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.

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.

Few labels are as iconoclastic -- and obviously less money-driven -- as Arhoolie, which this month releases Lamento Borincano: Early Puerto Rican Music, 1916-1939."File Under Puerto Rico," reads the back of the CD -- yeah, should be no trouble finding room. Whether the listener is corralled by the label's brazen attempt to snag Buena Vista Social Club members, the two discs' 50 selections time-trip you to an era and locale musically more colorful and romantic than you might imagine.

On Deep Rumba's A Calm in the Fire of Dances(Justin Time/American Clave), producer/composer/percussionist Kip Hanrahan again pursues his Latin lusts. Though the sax of Neville Brothers' Charles Neville occasionally squeezes through the bank of drummers, this is primarily a percussion fest that, at 8 on your volume knob, will cure your home of rodent problems.

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