Tuesday, September 08, 2015

Lucille: mystery woman solved

A marker at the Twist Plantation in Cross County commemorates a fire that broke out during a fight at a dance hall where B.B. King was playing with his band.
The fire started when two men fought over a woman and knocked over a barrel filled with kerosene that was used to heat the club.

The marker says King played there in the mid-1950s, but blues historians agree he was there several years earlier, before King became a star and still played in tiny juke joints not far from his home base in Memphis.

Now a Jacksonville woman confirms the incident occurred in December 1949, and it involved her in-laws — a jealous husband and his wife, Lucille, who was dancing with another man while her husband was gambling in the back of the club.

Maye Alice Banks, who recently moved to Jacksonville, says she’s sure Lucille Banks, her late mother-in-law from Helena, is the real Lucille.

Maye has the details on how the fight broke out between Lucille’s husband and the man who had asked her to dance with him.

“She was a beautiful lady,” her daughter-in-law recalled. “A mix of Indian and black.”

“I married her son, James, in 1974,” says Maye, who lives a few blocks from The Leader. “She told me the story when I married into the family.”

King, who died last May in Las Vegas at the age of 89, told the story many times in his long career of how he saved his guitar from the burning club in Twist and named it after Lucille.

He was never certain about Lucille’s last name, although several women over the years claimed they were Lucille.

Maye shows me a picture of her young mother-in-law, who was born in 1911 in Fordyce in south Arkansas: Lucille is well-dressed, with a hint of a Mona Lisa smile. She was more than a mix of black and Indian: She also had European features that would attract the attention of a lot of men out in the desolate Arkansas Delta.

Lucille was a light-skinned woman who looked a lot like Lena Horne, the singer and actress. Lucille could have been an actress or a black model if she had ever moved to the big city, but she never did.

“She was a homemaker and worked on the farm. She was also a midwife,” Maye says. “She worked hard to support her family.”

The Banks were living in Helena, but Henry was from Palestine in St. Francis County, which is the next county over from Twist. If the Banks were visiting his folks in Palestine that December, it would have been a short trip to Twist.

Lucille was 37 when the fight broke out. She and her husband went to Twist to hear good music, but it was also a chance for Henry to do a little gambling.

You could always gamble in juke joints like the one in Twist, and Lucille’s husband liked to gamble.

“Henry was gambling in the back,” Maye says, “when a man asked her to dance.”

Trouble started when someone told Henry that Lucille was on the dance floor with another man.

People out in the country liked to have a good time on Saturday night, and an innocent dance with a man maybe wasn’t a big deal to Lucille while her husband was shooting craps away from the ladies.

But it was a big deal to Henry. You could see why two men — a jealous husband and a fellow who was struck by her beauty — fought for her affections that night while B.B. King, all of 24, was working on becoming the greatest blues star in history.

Henry lunged at the other guy and they knocked over the barrel of burning kerosene.

Here’s King telling the story of that fight on his CD called “Lucille,” which he recorded in December 1967. It’s a 10-minute monologue as he gently plays his wailing guitar. You can almost see darkness fall on Twist as he tells the story of the fight.

“A lot of you want to know why I call my guitar Lucille,” King says. “Lucille practically saved my life two or three times. No kidding, it really has.

“The way I came by the name of Lucille, I was over in Twist, Arkansas,” King continues. “I know you never heard of that. And one night, the guys started brawling, you know what I mean. The guy that was mad at his old lady fell over on this gas tank that was burning for heat and the gas ran all over the floor, and when the gas ran all over the floor, the building caught on fire, and it almost burned me up trying to save Lucille,” King says.

“Oh, I imagine you’re still wondering why I call it Lucille. The lady that started the brawl that night was named Lucille. That’s been Lucille ever since to me,” says King and asks the studio engineer to let him play his beloved Lucille for another minute, which he does beautifully.

“Everyone dashed out of the burning building,” the marker at Twist says, “but King returned to find his guitar, narrowly escaping the flames. He later learned the fight resulted from a dispute over a woman named Lucille. Ever since, each of his Gibson guitars has been named Lucille as a reminder that he should never fight over a woman.”

And never go back inside a burning building, King said later. He was lucky to get out alive after he retrieved his $30 Gibson acoustic guitar before the place burned down. Two people may have died in the conflagration.

