By Ron Wynn

Side A – Jazz Plus releases

With Christmas little more than a week away, if you are both a last minute shopper and seeking gifts for a big music fan, here are some items and selections that might prove ideal. All these sets and/or items should be available online, and also hopefully at a good retail store in your neighborhood, if indeed one exists where you live.

Thelonious Monk
“The Complete Prestige 10-Inch LP Collection”
(Craft/Concord)

This has truly just been released (December 15). It compiles all of Monk’s early 50’s Prestige sessions that were cut on 10-inch rather than 12-inch discs. Though some have dismissed these recordings as less accomplished than his later dates for other companies, Monk was establishing his compositional and playing approach during this period. These recordings contain pivotal early versions of classic pieces that are well worth studying for hearing his initial ideas, then later comparing them to better known later versions.

This five-disc vinyl set, which was superbly remastered from original analog sessions, is bookended with marvelous liner notes from Robin D.G. Kelley, whose “Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original” remains the definitive work on Monk’s career and accomplishments. That this set has been issued during Monk’s centennial year is a perfect touch, and it’s especially valuable for lovers of jazz piano and intricate, innovative compositions.

Pharoah Sanders
“Tauhid,” “Jewels of Thought,” “Deaf Dumb Blind (Summun Kukmun Umyun)”
(Anthology/Mexican Summer)

He’s recently turned 77, but Pharoah Sanders is still touring and delivering robust, distinctive music. These three newly reissued titles are part of a lengthy and productive period when he was on Impulse, and was one of the stars counted on to keep the label going in the wake of John Coltrane’s death. “Tauhid” was the first of these three, released in 1967. It features Sonny Sharrock’s explosive, splintering guitar licks. “Jewels of Thought” matched Leon Thomas’ vocal explorations, chants, and fiery cries with Sanders’ spiraling tenor sax solos, and was issued two years later. “Deaf Dumb Blind (Summun Kukmun Umyun)” is arguably the most intriguing. It had an amazing front line of Sanders on soprano sax, Gary Bartz on alto and Woody Shaw on trumpet, backed by a superb rhythm section that provided a host of percussive textures behind the threesome’s sonic bursts.

Added bonuses include Keegan Cooke’s 16-page fanzine, assembled and hand-printed, plus information on how to access a website filled with plenty of extra information on the sessions and personnel, with commentary from Sanders. Now let’s have more of his marvelous Impulse releases, especially “Karma” and “Thembi.”.

Azar Lawrence
“Bridge Into The New Age”
Pucho & The Latin Soul Brothers
“Jungle Fire!”
(Both Jazz Dispensary/Prestige)

Azar Lawrence’s fame and reputation soared during his time with McCoy Tyner, but his work as a bandleader outside the Tyner combo hasn’t been as well documented. This mid-’70s session was cut on the West Coast and offered some of Lawrence’s finest soprano and tenor sax playing and writing> He was supported by an A+ ensemble whose personnel included Woody Shaw on trumpet, Hadley Caliman on flute, Joe Bonner on piano, Billy Hart on drums, Mtume on congas, and special guest vocalist Jean Carn during the period before she shifted stylistic gears into R&B/soul territory. The cuts are extensive as well, with the best being “Warriors Of Peace”, “Forces Of Nature”, and “The Beautiful & Omnipresent Love”.

While neither as well known or influential a percussionist or bandleader as Tito Puente, Henry “Pucho” Brown was a mainstay in the mid and late ’60s Latin music world. It was a period where bandleaders often merged Latin rhythms and beats with soul, R&B and jazz elements and influences. The Latin boogaloo craze was a major result, and numerous great LPs were crafted utilizing this formula. “Pucho & The Latin Soul Brothers’ “Jungle Fire” features a tremendous band anchored by Brown and the great Bernard “Pretty” Purdie in the rhythm section, with Neal Creaque on piano and Billy Butler on guitar. They zip through extended versions of such soul hits from the tandem of Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong as “The Friendship Train” and “Cloud 9,” well as the lesser known “I Finally Got Myself A Good Man.”

