Jazz: Rewriting Musical History: CD Reissues Give Underrated Or Overlooked Artists A Second Chance At Fame (August 14, 1994)
By Howard Reich, Tribune Arts Critic.
Underrated pianists, forgotten singing stars, neglected band leaders and once pre-eminent instrumentalists have been making a stunning comeback lately-en masse.
Never mind that some of these artists passed away decades ago, that others (who are still living) haven't set foot in a recording studio in years.
Such historic performers as tenor saxophone pioneer Coleman Hawkins, band leader Gil Evans, piano innovator Ahmad Jamal and crooner Johnny Hartman now command considerable space in the CD bins, thanks to a recent onslaught of reissues.
With GRP, Evidence, Blue Note, Roulette, Chicago-based Delmark and many other contemporary labels reissuing vintage LPs on compact disc, the music of the past has become intertwined with music of the present, at least in the record stores.
More important, the history of jazz is virtually being rewritten-or at least updated, corrected and deepened-to take account of long-forgotten recordings that, upon re-examination, shatter a variety of popular myths.
Consider the jazz singers, who are well represented by important new reissues.
None sheds more light on the evolving nature of a formidable vocal artist than "The Girls of Bethlehem, Vol. 1" (Bethlehem Jazz), most of which focuses on veteran Chicago singer Audrey Morris. Though anyone who has heard Morris recently knows that she ranks among the most telling interpreters of a song lyric, this CD (which includes her complete 1956 LP, "The Voice of Audrey Morris") reveals precisely how she became one of the most talked-about singers of her era.
That a performer just 24 years old could bring such disarming simplicity, directness and maturity to such disparate material confounds expectations. Those who thought that Morris developed slowly and arduously over the years clearly were mistaken-she started out way ahead of the pack and simply refined and distilled her work by degrees in the ensuing years.
Two recent reissues, however, help place him among the top altoists in the business. In "Lou Donaldson: Pretty Things" (Blue Note), recorded in 1970, he plays with a tonal control, technical finesse and expressive purity that have yet to be equaled. And in "Lou Donaldson: Hot Dog," he somehow functions in a funk idiom without compromising his bebop roots.
Though jazz today stands roughly at the century mark, its recorded history goes back only about 75 years, leaving limited documentation of the music's pioneers. That only adds to the cachet of "Bunk Johnson: Last Testament" (Delmark).
Johnson wasn't precisely a first-generation New Orleans jazz trumpeter, he was close, having played with and learned from turn-of-the-century trumpet phenomenon Buddy Bolden. Fortunately, music lovers Harold Drob and Robert Stendahl recorded Johnson in 1947, two years before his death.
Though this recording lacks the sonic presence and clarity of the best recordings of the late '40s, it's a vital document, capturing the language of a musician who formed a stylistic bridge between Bolden and Louis Armstrong. The clarion sound of Johnson's trumpet and the slow, quarter-note rhythms that drive his performances speak volumes about pre-Armstrong trumpet playing.
Benny Goodman may have been the most celebrated swing-era clarinetist to come out of Chicago, but he and others of his generation owed a formidable debt to reed virtuoso Jimmie Noone. Born in New Orleans, Noone headed to Chicago in the '20s, astonishing listeners with his novel sounds and unprecedented virtuosity.
"Jimmie Noone: Apex Blues" (Decca/GRP) amply documents the man's speed and fluidity on the instrument, his penchant for exploring its uppermost registers and his ability to produce a sweet, incredibly ripe tone.
"Coleman Hawkins in the '50s: Body and Soul Revisited" (Decca/GRP) reveals a critical chapter in the great tenor saxophonist's career-the moment just before his re-emergence as a major star. Overshadowed by the boppers of the '40s, Hawkins simply kept expanding and deepening his art in the '50s, as if waiting for the world to rediscover him. This recording documents the majesty and ruggedness of his playing in this period.
Among other key instrumental reissues, "Art Pepper: Tokyo Encore" (Dreyfus Jazz) shows the alto saxophonist playing with remarkable confidence and tonal point at the start of his last great comeback, in 1979. And "Gene Ammons: Young Jug" (Chess/GRP) reaffirms that the Chicago tenorist's signature style-huge sound, throbbing vibrato and radiant tone-was in place by age 21.
