December 2019

Tyrone Washington ‘Natural Essence’

‘Natural Essence’ is tenor sax enigma Tyrone Washington’s “one and done” as a leader for Blue Note. Recorded 29 Dec 1967 with a formidable lineup of Woody Shaw-trumpet, James Spaulding-alto sax/flute, Kenny Barron-piano, Reggie Workman-bass & Joe Chambers-drums, this is one of those inside/outside records that grabs you on the first listen and then reveals itself even further with repeat spins. Washington’s approach nods to several contemporaries including Coltrane, Wayne Shorter and Joe Henderson, though he’s clearly got some Eric Dolphy in him as well. The compositions are all really interesting, requiring a band of this caliber to pull them off so well. Even during the quieter moments, there’s a perpetual restlessness afoot that makes you feel that this band is eager to explore all the potential tangents within the compositional framework. A disappointing fade out and what sound to my ears like one or two unnecessarily shortened solos make me wonder exactly how far out they could have taken some of these tunes! While there are sharp elbows from time to time, this isn’t an avant or “out” record at all. I’d classify it as modal/advanced hard bop, with the occasional left turn into skronkville but those moments don’t occur very often. The last track “Song of Peace” is probably the freest. It’s an environment that Joe Chambers thrives in, and those who’ve enjoyed his work on some of the in/out LPs by Bobby Hutcherson or Grachan Moncur will enjoy his work here a great deal. Washington only made a couple of records as a leader, though he also did notable sideman work on Horace Silver’s ‘The Jody Grind’. He recorded last in 1974 before dropping out of music and finding religion, never to record again. This LP is a bit of a rarity on vinyl but turns up more often than you’d expect, and it is widely available across the digital spectrum. Don’t miss it! While not a household name, it’s a terrific, unconventional title that deserves wider recognition

Wayne Shorter ‘Juju’

The exceptional compositions and phenomenal musicianship on ‘Juju’ takes every song supernova. Charged with energy, passion, and adventure, it’s often described as Shorter’s most “Coltrane-esque” album, and given the presence of McCoy Tyner-piano, Reggie Workman-bass & Elvin Jones-drums, no wonder. However, while Trane’s spirit is a clear (and welcome) presence, vive la différence: Shorter’s travels were with an occasional glance in the rearview mirror, returning to variations of his beautifully written melodies; whereas Trane took the scenic route, and would worry about finding his way back later on. Not that Shorter’s playing here is conservative—his torrents of ideas and emotions were equally relentless, but they were Wayne Shorter’s; even if he was playing with a big, bold sound that may feel like an homage to his mentor. Coltrane-isms aside, the overall vibe of the record is uplifting which I find inspiring as the day’s first spin, but it’s equally at home in the small hours of the night—you can easily lose yourself in Tyner’s spiraling piano lines and Shorter’s odes to joy. Everyone plays superbly, though the true hero is bassist Reggie Workman, the gravitational force providing the center around which everyone orbits. His bass is precise and muscular when necessary, driving to coalesce the team around an idea. Other times, his sinewy counter-leads duck and weave like an Olympic-caliber fencer, light on his feet and challenging the others to find an opening. Then there’s Elvin Jones whose power and dexterity on this record puts the full range of his skills on display—it’s one of my favorite performances from him, EVER. 1964 was some kind of year for Shorter, recording three classic LPs for Blue Note—this one, ‘Speak No Evil’ and ‘Night Dreamer’—as well as joining Second Great Quintet. Fifty-five years later, he’s still recording and touring…more power to you Wayne! This is a Music Matters 2XLP 45RPM pressing, which sounds AMAZING. Hard to pick a favorite among these 1964 albums but today, it’s this one

Miles Davis ‘The Complete Legendary Prestige Quintet Sessions’

Here in one stylish package boasting excellent sound are the complete Prestige sessions of @milesdavis “First Great Quintet”, one of the most important small combo jazz groups ever! While the recordings as originally issued are the stuff of legend—whether you’re in the mood for ‘Relaxin’, ‘Steamin’, ‘Workin’, or ‘Cookin’—it’s best to think of this @craftrecordings package as its own beast. Craft made the decision to present the sessions in chronological order on this terrific set, taking the entire trip the Quintet made down the hard bop highway as Miles looked for the exit ramp from the Prestige era. In a sense, this quintet—John Coltrane-tenor sax, Red Garland-piano, Paul Chambers-Bass and Philly Joe Jones-drums—join Miles in a set of mostly standards, though the performances themselves are hardly standard! In fact they’re essential, key titles in any jazz collection. I enjoy the listening experience of everything in chronological order, the sound is really great, the vinyl is high quality, and Bob Blumenthal’s liner notes are a good read. It’s also a pretty great value—currently selling for just over $100 on Amazon, while preferred reissues of the Miles titles (I’m using @analogueproductions for comparison) would run you about $35 each X 4=$140, plus with this set you get additional material, expanded liner notes and solid packaging. It depends on what’s important to you and how you feel about the integrity of the original albums as issued. Had Miles gone into recording with different intent…with an album mindset…”hey, I wanna make a record called Relaxin’ and we’re gonna play a bunch of stuff that fits that vibe”, I’d have a hard time taking the music out of the original album context. But these sessions—while amazing in every way—were more about Miles moving on to the next thing, which was sort of Miles’ ambient state…moving on to the next thing. So I’m happy with this reimagined presentation, and if you’re looking to fill some holes in your collection, seeking a different listening experience for this incredible and incredibly important music, or gift shopping…👍! @craftrecordings @johncoltrane

