Best Live Jazz Recordings: The Best of the Rest
| Eric Dolphy: Live At The Five Spot Volumes 1 (Prestige/OJC 133, 1984) and 2 (Prestige/OJC 247, 1992) |
These recordings along with the Eric Dolphy and Booker Little Memorial AlbumLive at the Five Spot (Prestige/OJC 353, 1992) make up the highly documented last appearances of Dolphy and Little at New York's Five Spot Cafe. Performed there was music that bristled with soul and invention, as well as forward musical thinking. The Five Spot recording was made July 16, 1961. This was just six weeks before his noted Berlin concerts and just months before his historic inclusion in John Coltrane's Village Vanguard performances captured on John ColtraneThe Complete 1961 Village Vanguard Recordings (Impulse! 232, 1997). Dolphy's candle was to burn bright and short, extinguished by diabetes in Berlin in 1964, just nine days after his 36th birthday. This makes him qualitatively like Clifford Brown, another short-lived incandescent influence in jazz. These forty-year-old sides still sparkle with his brief and phosphorescent genius.
| The Art Blakey Quintet: The Complete Live Recordings at Birdland: A Night At Birdland Volumes 1 (Blue Note 32146, 2001) and 2 (Blue Note 46520, 2001) |
This set is alone worth acquiring for the one-minute introduction of the pre-Jazz Messengers by MC Pee Wee Marquette. The rest is the incubation of Hard Bop by the two principals, Art Blakey and Horace Silver. "Split Kick" and "Quicksilver" boast Silver's contribution to the bop vernacular. Clifford Brown's reading of the ballad "Once In A While" makes his early loss to music that much more exquisitely painful. Add the alto pork fat of Lou Donaldson and things were just roadhouse greasy. But these festivities all center on the diminutive giant Blakey. He thunders behind his set with the authority of heavyweight prizefighter. A relentless timekeeper, these Birdland shows demonstrate Blakey's agenda for the next 40 years. It was an agenda of beat and rhythm, the perfect muscular foil to the nuanced Max Roach and the Swiss-timekeeping Kenny Clarke. Art Blakey was a bandleader in the vein of Miles Davis and former student Wynton Marsalis, educate on the bandstand and swing, swing, swing.
| Keith Jarrett: Still Live (ECM 835008, 1990) |
One might listen to the Red Garland Trio at the Blackhawk and drink beer. One might listen to the Oscar Peterson Trio at the Village Vanguard and drink Scotch. One might listen to the Ray Brown or Ahmad Jamal Trios at Zanzibar Blue and drink 20 year-old Port. But if one listens to Keith Jarrett's Standards Trio, it is likely it will be at Wolftrap or Carnegie Hall and you will be drinking champagne. Each song is treated as an aural gem brilliantly accented by Jarrett's Baroque musings. He turns Tin Pan Alley into the Yellowbrick Road with his highly technical and highly personal approach to performing. A better ballads player that a blues player, Jarrett nevertheless stands and delivers on Charlie Parker's "Billie's Bounce." "My Funny Valentine" is treated as a Bach fugue, with its elaborate introduction (a thread that passes through all of the pieces on this disc). This is jazz as sublimity.
| Thelonious Monk: Live At the It Club (Columbia/Legacy 65288, 1998) |
The greatest iconoclast in jazz. No one could have confounded Be Bop and been such a big part of it at the same time as Thelonious Sphere Monk. Of his many live recordings, the relatively recently expanded Live At The It Club makes the cut for consideration here. Recorded in October-November 1964, Live At The It Club features Monk's most enduring quartet: Charlie Rouse on tenor saxophone, Larry Gates on bass, and Ben Riley on drums. The collection can be considered a "greatest hits" package. "Blue Monk," "Well, You Needn't," "Round Midnight," "Rhythm-n-ing" are all included and receive lengthy consideration. Historically, Monk's compositional approach and band book were fully formed in 1947 and changed damn little for the rest of his performing career. That is okay when one is considering the fractured Bach displayed on Live At The It Club.