All that remains of the club is a concrete foundation where farm workers danced to the music of the future blues star, who traveled with his beloved Lucille for the next 65 years.

Lucille Banks passed away in February 2004 in Decatur, Ill., at the age of 92. She’s buried in Lexa near Helena.

She gets my vote as the Lucille who inspired B.B. King’s music and changed history forever.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Musicians who made stars shine

Legacy/Sony Entertainment has issued “Dylan, Cash and the Nashville Cats: A New Music City,” a two-CD compilation to coincide with the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum’s exhibition celebrating the music of several gifted studio musicians who backed not only Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash but many other stars who helped create the Nashville sound in the 1960s and beyond.
“They came in here, recorded them, they got hits and they left. We turned them out like water, man for 20 years,” said Fred Carter Jr., one of the many talented session musicians who made the stars sound special, creating a timeless country sound.

Other backup musicians included here are Charlie McCoy (who later became musical director of “Hee Haw”), Kenny Buttrey, Pete Drake, Mac Gayden, Wayne Moss and several others who contributed to this historic CD. It has helpful liner notes by Pete Finney and Michael Gray, the organizers of the Hall of Fame exhibit.

The Nashville studio musicians remind you of the Wrecking Crew, the mostly anonymous group of session musicians in Los Angeles who backed Herb Alpert, the Beach Boys, Glenn Campbell, Cher, the Mamas and the Papas, Nancy Sinatra, Phil Spector and his “wall of sound” and many others.

Several Nashville musicians recorded as McCoy and the Escorts on “Harpoon Man” and as Nashville’s Area Code 615 on “Stone Fox Chase.” Dylan told McCoy he’d admired “Harpoon Man,” which spurred his interest in recording “Blonde on Blonde” in Music City.

The 36 tracks here include Dylan performing several of his songs (“Absolutely Sweet Maria,” “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight,” a previously unreleased “I’m Not for You” and “Girl from the North Country” in a duet with Cash), as well as several others performing Dylan songs: Cash singing “It Ain’t Me, Babe” with June Carter doing backup vocals, Ian and Sylvia on “This Wheel’s on Fire” and Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs singing “Down in the Flood,” although Flatt and Scruggs needed no backup musicians to make them sound great.

“Dylan, Cash and the Nashville Cats” not only celebrates the Man in Black and the troubadour from Duluth, Minn. This is the soundtrack of America, with superb sound, performed by a melting pot of musicians, not just Southerners and Northerners, but several Canadians as well: In addition to the husband-and-wife team of Ian and Sylvia, Leonard Cohen, Gordon Lightfoot and Neil Young are also included.

There’s much more: The Byrds, J.J. Cale, Kris Kristofferson (on a demo record called “If You Don’t Like Hank Williams”), Linda Ronstadt, Leon Russell, Simon and Garfunkel, Country Joe McDonald, Jerry Jeff Walker, and Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr recording separately.

Also Steve Goodman’s “City of New Orleans,” John Hartford’s “Gentle on My Mind,” Joan Baez with “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” Tracy Nelson with “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band on “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” with Roy Acuff, Mother Maybelle Carter, Earl Scruggs, Merle Travis and Doc Watson.

There’s also Eric Clapton with Carl Perkins and Cash doing “Matchbox” live on “The Johnny Cash Show,” which aired on ABC from 1969-1971 during the height of the Vietnam War.

The show made TV executives nervous as it featured such prominent counterculture figures as Dylan and Kristofferson with country and rock stars who make this double CD the record of the year. It belongs not only in the Country Music Hall of Fame but also in the Smithsonian Museum and in your collection.

Eb Davis, a fine blues singer from Elaine down in Phillips County, now lives in Germany and continues to tour around Europe and the world.

He still comes home every couple of years to perform at the King Biscuit Blues Festival in Helena. He’ll be there in October and will probably perform several numbers from his terrific new CD, “EBsolutely: Eb Davis and the Superband Live at the A-Trane in Berlin.”

This is his second live CD recorded at the club that Davis calls home. The CD includes his German-born wife, Nina, on piano, along with a band that includes William Pollock and Ben (King) Perkoff on saxophone, Jay Bailey on guitar, Tom Blacksmith on bass and Lenjes Robinson on drums.

