What is it about live recordings in Japan? “Ray Charles Live in Japan” is the Holy Grail for Ray Charles collectors, “Joe Henderson in Japan” for Joe people etc. This one takes place in Tokyo’s appropriately named Pit-Inn - the recording sound is so immediate that you can hear the jostling and foot stomping of the appreciative Japanese crowd – and runs for close to an hour. Apparently it was aired live on Japanese terrestrial TV! Times have changed.
For a start, the repertoire looks promising: "If You Came From Nowhere Here" and "Interstellar Lo-Ways" are amongst Sun Ra’s most versatile themes, there’s an Ellington interpretation in there etc. None of these disappoint, all the arrangements are magical, and it’s impossible to choose between June Tyson’s vocal contribution to “I Want You” and Sun Ra’s on “Can You Take It?”. So why choose? Just consider yourself lucky to find this and devour the lot. It’s the last of the truly great recorded Arkestra concerts and full of the sort of remarkable moments that can only be found in Sun Ra and Rashaan’s work.
2. Joe Bonner - New Beginnings (Theresa Records)
Joe Bonner (piano)
Laurie Antonioli (vocals)
Easily recognizable pianist; Bonner brought a highly rhythmic splendour to some of Pharaoh Sanders’ best records : "Elevation", "Love in Us All”, "Journey to the One" and "Rejoice" all have a unique harmonic sprawl that differs slightly from Pharaoh’s work with Lonnie Liston Smith or John Hicks. Bonner is just a little more romantic than those guys.
"New Beginnings" feels totally out of season for 1988. Nothing else with is produced with this sort of warmth. Bonner plays both acoustic piano and Fender Rhodes and at points even overdubs the piano with the Rhodes. The soundscape is striking; the overdubs sound almost lavish set amidst the cellos and, in any case, are much too subtle to be a distraction. Somewhat unfairly, the legend that overdubs exist only to paper over technical limitations still persists, but in no way could that be thrown at Bonner here.
Laurie Antonioli’s wordless vocals on “Soft Breezes” shares DNA with Jean Carn’s 70s “Black Jazz” work. These 5-octave range orgasms are such a cliché of ‘Spiritual Jazz’ that if you tacked the vocals on to a be-bop record it would by default be referred to as ‘Spiritual Jazz’. It’s one of the more welcome Jazz clichés though, and is particularly evocative here.
No filler here: The sublime but forlorn "Ode to Trane", "Primal Scream" and Thad Jones' "A Child Is Born" provide yet more incriminating evidence that “New Beginnings” has been unjustly cast aside.
3. Carmen McRae - Carmen Sings Monk (Novus)
Carmen McRae (vocals)
Larry Willis (piano)
Eric Gunnison (piano)
Clifford Jordan (tenor & sopr sax)
George Mraz (double bass)
Charlie Rouse (tenor saxophone)
Al Foster (drums)
Wonderful though they are, you wouldn’t think Monk's pieces vocal friendly (he barely ever recorded with vocalists). Tricky harmonies, all those dissonant piano stabs, all that space… Singers not given to publically embarrassing themselves know better than to take on Monk. Luckily, nobody told Carmen McRae.
I like McRae’s voice a lot. She’s got the range, the joy, the humour and her scat sounds cooler than most. I’d never found her particularly thrilling before this though, and considering she was 68 at the time, with little to prove, it says a lot for her that she’d take on something so risky.
Scribing lyrics to jazz solos is a little like hip-hop freestyle in that we make all sorts of concessions for its lyric content. It is achievement enough that it fits and to write something clever or profound just isn’t in the job description. Listen to "Well you Needn't"(It's Over Now)” on this record though, and it’s hard to imagine that the piece was written without these very words in mind. “In Walked Bud”, “Blue Monk” and “Ruby, My Dear” have that same quality.
The way McRae dissects a melody, gets right inside the tunes is highly reminiscent of Monk, yet the short length of these songs and the generous slices of instrumental soloing (Charlie Rouse is dynamite) ensure that she never outstays her welcome. The one long track - her extended version of “Round Midnight” - is compelling and is proof positive that she could own pre-lyricized material too. If you’re a Monk fan then this record is way past essential.
4. Toots Thielemans - Only Trust Your Heart (Concord)
Toots Thielemans (harmonica)
Fred Hersch (piano)
Harvie Swartz (bass)
Marc Johnson (bass)
Joey Baron (drums)
Be suspicious of people who don’t like Ahmad Jamal, Vince Guaraldi, early De La Soul or Toots Thielemans. They will bring only unflinching misery and anguish into your life. They are joyless and not for you.
