Stan Sulzman (tenor & sopr sax, flute) John Taylor (piano)
Dave Holland (bass)
Billy Elgart (drums)
Kenny Wheeler was born in Canada but moved to 1950's England in his early twenties. He didn’t inform his parents and when they eventually contacted him he claimed he’d enrolled at a London university. They got in touch with the university who said, ‘we don’t know any Kenny Wheeler’.
While all this was going on, Wheeler took to the local jazz clubs, trumpet in hand. He soon worked out that he wasn't one for playing on the beat and gravitated more towards the free end of the spectrum, sitting in with guys like Joe Harriott and later Stan Sulzman (who he is reacquianted with here) and Evan Parker.
His ECM debut, “Gnu High (1976)” was a fortuitous masterpiece; Wheeler wanted pianist John Taylor on the date but founder-producer Manfred Eicher pulled rank and drafted in Keith Jarrett. By all accounts Jarrett, who hardly ever played outside his own group setting, was frosty towards the other musicians, totally neglected Wheeler’s harmonies, did his virtuoso thing and left. That album is considered a classic – mainly because of its heavy stylistic contrast - and has been a huge influence on many players. I like it too, but no more than the Soul Note, “Flutter By, Butterfly”.
Taylor’s unobtrusive presence gives us some idea of what “Gnu High” could have sounded like if Eicher hadn’t intervened, and in an altogether different way it emerges as one of Wheeler’s strongest and most creative records. The level of performance from all - Sulzman particularly - is absolutely dazzling, and the harmonies are great, but for once on a Wheeler record, it’s the melodies that really get me; “Everybody’s Song But My Own” and “The Little Fellow” are two of his jazziest sides and it would be great to hear them in contemporary repertoires now and again.
2. Mal Waldron - Breaking New Ground (Baybridge)
Mal Waldron (piano)
Reggie Workman (double bass)
Ed Blackwell (drums)
Post-Art Tatum, It’s hard to sound original on the piano. The clichés are almost unavoidable and all these perfectly tuned pianos bring about still further uniformity. From the melodic concept here, you’ll know it’s Mal Waldron right away though; Waldron has a minimal style (he credits Mingus with helping him arrive at his own sound), not a million miles away from Monk’s. Like Monk, silence is one of his most effective notes. He doesn’t race through the keys or play 5 notes when one will do. This more percussive style has always appealed to me for the simple reason that, right or wrong, I look at piano as a percussive instrument.
Still, I think this one surprised Waldron followers: a collection of re-arranged popular tunes by the likes of Stevie and MJ. It’s enjoyable too. Waldron is just as comfortable playing bop or free, so you never really know which direction he’s heading towards and if you’re counting on his choice of material to give you some sort of steer then prepare to be bamboozled.
Note how he flips Mandel’s “Suicide Is Painless” (probably encouraged by Bill Evans’ playing-it-straight misfire a decade earlier) on its head from grey ballad to soul groover . He goes full-Monk on “Beat It”, accentuating the more innocuous lines (the “they told him don’t you ever come around here” part) of the song, using those as the pulse, and scratches out the chorus (“Just beat it, beat it”) entirely. It’s the sort of thing J-Dilla would do several years later with sampling. J-Dilla is remembered as a demigod. Waldron isn’t much remembered at all.
Overall, a fine album, but not 5 stars, because we could have done without Satie's "Gympnopedie #2". That’s a drag.
3. Old and New Dreams - A Tribute To Ed Blackwell (Black Saint)
Don Cherry (trumpet)
Dewey Redman (saxophones)
Charlie Haden (bass)
Ed Blackwell (drums)
Nobody likes a fanboy and absolutely nobody likes a supergroup. When the two worlds combine then it usually spells trouble in great big illuminated signs. There are two exceptions to this in jazz: Herbie Hancock’s late 70s/early 80s VSOP band, who were essentially the classic Miles Davis’ sixties set-up with Freddie Hubbard drafted in to play Miles, who was far too busy trying to be bigger than Prince.
