Pompousness and Circumstance

Gumbo gets smug as he samples some Coltrane, gets blue with Big Bill, does Duke with the Doc and feels some local Native American muse

Modesty's Odyssey (Yobo) by Boston-area percussionist Brooke Sofferman is a hard-core, shut-up-'n'-listen jazz outing featuring damn near slobbery liner notes by John Abercrombie as well as the playing of saxophonist Jerry Bergonzi, whom Michael Brecker considers to be the greatest tenor player alive. Happy Apple from Minneapolis has released Body Popping, Moon Walking, Top Rocking (No Alternative Records), which mixes Ornette Coleman and Medeski Martin & Wood with some attention-catching bass lines to create both a colorful and intense jazz outing -- the balance so often lost when jazz players try to get too cerebral.

Violins and cellos are typically the kiss of death when mixed with jazz, making Brandon Fields & Strings (PRC) that rare exception. Corn-free arrangements reminiscent of Claus Ogerman and Don Costa perfectly support Fields' emotive blowing. It's gorgeous stuff meant to be played at three in the morning, and should be purchased by anyone looking for a bit of grab 'n' giggle soundtrack fare. Nearly the same can be said for Ballad Session (Warner Bros.) by tenorman Mark Turner. The bare-faced seriousness of Turner's touching lines, coupled with stark production values somewhat reminiscent of Rudy Van Gelder's Blue Note classics, make this a pretty weird approach to jazz for the pop-favoring Warner Bros. Everybody wins.

On Kisses in the Rain (Telarc), vocalist John Pizzarelli bares the hard-core guitar chops he learned from his dad, Bucky Pizzarelli. Nothing earth-shaking with the warbling, but the guy is a nasty picker.

The 32 Jazz label launches its best-of series, each disc subtitled Givin' Away the Store, with overviews of what Pat Martino, Sonny Stitt and Woody Shaw played during the '70s on the exceptional Muse label. Each one is a great intro to the artist's catalogue. Another solid sampler is Rhino Records' The Very Best of John Coltrane -- a fine overview of Atlantic-era recordings like "Giant Steps" and "My Favorite Things." If you've yet to check out Coltrane, this would be the disc to grab. Best jazz album of the month, hands down, comes from the Night Tripper himself, Dr. John. The good doctor has long vacillated between undiluted, spooky swamp funk like Gris Gris and the VH1-sounding fare found on some of his Warner Bros. outings. Now he's on Blue Note with Duke Elegant, grinding up Duke Ellington standards with his New Orleans chops. The 1932 dance number "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)" becomes a voodoo chant, and "Things Ain't What They Used to Be" lays down a bass-driven groove that brings to mind The Meters.

Native American music is world music to nearly anyone outside the Southwest, and Phoenix is blessed to have one of the genre's major record labels right down on 16th Street. Canyon Records distributes its releases all over the world -- France was the main source of international orders during my last visit a decade back. The label's Medicine Dream by Mawio'mi weaves flute and vocals over beats and guitar breaks that bring to mind the lighter side of heavy metal. Ancient Future, the third release by the R. Carlos Nakai Quartet is a strange but successful mix of tech and tradition, with Native American instrumentation blending with hip-hop-ish beats and textures reminiscent of Philip Glass. Neither recording is the clichéd, new age-ish nonsense meant to serve as soundtracks to firing jars in the backyard kiln.

The small Music Club label cranks out some unique CDs that put the large, risk-abhorring labels to shame. Magic Touch by the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan couples the Indian vocalist with DJ and remixer Bally Sagoo to create a unique form of international dance music. Also released by the label is The Kings and Queens of Rocksteady, which compiles mid-'60s, pre-reggae Jamaican hits, including the Paragon's "The Tide Is High," later covered by Blondie. Moving northeast a couple zillion miles, Faire Celts (Narada World) gathers offerings by 13 mostly unfamiliar Celtic female singers and instrumentalists -- gorgeous stuff for those needing to move beyond Enya and Loreena McKennitt.

This month's Criminally Underrated/Overlooked Artist: Next to John Prine, Michael Smith may be the finest Chicago folk singer ever. Check out Michael Smith Love Stories (Flying Fish Records), a reissue of his first two albums, filled with songs about vampires, panthers in Michigan, Graham Greene-like spies, dead Egyptians, and the last days of Pompeii, and including the original version of "Spoon River," made popular by the late Steve Goodman. Stay pompous.

Contact Dave McElfresh at his online address: davemcelfresh@aol.com

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