As I first noted in my introduction to Part One of this summer-long series, this isn't meant to be any kind of Best Of The 1980s Jazz list: far too many key artists are missing, far too many gaps left gaping. Rather, enjoy it as a kind of sampling of what the decade had to offer. Again, there's no real order to this aside from a roughly chronological one. Ten more to come in August. Until then, enjoy reading, and please seek out the recordings you're unfamiliar with. There's more where these came from.
Roscoe Mitchell And The Sound Ensemble, Snurdy McGurdy And Her Dancin’ Shoes (1980) (Nessa Records)
The Chicagoan never tired of assembling new agglomerations - from his early days in the AACM to the creation of the Art Ensemble Of Chicago through his mid-70s establishment of the Creative Arts Collective, the acronyms arose as fluidly as did the improv. And from that latter collective came the Sound Ensemble, in which Mitchell made room among his sizable reed/woodwind collection (soprano, alto, tenor, and bass sax, plus clarinet and flute) for trumpet/guitar/bass/drums. The group’s concurrently released 3X4 Eye on Black Saint explores more rarefied zones of creative music: "Variations on a Folk Song Written in the Sixties,” hmm. But the wryly-titled Snurdy McGurdy is where Mitchell does his damnedest to annoy the highbrows, opening with bucolic flute and wind chimes before a frenetic oom-pah breaks into ensemble hornwork over Tani Tabbal’s drum kit avalanche. A jaunty Braxton march croaking with bass sax (“Composition 40 Q”) and the little instrument jingle of AEOC-ish “Cyp” shore up his iconoclastic tendencies. And “Stomp And The Far East Blues” yokes A. Spencer Barefield’s chitlin’ circuit guitar to a lowdown funky boil, the group key-jumping their way through a broad quotation from none other than Little Peggy March before the tablas show up.
Frank Lowe Quintet, Exotic Heartbreak (1981) (Soul Note)
Upon his death in 2003, Frank Lowe occupied a strange position in contemporary jazz – a supposed avant-gardist who more often than not echoed the gentler sounds of pre-bop stylists like Chu Berry and Lester Young. While his earliest appearances on vinyl were pretty scorched earth (see his 1973 pairing with Rashied Ali, Duo Exchange), beginning with his mid-70s Black Lion dates, Lowe perfected a unique approach to tenor saxophone that critics Richard Cook and Brian Morton have democratically dubbed “backward-looking modernism or radical conservatism”. Never a mere throwback and certainly not afraid to let loose with a mighty roar, Lowe had a voice that only gradually opens itself up to casual listeners. Exotic Heartbreak is a quintet recording that includes Butch Morris on cornet, slowing down just twice for gutbucket blues on “Close To The Soul” and the title tune’s formally arranged slow-ballad exploration. Elsewhere, Lowe drives the band in a focused swing that blends the seemingly tossed-off with practiced mastery. Perhaps condemned to relative obscurity due to his deeply attractive lack of flash, Lowe’s body of work begs for rediscovery.
The Ganelin Trio, Ancora da Capo (1982) (Leo Records)
International communism undoubtedly helped stoke Western interest in this collective, and the fact that contemporary fans and critics rarely reference this seminal Soviet outfit suggests their reputation for subversion (musical and otherwise) had as much to do with Nobel Prize-like political scorekeeping as it did the mirthful jazz created by Lithuanian Jew Vyacheslav Ganelin and his compatriots, saxophonist Vladimir Chekasin and drummer Vladimir Tarasov. Only sometimes the Nobel committee gets it just right, and thirty years on, the curious can look beyond whispered tales of smuggled tapes and focus on the music itself. This two-part, eighty-minute compendium of a pair of European concerts often brings to mind the Art Ensemble Of Chicago – not just their little instruments and sprightly percussion, but their high/low dichotomy, their shtick, their duck calls, their insatiable appetite for music both central and peripheral to jazz, and a willingness to avoid the state-the-theme / then-improvise mode of expression that defined even the most out out-there jazz artists well through the 1970s. And just like the AEOC, all duties are divided equally – without insider knowledge, one might never guess the pianist was the ostensible leader. These two forty-minute chunks of music will no doubt try the patience of many. But this is far from austere or forbidding. Call it Russian Soul.
