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January 26, 2011 • Music Diary, Reviews

Music Diary Reviews: Haven’t I Heard You Before?

Welcome to another edition of Music Diary Reviews! In case you haven’t noticed, I’ve been on a bit of a tear since the new year, converting all of those hours listening and taking notes into actual music reviews! 2010 was an interesting year for music, because while there were a number of very good releases, the sales numbers were awful and folks were talking about reissues that put the new releases to shame. And that is my focus this time – reissues.

While I have stated that my reviews would be rank-ordered from now on, that is only partially true here. I put the Henry Threadgill & Air collection and Chet Baker Sings at the top as they take old and newly available material and make it all sound better than ever … and I put Stanley Clarke at the bottom for reasons I’ll make obvious later. The other few are ‘just’ awesome – they are all multi-disk releases, with two of them having cost me a considerable amount of money, making them great recordings but hard recommendations!

So, with that … time for another quick look at some recent CD/MP3 album re-releases!

Novus & Columbia Recordings of Henry Threadgill & Air

Novus & Columbia Recordings of Henry Threadgill & Air

Summary: When I talked reverently about Henry Threadgill and his newest review, some might have asked ‘what did Threadgill DO to earn his place as one of the top composers and improvisers in avant garde music?’ In short: THIS!

This 8-CD collection spans a two decade period of Threadgill’s creative output, starting with a few recordings with Air, then moving to some stuff with his X-75 group, and some solo recordings with his own group Sextett. There is some stuff that was already released on CD, some stuff never heard before, but most was released on LP only and out of print for a long time. Everything I know from before sounds better now than ever, and the same is supposedly true for the rest of the collection. All I know is that Mosaic has done a masterful version of taking recordings made on the cheap (mostly) before digital recordings and allowing us to hear the nuanced performance by some of the most creative ensembles working in improvised music in the last few decades.

It is impossible to briefly describe such a sprawling set of music, so I won’t try. There are a few main thoughts I have:
– Henry Threadgill is both a master composer and master improviser. Every song across this massive collection bears his distinctive creative stamp.
– Mosaic did a masterful job. A couple of years ago they re-released a massive Anthony Braxton set that was stunning to behold, and once again they have outdone themselves. The mixing, sound clean-up, balance and so on make everything sound fresh and current.
– The selection is perfect. How do you choose what works to select from a master like Threadgill? Well, to an extent they were limited by his appearances on Novus records, as he was on many labels through those two decades. Yet the collection shows evolution and sound like a cohesive progression.

So often in my reviews I use the phrase ‘this isn’t for everyone’, because of how ‘out there’ the music gets. But in this case it applies doubly: you have a wide array of avant garde music … but you also have a collection that costs 10x what you’d pay for a single CD on iTunes or Amazon. So the value proposition clearly comes from the desire to have this great collection of music with a sonic quality better than it has ever seen. If you fall in that category, go ahead and check it out – you won’t be disappointed!

Choice Track (and why): King Porter Stomp – from the classic Air Lore recording, this takes an early 1900’s Jelly Roll Morton composition and turns into a frenzied and bombastic free jazz romp – yet without innately altering the core song! (and just for reference, the picture at the top is Jelly Roll)

You Might Love This If: You really need to already be a Henry Threadgill fan before considering such a purchase. I had some things on tape, and a couple on original CD, but only a small fraction of this sprawling set!

Here is a video of Henry Threadgill’s ‘Dance Band’ from 1988:

Chet Baker – Sings (It Could Happen to You)

Chet Baker – Sings (It Could Happen to You)

Summary: Chet Baker won huge critical acclaim and popularity with his 1956 recording ‘Sings’, which sees his trumpet taking a back seat to his vocal work. That recording has some stunning songs and breathtaking vocals along with some solid trumpet work, and I’m sure no one was surprised a couple of years later when he released another set subtitled ‘It Could Happen To You’. Two years of maturing as an artist and vocalist brought more of his skills to bear, but the core fragile-strength remains. Concord Records re-mastered the originals and added another two songs to the original 2002 CD release.

