The Old Catch-Up Game

Now and then, the Rifftides staff calls your attention to recordings selected from the stacks of more or less recent arrivals. Comments are brief, in an effort—no doubt doomed—to catch up with worthwhile releases.

Dutch Jazz Orchestra, Moon Dreams: Rediscovered Music of Gil Evans & Gerry Mulligan (Challenge)

Languishing in the stacks, this 2009 album called to me. I’m glad it did. It features arrangements that Gil Evans, in his mid-30s, and Gerry Mulligan, in his early 20s, wrote for the Claude Thornhill band in the late 1940s. Their work from that period anticipates what they, John Lewis and John Carisi created in 1949 and ‘50 for the nine-piece Miles Davis band later indelibly labeled Birth Of The Cool. Impeccably played by a fine Dutch repertory big band, the pieces include Evans’ chart on “Yardbird Suite” and his medley of “Easy Living,” a stunning “Moon Dreams” and “Everything Happens to Me.” There are buoyant Mulligan arrangements of “Rose of the Rio Grande,” “Joost at the Roost“and “Poor Little Rich Girl.” Sixty years later, all sound remarkably undated. In another 60, Evans’ treatment of “Lover Man” will still be fresh. If The Cool was born with the Davis band, it had a rich gestation period with Thornhill.

Wadada Leo Smith’s Mbira, Dark Lady Of The Sonnets (TUM)

Smith suggests imagery for each of the five pieces. If you are capable of envisioning 60,000 Zulus dancing on the surface of a lake in “Zulu Water Festival,” fine, but you need not hear this as program music. It may be best to let it wash over you and discover what your mind develops in response. Like all of Smith’s recent work, this transcends the category of free jazz with which the trumpeter and composer is usually identified. It is no surprise that the formidable percussionist Pheeroan akLaff, a longtime colleague, works hand-in-glove with Smith. Min Xiao-Fen, born in Nanjing, is a surprise. A collaborator with John Zorn, Jane Ira Bloom and Björk, she makes remarkable music with the pipa, an ancient Chinese stringed instrument, and with her voice. She and Smith occasionally play carefully crafted unison lines that have the precision of electricity. Her singing on the title track is haunting. The three players alternately blend with and highlight one another. Space is an essential element of their music. Smith calls the trio Mbira, the name of an African thumb piano, although there is no African thumb piano on the CD. Consider it part of the mystique of the music, which in his notes Smith says is in “a creative contextualization defined in the contemporary music language.” That language encompasses the blues. A pronounced blues sensibility washes through and beneath the surface of the playing, which manages to be at once contemplative and daring.

Phil Dwyer, Changing Seasons (Alma)

The composer and orchestrator Phil Dwyer allows Dwyer the tenor saxophone virtuoso a solo in the “Summer” section of this beautifully realized album. He gives fellow Canadian Ingrid Jensen a trumpet slot that is integral to the success of “Winter.” Most of the solos, however, are by Mark Fewer, a dazzling violinist who glides lyrically through Dwyer’s seasonal suite. The work may have been inspired at least in part, as any music with such a theme must be, by the example Vivaldi set 250 years ago. Clearly, though, Dwyer’s experience in modern jazz and classical music provides the basis for the pieces. He integrates a full string section and a big band in what amounts to a violin concerto blended into a concerto grosso. He and Fewer, who is not only the featured soloist but also conducts the strings, get what could have been an ungainly machine to swing mightily in the “Winter” section. In an unusual achievement for our length-obsessed CD era, the suite runs 35-and-a-half minutes, but it is so satisfying that it’s hard to imagine why it should be longer

Anthony Wilson, Seasons: Live At The Metropolitan Museum Of Art (Goat Hill DVD and CD)