Eb Davis, who may be the last of the old Delta blues shouters, is in fine form here. He reaches back to his Arkansas Delta blues roots, with a touch of Memphis soul, much like another east Arkansas legend, the Rev. Al Green, who still preaches regularly at his Full Gospel Tabernacle Church not far from Graceland.

Davis lived for a while in New York before he joined the military and decided to stay in Berlin after his discharge. He performs regularly in Berlin, Hamburg and elsewhere in Europe.

But his heart is in the Delta, and he’s been telling friends he’ll be back this fall for King Biscuit. We’ll look for him on Cherry Street in October.

Monday, May 18, 2015

The last time King of Blues sang at home

“To understand the world, you must first understand a place like Mississippi.”
—William Faulkner

“I wish I could play the guitar like B.B. King.”
— John Lennon

B.B. King, who passed away in his sleep in his Las Vegas home Thursday night at the age of 89, had been frail for years. Yet he kept performing until last fall, always willing to meet his fans and pose for pictures and sign autographs.

King made his last appearance in Mississippi last Memorial Day on the grounds of his museum in Indianola, not far from where he was born in the farming community of Berclair on Sept. 16, 1925.

The free concert was announced as his last homecoming. His diabetes had taken a toll on the legendary performer — for once, the adjective is deserved — and when he was helped onstage he looked disoriented for a moment. But then he sat down and played his Gibson guitar — he called it Lucille — as if he were 40 years younger. He was glad to be back home.

He’d been performing in Mississippi for free every spring for about 45 years. It gave him a chance to return to his roots and visit family. On this night, he was onstage for more than an hour and seemed to get stronger the more he played and sang. He’d been on the road for 65 years, longer than any performer alive today, even longer than Tony Bennett, who is a year younger than King but who could surpass B.B. for longevity in a couple of years.

The Memorial Day audience was raucous, and King asked them to quiet down a bit. “I want you to have a good time, but I don’t want you to be so loud that I can’t hear myself,” said the 88-year-old bluesman.

The program included “The Thrill Is Gone,” “Every Day I Have the Blues,” “Rock Me, Baby,” “You Are My Sunshine,” “When the Saints Go Marching In” and more. This playlist might be the songs he wants played at his funeral.

Riley B. King started performing as a teenager on a street corner across from the county courthouse in Indianola, a couple of blocks from his museum where we were listening to him.

He heard the “King Biscuit Time” blues show on radio station KFFA from Helena during lunch breaks at the plantation.

His influences included deep-blues musicians such as Muddy Waters and Sonny Boy Williamson, but also rhythm-and-blues artists like Louis Jordan of Brinkley and the Texas wailer T-Bone Walker. B.B. borrowed music from other musicians and turned their songs into hits — first Lowell Fulson’s “Three O’Clock in the Morning” and “Every Day I Have the Blues” (which became B.B.’s opener at his concerts) and Roy Hawkins’ “The Thrill Is Gone,” which became King’s crossover hit in 1969 and made him a star for the next 45 years.

Sonny Boy, who appeared on “King Biscuit Time,” later let King substitute for him in a West Memphis nightclub. B.B. also picked cotton in Arkansas, where the pay was better than in Mississippi.

King left the plantation and moved to Memphis after serving in the Army during the Second World War. He became a disc jockey and the most famous blues singer in the world: Beale Street Blues Boy King, or B.B. King for short.

King, who won 15 Grammys, made many fine live recordings besides “Live at the Regal” in Chicago from 1965. Also listen to “Blues Is King” and “Live in Cook County Jail,” which were also recorded in Chicago in 1967 and 1971 respectively. “Live in Japan,” which is as good as “Live at the Regal,” was recorded in 1971 but not released in this country until 1999.

His early singles, “The RPM Hits 1951-1957,” are also essential. “B.B. King Sings Spirituals,” also from the 1950s, is worth checking out. What an amazing legacy.

He lived for a time in Parkin (Cross County) and made a memorable appearance at a nightclub in nearby Twist. (Howlin’ Wolf farmed near a bend in the St. Francis River and also lived in Parkin for a time.)

A marker honors King in an empty lot in Twist, where back in the 1950s,
a couple of fellows were fighting over a woman and knocked over a barrel filled with kerosene used to heat the club.
Everybody fled, but King realized he’d left his guitar inside the burning club.

Risking his life, he retrieved the guitar. He found out the woman the men had fought over was named Lucille, so he named all his Gibson guitars after her.