Old and New Dreams were formed in 1976 and although all four members had received recognition for their own music, they’d all worked in Ornette Coleman’s band at an earlier point. It sometimes appeared as though they were more intent on adding to his – then living - legend than anything else; 3 of the 5 selections here are amongst Ornette’s least performed compositions (Cherry is incredible on “Happy House,”).
Ed Blackwell replaced the great Billy Higgins in Ornette’s band at the end of the fifties, and even though everything I’ve read cites this as a positive turning point for Ornette, I can’t help but wonder how much stronger classic albums such as “This Is Our Music “and “Free Jazz” would be if Higgins had remained. When I did hear Blackwell in Ornette’s groups, I appreciated him, but I didn’t hear him as much as I do here. He isn’t the most eruptive percussionist out there but he plays with guts, showing plenty of imagination on the one and three.
If you’ve read this far, you’re probably wondering why this isn’t titled “Tribute to Ornette Coleman”. Easy. It was recorded at the Ed Blackwell Festival in Atlanta, which I believe was organised and funded by Blackwell fans that became aware he was suffering from serious kidney problems. Like Old and New Dreams, they figured that the most uplifting tribute should take place while the artist was still able experience it. He lived for 5 more years, so maybe there’s something in that.
4. Norma Winstone - Somewhere Called Home (ECM)
Norma Winstone (voice) John Taylor (piano) Tony Coe (clarinet)
This is impressionist music. I wouldn’t even call Norma Winstone a singer. She’s more like a breather; that little airy sound she gets in the front and behind the notes. The voice-as-an-instrument thing doesn’t really do it for me, but with Norma Winstone, I really do think of her voice as her instrument.
I enjoyed Winstone in both Michael Garrick’s band and Azimuth with her husband, pianist John Taylor, but this one is particularly good. On “Somewhere From Home” Winstone is joined by Tony Coe on reeds and, once more, John Taylor. Her work with Taylor is the greatest endorsement for husband and wife music collaborations. Sometimes pianists bump off the vocalist with some of the things that they react to in the composition, but Taylor is so sensitive and underplays this to perfection.
“Some time Ago” is one of those waltzy pieces that rarely misses (Bob Brookmeyer’s version with Herbie Hancock and Stan Getz is just as good) and features Coe on career-high form. It’s tempting to eulogise over the trio’s use of space on the Egberto Gismonti cover, “Café”, but it’s hard to do so without using words like ‘dreamy’ and ‘whimsical’, so just listen to it for yourselves and come up with your own.
5. Michel Petrucciani - Petrucciani Plays Petrucciani (Blue Note)
Michel Petrucciani (piano)
Eddie Gomez & Gary Peacock (bass)
Roy Haynes & Al Foster (drums)
John Abercrombie (guitar)
An extremely gifted player, total command of the piano. Michel Petrucciani died in 1999 aged only 36, which although somewhat expected – he was born with the growth-stunting disease , osteogenesis imperfect aka ''glass bones'' – meant that jazz lost one of its liveliest pianists. In spite of this ailment (romantics might say ‘because’) he was incredibly prolific, releasing more than an album a year since his recording debut in 1980 and 13 albums in the eighties alone.
Harmonically, this is very deep. The things Petrucciani plays inside the chords, the way these passages build up as arrangements throughout. Petrucciani starts from a barely audible fragment of sound and develops something so dense that you could be forgiven for thinking there were three pianos in the mix. Petrucciani uses the whole instrument, even when he’s not playing solo, even when he’s got this sort of calibre in his rhythm section…
Gary Peacock is a first-call bassist and for good reason, Abercrombie never sounded this good again and two of my favourite players rotate drum duty. Al Foster has that great tipping feel; he must have been the ideal guy to play off of, and every record Roy Haynes is on is going to feel great. Haynes’ solo on “One of Us” is one of the few drum solos worth buying an entire record for.
