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Bill Bruford ‘One of a Kind’

Bruford’s ‘One of a Kind’ is in the #1 slot on my list of favorite fusion albums (well, this week anyway). It isn’t a pure fusion record which is one of its appeals—it’s the perfect blend of progressive rock and jazz/rock fusion, without falling into the bad habits of either. This formidable quartet was led by ex-Yes, ex-King Crimson drummer/composer Bill Bruford, along with guitarist supreme Allan Holdsworth, bassist Jeff Berlin and composer/keyboardist Dave Stewart. This is one WILD record with edge-of-your-seat solos and intricate basslines galore. Killer drumming as one would expect is front and center, leading me to the other thing I love about this record which is how it sounds. Bruford’s rototoms and snare drum have a power and finesse that you can actually feel, and they are mixed perfectly. Allan Holdsworth’s guitar retains its trademark sonic footprint, with a fluid, legato sound. But there’s an additional edge to it—some of his lines go down incredibly smooth, but others have serious teeth. And mad props to Dave Stewart who eschews all forms of period-appropriate prog rock fromage in his choice of keyboard sounds—those very choices are big part of what keeps this record sounding fresh, even now. So it doesn’t sound anything like Yes, or King Crimson, nor does it sound as raw and powerful as Mahavishnu, or lean as jazzy as Weather Report. If anything, echoes of Stewart’s previous gigs with National Health/Hatfield & the North, and Bruford/Holdsworth’s recent experiences with U.K. are a closer reference point. Terrific record. This is the copy I’ve had with me since high school, with the original price tag from Stamford Records still attached…Happy Fusion Friday

Sonny Clark ‘Cool Struttin’

It takes bravado to call your album ‘Cool Struttin’. It’s a perfect title for this essential record though, summarizing the swagger, swing, and attitude of the music succinctly, and with iconic artwork to complete the package. It seems like everybody woke up to the brilliance of this LP over the last decade. Blues and chemistry are the core drivers here: bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Philly Joe Jones were a well-oiled rhythm machine, sharing a bandstand with Miles Davis almost nightly, and having worked with pianist Sonny Clark on prior sessions. Trumpeter Art Farmer and alto saxophonist Jackie McLean had also done sessions with Clark, Chambers, and Jones, and the two of them had played together for a while with tenorist Gene Ammons, so there was a solid foundation upon which these four long tracks are built. Art Farmer’s tone is refined, and his lines are sophisticated. McLeans’ tone is fiery, and his lines have a youthful urgency—the pairing works brilliantly. Clark’s playing is elegant, soulful, and beautiful, with a bounce that’s accented by a rhythm section who know exactly when to step on the gas with a bit of encouragement, and when to give a wide berth to the soloists. Speaking of driving, that brings me to the album cover, which has always fascinated me. Based on the direction the man and the woman (Ruth Lion, wife of Blue Note exec Alfred) are walking, it seems inevitable that they would meet off-frame. Or would they? The slightly blurry automobile on the opposite side of the street in the background appears to be pulling out into traffic. Where to? Is there a connection to the man? The woman? Both? Was it intentional or a happy accident that the bottom hem of her skirt and his overcoat line up perfectly? Great photo! This record is the total package—the two Clark originals are excellent, the take on Miles’ “Sippin’ at Bells” is wonderful, and the Chuck Henderson/Rudy Vallee standard “Deep Night” is a joy. It’s beautifully recorded, expertly played, and has a vibe that goes down smooth with morning coffee or a nighttime whiskey. Jazz newbies and veterans rave about ‘Cool Struttin’ for good reason

Jackie McLean ‘Demon Dance’

Don’t judge a book by its cover. The artwork on the jacket might give one the impression that the music within falls somewhere on the electric/funkified/psych-tinged end of the late 60s/early 70s jazz spectrum, but that is *NOT* what’s going on here. ‘Demon’s Dance’ is a terrific acoustic jazz record that sits right on the border of hard-bop and post-bop. On the one hand, it’s not as far out as some of McLean’s inside/outside records of the early 60s like ‘Destination…Out!’ or ‘One Step Beyond,’ which some may view as a step backward. On the other hand, I’d argue that this was progressive hard/post-bop of the highest caliber and very advanced, even if it was more accessible. The session is led by Jackie McLean’s alto sax, though the record could just as easily have been co-billed with young trumpet virtuoso Woody Shaw who has as many stellar, spotlight moments as McLean. Props also to the perpetual motion artistry of young Jack DeJohnette on drums, which blends swing and propulsion in equal measure without ever sounding show-off-y or heavy-handed. Scott Holt (bass) and LaMont Johnson (piano) complete the quintet. McLean and Shaw each contribute two compositions, and there are also two tunes written by trumpeter/composer Cal Massey. ‘Demon’s Dance’ was McLean’s 21st and final album for Blue Note after an incredible decade of releases. McLean would shift his focus to educational pursuits for the rest of the decade and then began a series of releases on Steeplechase in the early 1970s. I missed acknowledging Jackie McLean’s birthday yesterday and was reaching for ‘Consequence’ (Lee Morgan’s playing is just devastating on that LP) to spin and review, but as you can see from the album artwork, ‘Demon’s Dance’ does tend to draw the eye! This record has gotten ridiculously difficult to find on vinyl, but it is available on streaming services. ‘Demon’s Dance’ would make a great release

Bill Evans Trio ‘How My Heart Sings!’

