Notable Jazz Recordings Of The 1980s (Pt. 1) Re-Evaluating A Decade

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This three-part summer project is an attempt at finishing up something I first launched on my Cerebral Decanting website back in September of 2011. An unofficial poll amongst fellow musical fanatics had sent me digging through favorite and favored releases from 1983 to pick out ten album highlights, and while my eventual list was as heavy on post-punk and indie as I’d suspected at the outset (Go-Betweens, R.E.M., and New Order took top honors), the strong showing from the jazz world surprised me a bit, if only because so few look to 1983 as any kind of banner year for America’s greatest export. And yet the evidence was there.

I’d long wondered how one of the most-maligned of jazz decades might hold up to tough scrutiny, once you pawed aside the few chart-toppers and looked past the dated technology marring plenty a release, and after compiling a short mental list, I decided a multi-part series highlighting great jazz recordings released between 1980 and 1989 might prove a rewarding re-evaluation. In the end, I settled on thirty recordings, which will be broken up into ten records per post over June-July-August.

So, a few brief explanatory notes - this will in no way be a definitive list or even a Greatest Jazz Recordings of the 1980s project. Instead, it will be an attempt to highlight strong albums, offer a wide-ranging overview of the period, and give some indication of how rich the decade was. I’m purposefully avoiding many popular, well-known, and even critically acclaimed artists and releases - you won't see much evidence of the ascension of Wynton Marsalis and the Young Lions who followed in his stead. Nor does the Downtown scene of John Zorn make much of an appearance. Most of my choices will fall somewhere between the realm of harder-edged mainstream and the maturing avant-garde, which means many releases are challenging but not explicitly experimental. I get a lot of my best jazz tips from places like the Penguin Guide, and also fellow travelers Tom Hull and Christopher Monsen, and maybe they'll have a few suggestions/reactions/disagreements. No real order to this, not even alphabetical, but each post will run at least in rough chronology.  Look for Part Two in mid-July.



Jack DeJohnette, Special Edition     (1980)     (ECM)

It takes a special kind of drummer to bring forth albums consistently tumbling over with melody rather than percussion extravaganzas, and DeJohnette’s early familiarity with the piano no doubt partially explains why he remains one of our most musically expressive drummers. He sustains a pulse like few others, too – just check out his funk turn with Miles, or his peerless time-keeping duties with Keith Jarrett. What he brings to this first of several Special Edition groups (recorded in ’79 but released early the following year) is a willingness to guide proceedings while allowing his sidemen plenty of room to roam, and roam they do – teaming emerging sax provocateurs Arthur Blythe and David Murray was an inspired move, and hearing them duel over the multi-part “Zoot Suite” or playing Ornette Coleman-inspired twin leads on “One For Eric” offers a glimpse of the way new jazz would continue to move away from unstructured radicalism towards an “inside/out” worldview, at least stateside. Try pairing this record with another end-of-previous-decade ensemble piece, Blythe’s own Lenox Avenue Breakdown, featuring DeJohnette and better tunes. But that album lacks the two lovely back-to-back Coltrane tributes found here – a gentle take on “Central Park West” (with more than a hint of “Naima”) and the droning “India,” with DeJohnette opening on piano. 


Cecil Taylor Unit, The Eighth     (1981)     (hatOLOGY)

Some adherents claim Taylor’s solo piano performances best capture the man’s essence, with ringside seats offering the closest approximation possible to an improviser literally wringing sweat from an abused keyboard. But without visuals, sixty minutes of piano improv can prove wearying. So be glad for the many Cecil Taylor Unit albums in all their various guises, stripped down here to the basics of Taylor, his twenty-five year musical companion Jimmy Lyons on alto sax, and the rhythm team of William Parker and Rashid Bakr. A single workout recorded live in Germany, casually entitled “Calling It The 8th”, this hatHUT reissue contains moments devoted fans insist only Taylor can deliver. The percussive thumps and chants that open proceedings are just a little tribal kitsch from a guy campier than sobersided theorists admit. Brief lulls of loveliness move quickly into dark lower-range rumbles, building to the patented sharp jabs that have helped define Taylor as the percussive pianist of note the way Jack DeJohnette defines the pianistic percussionist of note. Six minutes in, that soft opening seems little more than mirage - Lyons and Taylor trade wild solos, with the leader’s blindingly fast keyboard work suggesting not only standard Powell/Monk-isms, but ragtime serialism as well. Never devolving into noise or high energy screech, what ultimately proves disconcerting is how non-chaotic this quartet’s maelstrom really is. After a few grandiloquent moments in the “third movement,” the performance ends, with Taylor leading the band back on for a ten-minute encore named “Calling It The 9th”. Taylor the crowd-pleaser.   

