Tuesday, January 27, 2004

While there were some excellent new jazz releases this past year (scroll down a few posts for a list of 2003's best), there were also a number of intriguing reissues. Although it's crucial for the survival of the genre that fans support new artists, it's also important to study what went before, to calibrate one's ear and solidify one's tastes. Some of this past year's crop of reissues illuminates a particularly interesting time in the jazz world, when the genre was trying to come to terms with both its past and its future and, as it has for a long time, struggling to stay relevant to modern listeners brought up on a steady diet of rock 'n' roll, R&B and soul.

One of 2003's most fascinating backward glances was Andrew Hill's Passing Ships. This magnificent nonet recording isn't technically a reissue: Originally recorded in 1969, the tapes of this session were secreted away in the Blue Note vaults until producer Michael Cuscuna dug them out and revisited them in 2001. Cuscuna had listened to the tapes previously, in 1974, and concluded that they sounded like a "train wreck," so back on the shelf they went. However, when he listened on a multi-track player nearly 30 years later, he was able to hear all that he had missed the first time around.

Anchored by the simmering rhythm section of bassist Ron Carter and drummer Lenny White, the nine-piece band creates swirling, brassy tapestries, fully realizing Hill's wonderful writing and arranging. (This wasn't one-off stuff, either; apparently, Hill called for many, many takes, and it shows in the polished execution, as well as some of the surviving artists' desires to find out whatever the hell happened to these tapes.) The burnished, lyrical trumpet of Woody Shaw contrasts with the burning blasts of trumpeter Dizzy Reece in a front line that also contains Julian Priester on trombone, Bob Northern on French horn and Howard Johnson on tuba and bass clarinet. Reedman Joe Farrell is a standout, offering a biting, textured tone on tenor saxophone, and also trading among soprano sax, alto flute and English horn. Hill's understated piano wends throughout, and his solos and fills ripple with intelligence, echoing both Ellington and Monk.

Although the entire album is exceptional, I particularly enjoyed the lilting title track, with its varying pallette of soprano sax, mellow English horn, muted trumpets, trombone and tenor sax; and the brilliant and complex "Brown Queen," featuring some of Hill's most interesting playing. The syncopated "Plantation Bag" boasts a bumptious groove and feels completely contemporary, like something Miles might have recorded; in fact, these sessions took place not long after Bitches Brew, on which drummer White had also played. By no means a fusion record, Passing Ships sounds at once fresh and modern and at the same time, almost like the heralding of the end of an era. It's impossible to say whether the album would have created a sensation had it been released in 1969 or 1970 (the sessions took place in November), but hearing it in 2003 was a breath of fresh air blowing in from the past. A terrific find and one of this past year's finest ensemble recordings.

Coming soon: Back to the '60s and '70s with Cecil Taylor, Groove Holmes, Albert Ayler and Archie Shepp. Plus, a look at this year's Handy Awards nominees.

Tuesday, January 06, 2004

The best concerts of 2003, part III (the finale)

7. Fort Lauderdale Sound Advice Blues Festival, Oct. 31-Nov. 2, Fort Lauderdale Festival Site. The city of Fort Lauderdale mounted one of its best blues fest lineups in what may likely have been the event's last year. Although Georgia's Precious Bryant had to cancel due to a back injury, and Hill Country blues great Robert Belfour's set was marred by godawful acoustics (his own fault, the sound men and all involved agreed, as Belfour struggled with the controls on a new instrument), the 17th annual edition featured several memorable performances. Some highlights: an all-star summit comprising Carey Bell, Hubert Sumlin, Bob Margolin and Rich Del Grosso performing Delta blues and down-home renditions of Chicago favorites in the round; Muddy Waters alum Paul Oscher switching among guitar, several harmonicas (including the enormous bass harp) and piano and singing in his idiosyncratic and humorous style; Rory Block literally stomping holes in the Back Woods Acoustic Stage as her high-heeled boots kept time on propulsive, driving renditions of country blues expertly and none-too-gingerly pulled from her guitar while she defied the steadily falling rain which dripped and spattered on her and her guitar; Otis Taylor spinning tales that were both bleak and hopeful, but always rhythmically interesting, in the dusty, impassioned voice of an otherworldly prophet; and Mississippi groove prodigy Slick Ballinger, wowing crowds with his over-the-top energy and enthusiasm and raw yet undeniable talent.

