Recent Listening, But First…

An Explanation:

As recently as the early 1980s, relatively few major labels made jazz records. Columbia, RCA Victor, Decca, Capitol, United Artists, Warner Bros, Atlantic and Mercury were the big names. Independent companies that specialized in regular jazz releases included Prestige, Savoy, Blue Note, Riverside, Contemporary, Fantasy, Bethlehem, Verve and Commodore. Mode, Dooto, Roost, Dig, Tampa, Debut and dozens of other small labels occasionally produced and released jazz recordings on long-playing vinyl discs.

LP.jpgThose who wrote about jazz could be reasonably confident of keeping up with established artists or those with significant potential because those were the performers in whom record companies were willing to invest. Particularly among the majors, a musician got a contract and studio time only if someone at a label believed that a recording would sell enough copies to produce a profit.

After the advent of compact discs, the technology and economies of scale in CD production rapidly developed to the point where an eighteen-year-old saxophonist could be his own record company. With reasonably good off-the-shelf equipment, a musician could even record at home and come up with an album that would not make your ears hurt–at least not for technical reasons. CDs became cheap to produce and–more important–cheap to reproduce. Musicians pass them around like business cards. Ralph the budding pianist, guitarist or drummer becomes Ralph Records. He produces his own album of twelve original compositions and sends it to every publication, writer, radio station, web site and blogger whose address he can find.

In the first paragraph, I mentioned twenty-two record companies. It would take at least twenty-two pages to list all of today’s labels. Virtually every young musician you heard last night in a club, coffee house, corner bar, church recreation room or your neighbor’s garage has made, is making or is about to make a CD. He or she (there are lots of aspiring young women musicians today) will distribute the disc to those who might write about it or play it on the air or the internet.

To ambitious players and singers, this ease of production and distribution opens vistas of
CD stack 3.jpghope. For critics, reviewers and DJs, it results in floods of promotional CD copies or MP3s that stream into their real or virtual mail boxes. Rising tides of CDs engulf their offices and listening rooms. If they devoted all of their waking hours to listening, they could not hear a tenth of the music pouring in. All of this is not to complain; there are those who think that being awash in free CDs would be heaven.   

It is merely to explain that what follows is an attempt to mention, with brief comments, a few of the CDs that have recently arrived at Rifftides world headquarters–some not so recently. I selected a few of them because the artists seem to me important. I chose some out of curiosity, others by closing my eyes and pointing. I hasten to add that these are, for the most part, professionally produced albums by experienced musicians. The other kind go to the listening room floor…because I’m out of shelf space.

This is the first part of an overview that may go on for a few days along with whatever other items pop up on Rifftides. If the overview doesn’t include your CD, or your favorite eighteen-year-old tenor player’s, please understand that it would be humanly impossible to hear, let alone write about, all the CDs that show up.


Wynton Willie.jpgWillie Nelson, Wynton Marsalis,
Two Men With The Blues (Blue Note). Without pretension, with solid musicianship, the country hero and the jazz lord of Lincoln Center get together in concert. They play and sing lots of blues, but “Stardust” and “Ain’t Nobody’s Business” steal the honors. Saxophonist Walter Blanding and the young pianist Dan Nimmer deserve equal billing.

Roy Hargrove, Earfood (Emarcy/Groovin’ High). royhargrove.jpgThere’s nothing pretentious here, either. The trumpeter leads his quintet through a set that often recalls predecessors like Lee Morgan and Kenny Dorham. This is a working band, tight and unified. Standing out from all the hard bop cooking and soul stirring is Hargrove’s simple, expressive flugelhorn exposition of Kurt Weill’s “Speak Low.” What a gifted melodicist he is.

Uhlir.jpgFrantišek Uhlíř
Maybe Later (Arta). Three months ago, I wrote that I was looking forward to a new CD by this Czech virtuoso of the double bass. It finally arrived. In addition to his long association with pianist Emil Viklický, Uhlíř leads his own trio. He is brilliant in interaction with the unusual guitarist Darko Jurkovic and drummer Jaromir Helesic and establishes yet again that he is one of the masters of his instrument. This may be hard to find outside of Europe. It is worth a search.

Paul Bley, About Time (Justin Time). More than a half-hour of the CD is devoted to the title
Bley.jpgtrack, which consists of the venerable pianist’s autumnal meditation on “All The Things You Are” or, to put it more accurately, on the song’s harmonic material. It provides a look into Bley’s allusive, sometimes whimsical, and always very musical methods. The shorter piece is Bley rummaging through Sonny Rollins’s “Pent-up House,” retitled for the occasion, “Encore.” Amusing moment: his quote from “I Ain’t Mad at You.”

More next time.

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  1. Marvin Thomas says

    How on point you are about record companies then and now. As you well remember, years ago if a musician had a record out he had met a certain high standard because the record company was willing to invest money in the project.This started to change about 20 years ago when the record company would pick up the manufacturing end only if the musician picked up the recording costs. Then later on, for the less-known musician, the record companies were supplying their label name only; the musician was absorbing all of the costs. Then the record companies had the balls to make the musicians pay for their own projects. One cannot blame many of the musicians for putting out their own projects, especially since they would never see any return from their record sales. Their only return would be from selling the CD off the bandstand. Now comes the hard part for the critics and radio stations who must receive 100 or more CDs a week. What to do with all of those CDs?

  2. says

    I’m always puzzled when I get an unsolicited CD by musician previously unknown to me and then the artist or publicist emails me a week or two later to ask how I liked the CD and if I will be reviewing it.
    Before conducting a mass mailing to jazz writers, ask yourself what the hook is to get your CD heard. When the recipient doesn’t know your work, your fellow players, your label and then the material is all originals, chances are very slim of it being heard, let alone reviewed. Many writers are at the point that they don’t have time to even preview a disc unless it is a likely candidate for a review.
    One musician who shall remain anonymous mailed me a finished CD package that required me to go on line to his website to get composer credits, musician credits by instrument and liner notes. I guess it was too much trouble to fit them in the booklet, as they would have replaced one of the artist’s several photos…