Chim Chim Cheree - Eric Alexander Quartet (Venus): One of today’s most interesting tenor saxophonists, Eric Alexander, helming one of jazz’s best groups, with the legendary Harold Mabern on piano, the undersung Joe Farnesworth on drums and, in this case, John Webber on bass, takes on the repertoire of the great John Coltrane and comes up with a winning and tremendously unpredictable tribute. While Alexander has obviously been influenced by Coltrane, among others, and has in the past covered any number of the tenor giant’s standards (“Soul Eyes,” “My Favorite Things”), compositions (“Giant Steps,” “Lazy Bird,” “Naima”) and tributes (Bill Lee’s great “John Coltrane” – originally from the sadly forgotten Clifford Jordan’s book), here the program mostly concerns itself with Coltrane’s “inspiration.” The set certainly has Coltrane’s stamp all over it, mostly in ballad and medium-tempo formats. But of the eight well-chosen pieces here – all played by Coltrane between 1956 (“On The Misty Night”) and 1965 (“Chim Chim Cheree”) – only three are Coltrane originals, all mid-period glories: “Dear Lord” (1965), “Pursuance” (1964), from A Love Supreme, and “Wise One” (1964). Like Archie Shepp on his terrific and early tribute Four for Trane, Eric Alexander never copies or mimics Coltrane like many others would. He manages to maintain his own distinct sound, aided in no small part by Mabern’s beautifully characteristic support, and correctly conjures the spirit of Coltrane’s influence rather than holding a mirror up to the music. It’s the thing all tributes should be made of. The disc is beautiful from start to finish, but the cookers – “Chim Chim Cheree,” “Pursuance,” a spritely “Afro Blue” (concluded with a quote of “Impressions”) and the sumptuously shiver-inducing “Wise One” are keepers. Chim Chim Cheree suggests Eric Alexander and company can do more with the Coltrane legacy – or other legacies – while still maintaining a strong and vital legacy of their own.
Beautiful Dreamers - Bill Frisell (Savoy Jazz): The always innovative guitarist Bill Frisell formed an unusual trio of guitar, viola and drums for his first release away from Nonesuch in many, many years, Beautiful Dreamers. It’s another one of the guitarist’s jazz-oriented explorations of Americana. But somehow this one makes more sense than nearly everything Frisell has laid down in that realm since maybe 2002’s The Willies (that includes last year’s strangely disaffected Disfarmer). Teaming up with string player and Seattle native Eyvind Kang, who first worked with the guitarist some decade and a half ago on the album Bill Frisell Quartet (and then again on 2002’s Richter 858, 2004’s Unspeakable,> 2007’s disappointing Floratone and 2008’s History, Mystery) and Ron Miles’ long-time drummer Rudy Royston (the guitarist featured on Miles’ 1996 album Woman’s Day with Royston), Frisell comes up with one of his most natural sounding outings of Americana jazz in some time. This trio has an unbelievably cohesive chemistry that dispels the myth that Frisell has said all he has to say in this mode. There are a stronger than usual batch of Frisell originals here including “Worried Woman,” “Winslow Homer,” “A Worthy Endeavor,” “No Time To Cry” and “All We Can Do.” Plus, the covers are highly unusual and especially well selected and include Stephen Foster’s old-timey “Beautiful Dreamer,” a wicked cover of Blind Willie Johnson’s “It’s Nobody’s Fault But Mine,” Benny Goodman’s “Benny’s Bugle,” A.P. Carter’s truly delightful “Keep on the Sunny Side.” Each of these have a minimum of what is typically considered improvisation – but like great classical interpreters, these three find ways to enumerate the possibilities within the realm of the terrifically notable melodies. It’s beautiful music to consider or just enjoy.
