Initially, after the Cuban revolution triumph, cultural developments like Rock and Jazz were inhibited, but at the beginning of the 70s, Fidel Castro recognized that an effective way of attracting the younger generation was to create a “música moderna” orchestra. Young musicians like Chucho Valdes and Paquito D'Rivera would be mentored by elder statesmen such as Guillermo Barreto and Antonio Maria Romeu, and these would eventually become the musicians who formed Irakere.
Since their formation in 1973, Irakere have been Cuba’s Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers; a finishing school where the greatest exponents of Afro-Cuban jazz are bound to have passed through at some point. Chucho, D'Rivera and Arturo Sandoval are the biggest names to have enrolled, and although only the first of the three remained by this time, “Tierra En Trance” is Irakere on the top of their game.
Irakere never forgot the African roots - Congo and Nigeria particularly - of Cuban music and those elements are present in their repertoire here, yet I still think “Tierra En Trance” is their jazziest album. We sometimes forget that late-50’s be-bop had already embraced Afro-Cuban sounds (just listen to “Woody n’ you” and “Night In Tunisia”) and that from Roy Haynes to Max Roach, all the prominent jazz drummers had stopped playing the backbeat and started sounding more like Candido.
Chucho’s Cubanised "Stella by Starlight" (he calls it " Estela Va A Estallar ") recalls some of those 50’s records but with an even greater Afro-Cuban emphasis. There’s an excellent Chano Pozo tribute, "Las Margaritas" contains some superb German Velazco soprano, Morales steals the show on "Palia", and the shift on the title track from concierto to Chucho playing ping-pong with the brasses works particularly well.
2. Muhal Richard Abrams - View From Within (Black Saint)
The self-taught Abrams mentored composer-musicians like Roscoe Mitchell, Joseph Jarman, Henry Threadgill, and Wadada Leo Smith, so his contribution to jazz has been gigantic. I sometimes get nervous when listening to Muhal Richard Abrams play though, and I suspect I’m supposed to.
Abrams’ piano playing style can be chaotic and unsettling, and his arrangements take the ear to corners that it isn’t accustomed to going. His compositions are always interesting, always surprising, odd little chords that shape and colour his pieces in a highly original way. There is, however, almost always a backbeat, and that keeps the music earthy.
The opener, “Laja”, has a salsa feel underneath all those rumblings, and track 4, “Down at Peppers”, is authentic blues. Not 12-bar blues, but in the same way that plantation songs and a lot of Gospel didn’t necessarily have that form yet still retained the essence of the blues, Abrams’ is able to communicate the feel behind blues without leaning on the structures imposed upon it. In this sense, “Down at Peppers”, is one epic blues.
3. Wynton Marsalis - Black Codes From The Underground (Columbia)
Wynton Marsalis (trumpet)
Branford Marsalis (tenor sax, soprano sax)
Kenny Kirkland (piano)
Charnett Moffett (double bass)
Ron Carter (double bass - track 5)
Jeff "Tain" Watts (drums)
Thanks to the best efforts of jazz critic Stanley Crouch – who wrote the liner notes on the “Black Notes” album sleeve - and Wynton himself, it’s almost taken as gospel that Wynton is the trumpeter-composer that all trumpet-composers should be measured against. There are compelling arguments to be made for and against such an assertion, but it’s hard to deny that 1985 was a great year for the group critics dubbed “The Young Lions.
Wynton’s first three albums all had their moments, but it’s the next two that have real moxy. “Black Codes of the Underground” and “J Mood” were both recorded in the same year, and are a little too similar in concept and execution to both warrant a place on the list, so one had to fall. Decisions...
“Black Codes” edged it. Like all Wynton's early albums, the bass is too low in the mix, but anyone whose aversion to Wynton has prevented them investing time in “Black Codes” is really missing out. If for no other reason than to hear Kenny Kirkland and Jeff “Tain” Watts on A+ form, just listen to the damn thing!
The album as a whole is 7 peppery, innovative performances long. That was the young Wynton’s thing. No clichés. He demanded that his guys play something, invent their own style. The title track manages to pull of something I’ve never even heard anyone else attempt: rather than repeat the main theme after each player takes his solo, as is the custom in jazz, the rhythm section intro is followed by a deliberately sloppy version of the opening bars of the horn theme. Funny.