It isn’t very often that my kids willingly listen to my music, so when I started playing this in the car and they went silent and just settled into listening to ‘Do It the Hard Way’, it was clear we were on to something special. When I asked them about it, they said that his voice was amazing, and not in a way suggesting that he was a great singer, but that it was unlike anything they’d ever heard. His voice was strong but not powerful, lacked vibrato, was fragile but not weak, conveyed emotion without being overwrought. In short, it was unlike anything you might hear on pop radio.

The songs are mostly show tunes, as was true with the original recording, but by now Baker was much more in command of putting together an effective vocal song. Whereas on the earlier recordings he would play trumpet whenever he wasn’t singing, here he plays some trumpet but just as often improvised wordless vocal lines and lets Kenny Drew take the forefront. I single out the title song, but there are a bunch of great songs here. Even the bonus material is worth checking out: there were two songs added for the initial CD release, and another two now, making four new songs since my old tape version! The two newest additions, The More I See You and Everything Happens To Me, are alternate takes showing significant differences in style and approach, and serve as a reminder that this was still very much a jazz recording session!

The original Chet Baker Sings is a classic and a favorite of mine, and I only had this recording in tape form from our college radio station back in the 80’s (as an aside, there was no issue back then hanging out and taping songs from records at the station … how times change). When I saw this re-released last fall I grabbed it right away and was blown away by the sound quality. I checked some samples of the 2002 release and found that to be similar to my old tape version – it is clear that Concord really put a lot of effort into this one, just as they’re doing with loads of their catalog re-releases. This is a must have for all jazz fans and fans of classic vocal music, and offers a tremendous value even to those who already have it on CD!

( a review http://www.suite101.com/content/chet-baker-sings—it-could-happen-to-you-2010-re-issue-a294972)

Choice Track (and why): It Could Happen To You – what blew me away about this song was that it was the first time I’d heard Baker do a ‘vocal improv’. Typically he would play a short trumpet solo after

You Might Love This If: You love the ‘cool jazz’ sounds of the late 50’s, vocal jazz, or just gorgeous singing.

Here is a video of Chet Baker live playing Time After Time (he is missing teeth and already showing signs of ‘hard living’ by the mid-60’s!:

Thelonius Monk Complete Prestige Recordings

Thelonius Monk Complete Prestige Recordings

Summary: One of the greatest composers of the 20th century and an iconic piano stylist, Thelonious Monk was relatively unknown as an individual artist for many years. This was largely due to having restricted public appearances during his key compositional years, as well as not having the most famous releases of any of his own songs. For example, the famous Miles Davis recording ‘Round Midnight (later made into a movie based around a saxophonist played by legend Dexter Gordon) is a Monk tune. Same for Wynton Marsalis’ Think of One … and so on. After working in relative obscurity for years he was suddenly declared a genius and given the acclaim he deserved.

For a brief two year period Monk was signed to Prestige records, producing three solo records, and appearing on a few others. This three CD collection has the majority of these recordings. For his first set, he brings back swing-era legend Coleman Hawkins, who was instrumental in giving Monk his ‘shot’ and allowing him to develop and expand his playing and composing while working in Hawkins’ band. Hawkins did better than most at adapting to the bebop revolution, but too often felt out of his element. Yet with Monk there was a camaraderie that just plain worked. They meld styles perfectly and maintain a balance of modern and classic outlooks that just plain works.

In the ‘middle’ we have a compilation of all of Monk’s solo work of the era. He appears in a variety of formats from trios to quartets and quintets, but always with Monk at the fore. What makes these sessions worthwhile are the compositions and performances on tracks like Think of One, Let’s Call This, and many more. Also, compared to old records I have of the era, the sound quality brings it in line with piano trios from recent years.

The third CD is basically a compilation of all of the tracks featuring Monk from two Miles Davis sessions: Bag’s Groove and Miles Davis and the Modern Jazz Giants. You have Miles Davis, who has already made history with the greatest recordings of the bebop era with Charlie Parker and also already ushered in an entirely new ‘school of jazz with ‘Birth of the Cool’, and was making his way back after kicking his heroin addiction. You also have Milt Jackson, one of the two or three greatest vibraphone players of all time. And you also have a developing Sonny Rollins, Kenny Clarke, Percy Heath … and Monk. The group was already an ‘all star’ combo in the early 50’s, but these folks went on to define the music for generations to come! Bag’s Groove was re-released separately in 2010, but here we get it integrated with Modern Jazz Giants, and with similarly improved sound quality.

