Sunday, August 15, 2010

Playing catch-up with ESP-Disk

I've been really behind in my commentary of ESP-Disk releases. They've released several new albums in recent months, but this entry is going to just cover reissues. Going back nearly 12 months ago, their reissue series brought back several albums that proved their jazz roster consisted of more than unfettered free blowing, and including frenzied sessions that had plenty of chops to go along with squonking.

In particular, last summer or fall saw the re-release of the Revolutionary Ensemble's Vietnam, a suite divided between both sides of an album that came pretty close to 50 minutes altogether. The Ensemble consisted of violinist Leroy Jenkins, bassist Sirone (who passed away right around the same season of this reissue) and drummer Jerome Cooper. As Sirone stated in the brief liner notes, the trio took its name from the fact that even among the avant garde players, this instrumentation seemed pretty radical. It is a pretty dense sound but Jenkins avoids the nails-on-the-chalkboard fiddle attack in favor of something more harmonic and engaging. Not until the second half of part two does it start to head over the top, and by then they've won you over.

According to the booklet with the Albert Ayler box on Revenant, Charles Tyler left Ayler's band because he didn't want to play with Michel Sampson, a white violinist. If that's the case, it's surprising that Charles Tyler Ensemble includes a cellist named Joel Friedman, whose name implies that he's not only white but Jewish too, another attribute that many militants took issue with. Regardless, Tyler and Friedman make great music together along with Henry Grimes (bass), Ronald Jackson (drums, who is probably the same man who would start using the middle name Shannon before long) and Charles Moffett (orchestral vibes). Tyler plays in a manner similar to Ayler, with long, wide vibrato. Some moments are pretty free while other uses a simple riff life as a jumping off point into some blowing that's pretty heavy for an alto. "Three Spirits" sounds like a sibling of Ayler's famous "Ghosts," and I mean that in the best possible way. Tyler's solos frequently overflow with machine gun delivery of notes, rather than merely taking a few choice tones and wringing the life out of them with extreme vibrato and blowing.

The final album in go-back-and-find-these list is Marion Brown's Why Not? Brown, an overlooked alto saxophonist with a pretty diverse discography, appeared on John Coltrane's Ascension session, but this album reflects the influence of Trane's work about a year prior to that landmark session. Stanley Cowell plays with the dynamic, supportive presence of McCoy Tyner and Rashied Ali fills the drum chair, in a recording that was made the year after Trane died. Sirone fills out the group on bass. The ballad "Fortunato" could be a distant relative of both "After the Rain" and something Jackie McLean might have dreamed up. Two of the four tracks take interesting turns because they sound like they're winding down only to go into another solo, which takes a drastic drop in volume when Sirone is the soloist.

Among ESP's more recent reissues, the one that probably has the most intrigue is Sun Ra's College Tour Volume One: The Complete Nothing Is... Originally a 36-minute album with a few choice selections from a 1966 concert at St. Lawrence University, this two-disc set contains the entire set that generated those tracks, along with a partial second set and soundcheck material.

The liner notes call Nothing Is... "one of the most important albums of its and all time," going on to place it in the presence of two revolutionary albums that would appear one year after the album's release: Are You Experienced and Sergeant Pepper. I'll leave that assessment to more knowledgeable Sun Ra experts, but suffice to say this is some high quality Arkestra work, even in the moments when the rhythm section seems to get ahead of the horns during a swing vamp. One thing liner note writer Russ Musto nails is that the period of this recording was a pretty revolutionary time and Sun Ra was able to get his musicians to shift from steady swing to free shrieks within a song or two. What appeared as individual songs on the initial release now come across as different passages of a bigger picture. (As an aside, the original running order almost went in reverse of how the performances happened, or at least jumped back and forth during the set.)

This version of the Arkestra includes saxophonists/devotees John Gilmore, Marshall Allen and Pat Patrick, bassist Ronnie Boykins and drummer Clifford Jarvis (who turns in another excessively long, somewhat dull solo). Allen's oboe showcase on "The Exotic Forest" over a repetitive bass line and beaucoup percussion, also sounds more engaging amidst everything.

Sonny Simmons' Staying on the Watch can be said to have taken on greater significance in retrospect. For one thing, it's one of the few "new thing" albums to feature a woman on the front horn line, his wife Barbara Donald, whose horn is recorded with a bit of overmodulation, which only adds to the impact of her playing. John Hicks, one of the most prolific pianists, and sideman with a lot of hard bop sessions and, in more recent years, with David Murray, made his debut on Staying on the Watch.

The first track, "Metamorphosis" has a stop-start AABA melody that again reminds me Jackie McLean's Destination Out period, though Simmons has a voice all his own. Hicks proves himself an able accompanist in this setting too. "City of David," the kickoff track for side two continues in this vein, with a pedal point drone riff that launches 15 minutes of free bop exploration. The two tracks that concluded each side both adapt the instrumentation. "A Distant Voice" is a pensive alto and bass duet, while Hicks lays out for "Interplanetary Travelers" which channels Ornette Coleman more so than Sun Ra. Definitely in the upper echelon of the ESP catalog.

One of the more far-flung releases to come in ESP's final years, Michael Gregory Jackson's Clarity finds the guitar player dabbling in chamber music, folk and free blowing, all with the help of David Murray, Oliver Lake and Wadada Leo Smith popping up in different tracks. The title track opens the album in a perfectly odd way, with an acoustic guitar, flute and saxophone trio sounding semi-classical but quickly giving way to a folkie melody that Tim Buckley would've appreciated. "Prelueoionti" has some beautiful picking, but at eight minutes gets a little long for a solo piece. The lack of a genuine rhythm section (Jackson and Lake pick up some percussion occasionally) gives some of the pieces the feel of early Art Ensemble of Chicago with a little more cohesion, like the taut "Oliver Lake" which features its namesake. "A-flat B-flat 1-7-3 degrees" makes that AACM comparison apt, though Anthony Braxton never dueted with wah-wah guitar during this time, as far as I know. Jackson later shifted his focus towards fusion and R&B. This album bears all the signs of an artist trying to figure out where his true interests lie, and that sense provides the album's strength.

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