1. Ran Blake - Short Life of Barbara Monk (Soul Note)
Ran Blake (piano) Ricky Ford (tenor sax) Ed Felson (double bass)
“I worked as a waiter at the Jazz Gallery. I was canned for dropping a tray, right in front of Sidney Poitier and James Baldwin. I got taken back but busted down to kitchen duty, where I was taught to make fried rice for Thelonious Monk.”
Intriguing one. Another musician with whom genres are always a little unsteady, Blake had been on the avant-garde scene for years prior to this, but usually in a solo or duet setting. “Barbara Monk” was his first full set with a standard quartet albeit one including his former students, bassist Ed Felson and drummer Jon Hazilla, ensuring a degree of familiarity with his concept.
The album's title is a tribute to Thelonious Monk's daughter, who died of cancer in 1984, just two years after Monk did. It’s an interesting – if unusual for Blake - mix of 3 originals ("Short Life", "Impresario of Death", "Pour quoi Laurent"), some standards plus a few less-played and dramatically reimagined compositions.
Blake is a unique and complex pianist, so sometimes his records aren’t easy to embrace. Excluding his extraordinary work with Jeanne Lee though, this one is less cerebral than anything else I’ve heard from him. He is aided by the excellent recording and audio quality, but even though there is plenty of space and crazed piano hammering, the bulk of the songs are lyrical and the dialogue between Blake’s piano and Ford’s tenor sax is profoundly moving. I’m guessing Blake was very close to Barbara Monk.
2. John Zorn - The Big Gundown (Nonesuch/Icon, Tzadik)
John Zorn (alto sax, saw, game calls)
Toots Thielemans (whistling, harmonica)
Bill Frisell (electric guitar)
Big John Patton (organ)
Mike Patton (vocal)
Fred Frith (electric and bass guitar)
Tim Berne (alto Sax)
Arto Lindsay (batucada contractor, electric guitar, vocals)
Ennio Morricone scored over 200 films - nearly all of them Italian – and his work on Sergio Leone’s ''Spaghetti Westerns'' is rightly considered to belong in the pantheon of cinema music.
John Zorn’s mixes it up. His thing is not strictly jazz but it’s about as much jazz as it is anything else, which has led to some critics viewing him less as a composer as a curator. Someone who doesn’t really construct anything, but selects musicians who can loosely realise whatever vision he might have. Maybe it’s the beach bum meets Todd Solondz appearance. I’m not sure, but whatever it is, Zorn’s detractors paint him as a performance art chancer.
His approach here – and most other places - is to establish a riff or state the main theme with a lead instrument (usually electric guitar or sax) before swamping it in a deluge of sound effects. And then from nowhere you’ll get a bluegrass banjo or accordion....These are particularly energetic re-interpretations of Morricone pieces. Zorn beats all the European out of Morricone and teleports the pieces to DIY NYC. All this industrial collage gets a little overbearing at points, but that’s John Zorn. The arrangements are interesting, the instrumentation colourful (gamecall whistles, Japanese Shamisen, English horn) and the performances contain more heart than Zorn's previous recordings.
I’m a Morricone fan and I have a lot of time for what Zorn did with his music. It’s true to the spirit of Morricone than a lot of the straight versions that get churned out every so often. Whenever Morricone is mentioned, you think swarming bathetic-romantic themes, but he is just as likely to take a minimal approach, using single instruments to haunting effect. Morricone mixes it up too.
3. Bill Lee - She's Gotta Have It OST
Bill Lee (bass)
Cedar Walton, Stanley Cowell (piano)
Harold Vick (tenor & Soprano sax)
Virgil Jones (trumpet)
Joe Chambers (drums)
Each one of Spike Lee’s first four films was scored by his father Bill, and had it not been for the content of his fifth they’d probably have been a whole lot more Bill Lee Joints. Spike always had an issue with Bill’s interracial second marriage and daddy Lee saw “Jungle Fever” as “directly talking about me and my wife in a negative way”. They didn’t speak for years.
All that nonsense does is deprive us of beautiful music like that contained on this record. I mean, you couldn’t even consider throwing nepotism charges at Spike. Bill Lee is an accomplished bassist in his own right, who had already played with Odetta, Aretha, Belafonte and Bob Dylan. Jazz followers will more likely know his Strata East records, which include the gorgeous “A Spirit Speaks” by The Descendants of Mike and Phoebe. That said, Bill pulled together a cracking band for this one, to the extent where he’s arguably the least known player on the set. Stanley Cowell, Cedar Walton, Joe Chambers and Harold Vick all recorded on Strata East too, and every one of them achieved a level of critical interest - either before or after the stint – that Lee never quite reached.