In the early 1950’s Monk and many of the other artists here were working somewhat in the background in any ways while folks like Billy Holiday, Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker dominated. Prestige was one of two major jazz labels, which allowed these artists to get heard and let to an explosion in their popularity. Fortunately Prestige also had the resources to make great recordings and maintain the masters so collections like this could be made. This is a re-issue of the 10th anniversary of the collection, further cleaned up from the original, and well worth checking out.

Choice Track (and why): Bemsha Swing – OK, so I didn’t choose a song from Monk’s group, but this is one of his compositions. You can hear the tension between the sparsity of Miles style and the density of Monk’s accompaniment, but rather than clash it takes the music to new heights.

You Might Love This If: You want a chronicle of one of the true giants of jazz music.

Here is a video of Monk’s Quartet playing his classic composition ‘Round Midnight’:

Charlie Haden – The Complete Remastered Recordings On Black Saint & Soul Note

Charlie Haden – The Complete Remastered Recordings On Black Saint & Soul Note

Summary: It is easy to forget that not only is Charlie Haden one of the major forces in modern jazz and has put out great music as a bandleader for decades, but he was part of the original Ornette Coleman quartet and a huge player in the ECM records domination of contemporary improvised music in the 70’s and 80’s. Also, his work as a sideman with virtually everyone in some form of jazz or another has allowed him to defy categorization and remain fresh and relevant through his more than five decades of recorded output.

This collection pulls together five disparate sessions spanning nearly a decade and a half, from the classic Old & New Dreams from 1976 right up through the delicate piano trio Etudes from 1990. I only had one recording from this grouping – Old & New Dreams, digitized from a taped LP – which I hadn’t listened to in quite a while … so I was thrilled to hear the variety of music here. There are actually two Old & New Dreams recordings here, the original and a performance from a ‘Tribute to Ed Blackwell’ show … at which Ed Blackwell played with the group. When I saw the title I was confused since so often these tribute shows are posthumous. But fortunately Blackwell had a few years left to lay down monster beats – as he does here.

As for the other three, I had never heard of any of them before so there was risk – but fortunately where Charlie Haden is involved, my risk almost always turns into reward! The ‘low point’ for me was the 1990 trio First Song, and I would rate THAT as a 4 out of 5 star recording! The ‘problem’ is that it is outclassed by everything else here. The trio recording Etudes has sublime communication, improvisation and interpretation throughout. Silence features Chet Baker in one of his final recordings, and while I don’t care for his singing at this point (actually I didn’t like it by the time the 1960’s arrived!), his trumpet playing on the title track had that song in contention for my ‘Choice Track’!

That is the occasional beauty of buying a box set – you uncover overlooked classics! I started at disk one thinking ‘sounds great, if nothing else I am thrilled with this CD’, and by the end realized that Old & New Dreams wasn’t even the best stuff in the box!

Choice Track (and why): Lonely Woman – this is one of my all-time favorite Ornette Coleman songs, and hearing the trio with Geri Allen and the inimitable Paul Motian tear it up just reminds me of a couple of things: Ornette is a great composer in spite of his ‘free jazz’ stylings, and Charlie Haden makes everything around him better.

You Might Love This If: You have enjoyed any of the myriad Charlie Haden recordings through the years and want to dig deeper into his work.

Here is a video of the album version of Haden’s song Silence featuring Chet Baker:

Art Pepper – Meets the Rhythm Section

Art Pepper – Meets the Rhythm Section

Summary: I had heard the story about this recording long before I first heard the music: basically Art Pepper was at a low-point in his life, struggling with many personal issues, and was more or less hijacked into a recording session by his girlfriend and a producer. They had set up a date with the rhythm section for Miles Davis legendary first quintet – Red Garland on piano, Paul Chambers on bass, and Philly Joe Jones on drums – and when Pepper walked in there was more than a little tension. Perhaps that anger helped break him out of his funk, because the result was his best recording to date and remains one of the best from an artist with a great catalog!

The set list is full up with standards of the ‘great American songbook’ as well as bebop classics, and every single one is played masterfully. That really isn’t surprising given that the trio backing Pepper were working together daily for a few years already and had already completed the recordings that would cement them forever as part of ‘Miles Davis Great First Quintet’. But it is always possible for a frontman to completely destroy the efforts of a rhythm section, no matter how great, so what Pepper did truly mattered.

