Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Jazz and Blues Records of the Year


Here’s a rundown of our favorite jazz and blues CDs from last year, many of them live recordings from decades ago that sound terrific. Some of them represent the musicians’ best work:

John Coltrane’s One Down, One Up: Live at the Half Note (Impulse) is the first authorized release of privately circulated tapes that were recorded from radio broadcasts originating from a small club in March and May 1965 not far from where the World Trade Center was later built. This double CD, with some 90 minutes of astonishing music, has the classic Coltrane quartet at its peak: Coltrane on tenor and soprano saxophone, McCoy Tyner on piano, Elvin Jones on drums and Jimmy Garrison on bass.

What amazing music: It must have felt like an earthquake in lower Manhattan while Coltrane improvised for almost half an hour on the title tune, and shorter versions “My Favorite Things,” “Song of Praise” and “Afro Blue.”

The quartet disbanded in 1965, and Coltrane, only 40 years old, died two years after this recording was made. With “One Down, One Up” it’s like having Coltrane back. Let’s hope there’s more material on those old tapes that would fill another double CD.

You want more Coltrane? Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane (Blue Note) was another one of our favorites from last year. Recorded at Carnegie Hall in 1957 for the Voice of America, the material on this CD was discovered only last year. And what a discovery: Monk, Coltrane, bassist Ahmed Abdul-Malik and drummer Shadow Wilson shine on several Monk compositions. Surely the Voice of America can find more music from that night, when the lineup included Dizzie Gillespie, Ray Charles, Chet Baker, Sonny Rollins and Billie Holiday (she would not allow VOA to record her), but what about the others?

You want more Sonny Rollins? We’re glad to report that Rollins’ Without a Song: The 9/11 Concert (Milestone) shows off the great tenor player in terrific form. This is the master’s first CD in five years and was recorded in Boston just four days after the terrorist attacks. Rollins had thought about cancelling the concert, but decided to go ahead with it, and we’re fortunate that he did.

As he says during the concert, “We need to keep music alive in some kind of way.”

Rollins does it with class with the help of Stephen Scott on piano, Clifton Ander-son on trombone, Bob Cranshaw on bass, Perry Wilson on drums and Kimati Dinizulu on percussion, mostly on standards, such as “With-out a Song,” “A Night-ingale Sang in Berkeley Square,” “Why Was I Born?” “Where or When” and Rollins’ “Global Warning.”

This CD reminds you of another live Rollins record, A Night at the Village Vanguard (Blue Note) from 1957. One of the all-time greats. What is it about jazz that sounds terrific in front of an audience?

Here are some more live recordings: Wynton Marsalis’ Live at the Tribes (Blue Note) recorded three years ago but released in 2005.

The great trumpet player (who a decade ago let my young son watch him rehearse with his band at Robinson Auditorium) donated his services to a tiny community group on New York’s Lower East Side (not far from where Monk and Coltrane once played).

Marsalis is joined by Wessell Anderson on alto saxophone, Eric Lewis on piano and others from the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. The music is extraordinary and reminds you that top-notch jazz didn’t stop when Coltrane and Monk passed away: Marsalis is as talented and gifted as many of the giants of jazz.

Speaking of giants (and going back in time again): Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, Town Hall, New York City, June 22, 1945 (Uptown Records). It’s another oldie, but, again, the material has been remastered and only recently released. Parker was late as usual, but Don Byas stood in for him for a while, and it’s the founders of bebop for the rest of the program: This is historic music that should not be missed. “A Night in Tunisia,” “Salt Peanuts,” “Groovin’ High” and other bebop anthems that kicked off a new era in jazz.

Hank Jones is a musician who was there from the beginning of bebop and is still recording. For My Father (Just in Time Records) is another elegant CD from the great pianist. Jones, who is in his late 80s, has been performing for almost 60 years and is not slowing down.

His brothers Elvin (mentioned above) and Thad Jones, who played trumpet and was a great composer, arranger and band leader, have passed away, but Hank and Elvin produced a trio of records in recent years which are among our favorites. They are “Someday My Prince Will Come,” “Autumn Leaves” and “Collaboration” with Richard Davis on bass, and I could listen to them all evening and sometimes do.

Jones is also heard on Joe Lovano’s Joyous Encounter (Blue Note), another of our favorites from 2005, and the earlier I’m All for You: Ballad Songbook (also from Blue Note). Lovano’s sound on the tenor saxophone gets deeper as he gets older, and he, too, is keeping the spirit of jazz alive. A wonderful musician and a swell guy, too.

Another favorite from last year: Charlie Haden’s Libera-tion Music Orchestra’s Not in Our Name (Verve) arranged and conducted by Carla Bley. The music is as impassioned as Rollins playing after 9/11, both artists reacting to traumatic issues of our time: Terrorism and the war in Iraq. Haden, who is against the war, expresses his feelings with deep emotion. This is music that will move you and might bring tears to your eyes. How many jazz records can do that?

Finally our favorite blues CD of the year: Otis Rush’s All Your Loving I Miss Loving: Live at the Wise Fools Pub in Chicago (Delmark). This is another radio broadcast (from January 1976) that has been remastered, and the sound is pretty good. Rush plays deep blues as only he could before a stroke slowed him down a couple of years ago. Besides the title song, Rush does “Woke up This Morning,” “High Society,” “Feels So Bad,” “Sweet Little Angel” and much more. He was in amazing form that night and Delmark has re-leased a classic.

My son says this is Otis Rush’s best CD, and he’s probably right.

Apologies for not mentioning other great music we heard last year and regrets also for missing out on artists we should have listened to but didn’t get around to.

Maybe we’ll catch them the next go-round.

Enjoy the music.


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