Jeanne Lee/Ran Blake – The Newest Sound Around (RCA Victor/BMG France)
A cult classic I’d never managed to hear until I imported it. Blake is one of the great modern jazz pianists, with a highly refined sense of harmony and an utter avoidance of showboating; the late Lee was possibly the most underrated singer of her generation, with a deep, dark tone I find irresistible. This 1962 release (with bassist George Duvivier joining on two tracks) is one of the finest, most intimate jazz vocal recitals ever.
Toshiko Akiyoshi-Lew Tabackin Big Band – Live at Newport ‘77 (RCA/BMG Japan)
Another import, but this came as part of the birthday package my wife sent from Japan. Toshiko Akiyoshi was first heard as a bebop pianist, heavily influenced by Bud Powell, but soon proved to have great composing and arranging talents as well – and good taste in saxophonist husbands, first altoist Charlie Mariano and then (and still) tenorman Lew Tabackin, who also doubles on flute (with a traditional bamboo flute-influenced tone and phrasing when appropriate, to spectacular effect). The style on this album of all original compositions alternates between a relatively conservative Ellington sound and incorporation of Akiyoshi’s Japanese musical heritage that allows for more daring harmonies. (These are heard most strikingly on Live at Newport II on “Minamata,” the deeply moving piece Akiyoshi wrote about the tragic mercury poisoning of a fishing village.) This just got reissued in Japan – in familiar mini-LP sleeve style – at the beginning of this year; here’s hoping this important artist’s work reappears in the U.S.A. as well.
Melt-Banana – “Snake Song”/”Love Song” (H.G. fact)
Another goodie sent by my wife, and my first encounter with 5” vinyl – I didn’t realize it wasn’t a CD until I pulled out the disc and saw it’s black! A thrilling surprise.
Heartworn Highways (Madfish)
I never saw this legendary 1973 documentary about rebellious young country singer-songwriters until my old roommate Ray gave me his DVD; now I know what the fuss is about. Mixing candid footage, concert clips, and private performances, it not only features guys who went on to become icons of anti-establishment country – most notably Townes Van Zandt, who acts the cut-up, wildman Steve Earle back when he was damn near a sex symbol, and animated Guy Clark – it also showcases David Allen Coe at the height of his fame, Charlie Daniels before he was a bad joke, and some now-obscure artists I’m going to have to investigate, especially poker-faced Steve Young. Last week, the soundtrack was issued for the first time.
The Harder They Come (Mango)
Speaking of soundtracks…. The soundtrack of the 1972 film that was many Americans’ first introduction to reggae is credited to Jimmy Cliff, and certainly his percolating “You Can Get It If You Really Want,” the pumping title track, the ruminative “Sitting in Limbo,” and the emotional semi-spiritual “Many Rivers to Cross” are at the heart of the film. But this album also functioned as a sort of primer of Jamaican music, so half the tracks are by other groups. The urgent “Pressure Drop” by the Maytals is the most famous; others include the Maytals’ “Sweet and Dandy” and “Johnny Too Bad” by the Slickers. One of the greatest soundtracks of all time.
Robyn Hitchcock – Black Snake Diamond Role (Rhino)
Hitchcock’s 1981 solo album debut wasn’t much of a departure from the Soft Boys’ sound (or personnel, for that matter; guitarist Kimberley Rew, who went on to fleeting fame with Katrina and the Waves, is on four tracks, and the rhythm section also remains) and thus rocks as hard as any of Robyn’s subsequent records. Solo status did allow Hitchcock to give his surreal worldview more exposure, and one of the bonus tracks on this now-gone reissue, “Happy the Golden Prince,” utilizes a wry, psychedelic faux-Brothers Grimm spoken word narrative style and stripped-down sound he would return to. If you see this, grab it; I’m pretty sure it’s out of print.
Thelonious Monk – Thelonious in Action (Riverside/Fantasy)
My favorite album by my favorite jazz pianist – in fact, my favorite jazz musician, period. It’s been said that Art Blakey was the ideal drummer for Monk, but I believe it was Roy Haynes, who kept time and improvised on the same motivically oriented wavelength as the pianist. With powerhouse tenor Johnny Griffin and the imaginative Ahmed Abdul-Malik on bass, this live album—and Misterioso, recorded on the same August 7, 1958 evening at the legendary Five Spot—offers expansive, wonderfully spontaneous explorations of Monk’s tunes.
John Coltrane – Live in Japan (Impulse!)
A lot of people hate this four-CD set, recorded live in Japan in 1966 with fellow reedman Pharoah Sanders, pianist/wife Alice Coltrane, faithful bassist Jimmy Garrison, and drummer Rashied Ali. The unrelenting intensity of Coltrane and Sanders frightens some people, but open-minded listeners will find the 50-minute-plus versions of “My Favorite Things” and “Crescent” cathartic, while for connoisseurs of “extreme noise terror” this is the ultimate Coltrane set.
Son House – Father of the Delta Blues: The Complete 1965 Sessions (Columbia Legacy)
These comeback recordings find House’s guitar playing less agile than in his youth, but his stentorian vocals are undimmed (the unaccompanied “John the Revelator” is stunning in its power and conviction), and of course the sound’s better. His fingers remained effective enough, and the ferocity of his musical attack was still palpable, his bottleneck tone on his National Steel still devastating on “Pearline.” Uninhibited by the time restrictions of 78 RPM records, he could stretch out on trademark tunes such as “Death Letter,” “Levee Camp Moan,” and the sarcastically witty “Preachin’ Blues” as well as early Delta standards “Pony Blues” and “Shake It and Break It.” Sony’s Legacy imprint, usually among the best, dropped the ball when it let this go out of print.
Márta Sebestyén/Muzsikás – Muzsikás (Hannibal)
Back during the Communist era in Eastern Europe, Tánchéz, the Hungarian pop movement that incorporated folk dances, ran up against a government stance against incorporating Transylvanian music – there was “official” folk music, and that troublesome region was excluded. The unofficial sort made by Muzsikás, fronted at the time by the extraordinary and charismatic singer Márta Sebestyén, thus gained the cachet of rebellion against authority. This out-of-print 1987 album sets her vocals against a background of hurdy-gurdy, zither, recorder, fiddle, and other folk instruments, with eccentric but powerful rhythms.