Steve's Favorite Jazz Historical/Reissue Albums of 2013


Yes, there's a big disparity in the lengths of these reviews. It's not intended to slight albums 2-4; they all gave me great joy, and, I am sure, will continue to. But the scope of the first box set here is vastly broader, and thus each ensemble featured on it requires explanation. And of course I assume you're familiar with the styles of Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, and Keith Jarrett.

1. William Parker: Wood Flute Songs (AUM Fidelity)

Eight discs proving that Parker is not only the supreme bassist of the current avant jazz world, he is also a fine and prolific composer and leads some of the scene's greatest bands, most notably on these 2006-2012 concert recordings his quartet with alto saxophonist Rob Brown, trumpeter Lewis "Flip" Barnes, and drummer Hamid Drake, who are at the core of every band featured here.

That quartet is captured at peak form on the first four CDs here, which contain a pair of 2006 sets in Oakland and a pair from Houston the following year. The group's combination of imagination and stylistic flexibility is key to its success. Brown and Barnes can play on changes or fly free, and perhaps only they and Parker know whether their seemingly spontaneous team-ups that pop up in free sections come from Parker's pen or their own finely honed sense of interaction. Drake is equally at home in a variety of settings, from nearly funky grooves to swinging post-bop to controlled chaos. And Parker, well, he is often the featured soloist and is always entirely engrossing; he switches at one point to an unidentified double reed and mesmerizes then as well. (His warm and witty comments to the audiences between tracks are also fun to hear.) The rhythmic interaction of Parker and Drake never repeats; it is always in a state of developing variation. One of the things about this group that may surprise some people is how accessible and ingratiating their music is, overflowing with joy and melody even as it operates at a high level of complexity in the moment.

The other four discs find the quartet supplemented by additional musicians. Disc 5 adds violinist Billy Bang (the whole box set is dedicated to his memory), cult-hero cornetist Bobby Bradford, and veteran alto saxophonist James Spaulding (ex-World Saxophone Quartet, among other affiliations) for a 2009 Vision Festival concert for which the guests had not rehearsed with the quartet; of course, they are such giants of improvisation that they had no problem fitting into the quartet's ethos while letting their particular musical personalities shine through to add even more color to the group's palette; the result of this chemistry experiment is free-bop of the highest order.

Disc 6 is by the Creation Ensemble, which is a combination of the quartet and the Geneva group AMR, consisting of vocalist Ernie Odoom (who's got quite a range; I checked the credits to see if there was also a female singer involved) and four saxophones, bass clarinet, trumpet, and bass (Parker directs and plays double reeds; he's only on bass for two of the six performances in this 2011 concert). Parker has a big band of his own, the Little Huey Orchestra, but this collaboration with AMR is heavily arranged and often far more tonal -- the beautiful "Psalm for Billy Bang" even suggests a mellow R&B ballad arranged by some combination of Gil Evans and Julius Hemphill, if you can imagine that, although it heats up into greater dissonance in the middle. Halfway through the 22:46 "Deep Flower," there's even a reggae section with Barnes toasting! Only on "Earth in Pain" does the dissonance elevate to a free-jazz level. Energy is not impaired; the musicians aren't holding back, just expressing the music's energy in a more traditional format.

Disc 7 features Parker's band Raining on the Moon, which is the quartet plus pianist Eri Yamamoto and singer Leena Conquest. None of the pieces in this performance were on their 2007 album; instead, we get six previously unreleased compositions. (And, on disc 8, there are bonus tracks: two outtakes from the 2007 release.) This is Parker at his most accessible, writing songs, playing vamps, with a relatively mainstream pianist. If only the mainstream would let him in....

Disc 8, my favorite, features a variation on his earlier group In Order to Survive, which was a quartet with Brown, pianist Cooper-Moore, and drummer Susie Ibarra; here it is Cooper-Moore joining Brown, Barnes, Parker, and Drake, premiering the suite Kalaparusha on the Edge of the Horizon at the 2012 Vision Festival (it is inspired by and dedicated to saxophonist Kalaparusha Maurice McIntyre, who died this past November). It's a wild and wooly session, the most daring one here to my ears -- and then when a cool, tuneful theme enters for the finale, the contrast is exhilarating. Cooper-Moore sets the tone with his explosive smears and clusters and dazzling flurries of notes (his return to piano after taking awhile off from it is a great boon to the NY jazz scene), but also the blues, briefly but pungently, in the third movement. This suite also finds Brown at his most creative, making his alto display an astonishing range of timbres; I actually checked the credits to see if someone was playing oboe, and tenor sax. Kalaparusha on the Edge of the Horizon is an invigorating celebration of the creative spirit.

