Stacks and boxes of CD review copies surround me, an indication that the music is alive and well or—at any rate—an indication that lots of jazz artists are recording. That’s good. The bad news is that unless someone discovers a way of listening that is other than sequential, it is impossible to hear and evaluate more than a smattering of those albums.
Let’s attempt to catch up with a few recent releases. I thought of adopting the Twitter maximum of 140 characters, but that’s probably carrying brevity too far. Some recordings may deserve as many as 200 characters.
Clare Fischer Orchestra: Extension (International Phonograph, Inc.)
Until recently, the only reissue of this vital 1963 album was an inadequately remastered vinyl disc released in 1984. Following Fischer’s death early this year, Johnathan Horwich’s International Phonograph company has restored the music to the luminous sound of the Pacific Jazz original, even improved on it. Fischer specialized in tonal shadings and harmonic subtleties, but also in rhythmic vitality. He melded those qualities in pieces like “Ornithardy,” “Extension” and “Canto Africano.” In “Quiet Dawn” he created a masterpiece of reflective impressionism. The improvising soloists are Fischer, brilliant on piano and organ, and tenor saxophonist Jerry Coker.
The classy CD package is a miniature of the original double-gatefold LP sleeve, with the extensive liner notes reproduced in readable type size on a removable sheet tucked into the CD pocket. The music is a reminder that with this album, at age 35 Fischer confirmed his place in the ranks of major jazz arrangers and composers. This is a most welcome release.
Tia Fuller: Angelic Warrior (Mack Avenue)
Fuller’s alto saxophone solo on “Body Soul” and her obbligato in the piece behind guest singer Dianne Reeves typify her growth as an improviser. Her band with pianist sister Shamie Royston, drummer brother-in-law Rudy Royston and lifelong friend Mimi Jones on bass provides the setting for Fuller’s increasingly forthright soloing on alto and soprano——and an outlet for her imaginative writing. Appearances by bassist John Patitucci and drummer Terri Lyne Carrington add sonic and rhythmic interest to the album. The two duet with delight and density on Fuller’s arrangement combining Cole Porter’s “So in Love” and “All of You.” Elsewhere, Patitucci plays electric piccolo bass, soloing on it like a guitarist. Despite the presence of heavyweight guests, the imagination and aggressiveness of Fuller’s playing dominate the CD. She, Rudy Royston and Carrington are formidable in an alto-percussion conversation on “Cherokee.”
Joe La Barbera: Silver Streams (Jazz Compass)
Long after the east-vs-west nonsense of the 1950s and ‘60s, much of the jazz establishment still looks the other way, listens the other way, when it comes to music played and recorded on the left coast. Such close-minded listeners—they don’t include you, of course—would be well advised to make an exception for this album by a powerful and subtle drummer. It is yet another sleeper by La Barbera, who with trumpeter Clay Jenkins, bassist Tom Warrington and guitarist Larry Koonse founded the Jazz Compass label a few years ago. Jenkins, Warrington, saxophonist Bob Sheppard and pianist Bill Cunliffe join La Barbera in a collection that contains a stunning version of Scott LaFaro’s “Jade Visions.” In it, the leader displays the lacy cymbal work that has been one of the joys of his music from his days with Bill Evans. Cunliffe’s title tune, structured like a suite, opens for mutual improvisation as well as solos by all hands. Further highlights: the quintet’s takes on Steve Swallow’s quirky “Bite Your Grandmother” and Elvin Jones’s “E.J.’s Blues.”
Carol Vasquez: I Have Dreamed (Carol Vasquez Music)
Vasquez’s classical training and musical theater background are apparent in her phrasing, diction and clarity of intonation. She imparts cabaret intimacy to “Safe and Warm,” with its insinuating guitar accompaniment by Charlie Hunter, and to Bill Evans’s harmonically challenging “Remembering the Rain.” She swings nicely in “The Song is You,” expresses the heartbreak of “Blame it on My Youth” and captures the longing of Curtis Lewis’s “All Night Long.” The canny arrangements and piano accompaniment are by Jan Stevens, who in his internet life is the proprietor of The Bill Evans Webpages. The repertoire is eleven standard songs of generations from Cole Porter to Stevie Wonder plus “On My Way to Love” by Stevens and Vasquez, which has standard potential.
Ellington’s music is replete with African-American themes, but he made only one overtly angry statement about racial injustice, a powerful one. He composed “King Fit the Battle of Alabam” as a centerpiece of My People, the tribute to black Americans that he wrote, produced and directed in Chicago in 1963, at the height of the civil rights movement. Taped during the run of the show but never released in its entirety until now, the original cast recording features singers Jimmy Grissom, Joya Sherill and Lil Greenwood, a chorus, and an orchestra led by Jimmy Jones that includes members of Ellington’s band. Ray Nance, Bill Berry, Booty Wood, Bob Freedman, Harold Ashby, Louie Bellson and Russell Procope are among the soloists. “Come Sunday” and variations on it run through the production, there are strains of the blues and allusions to Black, Brown and Beige. But at the end, what lingers is the rage when the chorus sings “Martin—Luther—King—fit the battle of—bam—bam—bam!” and the band follows in a round of solos saturated with the energy of positive indignation.
Simultaneous with My People, Storyville released the most recent of the apparently endless series of Ellington’s 1945-46 radio broadcasts for the Treasury Department, inspiring Americans to buy war bonds, then victory bonds. The series amounts to an audio album capturing the Ellington band still populated by some of its biggest stars, including Johnny Hodges, Harry Carney, Lawrence Brown, Tricky Sam Nanton and Cat Anderson. The two-CD set has a few rarities; an early version of the Carney baritone sax feature “Frustration,” Carney’s composition “Jennie,” the incandescent vocalist Kay Davis singing “Dancing in the Dark,” the premier of Hodges’ “Crosstown,” Billy Strayhorn on piano backing Hodges in Strayhorn’s “Passion Flower.” In several solos, Al Sears acquits himself well in one of the toughest assignments in jazz, as Ben Webster’s successor on tenor saxophone. The set has a few bonus flashbacks to broadcasts of the 1943 edition of the band, when Webster, Shorty Baker and Taft Jordan were still aboard.
Just for fun, let’s go out with a bonus of our own. Here’s a piece from a later Ellington Treasury broadcast. He was still doing his patriotic duty in 1951. The introduction is by Willis Conover.