I’m always digging for old jazz albums at record stores and thrift shops, and for all the love I have for contemporary popular music, I’m usually listening to jazz while at home. I rarely have any reason to write about these records, though, which is why I round up the best of what came across my turntable at the end of every year. (Should you be so inclined, here are my lists from 2009, 2010 and 2011.) These are not new jazz records—just old stuff that I never discovered before.
Linked throughout these descriptions are links to YouTube clips; I hope you’ll click around and find some new music to enjoy. Or, hit up your local record store! We’re also lucky to be in the midst of the great Healdsburg Jazz Festival, and, down in the city, SFJAZZ and Yoshi’s, all presenting jazz how it’s best experienced—live.
Charles Earland – Leaving This Planet
I thought I knew Charles Earland. (Side Two of Black Talk, featuring the schmaltz-reclamation of “The Age of Aquarius” and “I Love You More Today Than Yesterday”? Flawless!) But nothing could have prepared me for Leaving This Planet, which leads off with the title track, a dancefloor killer: “I’m gonna lee-ee-eave this planet, with all the trouble that’s in it,” sings Rudy Copeland. The outer-space theme continues with titles like “Warp Factor 8” and “Mason’s Galaxy,” and Joe Henderson and Freddie Hubbard do their thing over a lot of ARPs, Moogs, Harvey Mason killing it on drums and other wild sounds engineered by Eddie Harris in the Berkeley, CA of 1973. Highly recommended.
Rusty Bryant – Fire Eater
Behold, I give unto you, the “Fire Eater” drum break. Idris Muhammad, ladies and gentlemen. You can let your imagination run wild on how many times I picked the needle up on this and replayed it the day I found it. The bass drum and the toms have the world’s most violent arm wrestling match with the cymbals cheering them on, and then the beat drops back down and the snare’s like, “It’s cool, I’m just rolllllllling through.” You better believe it’s been sampled like crazy. I have a friend who was bugging out even harder over it, and he’s an actual DJ, so I traded it to him for…
Steve Grossman – Some Shapes To Come
…which has some fine drum breaks on it, too. But I was into the Steve Grossman LP for the nutzoid remainer, which erects much through destruction. The tones on this album are distorted, the piano is electric, the rhythms sound like a herd of antelope running across hard pavement. Adventurous, strange, and on some unknown label from New Jersey. I don’t know much else about Steve Grossman, other than he played on A Tribute to Jack Johnson and some other Miles Davis albums you probably don’t listen to very often. But this one’s killer, through and through.
Duke Edwards & The Young Ones – Is It Too Late?
When you’re playing the “Name A Jazz Album That Needs To Be Reissued” game, you can’t do much better than this. Duke Edwards and his band lived in Montreal, and had the weight of the world on their shoulders when they recorded this freeform, socio-political masterpiece. Edwards delivers sermons, entreaties and tortured personal manifestos over loosely-structured but not too-out music. Filled with soul and tears, “Is It Too Late?” evokes all the anguish for the human race and tumult of 1968 in one perfect 14-minute track. It’s not on YouTube anywhere, but this, from the same album, gives you an idea.
Archie Shepp – Kwanza
A sister album to Cry of My People, which I also found this year, but I play this one much more. Has some of that boogaloo stuff Shepp was into, like “Back Back” and “Slow Drag,” mixed with spiritual stuff like “Bakai,” by Cal Massey. As I write this, Kwanzaa’s almost over, but we can all carry its seven rather sensible and globally applicable principles with us throughout the year. For me, Archie Shepp is like Bob Dylan; as he grows up in his discography, I gradually grow up with him.
Tamba Trio – Tempo
Brazilian group has a hit with “Mas Que Nada.” Brazilian group sees Sergio Mendes score a hit with same song in the United States. Brazilian group fades out of U.S. consciousness until inevitable Brazilian beatdigging craze. But there’s one problem: Brazilian group has little beats. That’s mighty fine with me, because with the same unpredictable turns of Brasil ’66 but without the spiffy sheen, this record is unfettered joy, and was left behind at the record store after the DJs came through.
