Coleman Hawkins, Classic Coleman Hawkins Sessions 1922-1947 (Mosaic)
Not cheap, even for eight discs worth of music. Plus, the absence of Hawkins’ five-year European sojourn due to EMI ownership and anything post-1947 from a career that continued to reap dividends several decades beyond means completists will have to look elsewhere. But despite such imperfections, this set remains in the running for year’s best thanks to quality remastering and historically insightful notes, and for the simple reason that when the man they called Bean put reed to mouth, an instrument found its finest ambassador. Opening amid a primordial 1922 Mamie Smith session and concluding twenty-five years later surrounded by bebop whippersnappers Max Roach and Hank Jones, Hawkins’ own journey from slap-tongue cliches to virtuosic legato mirrored not only the growth of the tenor saxophone but of jazz itself. His phrasing was peerless, his soul, humor, and hatred of novelty legendary. And his voracious musical intelligence never subsided, fed by daily immersion in Bach and a commitment to theory that remained in thrall to an urbane earthiness, bringing to mind such modern giants as Sonny Rollins and David Murray as often as contemporaries Ben Webster and Lester Young. Summarizing 190 tracks wouldn’t do justice to the reach and scope of a stylistic diversity touching upon hokum, coon songs, torch ballads, blues, big band, all-star jam sessions, proto-bop, and the great American songbook. But individual moments can be highlighted. The fully modernized swing over Fletcher Henderson’s “King Porter Stomp” in 1928, followed that same year by the creation of tenor sax language as we know it on “Whenever There’s A Will, Baby”. Early 30’s explorations of “Georgia On My Mind” and “I Can’t Believe That You’re In Love With Me” that helped introduce the tenor as the primary vehicle of expression for jazz balladry. “I’ve Got To Sing A Torch Song’s” concision of a solo that still managed to stretch in-studio recording capacities. A stunning a cappella coda on 1934’s piano-and-horn “It Sends Me,” presaging the completely unaccompanied solos of 1945 known as “Hawk’s Variations”. The boogie blues of 1943’s “Hawkins Barrel-House,” the breathily romantic “The Day You Came Along,” the overlooked 32-bar solo on 1939’s “She’s Funny That Way” - overlooked because Hawkins happened to cut one of the most singular of American recordings at the same session. “Body and Soul,” of course, a career highlight that still stuns and the definitive version of a tenor sax platform even John Coltrane couldn’t match.
Ted Nash, The Creep (Plastic Sax Records)
Sticking strictly to alto sax although he’s plenty versatile on tenor, L.A.-based Nash assembles a lean quartet for his own label, tossing out the piano in favor of a sax/trumpet lineup that has convinced many admirers of this album’s fealty to Atlantic-era Ornette - a logical assessment that, despite the presence of two songs entitled “Plastic Sax” and the freebop calm of “Burnt Toast and Avocado,” doesn’t actually pan out. If comparisons you need, I’d offer up Cannonball Adderly’s fluidity, love for melody, and easy swing. But stylistically nailing down somebody who’s put in time with Quincy Jones, Don Ellis, Toshiko Akiyoshi, Gerry Mulligan, and the Herbie Nichols Project (to say nothing of his Henry Mancini tribute album) is for specialists. Fully aware of and comfortable with the fringe, yet smartly at home among the traditionalists, he constructs tightly-wound solos of melodic ingenuity, consistently bowing to worthy foil Ron Horton and allowing his stripped-down rhythm section to soar steadily behind him. Peeling off nine originals that all sound part of a tradition left partially unexplored by free jazz enthusiasts seeking the polyphonic heights, it’s “straight” only in the loosest sense of the word.