| Grant Green: Live At the Lighthouse (Blue Note 93381, 1972) |
Recorded in 1972 Live At The Lighthouse can barely be seen by the Grant Green Hubbell telescope of his recordings with Sonny Clark from ten years prior. Here, Green is electrified, funkified, and sanctified. His working quartet plus a couple of extras join him. He orchestrates a slow burn starting with "Windjammer" and ending with "Walk in the Night." This disc might be seen as the forefather to a generation of smooth and contemporary jazz. Whether his repertoire is composed of show standards or funky soul-jazz tomes, Grant Green's guitar is immediately consumable and easy to understand. This is populist music for informed populists.
| Buddy Rich: Mercy, Mercy-At Caesar's Palace (Blue Note 54331, 1998) |
The Loud and The Proud. Drummer Buddy Rich's bands were big and brassy, reflecting their leader's extroverted personality to the nth degree. At Caesar's Palace sounds every bit out of a time capsule sealed in 1968. The repertoire contains the contemporary (Joe Zawinul's "Mercy, Mercy, Mercy" and Burt Bacharach's "Alfie") and traditional (Strayhorn's "Chelsea Bridge"). Represented here is alto saxophonist Art Pepper between San Quentin and Synanon, before his comeback four years later. Tenor saxophonist Don Menza is on hand with some bright compositions and arrangements. But this really is all Buddy's gig. Whatever one may say, technically, Buddy Rich was a fine drummer and a vocal (out)spokesman for jazz.
| Return to Forever: Live (Columbia 35281, 1978) |
Return to Forever or Weather Report...Both of these great '70s fusion bands sported virtuosi. They existed as the modern equivalent of the Ellington vs. Basie Big Bands. Oddly enough, the greatest point of comparison between the groups is with the bassists. Stanley Clarke is certainly a power virtuoso but lacked the sheer unrefined genius of Jaco Pastorious. Another thread may be drawn between the keyboard players, Chic Corea and Joe Zawinul. In this case, refinement is even but vision is different. RTF always produced a more complex and technical brand of fusion. Return to Forever Live is evidence of this. Composed mostly of fusion compositions by the band, Live does contain the sprinkle of standards in "Come Rain of Come Shine" and "On Green Dolphin Street.
| Benny Goodman: Live at Carnegie Hall, 1938 (Columbia/Legacy 65143, 1998) |
By any standard other than fidelity and contemporary appeal, Live at Carnegie Hall, 1938 might be considered the greatest live jazz recording. Present with Mr. Goodman are Count Basie, with several of his associates: Buck Clayton, Lester Young, as well as some Ellingtonians like Harry Carney. Gene Krupa is on hand and "Sing Sing, Sing" still rings, rings, rings. Historically, this is Swing music performed during the Swing Era's meteoric rise. It is opined that this concert is the first incidence where Jazz was first presented as a performance art and not a dance vehicle. Additionally, this concert continued Goodman's challenge to the color barrier in music, a brave and noble effort that has only benefited the music.
| Stanley Turrentine: Up At Minton's (Blue Note 28881, 1961) |
Maybe this is a bit of a surprise, but then again, maybe not. Stanley Turrentine was well known for having a durable muscular tenor tone and playing solid and dense soul jazz. Up At Minton's finds Mr. T at the beginning of his distinguished career in the fine company of guitarist Grant Green and Pianist Horace Parlan, with who he generously shares the solo spotlight. The formula is well known. The set is comprised of some ballads, some standards, some blues and some originals. The venue is Minton's, the birthplace of Be Bop, and the house where the bop flame is kept. Recorded in February 1961, Up At Minton's joins the other notable 1961 recorded concerts by Bill Evans, John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy. A good year, that 1961.