Denny Zeitlin – Expansion
I was introduced to Denny Zeitlin not by the commercially marketed albums he made for Columbia, nor his psychiatry practice, but by his thundering solo rendition of “What Is This Thing Called Love” at Mel Graves’ memorial in 2008. It showed a pianist unafraid to steer his fingers slantways, and here, in a 1973 set with Mel Graves—who I had the pleasure of knowing and writing about a couple times before he died—and fellow SSU faculty George Marsh (you know him from “the music’s coming through me,” the DJ Shadow sample), Zeitlin burns through a fearlessly creative session. There’s a photo of the back of the record of the equipment used, and it looks like a crazy pile of junk you’d find among trash at the dump. The music is one treasure after another.
Chick Corea – Is
If you take the jazz program at the SRJC, you will, more sooner than later, be exposed with great enthusiasm to Chick Corea’s early trio album Now He Sings, Now He Sobs. For a free-jazz workout, there’s this relatively unknown record, from the same era and on the same label. It’s got Woody Shaw and Hubert Laws, with a rhythm section of Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette. It may not be as conceptual as the Battlefield Earth soundtrack I also found this year—a laughably terrible collection of music, composed by L. Ron Hubbard on the Firelight Synthesizer—but it’s probably just as eschewed.
Walt Dickerson – To My Queen
In 2012, the ultimate display of devotion is having nine million followers on Twitter but only following the girl you love. In 1963, it was composing and recording a tribute that takes up an entire side of an album and then putting the girl you love on the cover. I knew Walt Dickerson from the sublime Impressions of a Patch of Blue LP, but “To My Queen,” the beautiful 17-minute title track dedicated to his wife, is his magnum opus and among the most romantic gestures in jazz history.
Clifford Jordan Quartet – Glass Bead Games
Hard one to track down. The legend of this album is massive, and now I know why—it’s a deep, probing recording that rewards repeat listens. It does what jazz does best by reflecting the listener back upon himself; depending on what mood I’m in, I hear different things each time. I’d heard about this one as a sibling album to A Love Supreme, but I suspect that comparison is owed to a) the opening ascending glissando flutter on the tenor saxophone and b) the track “John Coltrane,” with chanting reminiscent of “Acknowledgement.” Nonetheless, one of this year’s favorite finds, with two quartets featuring players like Billy Higgins, Stanley Cowell, and Cedar Walton, the latter being the subject of a piece I read this year and felt awkward and upset while doing so.
John Jenkins – With Kenny Burrell
A nice, straight-ahead Blue Note date with a lesser-known alto sax player from Chicago. Five years after this 1957 session, Jenkins would drop out of music. Later in life he worked as a messenger and jewelry maker in New York, and played on street corners occasionally before he died in the early ’90s. The Tetris player in me loves the well-designed cover, which goes against the usual Blue Note design of its day.
Norman Connors – Dance of Magic
Wild free-jazz outing from a drummer who would go on to record disco. You will find a lot of Norman Connors records in the dollar bin. This is the only one you should buy; every other one has let me down.
Charles Tolliver – The Ringer
There was this biography at Treehorn recently on Horace Tapscott, and I’m thinking if Horace Tapscott can have a biography then so can Charles Tolliver. I want to know more about the guy; every record of his I find, I love. Recorded in London, in 1969, with his sidemen of the day in all-original compositions that creep under the skin.
Andrew Hill – Compulsion!!!!!
Not one, not two, but five exclamation points. In other words, you know what you’re getting into. Vijay Iyer tipped me off to this one when I interviewed him this year, which is an interesting recommendation coming from a pianist—Hill’s piano is sometimes buried under the pile of fierce creativity going on here. Hill the composer is fully present, of course, and John Gilmore, on loan from Sun Ra’s band, shines.
Booker Ervin – The Trance
I got so lost in Booker Ervin’s incredible “Book” series that I overlooked the record that I saw the most in the bins. The title track is another one of those side-long explorations, a minor-key journey that jumps and dives and speeds up incrementally. Speaking of people who need biographies, the cover, like many, many great jazz album covers, is by Don Schlitten. Who knows anything about the guy? Not the internet, that’s for sure. Someone needs to fill this void.
