Tone Poet

Sam Rivers ‘Contours’

Post-bop bliss! The beautifully demented solo Herbie Hancock plays in “Dance of the Tripedal” alone makes this record worth owning. It’s fearless, captivating, moving, and each bar feels like a new tale of the unexpected. There are many thrilling moments just like it throughout Sam Rivers ‘Contours’, recorded in May 1965. Rivers (sax/flute) composed all four long tracks and led a stellar quintet. Joining Rivers and Hancock are Freddie Hubbard (trumpet), Ron Carter (bass), and Joe Chambers (drums). With song titles like “Mellifluous Cacophony,” it would be understandable that less adventurous ears might whistle past the graveyard on ’Contours.’ But you’d be missing out on one of the great mid-60s sessions…one that was increasingly difficult to come by on LP until reissued as part of the series last year. Now, to be honest, it’s still a challenging listen, and there there are a few moments with sharp edges. But those moments don’t show up often, and much of this music is truly MESMERIZING. It’s also a record with a very high replayability factor—the interplay can be so subtle and understated (or on the other end of the spectrum, so fast and furious) that it doesn’t register on the first spin. Or tenth. I dig this one more with each spin. Highest recommendation bop

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

Andrew Hill ‘Dance With Death’

Pianist Andrew Hill’s ‘Dance With Death’ is one of THE BEST sessions made for Blue Note in the late 1960s. Sadly, it sat on the shelf for quite a while as tastes and marketing teams had shifted their focus towards more commercial and soul-jazz outings, and ‘Dance With Death’ is pretty far from both. ‘Dance With Death’ is an inventive, inside/outside, post-bop affair that’s pretty much guaranteed to capture and retain your undivided attention. “Fish n Rice” is a boogaloo-on-LSD dance number for people with two left feet. “Love Nocturne” is the kind of ballad you’d definitely NOT bring home to mom. The title track is a mid-tempo noir soundtrack to an unsolvable mystery—the mystery to me being how the drummer manages to tread the air above the din, locking into a modified 4/4 while his bandmates are working with complex fractions. Hill’s compositions are adventurous, and he’s got a top-flight band to realize his vision: Charles Tolliver-trumpet, Joe Farrell-tenor/soprano sax, Victor Sproles-bass, & Billy Higgins-drums. Joe Farrell and Charles Tolliver are a particularly well-matched brass pair, sounding positively HUGE when going into lockstep. Tolliver, in particular, solos with confidence and agility. His chops are on display, but he never crosses the line into overplaying. Hill’s run at Blue Note from 63-70 is rather fantastic, with a dozen-plus sessions/albums that are all worth hearing and most worth owning. I’d put this one, ‘Passing Ships,’ and ‘Pax’ at the top of my list of Andrew Hill requests/suggestions for the team @donwas @jazzsaraswati

Herbie Hancock ‘The Prisoner’

Before I knew better, I misinterpreted the cover art as a soundtrack, and the credits noting electric piano and flute gave me pause that the music was going to lean electric, funkified, proto-fusion; with Starsky & Hutch-Esque car chase vibes. Wrong, wrong, wrong. ‘The Prisoner’ is more like a larger-format transmogrification of Second Great Quintet meets Gil Evans. So to others who perhaps made a similar error in snap-judgment, or who’ve passed over this little-discussed title in the discography, I encourage you to open your ears to this great, under-recognized masterpiece. I’m pleased (and grateful) that @donwas @jazzsaraswati @ckurosman and the rest of the team at saw fit to reissue ‘The Prisoner’ as part of their series. I pre-ordered a copy the moment it was announced and given the state of things, I was surprised and delighted to see it on the doorstep today. ‘The Prisoner’ is a post-bop session from April 1969, showcasing Hancock’s playing and composing chops in the context of a formidable nonet: Joe Henderson (tenor sax/alto flute), Johnny Coles (flugelhorn), Garnett Brown (trombone), Tony Studd (bass trombone), Hubert Laws (flute), Jerome Richardson (bass clarinet), Buster Williams (bass), & Albert Heath (drums). The liner notes and song titles—along with subsequent interviews and articles—allow Mr. Hancock to establish his narrative: “The Prisoner” as a metaphor for the African-American experience, in what Hancock calls “a social statement in music”. The LP is also his dedication to the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It’s a gripping listen—cerebral, dense, and with an overall tone I’d describe as somewhat solemn, but it’s not gloomy or heavy-hearted despite the gravity of the subject matter. Hancock, Henderson, and Coles are the standout players, though this is truly a team effort. This pressing sounds HUGE with marvelous separation among the instruments, a deep low end, and the vinyl is perfectly quiet. A job well-done on a reissue that hopefully gives this overlooked record another day in court. Apologies for the crap photo…the LP jacket looks great but is rather reflective!

