Since the dawn of the CD era, the Legacy division of the Columbia and Epic family, now owned by Sony, has done a masterful job reissuing classic recordings under the “Jazz Masterpieces” imprint. The latest batch in the series includes six excellent but mostly forgotten albums from the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s, and a collection from one of the most influential pianists of the early ‘50s. As is typical in this series, each contains the original liner notes along with new essays from musicians and writers connected with the artists and the records, and most contain previously unissued bonus tracks.
Fat-toned tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon had been an American expatriate living in Copenhagen for 14 years when he came home for an engagement at the Village Vanguard in December, 1976. The subsequent double record set, Homecoming: Live at the Village Vanguard, was met with critical acclaim and fan adoration, leading to a two-year burst of creative energy that reestablished his credentials as one of the finest musicians to emerge from the bebop era.
Recorded in May, 1978, Manhattan Symphonie was Gordon’s fourth album to come out of that two-year whirlwind. It’s also his best. Employing his working band of the past year, this disc is an eye-opening revelation, even for those familiar with his other recordings. Ranging across a setlist that goes from warhorses like “Body and Soul” and “As Time Goes By” to John Coltrane’s “Moment’s Notice,” Thelonious Monk’s “Ruby My Dear” and Donald Byrd’s “Tanya,” Gordon, pianist George Cables (whose enlightening essay on those days is included here), bassist Rufus Reid and drummer Eddie Gladden give a series of lessons in how acoustic, small-group jazz should be played.
Trumpeter Woody Shaw received a great deal of attention himself when he shared the frontline with Gordon on that triumphal Homecoming set. Columbia added him to their roster as a result, and he went on to compile a well received five-record discography over the next few years. Stepping Stones: Live at the Village Vanguard, considered one of the best of the many albums recorded at that Greenwich Village landmark, came out on vinyl in 1979 and has long been out of print.
Performing mostly original material, Shaw and his quintet play a seven-song set filled with extended improvisation that presents live jazz at its finest, showing both the instrumental and compositional skills of the players. The title track itself is a catchy romp that should be in the book of more jazz bands, and drummer Victor Lewis’ “Seventh Avenue” is also memorable. Saxman Carter Jefferson, who also graced Homecoming and played with Shaw in Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, plays the perfect foil to the leader’s cornet and fluegelhorn, and the rhythm section flat-out burns.
Speaking of Art Blakey, one of his most adventurous outings is included in this batch of CDs. Drum Suite, from 1957, starts off with the three-piece “suite” referred to in the album’s title. Employing a five-man percussion section plus pianist Ray Bryant and bassist/cellist Oscar Pettiford, this trio of tracks is much more musical than one might imagine from the beat-heavy lineup, mixing Swahili chants and Afro-Cuban rhythms to create a mesmerizing listening experience.
Side two of the original record featured an early version of the Jazz Messengers that included Jackie McLean on alto sax, and the three bonus tracks are performed by another, shorter-lived edition starring trumpeter Donald Byrd. As is typical of Blakey’s hefty Messengers catalog, these six cuts present trumpet/sax straightahead jazz as good as it gets.
In a new reminiscence included in the reissue of his 1956 recording, Silver’s Blue, Horace Silver explains that it was really a Jazz Messengers recording too, but without Art Blakey on drums. Silver had been a part of the original group that played under the “Messengers” nom de plume, as had saxophonist Hank Mobley and bassist Doug Watkins. Byrd was almost an original in the trumpet chair. All join Silver on this disc.
Though his best known album would be Song for My Father in the mid-‘60s, Silver’s Blue is a masterwork from the bluesy side of hard bop presenting a setlist that’s half originals and half from elsewhere, including a gorgeous walk through the Gershwins’ “How Long Has This Been Goin’ On” and a memorable reinvention of “I’ll Know” from Guys and Dolls.
For me, the best of this lot is probably Bob Brookmeyer and Friends, placing the valve trombonist in the company of a bunch of the best young jazzmen of 1964. Saxophonist Stan Getz was considered the star power at the time, as “The Girl From Ipanema” was just hitting the top of the charts when this was laid down. Brookmeyer had selected Herbie Hancock and Ron Carter, then with Miles Davis, and Coltrane drummer Elvin Jones as his band for the date, and Getz brought along his 21-year old vibist Gary Burton. The result is sublime, a mix of the boneman’s originals with standards like “Misty,” “Skylark” and “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face.”
The instrumental blend is unique and intoxicating. You rarely hear a valve trombone, and Brookmeyer’s technique is exquisite. Getz sounds like no one but himself, and he’s at the peak of his career, his playing full of the sweet, soulful emotion that marked his finest work. The addition of Burton’s vibes gives the proceedings a distinctive touch. Among the bonus tracks is a delicious Tony Bennett vocal take on Ellington & Strayhorn’s beautiful “Day Dream.”
Another instrument not usually found out front in a jazz group is the baritone saxophone. In fact, the bari is generally heard only as part of a multi-horn lineup and stands out primarily in those low-end bah-dops found most often in soul music.
But Gerry Mulligan took the bari sax to places it had never been before and hasn’t been since, most notably in the Birth of the Cool sessions with Miles Davis, in his piano-less quartet with Chet Baker, and in several summit sessions with other horn players like Ben Webster and Paul Desmond. The 1962 studio date that yielded Jeru (a nicknamed coined by Miles) was a one-off gathering that brought in pianist Tommy Flanagan and bassist Ben Tucker as well as congaman Alec Dorsey in support of Mulligan and producer/drummer Dave Bailey. The result, the saxist’s first outing as the sole horn, is 36 minutes of truly cool, mellow jazz.
Mulligan’s former employer, Davis, was not known for handing out effusive praise. But everything I’ve read about him indicates that he was a huge fan of Ahmad Jamal’s piano playing, being quoted as saying “all my inspiration comes from Ahmad Jamal.” A trip through The Legendary Okeh & Epic Recordings gives some hint of why. This is tasty, tuneful, drummerless trio music, with Jamal free to roam across a bed of guitar and bass. Recorded in the early ‘50s when the pianist himself was only in his early 20s, it’s amazing how well these 21 tracks hold up, and how much variety these guys come up with. This is what you’d like to be sitting in a Granby Street club listening to with a martini in your hand and a special someone by your side.
All seven of these discs are worthy of any jazz lover’s consideration. The only negative is the copy-protect technology embedded in these CDs that prevents a direct transfer to your iPod. Sony blames it on Apple; Apple blames it on Sony.
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