Be careful, the old saw has it, what you wish for. For a long time now, many of us boomers have wished that the mainstream record companies would rediscover the glories of the vinyl LP. Now, a few of them are doing just that. Sony has released new 33-1/3 rpm slabs of vinyl from Columbia’s classic jazz catalogue—Charles Mingus’ Ah Um and a bonus LP as part of the deluxe box commemorating the 50th anniversary of Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue. Blue Note has gone further still, reissuing a dozen of its old titles in vinyl, packing both a CD and an LP inside the 12” record jackets, presumably so you can hear a comparison.
Hemispheres, the new two-CD album by guitarists Jim Hall and Bill Frisell, is the year’s first jazz masterpiece, a work of spontaneous lyricism as glittering and joyful as anything either has recorded (and, given their histories, that’s saying a lot). Hall, who’s 78, and Frisell, who’s 57 and something of a protg, both have a tendency toward doodling when they’re not anchored by a rhythm section. But Disc One—10 tracks of barebones duets (including Milt Jackson’s “Bags’ Groove,” Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War,” Hall’s anthemic “Bimini,” and several pure improvs)—are loose-limbered and air tight, the two trading harmony and melody, then merging the strands to the point where it’s unclear who’s playing what but it meshes and sings all the same. Disc Two—10 more tracks, mainly standards (“I’ll Remember April,” “Chelsea Bridge,” “My Funny Valentine,” “In a Sentimental Mood”), the guitarists joined by Scott Colley on bass and Joey Baron on drums—is no less free-spirited. Colley and Baron, who have played as sideman to both as well as many others, aren’t the sort to lay down rhythmic law; they splash color and weave textures along the leaders’ sinuous lines.
It’s fair to ask how many audiophile pressings of John Coltrane’s Blue Train do we need? Yet Mike Hobson of Classic Records makes a compelling case for this answer: one more. Classic is putting out a whole new type of LP, and though its technical tweak seems preposterous—a parody of vinylphilic obsession—it really does yield a substantial improvement; it makes the head spin.
Here’s my list of the 10 best jazz albums of 2008. An elaboration, with 30-second sound clips illustrating my points, will appear tomorrow in my column in Slate. (Some of you may notice that I’ve mentioned most of these CDs in this blog through this year.)
Wayne Shorter marked his 75th birthday with a concert at Carnegie Hall last night. The show began with the Imani Winds, a spirited quintet of woodwinds and French horn, briskly traversing Villa-Lobos’ “Quintette en Forme de Choros,” followed by the world premiere of Shorter’s own classicial composition, “Terra Incognito.” (Let’s just say Gunther Schuller has nothing to worry about.) Exit Imani Winds, enter the Wayne Shorter Quartet, sparking lusty applause but not much after. Shorter’s band was, as usual, great. Danilo Perez, piano; John Patitucci, bass; Brian Blade, drums—not many rhythm sections can whip up such a turbulent swing. But it’s incomplete by design, it screams out for some saxophone colossus to rise up against the storm with a mind-blowing solo or a lyrical cri de coeur, something that sharpens the tension or takes your breath or simply excites. Shorter was once a master at this art, the designated heir to Coltrane and a more agile composer to boot. Check out his sessions with the early-‘60s Jazz Messengers and mid-‘60s Miles Davis, or his own albums, especially See No Evil and Juju or his 2001 recording with this same quartet, Footprints Live! But in recent years he’s been prone to laziness, and last night fit the bill. Occasionally, he’d lock into a groove and start to slide into a melody, a coherent passage that lasted a few bars, but then he’d back away and retreat to riding scales and wailing random whole notes. For the last few numbers, the Imani Winds returned, and the two ensembles played together. The arrangements, by Shorter, weren’t bad; his playing had its moments, but fell well below his peak potential. Toward the end of the quartet segment, Shorter quoted his old boss Art Blakey as saying, “When you get to a certain age, you don’t got to prove nothin’!” Maybe so, but, as Blakey demonstrated till the very end, when he was only a few years younger than Shorter is now, you’ve still got to come out and play.
Maria Schneider and her 18-piece orchestra play their annual Thanksgiving week gig at the Jazz Standard starting Nov. 25 and continuing till the 30th (except for Thursday, when the club is closed), and if you’re in the tri-State area, you should reserve seats now, as her shows usually sell out. Regular readers of this blog may recall my previous ravings about Schneider. A former student of Gil Evans and Bob Bookmeyer, she is the most sumptuous jazz arranger on the jazz scene today, having absorbed her teachers’ penchant for lush stacked harmonies and added a flair for Latin rhythms, a propulsive sway, and a dry wit. Her pieces are lyrical, even rhapsodic, but also taut, even muscular. Much of the band has been playing with her for over a decade, to the point where they’re nearly Basie-tight. Her most recent CD, Sky Blue, topped my 2007 list of best jazz albums (except for Charles Mingus’ previously unreleased Cornell 1964 concert-recording). I’m told she’ll be playing many songs from it and from her 1996 album, Coming About, which she’s just re-mastered and re-released. All of her albums are on the ArtistShare label, the artist-owned music collective, and are available only through her website, mariaschneider.com.
