How do jazz players come up with the bucks to pay the rent? Do they sell plasma? Stuff envelopes at home? And was that famed jazz saxophonist Jackie McLean Gumbo saw selling tokens to kids at Chuck E. Cheese's? If 95 percent of all albums made sell less than 2,000 copies, some of the quirkier stuff mentioned below probably doesn't sell enough to cover the player's cable bills. God bless 'em, though, for sticking with their twisted visions -- otherwise, we'd be left with only the puddle-deep piddle of Spyro Gyra and all those other fake jazzers wearing Hawaiian shirts. Think you took a major risk paying that plumber before turning the water back on? Check out the adventurous stuff these musicians recorded, then Frisbee'd out into the Great Void.
Scott Fields Ensemble is led by a guitarist whose playing drops him between Derek Bailey and Joe Morris on Mamet (Delmark), a dark paean to five plays by fellow Chicagoan David Mamet, who wrote Glengarry Glen Ross, The Spanish Prisoner and a few other brilliant, quirky films. Vocalist Jimmy Scott, whose quirky, asexual vocal style would have relegated him to the novelty section were he not so good, just released Over the Rainbow (Milestone), a disc that's even moodier than his last couple of outings. Check it out and discover why he's Lou Reed's favorite singer. Pianist David Lahm first subjected Joni Mitchell's post-hippie folk songs to jazz interpretations back in 1999. His second, More Jazz Takes On Joni Mitchell (Arkadia Jazz), fleshes out the potential of "Woodstock," "Ladies of the Canyon" and "Don Juan's Reckless Daughter" in ways Mitchell only hinted at on her own albums.
With a Little Help From My Friends (Blue Note) is pianist Renee Rosnes' "best-of," with cuts culled from five previous releases, plus unreleased stuff, featuring the likes of Wayne Shorter, Joe Henderson, Jack Dejohnette and Dianne Reeves. In a world that was musically right side up, Billy Joel would be playing clubs and she'd have the stadiums. Singer Ian Shaw appreciably avoids any Mark Murphy/Mel Tormé/Johnny Hartman impersonations on Soho Stories (Milestone), where he whips through a set of little-known tunes with justifiable confidence that guarantees the singer from Wales -- the land of Tom Jones -- will be warbling on record for many years to come.
Plenty of the trademark percussive Latin-influenced pounding and locomotive rhythms on Past, Present & Futures (Stretch Records) by The Chick Corea New Trio, the pianist's first trio effort in a decade. Much more fiber here than found in a lot of his recent releases.
Pianist Monty Alexander has conjured up reggae jazz for several albums now, his Goin' Yard (Tel Arc) featuring a nasty rhythm section behind a couple Bob Marley classics -- "Could You Be Loved" and "Exodus" -- as well as a load of his own homegrown.
Back in thuh day: In '68, when Archie Shepp and Pharoah Sanders were breaking blood vessels squealing on their flutes and saxophones, Paul Horn sat by his lonesome inside the Taj Mahal, basking in the killer acoustics, recording some of the first meditative improvisations paving the way for the New Age thing (drivel, by comparison) and a greater interest in world music. Horn, who now lives in Tucson, has reissued Inside Taj Mahal I and II as well as Brazilian Images and Africa on Transparent Music. Still sounds good. Yusef Lateef filters the blues through a variety of contexts -- from medieval scales to Chinese scat singing to Mississippi prison songs -- on the reissue of 1968's The Blue Yusef Lateef (Label M). The fortified organ funk of the ageless Jimmy Smith is wrapped in the regal company of guitarist Kenny Burrell, drummer Grady Tate and tenor saxophonist Stanley Turrentine on Fourmost Return (Milestone), a live set from 1990. Music Club is that rare budget label not founded on reissuing tired sludge. This month's releases are Django Reinhardt's Swing Jazz, which should be of interest to anyone who appreciated the music in Woody Allen's Sweet and Lowdown, and Preservation Jazz, a perfect sampler of what the first generation of jazz -- King Oliver, Jellyroll Morton, The Original Dixieland Jazz Band -- was blowing down in the Crescent City back when yer great-grandma was still looking good.
The C-Nuts, a Maryland-based quartet, bravely ventures into pop territory, bopping and swinging through cuts by Dire Straits, The Pretenders, Elvis Costello and other, mostly 1980s rock artists on the novel Blitzkrieg Bop and Other Jazz Mutations (Mapleshade). The vocals are a bit weak, but the group is entirely hard-core in its jazz arrangements. Trumpeter Darren Barrett, a Wynton Marsalis protégé, plays a post-bop style on Deelings (J Curve) that's clean, powerful and full of nods to Clifford Brown, Freddie Hubbard and Miles Davis. Trombonist Robin Eubanks and Mental Images continue to trundle out the warped funk of the (unfortunately) barely wheezing, early '90s M-Base movement on Get To It (REM). Eubanks tweaks his instrument with electronics, making it more palatable for those who can't hear the trombone without thinking of parades and John Philip Sousa. Available at www.robineubanks.com.
Two wrongs don't make a right, and four trumpets don't make a lot of money, it's safe to bet. Hugh Raglin Trumpet Ensemble is a quartet of trumpets and a rhythm section that, on Fanfare & Fiesta (Justin Time), bounces between conservative swing on the numbers featuring brassy baron Clark Terry and wonderfully angular compositions by the late Lester Bowie. Singer Jeri Brown titled her newest Image in the Mirror: The Triptych (Justin Time). Don't know what the hell a triptych is -- a cancerous boil? those microscopic bugs that eat dead skin? -- but whatever she's talking about, she's singing pianist Milton Sealey's song cycle with a piercing, four-octave voice that shames the competition. She probably even snores pretty.
