Pieces of the Puzzle

Early on I only collected the most innovative and experimental jazz I could find. After turning 30 and having a major success with the Bad Plus, my collector’s aesthetic began embracing mainstream jazz from the ’70s and ’80s, essentially from shortly after the death of John Coltrane to just before the rise of Wynton Marsalis, specifically music that was not made by the biggest names nor supported by any sort of significant critical discourse.

These working class straight-ahead players were usually (but not always) African-American and NYC-based. Some might argue that there are more satisfying recorded examples from the glory years of the ’50s and ’60s, when society at large was more interested in jazz overall. Nonetheless, this music is absolutely valuable, and in some cases really, really great.

During the 2020 pandemic I had time to listen to my stash and diary varied examples.

Joe Albany Bird Lives! 1979. Rough around the edges: it sounds like neither Albany or Art Davis are playing many gigs at the moment, so it is up to Roy Haynes to keep the beat steady. In that sense, the record is a masterwork, as we get to hear the great Haynes be a flexible Papa Jo Jones (he stays on the high-hat quite a bit) while working around the loose bassist and pianist. Albany’s lines are fresh, there’s no banal received wisdom to be heard from that quarter, and I stole a voicing from his presentation of “Yardbird Suite.” The engineering from a young David Baker does Haynes’s drums no favors.

Art Blakey Art’s Break 1972. Not every edition of the Messengers is equally celebrated. This obscure live Lotus LP boasts trumpeter Bill Hardman in a fiery and distinctive performance. Tenor saxist David Schnitter is right in there on the mainstream tip, while pianist Mickey Tucker is a glossy and high-energy player somewhat in the vein of John Hicks or Ronnie Mathews. Bassist Cameron Brown plays well but sadly is far too hot in the mix; when people complain about the bass on ’70s records, this LP is what they mean. Indeed, it is hard to hear the drummer clearly over the bass (as unlikely as that sounds). The planned drama of a Blakey show is very much in evidence, every solo builds from a whisper to a cry. There’s one surprising repertoire choice, Woody Shaw’s “Perception,” where the band sounds especially happy. It’s really great to hear Blakey’s fiery drumming fuel a modal excursion like this.

Art Blakey and the All Star Jazz Messengers 1982. All star is right, with Freddie Hubbard, Bennie Golson, Curtis Fuller, Cedar Walton, and Buster Williams aboard. The Japanese Baystate looks nice but the recorded sound and overall production is a bit unorganized, without enough drums in the mix and bass solos that are consistently longer than the piano solos. It’s very interesting to hear these masters play “Moanin'” and “Blues March” years after the fact. The biggest star is surely Hubbard, who blows almost as hard as did with VSOP. Benny Golson is surprisingly abstract in his phrasing, and contributes a memorable new piece, “City Bound,” one of his best from the era. As good as it is, something of a missed opportunity.

Kenny Barron Landscape 1984. Japanese Baystate production with Cecil McBee and Al Foster. An easy, mellow listen. Barron has been heard more often with the truly classic situation including Buster Willams and Ben Riley, but the grouping of Barron-McBee-Foster is also a confab of peers that share the same information. This studio date, while being still essentially acoustic straight ahead, is also a shade “pop” in execution. “Spring is Here” could almost be for smooth jazz radio, and I mean that as sincere compliment.

Illinois Jacquet In Swinging Sweden (1978) A fun and freewheeling session with a divine cast, Joe Newman, Jimmy Rowles, George Duvivier, and Walter Perkins. The repertoire has no surprises (“The Sunny Side of the Street,” “Darn the Dream,” blues and rhythm changes) but Jacquet was a quintessential big band musician and each track has fun structural elements. Naturally, it’s all done with grace and surreal swing, both Jacquet and Newman “talk” through their horns. The obscure S.I.R. label offers an amazing cover photo of the band but the engineering sits Perkins far in the back. However, Duvivier fans will want this one, for he’s playing out and really driving the session. Rowles is casually creative, nobody else would be quite this risky in this situation.

