Great jazz box sets, aka more gift ideas | Bleader

Great jazz box sets, aka more gift ideas

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I included a few jazz titles in my annual guide to gift-worthy music a couple of weeks back, but there were others I didn't have space to include. I know some of you probably completed your holiday shopping weeks ago—I haven't given mine much thought as of yet—but these releases don't have expiration dates, so if you're a selfish motherfucker, well, here you go.

For the past couple of years ECM Records has been bundling albums by some of its most prolific artists in conceptually and/or musically linked box sets with modest prices and packaging. Charles Lloyd, Jack DeJohnette, Jan Garbarek, and others have gotten this treatment, but the box for great drummer and composer Paul Motian from earlier this year might be my favorite. Motian, who died in November 2012 at age 80, had already done decades of important work as a sideman before he released his first album as a leader, 1973's Conception Vessel. He'd proved himself a sensitive timekeeper with the likes of Bill Evans, Paul Bley, and Lee Konitz, and his employer Keith Jarrett suggested he give it a go as a bandleader.

The six-CD set includes liner notes by pianist Ethan Iverson, who criticizes some of the music's imperfections—he doesn't care for the cold digital sound or Bill Frisell's guitar-synthesizer on the final two albums, Psalm and It Should've Happened a Long Time Ago—and clearly adores others. (I think any music critic can learn something from the way he doesn't allow his analysis to undermine his fandom.) He breaks down the albums into three pairs. Conception Vessel and Tribute (1974) were exploratory sessions, with pieces that often broke out in a small combinations of players; the title track of the former is a duet between Motian and Jarrett. The first album features compositions by Motian, while the second makes space for iconic tunes by Ornette Coleman ("War Orphans") and Charlie Haden ("Song for Ché")—Motian was already playing with Haden in the bassist's Liberation Music Orchestra. The next two albums—Dance (1977) and Le Voyage (1979)—were trio sessions with criminally overlooked saxophonist Charles Brackeen (David Izenson played bass on the first, J.F. Jenny-Clark on the second), where Motian really began to exert a more idiosyncratic, clunky style. The final two albums introduce a band that Motian would work with for the rest of his life—on Psalm, Frisell and saxophonist Joe Lovano are joined by reedist Billy Drewes and bassist Ed Schuller, but by the next album the latter two are gone. As noted above, Frisell is still experimenting with the guitar-synthesizer, but the dynamic three-way conversations are already in evidence, so there's never really a single soloist—it became about an improvised ensemble sound. Below you can check out "The Sunflower," a track from Le Voyage.

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Tenor saxophonist Clifford Jordan was one of the most versatile representatives of the Chicago tenor sound that emerged from DuSable High School under the leadership of Captain Walter Dyett—other exponents included Gene Ammons, Von Freeman, Johnny Griffin, and John Gilmore—but he doesn't seem as revered as his cohorts these days. I think part of the reason for that is that Jordan was a curious and elegant musician who tried on many hats during his career. He started out a bluesy, unrepentant hard-bop master—he made some classic sides for Blue Note upon his move to New York in 1957—and pushed toward exploratory settings (including involvement in some of the greatest work of Charles Mingus), as well as exploring his influences (he made a terrific homage to Leadbelly, These Are My Roots). A killer new set from Mosaic Records, The Complete Clifford Jordan Strata-East Sessions, puts a spotlight on some of Jordan's best work, both as a musician and as a producer.

In 1968, following a tour of Africa as a sideman with pianist Randy Weston, Jordan announced the formation of his own record label, Frontier, and though he cut numerous sessions, nothing was ever released. That all changed when he reached an agreement with Strata-East Records—the label owned by pianist Stanley Cowell and trumpeter Charles Tolliver, and one of the most prolific and highest quality artist-run labels in jazz history.

Jordan released his titles for the imprint under the Dolphy Series rubric, the first of which was Clifford Jordan in the World—recorded in 1969 and released in 1972. Half of the record was made with trumpeter Don Cherry, trombonist Julian Priester, pianist Wynton Kelly, bassists Wilbur Ware and Richard Davis, and drummer Albert Heath, while the other two tracks were cut with Kelly, Ware, Davis, trumpeter Kenny Dorham, and drummers Roy Haynes and Ed Blackwell. Both lineups reflect the multigenerational feel of Jordan's music at the time as well as the sustained influence of Chicago musicians in the New York scene. The four pieces are steeped in the blues, but distinguished by a searching quality, especially the two gems with Cherry and Priester. The set concludes with a fantastic quartet album, Glass Bead Games—a double LP made with two different bands on the same day in October 1973 and released the following year. It's a relatively straight-ahead outing, but on "John Coltrane" Jordan and his band veer into Trane's heavy spirituality, even including a vocal chant of the title at the conclusion that recalls "A Love Supreme"—in fact, Coltrane's influence turns up here and there through the entire album. Below you can check out "John Coltrane."

