So many jazz records, so little record store shelf space! Few mainstream retail outlets have much energy to devote to jazz artists who aren't lovely ladies (hello, Ms. Krall) or established best-sellers, but that doesn't mean little labels aren't still pumping out lots of great stuff. In an attempt to group together some ungroupable recent releases, I give you the oddest septet you'll meet this side of Snow White's diminutive buddies:
On bass, William Parker, the avant garde's most visible bullfiddler. (He's on three records on this list alone.) Parker's brand new Scrapbook (Thirsty Ear) is an accessible, super-enthusiastic trio set showcasing violinist Billy Bang. Bang brings a lot of high-register personality to Parker's rumbling innovations, particularly on the third track, in which his whinnying, braying solos sound more like wild horses than anything as tranquil as the "Singing Spirits" for which the tune is named. (Parker should also be our honorable-mention shakuhachi player, judging from Songs for a Suffering World, an old-fashioned protest record he just released on Boxholder; featuring David Budbill's Beat-like poetry on most tracks, it wins this week's All Ears Tweak Dubya award for telling the tale of a know-nothing ancient Chinese emperor.)
Fleshing out the "rhythm" section is Han Bennink, who does a lot more than keep the beat on Spring Heel Jack's Live (Thirsty Ear). Bennink lays a crucial foundation of percussion sounds beneath an all-star team of improvisers, grounding an hour-plus set that might otherwise have pushed the wank-ometer needle into the red. The record is also a chance for the curious to hear the plethora of non-drum sounds Bennink can make without committing to one of his more esoteric duet or trio discs.
Hitting the ivories, let's have Mal Waldron, the versatile pianist who worked with everybody from Billie Holiday to Steve Lacy. Waldron succumbed to cancer last December, but is memorialized on Soul Eyes (Prestige), a collection of tracks from 1955 to 1962, about half of which were led by other musicians. Among the originals and covers, the standout is a sprawling, 17-minute version of the title tune (probably Waldron's best known composition) featuring John Coltrane and Kenny Burrell, among others.
While we're raising the dead for our group, who better to play trumpet than Miles Davis? In its never-ending (thank Heaven!) Davis reissue campaign, Columbia Legacy has just put out In Person Friday and Saturday Nights at the Blackhawk, San Francisco: Complete. Sure, the title's a mouthful, but the material is beefy enough to justify it: For the first time, all the music made on April 21 and 22, 1961 is available to fans who 'til now thrilled to excerpts. The four discs in the package contain an hour and a half of unissued music made by the incarnation of Davis' quintet featuring Hank Mobley on tenor sax.
Mobley's swell, but let's show a little Lone Star pride with our saxophone pick: Alex Coke's New Texas Swing fits that bill in all kinds of ways. Based in Austin, Coke is one of the most accomplished reedists currently working in Tejas, and this delightfully oddball collection pays tribute to a variety of giants who aren't always remembered for their Texan associations: Ornette Coleman, Leadbelly, David "Fathead" Newman, and Charlie Haden, in addition to Coke and his frequent collaborator Tina Marsh. Speaking of Marsh, this disc's not for those afraid of out-there scat vocalization - but you knew that any jazz quartet willing to try Leadbelly's "Out on the Western Plains" wasn't gonna be the most conventional combo in the world, right?
Sharing reed duty with Coke is New York clarinetist David Krakauer, whose Klezmer Madness ensemble released The Twelve Tribes way back last year. I've waited an unconscionably long time to write about it, mainly because it's such an ass-kicking, border-exploding disc that it never seems to pair up with anything else. Wild, loud, and usually drunk-sounding, the record makes old-world melodies sound like punk rock. The klezmer tradition has always attracted characters of questionable reputation, but Krakauer sounds like somebody who could beat you up without laying a finger on you, just by pointing his clarinet in your direction.
Finally, a nod to those who agree that there aren't enough trombonists in jazz. Conveniently, Mosaic has just compiled a little box spotlighting the work of Bennie Green, one of the few bebop-era trombonists whose style owed little to the much more famous J.J. Johnson. Mosaic Select: Bennie Green collects four records he made for Blue Note and one with leader Ike Quebec; as much at home with swing and blues styles as with bop, Green kept these albums varied and lively. And since Mosaic specializes in limited-edition pressings, the only way you're likely to hear them is by dropping in on www.mosaicrecords.com. (Unlike some of the company's boxes, the Select series is a budget-minded line - this set averages $13 a disc.)
Personally, I can't imagine what kind of screwed-up music a combo like this would make. But I know I'd much rather hear it than most of the staid stuff that dominates jazz playlists these days. •