I read an interview transcript a few years ago where Dyani spoke of his first experience of travelling in the States with his group The Blue Notes, and how they were patronised by Ornette Coleman and referred to as ‘bongo bongo’ by the likes of Harold Mcghee and Sonny Stitt. It was immediately depressing to read of musicians who were embraced by Europeans (Dyani would later defect to Malmo, Sweden) being snubbed by the very black musicians who’d influenced them.
On I read. Trumpeter Don Cherry and John Coltrane bassist Jimmy Garrison stopped by one night, and were so taken by the music that they hung back for an early hours jam and inquisition. Mid-playing Cherry put his trumpet down and told Blue Notes trumpeter Mongezi Feza to ‘teach me. you don’t play trumpet, you talk through the trumpet’, later Garrison said to Dyani ‘I wish I played bass like you, man’. Oh, and Roland Kirk thought they were incredible and everyone knows that Roland Kirk knows. That’s quite a silver lining.
The point of the story is that for those able to look and listen without prejudice, then Moholo, Feza, Dyani etc have to be considered amongst the great jazz musicians. This was Dyani’s final record before his passing and though all his Steeplechases are worth owning, for me this is the one. It’s an excellent piano-less quartet session with a tasty mix of bluesy township pieces and fearless free jazz. Dyani’s attack is fat as ever and from Tchicai’s study in minimalism to Hart’s mastery and Beckett’s bravado, each soloist makes a big contribution to the overall sound.
5. Don Pullen - Sixth Sense (Black Saint)
Don Pullen (piano),
Olu Dara (trumpet)
Donald Harrison (alto sax)
Fred Hopkins (double bass)
Bobby Battle (drums)
Any chance to hear Fred Hopkins, one of the finest jazz bassists in the game, shouldn’t be passed up. It also requires a certain amount of dedication to get hold of Don Pullen’s stuff, as most of it is out of print. Well, here you get both. You also get mercurial trumpeter Olu Dara appearing, at long last, on a record that is both ambitious and well-produced.
Listen to Pullen’s 60’s albums with Milford Graves or Giuseppe Logan, if you want to hear him at his wildest. His playing then was so busy you often felt he was playing two or three pianos at once. That was Pullen prior to his descent into relative obscurity, before being rediscovered by Charles Mingus. He developed into a more accessible and interesting player during his association with Mingus, using space and silence to really emphasise the flurry of notes when they eventually arrived. Just as the best slasher horror films keep a calm, eerie silence for the majority of their running time, Pullen learnt how to pace himself.
“Sixth Sense” is one of the most satisfying from his ‘mature’ post-Mingus phase. It isn’t perfect - at least one of the pieces lacks cohesion and New Orleans sax man Donald Harrison, who would later emerge as a major player, hadn’t quite found his sound – but when it’s good it’s pretty bloody good. “Tales from the Bright Side” is a monster. Pullen, who wrote all of the material, is on top form and Hopkins and Dara are outstanding.
6. John Carter - Castles of Ghana (Gramavision)
John Carter (clarinet) Bobby Bradford (cornet) Baikida Carroll (trumpet)
Marty Ehrlich(bass clarinet , bells, gong)
Richard Davis (bass) Benny Powell (trombone) Terry Jenoure (violin) Andrew Cyrille (drums , percussion)
Carter is a fine player - if a little hamstrung commercially by an unfashionable primary instrument (clarinet). He's an even stronger composer. His melodic arrangements frequently shift between duos, trios and larger ensembles like the opener on “Castles of Ghana”, displaying an assurance and diversity rarely heard in jazz since Duke Ellington and George Russell.
This album is the third in Carter’s ambitious trilogy, mapping the journey of Africans to America in the slave trade. It derives its name and inspiration from the coastal castles along Ghana's coast, which were used for commercial trade between the 4th and 11th centuries. Fast forward 5 centuries, and those same structures were used as holding pens for West Africans being sold into slavery.
The problem with music - particularly instrumental music - that proclaims to be about anything else other than the music itself, is that unless it manages to evoke some emotion or feeling, it leaves itself open to ridicule. Well, this is a big concept and its fully realised.
What I particularly like about Carter’s music here is the soundscapes he’s able to create purely by playing against the listener’s preconceptions of what an instrument is meant to sound like or which roles they are meant to fulfil within a piece. His own clarinet will often imitate bird sounds, percussion (Cyrille again) undertakes the broody duties that I’d typically associate with an organ or double bass and “Theme of Desperation” uses two voices in a dark and original way.