We heard B.B. perform about 10 times — several times in Indianola, twice in Little Rock, once in Helena, as well as at Ole Miss, where he received an honorary doctorate from Morgan Freeman in 2006.

After the program, B.B. autographed my old “Live at the Regal” LP that I’d brought with me. He was sitting at a table at the Ford Theater where he’d just performed and said, “Many critics say this is my best record.”

I said, “It’s the best live recording ever made,” before I realized how many others he’d made.

I asked him to sign an autograph for my son Jonathan.

“My band leader’s son is also named Jonathan,” King said. “He’s in Iraq.”

James (Boogaloo) Bolden, the band leader and trumpet player, was standing nearby. He nodded with pride, and so did I.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Lennox, Hutcherson on Blue Note; Impulse back

Annie Lennox’s new CD, “Nostalgia,” from Blue Note includes a stunning version of “Strange Fruit,” an anti-lynching song usually associated with Billie Holiday, who recorded it in 1937.

Lennox’s live music video posted this week by the Guardian newspaper is even more amazing. (Click here to view video.) After watching the three-and-a-half-minute video as she sings in a long red dress in front of an orchestra, you have to leave your computer, go outside for a minute and shake your head as you think about the power of music and how it can move us.

At the end of the video, the orchestra sits silently, as if the musicians are as moved by her performance as we are.

A pop sensation since she started out in the 1970s with David Stewart in the Tourists and the Eurythmics, Lennox sings mostly American standards on her new CD.

In addition to “Strange Fruit,” she also sings soulful versions of Holiday’s “God Bless the Child” and “I Cover the Waterfront,” as well as wonderful covers of Hoagy Carmichael’s “Memphis in June,” “Georgia on My Mind” and “The Nearness of You,” along with the Gershwins’ “Summertime,” Duke Ellington’s “Mood Indigo,” Harry Warren and Al Dubin’s “September in the Rain,” Sammy Fain’s “I Can Dream, Can’t I?,” Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell on You” and Chilton Price’s “You Belong to Me.”

A nice program without a dull moment. Lennox trimmed this program of 12 songs from a list of more than 40 standards she considered recording, so there’s plenty more for a second and a third volume.

The great vibraharpist Bobby Hutcherson, who started recording for Blue Note at the age of 22 in 1963 (on Jackie McLean’s “One Step Beyond”), has returned to the label after a long absence with “Enjoy the View.” He leads an all-star group that includes David Sanborn on saxophone, Joey DeFrancesco on organ and trumpet and Billy Hart on drums, featuring compositions by Hutcherson, Sanborn and DeFrancesco.

Hutcherson’s mid-1960s Blue Notes are among the best from that venerable label, which is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year. Hutcherson’s “Dialogue” CD gets a top crown rating in the “Penguin Guide to Jazz CDs” and features such jazz giants as Andrew Hill on piano, multi-reed player Sam Rivers (who grew up in North Little Rock), trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, bassist Richard Davis and drummer Joe Chambers.

“Dialogue” is free-form jazz that has inspired Hutcherson’s current group to play at the top of their form. Sanborn, DeFancesco and Hart do a fine job evoking the music of those classic Blue Note records, but to hear Hutcherson play as well as he does at the age of 73 is something we should be grateful for.

Wayne Shorter, another labelmate from the 1960s, continues to perform at the age of 81. Blue Note last year released his “Without a Net,” a compilation of recent live recordings.

Those nostalgic for the 1960s will be pleased that Blue Note has revived the Impulse label, which flourished in the 1960s and 1970s. Known as “The House That Trane Built,” because of John Coltrane’s prodigious output there from 1961 until his death in 1967, Impulse continued sporadically in the 1980s and 1990s, mostly as a reissue label, although it also issued originals with Henry Butler, Horace Silver and McCoy Tyner and others, including “Underground: Live at Small’s,” which showcased young jazz artists who performed at the little jazz club in New York’s Greenwich Village.

But Impulse, with its black-and-orange label and spine, is going strong again under the Universal Group, which also owns Blue Note and Verve, another storied label that’s almost 70 years old.

