Smooth Operators

Haikus and lows abound in this month's jazz and heritage releases

Gumbo loves slamming pud jazz wanna-bes and goo-heavy R&B warblers. But my insensitive editor stubbornly refuses to allot me an extra page for diatribes on, say, how stupid it is to categorize Sade as jazz. Gumbo has, however, been granted an additional 17 syllables, used below to convey a haiku inscribed on a stone tablet recently unearthed in my backyard:

Cooool jazz radio.

Coyotes wearing toe tags.

Mortuary cooool.

Thank you. Gumbo feels better.

As Long As You're Living Yours: The Music of Keith Jarrett (BMG/RCA) pays tribute to a stellar improvisationalist whose composing skills are often overlooked. The pianist has recorded close to a zillion different albums since the '60s, giving artists as diverse as Bruce Hornsby, Chucho Valdes and Andy Summers plenty of compositions from which to choose. Check out John Scofield's take of what may be Jarrett's best piece, "Coral."

The Rolling Stones' Brian Jones isn't the only guitarist to have been found dead in a swimming pool, having checked out under mysterious circumstances. The same fate befell jazzman Lenny Breau, a monster finger-style player highly touted by Chet Atkins for reasons obvious on Lenny Breau Trio (Adelphi/GENES). The underrated and short-lived picker adeptly tackles Bob Dylan's "Don't Think Twice (It's All Right)" and even, believe it or not, Anne Murray's "You Needed Me." Anne Murray's alive and Lenny Breau is dead. There really is no justice.

Pianist Michel Petrucciani's last recorded work shows up on Steve Grossman Quartet With Michel Petrucciani (Dreyfus Jazz). Don't expect to find any of the mean funk from Grossman's days as a sideman with fusion-era Miles Davis. Here, Grossman's a gruff tenor man who coughs up lots of Sonny Rollins influence in contrast to Petrucciani's delicate playing. In fact, a Rollins composition is the only cut that isn't a ballad in this fibrous disc of libido jazz emotionally egg-timed for a bit of midnight lip-munching. Now this is coool jazz.

File Lan Xang alongside all those other jazz bands named after six-century-old Laotian kingdoms. Hidden Gardens (Naxos Jazz) is a dense sax/bass/drum outing that ricochets between sounding like the eye-crossing arrangements of Charles Mingus and the spacey oriental diatribes by John Zorn.

No, the Brian Blade Fellowship isn't a Trinity Broadcasting Network traveling revival show. Perceptual (Blue Note) is a project where the drummer/guitarist/vocalist and his cohorts effortlessly reference more jazz influences than a Harlem version of Jeopardy!. Thick, feminine composing reminiscent of Pat Metheny's style mixes with updated hardbop harmonies. Joni Mitchell and mood evocator Daniel Lanois add their collective four cents. Blade's one of the few Blue Noters to push beyond mere resuscitation of the mood associated with the label's good old days.

Jazz singer Bob Dorough has the vocal chops of a garbage disposal, but, like Ben Sidran and Dave Frishberg, has made a career out of singing witty lyrics with his cartoon tonsils. Too Much Coffee Man (Blue Note), featuring saxophonist Phil Woods, is a return to the '50s beat era when jazz, handing the mike over to anyone this side of throat cancer, had its own Neil Young and Bob Dylan equivalents messing with the Ella Fitzgerald school of proper torch singing.

Former Roomful of Blues guitarist Ronnie Earl juggles jazz and blues on Healing Time (Telarc), confronting the organ of Jimmy McGriff on cuts by the likes of hardbopper Duke Pearson and blues patriarch Muddy Waters. Earl avoids the typical deep, hollow-body guitar tone of jazz, playing chops far more sophisticated than most bluesters can pull off.

Andy Narell's steel drum playing is a lot jazzier than a decade back when he was on the New Age/New Aarrgh label Windham Hill. On Fire in the Engine Room (Heads Up), Narell does a fine job stealing the drums from their piña colada associations. Still, given the limited nature of what steel drums can play, they'll never lend themselves to complex improvisation, which, if attempted, might sound like a thousand golf balls bouncing off various sized strips of aluminum siding. Don't you find something myopic and suspect about an instrument that always sounds so fucking happy? But, hey, if you can simultaneously listen to jazz, smile and shimmy for five minutes in a row, Narell's your fella.

On Look Who's Here (Verve), Russell Malone grafts onto his guitar neck the bright, punchy chops of George Benson while composing improvisational fodder less pop-oriented than what his mentor favors. Though he milks his share of clichéd licks, Malone is thankfully free of that fleet-fingered, jazz circus-act nonsense on unhurried interpretations of "Alfie" and "The Odd Couple." The album is produced by Tommy LiPuma, whose jazz claim to fame is Benson's Breezin'.

Though Monty Alexander is not a figure who comes to mind when thinking of funk or reggae, the Jamaican pianist hugs his roots on Monty Meets Sly and Robbie (Telarc), a showdown with riddim kings supreme Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare. Alexander's laid-back, Ahmad Jamal-like style supplies none of the funk, preferring to flirt with the grooves of drummer Dunbar, though the latter's input is sometimes so programmed as to dilute the grit. It's a worthwhile effort, though, featuring hardbop fare like Lee Morgan's "Sidewinder" and Herbie Hancock's "Chameleon"-era fusion. But for the most vulgar Sly 'n' Robbie-meet-jazz encounter, snag guitarist Kazumi Watanabe's Mobo 1 on Gramavision.

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