Concord Original Jazz Classics (CD reviews)

Concord Records continues to mine the vaults – reissuing some of the most important albums in classic jazz.  All feature remastered sound, the album’s original liner notes, as well as a newly written essay giving historical perspecive on the important music

Thelonious Monk – Alone in San Francisco (Riverside/Concord)
1959 was a pivotal year in the history of jazz: Miles was hunkered down with Coltrane, Evans and Cannonball, laying down the monumental Kind of Blue; while Brubeck and his Quartet were stretching boundaries of their own with Time Out.  It seems fitting then that Monk, who always was somewhat of an outcast, chose the same year to go it alone again. He’d had previous success with a solo piano record from two years earlier called Thelonious Himself.  An odd set of circumstances, well told in the excellent liner notes, had Monk visiting the Bay area for the first time for a set of gigs with a local pickup band.  Producer Orrin Keepnews also happened to be in town and arranged for an impromptu recording session in an empty meeting hall.  The result, Alone in San Francisco,  shows an uncharacteristically subdued Monk – his sparse playing really shines in this element.  Sure, there’s still plenty of “Monk chords” or as many would say “wrong notes,” but there’s a smoother, less bristly feel to these solo performances, making it an excellent introduction to the work of an often misunderstood genius.  And, without accompaniment, you can clearly hear him humming along to his playing.  Of note is the single bonus track included in this remaster, an early take of the twenties chestnut “There’s Danger in Your Eyes, Cherie,” which clearly shows Monk running through the melody, and playing it a little more straight with the rhythm – it’s obvious he hadn’t quite figured out where he wanted to go with it yet.

Ornette Coleman – Something Else!!! (Contemporary / Concord) Ornette Coleman would go on to pioneer “free jazz” – completely devoid of chord changes, and in the process, anger and confuse legions of jazz enthusiasts.  Something Else!!! shows that he didn’t come up with those ideas overnight.  In fact, many of the tracks actually have chords and song structures! Some, like “Angel Voice,” actually swing.  Coleman’s trumpet compadre Don Cherry was developing his shrill horn style, while Coleman himself was moving more toward making his sax “squawk.”  The final track, “The Sphinx,” is certainly a sign of things to come – beginning with a flurry of notes, the tempo slows before careening headlong into craziness.  One can only imagine how the jazz community felt about these tracks.  Of course, Coleman was just getting warmed up.  Because there are actual song structures, this isn’t a bad place to begin exploring this artist.

Chet Baker – In New York (Riverside / Concord)
During his peak in the 1950’s, Chet Baker was known as much for his good looks and cheeky-sung ballads as for his pioneering trumpet playing in the West Coast jazz movement.  But, in 1958, Baker signed a recording contract with Riverside Records and was in the mood for a change.  So, he ventured east to record his debut for the label, Chet Baker In New York.  Grabbing bebop pianist Al Haig, and borrowing Miles Davis’ current rhythm section of bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Philly Joe Jones, plus saxman Johnny Griffin – this had the makings of a very special session indeed.  You get the impression that Baker was perhaps tiring of the label of “romantic crooner” – there are, in fact, no songs with vocals here.  And, there’s a soulfulness to his playing that is deeper and tougher than his typical work.  “Polka Dots & Moonbeams” is exquisite – yet never panders to the cheesy romanticism of some of Baker’s other work.  The truly amazing track is “Hotel 49,” which clocks in at almost ten minutes, giving each member a chance to shine.  Baker doesn’t even get to solo until the 4:20 mark.  But, when he does, there’s an incredible interplay between him and drummer Jones.  There’s also an  oddly enjoyable bowed bass solo from Chambers.  It is no surprise that a year later, Miles Davis would tab this rhythm section for his landmark Kind of Blue session.  Unfortunately, the future wasn’t as bright for Baker; he would soon fall headlong into addiction that would eventually wreck his career.  But, In New York still shows him at his peak.

