All Ears

By John DeFore

Piano in the Background, and saxes and trumpets everywhere else


Just got the new Piano in the Background, one of three Duke Ellington reissues due next Tuesday from Columbia/Legacy, and haven't stopped dancing in my chair since I put it on. As Duke has a little solo time on most tracks and is playing a special 91-key piano, the title's only half-right; but the set's wild, exuberant arrangements make particularly good use of the stellar sidemen (like saxophonists Johnny Hodges and Paul Gonsalves) the bandleader attracted. For balance, Background is paired with the bass-drums-keys trio LP Piano in the Foreground.

That's just the tip of the iceberg, with both Blue Note and Fantasy throwing dozens of classic albums onto shelves, many with bonus tracks and all with spruced-up sound. Where to begin?

The latest Blue Note titles are almost all from the early 1960s. (And when they aren't, as with Jimmy Smith's Home Cookin', they almost ought to be.) Which means a lot of trumpeter Freddie Hubbard. He's on a third of the new discs, including two - The Night of the Cookers and Breaking Point - under his own name. Dexter Gordon also contributes two discs as a leader, Doin' Allright and Dexter Calling.

But one of the standouts is Inner Urge, a breakthrough for tenor player Joe Henderson. Stepping out of trumpeter Kenny Dorham's shadow, the saxophonist borrows John Coltrane's rhythm section, Elvin Jones and McCoy Tyner - and his quartet format, which gives Henderson no other horns to carry the soloing weight. He does two covers, including "Night and Day," but gives the disc's first half to three strong original tunes, including the title track and "El Barrio," where he really stretches out.

With the exception of 1961's superb Eric Dolphy at the Five Spot, Vol. 1, every one of Fantasy's latest batch of 20-bit remasters comes from the second half of the '50s. So we get a lot of John Coltrane before his famous quartet - as a leader with the Red Garland Trio on Traneing In, with pianist Tommy Flanagan on The Cats, and under the great Thelonious Monk on Thelonious Himself. That last one is a solo piano recital of ballads, with the exception of "Monk's Mood," where Monk is joined by Trane and bassist Wilbur Ware.

Speaking of ballads, some fine ones make up the bulk of The Milt Jackson Quartet, a haunting LP by the famous vibraphonist of the Modern Jazz Quartet; "The Nearness of You" isn't a song I need to hear very often, but paired with Jackson's reverberating vibes, it's a big step back from the syrupy mess made of the tune by so many lounge singers. The eponymous keys on Red Garland's Piano also get up to a lot of slow songs, but pick their feet up nicely on "Stompin' at the Savoy."

Other pleasures and oddities in the recent reissue bonanza:

The weird soprano sax standing in for Isaac Hayes' anything-but-soprano vocal on Charles Earland's Funk Fantastique (Prestige), a Soul Jazz-heavy comp of the organist's early-'70s work.

The lefter-than-left-field Steps to the Desert (Contemporary), a theme record on which Shelly Manne tackles such Jewish- and Israeli-themed tunes as "Hava Nagila."

The spectacular fingerpicking on the Super Audio CD release of 6- and 12-String Guitar (Takoma), the 1969 breakthrough record for Leo Kottke.

The image of jazzmen going mod: Horace Silver with "Psychedelic Sally," the kickoff track on Serenade to a Soul Sister, Lee Morgan on the simpler "Psychedelic" on The Sixth Sense (both Blue Note). (Neither tune borrows all that much from the rock movement of the same name.)

And no, jazz isn't dead; there's a fair bit of fine new stuff out there: The forever underappreciated pianist Geri Allen continues her career with The Life of a Song (Telarc), in an all-star trio with Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette; idiosyncratic legend Cecil Taylor delivers an hour-long composition for jazz orchestra and piano on The Owner of the River Bank (Enja/Justin Time), a piece of music that alternates between big, broiling cascades of sound and the kind of noodle-y quiet spaces one rarely associates with orchestras; and the many moods of Latin-derived jazz shine on Jerry González' lovely Los Piratas Del Flamenco (Sunnyside).

Looking to the fringes, Thirsty Ear's Blue Series continues to issue some of the most exciting jazz-everything else fusions out there. The new double-discer from DJ Spooky, Celestial Mechanix, boasts one platter of very turntablish remixes and a second on which he spins records from the label's past (including work by William Parker, Matthew Shipp, and David S. Ware) in one 77-minute continuous mix. If that's a little far out for you, there's always The Sweetness of the Water, from Spring Heel Jack and jazz pioneers Wadada Leo Smith and Evan Parker; less clubby and more avant-garde, it's some of the most engaging free-improv work put on disc lately. •

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