The year 1985 heralded a new era in the momentous life of one Miles Dewey Davis. It was a change of label that resulted in a new lease of musical life. A first instalment came in the shape of ‘Tutu’ with a superb black and white photo of Miles on the cover and a top notch band that included the return of bassist Marcus Miller, now a genuine collaborator as arranger, alongside the considerable talents of keyboardist George Duke and saxophonist Kenny Garrett. Production duties were taken care of by Tommy Li Puma who did such a marvellous job previously with George Benson among many others. Funk-tinged rhythms were right in tune with the musical trends of the time and this was no better illustrated than on the title track, with bubbling basslines from Miller and that unique muted Harmon from Miles himself. Nonetheless sophistication was still possible within these generic confines and an atmospheric ballad in ‘Portia’ was all the evidence one needed. Arguably one of the strongest pieces were horns, rhythm guitar and keyboards all combined to glorious effect was ‘Tomaas’. Only the bright and brassy gloss of ‘Perfect way’ now sounds a trifle dated. Those in search of more of the same should investigate the deluxe edition of ‘Tutu’ containing a live performance from Juan-Les-Pins.
If anything, the next album ‘Amandla’ was even stonger and is often cited, and with some justification, as the most compelling piece of work Miles recorded post-1975. It is certainly one of the highest jazz content-laden albums and old collaborators returned to the fold such as drummer Al Foster, George Duke and hammond organist Joey DeFrancesco. Miller and Garrett were once again on board and far more confident in their own abilities and this makes for a far more cohesive set than anything previously. It is difficult to pick just a few highlights from such a strong set, but the gorgeously slow ‘Hannibal’ is an outstanding cut as is the heartfelt trtibute to the recently deceased genius of the bass, Jaco Pastorius on ‘Mr. Pastorius’. There are even some African-flavoured grooves on ‘Catembe’ which once again demonstrated how hip Miles was to the emerging world music scene and its impact on popular music, notably Paul Simon’s ‘Graceland’.
Thereafter Miles set about work on a film soundtrack, ‘Music from Siesta’, that in some respects harked back to the seminal ‘Life to the Scaffold’ album from 1957, though in style it was more of a modern update on the equally epic ‘Sketches of Spain’. The music was set on the Iberian peninsular and is akin to a series of sketches. or music frescoes if you will, that are a far more improvisatory in feel than either of the aforementioned studio recordings. Collaborators here included former band member John Scofield, here performing on acoustic guitar and Earl Klugh on guitar with a flamenco flavour. Highlights included ‘Lost in Madrid Pt. 1’ and the third movement of the film music that comprises several pieces ‘Theme for Augustin’/’Wind’/’Seduction’/’Kiss’ with Miles instantly recognisable on muted Harmon. An Australian film, ‘Dingo’ was the opportunity for Miles to renew his acquaintance with legendary French pianist and arranger Michel Legrand and, while not as constistently strong as ‘Siesta’, there is enough jazz content to interest long-term fans. The final recording Miles made was a radical departure from any of the above and totally in keeping with the musician’s desire to always be in search of new sounds to explore. The result was a collaboration with rapper Easy Moe Dee who als oserved as producer on the album ‘Doo bop’. While not a major innovation, Miles was obviously listening to other fusions of jazz and what would later be termed trip-hop (Branford Marsalis and A Tribe Called Quest being noteworthy exponents). The stand out composition is ‘Doo-bop song’ that is instantly catchy. If the jazz content was a little on the light side, the album still had its memorable moments and Miles bowed out on a high, hinting at new musical directions he wished to investigate. A much publicised collaboration with Prince, then at the zenith of his powers, sadly never materialised in spite of a brief private performance together. Remaining open to new musical grooves is the sign of a truly great musician and Miles Davis was certainly no less than that. As ever with the box set formula, unbeatable value for money and slimline folders ensure that it is easy to store.