Misha Mengelberg, Change Of Season: Music Of Herbie Nichols (1985) (Soul Note)
Of course others before Mengelberg had recognized the unique voice of Herbie Nichols - Mary Lou Williams and Billie Holiday both knew a good composer when they heard one, while trombonist Roswell Rudd would pay multiple tributes to the one-time bandmate whose career as leader lasted a mere three years. But Mengelberg the former Fluxus associate nevertheless managed a radical reconsideration of the 1955-1957 source material, assembling this international session to transpose Nichols’s trio perfection into a unique soprano sax/trombone-led quintet (Steve Lacy and George Lewis, respectively, and how’s that for a front line). Misha had firsthand experience with genius foreshortened, having made his own debut on Eric Dolphy’s literal Last Date, and so like any tribute album, a heavy respect for the subject at hand somewhat limits surprises. But it was a gesture of magnanimity of the part of the pianist-leader to hand over melodic duties to the horn section, and the result is robust post-bop that celebrates the bluesy trickiness of Nichols the uncategorizable composer. Lacy and Lewis mesh perfectly: they nail the knowing kitsch of circus-woozy “The Happenings” and romp right through “Terpsichore”. And although both Mengelberg and drummer Han Bennink restrain themselves a tad, their mischievous Dutch wit shines through, as on fleet-fingered “Hangover Triangle,” in which Bennink incorporates actual tinkling triangle for understated comic effect.
Butch Morris, Current Trends In Racism In Modern America (1985) (Sound Aspects Records)
Butch Morris was always an outsider. A cornetist with mad chops, he early on betrayed a preference for large-scale operations, focusing his considerable intelligence on the finessing of ensembles and the sculpturing of sound. As the creator of Conduction, he wrestled against expectations - re-ordering improvisatory methods in aleatory fashion, coaxing decidedly non-orchestral performances from orchestral assemblies, hoisting his baton without first scratching out notation. Because Morris the Californian spoke of Debussy and Stravinsky as often as he did Duke and Horace Tapscott, he left himself open to charges of classical interloping from elitist gatekeepers, while the same jazzbos who rolled their eyes at Anthony Braxton questioned his ability to swing. Yet he swung as surely as Herman Blount himself, with an approach favoring jazz club risk over Cagean chance (provoking rather than conducting, in his own words), and this first document of Morris at work in the Conduction trenches finds a leader fresh off David Murray’s big band guiding some Downtown players through a live session cut at The Kitchen. And the sounds of 1985 Soho do reverberate: John Zorn’s game calls and water torture shrieks, Frank Lowe’s responsive melodic volleys, Yasunao Tone’s grumble-mumble vocal shtick, and merry prankster Christian Marclay scratching some Spoonie Gee into the mix. Cacophonic and grandiose, Ornette’s Free Jazz writ oceanic, the full 37-minute “Part One” requires patience from performer and observer alike, and it’s doubtful any mere recording could do Morris the equilibrist justice. But while he would refine his technique, and believers like Greg Tate would spread the gospel via Burnt Sugar in years to come, this first stab remains Morris at his most gloriously wooly.
World Saxophone Quartet, Plays Duke Ellington (1986) (Elektra / Nonesuch)
The key word here was never “saxophone” nor “quartet,” both of which were merely descriptive, but “world,” suggesting as it did both the -historical and -encompassing. Emerging from the Black Artist’s Group of St. Louis, MO (itself a challenge to NYC hegemony), the alto/alto/tenor/baritone ensemble of Julius Hemphill/Oliver Lake/David Murray/Hamiet Bluiett had been performing for nearly ten years when this major label-backed tribute to our most eminent symphonist appeared, and it’s practically a crowd-pleaser - even those struggling through previous WSQ albums in search of bass lines or cymbal/snare relief could get down with this treasure box of tunes. Focusing collective energies on Ellington the melodic genius rather than Ellington the arranger, WSQ tackled the big ones: “Take The A Train,” “In A Sentimental Mood,” “Sophisticated Lady,” sometimes caressing the familiar melodies, other times scattering them to the wind. Bluiett uses “Sophisticated Lady” as an opportunity to tip his hat to primary inspiration Harry Carney; Murray opens “Come Sunday” like a Coltrane Quartet dirge before transitioning to pre-Coleman Hawkins tongue-thwaps; all four ride the waves of smokily elegant “Lush Life” before summoning goosebumps on the uptown blues of “In A Sentimental Mood”. And while nothing gets too far out, Lake’s arrangement of “I Let A Song Go Out Of My Heart” turns the 1938 #1 hit into an unkempt flurry of abstraction before the melody emerges in the final moment like sun rays breaking through clouds. All to masterful plan.