6. Henry Threadgill - Easily Slip Into Another World (RCA Novus)
Henry Threadgill (alto sax; tenor sax; clarinet)
Rasul Siddick (trumpet)
Frank Lacy (trombone; french horn; flugelhorn)
Diedre Murray (cello)
Fred Hopkins (bass)
Pheeroan akLaff (drums)
Reggie Nicholson (drums)
Aisha Putli (vocal on 'My Rock')
Henry Threadgill was one of the earliest members of AACM, the Chicago collective whose graduates have been all over these lists. Perhaps, more than any other member, his work remained imbued with the AACM spirit of collaboration. Very little of his recorded output can be labelled ‘small group’ and none of it is performed solo. I think the sextet format best suits his composition style.
I picked this one up for 3 reasons; Olu Dara (Nas’ father, if you didn’t know) is on trumpet, Asha Putli sings on one track & it includes a song called "Spotted dick is pudding". On first listen it left me feeling a little unsettled rhythmically, just for my own taste at that time. Fortunately, this was around the period that I started to appreciate Ornette, Meredith Monk, Keith Tippett, Nico’s “Marble Index” etc after years of cynicism. Chastened by that u-turn, I stuck with “Easy Slip..” and it soon went the way of the others.
It was just a matter of getting my ear around so many new sounds and concepts. I’d never heard tom-toms that sounded this thick; I’d never listened to ‘free’ New Orleans r& b ("Black Hands Bejeweled"). Or maybe I had, but not on the same record as calypso-funk (Dara’s “I Can't Wait to Get Home”). “Hall” is a two chord-no changes siege and Asha Puthli’s “My Rock” a spoken ballad, but they’ll throw you quicker than you can say "Peter Brotzmann" or “Sprechstimme”.
7.Charlie Haden & Paul Motian feat Geri Allen - Etudes (Soul Note)
Charlie Haden (double bass)
Paul Motian (drums)
Geri Allen (piano)
“Bill said, “Please, don’t do this”. But I paid my own way back to New York. What a horrible thing to do. If anyone ever did that to me now. ..” Paul Motian
Motian famously walked out on Bill Evans’ trio (mid-gig) for good because a few people complained that he played too loud! The more Motian you listen to, the harder it is to imagine how that’s even possible. He can play fast, but you hardly ever hear him play loud as he’s mainly about the brushes and high surfaces. Or maybe Motian is louder than Cobham, but gets mic’d all the way down to a table tap. I guess I’ll never find out. Fortunately, just as on ECM, Motian’s bass drum phobia fits right in with Soul Note production preferences.
"Etudes" is an outstanding record. It’s an easier album to appreciate than describe, but if you ever grow bored of the jazz trio format, then this should fix that. Such is the exploratory nature of these musicians, there are three different melodies going on at the same time in some places. Yet, it all sounds so well integrated. Geri Allen was still a receptive pianist at this point + Haden and Motian were that rare beast; the frequent collaborators whose musical interactions remained fresh.
Although the set includes seven originals, most of the compositions are impressionistic tributes to jazz greats ("Dolphy's Dance", "Shuffle Montgomery"). It also has one of the best versions of Ornette’s “Lonely Woman” I’ve heard. Christ, just listen to what happens from around 2.40. It’s prompted by Haden but keep listening to how each player manoeuvres their way out of that passage. How reactive or ‘improvised’ it really is, is neither fish nor fowl, but it’s these little unified displays of individuality that makes jazz so special.
8. Pharoah Sanders - Africa (Dutch Timeless)
Pharoah Sanders (tenor sax)
John Hicks (piano)
Curtis Lundy (double bass)
Idris Muhammed (drums)
I used to have a John Hicks tape where it’s was just one overplayed standard after the next, and he played all these incredible things to elevate every tune. It was a little aimless in some parts of the arrangements, but they all felt great. I had no idea when they were recorded and I’ve never been able to work out - much less track down - which record/records they originated from.
