The third and final installment of my summer-long series investigating top-quality jazz albums of the 1980s (Part One and Part Two, if you missed them) considers ten more 1980-1989 releases, once again easily dominated by the Soul Note / Black Saint labels. One could rightly criticize my leaning so heavily upon two affiliated Italian labels, although I think the quality of releases speaks for itself. A series like this needn't be interpreted as any kind of canonical hierarchy - one could easily find thirty other albums from the same period worthy of attention. The point is simply a gentle reminder that the pleasures of any decade's offering are there for the taking if you do a tiny amount of digging.
Julius Hemphill Quartet, Flat-Out Jump Suite (1980) (Black Saint)
Here’s where the Fort Worth-born, Saint Louis-based, former Ike Turner bandmate, Black Artist’s Group founder, eventual World Saxophone Quartet member, and future Tim Berne/Marty Ehrlich instructor dashed the expectations of those who’d thrilled to the indie down-home funk of Dogon A.D. (1972), the energy blues of ‘Coon Bid’ness (1975), and the trio madness of Raw Materials and Residuals (1977). Not so much fronting as deferring to his quartet, Hemphill opens this becalmed and abstract album-length exploration of mood on airy flute (“Ear”) before handing over the entirety of “Mind [1st Part]” to Olu Dara’s muted trumpet and Warren Smith’s fluttering cymbals. Even Abdul Wadud threatens to outshine the leader, plucking and scraping his cello lines like some frustrated country blues ragtimer. Yet Hemphill’s compositional certitude guides all, as does his patience, his composure, his unerring sense of pace and direction. Just when you’ve finally grown accustomed to Side A’s empty spaces, the pulse-quickening directives and sensual groovery of Side B’s “Heart” and “Body” flood your mainline. Tossing aside the flute and swaggering up to the mic, within seconds the saxist schools everybody on who’s the boss, each slithery tenor phrase reminding all within earshot that Hemphill was ever-cognizant of the mysterious ways of the funk.
George Russell Sextet, Electronic Sonata for Souls Loved by Nature (1980) (Soul Note)
Superlatives almost don’t do George Russell justice. An icon of modal jazz whose fingerprints are all over Kind Of Blue, his 1947 composition "Cubano Be, Cubano Bop" helped direct Dizzy Gillespie’s sharp turn towards Cubano bebop, all following in the footsteps of Russell’s own heady music theory gauntlet, the Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization, a reconfiguration the man worked out after tuberculosis forced him from Charlie Parker’s band. Much later, in 1968, he gave the world his Electronic Sonata, a Gil Evans/Soft Machine/Anthem Of The Sun prototype featuring a pre-schmaltz Jan Garbarek on tenor sax and Red Mitchell on bass - an avant-garde electro-acoustic feast for the headphones. Twelve years on, Russell revisited the piece with a separate sextet, two long sonic excavations (“Events,” he called them) of funky bass, electric organ jabs, guitar skronk courtesy of Victor Comer, and general ambient haze. Side two kicks off with a melody drenched in Wurlitzer swirl nearly afro-funk in feel, before Moog farts and trumpet blats swerve into churning gutbucket blues, a bit of Stockhausian jazz-concrète before the whole joint fades out. The ’68 version is looser, woolier, more of its psychedelic day. But the ’80 edition burns through the changes. How wonderful that we needn’t choose between them.
John Carter Octet, Dauwhe (1982) (Black Saint)
Maybe the good folks at Mosaic will someday see fit to focus their energies on bringing the late-career vision of Texas/West Coast clarinetist John Carter back into print, his 1982-1990 5-part compositional series Roots And Folklore: Episodes In The Development Of American Folk Music having vanished from the marketplace. Like a certain Pulitzer-winning jazz oratorio, Carter’s vision involves tracking the ways African culture formed American culture via a grisly baptism of blood and genocide. Like the #BAM-wielding Nicholas Payton, Carter rejects efforts by Western supremacists to define the art form’s terms. But his “episodes” prove far more abstract than the linearity of Marsalis, and Carter’s label “American Folk Music” highlights the inclusiveness common to any culture dependent upon both assimilation and appropriation. And this complexity is central to his vision - why else might the most explicitly African installment of the series also lean heavily upon that notably Western mode of chamber music expression, the brass octet? Buried deep within the collective spirit of Bobby Bradford (cornet), James Newton (flute), and Charles Owens (soprano, oboe), the blues smolder on, third stream conversing with the elders, melancholic yet always swinging. And when gentle tuba and clarinet flurries make way for Luis Peralta on waterphone, it summons a general nod in the direction of inspiration/peer Henry Threadgill, whose own hubkaphone raised similar questions about accessing the past while making a new kind of noise.
