Maybe it was the supportive European crowd, largely acknowledged as a sympathetic bunch when it comes to American jazz, or the fact that innovator and iconoclast Ornette Coleman, after a two-year hiatus, was in full sprint at the end of 1965. Regardless of the extraneous factors, some of the alto saxophonist’s most joyous and musically together moments can be heard among the 15 performances captured on Live at the Golden Circle Vol. 1 (Blue Note 35518) and Live at the Golden Circle Vol. 2 (Blue Note 35519). Breathing as one, Coleman’s trio with bassist David Izenzon and drummer Charles Moffett manages to converse with a transformed sense of autonomy while simultaneously working within the boundaries of conventional swing.
Tracks like "The Riddle" and "Dee Dee" find Ornette speaking with a sense of unfettered abandon, churning out highly purposeful melodies with apparent ease. Encompassing six previously unissued bonus tracks, these performances should be at the core of any inclusive Ornette collection. Oddly enough, while a pair of other multi-volume editions are packaged as a two-disc set, you’ll have to buy both of these discs separately.
When Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers were at the peak of their collective powers during the ‘60s, the albums just seemed to pour out in record numbers. Only when Mosaic Records released a boxed set a few years back did we get to hear the entire output of the Lee Morgan-Wayne Shorter edition of the band. One of the albums that was collected on that now out-of-print box is making its first appearance as an American reissue in the guise of Meet You at the Jazz Corner of the World (Blue Note 35565), a two-disc set that captures live Birdland performances from 1960. While the presence of former tenor man Hank Mobley is strongly sensed due to the inclusion of three of his tunes, Shorter makes a stand for himself as a soloist and his own "The Summit" would hint that great things in the compositional department were just around the corner. Both Lee Morgan and Bobby Timmons are at their effusive bests and this set will delight those Blakey fans that might have missed the Mosaic edition along the way.
Among many other strengths, one of the things that set Blue Note front man Alfred Lion apart from other producers was his insistence on creating new settings for his artists that did not unduly replicate past performances. This was especially rewarding for versatile players such as Grant Green who was just as comfortable tackling a hard bop quartet setting with Coltrane rhythm mates McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones as he was recording entire albums of spirituals or Western numbers. One of the more atypical sets among his many Blue Note glories would have to be Am I Blue (Blue Note 35564), now reissued in the United States for the first time. While his partners John Patton and Ben Dixon had established a working relationship with the guitarist, the addition of trumpeter Johnny Coles and tenor man Joe Henderson was somewhat of a surprise. So too is the format, which casts an easy listening shadow with ‘soul’ as the prime ingredient. Nothing gets much above a medium gait, but there’s still a lot to value. I have to admit ignoring this album in the past, but upon further examination I’ve discovered a new favorite that seems to suit those late night moods to a tee.
Amid the distinguished Blue Note roster, there were several artists who stood head and shoulders above the rest. In the piano category, among the most brilliant was Sonny Clark. His terrific series of albums for the label was largely ignored at the time, but has taken on a new life through reissues and the interest of such modern progenitors as John Zorn. Considering the uniformly high quality of his work as a whole, arguably the best of Clark’s Blue Note output has to be the trio performances captured on The Sonny Clark Trio (Blue Note 33774), a meeting of giants with Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones on board. Standards are the fodder for exploration and the intense swing and bebop proclivities that Clark displays lean towards greatness at almost every turn. Highly recommended.
Though never really recognized by historians or collectors to any great extent, trumpeter Donald Byrd led a thoroughly delightful ensemble at the end of the sixties, right before making an abrupt turn left into more commercially oriented territory. With alto man Sonny Red and pianists McCoy Tyner and Cedar Walton as the mainstays, this last bastion of hard bop integrity cut some great records, including Mustang and Blackjack. Possibly the hippest of the lot was Slow Drag (Blue Note 35560), which is just now taking an American bow on CD. The title track features a stylish ‘rap’ by Billy Higgins that is worth the price of admission, but so too are Cedar Walton’s "The Loner" and "Book’s Bossa." Not much else needs to be said, as this one’s time has been long overdue. So Byrd and Blue Note devotees rejoice!