Jasmine - Keith Jarrett/Charlie Haden (ECM): This unbelievably beautiful disc came about after pianist Keith Jarrett and bassist Charlie Haden participated in a film about Haden. The two hadn’t recorded together in thirty years (!) and opted to get together in Jarrett’s home studio to just see what would happen. The result, recorded (according to Jarrett’s notes) three years ago, is Jasmine, named for a night-blooming flower. The idea was to provide a program of romantic ballads intended for after-dark play. It’s gorgeous stuff, lovingly delivered by two pros who know how to play with great sensitivity and deep emotional conviction. Surprisingly, most of the program is new to both players. A very few of the eight songs on this beautiful menu , all standards or near standards, had been previously recorded by these fire-brands, on low burn for this particular affair: Haden had previously recorded “I’m Gonna Laugh You Right Out of My Life” for his 1999 disc The Art of Song; Jarrett recorded “Body and Soul” (whose performance here has been nominated for a Grammy Award) with his Standards Trio for the 1990 recording The Cure while Haden recorded the song with Pee Wee Russell, Art Pepper, Don Cherry, Paul Motian, Lee Konitz, Ruth Cameron and several times on his own, specifically for Quartet West (1987) and Night and the City (1998, in duet with pianist Kenny Barron); Jarrett also recorded “Don’t Ever Leave Me” with his Standards trio for the great 1994 Live at the Blue Note set as well as on the solo 1998 recording of The Melody at Night, With You. The rest of the program has probably been covered by every jazz pianist known to man. But Jarrett, with Haden’s more than bountiful support, make these tunes their own. Hard to believe this intimate and timeless music wouldn’t be appreciated by many in or outside of the jazz persuasion at any time. But it surely ranks as one of 2010’s best releases.
Vitoria Suite - Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis featuring Paco De Lucia (EmArcy): Not only is this suite one of the finer orchestral jazz presentations in many a year, it is one of trumpeter and composer Wynton Marsalis’ finest-ever outings. Absolutely Ellingtonian in its conception and delivery, Marsalis makes exceptional use of the tremendously peopled Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra to construct an engaging, exciting and an especially enlivened performance. Vitoria Suite is a 12-part work, inspired by what Marsalis calls “the 12 measures of the blues.” It is written in tribute to the Spanish city, Vitoria-Gasteiz, which holds an annual jazz festival at which Marsalis regularly performs. Marsalis was asked by the festival’s curator, Iñaku Añua, to construct a blues. But so inspired, he came back with a 12-part suite that celebrates both the American blues and Spanish musical traditions in tribute to the festival, the city and “an entire culture.” The result ranks on par with some of Ellington’s suite work, with tremendous contributions from Ryan Kisor, Ted Nash, Sean Jones, Sherman Irby, Victor Goines, Marsalis himself (“Blood Cry,” “Iñaki’s Decision”) and special guest, Spanish guitarist Paco de Lucia (“Buleria El Portalon,” “Deep Blue (From the Foam)”). There are many strong compositions here, aided in no small part by some absolutely stunning performances by all concerned.
Portrait in Seven Shades - Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra/Composed by Ted Nash (Jazz at Lincoln Center): Of note here too is the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra’s other 2010 release, the extraordinarily lovely Portrait in Seven Shades, a suite of seven pieces composed by JALC member Ted Nash, each named for a different artist and their particular inspiration. Wynton Marsalis’ solo performance on “Van Gogh” snatched a Grammy Award nomination this year for Best Improvised Jazz Solo. But, like Vitoria Suite, there is much else here to enjoy: from the Miles-ian “Dali” (boasting an appropriately superb Bitches Brew-era solo from Marcus Printup – recall, if you will, that it was writer Greg Tate who suggested that Miles himself was going Dali on Bitches Brew) and the great and grooving “Picasso” (featuring Vincent Gardner on trombone and Marsalis again, sounding positively like he promised all those years ago). Unlike Vitoria Suite, however, Portrait in Seven Shades draws nicely from a rich wealth of orchestral jazz influences outside of Ellington, from Count Basie and Oliver Nelson to many more West Coast models such as Gerald Wilson and, of course, Henry Mancini (Nash’s father and uncle were major contributors to Mancini’s orchestra). Another highly recommended JALC performance.
