Masterpieces, Curiosities, Farewells, Anniversaries, Societies

Jazz collectors and serious fans know there’s nothing else like Mosaic Records. At this point they have curated hundreds of the finest box sets ever produced. These sets are limited editions and appreciate in value: If the Monk, Bud Powell, Mingus, and Herbie Nichols LP boxes I saved up for in high school were in pristine condition they would fetch a lot of money today.

Apart from the music, the booklets are extraordinary, full of rare photos and informed liner notes. An important seed for DTM was planted by the exquisite essay by Roswell Rudd for the Nichols box.

The latest Mosaic release The Complete Clifford Jordan Strata-East Sessions collects two Jordan albums, In the World and The Glass Bead Games, and several more that Jordan produced: Cecil Payne Zodiac, Charles Brackeen Rhythm X, Wilbur Ware Super Bass, Pharoah Sanders Izipho Zam (My Gifts), and the previously unreleased Shades of Edward Blackwell.

Jordan is one of the great jazz tenor saxophonists, a man who always sounded like the blues but who had no problem embracing the avant-garde. The crown jewel of the set, Glass Bead Games, is widely regarded as one of his best albums. (Recently I called it “…A marvelous document of a kind of post-Coltrane black music that honors the Aquarian Age yet still has tough hard-bop roots.”) In addition to the unforced spirituality of the leader’s tenor, Glass Bead Games is a terrific place to appreciate Billy Higgins playing a variety of soulful grooves. These days I regard Elvin Jones and Billy Higgins as part of the same family, and Glass Bead Games just might be Exhibit A.

Higgins always credited Ed Blackwell as his teacher, and for those that care about Blackwell, this box is a kind of holy grail. For years a bit of In This World was the only example of Blackwell and Wilbur Ware playing together, although discographies listed 1968 sessions led by both featuring the other. Finally, last year the Wilbur Ware Institute put out Super Bass with poor sound and indifferent production. The Mosaic set improves the sound (especially by boosting the drums), lists the composers of the tunes, and includes the two Blackwell/Ware tracks never heard before from Shades of Edward Blackwell. Since both dates are from 1968 and have piano-less quartets with Don Cherry, it is natural to think of them as companion pieces.

I wrote before:

For Wilbur Ware, music was a way to have a family and a community; an expression of his masters and of himself; a way to rise up out of oppression. Super Bass is about as Afrocentric as you can get. The session was originally for the Dolphy series on Strata-East, the first significant jazz label run by black musicians. All the musicians are basically untouched by any European classical ethos, instead incarnating what Ralph Peterson called the “Energy of the motherland and the fire and fury of what we’ve survived as people in the Middle Passage.”

Wilbur doesn’t play anything that isn’t intimately bound up with oral tradition. Neither does Blackwell. What a pair! Intensely personal, tribal, indomitable patterns emanate in a circular and almost completely un-improvised fashion from the bass and drums. They swing hard, but they aren’t going to help anyone else swing. They are immovable forces. Fortunately, Cherry and Jordan never needed anybody’s help to sound great. It’s particularly exciting to hear the horns deal with some mid-tempo rhythm changes on “Wilbur’s Red Cross.” Jordan is Sonny Rollins on acid, Don is salutations, fragmentations, and flashes of pure melodic invention.

There are two terrific solo bass pieces. “Symphony for Jr” seems to reflect on past experiences and “By Myself” is mostly fabulous walking. Both are informed by a collection of canonical jazz quotes that Wilbur plays in his own way. They can’t be played better than they are here: Wilbur’s sound, phrasing and time are impeccable.

From the new Blackwell session, “Farid” is the obvious keeper, where Blackwell and Ware play a menacing groove together for eight precious minutes. There’s no good academic way to talk about this kind of simulaneous rigor and looseness. Probably it is essentially African in nature. Don Cherry sounds so good playing on top of it, I almost started dancing. The tune is by mysterious Luqman Lateef, an excellent tenor player who apparently never had a professional career.

The rest of the Blackwell date includes several nice pieces for drum choir that are a bit monochromatic for home listening. (Live would be another thing.) It’s more pure fun to return to Charles Brackeen’s Rhythm X with Blackwell, Cherry, and Charlie Haden. Again, the sound is a bit rough but I’m sure Mosaic has done the best anyone has managed yet (at least one of the previous CD issues was unlistenable). I always contend that Ornette Coleman’s greatest music was the sum of its parts: the “Old and New Dreams-esqe” aura of Rhythm X — not to mention much of Super Bass and “Farid” — will delight any traditional Ornette fan.