Anyway, Hicks is a pianist who never really received the appreciation he deserved. He got better and better through the decades (“Fatha’s Day” his 2004 tribute to Earl Hines is staggering) and is the main reason why this late-Pharaoh album makes the list.
From these selections, only “Naima” was written by John Coltrane, but “Africa” feels like a Coltrane tribute album. Not so much the late-60’s Coltrane that Pharaoh played with, but the more lyrical one just before. “Africa” is a beautiful listenen and contains some of Pharaoh’s most sensitive playing, but it isn’t an explosive date by his standards, though when it does catch fire, it is something to behold. Drummer Idris Muhammed has a fat groove, and at points drives Pharaoh to places nobody thought he could tread again, witness the free-blowing ”You’ve Got to Have Freedom”, which even manages to overpower his 1980 original.
9. Woody Shaw - Imagination (Muse)
Woody Shaw (trumpet)
Steve Turre (trombone)
Kirk Lightsey (piano)
Ray Drummond (bass)
Carl Allen (drums)
To become even a proficient be-bop/hard-bop player requires you to play at the same high level in every key, which is difficult. The trumpeter with a command of upper, middle and lower registers has more to work with in their tool box, and so long as they have good taste (choose the right tools) , can express a broader range of emotions.
In this regard, Woody Shaw is a master. He never strayed far from pure jazz improvisation which meant that by the time of his final studio album, “Imagination”, his technique was flawless. His pitch range is astonishing; his low-register is so well developed that on those occasions when he does overblow, you can bet it counts. I have no issue with free jazz players, but by shying away from bop, a lot of them left behind some of these fundamentals.
Don’t be put off by a track list of familiar standards; his treatment of each is anything but familiar. It’s refreshing to hear something like “If I Were a Bell” – immortalised by Miles Davis – played so explosively, and on the other mid to fast pieces, the band has more about them than “you play the figure and then we all blow”. Shaw plays with plenty of warmth on the two ballads, “Imagination” and “Stormy Weather” and manages to avoid all the clichés in doing so.
Shaw was - and remains – extremely popular with Jazz musicians and followers, but he wasn’t as fully appreciated as say Freddie Hubbard or Lee Morgan. Albums such as this one are crying out to be re-discovered.
10. Charles Brackeen 4tet - Worshippers Come Nigh (Silkheart)
Charles Brackeen (tenor sax)
Olu Dara (cornet)
Fred Hopkins (double bass)
Andrew Cyrille (drums)
Brackeen is something of an outsider. For 15 years he was better known in New York for his street performances, where he’d talk through the tenor with a rhythm section that consisted of mechanical monkey drummers! This was before drum machines were commonplace, before hip-hop, all that.
The must-have Brackeens are “Rhythm X” on Strata-East, a couple of later ECM dates with Paul Motian and this one right here, the third of three recordings on Keith Knox’s Silkheart label. Knox actually stated, upon founding the label, that one of his primary goals would be to bring the music of Brackeen to a wider audience. He remained true to his word; with the help of musician-producer Dennis Gonzales he managed to track down Brackeen, and record 3 albums in 2 years.
Strangely, the overall rhapsodic feeling I get when I enjoy Brackeen’s music wasn’t really evident on his other Silkheart releases (with essentially the same band), yet it must have been somewhere if Andrew Cyrille was playing! That’s all the more puzzling when you consider that the music on “Attainment” came from this very same session.
The five Brackeen originals here are more colourful and far meatier. They carry the same disregard for rhythm as the other Silkhearts but the variation is more interesting between and within each selection, particularly on the half buoyant, half dour openers “Bannar” and “Worshippers Come Neigh”. “Tiny Town” is notable for Cyrille’s rarely heard but totally inspiring conga playing.