Andrew Hill ‘Smokestack’

This is one of the toughest Andrew Hill records to get your head around. Many of the compositions feel like Hill’s stream of consciousness—ideas, thoughts and emotions are on full display without traditional structures or tonal centers. Some of these resolve into beautiful melodic fragments, but those moments are fleeting. It’s what fascinates and frustrates me about ’Smokestack’—sometimes my listening experience is that of pleasant surprise, while other times I feel like he’s just gotten an idea developed into something interesting and tuneful, and then killed it off prematurely before it had a chance to really take flight. But it’s impossible to know Hill’s mind, and the fact that I keep coming back to it even after an unsatisfying listening session must say something. It’s certainly compelling even it if isn’t always easy to listen to. It’s not exactly free jazz, but it’s not a toe-tapper of a hard bop session either. The presence of TWO bassists is an interesting choice. Richard Davis Is in a role I’d describe as “lead bass” while Eddie Khan is bassist in a more traditional rhythmic sense. So Hill and Davis are on the frontline while Khan and drummer Roy Haynes hold down the pulse (or what passes for pulse in these compositions where the time signatures likely read “perpetual change”). This is most starkly on display in “Wailing Wall” where Davis goes arco and his bowed lead lines do in fact wail in a way that borders on the unsettling, while Khan holds that low end down fiercely. As a counterpoint, “Verne” which Hill composed for his wife is a beautiful ballad that one might expect to hear on a more traditional jazz piano trio record. This was Hill’s second session for Blue Note, recorded this date in 1963, though held for release until 1966. Challenging music. Not for the squeamish

Donald Byrd ‘Free Form’

A tale of two sides, with Byrd mostly in the composer’s chair across both. Side A is classic Byrd in hard bop mode, leading a quartet that includes his mentee Herbie Hancock on piano and a young Wayne Shorter on tenor sax. Butch Warren (bass) and Billy Higgins (drums) anchor the proceedings which begins with ‘Pentacostal Feelin’, gospel-influenced rug-cutter, then moves into a mellower groove with the lovely “Night Flower”, followed by the groovy mid-tempo “Nai Nai” which features a KILLER Wayne Shorter solo. Side B is where things get even more interesting as some of the hard bop goes sideways, modal playing becomes a thing and the resulting swing is just EXPLOSIVE. “French Spice” manages to pique your curiosity and rouse your libido at the same time. It’s definitely about foreplay and/or should be played during. Then there’s the title track which gets caught in several post bop riptides, manages to break free momentarily, only to get pulled out even further. It’s pretty freakin’ great. The song really takes its time to develop, morph, evolve and explore the edges. Wildly enjoyable. Byrd made a lot of strong-to-great records in the 50s/60s, all of which have some facet to recommend but for me this one stands a cut or two above the others. Highly recommended. Recorded on this day 11 Dec, 1961 but held for release until 1966. This is one of the few original first pressings in my collection—BLP 4118, mono

My Favorite Things: The Top 9 Releases of 2019

My Top 9 releases of 2019 and only a five word comment about each. More to come!
Reissues/From the Vault:
Alice Clark ‘Alice Clark’: Essential soul you’ll regret skipping
Frank Zappa ‘Zappa in New York’ 40th Anniversary 5CD Deluxe Edition: Best live Zappa since Roxy
Van Morrison ‘The Healing Game’ 3 CD Deluxe Edition: Best archival release of 2019
Frank Marino ‘Live at the Agora’ Blu Ray/DVD: Guitar hero transcends guitar heroes
Various Artists ‘J Jazz Volume 2: Deep Modern Jazz From Japan 1969-1983’: This ain’t your grandad’s jazz.
New Releases:
Chrissie Hynde ‘Value Bone Woe’: Unexpected jazz greatness Pretenders-style
Joel Ross ‘KingMaker’: Gen Z makes vibraphones cool
Muriel Grossmann ‘Reverence’: Spiritual grooves meet polyrhythmic dreams
Umphrey’s McGee ‘Hall of Fame 2018’: Scaring pop fans since 1998

Woody Shaw ‘Blackstone Legacy’

