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Blue Note Masters

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By John Sinclair


Fats Navarro: Prime Source
Sonny Rollins: More From the Vanguard
John Coltrane/Johnny Griffin/Hank Mobley
John Gilmore/Clifford Jordan: Blowin' Sessions T-Bone Walker: Classics of Modern Blues
Herbie Nichols: The Third World
Chick Corea: Circling In
Wes Montgomery: Beginnings
Jazz Crusaders: The Young Rabbits
Gerry Mulligan/Lee Konitz/Chet Baker: Revelation
Paul Horn: In India

Project Director, Reissue Series: Charlie Lourie


The atmosphere of instant amnesia created by the record industry and fostered by the broadcast media forces all but a narrow band of music from public attention. The current "hits" – that handful of records chosen by accountants to appeal to the most people at once – are augmented only by an equally paltry number of "golden oldies" – records which were "hits" at some time in the past. The rest of musical creation disappears into the gigantic maw of history and stays there, unknown and unappreciated by millions of people whose lives would be immeasurably better for the inclusion of a wider and deeper spectrum of music than they are presently allowed.

Several major record companies have undertaken important reissue series in the past few years which might – if they received adequate promotional and advertising support – help introduce some of these mass-taste listeners to the music which we might call "the real thing." The Fantasy/Milestone/Prestige "Two-Fers," Arista's just released Savoy Records series, the Arista/Freedom line (mostly reissues), RCA's Bluebird series, Trip Records, and the current program at Blue Note (United Artists) among others – serve to re-introduce some of the finest music of the past thirty or forty years in comprehensive, well-annotated, usually well-programmed one- and two-record sets, and it's about time that contemporary music fans start to expose themselves to these treasures. To that end we've undertaken a series of feature reviews covering the historic reissue scene in capsule fashion, hoping that you will justify our use of this space by picking up on a few of these precious recordings over the next few months – or years. Because good music lasts forever, not just until its "maximum sales potential" has been realized, and believe me, dear friends, this is some of the best!

THE BLUE NOTE MASTERS is my own working title for The Blue Note Reissue Series, now in its second release (10 two-record LPs) with sets featuring Sonny Rollins, Fats Navarro, John Coltrane/Johnny Griffin/John Gilmore, T-Bone Walker, Herbie Nichols, Chick Corea, Wes Montgomery, the Jazz Crusaders, Gerry Mulligan Lee Konitz, and Paul Horn. Blue Note's first batch – seven sets featuring Cecil Taylor, Gil Evans, Lester Young, John Coltrane/Paul Chambers, Jackie McLean, Sam Rivers and Andrew Hill – almost outdid itself with its beautiful and esoteric selection of material, including a wealth of unreleased music from the mid-sixties by McLean, Hill, and Rivers; Lester Young's classic recordings for Aladdin Records; the 1956 Coltrane/Chambers session on the long-defunct Jazz West label; Cecil Taylor's first recordings for the equally defunct Transition label, coupled with the outrageously rare Love For Sale album from United Artists (and say, how about packaging Unit Structures/Conquistador, Cecil's two mid-sixties records for Blue Note and some of the heaviest recordings of all time?); plus the two (circa-1960) Gil Evans masterworks on World Pacific, New Bottles Of Wine and America's Number One Arranger.

The second series is not quite so spectacular in every detail, but there is enough exciting music here to keep music lovers busy for quite a few weeks of concentrated listening. The first six LPs listed at the head of this review – the Navarro, Rollins, Coltrane/Griffin, T-Bone Walker, Nichols and Corea – top most of the current releases I receive these days, and the other four cater to special tastes in a very sweet and useful way. I personally wouldn't trade my own copies for all the Elton John, Barry White, Eagles, David Bowie, Linda Ronstadt, Neil Young and Bette Midler records on the planet, but that's another matter altogether.

Without the time and space necessary to an intelligent discussion of the music contained in these ten albums – 20 LPs in all – serious comment is impossible, but a few abbreviated remarks are certainly in order, and are offered essentially to help the novice sort through these "thick, juicy-with-information" sides, to quote the late Lord Buckley. All the albums have thorough recording data and elongated liner notes for listeners who get their hands on them, and the packaging is – in a word – exemplary.

The Fats Navarro album, Prime Source, is the most "scholarly" set in the bunch, consisting of original masters of the brilliant trumpet star's 1947-48-49 78-rpm singles (under the leadership of Tadd Dameron, Howard McGhee, and Bud Powell) set next to rejected takes of the same tunes. Thus we are able to hear all the music cut at these ephemeral sessions, to study the variations from one solo to the next by each improvising artist, and to double-check the A&R decisions as to which take to release on the commercial market, lo those 30 years ago.