The newly reactivated Impulse has just released a new CD with Butler, the blind New Orleans piano dynamo, who has teamed up with trumpeter Steven Bernstein and the Hot 9 Orchestra on “Viper’s Drag.” This is New Orleans jazz going up Dixie Highway to New York: It’s hot jazz updated a century later. It kicks off with Fats Waller’s “Viper’s Drag,” and moves on to Butler’s “Dixie Walker” and Jelly Roll Morton’s “Buddy Bolden’s Blues,” “Wolverine Blues” and “King Porter Stomp,” Andy Gibson’s “I Left My Baby” (popularized by Jimmy Rushing and the Count Basie Orchestra), and several more Butler originals, including “Dixie Walker” and “Henry’s Boogie.”

Butler calls this music “rhythm IN blues.” He and Bernstein and the band play old-time jazz and blues and swing brought up to date “with modern flavors, agile arrangements and a vitality that never allows the historical focus to limit itself,” according to the informative liner notes by Ashley Kahn, author of “The House That Trane Built,” “Love Supreme: The Story of John Coltrane’s Signature Album” and other books.

This is the band Stephen Colbert should hire next year for his new “Late Show” on CBS.

Another Impulse CD showcases a concert by bassist Charley Haden and guitarist Jim Hall recorded at the Montreal Jazz Festival in 1990. It’s a 75-minute program of classic jazz (Thelonious Monk’s “Bemsha Swing,” Johnny Green’s “Body and Soul,” Hoagy Carmichael’s “Skylark,” Ornette Coleman’s “Turnaround”) and Haden’s “First Song” and “In the Moment” and Hall’s “Down from Antigua” and “Big Blues.”

This is not a flashy program, but it’s a CD you want to listen to over and over. You’ll hear the gentle interaction between these two great musicians and the response from an appreciative audience.

Sadly, Hall passed away last year and Haden earlier this year.

Impulse has issued an-other duet CD, “The Art of Conversation” with the Philadelphia-born pianist Kenny Barron and the British bassist Dave Holland. Recorded last spring in New York, the CD features compositions by the two musicians, along with Charley Parker’s “Segment,” Monk’s “In Walked Bud” and Billy Strayhorn’s “Daydream.”

They keep the conversation going for almost an hour, and it’s always dazzling and provocative, like listening to Bud Powell and Paul Chambers, but this time in superior stereo.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

New records from Thelonious Monk, Rosanne Cash

Alfred Lion, a refugee from Nazi Germany, founded Blue Note Records in New York on Jan. 6, 1939, when he recorded the boogie-woogie pianists Albert Ammons and Meade (Lux) Lewis after hearing them at the historic “From Spirituals to Swing” concert at Carnegie Hall in New York the month before.

Lion, along with his business partner Francis Wolf, another refugee from Germany, recorded most of the important jazz musicians over the next 30 years, from Sidney Bechet (whose bluesy “Summertime” is one of the greatest recordings of all time) to John Coltrane (whose “Blue Trane,” his only Blue Note recording as a leader, is among my favorites) to Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell (two giants of jazz piano who did their best work with Blue Note) to Wayne Shorter and Bobby Hutcherson, who continue to record for Blue Note 50 years after their debuts with the label.

Blue Note still issues important jazz — Shorter’s live recordings, “Without a Net,” marked his return to the label last year — and there were also important CDs from Terrence Blanchard and Joe Lovano. Monk is back with a live recording, “Paris 1969,” which was recorded at the Salle Pleyel music hall for French TV. The video of the show comes with the new release.

It’s a great find, with Charlie Rouse on saxophone and a  surprise appearance by drummer Philly Joe Jones on one number, played before an appreciative audience. Monk reciprocated with a flawless performance. The producers made sure he had a good piano to play on for a change.

The CD is an hour long and includes such Monk classics as “I Mean You,” “Straight No Chaser” and “Blue Monk,” along with three solo piano performances, as well as the entire TV show on DVD. A historic document that would have made Alfred Lion proud.

Lion probably didn’t hear any country music until the Army sent him to Fort Bliss in El Paso,  Texas, during the Second World War. He may have heard plenty of western swing there. 

He would have enjoyed hearing Blue Note’s latest star, the Grammy Award-winning country singer Rosanne Cash, whose latest CD is “The River and the Thread,” an album of original songs written by Cash and her husband John Leventhal.

Like all Blue Note releases, “The River and the Thread,” is meticulously recorded with a gorgeous sound, giving it a live quality. All the songs have southern themes, inspired by the couple’s trip from Memphis to New Orleans.