Albert Dailey Textures (1981) Trio with the “Dexter Gordon rhythm section” of Rufus Reid and Eddie Gladden. Dailey’s originals like “Textures” and “Pogo” identify with the post-bop and modal world of Jarrett and Chick Corea. It’s well done, but the Ellington and Dameron ballads (“If You Could See Me Now” is solo piano) are more to my taste. Lesser-known tenor saxophonist Arthur Rhames, who in some circles is better known as an innovative guitarist, lights it up in Coltrane-inspired fashion on “The Dues We Have to Pay.” If Rhames, Dailey, and the rest of the quartet had played a week in a club before recording there might have been a masterpiece to be found…

Sam Jones Changes ‘n Things (1977) A jammin’ Xanadu sextet date with Blue Mitchell, Slide Hampton, Bob Berg, Barry Harris, and Louis Hayes. Wonderful music from a group of peers who understand the same information. It must be one of Blue Mitchell’s last sessions but he crackles with blues just like always. Slide Hampton had something to do with arrangements and plays great too, talkin’ that bop through the bone. Newcomer Bob Berg was appreciated for his Coltrane-inspired frenzy. Barry Harris and Bob Berg together is sort of unusual, and indeed, Barry himself is perhaps a shade mid-aligned with this aesthetic overall, playing waltzes, modal music, Coltrane changes, and Benny Golson’s “Stablemates.” Louis Hayes is at the top of his game with his classic partner, the very very great Sam Jones. Jones’s best feature is a bluesy rendition of Oscar Pettiford’s “Laverne Walk.” On this same track Barry lays down the law in relaxed fashion as only he can. Once again, the main problem is the reproduction, these dim sounds desperately need a remaster. Chris Sheridan’s extensive liner notes include many intriguing biographical details. There should be an authoritative biography of each member of this sextet, but that doesn’t seem to be the way it works in American music.

Lee Konitz Figure & Spirit (1977). Noted Tristanoite Ted Brown joins Lee in the front line accompanied by a heavy black NYC rhythm section of Albert Dailey, Rufus Reid, and Joe Chambers. It’s a worthy listen, everyone is willing to make music together. The presence of Brown and those thorny unison heads and contrapuntal horn improvs perhaps make the affect more “Tristano” than needed; I would have preferred to simply hear Lee play standards with the cats the way he does on the classic LP Motion. The opening “Figure & Spirit,” based on “Body and Soul,” begins straight out with Lee blowing his slightly chilly but nonetheless beautiful and soulful lines over Dailey’s conventionally excellent comping; this special effect is the most memorable moment on the LP. Still, top-shelf Lee in this era is harder to find than earlier; Figure & Spirit is certainly preferable to the Nonet or most of the Milestone albums. It’s also nice to hear Joe Chambers play a “straight” date in the mid-70s, he sounds great of course.

Johnny Griffin, NYC Underground (1977). Griff tracks a live set from the Village Vanguard with Ronnie Mathews, Ray Drummond, and Idris Muhammad. Begins with a swinging version of the old operetta chestnut “Yours Is My Heart Alone.” Naturally Griff is all over the horn, double time lines blazing, and the arrangement has some cute tricks. This is kind of a classic 70’s rhythm section, I especially admire Muhammad, who turns every corner with street-wise insouciance. “Alone Again” is an original ballad, a worthy composition that might deserve to be heard more often. Even better is “Let Me Touch It,” which despite a raunchy title is rather oblique and Monkish in effect. Griff’s solos gather heat as they go, a master of the language. Naturally, the way uptempo “Rhythm-A-Ning” ends up being the highlight, with a concluding frenzy that borders on the ludicrous.

Norman Simmons, I’m….the Blues (1981) Simmons is best-known as a vocal accompanist, and perhaps that’s a pity, for he certainly is a great straight-ahead pianist with a heavy and swinging touch. His charming liner notes introduce his friends, Jimmy Owens, Clifford Jordan, Leslie Atkinson, and two astonishing drummers rarely recording in this era, Vernel Fournier and Al Harewood. While billed as a quintet, many tracks are trio, with lots of groovy blues piano flourishes and superb ride cymbal beats. Simmons even sings on one number. The longest track, “Good Humors,” is a bit exotic and modal in flavor, and Jordan is heard to surprising effect on alto. Owens sounds very good and melodic in this 60’s vibe and Fournier is the busiest I’ve ever heard him. A truly deep cut for a vicious blindfold test! I would have thought this boutique production for the obscure MJP label would be rare but it’s available on all streaming services…