It’s a shame there isn’t more of this kind of 1968 music extant. Ware, Blackwell, Jordan, Cherry, Haden, and Brackeen are all in good form and eager to experiment. But apparently we have Clifford Jordan to thank that any of it was recorded at all.

There is a bit of a downside. Jordan clearly didn’t have a budget: Besides the raw sound, the piano Wynton Kelly plays on two records is woefully out of tune and uncharismatic. And perhaps Jordan didn’t have enough experience to put together impeccable sessions. Was Jordan’s edict to record only original tunes that smart a decision? Some of the tracks are the thinnest of excuses for new material (“Wilbur’s Red Cross” is “Red Cross,” “A Real Nice Lady” is “Sophisticated Lady”), but honestly that bothers me less than full albums of tunes that the ensembles don’t know well enough to make their own. Most obviously, Payne’s Zodiac is a missed opportunity: if it had been a comfortable blowing session of standards there’s every chance it would have been immortal. Instead the mixed bag of originals with struggling Kenny Dorham and awkward overdubs by Kelly is almost hard to listen to.

Still, full props to Jordan for attemping some amazing things that a conventional producer wouldn’t have allowed. “Ouagadougou” from In This World is one of the most outrageous jazz tracks ever recorded. A sardonic D-minor line played unison by Jordan and Richard Davis leads into near-chaos with Richard Davis, Wilbur Ware, Ed Blackwell, and Roy Haynes all playing mid-tempo modal swing together. I don’t listen to much “extended chant” jazz — the Pharoah Sanders cuts here are for someone else, not me — but my god, does this chaotic “Ouagadougou” conjure the sublime. Dorham and Kelly sound great on this tune as well. Along with Ware this is their sunset period, and it’s nice to have them going out in such a celebratory and Afrocentric fashion.

Posterity is lucky that Clifford Jordan gave all this experimental and uncompromising music a shot. The best of it is sensational. Mosaic’s production is outstanding as always: The photos are marvelous and the notes by Willard Jenkins informative.

Jazz has lost some major figures recently. I don’t have a unique take on Chico Hamilton, Jim Hall or Stan Tracey. I admire them all, and wish I knew their music better.

To mark Hall’s passing I downloaded These Rooms with Tom Harrell, Steve LaSpina, and Joey Baron. Surely one of the best from 1988; Hall and Harrell are a perfect match. I’ve never heard better LaSpina and this is one of the best periods for Joey’s gentle jazz playing.

I’d also note that Hall was one of the great duo guitarists. In addition to a lot of fabulous sides with Ron Carter, there’s also a rewarding live record with Bob Brookmeyer.

As for Tracey, one time I wandered way, way out to the the fringes of London to hear him at a little club. He was known as the “Monk-influenced” English pianist, so I wanted to check it out. The gig didn’t make much of an impression; he was pretty good but the rhythm section wasn’t professional. However recently I heard some live Tubby Hayes with Tracey from the late 50’s that was terrific.

DTM just celebrated Morton Gould’s 100th birthday but did nothing for his exact contemporary Benjamin Britten. Again, this is someone I need to learn more about. I have tickets for Billy Budd at BAM in February. Read Alex Ross: both a personal note in his blog and the more official story in The New Yorker.

Via Alex, I looked at this intriguing polemic by John Halle and Halle’s further thoughts. Clearly Halle is on to something. I remember how furious I got at David Byrne for attacking the idea of “learning Mozart.”(My essay is “Same As It Ever Was.”) But I don’t know political theory and get lost in some of Halle’s more erudite references. Also, as I get older, I’m less concerned about the state of classical music in America then the state of jazz music in America.

What Halle’s piece made me think of, once again, is my slogan “SAVE COMMERCIAL MUSIC.” I don’t know how to save the symphony, but is it too much to ask for intellectually stimulating music in our current, socially relevant television and film? At one point our country dominated those industries with imaginative scores, which were usually informed by European classical music. These days big-budget entertainment frequently uses home studio tracks made by composers who are only one step removed from a demo track from the first keyboard you’d run into at Guitar Center. Surely some of Halle’s worthy concerns about class would be lessened if society encouraged at least a minimum amount of harmonic and rhythmic complexity in our sonic wallpaper.