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A Hepcat's Holiday Shopping Guide

In place of my usual "Top Ten of 2005" favorites listing, here’s something of a "shoppers’ guide," an overview of some of the most noteworthy CD releases of 2005, accenting some dandy platters off the beaten path/under the radar/etc. Call this "Shopping for Music Fans Made (sort of) Simple!"

For the bebop/hard bop devotees, 2005 has been a very good year. Some of the sharpest entries feature musicians no longer with us Woody Shaw, Stepping Stones (Columbia/Legacy), a set of high-voltage live quintet recordings from 1979, featuring exhilarating, fiery (though not angry) playing from the late Shaw and saxophonist Carter Jefferson; Dexter Gordon, Daddy Plays The Horn (Shout! Factory), one of Dex’s three 1950s sessions, a quartet with Kenny Drew that’s sumptuous meat-and-potatoes hard bop whipped up by some gourmet chefs. John Stevens Quartet, New Cool (Emanem) isn’t a example of the late great UK drummer’s free improv ensembles, but a cool-tinged, free-flavored hard bop live set imagine a cross between the quartets of 50s Gerry Mulligan and 60s Don Cherry. Re: sounds of more recent vintage, Houston Person, an heir to the shiny-toned, slightly breathy ‘n’ smooth, blues-soaked tenor throne of Gene Ammons, is still at it with All Soul (HighNote), a well-nigh perfect mellow/chill-out sextet 10-tune set of originals and choice nostalgia-laden covers ("Let It Be Me," "Please Send Me Someone To Love"). This Canadian pianist Min Rager may not yet have "name" cache, but if she keeps generating all-aces, Cannonball Adderley-like (early 60s/Joe Zawinul-era), earthy hard bop such as one may hear on her fine debut album Bright Road (Effendi), she will not only be a "hip" name to "drop," but she may the "the new Sonny Clark." Really. When it comes to ballad playing, Italian trumpeter Enrico Rava may’ve cut his teeth in the avant-garde zone, but the spare, enigmatic Tati (ECM) finds him applying his sultry Mediterranean tone in the manner of the ballad masters.

If that "certain somebody" on your list favors sounds of an unpredictable, cutting-edge, free, avant-garde cast, there’s the duo disc of Evan Parker and Stan Tracey, Crevulations (Psi/Emanem). Parker one of the global "free" scene’s leading lights of the tenor saxophone (John Zorn looks up to him, even) is a tad less frenetic than usual but no less inventive, and pianist Tracey is luminously lyrical with a big, FULL sound. Blue Note re-released the riveting mid-60s date Where Is Brooklyn by Don Cherry, with (cliché alert!) an all-star cast of Pharaoh Sanders, Ed Blackwell, and Henry Grimes.

World music where to begin? There’s the charismatic, folk-infused Cuban pop of Omara Portuondo’s disc Sentimiento (Escondida); guitarist/singer Boubacar Traore combines the simpatico aspects of Malian folk and American country blues on the convivial Kongo Magni (World Village); almost indescribable is Rhythm Tree (March Hare), the latest from Baka Beyond, a "collective" of players from the UK, Cameroon, France, Sierra Leone and Senegal, nominally headed by acoustic guitarist Martin Cradick. BB interlaces music of Cameroon’s Baka pygmies with Celtic folk and other African sounds. (And according to the band’s website, the Baka performers get paid the same as those in Baka Beyond.) At the risk of coming off as "utopian" (I’m too cynical for that), but Rhythm Tree truly IS a "world music," inclusive, inspiring, immediate, vital.

In a class by itself: Brad Meldau Trio, Day Is Done (Nonesuch), mainstream piano trio jazz for the New Millennium not just because of the high level of musicianship coupled with heart and tunefulness, but the BMT re-make/re-model songs of their generation. No "Stella By Starlight" or "They Can’t Take That Away From Me" for these fellows songs by Radiohead, Burt Bacharach, Nick Drake and the Beatles (an incredible "She’s Leaving Home") are from whence they draw their repertoire. Meldau is the "new" Bill Evans graceful, lyrical, warmhearted, superb technique, conversant not only with jazz, classical music of the 19th and 20th centuries, but also rock and pop as well. Aces high!!!

Finally, for those smitten/interested in pre-1945 jazz sounds, there’s a swell "oddity" of sorts a big band popular in their time, though certainly not at the level of Basie, Miller, Barnett, or Ellington, unfortunately almost forgotten today except by big band/Swing Era aficionados. Will Bradley and His Orchestra with Ray McKinley played a polished but spirited style of swing in the late 1930s and early 40s, given a considerable jolt by the infusion of boogie-woogie, best described today as a 1930s stylistic counterpart to rock and roll. Drawn from his 1939-1941 heydays, The Best of Eight To The Bar (Collectables) makes up for in Saturday night hepcat joie de vive what it lacks in straight-up jazz content. In other words: It’s fun!

HAPPY HOLIDAZE TO ALL!

[PS: If you've difficulty finding Min Rager's disc: ragermusic.com]

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  • Artist / Group Name: Various Artists
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