Harold Land, A New Shade of Blue (1971) For a time Harold Land and Bobby Hutcherson had a valuable partnership, and some of the bootlegs are really extraordinary. This Mainstream date offers the Mwandishi rhythm section of Billy Hart and Buster Williams with William Henderson (best known for a long association with Pharoah Sanders, and who seems to have passed away while I was working on this post) and, on one track, Mtume. The immense swagger of Mchezaji and Jabali together keeps a studio date moving right along despite the length of the tracks. Harold Land was originally a be-bopper but he studied Coltrane with the best of them. His slightly lighter tone is distinctive although he possesses brawn and brain as well. Hutcherson is great, of course, but perhaps he could be just a tad louder in the mix. Henderson isn’t really a major stylist but he understands the language and plays the harmony perfectly. Nods to the current moment include the 6/8 “Mtume” and “Angela” dedicated to Angela Davis. My favorite track is the most frankly virtuostic, the incendiary and pentatonic “De-Liberation.” However all the tracks feel great, truly any time to hear Buster Williams and Billy Hart swing out together is a reason to celebrate. While from 1971, this style seems absolutely current. Indeed, between the moderately advanced composition and the colorful chord scale blowing, this could easily be a group hitting at Smalls in 2020 — except, of course, the young players study the tradition, while this group of masters are the tradition.

Sonny Criss Saturday Morning (1975). Sonny Criss was a serious be-bopper whose peripatetic lifestyle denied us enough documentation of his extraordinary talent. He’s in that Sonny Still bag a little bit but with a simpler kind of harmonic perspective and another kind of open-hearted vulnerability. On this fine straight ahead date the ballads like “Angel Eyes” and “Until the Real Thing Comes Along” are simply phenomenal; the latter has a heartfelt declamation of the melody surrounded by double- and triple-time filigree. Leroy Vinnegar and Lenny McBrowne are a great West Coast rhythm section and the vibes are good all-around. (Amusingly, Vinnegar loses the form on the title track, a simple E minor blues, perhaps he’s been looking at too much paper in the L.A. studios.) All the Xanadu dates with Barry Harris are worth hearing; Harris was at a peak in this era and producer Don Schlitten was on the same wave length. “Tin Tin Deo” shows Barry in somewhat funky frame of mind; he also gets a trio “My Heart Stood Still” (still one of his favorite pieces) that is an album highlight. The piano is out of tune but who cares?

Sonny Stitt Mellow (1945). The most consistent jazz musician in the studios? There are so many Stitt albums, I’ll never hear them all. This is a somewhat unusual date, with only Barry Harris being a typical Stitt collaborator, the rest of the musicians are wild cards of one or another: Jimmy Heath (heard on soprano and flute as well as tenor), Richard Davis, and Roy Haynes. The Muse production is typically bare bones, the piano is out of tune and the drums should be louder in the mix, especially since Roy Haynes is far more in control of a good beat than Richard Davis. It’s interesting to hear Davis play a straight session in 1975, he’s good on the ballads but the swingers are a shade chaotic. The liner notes by Gary Giddins (who also produced the date) are rather shocking, he’s quite frank about what he perceives as Stitt’s strengths and weaknesses. I’d agree with most of what Giddins says but it’s either alarming or refreshing to see it on the LP jacket. The session is heavy on ballads (thus the album title) but for me I prefer it when they get into the blues on “A Cute One” and throw down the uptempo bop on “How High the Moon.” Heath puts some modernist heat on Stitt (he’s especially good on “Moon”) but the elder doesn’t seem to notice much, both horns just cook away.

Earl and Carl Grubbs The Visitors (1974). The Grubbs brothers were cousins of Naima Coltrane; they knew John well and have a substantial cameo in the biography Chasin’ the Trane. This is some Philly stuff, including the rhythm section of Kenny Barron, Buster Williams, and Tootie Heath. A nice disc! Great swinging vibe in the band. Carl plays alto and Earl plays tenor, and while there nothing really unexpected happening in their post-Coltrane language, and I suppose there are a few rough edges, the emotion is fresh, engaging, and authentic. The melodic original tunes are convincing and the all-stars sound happy to be with the brothers. Tootie plays a couple of amusing big fills that shows he’s been listening to Billy Cobham. I really enjoyed listening to this one.