The first thirty seconds had me worried, to be honest. You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To was a standard already by that time, so to hear Pepper seemingly stumble through the opening lines didn’t bode well. Yet he carried that staggered and off-kilter approach through the whole song to great effect. It is reputed that he wasn’t overly familiar with some of the songs and had never recorded them or played them live. Whether or not that is true, it works with the very fresh and open interpretations he lends to all of the tunes. Many of these songs had already been recorded countless times, so to hear something new … a true sign of just how original Pepper was as an artist.

For this re-issue there isn’t much of anything new … oh, except for the sound! Once again we have great work put into making a classic sound better than ever. Too many recordings from that era sound like a lead player with some vague piano and drums backing and the bass lost way back in the mix. Here you get Paul Chambers in all of his glory, to teh point that you can discern finger sounds and bowing regardless what else is happening. Takes a great recording … and makes it even better.

Choice Track (and why): Straight Life – this super-fast bebop tune has the combo clicking on all cylinders, with the rhythm section showing their depth and versatility and Pepper reminding us of exactly why he was the first alto sax player to truly step out from Bird’s shadow, playing an up-tempo bebop number without sounding like a clone!

You Might Love This If: You enjoy classic jazz of the post-bop era. This is an easy pick even if you aren’t a huge fan of the music.

Here is a video of Art Pepper Meets the Rhythm Section from a documentary made by his wife:

Paul McCartney & Wings – Band on the Run

Paul McCartney & Wings – Band on the Run

Summary: Of all the Beatles, only Paul McCartney has had a career consistently filled with both commercial and critical acclaim across four decades. Yet out of everything he has done, what most people remember are the singles, the individual songs that have in some cases become as memorable as those he made with the Beatles. To an extent that is frustratingly true of all of the Beatles – for all of the excellent group albums they made, most of their solo records have perhaps two good songs and a bunch of throwaway filler.

However, there is one album from McCartney that has always stood out: Band on the Run. The 1973 recording contained a string of hits and was critically well received. It is interesting looking back at this, because my kids asked me ‘what is this song about’, and for most of the album I really have no clue! But for me that is nothing new – my transition into preferring instrumental music was particularly easy since I really never cared about the words most of the time. So the nonsense McCartney sings here is no big deal for me.

There are two reasons to get this collection: the added stuff and the remastering. As for the extras, I found them like the extra stuff on a DVD – nice, but I came for the movie, thanks. After listening to the extra songs and watching the DVD, I happily went back to the ‘normal’ tracks. Well, with a one exception – since this was restored to the UK master, Helen Wheels and Country Dreamer were left off. I didn’t care for Country Dreamer, but Helen Wheels was on the LP I had digitized for my collection ages ago, so I definitely wanted that!

But for me the main attraction is the sound. Band on the Run has always had a reputation for a ‘muddy’ mix, leaving much of it indistinct. From the very start the songs are all familiar – but better! Fortunately the issues were in the mix and not the raw taping, so the remaster was able to clean up everything and make it all just pop out of the speakers! That is where it all comes together: you have the best single solo album from any of the Beatles, loaded up with extras, and sounding better than ever! Easy to recommend.

Choice Track (and why): Jet – this straight rocker is definitely in McCartney’s wheelhouse, but this one stands out as one of his all-time best songs.

You Might Love This If: You love the Beatles or Paul McCartney and don’t have this yet … but even if you have an earlier version, this is worth getting.

Here is a video of Wings playing Band on the Run from 1976:

Stanley Clarke – Rock-Pebbles-Sand / Let Me Know You

Stanley Clarke – Rock-Pebbles-Sand / Let Me Know You

Summary: I can almost overhear the meeting at the record label: they saw that Stanley Clarke had two of the most popular and highly acclaimed jazz records in 2010, but since he had long since switched labels they weren’t getting any benefits. They figured – hey, we have his old stuff, let’s jump on the bandwagon and release two-fer budget compilations! Great, someone said, let’s jump right in with School Days and Journey to Love! Whoa, someone said, why let out the top sellers immediately? We have other stuff from the era like Rock-Pebbles-Sand and Let Me Know You, why not release THEM first? But they are some of the worst things he ever made, maybe we should pair them with something good? I have a better idea – let’s release a Rock-Pebbles-Sand / Let Me Know You double ‘value pack’, see how many suckers come rushing along to scoop it up, then if it works we can follow it up with a premium priced ‘collector’s pack’ of School Days and Journey to Love! Agreed? Agreed!