The lineup includes “Etta’s Tune,” “The Sunken Lands,” “A Feather’s Not a Bird,” “Tell Heaven,” “Money Road,” “50,000 Watts” and more. They previewed their fine new CD before a couple of hundred lucky fans in Little Rock in November. 

Cash, who was born in Memphis, is the daughter of Johnny Cash, who grew up in Dyess (Mississippi County). She joins another singer with Arkansas roots on the Blue Note label, Al Green, who is from Forrest City. Let’s hope they’ll do a duet together.

East Arkansas has produced several musical giants, including Howlin Wolf, who farmed north of Parkin (Cross County) before he started recording for Sun, Chess and Modern Records after the Second World War; Charlie Rich, who was born in Colt (St. Francis County), not far from Parkin; Albert King, who lived in Osceola, not far from Cash’s boyhood home, which is being restored with Rosanne’s help, and Louis Jordan of Brinkley (Monroe County), whose childhood home, sadly, has been demolished.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Piano trio thrills LR audience

About 180 lucky people heard the great jazz pianist Marcus Roberts play for almost two hours last Saturday night at the South on Main Restaurant in Little Rock.

The old Juanita’s used to be in that spot, which South on Main now shares with Oxford American magazine, one of the sponsors of the Roberts concert.

Between 8 and 10 p.m., Roberts played a bluesy, soulful, swinging set and an encore (his original “Cole After Midnight”) as he evoked the history of jazz, from ragtime to hot jazz, from Ahmad Jamal to Miles Davis, from Thelonious Monk to Oscar Peterson, from Duke Ellington to the blind virtuoso George Shearing (Roberts is also sightless).

Roberts also played selections from his just-released CDs — he has three new ones out this fall — and they’re all astonishingly good.

Roberts, accompanied by Rodney Jordan on bass and Jason Marsalis on drums,  opened the program with three numbers from Jamal’s  repertoire, “Autumn Leaves,” “Billy Boy” and “Ahmad’s Blues.” Jamal, an important influence on Roberts, is another great pianist who is still going strong in his 80s.

Roberts then played Shearing’s “Conception,” followed by long excerpts from Peterson’s “Canadiana Suite” and then Jelly Roll Morton’s “Spanish Tinge.”

He played his own compositions, including “Rags to Rhythm,” “Reservoir” and “The Duo” from the new CDs, giving his sidemen generous playing time. As Marsalis and Jordan soloed, he sat motionless in front of the piano. Roberts, a youngish-looking 50-year-old, reminded me of Art Tatum, who died at the age of 47.

A music educator who grew up in Jacksonville, Fla., and who teaches at Florida State University (his alma mater), Roberts understands the music perhaps better than the masters he’s learned from. A younger musician like Roberts appreciates the originators of the music, and because of his training, he  is completely in control of his instrument.

Roberts has been recording with Wynton Marsalis (Jason’s older brother) since the 1980s. “When he plays, you feel the spirit of the sanctified church,” Marsalis says.  “You are inspired by the complexity of the human mind, and you want to dance. That is Marcus Roberts, genius of modern piano.”

Roberts is heard on Marsalis’ “J Mood” and “Live at Blues Alley” from the 1980s and “Live at the Village Vanguard” from 1990-94, all from Columbia. The last is a seven-CD box set where he shares piano duties with Eric Reed. It can be had for a bargain on eBay.

Roberts began recording as a leader in 1988, starting with “The Truth Is Spoken Here” with Wynton Marsalis, Charlie Rouse (Monk’s longtime tenor saxophone player) and Elvin Jones, John Coltrane’s most important drummer.

Roberts has just issued two excellent new CDs with Wynton Marsalis: “Together Again in the Studio” and “Together Again in Concert” from J-Master Records. (Roberts’ nickname was Jazz Master when he was part of Marsalis’ Lincoln Center Orchestra.) Lots of standards and modern jazz (“Giant Steps”) and it’s all first-rate.

Like Bill Evans, Roberts sounds best in a trio setting, such as his cool “Cole After Midnight” from 2001. Another new CD from his trio, “From Rags to Rhythm,” also from J-Master, is perhaps his best since “Deep in the Shed,” Roberts’ 1989 masterpiece with members of the Lincoln Center Orchestra.

The new CD, which is also available as a download, has superb sound, filled with gospel-flavored originals that swing and shout, proving once again that the Roberts trio is the premier jazz ensemble performing and recording today.

