Like many jazz collectors of my general age range, I began my serious collecting back in the early '80s and Blue Note discs were always at the top of my ever-expanding want list. Of course, staying put in Cleveland, Ohio was no way to develop a jazz collection; you had to venture out to other cities (Ann Arbor, Michigan being one) and various mail order sources (Euclid Records, Craig Moerer, and Toad Hall come to mind) to get "the good stuff." Then the internet came along and opened up new vistas of discovery. And as amazing as that revelation has been, it was merely inconceivable 15 years ago to think that Blue Note would eventually get around to reissuing just about every major recording in the label's vast catalog, yet that is exactly what has happened.
Surveying this latest batch of titles from the vital Connoisseur series, one discovers that several of them fill in gaps for some of the label's most consequential artists. Such is the case with MINOR MOVE (Blue Note 22671), tenor saxophonist Tina Brooks' first Blue Note album and last one to see domestic CD reissue. Only previously heard on Japanese issues or if you were lucky enough to snag a copy of Mosaic's long out-of-print boxed collection, this 1958 set finds Brooks keeping some fast company, with trumpeter Lee Morgan, pianist Sonny Clark, bassist Doug Watkins, and drummer Art Blakey on board. Of course, it's the presence of the last named that gives this set a pseudo "Jazz Messengers" type of groove. And there's nothing wrong with that; everyone seems pumped, especially Morgan.
The reasons for this one to go unreleased until 1980 are now lost to history, however it may be that the jam session atmosphere was just a bit to loose for the exacting requirements of producer Alfred Lion. There's also a predominance of standards, although two pieces come from Brooks' pen, with the title track hinting at the type of portentous writing that would be integral to such later Brooks classics as TRUE BLUE and BACK TO THE TRACKS. While not on the scale of either of the aforementioned gems, MINOR MOVE still has a lot to recommend it, not the least being Brooks' yearning tone and improvisational genius both of which somehow slipped by a whole generation of jazz followers and critics.
The first of three absolutely indispensable Blue Note recordings, COMPLETE COMMUNION (Blue Note 22673) was trumpeter Don Cherry's earliest endeavor as a leader and it remains as vital and shockingly inventive today as when it was first recorded in 1965. In its original incarnation, two long suites, "Complete Communion" and "Elephantasy" took up each side of a vinyl LP. Further, each piece is broken into four smaller sections, with each of those distinguishable by a certain melodic device and a shift in rhythmic thrust (go to Jost's FREE JAZZ text for a more detailed and enlightened discussion of the mechanics involved). As for the latter, drummer Ed Blackwell is particularly decisive and musical and these recordings might be his finest moments ever captured on tape.
For their part, front line partners Cherry and tenor saxophonist Gato Barbieri make a faultless pair, Cherry as tuneful and focused as Barbieri is incendiary and left-of-center. Throughout, there's an integration and musical accessibility that was lacking in a good deal of what was then termed the avant garde, making it inexplicable that the reissue of this gem has been so late in coming.
During his stay with Blue Note, alto man Jackie McLean's musical evolution was avidly documented starting with the conventional bop of such releases as SWING, SWANG, SWINGIN' and subsequently leading to the audacious meeting with Ornette Coleman as heard on NEW AND OLD GOSPEL. Along the way, several equally valuable sessions went by the wayside only to be released much later in the States and Japan. The debut of VERTIGO (Blue Note 2269) includes two unissued dates from 1962 and 1963, both of which add greatly to McLean's catalog, not to mention that of the other talented ones involved.
The connection which McLean quickly establishes with the group (Donald Byrd, Herbie Hancock, Butch Warren, Tony Williams) on the first of the two sessions presented here is not coincidental. Jackie and Byrd had already been front-line partners on Byrd's FUEGO and BYRD IN FLIGHT. Hancock, Warren, and Williams would soon become a short-lived house rhythm team for such classics as Kenny Dorham's UNA MAS and Hancock's MY POINT OF VIEW. Lastly, Williams would stick around to be an essential contributor to Grachan Moncur's EVOLUTION and Jackie's ONE STEP BEYOND. The point being, these men were such masters playing on such a high level that just about anything they did is worth hearing and the five cuts released here are no exception.
