1. Bennie Wallace, Elvin Jones & Dave Holland - Big Jim's Tango (Enja)
Bennie Wallace (Sax)
Elvin Jones (Drums)
Dave Holland (Double Bass)
Bennie Wallace came out of the same New York 70’s loft scene as guys like Joe Lee Wilson and Eddie Gomez. Folks who didn’t have spaces to perform, so regularly played at lofts resided by the likes of Sam Rivers and Ornette Coleman.
Anyway, Wallace eventually produced an album and sold it to German label Enja. It didn’t do great business but - not untypically for a European jazz label - they overlooked that and continued to produce his records into the 21st Century.‘Big Jim’s Tango’ is his third and strongest Enja record.
I like him as a soloist - he phrases a bit like Eric Dolphy but the sound is more breathy, like Johnny Hodges or maybe Stan Getz - though I doubt ‘Big Jim’ would have caught a whiff of excellence without Dave Holland and especially Elvin Jones.
You get so captivated by John Coltrane’s creativity; the whole ‘sheets of sound’ improv, that it’s easy to forget someone had to stay with him! Elvin Jones was never fazed by Trane’s solos. Elvin established his own wall of sound and was a great orchestrator in his own right, playing things that had never been heard on a drum kit (certainly not on a ride cymbal). Bennie isn’t Trane and Elvin doesn’t need to send the bass drum flying under the piano for this gig. How he shapes these compositions with sticks and brushes is just as impressive.
2. Binder Quintet Featuring John Tchicai (Krem)
Károly Binder (piano)
John Tchicai (alto sax)
Mihály Dresch (tenor sax, harmonica)
Róbert Benkő (double bass)
István Baló (drums)
Károly Friedrich (trombone, harmonica)
I know little about Binder Quintet beyond this one album that I picked up on a whim. One major reason is that little of their work was officially documented during Hungary’s communist regime. I know of Mihaly Dresch’s reputation as a great composer before and after this, and I know that the album was released on KREM, a recording label of the state-controlled national radio broadcaster. That’s it.
Danish-Congolese saxophonist John Tchicai is of course best known for playing in Archie Shepp’s Contemporary Five and on John Coltrane’s “Ascension”, so is by default associated with free-jazz. He is musician who really stresses his individualism though. I don’t mean that he is a great pioneer, more that he has his own sound. One that definitely has a different flavour, which I guess for some people, is an acquired taste. Eric Kloss and later Billy Harper are other good examples of this; the jazz musician who didn’t follow nor set trends, but just subtly went about finessing a sound that was unique to him.
“Sirato” is the sort of long dirge that European jazz musicians seem to love playing, but can be extremely difficult to engage with for the listener. Tchicai propels it above bearable. It’s a 7/10. “Vasvirág” is the only track from the album that is available on line, and that’s a perfect 10. The duelling harmonicas at the top are great & Tchicai’s shredded, stifled lines work especially well here.
3. Dadisi Komolafe - Hassan's Walk (Nimbus West)
Dadisi Komolafe (Alto Sax, Flute),
Roberto Miranda (Bass)
Sunship Theus* (Drums)
Rickey Kelly (Vibes)
This is one tough record to find. Most Nimbus’ are, but this is really scarce.
Tom Albach's Nimbus West were like the Strata East of the early eighties. Some folks say ‘a poor man’s Strata East’ but those people are either confused or haven’t actually listened to a Nimbus West record. This is as good as most Strata Easts. Remarkable music, really evocative. Great sleeve too.
Dadisi Komolafe is a sax and flute man who recorded on a handful of dates for Nimbus, but this is his only one as lead. He’s a fine, but not terribly original, player. Still, it’s worth taking “Hassan’s Walk” just for Komolafe’s Latin laced version of Wayne Shorter’s ‘Speak No Evil’, a recording I kept running into in the pre-Shazaam years, totally ignorant to the source.
Kamolafe has been, and is going through, hard times. He survives on welfare payments + busking takes and presently lives homeless on Skid Row in L.A. He recently called out the shelter for contradicting their “Union Rescue Mission” slogan by charging residents $7 for overnight stays. If you like what you hear and fancy calling in a favour for him, then that’s where you’ll find him.
