Smooth Operators

Gumbo loves slamming pud jazz wanna-bes and goo-heavy R&B warblers. But my insensitive editor stubbornly refuses to allot me an extra page for diatribes on, say, how stupid it is to categorize Sade as jazz. Gumbo has, however, been granted an additional 17 syllables, used below to convey a haiku inscribed on a stone tablet recently unearthed in my backyard:

Cooool jazz radio.

Coyotes wearing toe tags.

Mortuary cooool.

Thank you. Gumbo feels better.

As Long As You're Living Yours: The Music of Keith Jarrett (BMG/RCA) pays tribute to a stellar improvisationalist whose composing skills are often overlooked. The pianist has recorded close to a zillion different albums since the '60s, giving artists as diverse as Bruce Hornsby, Chucho Valdes and Andy Summers plenty of compositions from which to choose. Check out John Scofield's take of what may be Jarrett's best piece, "Coral."

The Rolling Stones' Brian Jones isn't the only guitarist to have been found dead in a swimming pool, having checked out under mysterious circumstances. The same fate befell jazzman Lenny Breau, a monster finger-style player highly touted by Chet Atkins for reasons obvious on Lenny Breau Trio (Adelphi/GENES). The underrated and short-lived picker adeptly tackles Bob Dylan's "Don't Think Twice (It's All Right)" and even, believe it or not, Anne Murray's "You Needed Me." Anne Murray's alive and Lenny Breau is dead. There really is no justice.

Pianist Michel Petrucciani's last recorded work shows up on Steve Grossman Quartet With Michel Petrucciani (Dreyfus Jazz). Don't expect to find any of the mean funk from Grossman's days as a sideman with fusion-era Miles Davis. Here, Grossman's a gruff tenor man who coughs up lots of Sonny Rollins influence in contrast to Petrucciani's delicate playing. In fact, a Rollins composition is the only cut that isn't a ballad in this fibrous disc of libido jazz emotionally egg-timed for a bit of midnight lip-munching. Now this is coool jazz.

File Lan Xang alongside all those other jazz bands named after six-century-old Laotian kingdoms. Hidden Gardens (Naxos Jazz) is a dense sax/bass/drum outing that ricochets between sounding like the eye-crossing arrangements of Charles Mingus and the spacey oriental diatribes by John Zorn.

No, the Brian Blade Fellowship isn't a Trinity Broadcasting Network traveling revival show. Perceptual (Blue Note) is a project where the drummer/guitarist/vocalist and his cohorts effortlessly reference more jazz influences than a Harlem version of Jeopardy!. Thick, feminine composing reminiscent of Pat Metheny's style mixes with updated hardbop harmonies. Joni Mitchell and mood evocator Daniel Lanois add their collective four cents. Blade's one of the few Blue Noters to push beyond mere resuscitation of the mood associated with the label's good old days.

Jazz singer Bob Dorough has the vocal chops of a garbage disposal, but, like Ben Sidran and Dave Frishberg, has made a career out of singing witty lyrics with his cartoon tonsils. Too Much Coffee Man (Blue Note), featuring saxophonist Phil Woods, is a return to the '50s beat era when jazz, handing the mike over to anyone this side of throat cancer, had its own Neil Young and Bob Dylan equivalents messing with the Ella Fitzgerald school of proper torch singing.

Former Roomful of Blues guitarist Ronnie Earl juggles jazz and blues on Healing Time (Telarc), confronting the organ of Jimmy McGriff on cuts by the likes of hardbopper Duke Pearson and blues patriarch Muddy Waters. Earl avoids the typical deep, hollow-body guitar tone of jazz, playing chops far more sophisticated than most bluesters can pull off.

Andy Narell's steel drum playing is a lot jazzier than a decade back when he was on the New Age/New Aarrgh label Windham Hill. On Fire in the Engine Room (Heads Up), Narell does a fine job stealing the drums from their piña colada associations. Still, given the limited nature of what steel drums can play, they'll never lend themselves to complex improvisation, which, if attempted, might sound like a thousand golf balls bouncing off various sized strips of aluminum siding. Don't you find something myopic and suspect about an instrument that always sounds so fucking happy? But, hey, if you can simultaneously listen to jazz, smile and shimmy for five minutes in a row, Narell's your fella.

On Look Who's Here (Verve), Russell Malone grafts onto his guitar neck the bright, punchy chops of George Benson while composing improvisational fodder less pop-oriented than what his mentor favors. Though he milks his share of clichéd licks, Malone is thankfully free of that fleet-fingered, jazz circus-act nonsense on unhurried interpretations of "Alfie" and "The Odd Couple." The album is produced by Tommy LiPuma, whose jazz claim to fame is Benson's Breezin'.

Though Monty Alexander is not a figure who comes to mind when thinking of funk or reggae, the Jamaican pianist hugs his roots on Monty Meets Sly and Robbie (Telarc), a showdown with riddim kings supreme Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare. Alexander's laid-back, Ahmad Jamal-like style supplies none of the funk, preferring to flirt with the grooves of drummer Dunbar, though the latter's input is sometimes so programmed as to dilute the grit. It's a worthwhile effort, though, featuring hardbop fare like Lee Morgan's "Sidewinder" and Herbie Hancock's "Chameleon"-era fusion. But for the most vulgar Sly 'n' Robbie-meet-jazz encounter, snag guitarist Kazumi Watanabe's Mobo 1 on Gramavision.

