Looking over Ethan Iverson's gargantuan catalog of great jazz records issued between 1973 and 1990, I'm overwhelmed both by the sheer wealth of great music that was made during this critically neglected era, and also by the depth of passion and insight Ethan (and his bandmates) were demonstrating toward jazz at such an early stage of life. By comparison, I am a dilettante, or at least a latecomer: My interest in jazz, pre-college anyway, was limited to Spryo Gyra, my gateway drug (thanks to my junior high percussion teacher), and Louis Bellson's Thunderbird -- still a great small-band swing set, but what I'd actually wanted was a Gene Krupa record, surprisingly hard to find in not-yet-booming League City, Texas.
My passion for jazz ignited later, fueled by namechecks provided by favorite rock stars. Sting says to check out In a Silent Way, I'm there. Bill Bruford tips his hat to A Love Supreme, that's all the prodding I need. I may have those two citings reversed, but you get the idea.
I don't remember how I came to The Shape of Jazz to Come, but that's where my floodgates opened: I became an avant-garde jazz fanatic, and devoted a portentously named Sunday-night show on my college radio station, "Jazz for the Third Ear," to its dissemination in San Antonio between 1986 and 1988. (The station was KRTU-FM 91.7 at Trinity University, and the show, I was proud to discover later, actually survived my graduation, at least for a while.) My knowledge of the mainstream during that period was sorely lacking by comparison.
Ethan's list, as well as those of Darcy James Argue and David Ryshpan, summarily put paid to the notion that jazz somehow went fallow during the years in question. But they also confirm for me that one of the most powerful and personal statements in the history of the music -- one of its most towering achievements, in my opinion -- is in greater danger of slipping into the mists of obscurity than I'd ever suspected.
A performer, composer and educator born in Fort Worth, Texas and based for most of his career in Los Angeles, the late John Carter (1929-1991) spent the '80s crafting his magnum opus: "Roots and Folklore: Episodes in the Development of American Folk Music," a five-suite (or five-disc, if you prefer) cycle that encompasses the whole of the African-American musical experience, from its roots in tribal Africa through slavery, rural folk and blues traditions, gospel music and the birth of jazz. It's admittedly uneven, but majestic in both scope and achievement. Pressed to think of artists who attempted to create anything of similar scope, the only names that come readily to mind are Ellington and Mingus...and Wynton Marsalis, much later.
The first disc, Dauwhe, was recorded in Los Angeles in 1982, and issued on Black Saint that year. By this point, Carter had laid down his alto saxophone to devote himself to clarinet, at a time when it was still unusual to do so -- Don Byron had yet to emerge. At Carter's side, then and always, was Bobby Bradford -- a sterling cornetist and, like Carter himself, a musician in the Ornette Coleman circle. (Bradford appears on Coleman's often-cited Science Fiction, and Carter and Bradford recorded a number of valuable Coleman-esque quartet records for Flying Dutchman in the '60s.) The rest of the band included Red Callender on tuba, flutist James Newton, reedist Charles Owens (on soprano sax, clarinet and oboe), bassist Roberto Miranda, drummer William Jeffrey and percussionist Luis Peralta.
Nowadays, Dauwhe is pretty much the only release in the cycle that turns up regularly. The rest, recorded for the Gramavision label -- indisputably one of the foremost centers of progressive-jazz activity during its lamentably brief existence -- is long out of print. (What a reversal from the period in which these discs were actually being released, when Dauwhe, on an Italian label, was the toughest one to locate!) That's a tragedy, because the next two records in the series were the stone-cold classics, and the final two are also fascinating.
Castles of Ghana was commissioned by the New York Shakespeare Festival's "New Jazz at the Public" series; Carter and Bradford recorded it in New York City in 1985; Gramavision issued it in 1986. The band that appeared here -- Marty Ehrlich on bass clarinet, Baikida Carroll on trumpet, Benny Powell on trombone, Terry Jenoure on violin and vocals, Richard Davis on bass and Andrew Cyrille on drums -- would remain more or less consistent for the remainder of the cycle, with a few significant tweaks.