Recording for this gem occurred during this week in 1970. Inevitable comparisons to @milesdavis ‘Bitches Brew’ continue, but they ring slightly hollow to my ears. BBrew was the Big Bang of jazz/rock fusion. ‘Blackstone Legacy’ is 100% jazz through and through. The record is amped with a healthy dose of electricity via George Cables on electric piano, and the presence of some bass clarinet courtesy of the amazing Bennie Maupin, which might trick you into thinking about BBrew, but this record doesn’t have any rock music DNA at all. Instead, immerse yourself in electrified post-bop, inside/outside modal journeys that are all fairly long, with enough free elements to be surprising, challenging and engaging. Shaw and Bartz are clearly having a lot of fun playing together, and Maupin picks up both tenor sax and flute to join in as well. Standup bass duties fall to the legendary Ron Carter, while electric bass is wielded by Clint Houston who would collaborate frequently with Shaw for years to come. Houston wrote the track “Sunshowers” on Shaw’s breakout ‘Rosewood’ LP (my fave jazz record EVER) which is one its most endearing tracks. Finally, future Return to Forever drummer Lenny White just kills it on skins, hitting them with a fast, firm punch without ever overplaying. All compositions are by either Shaw or Cables. This is a first pressing on Contemporary S7627/8, stereo. Wild stuff

John Coltrane ‘A Love Supreme’

55 years ago today, @johncoltrane tossed a metaphorical stone into the ocean. The ripples continue to spread, some lapping at distant shores as little more than flecks of foam, others hitting closer to home with the power of a tsunami. For an album that’s been endlessly analyzed and thoroughly discussed, it remains a delightful enigma. It’s perpetually engaging, satisfying, uplifting and thought provoking. Coltrane’s combination of urgency and serenity as he seeks to tap into whatever higher power one believes is in the universe and/or within us all is profound. Others far more eloquent and educated can better speak to the history and mystery of ‘A Love Supreme’. That said, I certainly wish that whatever benevolent inspiration visited the studio that day, I hope it visits everyone often

Grant Green ‘Sunday Morning’

I love the way Grant Green’s 4th album floats atop the room. Mixing standard and originals, this aptly titled and FANTASTIC record tends to get lost amongst Green’s better-known albums. That’s a drag because Green’s quartet, which features the Bens (Tucker on bass and Dixon on drums) along with the underrated Kenny Drew on piano, knock this 1961 session out of the freakin’ park. Green and Drew are incredibly well-matched…just amazing playing across the board. Drew is the hero of the session with line after line of melodic, graceful, fleet-fingered magic that goes toe-to-toe with Green’s propensity for single-line playing. I must call attention to the presence of the bass in the mix here which cuts through in a way that’s prominent and pleasing—if you’re one of those folks who strains a bit to hear the detail in acoustic bass when it isn’t occupying enough of the soundstage, this record will blow your stack. Great day at the mixing console by the Notorious RVG. Put down your phone/tablet/laptop, go to your record store of choice and pick up this brand new reissue from Slow Down Sounds RIGHT NOW. A late contender for my top 10 vinyl reissues of 2019, this all-analog, Kevin Gray cut, gorgeous tip-on (and heavy) jacket replica is VERY reasonably priced and sounds incredible. This is up there with Music Matters and Tone Poet in terms of sonics and overall quality @slowdownsounds

Henry Franklin ‘The Skipper’

High energy modal/spiritual grooves driven by the formidable bass playing of Henry Franklin and electric piano of Bill Henderson. I dig the frequent nods to early electric Miles and Return to Forever, though I wouldn’t classify this as a fusion record. I’m reminded in places of Eddie Henderson’s sides for Capricorn and Joe Farrell’s CTI records as there’s a similar vibe. The brass frontline—Oscar Brashear on trumpet/flugelhorn & Charles Owens on tenor/soprano sax—wails, swings, duels and soars as Franklin and Henderson scurry busily in, under and around them. There’s some heavy duty yet intricate three-headed beats from drummer Mike Carvin who’s flanked by percussionists Fred Lido and Tip Jones, while guitarist Kenny Climax rears his head only occasionally, but when he does he makes he presence known. “Beauty and the Electric Tub” lays down a groove so deep you wonder how they’re ever gonna find their way out. They do, but they take the scenic route. Tough to find on vinyl, available if you look on CD, but seemingly absent from the usual streaming services other than YouTube. Obscure but worth searching for, as are most of the albums on the Black Jazz label. Franklin recorded a follow-up, the equally scarce ‘The Skipper at Home’, a favorite, particularly after a couple of tracks were sampled by A Tribe Called Quest. Franklin has an extensive discography with more than a dozen sessions as a leader, and sideman credits on over 100 records ranging from Stevie Wonder to Ornette Coleman. He’s still out there playing and recording…more power to you Mr. Franklin