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Putting Palo Alto Back on the Map


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The early 80s was a nebulous time for jazz. Contrary to what alarmists and revisionists might claim, the music wasn’t in any danger of dying. It was just going through another bout of growing pains that made future trajectories unclear. Fusion’s commercial dominance was waning and free jazz remained largely a niche market outside the influence of most major labels. Wynton was just making the scene, freshly scrubbed from conservatory training and classical concert repertory, but still several years away from leading a new pride of young lions onto the jazz savannah.

Thing is, the old lions still had plenty of roar left in them. Often it was simply a matter of finding a viable conduit through which their voices could be heard. The independent Palo Alto label served just a purpose. For a span of five years the small Californian imprint financed albums by some of the luminaries in the music. Twenty odd years later Quicksilver Records has purchased the masters and imitated a reissue campaign to bring these classic slices of post-bop jazz back into circulation.

Mal Waldron’s One Entrance, Many Exits features what many might consider a superlative lineup. The pianist himself was under contract with Enja at the time so his ability to lead the session is itself a minor coup. Joe Henderson made uneven records in his career, but only rarely were their foibles the fault of his own playing. His stellar track record for session excellence is ably upheld here as the lone horn. Billy Higgins, the drummer’s drummer, holds down the traps chair while bassist David Friesen rings in as the resident Anglo pup in the presence of his venerable peers.

Tune lengths are generous and allow for spacious solo opportunities for all five players. “Golden Golson,” composed in honor of the saxophonist of the same surname, offers up eight-plus minutes of improvisatory ingenuity and is a spotlight for Henderson’s restlessly inventive tenor musings. Adopting a wax paper-dry tone as he slides through the changes, the tenor man rides across Waldron’s sparse choppy comping and variable cymbal splashes of Higgins. Friesen holds down a harmonic center with steady walking fingers tugging turgidly amplified strings.

The album’s title track relies on tight, responsive interplay between the bassist and the leader and requires the rest of the band to lay out. Friesen’s amplified arco work creates vacillating drones, punctuated by rippling plucks and rapid-fire strums. Waldron’s famously “un-melodic’ approach to thematic development takes center stage as tightly calibrated right and left hand clusters pour and trickle from his keys for the better part of ten minutes. “Chazz Jazz,” an oblique solo tribute to the redoubtable Charles Mingus, opens with ruminative Waldron chording and unfurls into an almost rhapsodic exploration of harmonic possibilities.

The band returns to full muster for “Herbal Syndrome” and once again Henderson’s arid, almost feathery phrasing leads the charge atop a vaguely Latin vampish structure. Shortly after the opening theme his tone turns leaner and harder as legato note streams launch in swift staccato succession. Friesen’s fat ostinato keeps the tension thick, but Higgins’ spacious cymbals serve as a supple counterweight.

Cooling off from the scorching heat of its predecessor in the program, “How Deep is the Ocean” brings out the band’s ballad side. Henderson’s crying statement of the melody is more relaxed, but an undergirding of muscle still shapes his figures and is reflected in Waldron’s strident comping. Higgins propels the rhythmic end with brushes and Friesen’s rubbery line once again spreads the harmonic glue. Waldron’s “Blues in 4 By 3” winds things up sans Henderson, placing the focus is firmly on rhythm with the composer engaging in dark rolls atop a buoyant striding bass line and syncopated snare breaks. This album is far from a footnote in the careers of each of these musicians. The music here is vibrant and vital and its existence speaks directly to the foresight of Palo Alto producer Herb Wong.

Like his former Coltrane colleague McCoy Tyner, Elvin Jones successfully parlayed his stature as a jazz statesman of the 70s into a sustainable career during the following decade. A prime reason behind his longevity, other than his obvious superb skills behind the drum kit, was his Art Blakey-like knack for nurturing younger talent and staying in tune with the tastes of the times. Commensurate with this is band on Earth Jones is brimming with virile brio. Liebman, Jones oldest associate, aligns with Hino in an attractive two horn tandem, though the saxophonist’s decision to stick to the straight horn and keep his tenor holstered leaves something to be desired. For their parts, Mraz and Kirkland make for responsive and enthusiastic fulcrums in the rhythm section.