Dewey Redman Quartet, The Struggle Continues    (1982)    (ECM)

Make no mistake, this is a tour de force, but it’s so unshowy about it you kind of understand why the most common gripe upon initial release was how indiscriminate Redman’s detours seemed. This isn’t the free jazz screecher who came out of Fort Worth’s famed I.M. Terrell High School Band, that storied hothouse for young Texas talent that produced Redman, Ornette Coleman, the future Prince Lasha, and Charles Moffett. Nor is Redman channelling the same wooly avenues of abstract expressionism perfected during his decade with Keith Jarrett’s American Quartet. If anything, this is where Redman’s playing personified the philosophy lurking behind a concurrent project’s title: Old & New Dreams. The second line intuition of New Orleans-born Ed Blackwell gets carried over from that ensemble, while former Motown pianist Charles Eubanks brings a try-anything goodwill to his solos and accompaniment. The five-minute free jazz detonation of “Combinations” will satisfy the adventurous, but that cut’s frenzied swing seems one option among many under Redman’s expert consideration. Charlie Parker’s “Dewey Square” and Redman’s own “Joie de vivre” follow the saxophonist’s bright bop lines as they barrel over the changes, while ballad “Love Is” hints at weepy grandiloquence worthy of “Misty” before shifting into waltz time. And Texas is definitely in the house: consider the bluesy swagger of the very Ornette “Thren” and the roadhouse honk of “Turn Over Baby,” in which Mark Helias shamelessly pops some electric bass while Redman channels fellow Lone Star hornman Arnett Cobb.   


George Adams / Don Pullen Quartet, City Gates    (1983)    (Timeless)

Adams was the tenor sax powerhouse who emerged from the Mingus band to team with fellow Mingus sideman pianist Don Pullen, a truly formidable duo that waged war against standard post-bop jazz until the mid-80s. Not all this power transferred equally well to recordings – at times, a weird commercial sheen overtakes their better instincts, with Adams’ sporadic rough vocals charming some and turning others off. So while their finest document as a working outfit may be a pair of 1983 Village Vanguard recordings, this studio set from the same year (recorded in Holland, our European brethren yet again keeping the art form breathing) is where the curious should start. Three extended fast ones with consistently memorable melodies encircle the album, each allowing Adams plenty of room to show off his deep bag of tricks – blues phrases, sweet melody lines, gruff roars, and free jazz wail – while Pullen continually astonishes, his boogie-woogie/Cecil Taylor keyboard attack in full swing. Two slower ones serve as bookends within the album, and while the flute samba thing might edge a tad close to the smooth stuff for die-hards, there are no complaints about a five-minute unadorned sax-piano exploration of the old spiritual “Nobody Knows The Trouble I’ve Seen”. 


Lee Konitz, Wild As Springtime    (1984)

Konitz rests comfortably alongside Lennie Tristano and Warne Marsh as a definite exemplar of West Coast Cool, even if Konitz hailed from Chicago and just as often pursued a fairly radical agenda embracing solo saxophone (1974’s Lone-Lee, nearly as groundbreaking as Braxton’s For Alto from a few years prior) and free improvisation. Given that he spent much of the 1960s in partly self-imposed musical exile, his resurgence beginning in the mid-70s is all the more startling, especially in the way he’s given Braxton a run for his money in sheer documentation. This duo session with pianist Harold Danko resulted from a working relationship that claimed several earlier albums and a tour, leading producer Elliot Meadow to bring the two together in the studio. Effortless interplay that never once settles into complacency, like so much of Konitz’s best work it can seem remarkably easy to listen to until one remembers to follow along, at which point his improvisational gifts slowly begin to wow – a mere cerebral technician he is not. The set list runs from Chick Corea to Chopin. Plus, the very weird “Hi Beck,” an exercise in high octave piano tinkling, and a closing free improvisation that encompasses Konitz’s artistry in two minutes – adventurous yet lovely, cool to the end.


Joe Bonner Quartet, Suite For Chocolate    (1986)

Restrained swing from a piano-vibes quartet could be too tasteful for many, but this under-recorded pianist took advantage of a decade-long patronage at Denmark-based Steeplechase to explore a quiet, rewarding, modal-oriented conception of modern jazz. At times bright (unsurprisingly so, given the chiming interplay between Bonner and Khan Jamal’s vibraphones), at other times swirling, it brings to mind the backboned lyricism of Andrew Hill. Still, tasteful really is the key adjective here – one would be forgiven for never suspecting Bonner was featured on Pharoah Sanders’ avant-groovefest Black Unity back in 1971 – and as a committed composer of warm (some might say corny) melodies, he skips lightly over the supple swing produced by his bandmates. Atonal when he wants to be, defiantly lovely the rest of the time, he’s just another marginalized figure with talent and a delicate touch.