Monday, June 24, 2013

New from Mosaic: Coleman Hawkins

For 30 years, Mosaic Records has reissued beautifully packaged box sets of important jazz and blues on CDs and vinyl. The series, usually limited to 5,000 copies per set, comes in distinctive pizza-size black boxes with a large photographs on the front and silver lettering on the spine. Each Mosaic set has an oversized booklet with stunning black-and-white photos and scholarly liner notes.
The superbly remastered recordings include many of the most important 20th Century artists going back 90 years, from Albert Ammons to John Coltrane and Miles Davis to Larry Young and much more.

Among our favorites is Sam Rivers’ “Complete Blue Note Recordings” from the 1960s. Rivers grew up in North Little Rock and was inducted into the Arkansas Jazz Hall of Fame in 2006, when he was in his 80s. He played lovely music on his saxophone and flute during his induction with an oxygen tank at his side.

The Mosaic series is the musical equivalent of the Library of America, whose uniform editions of classic authors with their distinctive black book jackets, from Sherwood Anderson to Edmund Wilson, look similar to the Mosaic sets. They both celebrate the creative genius of the American spirit and belong on everyone’s bookshelf and record collection.

You could start your Library of America collection with the first two volumes of the five-volume William Faulkner collection. As for the Mosaics, check out the just-issued “Classic Coleman Hawkins Sessions 1922-1947,” with eight astonishing CDs — half the history of jazz is here — and liner notes by Loren Schoenberg, the artistic director of the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, plus the usual great photos, except this booklet is on glossier paper than the older sets.

The Mosaic series now includes a new generation of music scholars, such as producer Scott Wenzell. Wenzell produced the monumental Hawkins set, which has some of the earliest music in the series, starting with Mamie Smith and Her Jazz Hounds from December 1922, then on to the Dixie Stompers and Chocolate Dandies and Fletcher Henderson.

The Hawkins set, which includes his big band and small group recordings, is a history of early jazz and the evolution toward modern jazz, when the music wasn’t just for dancing but turned into an art form and became America’s classical music and our gift to the world.

Hawkins helped invent modern saxophone and influenced such future stars as Dexter Gordon, John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins. Hawkins, who was born in St. Joseph, Mo., in 1904, had a stately presence who moved from vaudeville to modern jazz in 20 years. Some of the most important music here includes Benny Carter, Chu Berry, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Christian, Milton Hinton and Max Roach. The sound is pristine, as if the music were recorded much later.

The set has several surprises: Benny Goodman, Lionel Hampton, Fats Navarro, Buck Clayton and Teddy Wilson show up, as do Johnny Hodges and Harry Carney from the Duke Ellington Orchestra. Nate King Cole, June Christy and Frank Sinatra appear toward the end of this encyclopedic collection.

Hawkins often appears just for a few minutes on some of the recordings, but this is historic material and it’s good to have it available.

Michael Cuscuna, the critic and producer, co-founded Mosaic with the late Charlie Lourie in 1983. The first Mosaic set was released 40 years ago this month: “The Complete Blue Note Recordings of Thelonious Monk (Cuscuna’s favorite), followed by “The Complete Gerry Mulligan Quartet and Tentette with Chet Baker” and “The Complete Blue Note Recordings of Albert Ammons and Meade Lux Lewis.” (The boogie-woogie pianists Ammons and Lewis were the first artists recorded on Blue Note Records in 1939.)

Many of the Mosaics were first issued by Blue Note, now owned by EMI, which also owns half of Mosaic.

Cuscuna, who produces most of the Mosaic series, has discovered unissued recordings by Monk, Herbie Nichols, Count Basie, Andrew Hill and others and restored their work with care and erudition. He has issued single LPs of traditional jazz recordings from Blue Note’s vaults dating back to the Second World War, particularly New Orleans pioneers such as Sidney Bechet and Edmond Hall and small-group swingtets with Lionel Hampton and others.

Mosaic sets, along with a smaller line of Mosaic Selects, are available by mail order at www.mosaicrecords.com.

There’s a thriving secondary market on eBay and elsewhere, but be careful: Prices are often inflated. The used sets are worth at least their original cost, but some sellers often ask hundreds of dollars for them.

You can find some of the old ones online at nonprofit thrift stores that received them as gifts from collectors. You should own at least one of these box sets.