Albert Dailey The Day After the Dawn (1973?) There’s got to be a backstory here, for this is pretty unlikely debut for a straight-ahead jazz pianist, a fancy and excellent-sounding LP for Columbia with a sexy cover, a rendition of the gorgeous “Theme from Clockwork Orange,” notes from W. Carlos, a few chamber music additions (the title track sounds like Bill Evans with Claus Ogerman) and even one totally overdubbed wall of sound fantasia, “Free Me.” It’s all pretty interesting, but perhaps Dailey doesn’t have a strong enough profile as a composer to make for a truly durable project. In addition, certain elements just don’t make sense, like the vaguely rock ‘n roll guitar solos by Jack Wilkins and an elegiac essay by Mike Zwerin that isn’t even about Albert Dailey. The best things are no-frills trios with Richard Davis and wonderful under-recorded New Orleans drummer David Lee. If I had been in charge, I would have commissioned Carlos to write an neo-baroque suite for just that trio, something on a John Lewis tip, and filled out the date with ballads and blues. H’mm.

Philly Joe Jones, Philly Mignon. Nat Adderley, Ira Sullivan (who, like William Henderson above, passed while I was working on this post) George Cables, and Ron Carter confab for the drum legend. Once again, the potential is really undercut but frustrating engineering. Strange as it sounds, on the opening “Confirmation” the drummer can barely be heard except when he is soloing. The music is otherwise starts out fine, the white Chicagoan Ira Sullivan more than holds his own next to the black New Yorkers, but it’s hardly fair to Sullivan that Dexter Gordon “just dropped by” and ended up being featured on two long quartet tunes. Benny Bailey’s modal “Neptunis” (a kind of slowed down version of Woody Shaw’s “The Moontrane”) with Gordon is immediately more in the pocket, while Gordon’s declamation on “Polkadots and Moonbeams” is naturally definitive. Cables sits out on the two other tunes with Adderley and Sullivan, and this helps the sonic image considerably. “Jim’s Jewel” is not that memorable, but Ron’s “United Blues” is a classic tune and everything comes to life.

Bob Mover In the True Tradition (1981). Mover is a bit of an underground musician, a great bebop alto master and also an important teacher. This trio date features Rufus Reid and another unsung legend, drummer Bobby Ward, who reportedly was a big influence on Tony Williams. Ward’s busy polyrhythmic approach (try “Poinciana” and a few insane fills on “Blues for Bobby Ward”) and unheralded rep suggests an alliance with Edgar Bateman and Donald Bailey. Perhaps this date is more of a valuable document than an entirely successful LP, for (strangely) the repertoire is all rather fussy and unsuited to a piano-less instrumentation. Mover’s intervallic opening cadenza to Strayhorn’s “Something to Live For” is gorgeous but when the band comes in, it seems so wrong to play such a rich piece with no middle voices. Only “Blues for Bobby Ward” and “Evidence” hits the right unforced groove.

Bob Mover, Things Unseen! (1982) The basic unit for the follow-up was Albert Dailey, Ray Drummond, Bobby Ward. The first track, a way up rendition of the very old chestnut “Bye Bye Blues” has a pretty damn remarkable alto solo. Some of Mover’s concept comes from the stop and start gestures of Sonny Rollins, and one can hear Mover and Ward almost wrong foot the New Yorkers. Tenor saxist Steve Hall joins for a dedication to another mysterious Boston figure, “Twardzik,” where the band is almost swinging too hard (?) for the delicate textures; this complex piece might have benefitted from a more Tristano-esque approach. And so the rest of the LP goes, with magical and humdrum and humdrum side by side. Still a very interesting listen, very much a piece of the puzzle.

Stacy Rowles with Jimmy Rowles, Tell It Like It Is (1984). Stacy Rowles had a gorgeous sound and effortless melodic sensibility, somewhat in the tradition of Chet Baker and Tom Harrell. I’m not sure why she didn’t make more records or have more of an impact, she surely ranked with the interesting trumpeters of her generation. Of course, Her dad and Donald Bailey were two of the most idiosyncratic “straight ahead” musicians ever to have a professional career playing jazz, and neither Jimmy nor Donald hold back while making a debut disc for Stacy. Some of this is just nuts, and I mean that in the best way. Indeed, “Alabama Home” gives us one of the all-time great Donald Bailey performances. Pops is all over the piano in his most mysterious and Ellington-esque fashion. The LP is held back by tenor saxophonist Herlin Riley and bassist Chuck Berghofer; in small group creative jazz of this caliber there’s no room for people who merely do a good job. Compare the blowing of Stacy Rowles to Herlin Riley on the familar standard “There is No Greater Love”: Rowles improvises pretty melodies, Riley plays standard-issue 70s and 80s tenor stuff. However Riley does give nice heft to some rarely heard hard bop heads by Lee Morgan and Wayne Shorter, “Most Like Lee” and “Tell It Like It Is.”