The closing six pieces come from a more conventional, but equally rewarding stance. Trumpeter Kenny Dorham adds his pugnacious attack to the lead, while Sonny Clark, Butch Warren, and Billy Higgins keep the fires actively stoked. This would mark the final time that McLean would work with the type of rhythm section heard from here, with future collaborators being more adventurous players such as Herbie Hancock, Bobby Hutcherson, Charles Tolliver, Jack DeJohnette, and the like.
Thanks to reissues and the public's seemingly unquenchable desire for classic sounds from the '50s and '60s, pianist Sonny Clark is now finally getting the attention he deserves as one of the most remarkable hard bop players of his generation. A large part of his recorded legacy is to be found on an appreciable number of Blue Note dates (as both a leader and sideman), most of which are ready available. However, the two sessions included on MY CONCEPTION (Blue Note 22674) are being paired and issued on CD for the first time in this country. The first of these, a date from March of 1959, would also be the last Clark would do before fading from the scene for about a year and a half, not to be heard from again until 1961's LEAPIN' AND LOPIN'. The line-up is strong, sporting Donald Byrd, Hank Mobley, Paul Chambers, and Art Blakey and the pianist's select originals include "Some Clark Bars," and new versions of the previously-cut "Minor Meeting" and "Royal Flush." The concluding three tracks come from a 1957 outing that is conspicuous by having guitarist Kenny Burrell on hand and a very young Pete LaRoca at the drums.
There are certain Blue Note artists whose lengthy stays with the label lead to sizable catalogs of great depth and variety. This was undeniably the case with trumpeter Lee Morgan, with his Blue Note work falling into two distinct time frames, one spanning the mid to late '50s and the other picking up in 1963 and leading up to his death in 1972. From this later period comes TARU (Blue Note 22670), a virtual tour-de-force that gains its sparkle from the well-oiled sextet that includes a then budding pianist by the name of John Hicks, guitarist George Benson, and tenor saxophonist Bennie Maupin.
The opening John Hicks original "Avotcja One" kicks this varied set into high gear and this attractive original must be one that Hicks adores because he has come back to it on several occasions. "Dee Lawd," "Get Yourself Together," and "Durem" are the funky, hard boppin' numbers here, while "Haeschen" and Cal Massey's title track oblige a more reflective and ballad-type mood. Never one to disappoint, Morgan delivers here on all counts and as we approach having almost his entire output available on disc, one foresees a pending chagrin in knowing "that's all she wrote."
Finally, here's a personal pitch for a gentleman that continues to be one of the most vital and simultaneously underappreciated jazz artists of the past 50 years- pianist Andrew Hill. Like Lee Morgan, Hill's prolonged stay with Blue Note produced a renowned body of work that has yet to be mined, especially in light of the many unreleased sessions that remain in the vaults. While some critics have insinuated that Hill reached his prime with 1964's POINT OF DEPARTURE and everything that followed was somehow less satisfying, this is just not the case. GRASS ROOTS (Blue Note 22672) is a viable case in point. A far better record that what has been suggested prior, the punchy, dark, and angular writing that marks Hill's best work is still very much a part of this session, with the supporting line-up of Lee Morgan, Booker Ervin, Ron Carter, and Freddie Waits alone worth the price of admission.
Clearly pushing this reissue over the top is the sagacious addition of five bonus tracks cut just a few months prior to the August 1968 date that produced GRASS ROOTS. The make-up of the ensemble is quite unusual, with the obscure tenor saxophonist Frank Mitchell sharing the front line with trumpeter Woody Shaw. Then for the topper, guitarist Jimmy Ponder and drummer Idris Muhammad lend their soulful sounds to the proceedings. Once you know the players involved and the circumstances, the fun starts by comparing these first versions of "Venture Inward," "Soul Special," and "Bayou Red" with the ones that ultimately ended up on GRASS ROOTS. I won't spoil the surprise, but need I say more? If you're a Hill fan, you have to get this one. Now Blue Note, how about reissuing LIFT EVERY VOICE so I can replace my old, worn LP?