For big-band devotees, "The Oscar Pettiford Orchestra: Deep Passion" (Impulse/GRP) brings back some of the most adventurous harmonies and daring orchestrations in large ensemble playing of the '50s. "Chick Webb: Spinnin' the Webb" (Decca/GRP) chronicles the inventive and volatile drummer during the decade of his all-too-brief recording career (1929-39).
And "Gil Evans: Live at the Public Theatre Vols. 1 and 2" (Evidence) proves that as late as 1980, just a few years before his death, Evans still was pushing out the boundaries of jazz, mixing it with funk, pop and whatnot, and doing so more persuasively than any arranger has before or since.
Finally, several piano reissues document the successes and the failures of certain performers.
"Ahmad Jamal: Ahmad's Blues" (Chess/GRP) showcases the soft-spoken pianist at his most ravishing, during a live concert in 1958. "Wynton Kelly: Last Trio Session" (Delmark) features Miles Davis' rhythm section of 1958-63, with Kelly, bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Jimmy Cobb transcending the pop drivel they were forced to record.
On the down side, "Ramsey Lewis: Maiden Voyage (and more)" (Chess/GRP) documents just how bland an idiom the Chicago pianist was willing to adopt in hopes of reaching a broad, commercial audience. And "Billy Taylor Trio: My Fair Lady Loves Jazz" shows the rhythmic rigidity of some of Quincy Jones' orchestrations, particularly when compared with the brilliance of the aforementioned charts by Benny Carter and Gil Evans.
Clearly, despite the lost treasures that the record industry is returning to the marketplace, not everything being reissued deserves to be.
Many jazz fans treasure the series of "Songbook" recordings that singer Ella Fitzgerald made for producer Norman Granz in the late '50s and '60s, but fewer listeners are familiar with her earlier attempts at interpreting works of the Gershwins, Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hammerstein and other American tunesmiths.
Before Fitzgerald embarked on the "Songbook" series, however, she recorded "Ella Sings Gershwin," all of which is included on "Pure Ella" (Decca/GRP).
Her readings of Gershwin standards here clearly represent rough sketches for the "Songbook" performances yet to come. Because Fitzgerald is accompanied solely by pianist Ellis Larkins (as opposed to the opulent orchestrations on the "Songbook" recordings) and because she hadn't yet applied to these songs the dazzling scat passages that marked her "Songbook" performances, she stands exposed as singer and interpreter.
This actually works to her advantage, for if her 1950 "Ella Sings Gershwin" and her 1954 "Songs in a Mellow Mood" (also included on the "Pure Ella" reissue) aren't as polished as her subsequent "Songbook" recordings, they render her more vulnerable and more haunting than in her later readings.
Further, these recordings contradict the myth that Fitzgerald was a supreme technician who couldn't get to the emotional and intellectual heart of a song. Listen, for instance, to her yearning phrases on "Someone to Watch Over Me" and one appreciates anew her interpretive insights.
In recent years, singer Carmen McRae has won fans with the grit, economy and honesty of her readings. But in the '50s, McRae was a very different artist-more dulcet-voiced and more conventional-a fact established by "Carmen McRae Sings the Great American Songwriters" (Decca/GRP).
Indeed, McRae's long and sustained lines in "You Took Advantage of Me," her luscious timbre in "Last Night When We Were Young" and her lush, bathed-in-strings orchestrations on all of these tracks render her nearly unrecognizable. Only in certain songs, such as Porter's "Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye," can you hear hints of the singer McRae would become.
Among other key reissues of jazz singers, "Johnny Hartman: The Voice That Is" (Impulse/GRP) reaffirms that Hartman, alone among male jazz singers, stands in Frank Sinatra's league. The splendor of Hartman's baritone, the impeccable taste of his readings and the profundity of his phrasings suggest that the late singer deserves far more recognition than he has received.
"Count Basie/Billy Eckstine Inc." (Roulette Jazz) proves that singer Eckstine could produce grit as well as velvet; "Chris Connor: Lullabys of Birdland" (Bethlehem Jazz) captures the singer at her vocal prime; and "Sarah Vaughan: The Benny Carter Sessions" (Roulette Jazz) attests to the quasi-operatic heights Vaughan could achieve.
Several jazz instrumentalists have benefited from recent reissues, none more than alto saxophone virtuoso Lou Donaldson, who always has been too self-effacing a personality to draw as much press as his peers of the '50s and thereafter.