Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Favorite jazz, blues from '06

While talking to Lonoke County Justice of the Peace Larry Odom, who could pass for drummer Levon Helm’s brother, I remembered I still hadn’t listed my favorite CDs and DVDs of 2006:

Andrew Hill’s Time Lines (Blue Note) was on almost every jazz critic’s list of favorites: This is the Chicago-born pianist’s comeback album for Blue Note, where he’d recorded a series of trail-blazing LPs in the 1960s, both as leader and sideman.

One of Blue Note founder Alfred Lion’s discoveries, Hill was among the artists who made the label special. The mid-60s LP “Out to Lunch,” led by reed man Eric Dolphy and accompanied by Hill, is considered one of the great jazz records of all time.
Hill left Blue Note when it floundered in the late 1960s and made several impressive recordings for smaller labels. But Blue Note has come back in the last 20 years, and “Time Lines” is a jewel from the label’s current management. The CD equals anything Hill recorded in the 1960s. What’s more, the late Eric Dolphy’s old role is filled here by Greg Tardy, who plays tenor saxophone, clarinet and bass clarinet about as well as his great predecessor.

“Time Line” also features Charles Tolliver on trumpet. He’s another great musician from the 1960s, and it’s good to know he’s still going strong. Tolliver is also heard on Hill’s “Dance with Death,” a 1968 recording that Blue Note recently reissued. A three-CD set of Tolliver’s early 1970s recordings is available from Mosaic Records. Maybe it’s time Blue Note let him record as a leader again.

Joe Lovano, who’s a generation younger than the 1960s Blue Note artists, keeps the flame going with his Ensemble Streams of Expression: Featuring the Birth of the Cool Suite, also from Blue Note.

It’s a wonder that record companies still issue serious music, especially a CD like “Ensemble” that must have been expensive to make. We counted at least 15 musicians on this record, including Tim Hagans on trumpet, Joe Farrell on tenor saxophone, Gary Smulyan on baritone saxophone, Charles Russo on clarinet, the late John Hicks on piano, Lewis Nash on drums and others.

The music covers much of the history of jazz, especially the works of Gil Evans, Miles Davis, John Lewis and composer-conductor Gunther Schuller, who arranged the music on this CD and worked with Lovano before on “Rush Hour,” a remarkable 1994 recording from Blue Note.

Delmark Records issued two important blues CDs last year: All Your Love I Miss Loving: Live at the Wise Fools Pub by Otis Rush and Live at Theresa’s by Junior Wells. Both are from the 1970s and were originally broadcast on radio, capturing the musicians at the height of their powers.

The sound is fine and both CDs have been nominated for Handy awards for best historical record. Let’s hope they both win.
Rush never sounded better than on this CD, and Wells was having a good time performing and talking to his audience in the tiny basement bar where the music was recorded.

The West Memphis native was pure Arkansas Delta: Down home, funny and maybe helped himself to Theresa’s libation, but when the music started, he was all business.

Our favorite musical DVD from last year is Hard Times from Cat Head, a tribute to the great bluesman Big George Brock, who is seen playing in a club in St. Louis, where he lives, and in Clarksdale, Miss., where he grew up.

Brock even picks cotton at a plantation outside Clarksdale, where he worked in the 1940s and 1950s.

Big George sings and plays the harmonica like the classic Chicago bluesmen who gave up the cotton fields for the bright lights of the big city. He plays his music and tells his life story on the 60-minute DVD, and you realize we might never see another one like him again.