They perform a warm and sparkling score which seems to have been played with great sincerity. Few tunes are stand-outs in isolation, but each composition is a variation on a theme and the accumulation of these little suites elevates it above satisfying. Even Ronnie Dyson’s way out of tune singing on the vocal version of “Nola” has a charm that’s hard to resist. The instrumental version of “Nola” needs no such concession at all. That’s Vince Guaraldi-esque. Actually, I’d go as far as to say, that of all the short-track jazz releases I know, perhaps only Guaraldi’s work is more enjoyable as this album.
4.Eliane Elias - Illusions (Blue Note)
Eliane Elias (piano) Toots Thielemans (harmonica) Eddie Gomez , Stanley Clarke(bass) Al Foster (drums)
Eliane Elias has been recording one classy album after another since this. She has an incredible stylistic breadth that places her several steps ahead of Diane Krall, who she often gets compared too. They’re both blonde, they both sing, they’re both pianists and critics can be pretty fucking lazy.
She was a child prodigy, who by 11 was playing all kinds of different jazz standards, Brazilian standards, as well as transcribing music from the great pianists. By 15 she was teaching master class in jazz improvisation, piano and theory. Towards the end of the 70’s she began working in a bossa nova group with Vinicius de Moraes. He died two years later and Elaine moved to New York the following year to further her musical development.
This was Eliane's first album as a band leader, and an excellent album it is. Lenny White and Steve Gadd show up on two numbers apiece and it’s fun comparing their work here. Both are better known for their funk-fusion drumming, but they handle this well.
They’re both on the touchline for my personal favourite track of the session though…. Whisper it, but Elaine’s version of Stevie Wonder + Herbie Hancock penned “Chan’s Song” is even stronger than the lauded one from Tavernier’s “Round Midnight” soundtrack (also recorded in 1986); that wailing thing that Bobby McFerrin does on the soundtrack is impressive, but Al Foster’s samba influenced drumming and Toots Thielemans doing what Stevie would do if he played on what he wrote (if that makes sense), is a better thing.
5. Stan Getz - Voyage (Black Hawk Records)
Stan Getz (tenor sax)
Kenny Barron (piano)
George Mraz (double bass0
Victor Lewis (drums)
Stan Getz was very decent in the 50’s when he was considered great, and great in the 80’s when he was considered dead. Nobody could caress a melody quite like Getz, and yet he did it in a fairly linear way, whilst still managing to sound cutting edge and relevant. That is his genius.
I particularly like the music Getz created with Kenny Barron, his best piano partner since Jobim. Getz called him "the other half of my musical heart". They stayed together until Getz died in 1991 and the 5 records they put out – starting with this one – are all treasures.
Whether you're a fan of these guys or not, "Voyage" could easily have slipped under your radar. Once again, the album cover is the stuff of nightmares, and once again that is a good thing. When you do eventually find “Voyage”, the store owner will pay you to rid him of the eyesore. You will enhance your record collection and turn a small profit. You will. Wait and see.
6. Egberto Gismonti - Alma (EMI)
Egberto Gismonti (piano, synths)
I remember a day when I listened to a Hermeto Pascoal/Flora Purim record, and a John McLaughlin and Paco De Lucia record, one from Leny Andrade, one from Elis Regina then finally – and blindly – one from Marlui Miranda. My favourite track on every one of the five was written by Egberto Gismonti.
Gismonti supposedly turned down a sizeable contract from Atlantic Records in the mid-seventies in favour of ECM, who offered him less than a quarter of what Nesuhi Ertegun was paying. He prioritised ECM’s artistic virtues over Atlantic’s commercial virtues. This set the tone, for Gismonti is one of the few who ‘made it’ commercially without any artistic sacrifice whatsoever.
For over 3 decades, Gismonti has created music of sublime beauty, music of great sensitivity and yet most (not quite all; the saccharine “Fantasia” remains unforgiveable) of his albums bring something completely unexpected, something previously untapped. “Alma” has many such moments; the subtle and profound use of synth effects throughout, the illusive transitions from joy to sadness on “Maracatu”..
“Alma” in Portuguese means "Soul", and Gismonti’s album does not lack for any of that. It’s one of the high points in his most prolific decade. “Alma” might not best showcase the scope of his arranger capabilities, which extend to ballet scores and full orchestral works, but it’s a strong exhibit to support my growing suspicion that he isn’t just one of the greatest Brazilian composers since Tom Jobim, but one of the elite composers anywhere.
7.Kirk Lightsey Quartet - First Affairs (Lime Tree)
Kirk Lightsey (piano)
Santi Debriano (bass)
Eddie Gladden (drums)
Jerry Gonzalez (congas)
Jazz history is full of consummate pianists who weren’t trendsetters but were consistently excellent. Often from Detroit (Barry Harris, Tommy Flanagan, Hank Jones, Hugh Lawson). Kirk Lightsey is exactly both of those things; A consistently excellent, non-trendsetting piano player from Detroit.