7.Art Ensemble of Chicago - The Third Decade (ECM)
Lester Bowie (trumpet, fluegelhorn)
Malachi Favors (bass, percussion)
Joseph Jarman (saxes, clarinets, percussion, synth)
Slightly softer AEC joint, but that still puts it in the top 5% of wild jazz records. If, after you’ve been through their sixties and seventies catalogue, you still find yourself craving another fix of AEC, then this is your stop, and if anything “The Third Decade” is even more eclectic than anything from the first two.
As its ECM, the finished product is a little more polished, but AEC remain one of the few bands in any music genre to switch labels like socks, yet maintain their core sound. Most tracks are percussion driven and as always the group members play practically everything – every type of saxophone, for sure – including bicycle horns, elephant horns and sirens!
Some great melodies here. “Bell Piece”, “Prayer for Jimbo” and the thirties sounding "Walking in the Moonlight”, are as subtle and mysterious as "Funky AEOC" is not. That’s just a good old fashioned banger that does exactly what it says on the tin.
8. Chet Baker and Paul Bley - Diane (Steeplechase)
Chet Baker (trumpet)
Paul Bley (piano)
For those who associate Chet Baker's music with organic pic n' mix type places that serve tofu carbonara, then it must be a little surprising to see another of his albums in the 101.
Actually, Chet could have dominated these lists. We’ve already had something from his Enja tima, and three of his excellent Steeplechases (“Someday My Prince Will Come”, “Daybreak” and “Touch of My Lips”) were all recorded a few months short of making the eighties cut. This one recorded with Canadian pianist, Paul Bley, is also on Steeplechase, and belongs in the pantheon of great jazz ballad albums.
“Diane” is a studio date, and as dates go you’d have to file it in the ‘too much personal information’ box. "You Go to My Head" treads the line between ‘moving’ and plain harrowing. Chet digs so deep into the listener’s heart, that it’s a wonder we’re able to proceed with the rest of the album. I think this is Chet’s greatest singing on record.
For one thing, I always found it hard to truly buy the lonely soul persona in bigger sixties arrangements. Here, Bley gives him so much space that Chet is almost all alone. At other points Chet gives us so much space that we ARE all alone! The use of silence in both players’ phrasing, particularly on “If I Should Lose You”, is intuitively brilliant.
Criss Cross’ distribution is famously haphazard, so it’s no surprise that this record is hard to come by, though just as on Chet’s 1985 Steeplechase, the engineering is sublime.
Apparently, producer Gerrie Teekens initially had Chet record the album with a different bass player. Fortunately, as it turned out, Chet was in poor shape that day, resulting in the session being scrapped. By the time of the re-recording, Chet was adamant that Rassinfosse – who’d been playing with Chet and Catherine for 2 years - would be a more appropriate bass man. He was also a solid timekeeper, which could prove vital in the absence of drums. The title of the album is a reference to Chet getting his own way.
The CD reissue includes two tracks from the canned session, and Chet is noticeably more alert on the second date. This is also as good as I’ve heard Catherine. He’s a huge talent, but too often seems to be playing a different arrangement to his fellow musicians. Here, even when he brings the funk or throws in some ambient electronics, Catherine is always in sync.
10. Gary Burton - Real Life Hits (ECM)
Gary Burton (vibraphone)
Makoto Ozone (piano)
Steve Swallow (electric bass)
Mike Hyman (drums)
Carla Bley doesn’t appear on Gary Burton’s “Real Life Hits”, but contributes two bits (the title tune and up-tempo “Syndrome”) to the record and, they’re wonderful. I only really appreciate Bley’s music when it’s performed by other musicians. I call it Bob Dylanitis.
Just as good as the two Bley’s are the versions of Scofield’s “The Beatles” and Ellington’s “Fleurette Africane”, but none can hold a candle to Steve Swallow’s slightly Latin “Ladies In Mercedes”, one of the most infectious jazz tunes I know. Anyone familiar with Burton’s “Las Vegas Tango” (1970) will know how adept his groups are at these sorts of tempos.
Pianist Makato Ozone adds plenty of colour to these pieces. Burton reckoned that had he not been Japanese, Ozone would have been considered a legend. I haven’t heard enough Ozone to have an opinion, but he’s a striking presence here.
Burton too. He’s often credited (rightly) as one of the main voices in the 60’s California cool jazz scene as well as a being a jazz-fusion pioneer (check out his 1966 jazz & country music hybrid “Tennessee Firebird”!), but he never stopped exploring new possibilities in his music and his sound really evolved through the decades. This might just be his masterpiece.