While it's flip and dismissive to put it this way, if you only own one John Carter record, Castles of Ghana is it. The music pulses and throbs with a dark gravity and passion suited to its titular inspiration: the coastal castles along Ghana's coast, which were originally used for commercial trade in the 4th through 11th centuries. By the 16th century, tribal chiefs put those structures to a new purpose: they were used as holding pens for Africans who were sold into slavery.
Recorded in 1986 and issued the following year, Dance of the Love Ghosts describes the harrowing Middle Passage. Richard Davis is gone, replaced by the great Fred Hopkins, who will see the journey through to its end. Baikida Carroll is gone, as well; in his place is a an unexpected and unconventional inclusion, former Mothers of Invention keyboardist Don Preston. It's an inspired choice: Preston is a formidable player, and the way his lines occasionally bend out of correct pitch provides a suitably ungrounded element to this particular leg of the voyage. It's hard to convey in words the sheer impact of compositions such as "The Silent Drum," in which percussion group the Ashanti Drummers is added to chant pleas to the Creator, and "The Captain's Dilemma," a harrowing ballad concerning the slave-ships officers' abuse of female captives.
Rural folk music and agrarian life are the focuses of Fields, recorded in 1988 by the same band that made Dance of the Love Ghosts. Carter describes this one best in his liner notes: "The field life that was witness to the labor, grief and pain that harnessed production unseen in the world before also cradled the beginnings of national music that would grow to be respected and admired the world over." Tracks like "Ballad to Po' Ben," "Bootyreba at the Big House" and "Juba's Run" obviously cover the same territory as Wynton Marsalis's Blood on the Fields, but in a less portentous manner. The title suite, more than 20 minutes long, ranges from modernist abstraction to full-blown swing. Carter's grandchildren sing game-songs in the melancholy "Children of the Fields," and in the haunting final track, "On a Country Road," Carter blows a darkly warbling clarinet leitmotif that has been present throughout the entire cycle. Here, it accompanies the recorded voice of Uncle John, Carter's paternal great uncle and the family historian. An dirty-growling Ellingtonian episode is followed by a gritty harmonica solo from guest musician Frederick Phineas.
Carter's cycle concluded with Shadows on a Wall, recorded and issued in 1989. Here, his subject is the migration of African-Americans to the major northern cities, and the way they adapted their rural idioms to the new and different kinds of struggles with which they were now faced. Despite his historical topic, Carter's idiom remains as advanced as ever: I'm especially struck by the slow-moving chorale patterns that back a fiery Bradford solo on the opening track, "Sippi Strut." The next track, "Spats," celebrates the rise of tap dancing, with an especially delectable shuffle beat provided by Cyrille. "City Streets" digs into the blues; Jenoure's dramatic recitation on "And I Saw Them" is reminiscent of Jeanne Lee's work with Archie Shepp. "52nd Street Stomp" conjures the harried bustle of New York City, and the boisterous finale, "Hymn to Freedom," is like Mingus unhinged, all bustling war rhythms and Preston's dizzying swoops set against a gospel-organ background.
For the boldness of its ambition, the breadth of its accomplishment, the unity of its vision and the unbridled strength of each individual musician's contribution, "Roots and Folklore" demands to be recognized as one of the greatest achievements in the history of not just jazz, but American music, period. With no disrespect to Wynton Marsalis intended, this should have earned jazz's first Pulitzer Prize. It needs to be remembered, celebrated and even revived.
Having expended so much verbiage on Carter, I'm afraid that I'll be giving shorter shrift to that which follows. Still, here's another handful of as-yet unmentioned records from 1973-1990 that I wouldn't want to be without (with strange omissions for 1974 and 1976 that I'll try to plug up later):
[EDIT: Eight records added in a Monday-night revision of this list are indicated by NEW.]
