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.
When I arrived at Warren Auditorium tonight, there were already more than 20 people standing in the hallway outside the theater, craning their necks to see through the doors. There were additional seats, full of people, placed behind the stage. There were speakers going out into the lobby, where even more people stood.
You shoulda seen it, Mel. You shoulda seen it.
It is unfortunate that one of the greatest listening experiences to be had in Sonoma County all year had to come with a tinge of sadness. Mel Graves, the great bassist and composer, died on Saturday of terminal cancer, just one day before the big farewell concert that he’d organized and looked forward to. The music heard tonight—presented by Mel’s alumni, close friends and colleagues—was so incredible, so blossoming and full of life. It was an utterly fitting tribute for a passionate, funny, smart, brilliant man.
I was lucky to be able to hang out with Mel a couple times in the last year. He was a no-nonsense soul who was at equal ease discussing the difference in the 1964 and 1965 versions of Charles Mingus’ “Meditations” as he was accepting life’s ultimate key change. The last time I stopped by his Petaluma home, his girlfriend Pam was taking care of him with what was obviously a great deal of love. He was surrounded by notes, preparing for this farewell concert, suggested by his friend Jessica Felix and which he himself titled, in pure Mel fashion, “Movin’ On.” He was at peace.
My only wish is that he could have seen the gales of love that were showered on him tonight. Hopefully he felt it.
Among the highlights: Denny Zeitlin, recalling the phone call he received in 1968 from a young Graves who said “I’ve just come out from the Midwest, and I love your stuff on Columbia, and I want to play with you.” (Graves and Zeitlin would go on to play together for 40 years.) Zeitlin sat down, chalked up his hands, and played a commanding, emotionally charged improvisation which led into “What Is This Thing Called Love” before it ended, hanging in air, unresolved.
Mel Martin, recalling the inconvenience of working so often with someone who shared his name. Both Mels eventually discovered that Martin’s Melvyn was spelled with a Y; Graves’ Melvin with an I. “He’d call me up, and say ‘Hey there, Y,’ and I’d say, Hey, I.’ I will miss that.” The band then kicked into “Flamenco Sketches,” and Martin played a razor-sharp cascading solo.
One of Graves’ specific requests for the night’s program was for Zeitlin and guest pianist Art Lande to sit together and play a four-hand piano duet, and he would have been bowled over at the results. Assuming the “missionary position” with crossed arms, the two oscillated from battling each other to cooperating on the keys in what was the night’s most freewheeling and humorous moment.
But most of all, every player on stage seemed to exhibit a certain extra empathy. There was a lot of listening going on between the players, and perhaps this was why they were so wonderful to listen to. During the final number, a solitary chorus of Gordon Jenkins’ beautiful ballad “Goodbye,” each member of the bandstand was united in the cause to properly bid farewell to their friend. The standing ovation from the full theater was overwhelming.
Aw, you shoulda seen it, Mel. You shoulda seen it.