Jabulani - Hugh Masekela (Gallo): This is a personal favorite, one of Hugh Masekela’s best albums in many a year and one of the legendary South African trumpeter’s finest ever performances on record. A celebration of traditional African wedding songs of yester year, Jabulani flows over with beautiful, joyous songs, filled with hope, great happiness and a positive sense of love that is life affirming. It is everything that so much of Hugh Masekela’s best music has always strived for. It’s also the most comfortable and inspired the trumpeter (who is on flugelhorn throughout here), vocalist and musical Svengali has ever sounded on record – from the very first track to the last. With very little pretense or artifice, producer Don Laka and Hugh Masekela concoct a program of eleven dynamic tunes. Of note are “Sossie,” “Fiela,” “Bambazela” (which Masekela brilliantly worked into his 1984 medley “The Seven Riffs of Africa” from Techno-Bush), “Iph’ Indlela” (probably best known to American ears by the stunningly gorgeous version Harry Belafonte did on the Grammy Award winning album from 1965, An Evening With Harry Belafonte and Miriam Makeba), “Tsoang Tsoang,” “Makoti (Bride)” (which Miriam Makeba sung with the Skylarks in 1959 before leaving South Africa), “Mfana” (which Masekela cut in 1968 as part of an American studio group called The Johannesburg Street Band as “No Passport” for the album Dancin’ Through The Streets - it was later re-titled “Awe Mfana” when it was included on the 2006 CD compilation Hugh Masekela Presents The Chisa Years – 1965-1975 (Rare and Unreleased)), “Uyeyeni” and a surprisingly effective Asiatic take on “No Harvest (Asilimanga)” (which Miriam Makeba performed so memorably in 1968 on her miraculous Makeba album, which also featured a cover of this disc’s “Iph’ Indlela”).The magnificent Jabulani is unquestionably one of Hugh Masekela’s very best.
54 - Metropole Orkest / John Scofield / Vince Mendoza (EmArcy): Named for the number of musicians performing here, 54 is an interesting celebration of John Scofield’s well-known guitar groove fronting Vince Mendoza’s excellent and undeservedly not as well-known orchestrations. Scofield and Mendoza had initially worked together on Mendoza’s 1990 album Start Here (as well as two tracks on Jimmy Haslip’s 1993 album Arc), but here – both well-traveled veterans – coalesce particularly well into what sounds like a seamless partnership. For better or worse, there’s really nothing new here. Scofield’s “Carlos” and “Peculiar” were originally heard on the guitarist’s Groove Elation!, while “Polo Towers” comes from Uberjam, “Honest I Do” and “Twang” come from Grace Under Pressure, “Imaginary Time” comes from What We Do and “Out of the City” comes from Hand Jive (mostly all of his great records of the 1990s). Both of Mendoza’s only pieces here, “Jung Parade” and “Say We Did,” come from Instructions Inside, a 1991 album that also featured Scofield. It makes for a rather unusual listening experience, but not an unsatisfying one. This day in age, though, something like this could only have been done outside US recording studios (London, in fact), and it’s all driven by the funky fire Scofield’s doing almost exclusively these days. While it may have been preferable to hear Mendoza compose an all-new program for Scofield to perform in more of the jazz mode the guitarist made his name with (and the way he’s so perfectly captured on Eddie Henderson’s latest, For All We Know), there’s nothing wrong with taking so many great – and mostly funky – tunes and doing something new and fun with an entire orchestra. Scofield, who sounds better here than on almost any album he’s done over the last decade or so, is peerless. Too few guitarists (or many other instrumentalists) can sound this funky and this creative all at once. Mendoza’s backgrounds are shimmering perfection, and much lighter than usual. 54, surprisingly nominated for a Grammy Award this year, is well performed music that is great fun – the way music is meant to be.