4. Ronald Shannon Jackson - Barbeque Dog (Antilles)
Ronald Shannon Jackson (flute/bass flute) Zane Massey (tenor sax) Henry Scott (flugelhorn) Vernon Reid (banjo) Melvin Gibbs (bass) Reverend Bruce Johnson (bass)
For a hot minute, this was one of my favourite records. I was totally taken in by this fierce approach to fusion, by a guy who didn’t fall into the pitfalls of just regurgitating music from the past, note for note. Time has tempered my fervour just a little, but “Barbeque Dog” still holds up well. Something old, something new, something somewhere in the middle that I still cannot place.
This album completed a hat-trick of impressively original releases for chaotic drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson, after Eye on You (1980) and Man Dance (1982). For good reason, it’s one of the few records on these lists to call on electric instrumentation and it still manages to sound so fresh. Partly because RSJ was smart enough to sidestep the synth fad and partly because his understanding of composition was so advanced that the music couldn’t be washed away by fleeting production ripples (“Trial of an Honest John” is perhaps the best example of this).
That said, the serene “Mystery at Dawn” with Jackson on flute and Vernon Reid on banjo is the money shot. The dawg.
5. Sun Ra Arkestra Meets Salah Ragab In Egypt (Praxis)
Sun Ra (keyboards)
Salah Ragab (drums, congas)
John Gilmore (tenor sax, percussion)
Danny Thompson (alt & bari sax, perc)
James Jacson (bassoon, drums, perc)
Marshall Allen (alt sax, flute, kora, perc)
Tyrone Hill (trombone)
Sun Ra is the main reason I even do this blog. He is one of those special artists, so great that you feel the obligation to exalt and bring to the attention of others. Of course, a lot of music followers are aware of Sun Ra, and I’m certain there are many out there who love the music just as much or more than I do. He recorded THAT much great stuff, that it’s impossible to know all of it though. I have a hellfire Sun Ra collection, but nowhere near everything, and something is bound to have escaped your clutches also. Maybe even this one.
It was originally released on the Praxis label, and documents Sun Ra’s second visit to his astro- mythological home, Egypt. He first tasted Cairo in 1971, when the Arkestra came to play by the pyramids. Amongst the many Egyptian musicians he encountered, he was most taken by percussionist Salah Ragab and kept contact with him for the next 12 years. When he next set out, he stopped by El Nahar Studio in Heliopolis to record two of Ragab’s compositions (Side A of this record) with the man himself.
Ragab became one of the first non-African-Americans to appear on record with Sun Ra and I think this might be the single occasion that Sun Ra and his Arkestra played compositions of a contemporary musician from outside their community. The results are predictably unpredictable, and I particularly like the little “Sidewinder” angle they take with Ragab’s “Egypt Strut”.
6. Emily Remler - Transitions (Concord Jazz)
Emily Remler (guitar)
John D'Earth (trumpet)
Eddie Gomez (bass)
Bob Moses (drums)
Remler is the female Jaco Pastorius. Formidable talent, constantly strung out on heroin, died much too young. Down Beat named her Guitarist of the Year in 1985 and Astrud Gilberto, who toured with Remler, said she was one the most naturally talented musicians she knew.
One of only four records under her name – aside from a duet album with Larry Coryell - “Transitions” is good as it got for Remler. To be fair, it would be right up there on most jazz guitarists’ discographies, but still, there was a lot more to come.
Forget the Jane Fonda workout type cover for a moment, and focus instead on Remler’s unbelievable technical range, great taste, as evidenced by her selection of material here (Keith Jarrett’s beautiful “Coral”, Duke Ellington's little-heard "Searchin”) and a deft writing touch; all three originals on “Transitions” are richly layered.
7. Freddie Hubbard - Sweet Return (Atlantic)
Freddie Hubbard (trumpet)
Joanne Brackeen (piano)
Lew Tabackin (tenor saxophone)
Eddie Gómez (bass)
Roy Haynes (drums)
Appropriately titled. Something like a return to his heyday form.
I would never dismiss his previous decade's output – the CTI records are mainly excellent and to me, kept the continuum going, whatever the haters say - but let’s not dress it up; towards the end of the seventies and up to this release, Hubbard was churning out pop music.
This here is an evolution of what he’d been doing before that. Hubbard never did lose the melodies, but the fires back on “Sweet Return”. “Whistling Away The Dark,” and “The Night Has A Thousand Eyes” are both scorching, “Misty” is played with great originality and “Heidi-B” included one of the few bowed-bass (Art Davis on Coltrane’s “Ole”, which also features Hubbard, is another) solos that I really love. That track is written by pianist Joanne Brackeen, and it’s also the perfect showcase for her ridiculous range of double-note crossovers, over and unders etc.
