Bop the Question

Drawing insight from the month's best in jazz, blues and heritage, Gumbo answers readers' nagging queries

This month Gumbo dips into the mailbox and answers those cosmic questions regarding jazz and blues. But first, a little press for those jazzers whose lives reached the expiration date.

From the label that reissued the entire Monkees catalogue comes two remastered John Coltrane albums, Coltrane Plays the Blues and Ole Coltrane (Rhino), complete with bonus tracks. A Baltimore-based society of jazz fiends has cracked open its tape vault and allowed Label M to begin releasing a monstrous collection of live jazz sets recorded over the decades. The first two out of the gate are Sonny Stitt's Just the Way It Was: Live at the Left Bank and Stan Getz's My Foolish Heart: Live at the Left Bank. Resonance (Pablo) features Joe Pass in a live set from 1974, with the king of solo jazz guitar this time playing in a trio setting. Here his bop chops are more evident than on most of his typically slower-paced albums. A sampling of the Brazilian music and quartet offerings baritone saxophonist Gerry Mulligan recorded during the last three years of his life can be found on The Art of Gerry Mulligan: The Final Recordings (Telarc).

Dear Gumbo, is the flute an unconscious extension of the penis?Gumbo believes everything is an extension of the penis. For some reason, the flute was a hot item during the soul jazz era, and you can ponder plenty of its best output on Heavy Flute: Funky Flute Grooves From the '60s and '70s (Label M), which features Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Hubert Laws, Herbie Mann and others. From an instrument slightly less phallic: Hank Crawford's Low Flame High Heat (Label M) gathers a fistful of the alto saxophonist's seriously soulful jazz from the '60s.

Percussionist Cyro Baptista and guitarist Kevin Breit are Supergenerous. On their self-titled Blue Note album, the duo leaps from opium-den moodiness to the theme from The Mary Tyler Moore Show. They're at their best when mining the same Appalachian backwoods feel guitarist Bill Frisell favors, making you want to smoke a corncob pipe and date your sister. Much more adventurous than you'd expect from a Blue Note release. Just as unexpected from the same label is Richard Leo Johnson's Language, where the guitarist sounds like a cross between Leo Kottke and the late Michael Hedges. Dueting with him on several cuts are members of Oregon. Speaking of:

Dear Gumbo, I know most jazz fans are heroin addicts and meat eaters, but is there jazz for us Birkenstocks-clad granola munchers? Yes, there is. Though their heyday was 20-some years ago, Oregon still remains the ultimate in pastoral jazz. In Moscow (Intuition), which features the Moscow Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra backing the group's classical guitar and oboe, sounds damn near vitamin-fortified. Consider it a health investment if you drink too much beer.

String-whackers: Guitarist Al DiMeola, who made his name playing with more speed than you'd find in a trucker's overalls, couples his romantic Latin thang with acoustic piano and The Toronto Symphony Orchestra on The Grande Passion (Telarc). Martin Taylor's damn near superhuman agility on In Concert (Milestone) -- check out the almost freakish "I Got Rhythm" -- reveals why violinist Stephane Grappelli chose him to take the guitar role earlier held by Django Reinhardt. Definitely preferable to his last album's attempt to woo the smooth jazz zombies. Jamaican guitarist Ernest Ranglin sounds uncannily like '70s-era George Benson, which is about as lyrical and soulful as the guitar gets. Couple that with a load of African rhythms and you've got Modern Answers to Old Problems(Telarc).

The Boston-area band Fat Dragon feeds off Miles Davis' fusion from the late '80s: the rock drumming, the ominous bass lines, the reliance on soprano sax and electric piano -- it's all there on Dream After a Large Lunch (Planet Pomegranate Records). Good enough to suggest that more bands should experiment with a dark funk feel. Pianist Brad Meldhau's Places (Warner Bros.) offers moody, loosely structured musical photos of cities he's visited while touring. A nice intro to the pianist's top-drawer improvising. Kenny Colman makes up for that perennial deficit in male jazz vocalists with Straight Ahead (Justin Time). His slightly hoarse tonsils cruise through "Last Tango in Paris" and other romantic tunes that make you want to get naked.

Dear Gumbo, is there any jazz, preferably somewhat snooty, that would fit in with my Arabian Nights theme party? Lucky you. Just released is a 1991 session by Dr. Lonnie Smith, who plays impressive organ funk and blues piano while, for reasons known only to the Egyptian god Ra, wearing a turban. Inform your guests that The Turbanator(32 Jazz), a collection of mostly self-penned pieces, is typical of the more-class/less-soul chops Smith has flashed for decades.

While a mix of trumpet, violin and accordion sounds like something straight out of a nursing-home talent show, Dave Douglas' A Thousand Evenings (BMG) has that odd combination spinning off some pretty passionate music -- including a somber take of the Goldfinger theme. Depending on your tastes, pianist Satoko Fujii falls somewhere between Cecil Taylor and the soundtrack for a seizure on Toward, "TO WEST"(Enja). The intelligible phrasing and gradual mood shifts of her bombastic outbursts prove that avant-garde jazz isn't random key-whacking.

On Nightclub (Blue Note/Premonition), Patricia Barber's smoky vocals and pensive piano purposely replicate the 2 a.m./close-the-bar mood that, cliché or not, is when and where the jazz gods most frequently gather converts. Though it may look like clarinetist Eddie Daniels is attempting to jump on the caboose of the passing swing craze with his big-band tribute Swing Low Sweet Clarinet (Shanachie), the improvisational element is far too much in the foreground for the tastes of anyone on a dance floor -- reason enough to check it out.