Charles Brackeen Quartet, Worshippers Come Nigh (1987) (Silkheart)
Brackeen’s soberly brief discography doesn’t begin to hint at his influence and reputation, which stretches back to the late ‘60s and includes time with Strata-East and an appearance on Wildflowers, the legendary 1977 Downtown Loft scene chronicle. The liner notes to this release even suggest the Silkheart record label was partly founded to give Brackeen a voice for recording new material, and even if that’s promotional hyperbole, he remains a much-missed presence. With Olu Dara on cornet, Air alumnus Fred Hopkins on bass, and powerhouse Andrew Cyrille on drums, there’s actually very little of the post-Ayler spiritual hokum one might fear from the title. But Ayler’s ghost hovers near – “Bannar” especially resembles the kind of groggy marching band tune the free jazz giant might have made his own, while “Tiny Town” adds conga and pao de chuva to create a quasi-Caribbean tinge. But the screams of Ayler can also be heard in Brackeen’s crystal-clear tenor, even if he just as often suggests Arthur Blythe (others hear Sun Ra’s John Gilmore). The second half moves along a bit slowly. But both sides deliver the swing too often missing from post-Ayler spiritual jazz while never shying away from the spirited improv many of us hold dear.
Bill Dixon, Thoughts (1987) (Soul Note)
Although a two-decade association with Soul Note ensured this trumpeter/Jazz Composer’s Guild founder wasn’t exactly under-recorded, Bill Dixon’s archived output still seems shamefully sparse, as the long gap between 1967’s Intents and Purposes and 1980’s Bill Dixon In Italy illustrates. One could blame Dixon’s nearly thirty year ensconcement within Bennington College, but then you’d have to posit where else besides Bennington’s Paul Robeson House this disquieting examination of space and ambience might have come together. Because ambience is the thing - with microphones placed at great distance between soloists, the cavernous acoustics and huge silences of the room serve as de facto seventh member. And having long favored the unique sonorities of dual bassists, here Dixon thickens the plot with three: with Mario Pavone adding his voice to low-end giants Peter Kowald and William Parker, there are few darker hues in all of jazz. Oh, and there’s a tuba. Yet the massed resonance meshes perfectly with Marco Eneidi’s piercing alto and Dixon’s own mournful horn and occasional piano, bringing to mind Ayler’s reverberations deep inside 1965 Judson Hall. On such a glacial scale, small deviations jump out, from the snatch of double-bass melody opening “Song For Claudia’s Children” to the gunshot-like horn blats on “Points”. But mostly one simply surrenders to the probing mood. Unsettling, suggestive, unique, in the brewing luminous.
Karl Berger, Transit (1987) (Black Saint)
Sure, the Heidelberg-born vibist gets claimed by the avant-garde, as you’d expect from a sometime-academician who debuted on ESP and sat in on Carla Bley’s landmark Escalator Over The Hill. But don’t overlook his string arrangements for Jeff Buckley’s Grace, nor his own propensity for melodic scraps both pithy and tuneful. Less a composer than a songwriter, Berger’s own whimsical numbers often beg to be whistled, and although he rarely sounds like any of his fellow vibraphonists, the spirit of Ornette Coleman hangs heavily over this sprightly 1987 trio outing. The most obvious homage to Berger’s fellow Creative Music Studio founder is the short number entitled simply “Ornette”. But a deeper connection is forged by Coleman associate Ed Blackwell, whose second-line intuitiveness drives the infectious likes of piano-driven opener “Dakar Dance”. Paired with Dave Holland’s dependable lyricism, Blackwell carves out a rhythmic fluidity allowing Berger to poke gently around the edges, vibe runs riding the groove on “Transit” or chiming tremolos on the becalmed “Out There Alone”. And although the melodies may enchant, remember to always follow the rhythm(s), especially on Blackwell showcase “Drums First,” which via Berger’s Teutonic directness is just what it claims to be.
Charlie Haden / Paul Motian / Geri Allen, Etudes (1987) (Soul Note)
Almost silly assigning a leader to this kind of outing, as pianist Allen could just as easily be said to head proceedings as dearly departed Haden, or, for that matter, drummer Motian, who composed three of nine songs here. So let’s focus on Allen first, who expresses herself with nary a trace of M-Base, and proves as gently confounding as she’d be throughout her long, varied career. Was she mainstream? Traditional, if not reactionary about it? Experimental? A “mere” virtuoso, beholden to the Herbie’s of this world (Hancock and Nichols)? Or all of these and more? One quick listen to 1984’s challenging The Printmaker should convince skeptics of her New Thing bona fides, with frequent returns to Eric Dolphy (“Dolphy’s Dance” here, “Eric” there) one of many overt references to worthy elders. Etudes treads calmer ground, but in a way suggestive of maturity rather than loss of nerve. On the fantastic opening rendition of Ornette’s “Lonely Woman,” she introduces disconsolate chordal voices missing even from the original, while the bass drones on over Motian, unflaggingly cooking throughout. On this and other tracks, Allen leaves no doubt of knowing the tune inside out. But even with her encyclopedic knowledge, she gracefully bows to her accompanists, letting Haden dominate the melody for most of his ballad “Silence,” comping behind him until mid-song, at which point her entry startles with its angularity. Leave it to Haden to out-sing the piano player.