Aurora - Patrick Williams The Big Band (ArtistShare): In his first big-band album since 1998’s Grammy Award-nominated Sinatraland (nominated for his sterling arrangement on “In The Still Of The Night”), the great composer Patrick Williams – who is probably better known these days for his film and television scores – comes up with a real winner, and a dynamic and seemingly necessary reminder of what good big-band jazz is all about. This is not only imaginative jazz – and, really, how many people are making imaginative jazz these days? – it is top-shelf jazz: fun, swinging (helmed by the great Peter Erskine, who is the absolute go-to guy for good swinging jazz big band music these days), melodic and filled with good improvisation from great players and some truly fabulous writing. Soloists include trumpeters Chuck Findley (“Aurora”) and Warren Luening (“Heat,” “There You Go Again”),flugelhorn player Arturo Sandoval (“Song for a Pretty Girl”), trombonists Andy Martin (“Aurora,” “Mandeville”) and Bob McChesney (“Mandeville”), alto saxophonist Tom Scott (a major contributor to the composer’s 1973 Grammy Award winning classic Threshold on “Aurora,” “One More Dream” and “There You Go Again”), tenor saxophonist Bob Sheppard (“Aurora,” “Heat” and “There You Go Again”), flautist Hubert Laws (“Fanfare for a New Day”), clarinetist Eddie Daniels (“The Sun Will Shine Today”), pianist Tamir Handelman (“There You Go Again”) and legendary studio percussionist Paulinho DaCosta (“Aurora”). Highlights are plentiful here, but my favorites are “Song for a Pretty Girl,” “Mandeville,” “Heat,” the Grammy Award nominated (for Best Instrumental Arrangement) “Fanfare for a New Day” and the Grammy Award nominated (for Best Instrumental Composition) “Aurora.” Aurora is an utterly enjoyable listening experience and, quite simply, a masterpiece of contemporary big-band jazz.
The Organization - Gil Mellé (Intrada): The music of Gil Mellé isn’t celebrated near as often as it should, by either jazz listeners or film score enthusiasts. The soundtrack to this 1971 film had been programmed for a record release that never happened, until 2010, when Intrada rescued this terrific score from obscurity for CD release (sadly limited to only 1000 units). The CD’s publicity says it best: Gil Mellé had his work cut out for him in 1971 when he scored the third film in the landmark “Mister Tibbs” trilogy that began in 1967 —both previous films were scored in trend-setting fashion by Quincy Jones. This third film, The Organization, introduced a grittier, more realistic tone. Rather than continue scoring in a manner similar to the earlier installments, Mellé brought a fresh new approach to the character, infusing it with music full of vibrant brass and tense strings and layering into the fabric a strong experimental veneer. It is a relatively brief score by most standards, playing in deliberate manner just when needed. But when it plays it is given a high profile which adds much to the pace and excitement of the film. Producer Walter Mirisch chose Mellé for The Organization on the advice of sound engineer Don McDougall. This was a return to his musical roots with a combination of jazz ensemble and traditional symphonic orchestration. The music is carefully spotted, often defying expectations regarding music in a particular scene. The result is music that fully displays Mellé’s influences and experiments with music concrète—including John Cage’s use of unexpected and natural noises—as part of the sonic palette of the score.