The event concluded with terrifically entertaining sets by Bobby Rush, whose athletic leaps and high kicks defied his 68 years and whose voluptuous backup dancers almost made you forget how good the band was; and Solomon Burke, who performed his entire set from atop a massive throne but whose charisma was absolutely magnetic as he delved into his signature soul tunes as well as a couple from his latest album, Don't Give Up on Me. Although it would be beyond depressing if the city doesn't host an 18th blues fest, they certainly went out on a high note, if this proves to be the last.

8. Tarbox Ramblers, Jan. 17, Bamboo Room. Yes, there's actually a Michael Tarbox, and he's the distinctively voiced lead singer of the Tarbox Ramblers, who sound as if they had somehow traveled through a time portal from some dusty corner bar during the Depression era. Especially good was violinist Johnny Sciascia, who, with his knit cap and burly appearance, looked as if he could have been an extra on the HBO series Oz. Still, Tarbox's fanged electric guitar reminds you it's not exactly your grandfather's old-timey music, as the band revisited classics such as "Jack of Diamonds," "Shake 'Em on Down" and a killer harmonized read of "Stewball." Great American music played and sung with authority.

9. Al Kooper, April 12, Bamboo Room. A founding member of Blood, Sweat and Tears and a cohort of Mike Bloomfield and Bob Dylan, Kooper had plenty of fascinating stories to dish, and the dish was as interesting as the musical performance. The keyboardist shared personal reminiscences of his long career and played tunes from his various incarnations, including knockout versions of B,S and T's "I Can't Quit Her," "The Modern Adventures of Plato, Diogenes and Freud" and "My Days Are Numbered," which he says he wrote because he knew he wasn't long for the band. There were also some obscure numbers from his solo albums and some newer songs, one of which detailed his search for a certain brand of boots he learned were obsolete when he went to buy a new pair. Kooper's brand may not be as prominent as it once was, but with his trunkful off great songs and ability to spin entertaining tales, he'll never be obsolete.

10. Eddy "The Chief" Clearwater, Nov. 22, Sushi Blues Cafe and Blue Monk Lounge, Hollywood. A Windy City legend, The Chief is renown for his flamboyant live shows, which mix vintage rock 'n' roll with his signature West Side Chicago blues. For his first set at the new Sushi Blues Cafe, Clearwater hit the stage in faux cowboy regalia, topped by a jersey cow-patterned hat; for the second, he came out in full Indian headdress. His superb Chicago band provided expert backing as the Chief duckwalked through Chuck Berry-styled rock and burned through smoldering West Side soul. He also tossed in some tunes from his latest (and Grammy-nominated) CD, Rock 'n' Roll City, including the self-penned rockabilly charmer "Back Down to Earth" and the Fats Domino rave, "Let the Four Winds Blow." Best of all, Sushi Blues owner Kenny Millions sat in on tenor sax during the second set, truly relishing the chance to honky-tonk alongside the Chief, who turns 69 on Jan. 10 and shows no signs of slowing down.

Sunday, January 04, 2004

Before we wade into the Best Concerts of 2003, part II, the best concert I've seen in 2004 (so far) was King Johnson Friday night at Last Call in Fort Lauderdale. The eclectic Atlanta roots-funkers put on one helluva show as they expertly mixed and matched styles from second-line N'Awlin's breakdowns to Southern rock with jazzy twists. Frontmen Oliver Wood and Chris Long, on guitar and bass respectively, were both in excellent voice as they revisited tunes from their latest CD, Hot Fish Laundry Mat, as well as a few KJ faves, such as the raucous blues shout-along "To the Devil for a Dime," a Wood original that was memorably covered by Tinsley Ellis, and "Luck So Strange," from the band's album of the same name, served up in four-part harmony and played like a New Orleans funeral march. The horn sec of Marcus James, on saxophone and fife (the boys did a killer version of the fife-and-drum classic "Chevrolet"), and Adam Mewherter on trombone and sousaphone, elevate King Johnson head and shoulders above the typical genre-blending jam band, as does the band's knowledge and respect for many different types of music (Wood picked a lovely little version of Elizabeth Cotten's "Freight Train" by way of intro to one tune), intelligent writing and a great sense of fun. Look for the return of the King to Last Call sometime this spring; more details when I get 'em.