Cecil Taylor – The World Of Cecil Taylor
His current solo piano performances are on another plane from what you or I can comprehend, which is why it’s nice to revisit his early stuff. The plane’s still on the tarmac here, but you can hear the engines revving for takeoff.
The Great Jazz Trio – At the Village Vanguard
Hank Jones rarely did anything outside the box and that’s fine with me. This set of tunes was recorded at the Village Vanguard, a small box if ever there was one, and the process of fitting all the recording equipment (and a suitable piano) inside the club is detailed in the liner notes. I suspect I pulled this album out a little more than usual this year, when the A’s and Giants were so thrilling, because of the cover.
Grant Green – Street of Dreams
Larry Young, Bobby Hutcherson and Elvin Jones are fantastic sidemen to Green’s interpretations of standards like “I Wish You Love” and “Lazy Afternoon,” but can we just talk about that record cover? Of course we can—that’s clearly San Francisco. One block away from Caffe Trieste, and home to the Grant & Green Saloon, here’s what the corner looks like these days.
Muhal Richard Abrams – Young at Heart / Wise in Time
One side with a quartet featuring Henry Threadgill, the other solo piano from this Chicago musician. Interesting playing, which didn’t impress the Big Apple critics, apparently: “A criticism appeared in the New York Times that did well in reflecting the average American capacity for the new art,” read the liner notes. “The things written had the logical apparatus of a baseball scout who might use the criteria one expects in finding a top-flight catcher while sent on a mission to come up with a good infielder. One wonders if the average red-blooded American is really so lacking in the powers of understanding or rather is it that he is caught up in quite another battle so psychological and diverse that he ends up hating even the powers that are, along with all their tradesmen.” Burn!
Jimmy Owens & Kenny Barron – You Had Better Listen
A title track that’s in the soul-jazz lane but weaves occasionally over the traffic dots. Stick around—there’s a sweet version of “The Night We Called It a Day” and some Barron originals. Bennie Maupin, who deserves more notice, is sitting in as well.
Donald Byrd – Ethiopian Knights
Right on the eve of Street Lady and Black Byrd comes this funk-inflected session, and it’s a smoker. Not being a huge fan of the aforementioned commercial successes, I wasn’t sure what to get out of this at first. The answer is: a hell of a lot. Hang out with it for 15 minutes or so. Wear armor.
Jack Wilson – Something Personal
It’s all about the first song, insultingly titled “Most Unsoulful Woman.” (The opposite of “To My Queen,” evidently.) Minor-key, eerie, haunting and a little out there—written in 1961, no less. As Jack Wilson’s cohort, Roy Ayers fleshes out the sound well, and Ray Brown even plays some creepy cello. I love it.
Grant Green – Visions
Cover songs by the Carpenters, Chicago, the Moments, Isaac Hayes, and Mozart. Why should I like this? What could Grant Green have been thinking, other than radio play and crossover success? Ah, but then Grant Green was always thinking. There’s more to this set than meets the eye; just listen to “We’ve Only Just Begun.”
Lee Morgan – Search for the New Land
Notable for me mostly for opening my ears to more Lee Morgan, beyond “The Sidewinder.” It’s gotta be a drag having one big hit and finding the rest of your more vigorous music ignored (see: Los Lobos). These are all Morgan originals, with Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter et al, and if you’d given me a “blindfold test” on it I would have never guessed the trumpet player. Because YouTube lifted their ten-minute limit, here’s the whole album.
Ahmad Jamal – Jamal Plays Jamal
A few years ago I hit Google Maps to find the location of the grand old Pershing Hotel, where Jamal recorded “But Not For Me,” and found an empty lot in a run-down neighborhood in the south side of Chicago. The sentimentalist in me sighed at the sight of weeds and broken cars where giants once played. I doubt Jamal himself would care, because he’s continually looking forward, as he does on this 1974 date. Part piano, part Fender Rhodes, there are no traces whatsoever of, say, “Surrey With The Fringe On Top“—and that suits the innovative, all-originals session perfectly. I played this on repeat for a whole week.
Tags: Best Jazz of 2012, Charles Earland, Clifford Jordan, Denny Zeitlin, Duke Edwards, Jazz Discoveries, Steve Grossman, Tamba Trio, Top 10