Dateline: 17 May 1962. Bill Evans returns to the studio to lead a new trio after nearly a year of self-imposed isolation. Evans had become depressed and found himself in the clutches of heroin addiction following the tragic death of bassist Scott LaFaro. LaFaro—1/3 of Evans’ first iconic trio—had died in a car accident ten days after the shows that produced the iconic recordings ‘Waltz For Debby’ and ‘Live at the Village Vanguard.’ This trio and the music they produced was the stuff of legend, having developed a near-telepathic interplay that sounded like one musician in three bodies. I can only imagine the emotional weight Evans felt in putting a new trio together…the expectations that fans and critics had—or that Evans perceived—must have been a crushing weight. Despite this pressure, the May/June sessions were fruitful, and a Riverside decided to split the music between two releases, with the ballads appearing on ‘Moonbeams,’ and the more uptempo material appearing here on ‘How My Heart Sings!’ New bassist Chuck Israels joined Evans and returning drummer Paul Motian on a program of Evans originals, and a bunch of standards, and the results are superb. Fast forward to right now: the news is awful to read, and all of us are living/working under difficult, unprecedented circumstances, physically isolated from family & friends. Going down a rabbit hole of sadness and dark thoughts is so easy, and so understandable. But today, the weather and the music are sunny, and I am grateful for the smiles of my family, the kind words of friends and colleagues, and the many, many supportive comments/DMs from so many of you. Thank you all…my heart sings! This is an original stereo pressing, Riverside RS 9473

Woody Shaw ‘In My Own Sweet Way’

Woody Shaw is my favorite trumpet player, and I’m also blown away by his skills as an arranger, composer and bandleader. This was one of his final recordings, a live album recorded in Switzerland in February of 1987. Shaw leads a quartet featuring Fred Henke (piano), Neil Swainson (bass), and Alexander Deutsch (drums) through a program that’s leans heavily on ballads, though Shaw’s playing does get fiery, particularly on “Sippin’ at Bells”. Henke’s “The Dragon” also has killer solos, as does the bonus track on the CD/digital version of the record, which is the Shaw original “Joshua C.” The entire record is a showcase for Shaw’s tone, phrasing, and mastery of dynamics—as the sole horn player, a lot of the heavy lifting falls upon him and he delivers with style, fluidity, passion, and power at every opportunity. This is a record that doesn’t often get brought up in conversations about Shaw’s best work, and it should. There’s no shortage of live Woody Shaw records to choose from, and I’d list this as one of the top three. That said, I cannot recommend the vinyl edition which sounds rather thin. The CD/digital versions sound much more robust, and give you a better “you are THERE” vibe. Additionally, the CD/digital bonus track “Joshua C” really completes the set. This is an exquisite performance, and a must for Woody Shaw fans

Mahavishnu Orchestra ‘Birds of Fire’

Never has brutality sounded so beautiful or precise. ‘Birds of Fire’ is considered by many to be the slightly tamer, more compositionally mature brother of the Mahavishnu Orchestra’s debut LP ‘The Inner Mounting Flame,’ but I don’t know about this notion of “tamer.” Sure, it’s a bit less raw in terms of production values, and as a band, their relentless touring had made them impossibly tighter. But the molten core of nuclear energy that powered the Mahavishnu Orchestra was hotter than ever, making them one of the few jazz/rock bands that—when in beast mode—could make even the mighty Black Sabbath piss their pants and beg for mercy. At the same time, they could also toss a dozen eggs between them without cracking a single shell, playing with a delicacy and sensitivity that made them one of the most dynamic acts ever to set foot on stage, or enter a recording studio. In the 30 months they recorded and toured together before imploding, they left in their wake a long trail of blown speakers and blown minds. On this I’m thinking strategically: *THIS* is how we defeat the Murder Hornets, people….BIRDS OF FIRE

Miles Davis ‘Seven Steps To Heaven’

‘Seven Steps to Heaven’ captures a compelling snapshot in time in the perpetual motion machine that was the artistry of Miles Davis. By early 1963, several of Miles’ frequent musical collaborators had moved on, and he was in search of a new team to bring his next set of innovations to life. First, Miles headed west, with two days of sessions in Hollywood leading a quartet backed by Victor Feldman-piano, Ron Carter-bass, and Frank Butler-drums. These ballads (1,3, and 5 on the LP) feature heart-wrenching solos by Miles, and Ron Carter’s bass playing on the album opener “Basin Street Blues” should be enshrined in a bass Hall of Fame somewhere. Miles returned to New York the following month, and those tracks—2, 4, and 6 on the LP, recorded on this day 14 May 1963—are more uptempo. The NYC band is a nascent Second Great Quintet: George Coleman-tenor sax, Ron Carter-bass, Herbie Hancock-piano, and Tony Williams-drums. Williams—only 17 at the time—had just been poached from Jackie McLean’s group, where he’d made quite the impression on McLean’s inside/outside ‘One Step Beyond.’ Williams’ playing was charged, pushing everyone to go the extra mile. Clearly, the chemical reaction between Williams, Carter, and Hancock was what Miles was looking for, and so began a year or so of live dates where this quintet would take the standards in the classic Miles live book to tempos and variations that pushed the boundaries further and further, culminating in Coleman’s departure and Wayne Shorter’s arrival in 1964. While it’s tempting to slot SSTH as a “middle child” between the great quintets, it stands proudly on its own merits. Three superb ballads, a killer title track, and the Victor Feldman original “Joshua” (which Davis would keep in his live book for almost a decade, though interestingly Feldman does not play on the track here) are more than enough to make this a classic