Art Ensemble of Chicago - Fanfare for the Warriors (Atlantic, reissued by Koch Jazz and 4 Men with Beards) - The end of the Art Ensemble's first period of activity before a long lay-off, this studio set with guest Muhal Richard Abrams included strong performances of some of the band's most striking compositions to that date (Joseph Jarman's "Illistrum," Roscoe Mitchell's "Nonaah," Lester Bowie's "Barnyard Scuffel Shuffel").
Apparently, I don't own a single jazz disc recorded in 1974 apart from the two that Ethan cited, Weather Report's Mysterious Traveler and Wayne Shorter's Native Dancer. Time to scour everyone else's list! (Unlike Ethan, I actually do admire the two Changes volumes by Mingus that Darcy cites, but the spinoff from that group, the George Adams/Don Pullen Quartet, exerted a far greater grip... not that you'd know it before I published the revised edition of this list.)
Derek Bailey and Evan Parker - The London Concert (Incus, reissued by Psi) - Until its acrimonious dissolution, the partnership of guitarist Derek Bailey and saxophonist Evan Parker was one of the cornerstones of the European free improvisation movement. These two players were two of the most important and accomplished musicians in that scene, and their simpatico is everywhere in evidence in this important early duo encounter.
Evan Parker - Saxophone Solos (Incus, reissued by Chronoscope) - In which the world is introduced to the terrifying virtuosity and intense vision of Evan Parker's solo music, which reaches for (and often achieves) superhuman ends. Perhaps it's not jazz per se, but connections to Coltrane and Lacy are certainly evident and palpable. Later records such as Monoceros and At the Finger Palace (both 1978) have their adherents, but this one takes historical pride of place.
NEW Anthony Braxton - Dortmund (Quartet) 1976 (Hat Art) - The first of my earlier omissions, and certainly the most embarassing, this is one of jazz's great live albums. Braxton is on fiery form, with trombonist George Lewis matching him note for note. The rhythm section of Dave Holland and Barry Altschul achieved much on Braxton's rightfully lauded Arista albums of this period, which sorely deserve reissue, but they never ignited with as much incandescence as can be found here...and this, unlike the rest, is actually available.
Derek Bailey and Tony Oxley - Soho Suites (Incus) - It's a bit of a cheat to include this 2-CD set -- one disc recorded in 1977, the other in 1995 -- since it wasn't available at all during the period under scrutiny. (It was issued in 1997.) But like the relationship of Bailey and Parker, the guitarist's connection to percussionist Tony Oxley is one of the key bonds in European free improvisation. The two sets could hardly be more different -- the first fractious and eruptive, the second conversational and more contemplative -- but the vision that unites the two performances remains the same.
NEW Anthony Braxton - For Trio (Arista) - A grand, mysterious LP, this album comprised two recordings of the same long piece, Composition 76. One side found the leader working with Douglas Ewart and Henry Threadgill, the other with Roscoe Mitchell and Joseph Jarman. It's as if two teams of explorers were given the same destination to locate, but pursued completely different paths in order to get there.
Art Ensemble of Chicago - Nice Guys (ECM) - The Art Ensemble's return to duty featured a charming "no need to be afraid of us" vibe (particularly in Bowie's jiving reggae tune, "Ja"), gorgeous recorded sound and a mellow approachability that proved seductive.
Jack DeJohnette - New Directions (ECM) - The first of two outstanding bands the drummer led in the '70s, this one featured John Abercrombie, Lester Bowie and Eddie Gomez, as well as some of DeJohnette's best compositions ("Bayou Fever," "Where or Wayne" and the gorgeous "Silver Hollow").
Cecil Taylor - 3 Phasis (New World) - One of Taylor's most interesting bands, this version of the Unit included longtime partner Jimmy Lyons on alto, Raphe Malik on trumpet, Ramsey Ameen on violin, Sirone on bass and Ronald Shannon Jackson on drums. Jackson, whose name you'll see a lot of here, was a very different kind of drummer than Taylor usually favored, not least because he's willing to turn his sticks around and bash out a rocking backbeat from time to time. This studio recording is one continuous sweep, nearly an hour in length. Gary Giddins's excellent liner notes convey a sense of breathless anticipation that filled the control booth: Would the performance end in time to fit a single LP? Miraculously, yes. (One Too Many Salty Swift and Not Goodbye, an insane live set from the same year, is out on Hat Hut.)