The Modern Jazz Quartet are something of an institution apart in the world of jazz and over several decades have constantly crossed boundaries between jazz and other music forms. This welcome addition groups together five albums from 1960 and the early 1960s and is a fine document of the MJQ at the height of their powers. Of all their studio albums, ‘Pyramid’ towers above all the rest and rightly so. It contains some of their most endearing and lasting interpretations that have become staples of their concert performances with the original title track and the wonderful takes on the standards ‘It don’t mean a thing’ and ‘How high the moon’ obvious highlights. In comparison ‘Lonely woman’ is slightly less satisfying, though still an excellent recording overall. The centrepiece of this album was the version of Ornette Coleman’s title track and it just went to show how diverse jazz musicians could be for the MJQ and the Coleman quintet were at completely opposite ends of the musical spectrum, yet could still manage to appreciate one another. Elsewhere the album is noteworthy for small group interpretations of pieces that were previously attempted with larger orchestrations such as ‘Fugato’ and ‘Lamb. Leopard’. New ground was being explored on the album ‘The Sheriff’ with Brazilian flavours entering into the MJQ repertoire, but in keeping with the group’s approach, attempted from a more classical side that took on board J.S. Bach. Of note are the versions of ‘Carnaval’ and ‘Bachianas brasileras’. This would have made an ideal pairing with another album the MJQ cut a few years later, ‘Collaboration with Almeida’, Almeida being a Brazilian guitarist.
For the rest of the box set the other two albums are devoted to the fusion of classical and jazz genres. ‘Third Stream Music’ is the more famous and features on two pieces the trio of Jimmy Giuffre (Jim Hall and Ralph Peña) while on another two compositions the Beaux Arts string quartet are present. If in today’s hotch-potch of musical interwaeaving this comes across as a tad passé, it should not detract one from the laudable attempt to bring together classical and jazz genres. The much rarer ‘Modern Jazz Quartet + Orchestra’ is frankly the least enticing of the five albums and the MJQ sound hindered by the presence of so many strings. The only minor gripe here, then, on an otherwise fine selection of albums and at a bargain price is that for all their prowess in the studio, it is, perhaps, their live recordings that are most revered and in this respect it is a little disappointing that this has not been reflected in the contents of the box set. The double live in Europe album is an essential listen and one hopes that the superb and now extremely hard to find on vinyl album ‘Live at the Lighthouse’ from 1967 will finally see the light of day on CD, possibly with some extras. In the meantime this selection of albums is the ideal place to start for the MJQ neophyte and what a treat they will have in store.
The lesser known among jazz vibists of his generation, Lem Winchester was in fact a full-time policeman who also recorded albums with various formations. Here the CD groups together a live recording from the July 1958 Newport jazz festival and a studio album in Chicago on the Argo label (a subsidiary of the legendary blues label Chess) with the Ramsey Lewis trio. The latter is an album devoted to the music of Clifford Brown, though in parts it also serves a showcase of the American songbook repertoire. Of the Brownie originals, the quartet deliver a sedately paced version of ‘Joy spring’ and a similarly serene take on the bop classic ‘Sandu’. Things hot up on Duke Jordan’s ‘Jordu’ where the trio finally have the opportunity to stretch out a little. Lem Winchester excels as a musician on the minor themed compositions such as Cole Porter’s ‘Easy to love’. For the live recording, three standards are interpreted with a truly swinging rendition of Parker’s ‘Now’s the time’ with the quartet in full flow and an impeccable version of Billy Strayhorn’s ‘Take the ‘A’ train that remains respectful to the original. Ideally, one would have like more generous timing and possibly the inclusion of the first side of the Newport recording that featured Randy Weston. That may form part of a subsequent release, but as an indication of where Lem Winchester was at in 1958, this could scarcely be bettered.
