Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Things we like: Black Lion on ORG Music

The British Black Lion label, which Alan Bates (not the actor) founded back in '68, released loads of material by American jazzers who visited Europe from the '50s to the '70s (in the manner of their forebears dating back to James Reese Europe's World War I "Harlem Hellfighters" band). Back in the '70s, Audiofidelity distributed them here in the States, and Arista bought rights to their free jazz "Freedom" imprint. Now, the US reissue label ORG Music is releasing a series of Black Lion titles in 180-gram pressings from Germany's Pallas Group. Here's a representative sampling, spanning the spectrum of jazz style.

Louis Armstrong's Basin Street Blues documents a 1956 concert that (contrary to ORG Music's hype sticker) appeared briefly on vinyl in 1975, released by a tiny California label, and again in Germany in 1989, but has otherwise seen no US vinyl release. By this point in his career, the jazz originator had reinvented himself as an ebullient ambassador for the music. Sure, some of this repertoire ("Tiger Rag," "When the Saints Go Marching In") has been around the block a few times, but Pops' distinctive phrasing on both trumpet and voice are still amply in evidence, and the backing, by a unit that includes Trummy Young's trombone, Ed Hall's clarinet, and Barrett Deems' drums, is top-notch.

Some would argue that the records Armstrong and Earl Hines cut together in 1928 constitute the pinnacle of jazz's early development. I am one of them. (Is there a better record from its year than "Weather Bird?" I think not.) And Hines' linear, melodic approach changed forever the way jazz piano was played. Hines' Tour de Force is a '72 solo recital, cut under the aegis of swing era scholar Stanley Dance in a New York studio, and showing that even pushing age 70 (and he'd live another decade, playing all the way), the master's gifts were undiminished. The fact that warhorses as venerable as "Say It Isn't So" (composed in 1932) and "Lonesome Road" ('27) sound so contemporary here attests to Hines' influence on succeeding generations of ivory ticklers. (A couple of years later, he'd go head-to-head with tradition-saturated modernist Jaki Byard in a series of duets for German label MPS.)

Duke Ellington's The Feeling of Jazz is a studio date with full orchestra from 1962, a year in which the protean composer recorded encounters with Coleman Hawkins and John Coltrane, as well as the trio session Money Jungle with Charles Mingus and Max Roach. Ellington standards are interspersed with a few surprises, including Mercer Ellington's "Taffy Twist" (an oblique response to Chubby Checker?), and a couple of pieces from Duke's '59 soundtrack to the film Anatomy of a Murder (listening to "I'm Gonna Go Fishin'," one wonders whether Mingus was emulating Duke on "Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting," or the influence went the other way). Trumpeter-cornetist-vocalist Ray Nance, a veteran of the Ellington orchestra since 1940, is featured all over this date and shines throughout. Bernie Grundman's mastering brings out the orchestra's full dynamic range.

Speaking of Ellingtonians, Ben Webster's Gone With the Wind finds the big toned, ex-Ellington tenor saxophonist (who joined Duke in the same year as Nance) in the company of  fellow expat Yank Kenny Drew on piano, with the Danish rhythm section of Niels-Henning Oersted Pedersen (bass) and Alex Riel (drums), in a program of standards (including a sprightly "Perdido") that emphasizes Webster's romantic way with a ballad ("Over the Rainbow," "Misty"). The intimate live recording captures the group's interaction well.

Jumping forward another jazz piano generation, Thelonious Monk's The London Collection, Volume 1 is the first of three LPs Monk cut for Black Lion at the end of the "Giants of Jazz" tour in '71 -- his last studio dates as a leader -- and features ten solo performances, five of them Monk originals. (On the other two volumes, he's backed by the "Giants" rhythm section of Al McKibbon on bass and Art Blakey on drums.) Listening to the versions of Monk's tunes here, it's hard not to compare them with favorite other versions (for Monk recut them numerous times). What shines through is his idiosyncratic rhythmic approach, his humor, and his grounding in jazz tradition (the striding left hand that occasionally emerges). He also proves himself to be a sensitive interpreter of other composers' work. Again, Grundman's mastering highlights the sonic detail in these sides.

Finally, we visit the hard bop era with Dexter Gordon's Walk the Blues. Gordon was the bebop tenor man who influenced Rollins and Coltrane, then had big enough ears to learn from them in turn. These three tracks, taped at Copenhagen's Jazzhus Montmartre in '67 (when Gordon had been living in Europe for three years) team him with half the rhythm section from the Webster album -- Drew (Gordon's most simpatico accompanist) and Pedersen -- and the relentlessly swinging drummer Albert "Tootie" Heath. The program consists of two extended uptempo workouts and a ballad, all bold and bracing, filled with invention.

The Gordon set is one of ORG Music's Record Store Day offerings, which also include jazz titles by the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Bunk Johnson, Ornette Coleman, Sun Ra, and William Hooker. Film, as they say, at 11.


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