Grant Green ‘Born to Be Blue’

Another must-own title from the Tone Poet series. More specifically: Here we have Green paired with one of his best melodic foils, pianist Sonny Clark. If you’ve not heard their quartet work together (four LPs, all of which are essential) stop what you’re doing right now and right that wrong. The Green/Clark symmetry is superb, bordering on magical. Add tenor sax ace Ike Quebec (whom Green had also done several sessions with), power the affair with the Sam Jones (bass)/Louis Hayes (drums) engine, and you’ve got a ticket to hard bop heaven with tight, turn-on-a-dime, conversational interplay. Take the title track for instance: a smokey, dimly-lit scene is setup by Quebec and Clark. Quebec’s playing is pensive. Measured. Heartfelt. As he seeks a silver lining in his world-weariness, Green begins to quietly make his presence known, gently arpeggiating a couple of chords before commenting on Quebec’s parting thoughts with clean, single-line precision. Then Quebec claps back with a forceful, anguished wail before adding a few final musings. He and Clark gently bring this soul-searching ballad to a close before Quebec’s final words, and Clark sends everyone back into a misty night…no happier, no wiser, but perhaps a bit more resolute. An achingly beautiful ballad that’s superbly delivered by this quintet. There’s an interesting alternate take on the digital version that doesn’t carry nearly the same emotional impact for those who care to compare. Great job by Joe & the Tone Poet team—great sound, lovely packaging and the price is right. I’m pleased to see this continued focus on sessions that were shelved when originally recorded like Wayne Shorter’s ‘Etcetera’ and Donald Byrd’s ‘Chant’. Often their initial appearance in the 1980s wasn’t exactly with much fanfare, and the cover art used in that series was—compared to the inspiring photos and art of @bluenoterecords heyday—crap. That wrong has now been righted. This one was recorded in March 1962 but put on ice until 1985. Highest recommendation

Sam Rivers-Contours

Sam Rivers ‘Contours’ (Tone Poet edition 2019)

Mesmerizing. Fearless. Challenging. Indispensable. ‘Contours’ is a gripping record that will compel you to play it again and again. There’s one track called “Mellifluous Cacophony”—an apt description for this extremely progressive hard bop session that occasionally flirts with the avant-garde. You’ll hear beauty, anger, sadness, longing, confusion, and elation…the range of the music is staggering. It does have occasional sharp elbows so those who prefer a more distinctly melodic tonal center may have moments of panic but hold on tight—it’s worth it. Definitely music more for the head than the dancefloor. Intense, fascinating, dynamic, and endlessly replayable—the hallmark of a great, classic record. Mad respect to Sam Rivers (sax/flute), Herbie Hancock (piano), Freddie Hubbard (trumpet), Ron Carter (bass) and Joe Chambers (drums) who gathered on 21 May 1965 to create this rare unicorn. This is a brand new reissue, the latest in @bluenoterecords “Tone Poet” series overseen by Joe Harley. Sonically, this is some of the best work he’s done—spin this one for your friends/family who don’t understand the lure of vinyl. Props to all involved here…original pressings and reissues are all long out of print, and prices have gone sky-high. Now for $30 or so, you can own one of the all-time great under-recognized jazz records that sounds better than ever. Highest recommendation @jazzsaraswati @herbiehancockofficial

Dexter Gordon ‘Clubhouse’

