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Blue Note Connoisseur Reissues: Grant Green, Andrew Hill, Hank Mobley, Don Wilkerson, George Braith, Booker Ervin

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This article was first published at All About Jazz in April 2001.

Since 1995, Blue Note has been pleasing hardcore fans with a special reissue series that sports a very simple premise: w'll print up some of the catalog's most obscure titles as long as you buy them up quickly, because they'll only be around for a limited time. As a result, w've seen a great degree of variety within the catalog, from the early recordings of German pianist Jutta Hipp to the post hard bop implications of Pete LaRoca's Basra. This latest series of Connoisseur titles is no exception as far as diversity goes, although in two cases we get material that has been highly sought after for years (more on that later), making this one of the more exhilarating reissue batches in recent memory.

First Session
Grant Green

Along with Horace Silver, guitarist Grant Green might have been one of the most recorded artists at Blue Note, staying with the label well into the early '70s. Never before heard, First Session was cut in November of 1960, some two months before the first Green Blue Note album to actually get released, Grant's First Stand. What a surprise to find these five performances considering that Michel Ruppli's The Blue Note Label: A Discography lists them as rejected (equally inexplicable is the fact that the same book also lists takes of Jordu and A Night in Tunisia that are not to be found on this disc).

For his maiden voyage, Green couldn't have asked for a better rhythm team than Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers, and Philly Joe Jones. The foursome mesh beautifully and even with a few ragged moments here and there, nothing of any note would have embarrassed anyone had this record been released way back when. Green's Seepin' is especially tasty, a slow blues number that finds Kelly in his best Red Garland mood. On the premier of Grant's First Stand, Kelly drops out at one point, allowing Green to worry a phrase in a way that builds intensity and marks him as an individualistic soloist. Thrown in for good measure, we also get the two existing takes from a October 1961 date with Sonny Clark, Butch Warren, and Billy Higgins, cut just a bit over a year before that foursome would enter the Van Gelder studios again for the sublime Feelin' the Spirit.

Lift Every Voice
Andrew Hill

Another significant Blue Note artist, pianist Andrew Hill's early milestones for the label have been available for some time, with even some of his stray sessions finally collected a few years back on a Mosaic boxed set. It's taken time for the pianist's later albums to see reissue and that may be because there are contrasting opinions on the merits of these idiosyncratic sides. It has been the considered opinion of this reviewer that Lift Every Voice is a pure jewel and the seamless manner that Hill used in integrating a choir and jazz quintet set new standards that surpassed even the stimulating methods of Donald Byrd's A New Perspective. Aside from the outstanding writing, with some tracks including wordless vocals and others including text, trumpeter Woody Shaw contributes a number of his finest recorded solos of the period. With a glistening tone and a resourceful imagination, Shaw's work here is worth the price of admission. So too are the incendiary contributions of tenor saxophonist Carlos Garnett.

Adding to an already precious reissue, an extra six cuts come from two 1970 sessions that also utilize the plus vocals approach. Lee Morgan and Bennie Maupin form the front line, with Ron Carter and Ben Riley as part of the rhythm section and Lawrence Marshall again conducting the choir. Ther's so much to be keen on here that it's simply baffling as to why this music was never released. Among many highlights, a sprightly Mother Mercy benefits from Riley's crackling drums and Maupin's chirping flute work. Morgan is positively effusive on Such It Is and Hill is dynamic and less brooding than usual throughout. Fantastic!

Straight No Filter
Hank Mobley

The several and varied sessions that made up the Hank Mobley albums No Room For Squares, The Turnaround and Straight No Filter were first sorted out upon their initial release on CD. Then, the first two titles appeared recently in original scattered form as RVG reissues, followed closely by this new incarnation of Straight No Filter. The whole thing is clearly a mess now, however, if you don't own the old CD versions of any of these three, then it looks like this is as good as it's going to get. No less than four different groups are heard here with sessions spanning from 1963 to 1966. All of the music is classic, despite the disjointed nature of this compilation.

The Complete Blue Note Sessions
Don Wilkerson

For the first time in the United States, one of Blue Not's more obscure artists gets his dues via a two-disc set collecting all three of his albums as a leader. Saxophonist Don Wilkerson may have been born in Louisiana, but he was raised in Houston and always considered himself as part of the lineage of soulful Texas horn blowers. Aside from his sideman work with Ray Charles and the exceedingly rare Riverside set, The Texas Twister (currently available for a short time as a Japanese import), Wilkerson's trio of Blue Notes form the cornerstone of his pedigree as a jazz artist.

Both Preach, Brother! and Elder Don find Wilkerson's boisterous tenor in front of a quartet including guitarist Grant Green. Call it soul jazz or down home or whatever you like, this stuff just wails. Especially choice are Dem Tambourines (with, of course, tambourine in hand and some vocal wallops from Wilkerson to get us started), The Eldorado Shuffle, Camp Meetin,' and Pigeon Peas. Oddly enough, Shoutin' doesn't prove to be as rowdy as its title might imply. Still, Grant Green is on hand again and organist Big John Patton gives things a new twist. Sadly ignored for too long, this set demands to be heard.

The Complete Blue Note Sessions
George Braith

As with the Wilkerson collection, the three albums included on this two-disc set bring to light some great music that just screams for our renewed interest. Grant Green fans take note; the guitarist is all over this set too! As for Braith, who is still active in New York, his major claim to fame is an ability to play more than one horn at a time. Despite the unfair comparisons at the time to Roland Kirk, a closer listen would reveal that Braith was clearly his own man. What he does with Mary Had a Little Lamb on the Two Souls In One LP is unlike anything heard before and his great sense of humor is evident throughout.

With the exception of rotating drummers on each album, the core group of Green and organist Billy Gardner remains in place for the subsequent albums, Soul Stream and Extension. The latter set may be the standout of the three, due in no small way to Braith's choice to utilize mainly his tenor saxophone and get down to business on a set of originals. Finally, while there are no previously unreleased titles on either this or the Wilkerson sets, it should be noted that both of them feature full color reproductions of all the original album covers inside the booklets.

Structurally Sound
Booker Ervin

While it's not technically a Blue Note date, Booker Ervin's 1966 Pacific Jazz album, Structurally Sound, sure sounds like one. Of course, it would just be a few short years anyway until Ervin would cut The In-Between for Blue Note. Aside from bassist Red Mitchell, all of the cast members here were of the cutting edge variety, including pianist John Hicks, trumpeter Charles Tolliver, and drummer Lennie McBrowne. Taking that into account, it's odd that the program consists mainly of standards and only one original apiece from Ervin and Tolliver. Nonetheless, everything's poppin' and Ervin is his usual incendiary self, featured to great effect on Dancing In the Dark. Tolliver too speaks eloquently and without hesitation. Two additional performances and another pair of alternates complete this overlooked pleasure.

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