Christian Scott, Christian aTunde Adjuah (Concord Jazz)
What matters most here isn’t the young trumpeter’s hazily-defined “whisper technique,” or an equally hazy commitment to an approach he’s dubbed “stretch jazz” or “forecasting cell,” which would seem to simply reflect Scott’s interest in lumbering post-rock exemplars Tortoise and Mogwai. Nor is the main attraction an African-aware name change, defended explicitly in both liner notes and song titles (note the sulky “Pyrrhic Victory of aTunde Adjuah”) or even the Mardi Gras trappings made manifest from the outset by Masking Indian regalia displayed on the cover. No, it’s the one-hundred-and-twenty minute running length spread across two discs and twenty-three rather succinct tracks, a mild bloating that could easily have been pared down to a single generous disc without much loss in quality or insight. But also notable is an unapologetic commitment to making political art - Trayvon Martin’s murder gets compared to Marissa Alexander’s 20-year-sentence, a lament over Sudanese sexual brutality opens proceedings, and the Danzinger Bridge shootings find themselves memorialized by a New Orleans lifer. Granted, such political contexts are embedded solely within individual track titles, although structure and mood follow accordingly. So while I worry that at times Scott’s “stretch” conception feels like aimless rock, Matthew Stevens’ circular guitar vamps do offer novel textures within an otherwise typical band framework. And the leader really does blow some excellent horn, displaying a masterful feel for mute that helps define some of the project’s strongest tracks (“Of Fire,” “Away,” album highlight “Who They Wish I Was”).
Hafez Modirzadeh, Post-Chromodal Out! (Pi)
Persian-American harmolodics, with a sense of humor not immediately obvious from this album’s song titles (opens with “Weft Facets: Facet Thirteen,” ends twenty-seven tracks later with “Wolf & Warp: Wolf Seven”). More accurately, “chromodality” - saxophonist-composer Modirzadeh’s twining of Western chromaticism with Persian tradition in composition-driven improv, dominated by a piano custom-tuned to three-quarter tones and masterfully handled by Vijay Iyer. No getting around the fact that such tonal experimentation will sound “off” to most listeners. But the familiar timbre of an electric guitar surfacing midway through helps ground proceedings, as do heads more than vaguely reminiscent of none other than Ornette Coleman.
Louis Durra, The Best Of All Possible Worlds (Lot 50)
Last year, this amiable pianist cherry-picked a handful of rock/pop classics for trio treatment, from Bobs Marley and Dylan to (surprise surprise) Radiohead, all in hopes of bridging the much-noted gap between the rock/pop audience and jazz tradition. That venture was partly salvaged by a concluding DJ Rob Swift appearance. This follow-up can’t boast similar experimentation - pretty standard soulful piano/bass/drums, the kind of enjoyable middlebrow product that sustained a healthy soul-jazz crossover scene back in the mid-60s. So while Durra’s to be commended for never talking down to his material, such familiar melodies as “In My Life” and “One Love” might have benefitted from improvisations that wandered a bit further afield. And the world has already seen enough soul-jazz versions of Stevie Wonder’s “Living For The City,” to name one song that loses effectiveness minus its lyrical content.
Bobby Lyle, The Genie / New Warrior (Soul Brother)
Remastered two-fer of late-70s jazz-funk from a crossover keyboardist whose own album covers tell a tidy tale of the marketing forces at play struggling to define a jazz audience over the past forty years. On 2004’s aptly-titled Straight and Smooth, Lyle displays neatly trimmed goatee and strategically rumpled fancy collar. 2001’s Pianomagic finds our man besuited and barefoot, sporting a gracious leer on rich cherry hardwood floor. Late-80s artifact Ivory Dreams showcases the artiste with sunglasses and tight-fitting black uniform on dusky beach, disembodied keyboard floating inverted above a stony countenance. But he’s decidedly unkempt on 1977’s purple-and-green hued The Genie, a shipwrecked Rastafarian shaking Ouija eyeballs out of his tousled mane. So, he cleaned up pretty good. Oh, the music - busy drums, slap bass, tempo shifts of manic intensity, fat synth lines, conga bongo, disco strings, talkbox shenanigans, “r&b” vocals of varying degrees of ineptitude