Art Pepper: Unreleased Art Vol V, Stuttgart - Art Pepper (Widow’s Taste): Saxophonist Art Pepper was well recorded in the studio and on the road from 1975 until his death in June 1982. Given the amount of performing he did live, it’s probably no wonder that many bootlegs have surfaced since the saxophonist’s death. Pepper’s devoted widow, Laurie, has been doing an extraordinarily loving job of showcasing some of these performances on her own Widow’s Taste label. This terrific two-disc set, recorded in Stuttgart, Germany on May 25, 1981, is one of them. Comprised of several fan recordings - which have been re-mastered to stunningly pristine effect - the performance finds Art Pepper captured remarkably well with pianist Milcho Leviev (the veteran of Don Ellis, Airto and Billy Cobham who, like the bassist here, had played on and off with Pepper since 1978), bassist Bob Magnusson (Buddy Rich, Sarah Vaughan, John Klemmer) and drummer Carl Burnett (The Three Sounds, Freddie Hubbard, Kenny Burrell). This is the same group that was first assembled on a 1978 Japan-only recording (Art Pepper Memorial Collection: My Laurie) and was also captured on the third “unreleased” set issued by Mrs. Pepper’s Widow’s Taste label that was caught live a few weeks earlier in Croydon, England. The quartet performs ten wondrously long pieces, a mix of Pepper originals and jazz standards, and delivers each with a resourceful creativity and invigorating zeal that is mesmerizing. Of note here is “Landscape,” the stunningly hypnotic 24-minute “Make A List (Make A Wish),” “Patricia” (written for Pepper’s daughter), “Yours Is My Heart Alone,” the more poetic than usual “Over the Rainbow” and the fiery set closer “Cherokee.” This was my introduction to the powerful magic of Art Pepper.
The Cincinnati Kid: Lalo Schifrin Film Scores, Vol. 1 (1964–1968) - Lalo Schifrin (Film Score Monthly): This exceptional five-disc set chronicles some of the strongest and best of Lalo Schifrin’s early film music, all done while he was under contract to MGM in the mid 1960s. Some of it has previously been issued on long-out-of-print records (Music From the Motion Picture: Once A Thief and Other Themes, The Cincinnati Kid, Sol Madrid plus the 45’s of “The Haunting,” “Medical Center” and “Venice After Dark”/”Our Venetian Affair”). But most of the music on this collection has never been issued before and appears here for the very first time, including the entire score to Rhino (1964), the entire score to Once a Thief (1965), all the original music from The Cincinnati Kid (1965), all the music from The Venetian Affair (1967), the entire score to Sol Madrid (1969) and obscure themes to Schifrin-scored TV shows The Mask of Sheba (1970) and Earth II (1971). While much of the work ranks as some of Schifrin’s earliest in American film, it also stands as some of the composer’s most enjoyable and memorable music in the medium. The entire five-CD set, save for a few tracks, is in excellent stereo sound, remastered from the original 35mm three-track scoring masters (for the original soundtracks) or ¼” two-track album masters (for the record albums). The excellent liner notes are by Schifrin authority Jon Burlingame. The amazingly comprehensive track-by-track commentary can be found at Film Score Monthly’s web site. Amazing…and essential.
California Concert – The Hollywood Palladium (Masterworks Jazz): In 2010, Sony’s Masterworks Jazz imprint commendably celebrated the 40th anniversary of CTI Records with the release of a half dozen of the label’s finest issues (including Hubert Laws’ exceptional, never on CD Morning Star) and this, the most complete version of the legendary California Concert: The Hollywood Palladium ever heard, newly re-mastered from the original eight-track masters. The new two-CD set doubles the content of the original five-song, two-LP release with five additional tracks – three of them never-before released – and restores the original concert sequence for the very first time ever. It also represents the best sound these performances have ever had. The cast of participating musicians on this date reads like a “who’s who” of jazz for 1971, when the concert was recorded. The now legendary assemblage is peerless and includes George Benson on guitar, Freddie Hubbard on trumpet, Hubert Laws on flute, Stanley Turrentine on tenor saxophone, Hank Crawford on alto saxophone, Johnny Hammond on organ and electric piano, Ron Carter on bass, Billy Cobham on drums and Airto Moreira on percussion. It is one of the finest recordings in the whole CTI catalog and it contains all of the label’s star performers of the time at their very best, in often exciting interplay with one another, playing their CTI hits including “Red Clay,” “Sugar,” Fire and Rain,” and “It’s Too Late” as well as the newly added gems, “So What,” “Straight Life” and “Impressions.” This newly constructed concert program is an absolute classic, filled not only with great players playing at or above their best, but also brimming with some of the era’s most definitive music. This is an essential addition to any jazz collection and a strong argument for just how good jazz could be in the early 1970s – especially for those who think otherwise: proof positive that CTI Records not only had much to say to jazz listeners of the day but to true music lovers of all generations.
