RVG Editions: Spring 2004 Part 1-2

C. Andrew Hovan By

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Well it looks like Blue Note is having a good run with its Rudy Van Gelder editions of Blue Note classics as they just seem to keep coming. While a good deal of the catalog has been available for some time in Japan, this reviewer never thought that the U.S. market would pick up so quickly on the idea. This year alone, a dozen new titles hit the stores (those discs being reviewed here in two parts) with at least two more batches coming along later this summer and fall. So without further ado, we take a look at a half dozen new goodies added to the RVG series.

Trumpeter Donald Byrd gets the royal RVG treatment with two of his early ‘60s albums making the scene. Now combined on a two-disc set, At the Half Note Café Vol. 1 & 2 culls 14 performances from an edition of the Byrd quintet that included Pepper Adams, Duke Pearson, Laymon Jackson, and Lex Humphries. This is bristling hard bop fare that comes across with superb “you are there” fidelity provided by Mr. Van Gelder. Pearson contributes the gems “Child’s Play” and “Jeannine.” His solos are also worthy of discovery as he rarely got a chance to stretch out at length on his studio dates like he does here. As for Byrd, he’s in top form, with “A Portrait of Jennie” being a choice ballad interpretation. While one might have wished for more fireworks, this slice of life does catch a working band on its home turf swinging with straight ahead élan.

A far more innovative recital, Byrd’s Free Form from 1961 marks the only recorded encounter between the trumpeter and Wayne Shorter. In addition to this strong front line, the rhythm section included Herbie Hancock, Butch Warren, and Billy Higgins. The title track is really the centerpiece of the set, an aptly named composition that stretches beyond the boundaries of hard bop into more adventurous vistas. Hancock contribute two beguiling numbers, “Night Flower” and “Three Wishes” and comps in a manner that suggest that even at this early stage in his career his talents were light years beyond the norm. Somewhat undervalued over the years, this album is one of Byrd’s best and it come highly recommended.

At the beginning of the ‘60s, guitarist Grant Green made a strong impression on producer Alfred Lion and went into the studio quite often for Blue Note. Although he was recorded in a variety of formats over the years, Green did some of his best work in a quartet setting with piano, bass, and drums. Along these lines, he cut several sides with Sonny Clark and two albums with Herbie Hancock, Feelin’ The Spirit and Goin’ West. This latter affair has had a very checkered past, being released somewhat belatedly in the late ‘60s and now appearing for the first time on compact disc. While Spirit focused on gospel standards, Goin’ West has a country and western theme that sound not the least bit pretentious in the hands of these gifted musicians. For instance, “Red River Valley” gets a bossa nova treatment that takes it to a very different place. Of course Sonny Rollins picked up on “Wagon Wheels” and Green sees the melodic gifts in this number as well. Forgotten for too long, this set ranks among Green’s best and should be a valuable edition to any guitar collection.

Easily one of my all-time favorite Freddie Hubbard Blue Notes, Ready For Freddie distills all the important elements of a style that has endured the trumpeter to his loyal fans for years. For one thing, there’s that fat and juicy tone that Van Gelder captures with tube-like warmth and then there’s a superb recital of pieces arranged for a three-piece horn section that gets its unique sound from Bernard McKinney’s euphonium. “Weaver of Dreams” has to be one of Hubbard best ballad interpretations, while “Birdlike” is an iconic hard bop number that is still a favorite among those in the know. Shorter needs to be lauded for his cerebral solos plus his funky “Marie Antoinette,” while McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones were just in the early stages of their close association as members of the classic Coltrane quartet. Fiery and colorful are two adjectives that immediately come to mind when describing this masterpiece!

While playing an active role as production assistant for Blue Note for much of the mid to late ‘60s, pianist and composer Duke Pearson also quietly built up his own distinctive catalog that has yet to catch on big with the jazz public. Truth is that Pearson never was a flashy soloist, but his gifts were in assembling distinctive ensembles and writing gorgeous arrangements that reflected a love for Latin and Brazilian strains. Sweet Honey Bee boasts a front line with Freddie Hubbard, James Spaulding, and Joe Henderson and seven originals of which “Gaslight,” “Big Bertha,” and “Ready Rudy” have become standards among a few of today’s astute jazz musicians. Interestingly, Hubbard and Henderson tone down their usually boisterous personas to fit the mood of Person’s tunes, all of which speak with a degree of individuality that was another of Pearson’s talents. According to my sources, the master tape for this session has been long lost and like a previous CD reissue sound evidence suggests this has been transferred from a disc, still Van Gelder’s handiwork here is superb.

Acerbic in tone, Jackie McLean’s sound is one that either appeals to one’s sensibilities or is an immediate turn off. 1965’s Right Now! is the kind of record that lays open McLean to your scrutiny as it’s a sparse quartet session with the alto man taking the lion’s share of the solo space. It’s also one of his greatest efforts, as he had made great strides in reconciling his more adventurous inclinations with a foundation that still had a strong sense of harmony and rhythm, a process that had started as early as 1962’s Let Freedom Ring. “Christel’s Time” (inexplicably listed here as “Christel’s Tune) is one of McLean’s finest recorded moments and it also includes Clifford Jarvis’ incendiary solo, actually one of the best drum spots ever committed to tape.

Part 2...


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