None of the other five albums in the set are under Jordan's name, though he does play on a couple. But he produced all of them, and the stylistic range of these sessions underlines his open-mindedness. Three of those albums were recorded in 1968 and lean heavily toward the sound and influence of Ornette Coleman. My favorite of these is Rhythm X, a Charles Brackeen album from 1973 (the same guy who played on the Motian records mentioned above) with Cherry, Blackwell, and bassist Charlie Haden—all three of them longtime colleagues of Coleman. While the impact of Coleman's music is inescapable, Brackeen has his own sound, streaked with the muscle of Sonny Rollins. Cherry, as usual, is a marvel—a distinctive melodist with a wonderfully blown-out attack—and the rhythm section is typically elastic and generous. Shades of Edward Blackwell has never been previously issued. The bulk of the album comprises four percussion pieces featuring Blackwell, Billy Higgins, Denis Charles, Roger Blank, Huss Charles, and, on log drum, Jordan. But I'm most partial to a pair of quartet pieces with Cherry, Ware, and tenor saxophonist Luqman Lateef, a guy I'd never heard of before; he melds easily with the group, and though his playing is rooted in a more conventional hard-bop style, it sounds gorgeous. Finally, there's Super Bass, a 1968 session led by the great Chicago bassist Ware with Cherry, Jordan, and Blackwell that had gone unreleased until 2012. The hybrid of post-Ornette freedom and Chicago grit reaches its apotheosis here, and it's a blast hearing the commonalities of those two schools. Ware had lost some of his nimbleness, but he guides the session with a commanding rhythmic drive.

The most conventional session in the set was under Zodiac, a quintet date under the leadership of baritone saxophonist Cecil Payne—with Dorham, Kelly, Ware, and Heath. The most out-there and probably best-known album in the set is Izipho Zam (My Gifts), a 1969 Pharoah Sanders session released in 1973. The recording is in a similar vein to albums the saxophonist had been making for Impulse around the same time, with a heavy spiritual quotient enhanced by the extroverted vocals of Leon Thomas, extended percussion breakdowns (featuring Billy Hart, Majeed Shabazz, Chief Bey, Nat Bettis, and Tony Wylie), hypnotic piano comping by Lonnie Liston Smith balanced by Sonny Sharrock's wild electric guitar, and bouts of free blowing by the leader and Sonny Fortune. You can check out "Balance" in all of its intense, shape-shifting glory below.

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Writer, gallerist, and educator John Corbett is as responsible as anyone for setting the stage for ongoing renaissance of Poughkeepsie multi-instrumentalist Joe McPhee. As coprogrammer for the Empty Bottle Jazz & Improvised Music series, Corbett (and Ken Vandermark) brought McPhee to Chicago for the first time in 1996, and since then he's devotedly worked with the musician, particularly by reissuing long-out-of-print early recordings, first on his Unheard Music Series imprint and more recently on the label operated by his gallery with Jim Dempsey, Corbett vs. Dempsey. Last year the label reissued some key McPhee recordings originally released by Hat Hut in the 70s, but the imprint's most ambitious project is the recent Nation Time: The Complete Recordings, a four-CD box that appends the original 1971 album with three additional discs of music, all recorded by McPhee colleague Craig Johnson (who formed the CjR label to release McPhee's music) around the same time, between 1969 and 1970.

The box, beautifully designed by the folks at Chicago's Sonnenzimmer, includes a 60-page booklet with an in-depth interview between Corbett and McPhee that paints a vivid picture of the circumstances surrounding this work, when free jazz wasn't exactly a welcome fixture in Poughkeepsie. In that interview Corbett makes the connection to other New York free-jazz artists such as Archie Shepp and Albert Ayler, who were experimenting with funk at the time, giving the idiom a rhythmic hook. Indeed, much of the music on the original Nation Time album—the title track was named after a Leroi Jones (aka Amiri Baraka) poem—embraces that model. Hear it for yourself below on the unstoppable "Shakey Jake." Additionally, the disc called The Vassar Sessions, 1970, previously unreleased material recorded live at the university, opens with a loose interpretation of the James Brown classic "Cold Sweat," with McPhee entreating the crowd to get on its feet. Then again, that piece is followed by an expansive take on McCoy Tyner's "Contemplation," displaying the band's ability to stretch out on with some spiritual, modal jazz.

A disc called Nation Time Preview, 1969 features McPhee, sticking exclusively to trumpet, leading a quintet through a surprisingly straight program of material. There's a tamer, earlier version of "Nation Time" without the black-nationalist chants, alongside jazz standards such as "Milestones," "My Funny Valentine," and "Bags' Groove." The fourth disc in the set is another long-out-of-print album originally released by Hat Hut: Black Magic Man was a septet date cut in 1970 and released five years later. The present version includes two previously unreleased alternate takes of "Song for Lauren."

Today's playlist:

Vinny Golia Quartet, Take Your Time (Relative Pitch)
Steven Daverson, Shadow Walker (Col Legno)
Freddie Hubbard, The Artistry of Freddie Hubbard/The Body and the Soul (Impulse!)
The Pop's, Agora e Samba (Discobertas)
Roomful of Teeth, Roomful of Teeth (New Amsterdam)

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