Art Ensemble of Chicago - Live in Berlin (West Wind) - This may or may not be a completely legitimate issue, but for me it's the strongest single live set by this band available: "Dreaming of the Masters," from Nice Guys (mentioned above), sits here alongside powerful renditions of Jarman's "As If It Were the Seasons" and Mitchell's "A Jackson in Your House." And naturally it ends with a burning "Odwalla."
Jack DeJohnette - Special Edition (ECM) - DeJohnette's other great band from the '70s, and the one he would keep going for the next decade-plus. The original lineup included the duelling saxophones of Arthur Blythe and David Murray, with Peter Warren on nimble bass and lithe cello. "Journey to the Twin Planet" freaked me out when I first heard it (on a two-dollar, two-LP ECM sampler, Music for 58 Musicians), and still does; "One for Eric" is among the best Dolphy tributes ever.
NEW Steve Kuhn/Sheila Jordan Quartet - Playground (ECM) - A child of the bop era, vocalist Sheila Jordan spent most of her prime years working daytime jobs to support her home and daughter. At the end of the '70s, she began working with droll pianist Steve Kuhn, and the results were memorable. Jordan is always more interested in being a band member than a diva in the spotlight; she listens as much as she performs. Kuhn's quirky "The Zoo" (which was also included on the abovementioned Music for 58 Musicians) remains one of my favorite jazz-vocal performances of all time, alert and vigorous, yet understated and sympathetic. "Send twenty dollars to me / So I can be free..."
Pharoah Sanders - Journey to the One (Theresa, reissued by Evidence) - The very best of Sanders's latter-day recordings, this one sprawls all over the globe, from tender standards ("After the Rain," "It's Easy to Remember") to a delicate evocation of Asian music ("Kazuko"). "You've Got to Have Freedom" recalls Sanders's paeans to positivity of the late '60s and early '70s. The leader strikes a balance between the gorgeous terror of his '60s tone and the burnished resolve of his current elder-statesman phase. Among the less-expected guests are soundscaper Mark Isham and, in his recorded debut, the very young vocalist Bobby McFerrin. What holds it all together is the core band: John Hicks, Ray Drummond and Idris Muhammad. (There's a single, unexpected bass glissando in "Greetings to Idris" that I once told Drummond was my favorite bass note, ever.)
Art Ensemble of Chicago - Full Force (ECM) - Arguably the band's most accomplished studio recording, certain of its second phase. Malachi Favors's "Magg Zelma" is a towering edifice, nicely countered by Mitchell's "Care Free" and Bowie's "Charlie M." (Urban Bushmen, a live set recorded by ECM the same year and issued in 1982, isn't as strong as the Berlin set mentioned above, but the version of Bowie's "New York Is Full of Lonely People" is practically worth the price of admission all by itself.)
Derek Bailey - Aida (Incus, reissued by Dexter's Cigar) - One of Bailey's finest solo records, this one also arguably captures a turning point in his personal idiom, in which the flinty abstractions of his early years began to cede to longer conceptions that remain miraculously unified through Bailey's force of will alone. Perhaps its inspiration, the passing of a close friend and collaborator, accounts for the generous spirit heard on this disc.
Arthur Blythe - Illusions (Columbia, reissued by Koch Jazz) - Most likely recorded the previous year -- I can't pin it down, unfortunately -- this album serves as an excellent introduction to Blythe, whose keening alto and quirky compositions were once hailed (and supported by Columbia) as the future of jazz, before the young Wynton Marsalis made the scene. The disc includes six compositions that still form the backbone of Blythe's sets today; the session is usefully split between his unorthodox working band (guitarist James Blood Ulmer, cellist Abdul Wadud, tuba player Bob Stewart, drummer Bobby Battle) and his "In the Tradition" group with John Hicks, Fred Hopkins and Steve McCall -- the latter two from the great '70s band Air, to which Ethan devoted deserved space in his original list, and certainly both provocative choices for a standards band.