At the same time we get to hear the pristine bebop genius of men like Navarro, who died at 23; alto saxophonist Ernie Henry, who suffered a similar fate; Detroit's own Wardell Gray, a major tenor saxophonist who didn't last much longer; the young Sonny Rollins, Charlie Rouse, and Allen Eager, three heavy tenors; established beboppers Bud Powell, Milt Jackson, and Howard McGhee, at their early peak; and three top-flight rhythm sections: Nelson Boyd/Shadow Wilson, Curley Russell/Kenny Clarke, and Tommy Potter/Roy Haynes. Whew! Two full sides are given to Tadd Dameron's ground-breaking compositions, including "Lady Bird," "Dameronia," "Symphonette," and "Our Delight," favorites through the fifties. The Bud Powell session includes two takes of "Dance of the Infidels," two of "Wail," and three mighty masters on the effervescent "Bouncing With Bud," all featuring the heart-pounding line-up of Fats-Sonny Rollins-Bud-Tommy Potter-Roy Haynes. You must hear this!

Sonny Rollins' 1957 recording of A Night at the. Village Vanguard – featuring Wilbur Ware's ecstatic bass and the seminal drumming of Elvin Jones (just prior to his long tenure with Trane) – was one of the fieriest, most challenging records of the latter half of the 50's, one of the richest periods in American musical history. Sonny's powerful tenor attack, his improvisational brilliance and depth, his one-of-a-kind compositions – "Sonnymoon For Two," "Striver's Row" – and his definitive reworkings of established material – "Old Devil Moon," "Softly As In A Morning Sunrise," "A Night in Tunisia," "I Can't Get Started" – all mark this historic recording as one of the choicest items in anyone's collection.

Unfortunately it is not the Night at the Village Vanguard which is contained in the new Blue Note reissue, but the out-takes from the Vanguard sessions which, although it's a tremendous pleasure to have them now available, simply do not measure up to the earlier releases of some 18 years ago – which was, incidentally, the first live recording done at the famous Greenwich Village club. This is not really the place to carp, for only the most outrageous Sonny Rollins scholars will be disappointed; everyone else will have a happy, joyous experience digging these masterful works by one of the saxophone giants of our time. Ware and E. Jones are featured on all but one cut, Sonny is at peak strength throughout, and for the music lover of today this record should indicate why so many of us refer so often to "the old days" when discussing the art of the tenor saxophone. My only real complaint is that the heat and fire of the original mix – the sets were probably recorded on a 2-track machine – has somehow been lost in the re-make, and that's a definite shame.

But speaking of tenor saxophonics – and we were – the Blowin' Sessions set will probably serve you as well as an introduction to the lexicon of the 50's as it did for my own humble person back in 1959, when the original pres-

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sing was one of the cornerstones of my fledgling LP collection. John Coltrane, Johnny Griffin, and Hank Mobley – at that time members of the Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Art Blakey, and Horace Silver bands – are joined by the 18-year-old Lee Morgan on trumpet and backed by the irrefutable rhythm section of Wynton Kelley-Paul Chambers-Art Blakey, playing two standards ("The Way You Look Tonight" and "All the Things You Are") and two Johnny Griffin heads ("Smokestack" and "Ball Bearing").

The word for this session is torrid, smoke rising from the turntable, every player at top strength and cooking like crazy! Hank Mobley, the weakest member of the band, plays above his head most of the time, but Griffin and Coltrane are right down the middle – Griffin charging straight ahead, Coltrane running his "sheets of sound" all over the place, Lee Morgan as brassy and brilliant as anyone could ask for, Kelley impeccable in solo and section, Chambers rock steady, and the great Art Blakey on one of his most exciting dates of all. Have mercy! This is not only one of the best records of 1957, but one of the freshest and most exciting releases of 1976 as well.

The second record in the Blowin' Sessions set is of lesser magnitude but interesting nonetheless, with Chicago tenormen John Gilmore and Clifford Jordan making their national recording debut (also a 1957 date) in front of Horace Silver, Curley Russell and the indomitable Master Blakey. Gilmore, of course, has developed through the University of Sun Ra to emerge as one of the most significant tenor saxophonists of the 70's, and Jordan is equally well known in all jazz circles, especially through his series of records on Strata-East, the musicians' label in New York City. Here they play straight-ahead bebop in a hot, fluent mode, and you will not find it at all unpleasant – to say the very least.

The next two albums, The Third World and Classics of Modern Blues, are likewise two of the freshest and most exciting releases of the year. Actually, in the twisted parlance of the recording industry, you could even say these were totally "new" records, as very few people around these days have ever heard them, or even heard of Herbie Nichols, for that matter. T-Bone Walker is a better-known name – he continued to record up until his death a couple years ago – but Herbie Nichols never got to record any more of his master works after these 1955-56 sessions were cut (he died at 44 in 1963). Sides one and two were originally issued as Blue Note 10" LPs, while sides three and four made up Herbie's only 12-inch LP for the company, a modest album titled The Herbie Nichols Trio.

