Old Guys Yes, Retro Never


The retro vogue muddied the water a bit in 1998. Some jazz enthusiasts thought they had to proffer at least qualified support, as in: Isn’t this what we fantasized— a popular revival of swing, big bands, touch dancing, and, let’s just say it flat out, an antidote to that goddamn rock? Indeed, if we can impeach the ’60s, why not go whole hog and eradicate the ’50s, where the trouble began? I call on every young person reading this column to forage in granpappy and granmammy’s closets, keeping an eye peeled for round cardboard boxes— they may contain wartime fedoras and pleated skirts. Free passes to Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line to the first person to locate an authentic snood, dead or alive.

On the other hand, don’t bother with old vinyl recordings, even if you can figure out how to play them. Because a taste for retro will not necessarily translate into a taste for ’30s and ’40s jazz, and the reverse is guaranteed. Retro is dance music, like acid jazz. It’s about generation, costume, and, in an odd way, rebellion, all fine and dandy. But a cursory examination of recordings by such bands as Royal Crown Revue, the Flying Neutrinos, and Indigo Swing reveal little to interest listeners. Every tempo is jitterbuggy, every riff an homage to “In the Mood,” every beat laden with bass; the arrangements and solos are generic, which is to say in opposition to the imperial individuality that sparked competition among the great swing players and orchestras. And the vocals are shameful. Who would have imagined that the Widespread Depression Orchestra of 20 years ago would one day be considered ahead of its time? Johnny Holtzman, wherever you are, your day has come at last.

“Tradition,” wrote Engels, “is a great retarding force, the vis inertia of history.” Originality curbs production! Diana Krall excelsior! But having said that, it was a ’70s sort of year, and not half bad at that. The, um, post-’60s decade was notable not only for a generation of musicians of instantly identifiable originality, but for the return of masters who had taken five during the age of peace and love. Among the latter were Tommy Flanagan, who made one of the best instrumental CDs of the year, and Andy Bey, who made one of the best vocal CDs. A theatrical epiphany came late in Warren Leight’s Sideman, a superior hybrid of The Glass Menagerie and Really the Blues, when three sidemen, relaxing during a break at a Lester Lanin gig, play “A Night in Tunisia,” from Clifford Brown’s last night, discovered and released in 1973. Joao Gilberto, whose last stateside hit was Amoroso/Brasil 20 years ago, gave the year’s most memorable recital, anomalously at JVC, which was also notable for the stirring returns to form by Clark Terry and Al Grey, the latter playing from a wheelchair but laying down a gauntlet on the merits of authentic plunger-mute incantation as opposed to the ersatz kind. It was in 1977 that Grey left Basie— one year before Flanagan left Ella— to spur the mainstream revival, which was the obverse of retro though you could certainly dance to it (full disclosure: he played at my wedding). Capping the year was the dedication of the Louis Armstrong House and Archives at Queens College, an exuberantly moving and long-awaited triumph for the inventor of American music, who died in 1971, less honored then than he is today.

Similarly, the year’s best concert, and a moving event in its own right, was David Murray’s big band investigation of “The Obscure Works of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn,” at the underused Aaron Davis Hall on December 5, drawing an early bead on the centennial brouhaha that may get as repetitious as the Gershwin party, though I don’t expect to complain. It was a marvel: an all-star big band that sounded— and was— rehearsed, amplified by full-bodied and rhythmically adept strings, arranged chiefly by James Newton, and conducted seriatim by Newton, Murray, Craig Harris, and John Purcell. With smashing solos by those four as well as Hugh Ragin, Hilton Ruiz, Gary Valente, Joe Bowie, and Alex Harding, the performances cast an anteretro spell of individual empowerment even as everyone knuckled down for the greater cause of expansive, kaleidoscopic charts based on the piano trio Money Jungle as well as revised gems like “Northern Lights,” “Praise God,” and “Blue Pepper.” As Murray declaimed “Chelsea Bridge” with strings, one could hardly resist pretty thoughts of Ben Webster. Carmen Bradford, whose excessive melisma with Basie was irksome, has found her own voice, as on “African Flower.” It’s been far too long since we heard a Newton flute cadenza— the lavish harmonics, staccato mischief, and virtuoso sheen, as on his ravishing adaptation of “Blood Count.”

