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Various Artists: Black Saint/Soul Note Critics Pick Sampler, Vols. 1 and 2

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Since 1977, the Milan-based Black Saint/Soul Note label has established a reputation among jazz lovers for its uncompromising commitment to cutting-edge, non-mainstream music. The artists featured on the label's 500 releases (all of which remain in print) include most of the leaders of the avant-garde and modern creative movements of the past twenty years, such as Anthony Braxton, Chico Freeman, Charlie Haden, Lee Konitz, Steve Lacy, Joe Lovano, Roscoe Mitchell, Paul Motian, Sun Ra, and Cecil Taylor. Important and influential performers like David Murray, Muhal Richard Abrams, Julius Hemphill, and Cassandra Wilson received their earliest exposure on Black Saint when American labels were virtually ignoring them.

In celebration of its twentieth anniversary, Black Saint is releasing a series of compilation discs drawing on this rich history. The tracks featured on the first two volumes are based on a poll of over one hundred critics, who were each asked to name their ten favorite Black Saint/Soul Note titles. The results are two albums worth of stunning music which provide an excellent starting point for delving into the Black Saint catalogue.

This is not music, though, for timid ears. Some of it is difficult, some will be new to many listeners, and certainly not everyone will like every selection. But it is thought provoking, mind expanding music, and much of it flat out rocks. Along with fairly cerebral offerings from Anthony Braxton, Dave Douglas, and John Carter, for example, there are the raw, funky, and joyful sounds of the sorely missed George Adams-Don Pullen Quartet and the World Saxophone Quartet, represented here both as a group and by solo contributions from three of its members. There's a solid, rootsy, energetic vibe to most of this stuff that's really the label's trademark.

Most listeners should find something here that they'll want to explore further or that will lead them to reevaluate their opinions on certain artists. For me, it was a terrific cut from a 1982 album of Monk and Herbie Nichols tunes by Roswell Rudd and Steve Lacy that sounds like some sort of avant-garde dixieland band. As well, I was completely floored by the two beautiful ballads by the Muhal Richard Abrams Orchestra. I'd listened to Abrams years ago and frankly been bored, and last year sat through an excruciating Abrams small group at the Knitting Factory. But these haunting compositions, arranged very much in a Mingus big band mode, are something else entirely.

These two discs are highly recommended. Buy 'em both and support one of the best labels in jazz.

Track Listing, Volume 1 : Dance, Eternal Spirits, Dance! (Billy Harper); Tripping (Andrew Hill); Revue (World Saxophone Quartet); Dewey's Tune (Old and New Dreams); Tropical Forest (Anthony Braxton/Max Roach); Played Twice (Anthony Braxton); Twelve Bars (Roswell Rudd/Steve Lacy); One for the Whistler (Muhal Richard Abrams Orchestra); The Great Escape (George Adams/Don Pullen Quartet); Bermix (Muhal Richard Abrams Orchestra); Dewey's Circle (David Murray Octet).

Track Listing, Volume 2 : Dolphy's Dance (Charlie Haden/Paul Motian/Geri Allen); Parallel Worlds (Dave Douglas); Sightsong (Muhal Richard Abrams/Malachi Favors); The Sixth Sense (Don Pullen Quintet); Enter from the East (John Carter Octet); River Niger (Hamiet Bluiett); I Do Not Believe (Steve Lacy Octet); The Hill (David Murray Trio); G Song (Julius Hemphill); The Hard Blues (Julius Hemphill Sextet).

Record Label: Black Saint

Style: Straight-ahead/Mainstream


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