Charles Mingus ‘Mingus Ah Um’

Smart. Sensitive. Funny. Poignant. Complex. Charming. Engaging. The range of ‘Mingus Ah Um’ is staggering. Stylistically, it covers a lot of ground, with gospel, blues, hard-bop, and nods to Mingus’s classical roots woven throughout. And whether you’re most taken with the moving balladry of “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” or the perpetual motion machine of “Bitter Git It In Your Soul,” the compositions, arrangements, and playing are all top-shelf. I’m endlessly fascinated by this record. Mingus deployed an approach that took each musicians’ style into account, creating a situation where collective improvisation and spontaneous composition played to everyone’s strengths. The result is everything sounds both carefully planned and spur-of-the-moment at the same time. It’s genius, and a joy to hear. Charles Mingus-bass; Booker Ervin-tenor sax; John Handy-alto/tenor sax, clarinet; Shafi Hadi, alto/tenor sax; Jimmy Knepper & Willie Dennis-trombones; Horace Parlan-piano; and Dannie Richmond-drums. Recording ‘Mingus Ah Um’ took place beginning 7 May 1959 and wrapped on this date, 12 May

Workin’ With The Miles Davis Quintet

The Miles Davis Quintet recorded four albums of material over two dates in 1956, one of which was today, 11 May. All four are essential snapshots of one of the most important small combo jazz groups of their era who helped define the hard-bop sound. Workin’, Relaxin’, Cookin’, & Steamin’ With all feature John Coltrane-tenor sax, Red Garland-piano, Paul Chambers-Bass and Philly Joe Jones-drums. Personally, I tend to get obsessed with the @milesdavis Second Great Quintet, but when I go back to these records I’m always reminded of how freakin’ amazing they are. For example, take a good listen to the opening ballad from this LP “It Never Entered My Mind”, a Rogers & Hart tune that Miles had previously done a couple of years earlier with Horace Silver. The performance here is transcendent—if it doesn’t give you all the feels, check yourself for a pulse. Seriously. This track is all about Miles, Red Garland and Paul Chambers. John Coltrane plays only two notes, and both of them are PERFECT. “It Never Entered My Mind” could be my answer to questions like “Why jazz?” Or “Why Miles?” Or “What do you mean by ‘feel’ in music?” and still it’s just the tip of the iceberg. All four of these Miles Prestige albums belong in your library, whether as individual LP titles or through the excellent @craftrecordings collection which presents them in a single boxed collection, chronologically. The 26 tracks recorded over these two dates were all first takes, and represent Miles leaving Prestige on a high note, prepped to join Columbia Records to level up and take things even further

Kenny Burrell ‘Freedom’

Kenny Burrell’s ‘Freedom’ is an under-discussed title in his discography. It combines two different sessions, one from March 1963 with Hank Jones-piano/organ, Seldon Powell-baritone sax/flute, Milt Hinton-bass, & Osie Johnson-drums; and one from Oct 1964 with Stanley Turrentine-tenor sax, Herbie Hancock-piano, Ben Tucker-bass, Bill English-drums, & Ray Barreto-congas. Allegedly, both sessions were difficult, with multiple takes required before achieving satisfactory results, and neither session producing enough material for a full album. So both sessions were shelved, and Burrell—who only did a couple of sessions as a sideman for Blue Note in between those recording dates, including the excellent ‘Hustlin’ LP with Turrentine—wouldn’t record for the label as a leader again until his return to Blue Note in the mid-80s for a couple of live records. ‘Freedom’ made its first appearance in Japan on LP in 1979, and in the US via Music Matters in 2011 (this pressing, 2 X LP @ 45RPM). So far as I know, there is no digital or CD version. Given the differences in session dates and players, the material covers quite a bit of ground, from funky soul-jazz to evening, hard-bop grooves that sound like they could have been outtakes from ‘Midnight Blue.’ A different take on “K Twist” does appear on ‘Midnight Blue,’ but I’ll leave it up to you as to which version you’d like to call the “outtake.” All of the material is strong, and both sessions were very well recorded by the Notorious RVG—I can see why Music Matters chose such relatively obscure sessions for release. The tracks may be individually scattered across compilations, box sets and playlists, though a quick scan of the digital services doesn’t look promising. Too bad…this is great stuff