Now the Trio has Max Roach on drums and Teddy Kotick or Al McKibbon on bass (two of Bird's favorite bassists), with Blakey replacing Max on the 10" dates, and that's a sure sign something worth hearing is happening. But Nichols is more than a masterful pianist with heavy rhythm support – he had developed a consummate compositional approach as well, as unique to Herbie as Monk's attack is to Monk, and he lays it out here in all its humble glory. The music begs for three or four horns to give it flesh and bone, but such weren't in the modest recording budget (three men, three hours) allotted to recordings such as these. The music is straight-ahead and cooking, yet dense with intelligence and feeling; to quote from trombonist Roswell Rudd's beautiful liner notes to the reissue, "Herbie designed his music with one and only one explicit end in mind: to delight people's ears. In this respect Herbie's music is nothing short of perfect . . ." If you get this record, you will also want to read the story of Herbie Nichols, which is told by A.B. Spellman in his excellent book Black Music: Four Lives.

T-Bone Walker is one of the landmark figures in contemporary popular music. Not only did he popularize the electric guitar – he may have turned Charlie Christian onto amplification, and he was the direct inspiration for B.B. King and scores of other blues players – but he pioneered the use of church chords, the blues horn section, the entire approach to music which has been expanded further and further since T-Bone's first heyday in the late 30's and early 40's, until today it is the most prevalent musical form in the western world.

But let's let B.B. King say it: "He was the first electric guitar player I heard on record. He made me so that I knew I just had to go out and get an electric guitar.

"T-Bone used a lot of horns, too – trumpet, alto, tenor and baritone (saxophones). They made a beautiful sound, like shouting in sanctified churches, in just the right places. He had a good rhythm section, too. And to me T-Bone seemed to lay right in between there somewhere. That was the best sound I ever heard."

B.'s memory is correct, because these recordings- made between 1950 and 1953, just before the emergence of rock and roll – still sound as good as the day they were cut. In fact, they sound a lot better these days, given the context into which they are issued, because there are few musicians making records as soulful – and as musically delightful – as these classic T-Bone sides. B.B., Bobby Bland, Ray Charles, Albert King, Albert Collins, Freddie King, Otis Rush, so many incredible musicians came out of T-Bone's bag that it is truly mindboggling, and here are the records – many of them arranged by the ace West Coast r&b tenor saxophonist/producer Maxwell Davis, who was responsible for hundreds of sessions on Crown-Modern-Flair-RPM Records in L.A. I'm telling you, this record is a must for anyone interested in modern guitar, rhythm & blues, soulful vocals, good tunes, classic gospel horns, and really, everything that's good about music. Get yours today!

Chick Corea is well known these days, but what's not so well known is that he can really play piano. One listen to the music on Circling In, recorded in 1968 and in three 1970 sessions with people like Miroslav Vitous-Roy Haynes, Dave Holland-Barry Altshul, and Holland-Altshul-Anthony Braxton, and any sane person who's been roped in by the Return to Forever/L. Ron Hubbard ruse would turn the last four Corea LPs into instant frisbees.

The trio performances which make up the first two sides of the set are in a muscular, lyrical mode – top-flight piano playing in a McCoy Tyner shaped attack, with lots of heart and ideas too. Very pleasant, swinging, well-thought, meaty music for anyone intelligent to listen to. The Braxton sessions, by the group known as Circle, are very tasty as well, although for a more specialized taste and not as immediately universal as the piano-trio stuff. An excellent package, made even more useful by poet-drummer Stanley Crouch's typically insightful notes. Chick Corea fans will be nuts to miss this one, and those guys can stand to lose the royalties if anyone can.

The last four records in the release are less interesting for this listener, but undoubtedly exciting for students and/or fans of Wes Montgomery, the old Jazz Crusaders (now "The Crusaders," of funk-rock fame), the Gerry Mulligan/Lee Konitz/Chet Baker era, or the meditative, beautifully realized music of Paul Horn in India, improvising with master Indian musicians. Wes is heard before he left Indianapolis in 1958, playing with his brothers Monk and Buddy, tenorist Harold Land, and, on the earliest material, with the 17-year-old Freddie Hubbard, then still in high school in Naptown. The Crusaders have their bomb number, "Young Rabbits," and a potpourri of other material from their old Pacific Jazz LPs – including a tune, "The Latin Bit," by the Motor City's own Kenny Cox. Mulligan/Konitz/Baker are as they've always been, which makes some people happy, and Paul Horn's flute is delightfully set into the Indian milieu, making quiet, relaxing music in the classical Indian genre. They're all worth listening to – what more can we ask for?