Hubbard plays with swagger, his tone is completely alive, and what a tone it is. He would later encounter major lip trouble (“lips are very delicate, I’ve learned—there are a lot of different muscles in there. I didn’t realize how hard I was blowing. I thought I was the strongest trumpet player in the world, but that shit caught up with me.”), which near enough levelled his career, so this is chronologically one of the last recorded examples of the Hubbard sound that every serious trumpeter since has attempted to carve a slice off. Real treasure.
8. Tomasz Stańko/ Andrzej Kurylewicz - Korozje (Poljazz)
Tomasz Stańko (trumpet), Andrzej Kurylewicz (piano)
Since the early 1960’s, Poland has been fertile ground for cutting edge jazz musicians but Tomasz Stanko remains her greatest gift to the music. He’s recorded well over 40 albums, won every national jazz prize going several times over, and has one of the more distinctive trumpet tones anywhere.When Cecil Taylor used to play in Poland during the sixties, he’d regularly hire Stanko, so a lot of his grounding is in free jazz, but Stanko has always been a little like Ian Carr, in that when he plays ‘out’ he still sounds melodic.On ‘Korozje’ he combines forces with another Pol Jazz founding father, pianist /composer Andrzej Kurylewicz (look up his 1961 ‘Somnambulists’ album), and it isn’t the first record in this series that easily overcomes the absence of a rhythm section.
It’s played out in that suspenseful, film noir style that’s a natural fit for both players.There is plenty of space between the notes, so at times it’s like Miles’ ‘Lift to the Scaffold’ on tricyclic antidepressants, but every note counts here and each one of the album’s five sections has its own particular shade of melancholy. Most rewarding when listened to in its entirety.
9. Adele Sebastian - Desert Fairy Princess (Nimbus West)
Adele Sebastian (flute, vocals)
Billy Higgins (drums)
Rickey Kelley (marimba)
"Daoude" Woods (percussion)
Bobby West (piano)
Roberto Miranda (bass)
For some reason, my copy of this record lists the recording date as 1983 even though it’s a 1981 release that until recently hadn’t been reissued. In homage to that Marty Mcfly manoeuvre, I’m keeping Adele on the 83 list. Doesn’t particularly matter which year she landed on, ‘Desert Fairy Princess’ was always going to make the 101.
Adele played flute on Horace Tapscott's People's Pan African Arkestra albums but this is her only LP (she died of kidney failure at 27) and although it was Nimbus’ best-selling record on release, ‘Desert Fairy Princess’ remains a wet dream among Spiritual Jazz collectors.
The entire record is impeccable, but its best remembered for two reinterpretations of - up to that point - largely forgotten jazz pieces; the title track written by soprano Jesse Sharps for Tapscott some years previously is beautifully realised here, and her "Man from Tanganyika" is one of two crack versions (Kurt Elling’s is the other) of Mccoy Tyner’s lively original.
10. Nate Morgan - Journey Into Nigrita (Nimbus West)
Nate Morgan (piano),
Dadisi Komolafe (alt sax),
Jeff Littleton (double bass),
Fritz Wise (drums)
One more from the Nimbus stable, and yet another tragic Nimbus ending. In 2008 Morgan was all set to record a long anticipated album with ex-Weather Reporters Alphonse Mouzon and Miroslav Vitouŝ, before he suffered an incapacitating stroke. He never played again and passed away in 2013.
Big Nate Morgan initially came up through Tapscott’s Pan Afrikan People's Arkestra in the early 1970s, and was a cornerstone of the Ark in their early years. He was also the first member to ‘make it’ outside their circle, joining hit funk band Rufus midway through their classic “Rags To Rufus” album.
‘Journey Into Nigrita’ was his return to jazz and it’s packed with joyful, understated, melodic music. You can really hear the Mccoy Tyner influence throughout and particularly on the Nightdreamer-esque “Mother”. Dadisi Kamolafe sits that one out but contributes strongly everywhere else, and really stretches out on the album’s opener, ‘Mrafu’.
If you’d like to discover more about Nate Morgan, Dadisi Kamolafe and Adele Sebastien, track down "The Dark Tree", a book on Tapscott's group and the L.A. community art scene that surrounded it.