Still, the surprise solos of the evening were by two utility players, John Stubblefield, one of the first AACM guys to arrive here, in 1971, and James Spaulding, who’d been playing sharp for a decade. Spaulding’s alto saxophone obbligato and heated cadenza on “Warm Valley” were imbued with a glowing confidence heightened by his uncharacteristically centered pitch. “Such Sweet Thunder” began with the swinging and expressive trumpet of Hugh Ragin, who has lately seemed incapable of playing a dull note, but Stubblefield’s tenor took the piece into JATP realm, with a foot-stomping peroration that had people whooping. If the evening was suffused with an old-home-week quality, as was Sam Rivers’s extraordinary big band reunion at Sweet Basil, the nostalgia had less to do with remembrance than with a longing for players who can announce who they are the minute they stand up.

For it wasn’t only retro that cast an assembly-line pall over much that passed for jazz. The record companies continued to sign the young and innocent, a generation schooled in classic recordings imported directly from the classroom into the recording studio— a generation that thinks the point is to master the music rather than express yourself. So on disc after disc, you have musicians doing a little Sonny or Trane or Wes or Cannonball or Miles, or worse, succumbing to producer albums, reclamations of music that the producers grew up with. How else to explain the weirdness of Nicholas Payton following Gumbo Nouveau, duets with Doc Cheatham, and a superb 1997 JVC turn with Payton’s Place, a 1962 Blue Note album released by Verve in 1998. Blue Note’s Bob Beldon showed how to imaginatively revisit the past in the “Blue Note Now as Then” volume in the 14-disc 60th-anniversary celebration, The Blue Note Years, but no label seems to recall the importance of apprenticeship recording, even though it was Alfred Lion who showed that in a post­touring-band world, you brought leaders along by training them as sidemen. Sherman Irby made an impressive return with Big Mama’s Biscuits after his disastrous debut, while Stefon Harris proved that knowing one’s way around a recording studio is not an inborn talent, as did Irby and Marcus Printup and Gregory Tardy before him. As for Impulse, revived only to fold into a new merger, it continued to make a mockery of its old credo, “the new wave of jazz,” and won’t be missed!

Still, some good, possibly great, records were issued last year. Here are a baker’s dozen, in no particular order:

1-2. Tommy Flanagan, Sunset and the Mocking Bird (Blue Note). It was foolish not to banner the Village Vanguard, because this is one of those magical albums that fully lives up to the live-at-the-Vanguard legend. The pianist’s every solo is spare and sculpted, hammered like fine silver, and Peter Washington and Lewis Nash have the motor-nerve responsiveness of Billy Higgins. The tunes, all but one by jazz composers, include two each by Dizzy Gillespie, Tom MacIntosh, and Thad Jones, whose “Let’s” is a riot, but the subtext is Monk, referenced on the side. Martial Solal’s Just Friends (Dreyfus), with Gary Peacock and Paul Motian, is a long-overdue opportunity to wallow in the razzle-dazzle of the genre-proof pianist who won this year’s Jazzpar Award.

3-4. David S. Ware, Go See the World (Columbia). Maybe his best record, in any case endlessly bracing, yet rife with serpentine details, not least in the reflexively witty rhythm section— Matt Shipp, William Parker, Susie Ibarra— which recalls the way Jaki Byard, Richard Davis, and Alan Dawson once covered the waterfront (as on Prestige’s recently reissued The Jaki Byard Experience). The Ware threesome is out front on Matthew Shipp’s The Multiplication Table
(hatOLOGY), including a thinking-out-loud breakdown of “Take the A Train.”

