The Return of the Black Saints (and Soul Notes)

In some of the standard histories, jazz went to hell in the 1970s—first losing its structure to the avant-garde, then losing its harmony and rhythm to rock-funk fusion—before recovering its senses and sensibility in the ‘80s, thanks mainly to Wynton Marsalis. As with most myths, there’s a little bit of truth to this chronicle; things did take a bumpy turn in the ‘70s (though some of the avant-garde and the fusion was a lot more interesting than the broad-brush detractors would have you believe). But the revival of melody, structure, beauty and wit was hardly the doings of Mr. Marsalis. A movement was well afoot—the critic Gary Giddins called it “neo-classicism”—a few years before the young trumpeter moved from New Orleans to New York. Many other, somewhat older musicians had already been making their ways to “the jazz tradition” through the path of the avant-garde. It was on that anti-traditional road that they found their voices; so when they shifted course, they had something distinctive to say. They breathed life into the music of old and so, ironically, embodied the creative impulses at the heart of jazz with far greater fidelity than those who solemnly recited the phrasebooks of Pops, Bird, and Miles.

Most, nearly all, of these musicians recorded on one of two Italian labels in the ‘80s—Black Saint or Soul Note. Both were distributed in the US by Polygram Special Imports, until the late ‘80s when various mergers shut the subsidiary down, leaving the two foreign labels were homeless. But during their few years of prominence in American record bins, they acquired the same reputation among modern jazz fans that Blue Note had enjoyed in the 1950s and early ‘60s. Especially Black Saint was the label you had to buy if you wanted to hear what was happening. It had a signature; its music was adventurous but accessible, experimental but swinging, soaring to the stars but tethered to the earth. (The sound quality was usually quite good, too.)

Many of the LPs were transferred to CD, but they were increasingly hard to find. I have recently been made aware of a Black Saint website, where nearly all of the two labels’ albums are for sale. (Thanks to trumpeter Dave Douglas, whose blog noted the site’s existence.) Each CD costs 14 euros, which, because of the Bush administration’s horrid economic policies, translates to a lot more American dollars (as of today, about $20) than was the case a few years ago (when it would have been about half as much). But so it goes.

Here (in alphabetical order, by artist) are some of my favorites:

George Adams-Don Pullen Quartet, Don’t Lose Control, Hand to Hand; Geri Allen-Charlie Haden-Paul Motian, Etudes; Muhal Richard Abrams, The Hearinga Suite (17-piece big band); Billy Bang, The Fire from Within; Ed Blackwell-Dewey Redman-Charlie Haden-Don Cherry, Old and New Dreams; Ran Blake, Suffield Gothic, Duke’s Dreams; Anthony Braxton, 6 Monk’s Compositions; Dave Douglas, Five; Andrew Hill, Shades, Verona Rag; David Murray, Home (octet), The Healers (duets with Randy Weston), Morning Song (quartet); Cecil Taylor, For Olim; Tom Varner, Martian Heartache; Mal Waldron, Sempre Amore (duets with Steve Lacy), Seagulls of Kristiansund (sextet); World Saxophone Quartet, Revue, Steppin’.

Buy any and all of them. You won’t go wrong.