Dear Gumbo, why do I think of goats bleating when I hear the baritone saxophone? Do I need a therapist? Probably, but nonetheless, too many baritone players honk like a barnyard. Bluiett, known as Hamiet Bluiett before and during his tenure with The World Saxophone Quartet, sinks into that low register with more heart on With Eyes Wide Open (Justin Time). Since the death of Gerry Mulligan, Bluiett may be the main man on the instrument.

There's a forlornness built into the sound of the vibes, which may make Bobby Hutcherson's Mirage (32 Jazz) all it takes to get your head in the oven if the Prozac's not working. For the slightly more stable, the leader's dueting with pianist Tommy Flanagan creates some well-deserved attention for two long-term jazz figureheads now taken for granted. A bit more upbeat: a trumpet, tenor and alto sax lead The Bronx Horns through some witty Latin revisions of Horace Silver compositions on Silver in the Bronx (32 Jazz).

Dear Gumbo, I hear a demon whispering to me whenever I listen to a Keith Jarrett album. Are my parents right about jazz being the music of the devil?Of course it is, bucko, but forget calling the exorcist. Jarrett has long pissed off jazzdom by singing and grunting as he improvises. Those adenoidal extras are also featured on Whisper Not (ECM), the 15th album (three of them doubles, one of them a six-CD box) by the trio of Keith Jarrett, Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette. Jarrett endlessly spins off confident alterations of the standards catalogue -- so consistently, actually, the drama's frequently lost. His early solo albums of purely spontaneous improvising were far more risky.

During the late '50s and early '60s, painter/jazz addict David X. Young allowed players like Zoot Sims, Jim Hall, Mose Allison and Pepper Adams to use his illegal residence in a commercial-district Manhattan loft as a place to jam and keep the chops honed between jobs. David X. Young's Jazz Loft (Jazz Magnet) is a classy two-CD package (with a 40-page booklet) of home recordings that let us in on what these mainstream jazzers sounded like playing for each other.

The late crooner Arthur Prysock was far too bluesy to be claimed by the jazz camp and too uptown-classy for the rhythm and blues bunch to accept. Prysock recorded nearly 60 albums straddling this fence before the Milestone label decided to market him as a jazzer. The Best of Arthur Prysock: The Milestone Years(Milestone) needs to be in the collection of anyone following black vocalists of any genre, but, in the end, he's still the poor man's Chuck Jackson/Johnny Hartman as a soulster/jazzer.

Dear Gumbo, I'll soon pick up my fiancé at the Louisiana State Penitentiary and need mood music for our back-seat honeymoon in the prison parking lot. Avoid suggesting anything with sudden loud noises or negative comments about white people, please. Maria Muldaur's Music for Lovers (Telarc), a collection of the blues diva's snuggly stuff, features a sultry, six-minute-plus take of John Hiatt's "Feels Like Rain." Speaking of Hiatt, slide guitarist Sonny Landreth and his cohorts were once hired as the songwriter's backing band. Hiatt, Bonnie Raitt, Michael Doucet and Jennifer Warnes sit in on Levee Town (Sugar Hill), where Landreth's paean to Louisiana is well supported by his biting guitar work.

Peg Leg Sam, who lost the limb hopping freight trains, played blues harmonica in medicine shows and carnivals during the '30s. Kickin' It (32 Blues), recorded in the early '70s, introduces a killer harp player and storyteller never given his due. From Steve Miller's harp man for the past 25 years comes Norton Buffalo and the Knockouts' King of the Highway (Blind Pig Records), a bluesy venture that occasionally veers into ex-Miller band member Boz Scaggs' brand of R&B. Other alumni news: Jimmy Thackery and the Drivers' Sinner Street (Blind Pig Records), led by the former guitarist of the Nighthawks, spits out a guitar style as tank-solid and aggressive as Duane Eddy's.

Though John Fahey's acoustic guitar instrumentals can be as dry as a mouthful of lima beans, he's still the father of Leo Kottke and every guitarist born of the New Age movement. The Great San Bernardino Birthday Party(Takoma), recorded in the mid-'60s, is such hard-core heartland stuff that it sounds like it's meant to be played in grain elevators. Considerably more up-tempo is another collection of acoustic guitar instrumentals: Foundation: The Doc Watson Guitar Instrumental Collection 1964-1998(Sugar Hill). Watson, the daddy of all bluegrass flatpickers, burns his way through beat-to-death traditional standards so deftly the hokum element becomes tolerable.

National Geographic for the ears: Nobody's topped EMI in packaging topnotch collections of world music that do what they're supposed to do: make the listener drop big bucks for full-length albums of the best artists. Now we've got to finance four foreign invasions thanks to the release of The Story of Chanson, The Story of Arabic Song, The Story of Cuba and The Story of Bossa Nova -- all of them surprisingly unique in their choice of artists touted.

Though not the definitive collections, Inner Circle's Big in Jamaica: The Best of Inner Circle (Music Club) and The Best of King Tubby: King Dub (Music Club) will flesh out your reggae comprehension in time for the next ganja convention. Brasil Acoustico (Music Club) introduces us to five contemporary Brazilians who are patriotically upholding their country's history of producing music drenched in sex and romance, proving that the nation's flag should be a thong bikini on a stick.

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