An all-star cast is just one of the highlights of this superlative recording of Dizzie Gillespie and Charlie Parker who were still at the height of their powers in 1951. The original album is grouped together with several alternate takes and two separate sessions from 1950 that makes for over seventy-five minutes of essential bop listening. Joining the band was a then young Thelonius Monk and it is worth the price of the CD alone just to hear him as a sideman, developing his highly individualistic sound which he would at a later stage develop as a leader in his own right. Curley Russel on bass and Buddy Rich on drums complete the all-star formation. Just like John Coltrane almost a decade later, Charlie Parker could play the sweetest of melodies when required to do so and blows some of the most soluful blues you are ever likely to hear on ‘My melancholy baby’. Dizzie is in more laid back mood on this number, but is still capable of conjuring up some of those high-pitched notes that are uniquely his own. Several Parker originals are featured and include Bird’s fabulous solo on ‘Bloomdido’ with a white hot rhythm section, the mid-tempo ‘Relaxin’ with Lee’ where Dizzie Gillespie has the chance to solo at length and the trading of licks between the two leaders on a decidely uptempo take on ‘Leap frog’. More plaintive hues can be heard on ‘Mohawk’ which serves as the backdrop to yet another soulful interpretation from Bird. Rounding off the package as a whole is a fascinating interview reproduced between Charlie Parker and the then emerging altoist in Dave Brubeck’s group, Paul Desmond. New liner notes and a 1958 Gramophone review reproduced in full make for a first class edition. Full marks to EJC for providing so much informative biographical detail. The album was formerly part of a larger ten CD set and as such is now available to a wider audience at a more affordable price. Beautifully re-mastered, the alto saxophone and trumpet of one Bird and Diz never sounded clearer or sharper. Simply indispensable. Tim Stenhouse
A definite contender for album title of the year if nothing else, this is a lovingly assembled compilation of hitherto unreleased sides, live and in the studio, from the cream of modern British jazz and with some unexpected treats and, to this writer’s knowledge at least, a few unknown names. The Impressed series that Universal put out a few years did a sterling job of uncovering some of the classic Bristish albums that in their vinyl format are extremely rare and, if you liked those, you will love this new anthology for it covers similar territory and then some. Just some of the names covered here reads like the who’s who of British jazz as well as some eminent guests from other countries who settled here: Ian Carr and Don Rendell; Michael Garrick; Joe Harriott; John Surman; Mike Taylor; Kenny Wheeler. The opener sets the tone with a fine hard-bop influenced piece, ‘Phrysic’ by pianist Mike Taylor and betraying a definite nod to one Horace Silver. Some fine trumpet soloing from Frank Powell and the warm tenor sound of Dave Tomlin make for a thrilling audio experience. Indian guitarist Armancio d’Silva was one of the discoveries for this writer from the Impressed series and here he offers a fascinating slice of Indo-jazz fusion here with ‘Joyce country’ from 1969 that includes the full Ian Carr and Don Rendell quintet. A real new discovery comes in the form of Gary Windo’s Symbiosis which sounds as thought it has been inspired by the late 1960s/early 1970s funk-tinged rhythm guitar work of Grant Green and Melvin Sparks with a suitably uptempo composition ‘Standfast’. Quite why this formation has not been showcased before is a mystery, but full marks to Reel for promoting the group’s work. Another unknown set of musicians are Henry Lowther and the Lyn Dobson quintet who, on a beautifully recorded live recording from a café on Ladbroke Grove, offer the lengthy ten minute plus ‘Scarpo’, a definite album highlight and the obvious influence of Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers with the tenorist a devotee of Hank Mobley. Did this group ever record an album? Freer jazz grooves are present from the Joe Harriott quintet from 1968 that includes the memorable collaboration of Canadian trumpet maestro Kenny Wheeler on ‘Shadow’, which harks back to the ‘Free Form’ and ‘Abstract’ periods. Elsewhere there is the vocal piece ‘Singing for the small chaps’ from Graham Collier’s formation that features a young Norma Winstone on vocals. Sound quality varies from one recording to another, but is generally perfectly acceptable and surprisingly good in places. The gatefold sleeve features an iconic photo from Val Wilmer showing Ronnie Scott outside his Frith St club and the rigorously researched and annotated sleeve notes complete the experience as a whole with aplomb. An accompanying book by this CDs compiler, Duncan Heining, of the exact same title is out and, if this excellent anthology is anything to go by, it will make for essential reading. Tim Stenhouse