Yeah, that pretty much sums it up – Amazon is charging close to $20 for this pair-up of Clarke’s worst music! Fortunately I grabbed it at retail for $10 last summer, but in reality that is STILL about $8 too much – this disaster belongs in the $1.99 bargain bin and should only be bought as a curiosity.

So what is the problem? There are three issues: song quality, focus, and band chemistry. At this point in his career, Clarke was making a conscious shift to making more popular music, just as the world had shifted away from treating fusion players like rock stars. Rocks, Pebbles and Sand is a more rock & funk oriented recording than anything he had done before, and while it featured several guests including former Return to Forever bandmate Chick Corea, nothing about the band ever gelled.

Let Me Know you is quite simply some of the most trite, worst sounding, excruciatingly dated pop garbage I can recall hearing. The songs are patronizing in their pop aspirations, shallow in their pop-styled vocals, and musically just utterly useless in any genre. Carlos Santana appears on this one but leaves no impression, and the recording leaves on a positive note as New York City features some solid playing by Clarke. But don’t let that fool you – it is crap.

Recordings such as this should serve as a warning – not everything by an artist you love is good. Or more specifically in my case – if you passed on buying something 30 years ago a year after LOVING something by the same artist (Clarke’s 1979 live recording I Wanna Play For You is a great – if uneven – listen) … chances are there was a reason!

Choice Track (and why): Rocks, Pebbles and Sand – the title song of the first record is about as good as it gets, the band plays well together and there is a solid focus on Clarke’s bass playing skills. This isn’t great, and wouldn’t even make the cut on his better recordings … but it is as good as it gets here.

You Might Love This If: You don’t like money or good music … or are just such an obsessed Stanley Clarke fan that you need to get it all!

Here is a video of Danger Street from Rock-Pebbles-Sand:

Conclusions
I was amazed at how much great stuff I had to choose from in my personal library: I ended up leaving out several reissues I have enjoyed in the last few months – mostly other things from the Concord vault! There was Wes Montgomery, Dave Brubeck, more Chet Baker, Vince Guaraldi, the Miles Davis release Dig with Sonny Rollins, and more. They also reissued Bill Evans classic Waltz for Debby, which I am going to review in another st where it makes more sense.

There was also another Henry Threadgill box set release … but after $136 for the massive 8-CD volume and his new album I was pretty much done! My point – there is tons of great music coming out each year that isn’t new but has been out of print or overlooked or been missed out on for whatever reason.

Another thing that was exhausting was just how much music was here: the Threadgill box was 8 CD’s, the Haden set 5 CD’s, Monk 3 CD’s, and so on. Overall it ends up covering about 25 album releases! That is a load of great music!

Every week in addition to scanning AllMusic’s new release list and a few other ‘this week in music’ lists, I take a peek at AllAboutJazz’s ‘upcoming CD releases’ list, which is largely full of reissues with a few new releases sprinkled in here and there. Most of what you see are either budget collections or simple re-releases due to ownership rights changing hands or something being brought back that was out of print for whatever reason. What I try to find are things like what I reviewed here – stuff that has extraordinary value either from being a huge collection, making a big improvement to sound quality, or just cramming loads of music for a budget price. And while I savaged the Stanley Clarke ‘two-fer’ based on the quality of the content, the idea is correct.

I would love to hear about your favorite re-issue finds … or your worst horror stories!

Until next time, enjoy the great joys of whatever music you love!

2 Responses to " Music Diary Reviews: Haven’t I Heard You Before? "

  1. RT @GearDiarySite: Music Diary Reviews: Haven’t I Heard You Before? http://goo.gl/fb/3Y7kK

  2. Jeff A Smith says:

    Music Diary Reviews: Haven't I Heard You Before? | Gear Diary: Welcome to another edition of Music Diary Reviews… http://bit.ly/h8SK14

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