Pat Metheny, Rejoicing (1984) (ECM)
Forceful broadside against Kenny G notwithstanding, too much of Metheny’s career has been spent dispensing smooth pabulum, although even his frothiest efforts betrayed impressive musical intelligence beneath that wild shock of hair. In the early to mid-80s, Metheny hit three high points – his successful integration of luminaries Dewey Redman, Michael Brecker, and Jack DeJohnette into his own folksy ways on 80 / 81, and the career zenith of 1985’s Song X, a meeting with Ornette Coleman showcasing the guitarist as Ornette’s equal firing partner. In between came this more modest offering, but in its own calm way, it served as a footpath to Song X, with Ornette three songs featured alongside Coleman’s classic rhythm section, Charlie Haden and Billy Higgins. Haden/Higgins offer superb support, but Metheny rises to the occasion, aptly demonstrating his wide knowledge of jazz repertoire. There’s the dreamy acoustic take on Horace Silver’s lovely “Lonely Woman”. There’s the expert muted post-bop lines of Ornette’s “Humpty Dumpty” and “Rejoicing” (one wonders why others are so loath to cover Coleman – the themes alone pay great dividends). And then there’s the ten-minute guitar synthesizer showpiece “The Calling,” which teeters on the brink of cornball, emerging triumphant via its bizarre/lovely melancholy and startling aggression. Too bad Metheny never really saw fit to follow through on this trio of albums – Geffen and Warner Brothers beckoned, and his discography largely falls off my radar.
Ran Blake Quartet, Short Life Of Barbara Monk (1986) (Soul Note)
More academic than working musician, Blake’s recorded fairly consistently since the late 1970s after spotty documentation over the previous decade. His general avoidance of quartet settings in favor of solo sets (1985’s Painted Rhythms volumes) or duo pairings makes this traditional four-piece session all the more important. Only three original compositions, but his tributes to Thelonious Monk’s sister and jazz critic Laurent Goddet form an emotional bond that help place his unexpected Stan Kenton exploration and Cole Porter move into context. Two short stabs at a traditional Sephardic tune plus an under-three minute glance at Greek composer Theodarakis round out the performances, which, as the eclectic lineup suggests, is exactly what one wants and expects from a good professor of music – informed, wry, appropriately fond of obscurities, never deliberately esoteric, no doubt smarter than you but humble about it.
Detail, In Time Was (1986) (Circulation Totale)
Cornetist Bobby Bradford occasionally sat in with this trio, joining Norwegian saxophonist Frode Gjerstad, UK drummer John Stevens, and South African bass phenom Johnny Mbizo Dyani for no-rules free improv that often echoed early Ornette – the stripped-down bop of his Atlantic tenure, the unrestrained minimalism of the Golden Circle performances. No heads or themes, although Bradford tosses out repetitive riffs while the others fall in line. In such freely-structured environments, all voices speak equally, yet Dyani’s upfront bass, whether furiously chorded or foghorn arco, proves a constant highlight even without any foreknowledge that the forty-year-old would die just days after this concert. Along with his passing came the end of this iteration of Detail. Given that loss, plus the death of Stevens in 1994, the relative obscurity of Gjerstad in this country, and an infuriatingly low profile for the likes of Bradford, this release assumes additional weight – a memorable example of geographically-dispersed talent flying by the seat of their pants. Not that they ever sound lost.
Mal Waldron / Steve Lacy, Sempre Amore (1986) (Soul Note)
Sources disagree on whether this is Waldron’s or Lacy’s date, but that’s a moot point for such duo recordings. Waldron was Lacy’s favored pianist since 1958, and both musicians shared a background in traditional forms (Lacy came out of Dixieland, Waldron bebop) that in no way stymied their exploration of an emerging avant garde. Lacy in particular ventured far afield, eventually devoting nearly a dozen albums to solo soprano sax, an instrument he championed to a degree few others managed. And while even John Coltrane’s soprano excursions eventually bog down into high-pitched flurries, Lacy’s unwavering tone and love for melody stand apart. These qualities are strongly evident on the eight Duke Ellington/Billy Strayhorn compositions calmly performed here, and for some listeners, the tranquility may prove uninspiring – “Star-Crossed Lovers” is nearly deathly still at times, patient and soft, vast gaps of silence filling each space. Too quiet and modest to repay sustained focus? To cite Coltrane again, his gentle playing on “Central Park West” remains my favorite of his many soprano turns. Nearly every track here reminds me of that peerless performance.
