Revinylization #46: Chronic Jazz from Craft Recordings & ECM

Today's scrappy record labels understand that an intimate brand connection captures consumers. Every major label has its own boutique imprints, from Columbia's Legacy to Blue Note's Tone Poet and Classic Vinyl. Craft Recordings, the catalog label for Concord, is set up well for achieving such a connection, since the parent company also owns Fania, Prestige, Milestone, Pablo, Telarc, Vanguard, Concord Jazz, and Riverside (not to mention Stax, Rounder, and Sugar Hill). For vinyl reissues, that's the jazz motherlode.

Craft created Jazz Dispensary to reissue some of this music, with shall we say uplifting goals: "With jazz as its source, ... Jazz Dispensary blurs boundaries and opens minds to the psychoactive potential of music, introducing a new generation to the grooves that elevated the hippest heads of the '60s and '70s." One Jazz Dispensary review copy came with branded rolling papers.

Jazz Dispensary's "Top Shelf" sublabel concentrates on reissues from the funky '70s stars: Top Shelf vinyl is itself top-shelf, cut from original tapes, remastered by Kevin Gray, and pressed at RTI. The LPs are housed in sturdy tip-on jackets coddled in polyethylene sleeves.

The most recent Top Shelf reissues are from drummers Idris Muhammad (Black Rhythm Revolution!) and Jack DeJohnette (Sorcery), organist Leon Spencer, Jr. (Where I'm Coming From), and trumpeter Woody Shaw (Blackstone Legacy)—all in support of Jazz Dispensary's commitment to " funky good time, a mystic journey, a powerful inspiration."

Born in New Orleans, studio drummer Muhammad arguably had the most potent funk groove this side of Bernard Purdie and Clyde Stubblefield. Black Rhythm Revolution!, from 1970, steams, smokes, and slides. The album's lock-step cast including Virgil Jones on trumpet, Clarence Thomas (no, not the one from the Supremes) on tenor and soprano saxophones, Harold Mabern on electric piano, Melvin Sparks on guitar, and Jimmy Lewis playing electric bass. Muhammad contributes two songs, but it's the deep-in-the-pocket grooves and searing ensemble interplay on "Express Yourself," "Soulful Drums," and James Brown's "Super Bad" that make this record a must-own.

Leon Spencer's Where I'm Coming From is cut from similar cloth, though performed by a larger ensemble (including Hubert Laws, Grady Tate, and Frank Wess) with a more obviously pop angle. A grinding "Superstition" and Curtis Mayfield's "Give Me Your Love" allow Spencer to stretch out on scorching Hammond B3. Spencer's last session for Prestige as a leader, this is '70s New York funk to full effect.

I nearly fell over when I learned that Jazz Dispensary was reissuing Jack DeJohnette's 1974 album Sorcery. A rare title, Sorcery draws on DeJohnette's years with Miles Davis, open-ended, fiery soloing, with more than a nod to fusion and the Mahavishnu Orchestra. Joined by Bennie Maupin on bass clarinet, John Abercrombie and Mick Goodrick on guitar, Dave Holland on bass, and Michael Fellerman on metaphone, DeJohnette can't escape the '70s—which works against him on, for example, the nerve-wracking rock-crossover "The Right Time," featuring DeJohnette on shout-vocals, and the over-simple "Rock Thing," which lands like lead. But the six-track "The Reverend King Suite," which covers the bulk of side 2, is moving. It's followed by Keith Jarrett-like sweetness on "Four Levels of Joy." It's uneven, but for fans of '70s experimental jazz, this is an easy recommendation.

Some of the finest examples of early-1970s jazz composition and improvisation can be found on Woody Shaw's Blackstone Legacy. Shaw provides lyrical, blazing, sometimes percussive trumpet salvos atop compositions now recognized as classics. Adding some of their greatest performances on record are drummer Lenny White, keyboardist George Cables, saxophonist Gary Bartz, and electric bassist Clint Houston.

Blackstone Legacy is not feel-good, easy-swinging, Sunday-go-to-church jazz but a passionate declaration of attitude formed in the Black ghetto, emboldened in '60s riots, and burnished on bandstand and studio. "The 'stone' in the title is the image of strength," Shaw wrote in the liner notes. "I grew up in a ghetto—funky houses, rats and roaches, stinking hallways. I've seen all of that, and I've seen people overcome all of that. This music is meant to be a light of hope, a sound of strength and of coming through. It's one for the ghetto."

The title track, which covers the first of four sides, sets the mood what's to come. "Lost and Found" moves into semifree territory. "New World" balances brief horn-ensemble blasts with immersive solos by Shaw, Maupin, Cables, and White. The closer, "A Deed for Dolphy," is an upbeat elegy. It sounds like it could have been recorded yesterday, and I mean that in a good way.

