Friday, May 01, 2009

New releases on Uptown

(I started writing this on Friday, but it didn't get completed until Sunday night.)

For every time that Miles Davis - allegedly of course - reacted harshly to an inane comment from an audience member, for every time that Charles Mingus fired his band only to rehire them the next night, or finished out an engagement by playing solo piano - in other words, while these musicians got away with rash behavior in the name of their art, how many more musicians were given their walking papers simply because they stood up for themselves? How many were told, "Ah, yeah, we'll call you"?

And while I'm throwing rhetorical questions out there, how many "pretty good" albums got lost in the sea of "really amazing" albums during jazz's prime years of the '50s and early '60s? Not every album was Six Pieces of Silver or Saxophone Colossus. But the test of time might show that a record or a musician that didn't exactly measure up to the big guns might still have had something going for them. (To extend that idea further, it seems funny today that Blue Note founder Alfred Lion once described an unreleased recording as such: "This session would be okay for release, but it is just not up to Blue Note standards." Funny because so many unreleased sessions have been dragged out of the vaults and released, many of them good. So maybe "not up to Blue Note standards" still means pretty good.)

Anyhow, all these questions came into my head while listening to two new releases on Uptown Records, Dupree Bolton's Fireball and Lucky Thompson's New York City, 1964-65. Both were musicians who were on the fast track for success that could have put them in league with people like Lee Morgan and possibly, Sonny Rollins (Bolton played trumpet and Thompson played tenor and soprano, like these two respective players). For various reasons, though, things never panned out for either and they're more like footnotes of the era. (Bolton died in 1993, in poor health; Thompson died in 2005 after suffering from Alzheimer's disease.) The two Uptown albums act as a way to reexamine them.

The Bolton set opens with the trumpeter playing on a radio show in a sextet lead by tenor saxophonist Curtis Amy. The Amy-Bolton unit had just released an album on Pacific Jazz called Katanga and they play the title track here, along with "Summertime" (cleverly utilizing the Gil Evans/Miles Davis arrangement of it) and "Laura," as well as a blues. Bolton's bright, inventive sound seems like the new logical step after Clifford Brown, and a strong rival to Carmell Jones, the West Coast brass man who released a few albums and Pacific Jazz and joined Horace Silver's group in time for Song for My Father.

But like all tragic stories, Bolton's life didn't follow such a smooth trail. He spent a lot of time in and out of jail, to a point that it seems that he was rather unstable during the years he was free, never really capable of getting his life back in order. A particularly sad tale recounted in the CD booklet talks about how the trumpeter once badgered Dexter Gordon to hire him and insulted the great tenor player refused. Dexter responded to the insult with an angry rejoinder from the stage.

Two tracks on Fireball come from an aborted session lead by alto saxophonist Earl Anderza, where the two horn men argued about solo space and producer Dick Bock finally called things off. Before he did, they managed to capture two strong tunes, including the ballad "Midnite Lament," which shows off Bolton's lyrical smarts.

The rest of the disc is taken up by some recordings Bolton made as part of the Oklahoma Prison Band while incarcerated. Sloppy at times, with one melody sounding like something off a Chuck Mangione album, and another welding a new melody to Miles Davis's classic "All Blues" chord changes, they do offer a better understanding of a musician that even those in his scene didn't really know. The booklet helps with the background info, and includes an exhaustive 40 pages full of biography (writer Richard Williams really went out on a limb to find out about the trumpeter), photos and reviews from downbeat of live Bolton performances.

Tenor saxophonist Lucky Thompson played on two seminal recording sessions in the early '50s: Thelonious Monk's final Blue Note session, which included a few of the pianist's most odd ball early compositions which he would never revisit; and the Prestige session that spawned Miles Davis' "Walkin'" and gave the Prince of Darkness a new musical lease on life when he needed it. Thompson also recorded on his own, spent a good deal of time in Europe and maintained his own music publishing company to ensure that he wouldn't get ripped off. That latter decision ruffled some industry feathers and helped steer Thompson away playing music actively after 1974.

New York City, 1964-65 features two performances on two discs that reveal both a gifted instrumentalist and arranger in Thompson. The first finds him fronting an octet and playing a set of originals at the Little Theatre from a series of "Jazz on Broadway" concerts produced by famed critic Dan Morgenstern. The opening and closing theme for the set has a rich sonority similar to Gerry Mulligan's tentette recording. "Minuet in Blues" has a multi-section design that might sound a little disjointed but still makes for interesting listening, as does the 12-minute big band bop of "Firebug." Thompson's band includes pianist Hank Jones and bassist Richard Davis.

The original "The World Awakes" appears on both the octet concert and the 1965 performance on disc two at the Half-Note, recorded for radio with host Alan Grant, just like the John Coltrane two-disc set that came out a few years ago. Both versions of the song have Thompson on soprano sax, which he had picked up in Europe, oblivious to Coltrane's use of the straight horn here at home. Thompson's melodic approach was a far cry from Coltrane's - the latter came out of the big toned style of Don Byas and Coleman Hawkins - but his soprano tone sounds similar, especially on the Half-Note set. The tune begins on a vamp before going into blues changes for the theme, yet it doesn't have a derivative or trite feeling to it.

With a quartet of George Tucker (bass), Paul Neves (piano) and Oliver Jackson (drums), Thompson tears through "What's New," Tadd Dameron's "Lady Bird" and "Strike Up the Band." Between songs, he makes gracious banter with Grant, who sounds almost too casual as he chats up the group. Both discs clock in around 40 minutes each, just a little too much to have crammed it all onto one disc. Despite the wealth of material, they leave you wanting more since both sets end right at a point where Thompson sounds like he's really warmed up. It's easy to say the album served its purpose - to generate more interest in an unsung talent.

Bolton's disc might not be as consistent in terms of the music's strength but it too could compel listeners to look for the Curtis Amy Mosaic Select box, which contains Katanga, or to hunt down Harold Land's The Fox which also featured Bolton.

You have to wonder why these guys fell through the cracks while others were lucky enough to see their stars shine. If Dupree Bolton had straightened himself out or found a benefactor, who knows, he might've gone onto be like Frank Morgan or Art Pepper - a survivor of the dark side of jazz who could channel that history into his music. Had Thompson stayed in Europe, he might still be alive today.

But what ifs don't sell CDs. Hopefully enough curious ears will find it worthwhile to check these discs out.
(Neither disc seems to have a website listed for Uptown Records.)

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