Last Friday at the Jazz Standard, I saw clarinetist Don Byron play compositions from his 1996 Bug Music, maybe his greatest album, certainly one of the most exciting jazz albums of that decade. It features music from the ‘30s by John Kirby, Raymond Scott, and Duke Ellington—an era largely neglected by jazz musicians and historians.
One of my favorite jazz bands, Ben Allison’s Medicine Wheel, is playing at the Jazz Standard Nov. 4. Allison is an enticing bassist and composer, agile and inventive, flitting from Herbie Nichols to film noir to raga, ska, funky blues, and straight-ahead jazz without showing a seam, loosening his wit, or abandoning the melody or the swing. The band is first-rate (regular readers will recognize most of them): Frank Kimbrough, piano; Jenny Scheinman, violin; Ted Nash and Michael Blake, reeds; and Michael Sarin, drums.
Andrew Hill, the knotty avant-garde pianist, and Chico Hamilton, the boisterous polyrhythmic drummer, seem an unlikely pair at first (or second) glance. But they set off fascinating fireworks, and carved out sinuous jags of common ground, in a duet recording, Dreams Come True, just released on Joyous Shout!, an Indiana-based label that I’ve never heard of. (Its website seems to be a sort of shrine to Chico Hamilton merchandise.)
Jenny Scheinman is one of the liveliest, quirkiest jazz musicians out there, a violinist with folk roots, a kind of bluegrass cadence, and a deepening mastery of improvisational idiom. She’s playing at the Village Vanguard through this Sunday with Jason Moran (the best pianist on the scene), Greg Cohen (one of the two or three best bassists), and Rudy Royston (a drummer who’s new to me but he’s very good too). If you’re in the tri-State area, go see her.
Speakers Corner Records, the German audiophile vinyl reissue label (distributed in the U.S. by Acoustic Sounds), has one of the more diverse jazz catalogues, drawn from a variety of golden-age labels (Verve, RCA, Impulse, Columbia, among others). Three new additions are worth mining:
It’s been a year and a few months since I’ve seen Anat Cohen, the young Israeli-born jazz clarinetist, play live, and she’s grown still more assured and supple, her swing more insouciant, her tone more sheer and gorgeous. She and her quartet began the early set at the Village Vanguard last night with “Jitterbug Waltz” (as she did the previous time I saw her there) and breezed through it with breathtaking speed, but not just as some virtuosic show: there was brio, gusto, real delight in her playing, as she slid in and out of a slew of styles and rhythms—trad, bop, Latin, quasi-klezmer—seamless and natural and fresh. And so it went through the set, with ballads and blues and multiculti sonic frescoes. She plays tenor and soprano sax as well, though the licorice stick is her glory (second only to Don Byron in fire, versatility and skill). The band consists of the agile Jason Lindner on piano, Daniel Friedman on drums, and Joe Martin (replacing Omer Avita) on bass. The gig continues through this Sunday. She also has a new album, Notes from the Village, which is nice and fine (though I prefer her earlier quartet disc, Poetica, both on her own Anzic label).
Sonny Rollins played at Central Park tonight, as part of the Summer Stage series, and what can I say. A month shy of 78 years old, the man is still a titan, a force of nature. Of course, nature has its cycles, and typically, Rollins in concert takes some time to crank up—you can almost see the gears grinding, then sliding, then grinding, then finally whizzing and swirling with jaw-dropping speed, effortlessly, pulling spins and loop-de-loops as they go. Tonight he hit one such peak in the second song, “Valse Hot,” where he shifted into sheets-of-sound, a la early-‘60s Coltrane. Amazing. Then the concert coasted for a while, sinking into occasional longueurs, the latter due (as usual) to his band, which simply isn’t in his league. It would be fine if they just comped along—kept up the beat, laid down the chords, plucked out the bass line—while Rollins soared to the stars and back. But he’s a very generous man, so he gives them way too much to do. Sometimes they get by (trombonist Clifton Anderson played really well), sometimes they don’t. Twice he traded bars with a bandmate—once with the drummer (who, when his turns came, played the same thing each time), once with the percussionist (who, puzzlingly, played nothing at all). A drag. But then an hour into the concert, the earth moved, as it often does at least once or twice at these events, which is why we keep going to see Sonny Rollins whenever we can. During his solo on “Sonny Please,” he locked into the rhythms of the cosmos and rode them in a dozen directions—a bop cadenza for a couple dozen bars, then an Aylerian wail, then intervals that sounded like something out of Berg (if Berg could do jazz), then something like the brushstrokes of a de Kooning action painting if de Kooning had played the tenor sax instead of the paintbrush, and on it went for 10 or 15 minutes, never repeating a phrase—except when he returned to blow the theme for a couple of bars every now and then, just to keep the rocket in orbit—all the while never losing his grip on the essentials: beauty, wit, swing, and the blues. There’s nothing like him.