman's kind of unobtrusive, inoffensive, grandstanding music is awash with cliches. It's hollow--certainly lacking the meat of daddy Dewey Redman's earliest sessions. With what jazz offers musicians in terms of musical possibilities, its performance should in the least be inventive. The problem, Mr. Redman: Grandstanding without boundless passion for the music, and limited conceptual muscle to flesh out the music-making, is an empty pursuit. Unless, of course, you're talking about a fattening of a few fat wallets...
Another fairly strange phenomenon is the legacy of Buddy Bolden. Trumpeter/band leader Malachi Thompson honors the turn-of-the-century cornetist and reputed founding granddaddy of the jazz improv traditions on Buddy Bolden's Rag (100 Years of Jazz) (Delmark).
What's strange is that Bolden never had the opportunity to record his work, nor did he ever record his music on paper (because he orchestrated charts orally). Yet his history survives to this day, having been passed down by word of mouth for decades simply because those who heard him were, well, steam-rolled.
Buddy Bolden was allegedly a charismatic performer with a gifted ear and a mad blowing sound described as "hot, sweet and wide open." Thompson explains in the liner notes that after a handful of years of full-time employment as a musical explorer who first fused "all elements of the Black music experience--the blues, spirituals, hymns and popular songs," the artist "fell victim to alcohol" and was institutionalized. The pioneering jazz cat, labeled a "manic depressive or paranoid schizophrenic" by the East Louisiana State Hospital, passed on in 1931 after 24 years of confinement.
Thompson's tribute disc digs deep into the spiritual energy of the earliest jazz traditions and emerges resplendent with the same Black music experiences that initially inspired Bolden. Steeped in the soulful blues and imbued with a heady spirituality, Thompson and his group Africa Brass steer the listener through a composite history of jazz. This disc swings, bops and blows like madness with roots tied to the New Orleans brass ensembles of Bolden's era. Thompson's original works resound with the kind of vibrancy only a frontline double quartet of trombones and trumpets can effect. Guest soloists Lester Bowie, Ari Brown and Zane Massey add further pizzazz to the supremely punchy mix. Not only does the music sate the jazz fan's yen for that rare/classic combination of new/old sounds, but Thompson's well researched liner notes are an enlightening read to boot.
As collectors know, some written material usually accompanies most jazz records. At best, liner notes by producers, critics or artists provide a contextual foundation for consumers to mull over while digging the sounds. They also may offer a biographical glimpse of the artist or reveal something special about the creative process. Increase the erudition, so to speak. At worst, liner notes are curiously crafted fabrications or grandiose self-aggrandizement's intended to convince the listener that the music is somehow better or more vital than its actual sounds. And then there are the in-between, laughable ones.
The notes to Don Braden's organic on Sony's new epicure jazz imprint is just such an in-betweener. The Harvard man (computer sciences)/tenor saxophonist waxes quasi-eloquently that producer Joel Dorn's recommendation to do an organ/tenor record "made perfect sense" since he'd been into that vibe since the mid '80s. He then offers: "I am well aware of the 'party' heritage of jazz organ music.... [My] songs 'Organic' and 'Twister' epitomize the party-with-intelligence sound that I am going for.... It is a fun 'jazz party' recording with interesting, unusual, and substantial musical gems throughout." OK.
But isn't it up to each listener to evaluate for him/herself a record's "substantial" or "interesting" merit? And if a record is swingin' with that "party" groove, then wouldn't we know it without the musician telling us what's what?
I rolled on the floor when I read these words because (sorry, Don) I don't much feel the party vibe throughout the entire disc. The best track, "Walkin' The Dog," gets down low and funky with that Jimmy Smith-like organ cool. And guitarist Russell Malone drops the occasional nasty riff throughout. But Braden's playing style, while consistently flawless, is far too analytical--cold, perhaps--to get down and party. And besides, how does one "party" with intelligence?
If you're looking for a bomb of a (jazz) party album--tenor and soprano saxes, electric six-string, plugged-in and unplugged bass, groove-deep traps, auxiliary percussion and a deft smattering of turntable action--then by all means mainline the Milwaukee Creative Music Ensemble's !GRAVITY-Y! (Solar). It ain't stoopid but intelligence is not a fixation either. The sounds naturally stem from the wisdom tip when the creative pulse pumps a bold lifeblood such as this. These youthful Wisconsin hipcats blast into the zone of "Intergalactic" heat-seeking abstractions, soar on explorative Trane-rides to the inner soul power on "Spirit People," stride on the chilly post-bop bump of "What I Mean," and syncopate the funk in trip time on "Little Infinity." MCME virtually smash stylistic restraints into a feral hybrid mash, and thus venture light years beyond their self-dubbed "avant-funk" media hook.
This inclination to "avant-funk" one's self is a telling example of how a pigeonhole-happy/market-based music industry often compels emerging artists to label their music in an effort to get some kind, any kind of media exposure. Catchphrases, however, always fall short of the majesty of the sounds. That is, if the sounds are truly majestic.
I'm certain the U.K.'s fringe luminaries Biota never tried to sum up their hyper-hallucinatory sonic effusions with a single overriding sound byte. Indeed, mere words cannot capture the intensity and complexity of their music. Their latest CD Object Holder (ReR/Cuneiform) is virtually swimming in innovation.
Not unlike the Earth's interconnected ecosystems, Biota interweaves a lush, living soundscape--a food web, if you will--of ravenous musical elements such as accordion, clavioline, flugelhorn, hurdy-gurdy, electronics processing and much more. Sometimes three distinct rhythms take shape simultaneously on a single, densely layered track. Old World Europe fuses its cobblestoned elegance with intrepid electronics dreams (and nightmares). Improv and composition intermingle and erupt in a multi-genre pastiche of euphoric colors via a core instrumental septet augmented at times by avant-garde percussionist/electronics wielder Chris Cutler and mistress of modern psychedelia/vocalist Susanne Lewis.
If you want a deeper clue into Biota's sound, reexamine the Mnemonists' paintings interspersed throughout this column. These kaleidoscopic visuals culled from the CD booklet complement the music, insinuating the visionary impetus behind the audio gems.
Sometimes the wildest trips on the Other Side of the Stream push beyond the realm of jazz, per se. Mind-melting, explorative music is just that. And Biota's Object Holder is far more forward-pushing than most of the sounds heard in the "jazz" idiom this past year.
P.S. If you're down with unusual and compelling music-making not found in this column, please e-mail the pertinent facts to this side of the stream. Gracias.
Design and Mark-up by Marc Brown
Paintings/Drawings/Collages: Mnemonists - from the Biota album Object Holder
Courtesy of Cuneiform/RéR
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