In the woozy world of the jazz record business, a bad news/good news scenario holds sway. Old classic albums continue to sell well, while newer projects have a hard time being heard. Support for the archives, good, but for actively creative musicians, bad to medium. It’s not such a dour situation, especially when an album as simultaneously lyrical and as modern-leaning as Miles Davis‘s great Kind of Bluecurrently toasted in its 50th anniversary year-is such an evergreen best seller. This album, at the fulcrum between bebop, cool, and the new modernism pursued by Miles’s great mid-‘60s band, still sounds vital, as a missive from jazz heaven and a pivotal point in jazz history.
Classic jazz albums continue to exert mystique and power over us, listeners and players alike, as recently witnessed via Kurt Elling‘s surprisingly fine reinvention of the 1963 Johnny Hartman and John Coltrane collaboration, recently heard at the Lobero. Elling’s distinctively personal visit to that album’s apogee, “Lush Life,” was alone worth the price of admission.
Kind of Blue at 50, a two-disc set recently released by Columbia, is one of those completist packages that’s both illuminating and a tad distracting. Columbia’s Legacy series has been especially thorough in unearthing the riches in the Miles vaults. Here, the complete album unfolds in sequence on disc one-including the pensive “Blue in Green,” one of the greatest songs penned in the 20th century (by Bill Evans, despite Miles’s composer credit heist). Tracks 6 through 15 are outtakes and alternate takes, best appreciated by diehard fans. The package’s truest virtue arrives on disc two, with “On Green Dolphin Street,” “Love for Sale,” and other standards by the same amazing band, with Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Wynton Kelly, and Evans on piano, Paul Chambers, and Jimmy Cobb. Ending the disc and the album is an extended 17:28 version of “So What,” previously only available in bootleg form. While not exactly must-hear listening for casual or neophyte jazz fans, Kind of Blue at 50 is a must-to-own for those duly inducted into lifelong love of America’s greatest music.
For those seeking out new jazz ideas with tentacles in the archives, intriguing work is always being done, but it can be hard to ferret out the good stuff-a process ever more important as our disposable income has felt the Big Squeeze. In the general vein and shadow of Kind of Blue, check out the wonderful arranger-composer Vince Mendoza‘s recent project Blauklang (“Blue Sound”), released on the German ACT label and featuring a combo ensemble of a jazz group and string players. Mendoza works the jazz-cum-classical angle beautifully, moving from a new version of Miles’s “All Blues” into Mendoza’s own special artistic voice.
Jazz of a blue and reflective ilk keeps flowing steadily out of another German label, ECM Records, including two new recommended, related albums: ambient vibe alchemist trumpeter Jon Hassell returns to the label with an evocative beaut with an evocative title, Last night the moon came dropping its clothes in the street. Hassell has clearly influenced liquidy young Norwegian trumpet sensation Arve Henriksen, whose hypnotic ECM debut is Cartography (featuring a cameo by David Sylvian). Both albums artfully leap into the electro-acoustic textures, partly thanks to live sampling wizard Jan Bang, noted for his acclaimed Punkt festival in Norway.
TO-DOINGS: Two special concerts arrive at UCSB Campbell Hall this week: on Saturday, the Afro-Cuban All-Stars and Juan De Marcos makes a local stop on its eagerly awaited U.S. tour. Next Wednesday, the subject is New Orleans piano traditions, represented by N’Awlins legend Allen Toussaint, multi-genre phenom Henry Butler and gifted British emigre Jon Cleary (often heard with Bonnie Raitt).
Hearing Frank Zappa’s music played live-and played well-is a unique thrill: progressive rock intricacy, gonzo theater, shameless potty humor, and crazed musical clarity and energy merge. You get all of that with Zappa Plays Zappa, a project launched by deft guitarist Dweezil Zappa, and coming to the Ventura Theater on Saturday.