Passage of Time (Warner Bros.), Joshua Redman's eighth album in a 10-year recording career, presents him as a player at least as substantial as -- and often more colorful than -- his famous father/Ornette Coleman sideman, tenor saxophonist Dewey Redman. Guitarist Ralph Towner, who's been with the ECM label since the fall of the Roman Empire, has released his skillionth effort, Anthem, a solo jazz effort mixing his classical technique with folk influences. Towner's other gig is as co-founder of Oregon.
Can someone squawk pensively? Saxophonist Evan Parker does so in the company of fellow outsiders pianist Paul Bley and bassist Barre Phillips on Sankt Gerold (ECM). A nonjazzer might very well describe its dissonant intensity as the music of choice for psychopaths, so trash the disc if your dog tells you he likes it. Paul Bley's Basics (Justin Time), a solo piano outing, is a better sampling of his introverted style that won't scar your children's moral values.
Probably no lines waiting outside the CD store anticipating the release of Mat Maneri's Trinity (ECM), an album of violin/viola solos. Like many ECM releases, it's entirely void of much of what separates good jazz from pointless improvisation. It's pensive and heady -- as in headache, for most -- but will work as that obligatory album of Snoot Music. Play it when you need to impress the babes with your depth and sensitivity.
Making even less money, because they're dead: Charles Mingus cut some of his best aggressive, off-center jazz in the company of saxophonists Roland Kirk, Booker Ervin and drummer/compadre Dannie Richmond. Their session work from 1957 and 1961 is now available again on Tonight at Noon (Label M). European Concert (Label M) by the late pianist John Lewis' Modern Jazz Quartet is a fine representation of the tuxedo jazz of this Bach-influenced bunch, featuring a best-of program including "Django," "Skating in Central Park" and "Bag's Groove."
Kombo is the GRP (Grooves so Rehashed it's Pathetic) label's lame stab at the organ-driven, Medeski Martin and Wood shtick. Cookin' Out (GRP/Verve) is a redundant, thin attempt at being soulful; the musical equivalent of a lukewarm, flat beer. Other than that, it's a great album.
If you don't have enough to cry about already, here's some blues: Harp monster/blues singer James Cotton is caught live during a 1967 Montreal set, released here as It Was a Very Good Year (Just a Memory Records). And, yeah, that's the Frank Sinatra tune, though Cotton's not on it. The recording quality's a bit rough, and his harmonica blowing will not be nearly prevalent enough for some listeners, but 100% Cotton fans may still appreciate the gritty set featuring Luther Tucker on guitar.
A trio of Louisiana bluesmen -- Eddie Bo (vocals, piano, organ), Raful Neal (vocals, harmonica) and Rockin' Tabby Thomas (vocals, guitar) -- make up The Hoodoo Kings (Tel Arc). The threesome probably would have conjured up something quite nasty if all those goddamned support musicians had stayed at the sushi bar and someone had boot-stomped the pristine part out of the sound quality. What a disappointment. Check out The Blue Rider Trio's Harp, Steel and Guts (Mapleshade) instead. The band's feisty, old-timey blues sound brings to mind The Jim Kweskin Jug Band and R. Crumb's Cheap Suit Serenaders. Brillo-pad the CD and the scratchy results would mostly sound like music from the '30s.
Lucky Peterson, who's backed Little Milton and Bobby "Blue" Bland, juggles lead guitar, Hammond B-3 organ and his own wailing tonsils on the bombastic, bluesy Double Dealin' (Blue Thumb). Not surprising, given his previous employers, the Texan conjures up a fine mix of blues and R&B well worth your wallet's green picture of Andrew Jackson.
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Bluegrass sells about as well in Arizona as kimonos. Though it doesn't help singing a song titled "The Cuckoo Is a Pretty Bird," the Dry Branch Fire Squad is admirably down-home on Hand Hewn (Rounder), an album built on claw hammer banjo and hambone percussion. Excellent stuff that sounds like they just paddled out of Appalachia in one of those Deliverance canoes. Gumbo gives it five squeals.
And for that huge crowd of North Indian-Pakistani Sufi Qawwali music junkies: Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan is given a best-of treatment on Ecstasy (Music Club), a sampling of his trance-inducing (literally, according to the liner notes) singing built on hand-clapping, tablas and something that sounds like Cajun accordion. Speaking of trance-inducing: From the island where the typical joint looks like a fireplace log comes Arise!: The Best of Peter Tosh (Music Club), most of the cuts featuring The Wailers. Dean Evenson and Cha-Das-Ska-Dum offer a disc of healing chants on Native Healing (Soundings of the Planet), featuring guitar and violin. The cover says "Contains the Earth Resonance Frequency for a deeper state of relaxation" -- whatever that means. Gumbo cranked the volume to nine and the speaker vibration unscrewed his bottle of Pepto-Bismol.
Unfortunately, thanks to all the patchouli-fumigated bookstores and health food hangouts selling New Argghh music, the album that'll probably sell better than anything listed above is Donald Walters' Secrets of Love (Clarity Sound & Light), where a harp and flute "allows you to experience the heights to which the human heart can soar." Gumbo's blood pressure was soaring by cut 12, "Love, Like a Garden, Needs Tending Daily," at which point he ate meat and said bad things about Deepak Chopra. Forget this pretty stuff -- invest in some demon-driven eccentric musician who makes even less money than us.