Take the rhythm section from ‘The Sidewinder’: Barry Harris (piano), Bob Cranshaw (bass), and Billy Higgins (drums); add peak-period trumpet fireworks from Freddie Hubbard; put them under the guidance of Long Tall Dexter Gordon and what do you do with the resulting music? Stick it in the vault for 15 years! 🤦🏻‍♂️ I suppose given Dexter’s run of @bluenoterecords greatness during that era there may have been some concern about flooding the market. And as I said in a previous post about these vaulted Blue Note sessions, this album—now that it’s widely available—may never get it’s fair day in court given that Dex’s other classic BN albums have had decades of head start in terms of discussion & admiration, so ‘Clubhouse’ may always be considered an also-ran. Hogwash I say—this is not AT ALL a second-tier album. The quintet’s reading of Frank Sinatra’s “I’m A Fool To Want You” is achingly beautiful, and to my ears the highlight of the session. Bassist Ben Tucker contributes a tune called “Devilette” which is a minor modal masterpiece with both Dex and Hubbard shining brightly. While ‘Clubhouse’ did finally see the light of day in 1979, it’s finally getting the royal treatment it always deserved. Available this week as part of Blue Note’s ‘Tone Poet’ series overseen by Joe Harley and Kevin Gray, it’s another job excellently done with dead quiet vinyl, outstanding sonics and under-known/under-appreciated music made more widely available. Let’s call it audiophile-grade vinyl/packaging at a non-audiophile price. Terrific attention to detail: music, packaging, and sound are all top shelf. Fantastic

Andrew Hill ‘Black Fire’

When @bluenoterecords announced the “Tone Poet” series as part of their 80th Anniversary celebration, there were two titles I was most excited about. Sam Rivers ‘Countours’, and this album, Andrew Hill’s ‘Black Fire’. It was Hill’s debut as a leader on Blue Note and the start of an extraordinary run that would span 13 albums over the next six years. Hill’s partners for this session are bassist Richard Davis, tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson and drummer Roy Haynes. Collaborating with Richard Davis would be come a recurring theme for Hill, resulting in some of his most successful sessions. Roy Haynes struts with an agile confidence that gives Davis ample room to explore and find elusive grooves, while tenor sax monster Joe Henderson is…well, monstrous. Killer playing all around. The music is spellbinding—Hill has his own rule book about harmony and time, bending both to his will as needed to work within the constructs of his music, some of which is like looking at an MC Escher sketch. The geometry seems skewed until you allow yourself to see it from another perspective, then it blows your reality apart, and makes sense in a really compelling way. Hill composed every track on the record, and the quartet takes hold of each one like it’s an enormous, restless anaconda. Not a grouchy one—there’s not really much aggression here. It’s more like the music is relentlessly exploring its enclosure, testing to see if the boundaries are *REALLY* boundaries or if there’s somewhere else to go. Someplace further. The journey is the prize here. Five stars and two thumbs up to the Joe Harley and the entire Tone Poet team for a terrific job on this. Superb record and outstanding job on the reissue—best this record has EVER sounded. Well done team Tone Poet! 10 stars out of 5

Joe Henderson ‘The State of the Tenor Vol. 2’

Get. This. Record.
The tenor sax/bass/drum combo might understandably trigger comparisons to Sonny Rollins legendary Vanguard recordings but this is an entirely different bag of bananas. This recently issued Tone Poet vinyl is jaw-droopingly awesome, and a significant upgrade from the CD. Most notably in the tone and presence of Ron Carter’s bass in the mix. In fact, the depth and resonance of every nuance is so clear he deserves co-billing as a leader. Carter and Henderson (supported with crisp, tight drumming from Al Foster) spin lines that flow, intertwine, support, challenge, merge and then melt into new, uncharted vistas—producers Stanley Couch & Michael Cuscuna deliberately encouraged the trio to engage with less-familiar repertoire to lure everyone’s improvisational best to the fore. Mission accomplished. It’s wild and exploratory, yet melodic and fun at the same time. For those looking for a piece of vinyl to demonstrate why they bother with the time and expense over the easier digital options, look no further. Five stars, two thumbs up, and a record I’ll be spinning again and again. Looking forward to the release of Vol. 1 next year