To paraphrase Mr Reginald Noble “if you find 'Only Trust Your Heart' in the racks muthafucka what the fuck you gon’ do? Pick it up, pick it up”. Well, Toots isn’t as ineffably cool as Guaraldi - or Muddy Waters era Redman for that matter - so you could almost be forgiven for not picking it up, picking it up. But if you can look beyond the ‘employee of the month’ album cover – and I’m not referring to the east-facing duck at the rear –you’ll get yourself a stone cold bargain. As good as anything in the Toots cannon (Toots and military imagery isn’t a great fit, I know) and most probably yours for the price of small cake of soap.
Each one of the twelve tunes here are beautifully harmonized and crafted. The choice of material, from Monk’s “Little Rootie Tootie” to Shorter’s “Speak No Evil” and the two Hersch originals is classy. You can’t really go wrong with Hersch as a pianist or producer, so it was a good day for Toots when he got both, and sure enough the engineering and production are exceptional.
5.Charles Tolliver - Live In Berlin At The Quasimodo (Strata East)
Charles Tolliver (trumpet)
Alain Jean-Marie (piano)
Ugonna Okegwa (double bass)
Ralph Van Duncan (drums)
Annoyingly, the music recorded on this date was released as two separate CD’s two years apart, rather than one epic live double album. Not that it’s any easier to get your hands on the discs – by this point, Strata East’s were known for their extremely parsimonious distribution. Anyway, as I’m far more familiar with Vol 1, that’s the one on the list.
The distribution issue is involuntary. I’m not sure the mainstream jazz world was any better prepared for black self-reliance in the 1980s than they were in the 1970s. They can’t have been, otherwise this album would have been reviewed in every publication; it would have been on every shelf in every music shop; and would have gone down as a top-tier (if not quite as great as Tolliver’s 70s Slugs date) live recording. It’s a Strata East though and anything on the black-owned label was treated like an Iceberg Slim novel.
It is apt that the last truly essential Strata East showcases one of the labels co-founders. Tolliver is on great form and so too are the rhythm section. Apparently Tolliver’s regular band either missed a flight or ran into visa trouble, so Alain Jean-Marie, Ugonna Okegwo and Ralph Van Duncan – three unknowns – were drafted in at the last minute and as impact substitutes go, they’re up there with Sheringham and Solskjær.
It’s a fluid set that stylistically sits halfway between Tolliver’s “Paper Man” and Music Inc work. For Tolliver fans that aren’t as familiar with this record as some of the aforementioned, these might be the finest recorded versions of “The Nile” and “Ruthie’s Heart”, two of Tolliver’s marquee tunes.
6. Steve Turre - Fire & Ice (Stash Records)
Steve Turre (shells, trombone)
Cedar Walton (piano)
Buster Williams (bass)
Billy Higgins (drums)
Gayle Dixon, John Blake (violin)
Melvyn Roundtree (viola)
Akua Dixon (cello)
Jerry Gonzales (congas, guiro)
This is good fun. Turre has played with all kinds of musicians; Horace Silver, Herbie Hancock, Tito Puente, Lester Bowie, Dizzy, Blakey, even Van Morrison, so his own records are always likely to be colourful affairs. As always, Turre endeavours to bring together as many threads of these musical influences as possible and then Turre-fy them all.
You hear Turre’s name though, and the next guy you think of is Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Turre’s medium- low-register trombone lines were an essential part of Kirk’s group sound, and it was Rahsaan who introduced him to the sea shells as a musical instrument.
His shell-playing is no gimmick; their pitch is a little up and down, but there is enough depth in the sound to disarm even the most cynical listener. If that sounds implausible, just listen to “Shorty”, the track posted here (Turre breaks out the shells from around 4:07).
“Fire and Ice” spikes on its smaller group (just Turre, Cedar Walton, Buster Williams and Billy Higgins) tracks of which “Shorty”, “Well, You Needn’t” and the title tune are the best picks. The string quartet numbers, by contrast, are more of a mixed bag, but even then, Stevie’s “You Are the Sunshine..” is one of my favourites on the album .
7. James Spaulding - Gotsabe A Better Way (Muse Records)
James Spaulding (alto sax, flute, piccolo) Monte Croft (vibraphone)
Mulgrew Miller (piano)
Ray Mantilla (congas, african percussion) Ralph Peterson (drums)
Spaulding spent over 15 years in David Murray’s band and you might also know the name from some of Sun Ra’s early records.
More likely, you’ll have heard him as a sideman on a stream of 60’s Blue Notes; Spaulding was one of the few horn players affiliated with the label who never recorded as leader - though it wasn’t for the want of trying. He wanted to play traditional or free form things with Afro-Latin influence - the sort of music you hear on this record – but the label insisted that he put out a Lou Donaldson/ Donald Byrd 70’s style soul-jazz album. For someone who wrote music suites directly after the death of Malcolm X’s in 1965 and Martin Luther King three years later, such a dilution was never a serious option.
