Reissues We Almost Missed in 2004
Much in the way that Oliver Nelson had the reputation of his stellar Blues and the Abstract Truth to live up to with each subsequent album, Benny Carter will always be best remembered for the quintessential Further Definitions. As great an album as it is, an even better taste of Carter's talents as a saxophonist can be had by giving a listen to the 1960 set Sax a la Carter! (Capitol Jazz 93513). In the company of West Coast contemporaries Jimmy Rowles, Leroy Vinnegar, and Mel Lewis, Carter steps forward as a mature soloist on a nice enough set of standards and even pulls out his soprano for the engaging "Ennui." An overlooked gem, this set belong in any comprehensive Carter collection.
Arguably among the first crossover artists, Dinah Washington was a darling to audiences that embraced both jazz and R&B sensibilities. Her time spent with Mercury Records found her recording both jazz based numbers and those with commercial appeal at the forefront. Among Washington's true jazz-oriented sets, After Hours With Miss D (Verve 760562) is one of the finest and the sidemen include such heavyweights as Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis, Clark Terry, Eddie Chamblee, Paul Quinichette, Junior Mance, and Ed Thigpen. Recorded in 1953 and 1954, Washington never sounded better than when belting such swingers as "Bye Bye Blues" and "A Foggy Day." Sound quality is pretty good too for the time period!
Another female vocalist with popular appeal, Nancy Wilson's tenure with Capitol Records produced a large catalog of albums that alternated jazz-oriented fare with sets boasting more commercial allure. Although it clocks in at just about half an hour, Wilson's 1960 set Something Wonderful (Capitol Jazz 97073) is an aptly titled one featuring Ben Webster and a West Coast rhythm section boasting Jack Marshall, Joe Comfort, and Shelly Manne. The ringer here is of course the ever-popular "Guess Who I Saw Today," but there are many fine moments including "I Wish You Love" and "What a Little Moonlight Can Do."
It's a shame that a major portion of the output of one of the '60s greatest big bands remains somewhat unavailable. The Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra recorded several studio and live sessions for the Solid State imprimatur during the mid to late '60s, but while Mosaic reissued all of these dates in boxed set form several years back, that set had since disappeared and the bulk of the catalog is once again unavailable. While not the masterpiece of the lot, it's still admirable that Central Park North (Blue Note 76852) has returned to circulation. Four out of the six selections are Jones originals and Jerome Richardson's "The Groove Merchant" gets the definitive treatment here. A bit funkier than their other records, this one is still must hear music for any big band fan.
Largely associated with the Blue Note label, the truth is that drummer Art Blakey and his Jazz Messengers recorded for a number of labels over the years including Mercury, Epic, Fontana, Impulse, Riverside, Colpix, and Limelight. A subsidiary of Mercury Records, the latter company released three Blakey sets which remain among the drummer's least known work due in large part to their limited availability over the years. 'S Make It (Limelight/Verve 1994) is a bristling 1964 album which finds Lee Morgan and Curtis Fuller sharing the front line with tenor saxophonist John Gilmore in a rare appearance away from the Sun Ra organization. The writing by Morgan, Fuller, and pianist John Hicks is strong, making this one a real sleeper worthy of wider recognition.
Even at an early stage in his career, tenor saxophone legend Johnny Griffin was a technically brilliant dynamo capable of dazzling displays of be-bop integrity. As an opening gambit, Johnny Griffin (Argo/Verve 2025) is hard to beat even while Griffin's later Blue Notes seem to be a bit more evenly consistent. This 1956 Chicago session for Argo already finds Griffin at the top of his game on a program of standards and a few originals. Too bad that the packaging was unable to replicate the split cover design of the original album; you'll have to go for the pricier Japanese version if you want that kind of authenticity.
As jazz organists go, Charles Earland was definitely among the best of the lot and his output for Prestige Records continues to be an inspiration for those with a taste for '60s soul jazz. Just when I thought that Fantasy had done a pretty good job of bringing the majority of Earland's titles to disc, here comes along Funk Fantastique (Prestige 11030) complete with five previously unissued performances. Recorded between 1971 and 1972, four of the tracks were released on Charles III and they all put Earland in large ensemble setups that feature extended jams from the likes of Billy Harper, Lee Morgan, Hubert Laws, and many others. Earland solos in more of a Larry Young vein than I've been accustomed to before with not even one less than perfect track in the bunch.
Giving things a more commercial charm than the Earland performances, fellow organist Rueben Wilson's A Groovy Situation (Water Music 134) is one of the five dates he cut for Blue Note. Each one of them has something different to offer and its remarkable to hear how Wilson puts a jazzy twist on a set of R&B numbers essentially off the hit parade of the time. With a quartet including Earl Turbinton, Eddie Diehl, and Harold White, Wilson grooves on a half dozen funk trinkets such as "Happy Together" and "Signed, Sealed, Delivered." Thanks to the folks at the independent Water Music label for veering into uncharted waters by offering this and other lesser known gems to an audience eager to hear some of the Blue Notes titles yet to appear on CD.
Speaking of Blue Note, even the label proper has been digging deeper for their reissues, the recent results of which can be found in such titles as the long unavailable Easterly Winds (Blue Note 73161). This 1967 masterpiece from pianist Jack Wilson is sure to perk many ears who missed it the first time out. Known for his work on the West Coast and as accompanist to vocalists such as Dinah Washington, Wilson mixes his sunny style with an outstanding cast of New York characters such as Lee Morgan, Jackie McLean, and Billy Higgins. The results rank among Wilson's best recorded work, not to mention this set being one of the top ten Blue Notes from a catalog jam packed with memorable goodies.
While pianist Ramsey Lewis seemed to be dismissed by jazz purists the minute he started to make it on the charts with hits like "Hang On Sloopy" and "Wade in the Water," those in the know kept following his work and were rewarded with a number of finer late period sets like 1969's Another Voyage (Cadet/Verve 2683). Working in his new trio with bassist Cleveland Eaton III and drummer Maurice White (soon to be of Earth, Wind & Fire fame), Lewis' music cut a wide swathe, from funky Rhodes piano work on numbers like the catchy "Wanderin' Rose" to effective acoustic ballad statements on gems such as "How Beautiful Is Spring."