NEW Roscoe Mitchell and the Sound Ensemble - Snurdy McGurdy and Her Dancin' Shoes (Nessa) - Another one I can't believe I forgot, this is one of Mitchell's finest outings away from the Art Ensemble of Chicago. The gorgeous beginning of "Sing/Song" provides no warning of the roiling abstraction to come, or the relaxed swing that follows -- and that's just the first tune. Hugh Ragin, A. Spencer Barefield, Jaribu Shahid and Tani Tabbal offer brilliant support, both in the ascetic abstraction of "CYP" and the earthy funk of "Stomp and the Far East Blues." There's even a fun "cover" of Braxton's Composition 40Q with Mitchell on belching bass saxophone... notably also covered years later by James Carter!
NEW David Murray Octet - Ming (Black Saint) - The first of Murray's great octet records, this fierce session sounded like nothing else that was happening when it was released. Ragged but right, the version of Murray's "The Fast Life" that opened this set also opened the way for an avant-garde generation seasoned in the lofts to fruitfully engage with small-band swing.
Archie Shepp and Horace Parlan - Trouble in Mind (Steeplechase) - Shepp had weathered some hard, lean years by this point in his career, and maybe that's why he sounds so truthful and consistently inspired on this stripped-down set of blues standards. Parlan is never less than tasteful and supportive. (The duo's earlier gospel set from 1977, Goin' Home, is also recommendable.)
Willem Breuker Kollektief - In Holland (BVHaast) - The finest single recording by one of the major figures from the Dutch jazz scene, In Holland documents the Kollektief before its oddball humor and borrowings from circus bands and salon orchestras had ossified into routine. This crack small band is frequently closer to Ellington than avant-garde jazz; suitably, it includes two of Europe's finest trumpeters in Boy Raaymakers and Andy Altenfelder.
Derek Bailey, George Lewis and John Zorn - Yankees (Celluloid, reissued by Charly) - A communicative and often ribald trio session by three free improvisers who hail from dramatically different backgrounds, yet manage to forge a common tongue throughout this set.
James Newton, Anthony Davis and Abdul Wadud - I've Known Rivers (Gramavision) - The very definition of chamber jazz circa the '80s, from three deft, sensitive composer-improvisers who really listen to one another and achieve a miraculous balance.
Ronald Shannon Jackson and the Decoding Society - Barbeque Dog (Antilles) - Jackson channeled former mentor Ornette Coleman's harmolodics into an explosively funky profusion of color and sound that Rafi Zabor, from his then-influential perch as editor of Musician magazine, hailed as the new shape of jazz to come. Zane Massey and Henry Scott are the powerful frontline, Melvin Gibbs and Reverend Bruce Johnson complement one another on electric basses...and everywhere else, there's the insane brilliance of Vernon Reid. (Mandance, from the previous year, is very nearly as strong.)
James Blood Ulmer - Odyssey (Columbia) - Another Coleman acolyte, another direction: this one deep into the Delta. Ulmer has never sounded better than he does here, and his band -- violinist Charlie Burnham and drummer Warren Benbow -- is with him every step of the way.
Peter Brötzmann - 14 Love Poems (FMP) - Those who know Peter Brötzmann only as a machine gun owe it to themselves to hear the German saxophonist as a skillful poet of sensitive miniatures. Closer in spirit to Steve Lacy than to Evan Parker (and dedicated to Kenneth Patchen), this particular solo-saxophone recital opens with a baritone-saxophone rendition of Ornette Coleman's "Lonely Woman."
Julius Hemphill and the JAH Band - Georgia Blue (Minor Music) - This four-track live LP found Hemphill blowing long and hard alongside three Los Angeles upstarts -- twin brothers Nels and Alex Cline, and fluent electric bassist Steuart Liebig (a.k.a. Steubig) -- plus veteran percussionist Jumma Santos. You could argue that the percussionist demands more than his share of attention; otherwise, this was a balanced, hard-hitting outfit. (One of the Cline brothers, I forget which, slipped me a bootleg cassette of a somewhat later gig, after Bill Frisell was added to this lineup; the sound quality is poor, but the playing is insane.)