Besides Parker's musical talents, he is an excellent writer, and one of the pleasures of this box set is his commentary in the booklet about each band and concert, and about his philosophy of art and life. Here's a little sample: "The term successful artist is an oxymoron once you become popular you might be doing something wrong, if your art is doing what it is supposed to do you should be on the most-wanted list. Worldly success is not a barometer for closeness to the profound."

The title track is heard three times, played by three different groups, but is so different each time that there's no sense of redundancy. Mostly, though, this set is a treasure trove of unheard compositions, with a whopping 22 not on previous releases. AUM Fidelity says this is a "strictly limited edition of 1500," so do not hesitate if you prefer the physical artifact, which is a beautiful production.

2. Miles Davis Quintet: Live in Europe 1969: The Bootleg Series vol. 2 (Sony Legacy)

Three concerts from the great lost Davis quintet: Miles on trumpet, Wayne Shorter on tenor and soprano saxophones, Chick Corea on acoustic and electric pianos, bassist Dave Holland, and drummer Jack DeJohnette. Really that personnel list is all you need to know to realize you NEED this set, but if you want to know more, I reviewed this album for eMusic. But just think how great and prolific Miles was in this period that a group of this caliber left no official albums until over four decades later!

3. Keith Jarrett: Concerts: Bregenz/München (ECM)

Finally this superb set of two 1981 concerts recorded just days apart, originally on three LPs, has been reissued in full on three CDs. (The one-LP Bregenz portion had appeared on a CD that inaptly retained the plural title, while the fourth section of the Munich show was included on the Jarrett volume in ECM's :rarum compilation series.) This time ECM has reproduced the set thoroughly, complete with the same texts in the booklet. The unavailability of most of the Munich show really was a great loss; its first half is one of Jarrett's most impressive solo achievements, a vast, variegated structure of 46 minutes which I find his most beautiful and emotionally moving creation. This set is also the first documentation of "Heartland" as concert-closer, its freshness palpable.

4. Thelonious Monk: Paris 1969 (Blue Note)

Sure, the green rhythm section's not much more than functional (Monk's bassist and drummer had recently quit). But with longtime Monk tenorist Charlie Rouse and the pianist himself up front, there are still plenty of bright moments. When drum legend Philly Joe Jones sits in on the ten-minute "Nutty," even though he's aged and a little sloppy, it swings hard, included a real clinic of a drum solo. Monk and Jones may have been on the downside of their career arcs, but their subpar is most players' wished-for "if only." (Also available as a DVD, because the concert was filmed!)

Appendix: Conflict of Interest Choices

This past year, I re-entered the label side of the music business as manager of venerable imprint ESP-Disk' Obviously I couldn't include ESP releases on the above lists (at least, not without being awarded the Virgil Thomson Award), but I do want to mention a few that I am particularly proud of.

Tiger Hatchery: Sun Worship

The label's one newly recorded jazz release of 2013, a ferocious melding of free jazz and noise rock by a trio of young guns who take no prisoners.

Ran Blake: Plays Solo Piano

I love Ran Blake. This, his first solo album, had not been reissued because the tapes were lost. Practically my first decision at ESP was to have master archivist/engineer Michael D. Anderson rip it from the original vinyl, because even a slightly imperfect reissue's better than none. People agreed with me; the New York City Jazz Record listed this in its top five reissues of the year.

Byron Allen Trio: Byron Allen Trio

One of the more obscure items in the ESP catalog, a saxophonist-led group steered to the label by Ornette Coleman, finally got a CD release in the U.S. in a limited edition.

Peter Lemer Quintet: Local Colour

The sole album under his own name by British keyboardist Lemer, familiar to prog-rock fans. Also the debut recording of the mighty British saxophonist John Surman. Another limited edition. - Steve Holtje


Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based composer, poet, and editor who is currently composing the soundtrack for director Enrico Cullen's film A Man Full of Days.