Though not his first time in the studio for Blue Note, the efforts of vibist Bobby Hutcherson from April of 1965 would be used to assemble his maiden voyage for the label under the title of Dialogue (Blue Note 35586). Along with output from Andrew Hill and Tony Williams at the time and Eric Dolphy’s Out to Lunch, this would be some of the most exploratory music ever documented on Blue Note up to that point. In fact, Hill’s imprint is everywhere, serving as pianist and the composer of "Catta," "Les Noirs Marchant," "Ghetto Lights," and "Jasper." This incubator of modern proclivities would also include Freddie Hubbard, Sam Rivers, and Joe Chambers, each of who would shortly play further roles in the development of a new avant garde movement in jazz. This record is bold and daring, even more so when considering that it marked Hutcherson’s debut as a leader. Now some 37 years later, its impact is still undiminished and a revelation to the ears of those still attuned to more conventional gesticulations.
The first to transmit the modern bebop language to the Hammond B3 organ, Jimmy Smith was one of Blue Note’s most valuable assets. Even after he had gone off to find commercial bliss via a big bucks contract with Verve Records, Blue Note would welcome the organist back in the mid-‘60s for another short-term stint. Taking into account Alfred Lion’s admiration for Smith, it’s not hard to understand that over the years a large amount of unreleased material began to accumulate in the vaults. From these shelves came a 1958 remote performance from Small’s Paradise that went unissued until a 1980 LP release. Then extra tracks were added for the CD appearance, which was pulled rather quickly due to various pitch problems. Now the RVG Edition of Cool Blues (Blue Note 35587) is available and everything’s right with the world. The sound is marvelous and we get the bonus of hearing Lou Donaldson and the ubiquitous Tina Brooks on several cuts. That this is some of Smith’s best work goes without saying, as does the suggestion that previous editions be put out with the day’s trash.
Speaking of Tina Brooks, the tragic and intensely creative tenor saxophonist of yore, we come to one of his early masterpieces in the guise of Open Sesame (Blue Note 95341). This 1960 album was actually Freddie Hubbard’s debut as a leader, but its importance in regards to Brooks’ involvement is paramount. First off, he composed the endearing title track and "Gypsy Blue," while also appearing as a lead voice with Hubbard. It’s a strong ensemble (with McCoy Tyner, Sam Jones, and Clifford Jarvis on board) that casts a spell over the half dozen selections. Hubbard’s sonority was a thing to marvel at the time, so robust and daring. Furthermore, he played with an intensely creative sense of abandon that marked him as one of the most innovative trumpeters of the era.
Now joining the first two volumes of early Blue Note performances, which were given the RVG treatment, along comes Bud: The Amazing Bud Powell Vol. 3 (Blue Note 35585). These trio sides from 1957 begin to document the mental deterioration of the harrowing figure that Bud Powell would soon become. Glimpses of greatness are still to be found, but they appear to be more fleeting and even his own structures are tame in comparison with previous trinkets. A real treat is the addition of trombonist Curtis Fuller on three standards, as his presence seems to jumpstart things in a uplifting manner. "Idaho" contains some brilliant stride voicings by Powell, with drummer Art Taylor and bassist Paul Chambers providing compassionate support.
Although a few tracks (most notably "Gregory Is Here") have been included on various compilations, the entire contents of In Pursuit of the 27th Man (Blue Note 35758) have never been available on CD anywhere before. And that’s a shame because the album has to be one of Horace Silver’s finest moments from an era in which few examples of respectable mainstream jazz actually exist. Silver’s quintet circa 1972 included Randy and Michael Brecker and they can be heard on three of the album’s seven selections. However, the rest of the set opts for a quartet format with vibist David Friedman serving as a lead voice. The balance and creative energy makes for an intriguing listen and among the Silver originals are the Moacir Santos line "Kathy" and Weldon Irving’s "Liberated Brother." Too long unavailable, this set is a worthy addition to the completist’s collection of sterling Silver.
Finally, we get yet another packaging of Kenny Dorham’s live 1956 performances as collected on ‘Round About Midnight at the Café Bohemia (Blue Note 33775). This two-disc RVG reissue features all of the performances as captured on tape and the strong line-up includes Kenny Burrell, Sam Jones, and Bobby Timmons. An early example of Van Gelder’s virtuosity in capturing remote sets, the sound quality is even further enhanced by the master’s own new handiwork. Dorham penned chestnuts abound, including "Mexico City," "Monaco," "Hill’s Edge," and "The Prophet." Although it must sound like hyperbole at this point, the necessity of having this Blue Note gem in your collection goes without saying. Long live the Dorham legacy!