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Blue Note Connoisseur: Andrew Hill, Larry Young, Horace Silver and more

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When the first batch of Blue Note titles released under the new "Connoisseur" umbrella hit the stores in 1994, collectors were astounded by the news that the label would be undergoing a reissue campaign that would focus on the under appreciated gems that they had been looking to acquire for so long. In fact, this reviewer still remembers collecting all the proof of purchase tags, which were sent in to get a free Blue Note watch. Now some eleven years and 112 discs later, 15 sets of reissues have been released in the Connoisseur series, with this review covering the Fall 2004 titles.

Easily the most intriguing title of the lot and one that made my list as one of the best reissues of 2004, Dance With Death (Blue Note 73160) may be one of Andrew Hill's most underrated discs and inexplicably it was not issued at the time of its recording. This 1968 gem features Charles Tolliver and Joe Farrell, with Billy Higgins holding down the groove on what has to be Hill's funkiest set of his many for Blue Note. "Fish 'N Rice" is highly illustrative of the composer's modus operandi; at heart it's a boogaloo number with an intricate bass vamp that is more complex than your typical soul-jazz fare. Aside from the disparate range of moods inherent in Hill's writing that makes this set mandatory listening, Farrell is heard to great advantage and his soprano saxophone work makes one wonder why he's never been more appreciated as an individualist on the straight horn.

Another singular voice who made the most of producer Alfred Lion's willingness to allow creativity to flow unfettered, organist Larry Young traversed a full range of emotions on the half dozen sides which constitute his Blue Note catalog. But if you're only familiar with Into Somethin' and Unity , you'll find Of Love and Peace (Blue Note 73162) to be a freer affair, chock full of collective improvisation and dense textures established by the use of two drummers. Eddie Gale's trumpet work is also less than orthodox, his spits and sputters adding a decidedly avant-garde edge to the proceedings. Of the four lengthy tracks, only "Seven Steps to Heaven" really swings in any kind of conventional way, yet the deeply explorative nature of this work marks Young as an artist unwilling to exploit past successes and bent on moving the music forward.

As an accompanist to Dinah Washington and sideman with Roy Ayers, pianist Jack Wilson has always been criminally under appreciated. By the time he hooked up with Blue Note in 1967, mainstream jazz was in somewhat of a decline and Blue Note's fortunes were on a downturn. As a result, little attention was paid to the three records Wilson recorded for the label, yet one would have thought that Easterly Winds (Blue Note 73161) would have fared much better than it did. Hindsight now shows this New York session to be Wilson's best and it would be hard to argue with a line-up that includes Lee Morgan, Garnett Brown, Jackie McLean, and Billy Higgins. Four of the six cuts are the pianist's own and they offer much more than a mere springboard for solos. "On Children" sports a wonderfully upbeat attitude, while "Nirvana" is rare in its reflective calm. Also worth mentioning are a beautiful ballad take on "A Time For Love" and the definitive performance of Frank Strozier's "Frank's Tune." Of all the later period Blue Note dates, this one ranks among the finest and should not be missed at any cost.

Still going strong now in his 80s, saxophonist Sam Rivers was not a youngster when he first signed with Blue Note, but he made up for any lost time by recording several albums that continue to represent the finest of what avant-garde jazz had to offer at the time. Arguably, his best record was 1965's Contours (Blue Note 73163) in as much as the writing was strong and his ensemble brought together four of the leading musicians of the period. Freddie Hubbard is at the top of his game here, his juicy tone and fluid improvisational mind let loose on four of Rivers' premium compositions, while the Hancock/Carter/Chambers rhythm team keeps things flowing with great proficiency. A real treat too is hearing Rivers at length on soprano saxophone and flute. While titles such as "Mellifluous Cacophony" and "Euterpe" might suggest something a bit too far off field, fact is this is a very swinging session that expertly walks a thin line between the mainstream and new music of the '60s.

A vital Blue Note artist for some 25 years, pianist/composer Horace Silver kicked off a new decade in the '70s with a trilogy of albums released under the banner of The United States of Mind (Blue Note 73157). Now reissued, this two-disc set encompasses the albums That Healin' Feelin' , Total Response , and All. While the overall fell of the work here is clearly in line with the popular appeal of Silver's writing in general, some might balk at the sometimes-awkward lyrics to many of the pieces, not to mention the poor sound of the electric piano that Silver utilizes throughout. Nonetheless, there are several strong soloists including Houston Person, George Coleman, and Randy Brecker. To boot, Andy Bey weighs in with some awesome moments of his own, making one wish he had sung all the selections. A vital addition to any Silver collection, we can only hope now that the Silver and... series will be next for reissue.

Finally, we come to one of Bobby Hutcherson's rarest and most unusual Blue Note sessions. Now! (Blue Note 73164) features the fine quintet that the vibraphonist led for a few years with Harold Land, Stanley Cowell, and Joe Chambers. Here he collaborates with vocalist Gene McDaniels and the results are a bit off the beaten path, but certainly not without merit. Not unlike Andrew Hill's vocal sessions such as Lift Every Voice , McDaniels gets backing from a choir and it's a testament to the quality of the material that it doesn't come off as dated in the least. The bonus tracks bring us performances of four tunes from the original session redone live in 1977 at the Hollywood Bowl, first released on the album Blue Note Meets the L.A. Philharmonic.


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