Cannonball Adderley with Bill Evans – Know What I Mean? (Riverside / Concord)
Soon after recording with Chet Baker, bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Philly Joe Jones would return to Miles Davis’ band to record one of the most important jazz albums in history in Kind of Blue.  Although Miles and Coltrane both get a great deal of credit for that masterpiece, there were two other equally important musicians involved – Cannonball Adderley on saxophone and Bill Evans on piano.  And, one might argue that Davis never again achieved that level of melodicism. A couple of years later, Adderley wanted to revisit some of the ideas from the Kind of Blue sessions and once again called up Evans for Know What I Mean?  Although both musicians were known for the pioneering sense, it’s also no accident that they were some of the most commercially successful in the jazz genre; Adderley actually scored a #11 hit with the original version of “Mercy Mercy Mercy,” while Evans was always a hit on the college circuit.  Although Adderley gets top billing, it’s Evans that opens the album with “Waltz For Debby.”  When Adderley does come in, Evans plays some very non-traditional accompaniment, but it all fits perfectly.  It’s amazing how well they play off each other.  “Who Cares?” is an old Gershwin piece where Evans hints at “So What” from Kind of Blue.  “Toy” has a great groove to it.  There are three alternate versions included, but none that touch what was released on the original album.  Because both Evans and Adderley were so good at pioneering without ever losing the melody, this is an excellent album even for those who don’t like jazz. It’s a shame that these two didn’t team up more often.

Bill Evans Trio – Explorations (Riverside / Concord)
There are few trios in jazz as filled with as much mystique as the one pianist Bill Evans fronted with bassist Scott LaFaro and drummer Paul Motian.  A great deal of the band’s legend comes from the 1961 Sunday at the Village Vanguard album, now considered one of the all-time classics.  But, equally important is the fact that just ten days after that live recording, LaFaro was killed in an auto accident, putting an abrupt end to one of the finest trios in jazz.  Before the Vanguard concerts, the Evans trio recorded just two studio albums.  The first was Portrait in Jazz, while Explorations is the second, and arguably their finest studio work.  Recorded in a single day in the middle of the sessions for the Cannonball Adderley album above, this collection shows just how tightly three musicians can be woven together.  An excellent place to examine just how good this band was is through the two versions of “Elsa” which the pianist recorded – one with Cannonball Adderley from the LP above, and one with his trio.  While the Cannonball version is a thing of beauty, the trio’s take is more haunting – and Evans is able to leave more of the melody out and let LaFaro take over, while Motian seems to know exactly where Evans is going (not an easy task) and is always at the ready with a tasty fill.  The bonus tracks are also quite interesting – there’s “The Boy Next Door,” which was completed but had to be omitted due to time constraints of the original LP.  Plus, three alternate versions of songs from the album are here – showing just how much improvisation was involved in every performance – the soloing is quite different.  This expanded edition sheds a little more light on a trio that lasted all too short of a time.

Ella Fitzgerald and Joe Pass – Easy Living (Pablo / Concord)
This was one of the last recordings Ella ever made — she was 66 at the time of its release, and her once-clear voice had begun to rasp.  Easy Living was the last of a series of duo recordings with guitarist Joe Pass.  Ella runs through material covering her entire career, digging up early big band classics like “Don’t Be That Way” (a hit for Benny Goodman), and “I’m Making Believe” (a duet she did first with the Ink Spots).  Her voice can’t go where it used to, but the rough edges give her more credibility when she sings things like “Love For Sale.”  She also tackles one of Billie Holiday’s signature tunes, “My Man,” again, helped by her aged voice – she doesn’t top Lady Day for pathos, but she still sounds fine singing it.  Even when handling things like the well-traveled “Slow Boat to China,” the sparse arrangement of just voice and guitar keeps things interesting.  “Why Don’t You Do Right” is perhaps one of the only missteps – originally a sassy showcase for Peggy Lee, here Ella really shows her years.  Smartly, there’s plenty of room for Pass to lend his tasty noodling.  There are better places to start learning about Ms. Fitzgerald.  But, for those wanting to dig a little deeper, Easy Living makes for fine listening, and pretty great dinner music as well.  –Tony Peters