Pat Metheny Group - The First Circle (ECM) - From Ornette-inspired cacophony to sweeping cinematic vistas...this sometimes borders on kitsch, yet there's absolutely nothing I don't love about this record. What sets it above its immediate predecessors is Metheny's first encounter with the soaring voice, scintillating percussion and gentle guitar of Pedro Aznar.
Paul Motian Quintet - The Story of Maryam (Soul Note) - Motian's rightly hailed trio with Joe Lovano and Bill Frisell was also the nucleus of this powerful quintet; Ed Schuller provided an earthy gravity and the leader's pen is as mighty as his sticks. But it's the sweet-and-sour pairing of Lovano with the explosive tenor of Jim Pepper that makes the band's records unmissable. (Misterioso, recorded in 1986, is also well worth seeking out.)
Wayne Horvitz - This New Generation (Nonesuch) - Issued in 1987 as part of the downtown flood that came in the wake of John Zorn's epochal The Big Gundown (an utterly formative record for me, but not included on this list because it's not a jazz album by any stretch of the imagination), this Wayne Horvitz disc usefully compiles tracks from two hard-to-find Dossier releases, Dinner at Eight and The President. This very nearly doesn't qualify as jazz, either, so tightly composed and arranged are the 15 brief tracks here. But they provide a terrific snapshot of one of the most prominent figures in the downtown explosion, with important contributions from Bill Frisell, Elliott Sharp, Bobby Previte and Doug Wieselman.
NEW Don Pullen/George Adams Quartet - Breakthrough (Blue Note) - Three-fifths of the band from Charles Mingus's Changes sets of 1974 -- tenor saxophonist George Adams, pianist Don Pullen and drummer Dannie Richmond -- joined by bassist Cameron Brown. Adams struck me as inside-outside (as opposed to David Murray's outside-inside), howling like a dirty bluesman; Pullen was a church pianist gone all Cecil Taylor. At the time, Richmond struck this polish-obsessed percussionist as the weak link; I've since learned better. There's a lot to be said for their earlier dates, including the two live Village Vanguard sets issued by Soul Note (one of which was cited by Pat on Cruise Ship X), but this belated major-label debut just oozes a satisfied sense of vindication suggested by its title.
Sonny Clark Memorial Quartet - Voodoo (Black Saint) - Another Horvitz project, this disc is chiefly notable for proving that John Zorn can indeed play jazz virtually straight. He's an explosive player with a tart, hard sound; I once played the disc for a deeply conservative bopper and he nodded approvingly, guessing that the horn player might be Roland Kirk. Ray Drummond provides solid support, with Bobby Previte supplying ebullient swing.
NEW Cassandra Wilson - Point of View (JMT) - One could argue that the period under consideration was a lean time for new jazz singers, but the appearance of Cassandra Wilson (who would record with then-husband Henry Threadgill's New Air two years later) served notice of a young artist who could hold her own on disc with Steve Coleman and Grachan Moncur III. A version of "Blue in Green" demonstrates Wilson's way with a standard, which came to fruition artistically and commercially with her Blue Skies disc in 1988. But it's the memorable "I Am Waiting," one of two original compositions by Wilson, that truly foreshadows this artist's potential.
Steve Lacy Four - Morning Joy (Hat Hut) - A joyous live album from Lacy's then-quartet with Steve Potts (who never sounded better than here), Jean-Jacques Avenel and Oliver Johnson. Given the formality of Lacy's contemporary sextet recordings, this is essentially an unfettered blowing session balanced between Monk tunes ("Epistrophy," "Work," "In Walked Bud") and strong originals. Perhaps the best point of entry into this remarkably prolific artist's bewildering catalog.