I’m guessing that it is these sorts of disappointments that eventually drove Spaulding towards starting his own record label, though fortunately for us, not until after a short stint on Muse. “Gotsabe A Better Way” is the second of four late 80’s- early 90’s Muses. The others are adequate rather than inspired but this one is totally slept-on.
Spaulding is possibly an even better writer than he is a performer. He contributed the most interesting track ("Kryptonite") to Wayne Shorter’s “Schizophrenia”. All but one of these compositions was written by Spaulding, and each strikes a nice balance between lively and urbane. Listen out for the overlooked vibraphone player Monte Croft and for some great Ralph Peterson and Ray Mantilla percussion work on “Bold Steps” and “Ginger Flower Work”.
8. Don Cherry - Art Deco (A&M)
Don Cherry (trumpet)
James Clay (tenor sax,)
Billy Higgins (drums)
Charlie Haden (double bass)
Not Cherry’s most challenging record – although there are some freeier touches - “Art Deco” is steeped in the blues and probably as ‘straight’ as he ever got - but don’t let that deter you. If you can overlook the slightly brittle early digital sound (not as thin as Miles’ records from this period) then there’s a lot to like on “Art Deco”.
All of these guys go way back. Don Cherry and Billy Higgins first met at a “problem student” school in Los Angeles, became friends and formed a be-bop group called The Jazz Messiahs with flautist/ sax man James Clay. Soon after, Cherry and Higgins met Charlie Haden. They then encountered Ornette Coleman, becoming three quarters of his classic late 50’s quartet.
The album’s title track is a fine little composition; Cherry’s slide from open pocket trumpet to muted horn sets an subtly unpredictable tone that permeates the entire record. Often, and always at the point when you’d least expect it, Higgins and Haden whip up a monsoon for the horn players to ride out, and Cherry’s playing on “Bemsha Swing” is joyous , but the more tempered ballad numbers demonstrate something more delicate in their interactions.
James Clay sounds too comfortable on “Body & Soul”, but much less safe on the Ornette penned numbers, "When Will the Blues Leave" and "The Blessing, or the off-kilter arrangement of "I've Grown Accustomed to Your Face". Clay is an assured player, but about as far removed from Ornette as it gets. His presence is a reminder of quite how far away from bop improvisation the others had veered, but also makes for the sort of colourful contrast you wouldn’t get with a more ferocious player
9. Fred Hersch Trio - ETC (Crepuscle)
Fred Hersch (piano)
Steve La Spina (double bass)
Jeff Hirshfield (drums)
This time it’s Hersch as bandleader, and it’s a cracking little session too. A blind purchase at the time, principally to hear another version of Wayne Shorter’s “Black Nile”. Although Gregory Porter does a smokin’ “Black Nile” along the lines of the McRae /Monk covers, the composition wasn’t part of too many repertoires at that time.
Most pianists can put their stamp on their own compositions, but put a cover or standard in front of them and they just blend into the landscape. “ETC” never sounds like anything other than a Fred Hersch record yet none of the tracks here are written by Hersch, which isn’t just a first in his discography but also reveals quite how individual his playing style had become.
“Black Nile” and Sam Jones’ "Unit Seven," are 4 star performances and I’ve seldom heard anyone else lift “Sometime Ago” from its sparse origins to where Hersch takes it. If someone else did, I’ll bet they struggled to get it back home in one piece the way he does here. All of which is to say that this is damn good music - soulful, stimulating, uplifting and well worth owning.
10. Hermeto Pascoal - Por Diferentes Caminhos (Som Da Gente)
Hermeto Pascoal (piano)
Bob Moses once called Hermeto “God on Earth”. Miles labelled him "albino loco" after Hermeto almost broke a hand in landing a ‘lucky’ punch seconds into their first sparring session. Most of Hermeto’s records make a persuasive case for both statements, though the absence of his box of toys on “Por Diferentes Caminhos” (“Through Different Paths”) might require a retooling of the listener’s ears to hear the lunacy.
You can keep your “Koln Concert”; Monk’s solo albums, the Mingus one and this one. That’s all the solo piano you really need: 16 pieces and not a pedestrian note in the building. If the creator does indeed have a master plan then these might just be the minutes of the meeting.
Hermeto’s piano touch is actually pretty traditional, but it’s exclusive in the constant deviations of how these little bursts string together. Every path Hermeto takes is unexpected and you have no idea when a sashay will become a lurch or when clamor becomes silence. The whole thing is a harmonic labyrinth all of its own. Yet, there is a real seam across the pieces and you really hear him composing and finally owning the music.