Bitches Brew 40th Anniversary - Miles Davis (Columbia): The original title of this album was meant to be Listen to This and no better appellation applies to the original 1970 album (which took five separate purchases over some fifteen years before making any sense to me) or this incredible set. Here producers Richard Seidel and Michael Cuscuna have assembled in one giant box the original LP, perfectly reproducing Abdul Mati Klarwein’s striking and memorable cover art, the album on two CDs plus two newly discovered alternate takes and four single edits (none of these six tracks appeared on the 1998 box set The Complete Bitches Brew Sessions), a never-before issued CD of a terrific 1970 concert at Tanglewood featuring the Bitches Brew material, a never-before issued DVD of a fascinating 1969 concert in Copenhagen, with a smaller Davis group captured three months after the album was recorded and a stunningly beautiful booklet detailing the origin and importance of this music. All told, it’s a remarkable celebration of some especially remarkable music. A compendium of two concerts from this period – one at Newport in 1969 and the other, the great, never-before officially issued Isle of Wight concert in 1970 – will be issued in February 2011 as Bitches Brew Live and will duly help complete this magnificent presentation.
Hawaii Five-O - Morton Stevens (Film Score Monthly): One of the most sought-after of rare-groove soundtrack albums of all time is the 1970 Capitol soundtrack to Hawaii Five-O, the CBS television show starring Jack Lord (and James MacArthur, who died in October of this year) that ran from 1968 to 1980. The music was composed by the West Coast Director for CBS from 1965 to 1977, Morton Stevens (1929-91), and featured one of TV’s best and best-known themes of all time, made famous in 1968 by The Ventures. The album, containing some of the coolest and jazziest soundtrack cues on record has long eluded fans and long been desired as a CD release. Fortunately, the great Film Score Monthly – no doubt prompted by the recent resurrection of the show with an all new cast – was granted permission exactly forty years after the LP’s original release to finally bring the Capitol album out on CD. There are no extra tracks, alternative takes or anything from the show’s actual score. No matter. It’s hard not to love each and every one of the dozen performances featured here, many spotlighting LA’s finest session players and – in many cases – members of The Ventures, all uncredited. TV music expert Jon Burlingame’s inspired, informative and incisive notes are worth the price of admission alone. While it’s unbelievable that Morton Stevens isn’t better known today, this release of the great Hawaii Five-O is an excellent reminder that Stevens deserves to be held in as high acclaim as other such oft-celebrated film/TV groovers as Schifrin, Goldsmith, Fielding, Grusin and any number of others are. This is a stone-cold classic that deserves to be heard and appreciated by as many people as possible.
Jazz Raga - Gabor Szabo (Light in the Attic): A long hoped-for dream of seeing this unusual relic of the psychedelic 60s (and a time when jazz ideas were more inspired), finally came true this year when Light in the Attic issued this East-meets-West classic, featuring some of Gabor Szabo’s best music and some of his best guitar playing and the debatable quality of his overdubbed and out-of-tune sitar. I find it to be absolutely perfect…and would never want to change a thing. A lot of the guitarist’s best music was featured here and the obscure album probably ranks in the top five of all the guitarist’s 21 solo albums. It’s also quite nice to hear Szabo’s “Galatea’s Guitar” – from the guitarist’s excellent 1968 recording, Dreams - featured on the soundtrack to this year’s Golden Globe nominated film The Kids Are All Right.