Evan Parker Trio - Atlanta (Impetus) - A stunning live set by Parker's working trio with Barry Guy and Paul Lytton, this Georgia concert includes two long tenor-led group blows that demonstrate Parker's fearsome proficiency and the always-alert interplay of his bandmates, plus one of the saxophonist's terrifying circular-breathing soprano workouts (and a tricky if somewhat less gripping solo by Guy).
Arthur Blythe - Basic Blythe (Columbia) - An overlooked gem of '80s jazz and the last truly great Blythe disc, this with-strings session snuck out so unnoticed that even as great a Blythe booster as Gary Giddins didn't know it existed until much, much later -- probably not surprising, since it followed the weak pop-fusion of Put Sunshine in It and the uneven Da-Da. The core band of John Hicks, Anthony Cox and Bobby Battle supports beautifully, the strings provide a plush but not saccharine atmosphere, and Blythe's performance of "Faceless Woman," one of his greatest-ever compositions, is simply heartbreaking.
Art Farmer - Something to Live For (Contemporary) - Simply a beautiful, life-affirming set, this disc looses Farmer's then-quintet -- Clifford Jordan, James Williams, Rufus Reid and Marvin "Smitty" Smith -- on the riches of the Billy Strayhorn songbook. The version of "Isfahan" that opened this disc was the epitome of soulful mainstream jazz for me at the time, and remains so; Farmer's playing on "Bloodcount" stands comparison to Johnny Hodges on the original version.
Steve Lacy - Momentum (RCA Novus) - As fine an introduction to Lacy's more formal, composerly output as one might want, nicely paced and well recorded. The version of "The Bath" that opens this disc is so warm and inviting that it's impossible not to get sucked in. Irene Aebi's art-song stylings, always a bone of contention for many would-be Lacy admirers, are handsomely rendered here, and Bobby Few's lush piano playing is a quirky counterpart to the leader's dry etchings.
Last Exit - Cassette Recordings '87 (Celluloid) - A strong live session from the free-jazz-punk-metal supergroup of Peter Brötzmann, Sonny Sharrock, Bill Laswell and Ronald Shannon Jackson, blowing with frightening intensity on tracks with such unpromising titles as "Sore Titties" and "My Balls/Your Chin." The band only really did one thing -- full-blown brontosaurus freebop -- but it did that one thing shockingly well, since Sharrock's lyricism and Jackson's native tunefulness countered Brötzmann's leather-lunged freakouts and Laswell's dubby plod.
Power Tools - Strange Meeting (Antilles) - A desert island disc for me, originally this was supposed to be a Julius Hemphill session, but the leader took ill. Luckily, the rest of the band -- Bill Frisell, Melvin Gibbs and Ronald Shannon Jackson -- forged ahead with the session. Gibbs and Jackson inspired Frisell's single fieriest studio date, an unstoppable torrent of fertile ideas and blazing tone. All of the performers brought tunes; you'll find an amazing version of Frisell's title track, less tango-like than usual, and Gibbs's "Howard Beach Memoirs" is shattering, draining. A perfect record.
Cecil Taylor Unit - Live in Bologna (Leo) - A grievously overlooked version of Taylor's ensemble, this is the band that followed immediately in the wake of the enormous loss of Jimmy Lyons. It's not surprising that some of the music is uncharacteristically understated. It could hardly have been more lyrical, given the presense of Carlos Ward on reeds and Leroy Jenkins on violin. William Parker begins his long, fruitful relationship with Taylor here; Thurman Barker is the versatile drummer and doubles on colorful marimba. (Buy the unedited LP edition, if you can find it.)
John Zorn, George Lewis and Bill Frisell - News for Lulu (Hat Hut) - More proof that Zorn can actually play jazz arrived with this set of elegantly reconstituted hard-bop standards. Lewis is a slippery foil, and Frisell fills the cracks as fully as he does in the Motian trio.
