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

Guess it's a good thing that Dianne Reeves introduces the younger half of her audience to a jazz diva supreme on The Calling: Celebrating Sarah Vaughan (Blue Note), though it might be better to forge ahead into the newer terrain being defined by her superiors Holly Cole and Cassandra Wilson. Killer arrangements on the disc, though, for those who'll settle for pretty wrapping paper over something new stuck in the box.

Matthew Shipp's New Orbit (Thirsty Ear) is the prolific pianist's most recent outing, featuring both omnipresent bassist William Parker and underrated/underrecorded trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith. Shipp's steady stream of iconoclastic recordings, accessible but recorded with one foot planted in the twilight zone, has created a cottage industry of sorts, shades of Sun Ra's self-promotion. More power to ya, Matt. Maybe we'll see you on the Home Shopping Network someday.

The leader of the Greg Howard Band plays the Chapman Stick, which looks like a guitar neck without the guitar and is played by tapping all 10 fingers on the strings. Must be something to watch live, but the blaring, slick accompaniment on Lift(Espresso) suffocates the virtuosity noted by fellow musicians in his bio. Maybe he'll dump the jazz lite sensibilities next time around and smack us around with a killer solo album.

Jazz from dead guys: The reissued Birth of the Cool(Capitol Jazz Records) remains a classic album for its nine members having conjured up thick, subtle jazz arrangements in response to the fading bebop movement back in the late '40s. Miles Davis is unfairly given credit as leader in the company of Gil Evans, Gerry Mulligan, John Lewis and Lee Konitz, because of his saleable notoriety as a sideman with bop god Charlie Parker. The reissue marks the first time the album has been produced from the master tapes of the original 1949 and 1950 sessions. If you find it too smooth, stick the CD under that too-short kitchen table leg until you grow into it. Everybody does.

Charles Mingus became hot stuff during the '50s for bass-driven composing and wild bands that always threatened to stretch improvisation to the point of complete unraveling. Charles "Baron" Mingus: West Coast 1945-49 (Uptown) has collected the bassist's early work for five defunct California-based labels, implementing anywhere from three to 22 sidemen. Though the Mingus to come would be a far more formidable presence, the creepy 1946 version of "Weird Nightmare" and odd harmonies on "Make Believe" hint at what was to come.

Squeezing the essential Dizzy Gillespie onto the single disc of Absolutely the Best(Fuel 2000) is a bit like shaving Hamlet down to comic-book length, but, hey, as winos say about light beer, getting a little Dizzy is better than nothing. Listeners will find a handful of cuts featuring Charlie Parker as well as some orchestrated selections and pieces featuring Sonny Stitt, Bud Powell and Dexter Gordon.

Blues and other music of absolutely no interest to Ken Burns: The Telarc label is slowly shedding its conservative, three-piece-suit jazz persona through releasing the likes of Carey Bell, Lazy Lester, Raful Neal and Snooky Pryor on Superharps II (Telarc Blues). All that heavy breathing and intense inhale/exhale stuff that comes with blues harmonica playing (though recorded in the very unbluesy city of Portland, Maine) may fire the loins for behavior Gumbo cannot condone. Sure can hear a lot of Taj Mahal in Honeyboy Edwards' vocals and flashy guitar on Mississippi Delta Bluesman (Smithsonian Folkways Recordings), a reissue from 1978. On Absolutely the Best(Fuel 2000), Big Bill Broonzy, another slick Delta-born blues picker, stretches from W.C. Handy's "St. Louis Blues" to Ma Rainey's "See See Rider" to Merle Travis' "Sixteen Tons," which, praise God, sounds not a bit like the Tennessee Ernie Ford version.

Johnny Bush Sings Bob Wills (Lone Star Records) was kept from release for years, the master tapes having been confiscated from Willie Nelson's studio back when the IRS raided him in search of assets. Miraculously, the IRS gave them back. Here, singer/fiddler Bush mines the '30s sound of the famed Texan whose style was an equal mix of big band and Western music. Bush's simultaneously released Lost Highway Saloon(Lone Star Records) is a collection of the kind of ain't-gettin'-none country ballads we associate with Texas.

Can't tell from the liner notes of Steak(Antone's Records) what Guy Forsyth contributes here other than his blues warbling, which is belted out with great nastiness. The Texan fiercely ping-pongs between Bo Diddley, Howlin' Wolf and Led Zeppelin as influences, and includes some nifty '50s-era shots of raw meat on the sleeve, for all of us appreciative of the art of vivisection.

Good thing that Dolly Parton fell from the country/pop charts if that's what it took to come up with Little Sparrow(Sugar Hill), her second unadulterated bluegrass effort. Parton's up-tempo version of Cole Porter's "I Get a Kick Out of You" is far too brief, though.

Sex on rice paper: While the thick choral singing on Eri Sugai's Mai(Pacific Moon) sometimes sounds like Hong Kong's equivalent of those Bulgarian choirs popular with the Channel 8 subscribers several years back, there's something erotic about all that drum-driven female wailing. Shao Rong plays the Chinese lute on the very dramatic Orchid(Pacific Moon) -- nothing meriting inclusion in a Kurosawa movie, but top-drawer nookie music nonetheless. Both discs come with what Gumbo, after attempting to smoke it, discovered to be incense in the spine. Probably the first CD meant to be stored in your underwear drawer.

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