| Miles Davis: Live At the Fillmore East, March 7, 1970: It's About That Time (Columbia Legacy 85191, 2001) |
Noisy Miles. It's About That Time is touted as the missing link between the second great quintet and Bitches Brew. It is also claimed as the last (and third) great "quintet" with a trumpet/saxophone front. Here is the only recorded legacy of Miles with Dave Holland, Wayne Shorter, Chick Corea, and Jack DeJohnette (with Airto Moreiera on the side). This concert was Miles's first at the Fillmore East. It also is the first recorded evidence of the music contained on Bitches Brew (that was released just months after this concert, though recorded a year earlier). The concert is rife with loud Fender Rhodes thunder and uncompromising drumming. The two horns play staccato jags throughout, with Wayne Shorter displaying a considerable technical capability on the soprano saxophone. Miles is all sideways and slurs, his mid register darting in and out of the molten murk that was to become Fusion
| The Crusaders: Scratch (MCA 37072, 1975) |
Originally The Jazz Crusaders, the Crusaders forged a valley through contemporary funk jazz and R&B; but not before they produced a mountain of traditional hard bop. A rose by any other name... With their tenor-trombone front, they were able to refine a very unique and identifiable sound in any idiom. Scratch is a superb funk jazz offering from 1974, recorded live at the Roxy, that features the classic Crusaders's lineup of Wayne Henderson (Trombone), Joe Sample (Keyboards), Wilton Felder (Tenor Saxophone) and Stix Hooper (well, you know). Add Larry Carlton and Max Bennett to the mix and the recording can't help but crackle with electric funk. The title track is a primer on butt-shaking funky tonk. The sustained trombone note on "Eleanor Rigby" is an added thrill as are the down home "Hard Times" and "Way Back Home" both staples in the Crusaders's R&B repertoire. The album cover (pink is the coolest since Stanley Turpentine's Sugar).
| Art Pepper: The Complete Village Vanguard Sessions (Contemporary 4417, 1995) |
A dream deferred. Alto Saxophonist Art Pepper began his career in the late 1940s. It took him thirty years to make it to the East Coast where, in 1977, his tour of the Eastern Seaboard brought him to the grand temple of jazz, Max Gordon's Village Vanguard. While in residence, Pepper and his quartet of George Cables on piano, George Mraz on bass, and Elvin Jones on Drums, performed old and new music. Pepper, in a cocaine fever detailed in his autobiography, Straight Life, composed some very solid and complex charts including his theme, "Blues for Heard" and "For Freddie." But he does not neglect the standards. "Caravan," "Night in Tunisia," and perhaps Pepper's best ballad, "Over the Rainbow" are all represented. What makes this recording special is the tone. Pepper is strung tight and is out to prove himself to the hard-hearted East Coast. Pepper bares himself without shame and expels music of such emotional gravity that the listener begins a slow orbit of recognition and understanding of what living through one's music is all about.
| Ray Brown: Bam, Bam, Bam (Concord 4375, 1989) |
This is a bit of a guilty pleasure. Ray Brown's trio recordings for Concord and others have been uniformly fine. He has recorded with an army of pianists ranging from Monty Alexander to Geoff Keezer. However, it is in Gene Harris where Brown found his soul mate. Brown and Harris recorded many times together but never as powerfully as they did at the Fujitsu-Concord Jazz Festival in Japan in December 1988. Bam, Bam, Bam was the result. I think of this as a big band trio recording. All three of the principals have big broad sounds, big enough to fill an auditorium. The disc highlight is the Gene Harris arranged "Summertime." The arrangement was first conceived while Harris lead the Three Sounds and is perfected here. Harris plays his trademark churchy two fisted style taking the Gershwin rose and breaking it open to reveal its rich earthy character in the blues, gospel, and ballads. Thrilling.
Writer's Note: Having recently completed a survey of the Top Ten Best Live Rock Albums, I have learned a couple of valuable things. One is a list of this sort should be presented in descending order starting with number 10 and descending to number 1. Second, it is better to poll a group for their opinions and develop the list from an analytical (or pseudoanalytical) evaluation of the results. This is how the Top Ten Best Live Jazz Recordings were selected. I polled the writership of All About Jazz, combined the results and ranked the recordings. For recordings that tied in number of votes, I arbitrarily selected the order (I had to exert editorial control somewhere!).
Live Jazz is perhaps the most natural creative state in music. Performing jazz means a musician must create a work of art on the spot, composition in real time. In this series, I hope to highlight historic events where this invention has not been merely successful, but transcendent.