NEW Jane Ira Bloom - Slalom (Columbia, reissued by Koch Jazz) - Even more rare than notable singers during this period were women bandleaders, yet somehow, soprano saxophonist Jane Ira Bloom managed to issue two discs on Columbia. The first one, 1987's Modern Drama, was possibly more faithful to her interest in interactive electronics, and the even earlier session Mighty Lights (on Enja, from 1982) features stellar contributions from the blue-ribbon rhythm section of Charlie Haden and Ed Blackwell. Still, it's this one -- with the invaluable Fred Hersch, ever Bloom's ablest partner, at the piano, and a rhythm tandem of bassist Kent McLagan and the explosive Tom Rainey behind the drums -- that I revisit most often.
Lounge Lizards - Voice of Chunk (Lagarto, reissued by Strange and Beautiful) - More than any other record saxophonist John Lurie released, this one strikes the best balance between the ironic distance of his earliest lineup (with Arto Lindsay and Anton Fier) and the relatively unmitigated ebullience of his later, West African-inspired blowing band (with Steven Bernstein and Michael Blake). Most of the band here -- Roy Nathanson, Curtis Fowlkes, Marc Ribot, Evan Lurie, Erik Sanko, E.J. Rodriguez and Dougie Bowne -- would later break off from the leader and pursue similar aims as the Jazz Passengers.
Cecil Taylor - Berlin '88 (FMP) - One of the most impressive documents ever devoted to a living musician, this copious box set documented a Taylor visit to Berlin in 1988 that included encounters with virtually everyone in the European free improvisation scene: Derek Bailey, Evan Parker, Tony Oxley, Louis Moholo, Han Bennink, Günter "Baby" Sommer...the list goes on and on. Most of the encounters were bracing duos and trios, but there are also a handful of large-ensemble performances, of which Alms/Tiergarten (Spree), with Peter Brötzmann added, is the most essential. The box is long out of print and highly sought-after...and no, I don't own it. But most of its components are available individually.
Marty Ehrlich Quartet - The Traveller's Tale (Enja) - One of the most strikingly versatile performers in contemporary jazz (and a major element in most of the John Carter records hymned above), Marty Ehrlich is also a compelling performer and a skillful bandleader. This session, issued in 1990, served as the template for even more valuable sessions that would follow, but it's worth considering on its own merits, as well -- not least for the telepathic connection between Ehrlich and then-musical partner Stan Strickland, as well as one of Bobby Previte's most tasteful performances on record.
Cecil Taylor - Looking (Berlin Version) (FMP) - The first recording by Taylor's last truly exceptional working band to date, the Feel Trio, with William Parker and Tony Oxley. The percussionist questioned the pianist's every move, driving Taylor to ever greater heights; the bassist provided a calm center of gravity and repose within the tumultous whirlwind that surrounded him.
Joint Venture - Ways (Enja) - This collaborative band featuring trumpeter Paul Smoker, tenor saxophonist Ellery Eskelin, bassist Drew Gress and drummer Phil Haynes was a model of communal music-making, with all four members contributing striking compositions. (I actually prefer Mirrors, from 1993, since it includes tunes by Eskelin where this one does not; nevertheless, I'll play by the rules.)
Bobby Previte - Empty Suits (Gramavision) - I once referred to Bobby Previte as the symphonist of the downtown set for the generous sweep of his music, but really, that's not quite right: A compelling composer and unrivaled colorist, he's Ravel with a penchant for smoky clubs and an outboard motor hitched to his back. "Across State Lines," which sets the stage here, is a tune Previte has fruitfully revisited with later bands; Allan Jaffee's guitar solo is breathtaking. The band also includes Robin Eubanks, Steve Gaboury and Jerome Harris; Marty Ehrlich, Carol Emanuel and Elliott Sharp are among the memorable guests.
Zentralquartett - Zentralquartett (Zong, reissued by Intakt) - Another impressive collaborative effort, this one from a veteran band that formed in 1973 in East Germany. Reedist Ernst-Ludwig Petrowsky, trombonist Connie Bauer, pianist Ulrich Gumpert and percussionist Günter "Baby" Sommer are all better associated with European free improvisation, but here they temper their wild spirits into a set of tuneful, swinging original compositions inspired by bop and even gospel (via hard bop, presumably).