Balancing compositions by Jones and Liebman with a stray standard, the album’s songbook is accomdating enough to allow for substantial improvisation. Jones might be noticeably older in the sleeve notes’ accompanying snapshot, but the speed and agility of his sticks suggests that age is mainly just a state of mind. “Three Chord Molly” erupts in mid-stride sally through the theme; only to disperse in a measured solo by Hino that intersperses frenetic sprays of notes with more ordered exclamations. Jones stokes the rhythm from below with subtle, expertly placed strokes and Kirkland comps brightly beside him before turning in a solo replete with adroitly advancing right hand arpeggios. Liebman’s soprano is a shade brittle in intonation, but his snaking figures still manage to strike improvisatory sparks atop the boiling backdrop of his partners. A tidal turn by the drummer takes the track out to an ecstatic collective close.

Jones’ “Is Seeing Believing?” predictably charts ballad straights as a follow-up and delivers a fine forum for Liebman’s ethereal flute. Mraz’s amplification is particularly noticeable in these tranquil surroundings and the bassist makes use of his malleable tone in stretching out a pliable counterpoint to the flautist’s lead line. Jones also plays it cool, weaving a porous rhythm with light cymbal patter and subtle snare.

Liebman’s brief “The Top of the Middle” blends nasalized, echo-laced soprano with Jones cascading drums in an intriguing if somewhat stilted game of improvised call and response. Just as things really get going the track cuts off. The title piece returns the full band to more overt compositional grounding on the back of a darkly brooding modal theme. Kirkland plugs in and his electric keys add to the mood of melancholy unease in congruence with Mraz’s monolithic five-note ostinato. Liebman and Hino pierce the cerulean veil with shrill whinnying streaks that swoop headlong into unapologetic atonality while Jones sustains the forward momentum with a shuffling, ambiguous beat. The ballad standard “ Never Let Me Go” is a complete contrast, opening on the lush flourish of Kirkland’s acoustic ivories and showing the softer proclivities of Liebman’s sultry soprano. Jones is a model of elegance and restraint on brushes and Mraz’s nondescript fills and solo form the final snugly fitting pieces of the puzzle

Liebman’s “Day and Night” completes the picture on an upbeat note with airy Latin sounding beat as springboard. Soloing confidently and at length, the composer eventually hands off to Hino who coaxes a beguiling, rasp-flecked tone from his brass, honing his notes to a beam-like sharpness across successive choruses. Kirkland follows with similar versatility before a series of breaks ensues with the leader’s tumbling, but tightly controlled traps. Jones had a steady string of albums throughout the 80s. This date stands out as among the most focused and varied of the bunch.

Quicksilver’s Palo Alto reissue program is just getting off the ground, but they’ve already promised a prolific release schedule pace with classic albums by Phil Woods, McCoy Tyner and Gene Krupa, among others, in the works. These two early entries in what could become one of the most celebrated reissue programs of 2003 are an ideal place to start discovering what made the label so special during it’s initial run. They also prove conclusively that the 80s were a far more fertile era for jazz that some historians would have the public believe.

Visit Quicksilver Records on the web.

Mal Waldron – One Entrance, Many Exits

Tracks: Golden Golson/ One Entrance, Many Exits/ Chazz Jazz/ Herbal Syndrome/ How Deep is the Ocean/ Blues in 4 by 3.

Players: Mal Waldron- piano; Joe Henderson- tenor saxophone; Dave Friesen- bass; Billy Higgins- drums. Recorded: January 4, 1982.

Elvin Jones – Earth Jones

Tracks: Three Chord Molly/ Is Seeing Believing/ The Top of the Middle/ Earth Jones/ Never Let Me Go/ Day or Night.

Players: Elvin Jones- drums; Dave Liebman- soprano saxophone, flute; Terumasa Hino- cornet; Kenny Kirkland- piano; Georg Mraz- bass. Recorded: February 10, 1982.

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