52nd Street Themes (Blue Note) by the Joe Lovano Nonet presents yet another texture stretch by this manic tenor man who will probably feature ukuleles on his next project. Lovano says his paean to bebop's Main Street isn't a tribute, despite his Charlie Parker-inspired improvising and five Tadd Dameron compositions. Forced as that may sound, he's right: There's a cutting, almost smartass jabbing in Lovano's soloing void of anything nostalgic. Backing up the front line of saxophones, trumpets and a trombone is drummer Lewis Nash, an ASU grad who's gone on to play with so many jazz legends he must have an index at the end of his résumé.

Drummer Roy Haynes has been tweaking his jazz approach ever since Lovano was playing a plastic sax from Sears. The Roy Haynes Trio Featuring Danilo Perez and John Patitucci (Verve) is a Latin-laced project with the drummer front and center, smacking skins with mucho fervor as the light-touched Perez spins off romantic, Chick Corea-influenced jazz. A good album for drum fans who don't want to yank the levelers on their equalizers into the nether regions in order to hear Haynes pound for pound, so to speak.

Time to say something mean and nasty: Special EFX guitarist Chieli Minucci has also been a session player behind Jewel, the Backstreet Boys, Jennifer Lopez and Celine Dion, so you just know this album is going to be uncompromising hard-core jazz. The first few cuts of Sweet on You (Shanachie) prove that Minucci aches to be Pat Metheny so bad that he probably has a fake ID. The rest of the disc spirals into his typical soap opera noodling.

Best jazz earmail of the month: If you're sick to death of thin salsa music, check out ¡Muy Divertido! (Very Entertaining!) (Atlantic) by Marc Ribot y los Cubanos Postizos. Ribot, guitarist for Elvis Costello, the Lounge Lizards and Tom Waits (those schizo guitar solos on Raindogs and Mule Variations are his), ping-pongs from Chuck Berry to Yomo Toro and Wes Montgomery for guitar lines that do the nasty-nasty with a slew of sultry Latin rhythms. Some of that Sterno-drunk, Waits feel pops up as well.

Some blues, bluegrass and folk: On Lettin' Go (Telarc), Chicago's Son Seals has a little something for everyone: Those preferring his reverential "Blues Holy Ghost," form a line on the left; those choosing "Funky Bitch," beat up those in the line on the left. Some may find Seals' vocals somewhat forced and the range of his guitar wailing a bit confined, but better to cherish 10 minutes of good blues from a 57-year-old Windy City icon than 57 minutes of wind from a 10-year-old. Though Seals isn't what he once was, his status as one of the last classic Chicago blues stylists makes him worth following to the bendin' end.

No Special Rider (Adelphi/GENES) by Chicago blues pianist Little Brother Montgomery was culled from a 1969 session where his runs on somebody's 12-dollar piano bring to mind his New Orleans roots and the signature style of peers Professor Longhair and James Booker. Cocky blues songstress Jeanne Carroll, who sounds like she'd smack someone up headside over wrong change, shows up on a handful of cuts.

Former New Grass Revival vocalist John Cowan's previous release, Soul'd Out, was novel for filtering soul classics like "When a Man Loves a Woman" through bluegrass-tinged pipes so powerful you had tinnitus by the end of the CD. But it hid the songwriting talents obvious on the Sugar Hill label's John Cowan. Blues, gospel and soul music are just as blatant on this entirely impressive session produced by reclusive folkster Wendy Waldman.

Here's a serious find: In 1993, mandolinist David Grisman, guitar whiz Tony Rice and the Dead's dead Jerry Garcia recorded a loose acoustic jam in a Nashville studio. The tape later appeared on bootlegs and the radio as a result of it being stolen from Garcia's kitchen counter by a pizza deliveryman. Now the rest of us have access to The Pizza Tapes (Acoustic Disc), a prurient glimpse of what these hotshots sound like when casually screwing around with Bob Dylan's "Knocking on Heaven's Door" and Miles Davis' "So What."

About eight albums back, Peter Case, former head of The Plimsouls, gave up Valley Girl power pop for bloozy Memphis folk. Flying Saucer Blues (Vanguard) tastes like Desire-era Dylan soaked in rockabilly and New Orleans swamp water. Case isn't trying to top "A Million Miles Away" these days, but what spins out of him and his acoustic guitar is often just as engaging.

Check out to what extent Odetta's '60s-era folk music influenced Tracy Chapman on Livin' With the Blues (Vanguard), a reissue of 20 cuts by the artist who brought to folk music the sense of racial oppression that Bessie Smith brought to the blues.

Local stuff: Bluegrassers The Nitpickers have released a self-titled disc on Rustic Records. While to these ears the rhythms sometimes seem choppy and the vocals occasionally only a notch or so above shower singing, the quartet hands over a load of witty, self-penned songs. That's assuming, of course, that those speaker-rumbling, Handsome Dick Manitoba-like vocals and the dad's-in-prison, mom's-a-whore lyrics of "Walk Alone" are tongue in cheek. Also on Rustic Records is The White Album by Tammy Patrick, whose hard-core, sinus-driven country vocals jive well with her evocative storytelling, placing her somewhere between early Emmylou Harris and Sweethearts of the Rodeo-era Byrds.

Overlooked and underrated: Jazz outsider John Zorn released the double-disc Great Jewish Music: Burt Bacharach in 1997, which features a bacchanalia of Burt by the likes of Fred Frith, Elliot Sharp and Medeski, Martin & Wood. Hot stuff. You'll either hate the songs or the artists. Only six letters down the CD bin is John Hartford's Aereo-Plain (Rounder), a mix of Bill Monroe tradition and marijuana-fueled hippie jamming. The quirky 1971 release may be the best bluegrass album ever recorded.


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