Some find the music on the label Edition of Contemporary Music, aka ECM, too laid-back, its characteristic production reverb soaked. No one, though, can doubt the strength of the label's roster, which includes Keith Jarrett, Pat Metheny, Chick Corea, Dave Holland, and Bill Frisell. ECM has started a new, vinyl-only reissue series, Luminessence, after the Jan Garbarek album.

The packaging of Luminessence reissues varies, from facsimiles of the originals to fancy gatefolds with fresh art and liner notes. I've received three albums so far; the provenance isn't revealed case by case, but the website states that "Many of the re-issues are cut from the original analog master tapes." The reissue of percussionist Naná Vasconcelos's Saudades sounded clearer and more sparkling than my original copy. Kenny Wheeler's Gnu High (ECM Records 450 5346) and the self-titled Old and New Dreams also sounded stellar, as befits the label's 54-year legacy.

Rashers's picture

The Jazz Dispensary records were released by VMP last yea, they are really engaging and sound good. Blackstone legacy is one of the great albums of Jazz - powerful, intense, almost overwhelming. Fabulous mastering and presentation.
I have one complaint, though: virtually every US review of an ECM release or reissue is presaged by a comment like “some may dislike…” some people dislike Avant Guard jazz - but such addendums are never added. I find these comments to be a bit chauvinistic because the label is European. ECM is spectacularly popular and Manfred Eicher has released dozens if not hundreds of classic titles. The Jarrett. Kenny Wheeler, Dave Holland sides are just the tip of the iceberg. Virtually every release sounds audiophile. You don’t have to look for some superstar mastering engineer when you buy the vinyl releases: they all sound great.

Jim Austin's picture

I rarely reply to comments, but I feel like I can safely respond to this one without opening a can of worms. You wrote:

I find these comments to be a bit chauvinistic because the label is European. ECM is spectacularly popular and Manfred Eicher has released dozens if not hundreds of classic titles.

ECM is very popular. ECM is easy to listen to (with some but rather few exceptions). As a consequence, here in America, it has come to be thought of as perhaps a bit too easy--too "easy-listening"--and not quite serious in terms of hard-core jazz. That widely held opinion may indeed be wrong, even unfair, but it has nothing to do with the fact that the label is European.

I have listened to many ECM titles that have put me to sleep, or come close. I blame myself. There's a bit of Zen in this, in the sense that serious Zen practitioners can sit silent and sill for hours, their minds clear, without falling asleep. If I were more disciplined, I'd be able to dig out the real substance to that album. Without falling asleep. But instead it makes me sleepy and the substance eludes me.

A handful of ECM albums, though--mostly from the CD era--are favorites. Some are ECM New Series--classical. But I'll stick to jazz. John Hassell: Last Night the Moon Came Dropping Its Clothes in the Street. The End of a Summer by the Julia Hulsmann Trio. Still Live by the Keith Jarrett Trio--though to be honest, I kinda wore that one out in the 1980s and '90s. Lots of other Keith Jarrett, including The Melody at Night, with You and At the Blue Note. Paul Motion, Lost in a Dream. Among recent stuff, anything with Enrico Rava (thank you Tom Conrad). How about Life Goes on with Carla Bley, Andy Sheppard, and Steve Swallow?

These are some of my all-time favorites in any jazz subgenre. Yet, if I get a new ECM CD in the mail, I can never know which way it's gonna go, sleep or stimulation. It's nothing to do with the fact that it's German.

As for not labeling Avantgarde jazz--well, don't we? I'm not sure, but, while I'm a fan of much of it, it probably should come with a warning label. If we don't label it as consistently as we label ECM--well, we probably should.

Best Wishes,

Jim Austin, Editor

Rashers's picture

Buy Der Wan - reissued on vinyl a few years ago.

ken mac's picture

I love ECM. I collect ECM. The ECM catalog is a deep dive dispensary for jazz lovers, lovers of improvisation, lovers of exquisite sound, and tonally lush, forward thinking music. My faves include Terje Rypdal's To Be Continued, Ed Blackwell and Don Cherry's El Corazon, Steve Coleman's Triplicate, Bill Frisell's Rambler, Peter Ersksine's debut album, both Bass Desires albums, Keith Jarrett's 70s and 90s ECM output, Dave Hollands big band CDs, and all Paul Motian, Rainer Bruninghaus, Bobo Stenson, and Arild Andersen ECM albums. The problem is, ECM refuses to do a serious reissue campaign, though it looks like they're finally getting started. BUT! he first time they began a reissue series, they dropped the ball. Let's hope Luminessence corrects that.