CDs We Almost Missed In 2003

C. Andrew Hovan BY

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It seems that as hard as I try, I always end up at the end of the year with a stack of discs that have somehow eluded my attention in print.
Although jazz accounts for a very small percentage of sales in terms of total product sold each and every year, it seems that there's no shortage of new material hitting the stores at any given time. And now with technology allowing almost anyone to cut a CD in their garage, there's an even longer list of titles being released every week. For a reviewer, this makes for a daunting task in sorting out what to listen to and in finding the time to somehow listen to it all. As such, it seems that as hard as I try, I always end up at the end of the year with a stack of discs that have somehow eluded my attention in print. This leads us to the piece at hand, with the ten discs that appear below standing apart from the crowd and thus deserving of attention, even if it were somewhat delayed.

Another solid entry in their "New York Piano" series, Live In New York (Reservoir 173) is Reservoir Record's latest release from pianist Barry Harris. While the club where this set was recorded at remains inexplicably a mystery, the resulting music is bebop of a very palpable variety. Harris still seems to be at the top of his game and the rhythm section with bassist Paul West and drummer Leroy Williams supports him admirably. Add saxophonist Charles Davis and guitarist Roni Ben-Hur to the mix and you have a delightful addition to the Harris catalog.

Speaking of Charles Davis, I still recall the first time I heard the clarion call of his baritone saxophone on Ronnie Mathews' Prestige date Doin' the Thang. His sound was quite different from what I was used to hearing- hard blowing men like Pepper Adams and Ronnie Cuber- and I couldn't help but take notice. Still a vital talent, Blue Gardenia (Reade Street 1110) finds Davis fronting a top-notch quartet with Cedar Walton and youngsters Peter Washington and Joe Farnsworth. A few originals mix with some standards "off the beaten track," Jobim's "Sabia" being an absolute jewel among many pleasures.

Recorded in 1989 and released for the first time, Bossas and Ballads: The Lost Sessions (Verve 000525), brings to light nine eloquent performances by Stan Getz in the company of his last great rhythm section- Kenny Barron, George Mraz, and Victor Lewis. Produced for A&M Records by Herb Alpert, these recordings were shelved quickly as the label wished to make the more elaborate Apasionado their opening gambit for Getz. With hindsight this was probably a wise move, however the "after hours" mood maintained here and the inspired work of Getz make these pieces a fine rediscovery and a worthy addition to the tenor man's cannon.

The respect that Japanese audiences have given to jazz in general has been acknowledged for years now. As such many independent record companies have sprouted in Japan, the most recent entry being producer Yasohachi Itoh's Eight-Eight's label. Last year Columbia Record's cut a deal to release a small number of items from the Itoh's catalog including albums by Eddie Henderson, Clark Terry and Max Roach, Ravi Coltrane, and Roy Haynes. The latter's Love Letters (88's/Columbia 87197) is a personal favorite among the bunch. Nothing all that radical happens, but it's great to hear the master drummer get together with Dave Holland, Kenny Barron, David Kikoski, Christian McBride, Joshua Redman, and John Scofield for a free wheeling jam session on some choice standards. Scofield goes direct without effects and turns in some fine mainstream playing and "Shades of Senegal 2" finds Haynes flexing his solo muscles.

Over the past ten years or so bassist Steve Swallow has recorded several excellent releases under his own name for Carla Bley's XtraWatt imprimatur. Damaged In Transit (XtraWATT/ECM 11) is the latest installment and was recorded live on a tour of France in the winter of 2001. Tenor saxophonist Chris Potter as the leading voice has to carry a lot of the weight here and he does so with aplomb. Supported by the fiery work of drummer Adam Nussbaum, Potter is at his best and this may be some of the most exciting work by this tenor phenom caught on tape. On the downside, without a chording instrument Swallow serves as the main anchor both melodically and harmonically which leaves less room for his own solo forays. Musicians should take note that as usual, Swallow has included "Real Book" style charts in the CD booklet for all the tunes!

It's been a hit or miss situation when it comes to the recordings drummer T.S. Monk has produced since his days with Blue Note and then subsequent tenure with a few indie labels. While some of the players on hand have been consistent, Monk's stylistic choices have too often verged towards commercial banality. With Higher Ground (Thelonious Records 9313) Monk arrives at a more mature balance of mainstream and fusion sensibilities. He sagaciously mixes samples and electronic patches into the overall fabric of Donald Brown's "Girl Watchin.'" Then on "Craw-Daddy" he melds his small ensemble into what sounds like a big band with the arranging talents of his father in evidence as well. It's great to hear Willie Williams (yo dude, you need to step out more often!) and Bobby Porcelli throughout this attractive disc too, which also marks the first release on the drummer's own Thelonious label.

Coming out of the legacy of Don Pullen, pianist D.D. Jackson has carved a niche for himself with a ebullient style of playing that has mated perfectly with former employer David Murray and most recently in a trio with bassist Ugonna Okegwo and drummer Dafnis Prieto. Suite For New York (Justin Time 188) is easily his most ambitious work to date, composed of eleven original compositions dedicated to the city of New York. A large ensemble including James Spaulding and Christian Howes pours life into Jackson's varied and variegated pieces covering quite a range of emotions. At one moment avant gutbucket and then at the next sweet and sentimental, Jackson's view of the city is as complex and rewarding as its namesake.

On the New York scene now for many years, drummer Yoron Israel has proven to be a valuable mainstream artist with chameleon like sensibilities. Basic Traneing (Ronja Music 3020) is his self-produced set with several musicians that he has developed a particularly strong bond with over the years. Organist Kyle Koehler and guitarist Ed Cherry form a potent organ combo with Israel, the front line filled out with tenor saxophonist Billy Pierce and vibraphonist Jay Hoggard. By looking at the title the theme is obviously a tribute to John Coltrane, but this group decides to go its own way and Israel even contributes four of his own pieces. Sound quality is fine throughout and the attractive arrangements make for a very tasty entry into the organ combo genre.

A yeoman guitarist and veteran of the organ groups of Lou Donaldson and Joey De Francesco, Randy Johnston has quietly filled out his own catalog with a number of first-rate albums over the years for Muse, J-Curve, and now High Note. Hit and Run (High Note 7098) is Johnston's newest endeavor and one that makes the most of a top-shelf rhythm section. Bruce Barth and Joe Locke take turns sharing the lead with Johnston's guitar and the addition of Grady Tate harkens back to the drummer's work on those classic Wes Montgomery Verve sides of the late '60s. This one comes highly recommended to fans of mainstream jazz guitar.

Finally, we come to an album that serves somewhat as a return to form for piano man Cyrus Chestnut. A technically gifted soloist of great emotional depth, his album The Dark Before The Dawn has always been the benchmark by which other Chestnut trio efforts have been compared. Now many years later, You Are My Sunshine (Warner Bros. 48445) ranks as a release on equal footing with the emphasis on pure straight ahead trio jazz. New trio members Michael Hawkins and Neal Smith lock in tight with Chestnut and the results are positively swinging and infectious.

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