5. Gustav Mahler/Uri Caine, Primal Light (Winter & Winter). Far more than an exercise in jazzing the classics, this is a highly personal attempt to reclaim Mahler as a suppressed Jewish klez, whose charmingly woebegone minor-key melodies— wrested from aggressively confident major-theme opuses— engender swinging improvisations by a stimulated crew including David Douglas, Don Byron, Joey Baron, and a hand-drumming cantor.

6-8. B. B. King, Blues on the Bayou (MCA). Self-produced at 73, this is an ur-B disc, recommendable as a starter or refresher course, with no apologies to Live at the Regal or Blues Is King. With neat Phil Marshall string arrangements amplifying the band and James Sells Toney’s rude keyboards, King’s guitar is serenely cushioned and no one is singing better than he does on “Blues Man” or “If I Lost You.” Mary Cleere Haran isn’t a jazz singer, but Pennies From Heaven (Angel), her best record, splits the difference; her duet with Richard Rodney Bennett on “Sweet and Slow” should have been a hit and will surely be a classic. Maybe he was just ahead of his time, but Andy Bey is on a roll with Shades of Bey (Evidence), his voice so dark and grudging he takes you deep into the shadows.

9. Sonny Rollins, Global Warming (Milestone). I know and at first I agreed, but I couldn’t keep away, until finally I realized that there is nothing seeming about those seemingly anarchic solos in which every phrase begins and ends somewhere other than where you expect, grinding through detours along the way. The facade may be neat, as is the gracefully adroit Stephen Scott, but the spine is embedded with the tingler.

10. Cecil Taylor, Qu’a (Cadence). Until I heard this performance, recorded at Sweet Basil in March, I underestimated how organic this quartet is. Taylor moves in and out of the lead in close accord with Harri Sjostrum, Dominic Duval, and Jackson Krall; he’s insistently reflective, as though he were undergoing a personal passage surprising even to him.

11-12. Joe Lovano, Trio Fascination (Blue Note) and Randy Weston, Khepera (Verve). It may be tiresome to list them year after year, each time with a warranty that the latest is the best, but if these aren’t, they’re close. Lovano, with Elvin Jones and Dave Holland, has never sounded happier— those who thought Chu Berry had a lock on “Ghost of a Chance” will have to think again. Much as I admired Weston’s Saga, the ferocity of the latest by his African Rhythms makes it sound like a warm-up; “Niger Mystery” and “Mystery of Love” keep picking up weight, like snowballs.

13. Ruby Braff, You Can Depend on Me (Arbors). Nat Hentoff long ago observed that as trumpet players grow older they sound more like Louis Armstrong. Braff began as an Armstrong man, developing a prim, glimmering, nuanced take of his own, yet has never
sounded more maturely in his thrall, backed by a quartet (including the late Bob Haggart) that knows better than to get in his way.

Honorable Mention: Jim Hall’s By Arrangement (Telarc); Art Ensemble of Chicago’s Coming Home Jamaica (Atlantic); Three Baritone Saxophone Band Plays Mulligan (Dreyfus); Tony Williams’s (really Mulgrew Miller’s) Young at Heart (Columbia); Tim Berne’s Paraphrase Visitations (Screwgun); Chris Potter’s Vertigo (Concord); Mark Turner’s In This World (Warner Bros.); David Murray’s Creole (Justin Time); Rosemary Clooney and the Count Basie Orchestra’s At Long Last (Concord); James Carter’s In Carterian Fashion (Atlantic); the late Barrett Deems’s Groovin’ Hard (Lydia); Daryl Sherman’s A Lady Must Live (After 9); Scott Hamilton and Bucky Pizzarelli’s The Red Door (Concord); Joe Morris’s Cloud of Black Birds (Aum Fidelity); and nearly the entire Netherlands Metropole Orchestra series (Koch), especially the new volumes by Bob Brookmeyer, Bill Holman, and Lee Konitz.

Betty Carter and Frank Sinatra, rest in peace.