Anthony Braxton, Six Monk’s Compositions (1987) (Black Saint)
Scattered throughout the discography of our most exhaustively documented jazz artist lie plenty of “in the tradition” exercises, but not all are created equal – Braxton’s 1993 Charlie Parker Project starts strong before devolving into farts and rummaging around inside pianos. But here, six spirited performances tackle Monk’s unique canon head-on, discarding post-structuralist tendencies for glorious bebop. Maybe the lack of gristle is due to the magisterial presence of bassist Buell Neidlinger and, especially, pianist Mal Waldron, whose portfolio ranges from backing Billie Holliday to dueling with Eric Dolphy and Steve Lacy (an interesting point of comparison with this record would be Lacy’s all-Monk 1958 Reflections, which shares Waldron, Neidlinger, and four of six songs). Or perhaps Braxton felt kinship with an artist whose compositional skills and staggering intelligence were too often downgraded in favor of his more easily digestible eccentricities. Note the title – not tunes, not songs, certainly not tricky heads to figure out and cast aside. Compositions.
Billy Bang Quartet, Valve No. 10 (1988) (Soul Note)
With his passing from lung cancer, a silence fell over the small world of jazz violin, even if Billy Bang himself was as much fiddle player as violinist. Perhaps his woodsy tone sprang from Alabama roots, even though Bang left Mobile for Harlem at a young age. There’s also more than a hint of the classical music of Vietnam and environs, a country he toured not as a musician but an infantryman. Legend has it the radicalized Bang first spotted his instrument of choice hanging in a stateside pawnshop while scoping firearms for revolutionaries, and whatever the circumstances, it’s fair to say any future political dissidence would have paled compared to the very real changes he worked within an evolving black musical culture. On a quartet date serving as quasi-tribute to John Coltrane, the leader occupies a unique voicing between violin and tenor sax, Bang delivering sharp, sawing attacks as Frank Lowe supplies gentle, sweet-voiced nods to pre-modern players. They mesh wonderfully and unexpectedly, and while the skills on display are of the highest order, there’s a hint of shambolic Mississippi Hill Country string band from time to time, especially during opening melodies – not shambolic as in slop, but in risky fun and imperfect ensemble voices. Even the Ode to Coltrane recited aloud over “September 23rd” works, although the quartet best summons Trane’s spirit by closing things with a wrenching 12-minute “Lonnie’s Lament”.
Either/Orchestra, The Half-Life Of Desire (1989) (Accurate Records)
Russ Gershon’s “small big band” Cambridge institution drew deeply from the waters of Mingus, Gil Evans, Sun Ra, but claimed Ellingtonia as raison d'être - you want specifics, look to Charlie Kohlhaus bowing before the spirit of Johnny Hodges on this landmark’s heart-on-sleeve title track. But Duke permeates all, from the way Gershon’s expertly selected talent pool would populate the 90s Downtown scene to the way three saxophones, two trumpets, and a couple of trombones managed to subsume their individuality into one breathing organism. What’s most startling is the offhanded way these cheeky Kierkegaardians showed up their fellow post-70s big bandmates, too many of whom chose the Maynard Ferguson route: tuttis, tuttis, more tuttis. As a former Boston rock club hoodrat, Gershon retained vestigial punk wings and an intolerance for Romantic bushwa, his voracious pop appetite and oddball sense of humor eventually leading him to champion Mulatu Astatke and the world of Ethiopiques long before the Heliocentrics jumped onboard. With Rudy Van Gelder in the producer’s seat, Gershon and co. here drop four originals before pulling out all stops on three gorgeously realized re-interpretations. “Temptation” reconfigures the 1933 Bing Crosby Going Hollywood number as spaghetti western noir, welcoming enough B-movie recitation (“you know, there are many things that a man feels some regrets about”) to suggest intimate familiarity with Red Ingle/Jo Stafford’s “Tim-Tay-Shun” goof. Miles and Duke find themselves loved madly in an eleven-minute mashup of “Circle In The Round” and “I Got It Bad”. And the equally epic closer tackles the 4/4 prog of Robert Fripp’s “Red,” a moody tone poem in which horns assume Frippertonic throb before guitar explosions follow through, a jungle fantasy in black and tan.