Alive and Kicking

Despite being entombed in the recent PBS series, Gumbo shows why jazz is very much alive and well with a fine batch of new releases

Damn, Gumbo didn't know jazz had died until he watched the Ken Burns series Jazz. Killer history you handed over, guy, but thanks so much for making the music smell like embalming fluid to millions of jazz virgins. Jesus, you could have stuck Mozart in there somewhere and no one would have noticed. Everybody was dead, Kenny.

Burns spends less than two of the 19 and a half hours on the last four decades of jazz -- nearly half of jazz's entire history. No doubt ultraconservative series mentor Wynton Marsalis persuaded him to write off nearly everything electric and dissonant. No time in the series, of course, to mention the 1986 Miles Davis concert where Wynton unexpectedly walked onstage to jam and Davis brought the band to a halt with a sweep of his hand until Marsalis sheepishly returned to the wings. Bet that moment felt like four decades of jazz history.

Jazz not by Ken Burns: Producer Joel Dorn has uncovered a slick, previously unreleased concert from 1968 featuring Al Cohn and Zoot Sims, the album title Live at the Left Bank (Label M) referring to the Baltimore-based jazz society that recorded the date. Another producer, Bob Belden, responsible for most of the recent Miles Davis reissues on Sony/Legacy, has composed and released Black Dahlia (Blue Note), his first album of original material in a decade. The orchestrated suite, featuring the likes of Joe Lovano and Tim Hagans, is the quintessential film noir soundtrack, and will knock you out if your thing is L.A.-based detective fare.

Rufus Harley has played jazz on bagpipes since hearing the instrument played at JFK's burial services. The Pied Piper of Jazz (Label M) is a wild compilation of twisted drone-jazz not that far removed from the modal stuff Pharoah Sanders and John Coltrane played during the '60s when these cuts were first recorded. Harley brings to mind Rahsaan Roland Kirk's brazen experimenting, which, being played on the world's least favorite instrument, ought to really piss off your family members.

Jimmy Smith makes a wise career move on Dot Com Blues (Blue Thumb), pulling in a roster of blues names -- Etta James, Dr. John, B.B. King, Keb' Mo' and Taj Mahal -- to further spread the word of his own funky blues-based jazz. It's another great Smith album -- it's almost creepy how the guy doesn't seem to let age dilute the funk -- that will be most appreciated by fans of his guests, most of whom would never drop change for a jazz organ album.

The Prestige label has put out so much great jazz that a thorough boxed set would fill up the trunk of your car. Thankfully, the Berkeley, California-based bunch has made it easy on us by doling out McNugget-size samplers of what lies in the vaults. The Prestige Legacy, Vol. 1: The High Priests (Prestige) hands over '50s-era cuts by Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane. Meanwhile, 21 saxophonists are squeezed onto The Prestige Legacy, Vol. 2: Battle of the Saxes (Prestige), including Stan Getz, Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis, Phil Woods, Jackie McLean, Sonny Stitt, Gene Ammons and a bunch of other primo blowhards who granddaddied damn near anyone of substance in the current crop of sax players.

Far more guitarists than you'd want living downstairs: Kurt Rosenwinkel thanks 108 relatives/supporters in the notes accompanying The Next Step (Verve). While fear of his potential acceptance speech alone will no doubt exclude him from a Grammy nomination, his personalized mix of hard bop and Metheny-esque impressionism leaves him deserving of both airplay and an extra cheeseburger at the next family reunion. John Scofield makes an odd move with Works for Me (Verve), dropping his trademark funk for a straightahead session with younger monsters Kenny Garrett, Brad Mehldau and Christian McBride (as well as the patriarch of the skins, Billy Higgins). Sco even writes more conservatively than usual here, and while there's no lack of fiber in the results, it's uncomfortable hearing him step outside the hip greasiness that's defined his playing for the last decade. Don't be going Republican on us, Johnny.

Philip Catherine and guitar made themselves a name with stateside jazzers by subtly supporting Chet Baker in numerous bands during the latter's last years in Europe. Blue Prince (Dreyfus Jazz) is much more outspoken than anything in his own catalogue, occasionally fusion-electrified in tone and playing off the forceful, very un-Bakerlike trumpet of Bert Joris. Django Reinhardt may be dead, but you'd never know it listening to the European Gypsy pickers flailing away on Gypsy Swing (Refined Records) and Wine-Soaked Whispers (Refined Records). Worshipers of jazz guitar's most unique and complex stylist will freak over the eye-popping fret-whacking of the mostly unknown names filling these compilations. No guitar albums out there any more colorful than these, nor any that better milk Reinhardt's contributions.

A moratorium on Duke Ellington covers could be justified, given how most of the last million interpretations are cardboard cutouts in comparison to the originals. Surprise: Martial Solal Dodecaband Plays Ellington (Dreyfus Jazz) wrings loads of fresh blood out of his played-to-death standards. The French pianist and band seriously tweak the maestro's output to where the familiar strains of melody only occasionally poke through their passionate rollicking.

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