And now, onto last year's best concerts, part II (scroll down a couple of entries for part I):

4. Bo Diddley, March 14, Bamboo Room, Lake Worth. A rare treat, the rock 'n' roll king revisited his roots with a front-porch style blues show backed by his Central Florida-based band The Accelerators. Bo, who just blew out his 75th candle Dec. 30, hadn't lost a step, as he grooved mightily, sang powerfully and completely hoodooed the packed house with his outsize persona for two-and-a-half hours without pause. The crowd whooped and hollered when Bo rose from his chair, rectangular git-box dangling, and swiveled his considerable hips as he sang, "I'm your spiderman, baby." The legendary performer will return to the intimate Bamboo Room in the near future. Keep your eyes on this spot for details.

5. Hollywood Jazz Festival, Nov. 22-23, Hollywood Central Performing Arts Center. On paper, this looked like a kind of ho-hum roster. On-stage, however, the 21st annual HJF presented two days of excellent, adventurous performances. The fest began with a lovely and cerebral set by the Danilo Perez Trio, which unfortunately proved too short for the pianist to truly win over the crowd. The energy level went through the roof, though, when the Larry Coryell Quintet hit the stage next, playing a bluesy, swinging set of classic jazz that encompassed tunes by Milt Jackson, Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane. The guitarist was typically brilliant, his phrasing, tone and note-selection absolutely perfect and idiosyncratic, while tenor man Javon Jackson proved deeply soulful; bassist Buster Williams and drummer Paul Wertico were the essence of tasteful restraint.

Saturday's show kicked off with vocalist Rene Marie, a delightful surprise who far surpassed her somewhat conventional-sounding recordings with a dynamic and truly adventurous set. Backed by a stellar quartet, Marie started off traditionally enough, but took a hard left turn as she offered up an epic and almost avant-garde read of the standard "Nature Boy," which segued into the classic "Afro Blue." The singer seemed completely transported as she let the music take control of her body and delivered a daring and physically demanding tour de force, never waivering in her commitment to go where the piece led her. The set ended with an emotional melding of Ravel's "Bolero," which she scatted beautifully, and Leonard Cohen's "Suzanne," both of which she explained were favorites of her father. The festival ended with a fine set by bass legend Ron Carter and an all-star quartet, which was more or less a Miles Davis tribute featuring tunes such as "I Thought About You," "All Blues," "So What" and "Funny Valentine." Trumpeter Wallace Roney was a fine Miles, with his sparse phrasing and Harman mute, while pianist Mulgrew Miller comped bluesy runs and crafted muscular and melodic solos. Carter, as always, was superb and toneful as he dug in to the meaty riffs and let the music speak for itself as he didn't once address the crowd.

6. The Palm Beach Jazz Festival, opening night, April 3, Cuillo Centre, West Palm Beach. Is there a market for avant-garde jazz in South Florida? Apparently not, if the embarrassingly sparse attendance at the first night of the doomed Palm Beach Jazz Festival is any indication. (Also reference the October ouster of Steve Malagodi from WLRN; the dean of experimental music now can be heard on WDNA/88.9 FM Saturdays at 11 p.m.) The festival began with a spirited and spiritual performance by Raga Roni, a trio comprising clarinetist Perry Robinson, bassist Ed Schuller and tabla master Badal Roy, whose set comprised joyful and evocative original tunes by Robinson that had elements of everything from mountain to Middle Eastern music. Following was a magnificent set by vibraphonist and pianist Karl Berger and vocalist Ingrid Sertso, whose intimate interplay was featured on tunes such as Don Cherry's "Art Deco" and a heartstopping take of "For All We Know," on which Serto's breathy whisper was emotionally devastating. Rotating backup included bassist Schuller, Senegalese percussionist Aiyb Dieng and Ormond Beach-based saxophonist Peter Ponzol, as well as South Florida drummers Carlos Mota and festival organizer Jeff Abbott. Truly a one-of-a-kind performance.

Coming soon: Best concerts of 2003, the finale

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