His best work has a swinging, finger-poppin’ quality that elevates every record he appears on, and somehow feels completely at odds with his vulture-like appearance! I first heard him play on Chet Baker’s Prestige Sessions (1965) and I’ve subconsciously made my way through his discography ever since.This one is as good as or better than anything else he ever did.
The quartet’s version of Ron Carter’s “Eighty One”– first recorded on Miles Davis’ E.S.P. – features some great work by master conga player Jerry Gonzalez and deserves a far bigger audience. If that were the only reason for “First Affairs” making the cut then it is reason enough.
8. Jameel Mondooc - Nostalgia In Times Square (Soul Note)
Jemeel Moondoc (alto sax, soprano sax)
Rahn Burton (piano)
William Parker (double bass)
Dennis Charles (drums)
Bern Nix (guitar)
After Cecil Taylor stole bassist William Parker and drummer Rashid Bakr from Moondoc’s group he was left without a rhythm section, so he brought musicians together for gigs and recorded the results. Moondoc made three albums for Soul Note this way in the 1980s, including this one here.
Despite its improvisatory conception, “Nostalgia” is probably Moondoc’s least experimental record, and fans of his earlier work don’t go so crazy for this one. In fact, public and critical indifference to its release led to a decade-long retirement from the scene when Moondoc began working as an architect's assistant. Along with the later “Zookeeper’s House” (superb version of Alice Coltrane’s “Ptah, The El Daoud” ), this is his best album.
Free-jazz can be spectacular but Moondoc’s early records often sound derivative. I find his raw intonation is more interesting when anchored in a defined rhythm than it is in general bedlam. “Nostalgia”a more introspective Moondoc. This emerges in part because of a relatively spare backing band, but I also imagine that he fancied playing something with more melody.
I’ve never understood why “Nostalgia” isn’t considered an important record. Yes, the eighties was a time of huge conservatism in jazz, a time when avant-garde artists suddenly felt the need to ‘reposition’ themselves. It isn’t wrong to look upon such moves with suspicion, but it’s no less important to recognise where restraint works better than abandon, and the results here are anything but conservative. The Mingus title track and "Dance Of The Clowns" are celestial.
9. Mulgrew Miller - Work (Landmark Records)
Mulgrew Miller (piano) Charnett Moffett (bass) Terri Lyne Carrington (drums)
One of the best composers of his era, Mulgrew Miller was a fearless improviser and a huge favourite within the jazz community. This, his second release as leader, was the first one to get me and it still holds up now.
Mulgrew has rich approach to harmony and melody. The tempo and mood shifts in every piece are inspired, particularly the album’s opener “Sublimity” on which all three players are impeccable. I’ve managed to locate just the one piece from the album; “The Sage”, where you can really hear the McCoy Tyner influence in Mulgrew’s sound. Those dark, tension filled chords, the solid lower-register notes enabling a dialogue with the drummer (the very able Carrington).
Bassist Charnett Moffett possesses enormous technique but sounds slightly percussive in the mix, which may or may not be intentional. This is usually a terrible thing but Charnett is such an energetic player that it pays to let his sound thud rather than loom. He’d been with Wynton’s band in the 3 years that preceded this album and all of those recordings are produced in much the same way.
10. Franco Ambrosetti - Movies (Enja)
Franco Ambrosetti (trumpet, flugelhorn)
John Scofield (guitar)
Geri Allen (piano, synthesizers)
Michael Formanek (bass)
Daniel Humair (drums)
Jerry Gonzalez (percussion)
Swiss trumpeter who’s dad played with Bird. Franco’s soprano saxophonist son often appears in his bands, so that’s three generations of active jazz musicians in one family. Put that in your Savinelli and light it.
I found my way to this record through Michael Formanek, a bassist that some folks I know swear by. He plays well, big sound, very expressive, but you wouldn’t say he carries the band. Not when Franco’s tone is so elegant (sounds a lot like late Art Farmer), and not with Jerry Gonzalez playing his ass off. Only Scofield sounds a little out of place here.
The album title describes the album concept. Improvisations on a crop of songs made famous in the movies. "Summertime", "Yellow submarine", "Magnificent Seven Theme" (drummer Dan Humair tears it up on this one), "That Old Black Magic", etc. It also contains yet ANOTHER “Chan’s Song”! It beats yet another “Hotel California”, but still…no wonder Stevie and Herbie look so happy in the 80s. Those royalties would put their enemies’ stepkids through college.