Andrew Hill Trio & Quartet, Shades     (1986)     (Soul Note)

A mid-60s tenure at Blue Note with the enthusiastic support of Alfred Lion remains Hill’s finest run – indeed, one of the finest runs of that decade, and the clearest example of Blue Note throwing its weight behind an emerging New Thing figure. Point Of Departure is merely the most celebrated of nearly a dozen albums recorded between 1963-1969, all of which belie his forbidding reputation as the most difficult intellectual of the experimental scene. Not that his intelligence is in any doubt. But this is playful music with generous respect for tradition and a complexity in structure that never degenerates into showboating. In fact, one listens in vain across his career for unnecessary flourishes. The 1980s saw a drop in output, although not quality, and on Shades, he lightheartedly dares the audience to nail down his influences. Monk, as always, seems a likely suspect, especially since Hill utilizes Monk’s mid-60s drummer, Ben Riley, and opens with “Monk’s Glimpse”. But the second track switches tactics for a semi-exotic rhythm supporting gentle chords both moody and grand. And while this trio number may be the album’s high point, the tracks incorporating saxophonist Clifford Jordan help vary stylistic flow, with Jordan’s bright tenor resting comfortably alongside Hill’s more classic (not classical) leanings. Indeed, it’s just like Hill to tap an overlooked figure like Jordan, who once blew alongside Dolphy in the Mingus Band but never joined the free jazz scene. So wrack your brain for comparisons – Monk, Herbie Nichols, Bud Powell all fit the bill. But while some might cry foul, I can’t help but be reminded at times of the telekinetic interplay of Keith Jarrett’s Standards Trio. Which is another way of saying that Hill was very much his own man.



Marilyn Crispell, For Coltrane   (1987)

Until Matthew Shipp arrived on the scene, it's hard to think of fewer younger pianists compared as incessantly to Cecil Taylor as Crispell, and despite the laziness inherent in such pigeonholing, no informed listener could deny her technique owed much to Taylor’s brand of contemporary classical and the avant-garde – her time with Anthony Braxton only removed Crispell further from the jazz mainstream. But it was John Coltrane who first turned her head, and on this dense solo set, she returns the favor. Hardly a tribute album, she offers abstract runs that quote fleetingly from four Trane compositions, ranging from “Dear Lord’s” late-era modality (and the record’s loveliest passage) to Blue Train’s bop warhorse “Lazy Bird”. In between comes a violent 15-minute “Collage For Coltrane,” which becomes ever more percussive and forceful as the suite progresses, eventually leading back into rapid trills and worrying around the edges of tonality. A blurry ride, with quick idylls.


David Murray Trio, The Hill    (1987)

Loft Jazz pioneer, dogged composer, World Saxophone Project visionary, ostensible big band leader, Deadhead – from the minute his epochal Flowers For Albert dropped in 1976, David Murray has amassed an intimidating cache of releases encompassing wide swaths of post-swing jazz. Ayler was, unsurprisingly, his most noted influence, and many others cite Coltrane, but with the passage of time, I think more often of Sonny Rollins – at the very least, Murray’s singular voice on tenor conjures up positive comparisons with the warm, sexy, audacious physicality of prime Sonny. Returning as he does again and again to old compositions, never satisfied with previous incarnations or arrangements, to stroll through Murray’s vast back catalogue is to continually rediscover familiar songs, and this Black Saint session (based on a one-off November club engagement) epitomizes his hunger for reworking old ground. Whereas his octet hovered darkly and noisily around “The Hill” on 1980’s Ming, several years later he’s paired it down to a mere trio, with Richard Davis and Joe Chambers playing elders to his just-turned-thirty. On “Herbie Miller,” he trains his gaze on the sometimes-confounding bass clarinet, employing all manner of screams and clicks against Davis’ arco bass. For Billy Strayhorn’s “Chelsea Bridge,” he plays glowing-ember warm lines against chiming vibraphone in one of the loveliest ten minutes from that or any other year. And he takes on Duke Ellington, riding a finger-snapping rhythm while honking and blowing overhead, veering between Ben Webster and, yes, Albert Ayler. 



Paul Bley Trio, BeBopBeBopBeBopBeBop     (1989)

Bley’s forbidding reputation as out-jazz pioneer began during his early stint with Ornette Coleman in 1958, along with seminal recordings for ESP in the mid-60s. Since then, he’s racked up a dizzying number of challenging albums ranging from solo piano (1972’s Open To Love, 1983’s Tears) to trio and duo workouts. But only on this unexpected release did Bley fully flex his bebop chops. With Bob Cranshaw and Keith Copeland offering strong support, he never once talks down to his material, even when it’s as familiar to him and us as “Night In Tunisia” or “Ornithology”. But he sure messes with tradition, studiously avoiding playing the changes as he’s done throughout his entire career. Deploying perfectly sensical musical choices that can still bring listeners up short, Bley defensively protects each melody before spiraling off, proving one can embrace the past without ever once feeling beholden to it.