Wilson’s album appeared at about the same time as Dwyer’s. Aside from subject matter and titles, they could hardly be more different. John Monteleone, an American guitar maker respected by his fellow craftsmen and revered by guitarists, created four magnificent archtop instruments named for the seasons, then commissioned Wilson to write a suite for them. Wilson engaged fellow guitarists Steve Cardenas, Chico Pinheiro and Julian Lage to perform the work with him in concert at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Fittingly, the Monteleone guitars—subtly tinted and illustrated by the luthier—will be on display at the museum through July 4th as works of art. Each of the guitarists is featured in a movement of the seasonal cycle, with the other three playing Wilson’s often-intricate ensemble accompaniments. Cardenas begins with the moody “Winter;” the young Brazilian Pinheiro dances through the samba “Spring;” Wilson celebrates “Summer” with an Ozarks twang; Lage has the central part in “Autumn’s” harmonic complexities, wrapping up the 32-minute suite. The DVD has the suite, masterfully photographed and directed at the concert, a documentary about Monteleone making the guitars and Wilson writing the music, and an extensive slide show. The CD has the suite, each of the guitarists in a solo feature, then all of them together in a ‘round robin on Joni Mitchell’s ”The Circle Game.” This is a remarkable guitar chamber music experience.

More reviews coming soon, listening and contemplation time permitting.

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  1. David says

    The Dutch Jazz Orchestra has released a series of “rediscovered” big band charts, even discovering some that hadn’t previously been recorded. Others in the series include Mary Lou Williams, and at least two albums of Strayhorn.

  2. says

    I had only been playing the bass (self taught) for a couple of years when I joined Thornhill’s band for the spring and summer of 1953. Those Mulligan and Evans arrangements were a delight to play, and furthered my musical education a lot. Claude was a good arranger himself, and the bass line on his theme song forced me to figure out a better fingering system for the key of D flat. And when, a few years later, I joined the Mulligan Sextet, his arrangements forced me to look up a bass teacher and correct the rest of my fingering.

    • says

      Bill, I have been reading you in your blog for some time as guided by Steven Cerra, and I have your book “From Birdland to Broadway” so I am familiar with your laconic, self-deprecatory, humorous style and have liked it for a very long time. Nothing could beat this one though, it encompasses all the above, but adds the all important humility.

      Through Mulligan recordings that I commenced loving in the early fifties I have enjoyed listening to you as well, particularly and spectacularly on “The CJB Live at the Village Vanguard” and it was either Steven or Doug himself who remarked upon the “groove” that you and Mel Lewis set up on “Blueport” my all-time favourite recording. Since I first got my hands on it in the sixties that LP/CD/8track/tape/mp3 has been in my car and my house in more or less constant play. Congratulations on everything you’ve done and are doing, and thank you.

      p.s. Did you tour with the GM/BB Quartet in the late fifties and appear at Liverpool’s Philharmonic Hall? if so, then I have also had the pleasure of hearing you in the flesh.

  3. Jeffrey Sultanof says

    The editor of the music for this album is Walter van de Leur, a colleague and friend who did marvelous work editing the compositions of Billy Strayhorn, as well as these scores.

    A shameless plug here is to let you know that the arrangements of “Moon Dreams,” “Spanish Dance,” “Joost,” “Rose,” “Yardbird,” and “Poor Little Rich Girl” can now be purchased for school and professionals ensembles. I edited and cleaned up some of them myself several years ago. See the ejazzlines website:

    If I have a criticism of this album, it is that the tempos of Mulligan’s arrangements are a bit too fast, and Gerry was very sensitive about the right tempos. However, that shouldn’t stop anyone from experiencing this fantastic music for themselves.

  4. says

    The Old Catch-Up Game never ceases to surprise and delight, no matter who runs up against it. As an example, after being a jazz freak since the mid-forties it never ceases to maze me how many wonderful things keep arriving before me enabling me to catch up. Dutch Jazz Orchestra being one of many. Thank you for that. It is available via Spotify and I’m listening to it for the first time as I write. What an incredible medium this is. Rose of the Rio Grande at the moment with other neat inputs. Terrific.

  5. says

    to Brian Hope:
    I only played in England once with Mulligan, in the spring of 1963, with Brookmeyer and Dave Bailey. I don’t think we played Liverpool, but I could be wrong. I remember playing in Bradford and Manchester, as well as London.

  6. Peter Booth says

    to Bill Crow

    I’m sure I saw you in Manchester in 1962/3 with
    Mulligan but Gus Johnson was the drummer.

    Always appreciated your work (both bass and writing) right up to date.