These two Prestige gems have long been extremely difficult to find. Both are now available on 180-gram vinyl. But if you’re interested in the albums it would be wise to act fast, as only 1,000 copies of each has been pressed. These are also available via ITunes for those who prefer at this point the streaming route.

John Lee Hooker
“King Of The Boogie”
(Craft/Concord)

The boogie master’s centennial gets the deluxe celebration it deserves with this five-CD set that includes 100 songs. The menu covers pretty much all the magnificent singles Hooker cut for numerous labels under multiple names, and also a lot of others that aren’t nearly as well known even to hardcore blues fans. The 56-page accompanying booklet is loaded with superb photos, plus a set of fresh notes and perspectives from the great blues writer Jas Obrecht, and recollections from his longtime manager Mike Kappus. Though there was another Hooker retrospective set issued a few years ago, this one boasts superior sound and more comprehensive information and details about one of the blues’ finest performers.

Various Artists
“Jesus Rocked The Jukebox: Small Black Group Black Gospel (1951-1965)”
(Craft/Concord/Specialty/Vee-Jay)

Nothing against contemporary gospel and its penchant for elaborate arrangements, multi-voice choral groups, and guest contributions from rappers and urban stars, but my favorite spiritual music remains the songs of “Golden Age” acts. This period, which runs from roughly the ’40s till the early 60s, male and female vocalists as well as groups made thunderous, incredibly powerful testimonies and pleas for salvation that also were the template and foundation for what later became known as “soul” music. This three-LP vinyl or two-CD set culls a host of memorable gems from the Specialty and Vee-Jay labels, the “house rocking” material that virtually every major soul act originally either sang or heard.

There are 40 cuts from such acts as “The Original Blind Boys of Alabama” with Clarence Fountain, The Swan Silvertones with Rev. Claude Jeter, The Highway QCs, The Staple Singers, and of course “The Soul Stirrers” with both R. H. Harris and Sam Cooke. But some of the groups whose profile isn’t nearly as high sound equally strong. This includes such names as the Patterson Singers, The Chosen Gospel Singers, The Harmonizing Four and The Happyland Singers. Overall, these are consistently fabulous performances, and an example of so many people who grew up with this gospel have such a hard time accepting current styles and sounds.

Little Richard
“Here’s Little Richard”
(Craft/Specialty)

Some 60 years ago a magnificent and charismatic performer named Richard Penniman, better known as “Little Richard,” rocketed to fame doing an incredible brand of music that became the earliest and some of the greatest rock and roll. Little Richard blended R&B swagger and sensuality with the swinging intensity of Crescent City jazz and vocal acrobatics of gospel (his trademark whoop was a homage to Roberta Martin). The lyrics to such hits as “Long Tall Sally,” “Tutti Frutti,” “Rip It Up,” “Ready Teddy” and others thrilled many and scandalized others, while helping ignite a revolution in the process. The new two-CD set “Here’s Little Richard” features all the hits, plus demos, alternate takes and even newly released material. It’s fortified by an expert essay from noted writer Chris Morris. Even those who’ve heard these tunes a zillion times and have purchased other reissued versions will find this set valuable.

Side B – Christmas releases

Jason Hall Curtis
“These Christmas Days”

Anyone seeking a compelling alternative to standard holiday fare will find Jason Hall Curtis’ “These Christmas Days” right up their alley. First, the menu’s mostly originals. Even the two traditional tunes aren’t the types of songs usually offered. I can’t recall the last time is saw or heard “The Way You Look Tonight” featured in a holiday setting. Curtis is backed by two bands, as the Swing Shift and Swing Lab alternate contributions. Curtis gets attractive and enticing vocal support from his daughter Isabella on two selections, the best being “I Want Snow.” There are also fine solos delivered by multi-instrumentalist Dave Schiff, who plays flute on “December Again,” clarinet on “I Want Snow,” and alto sax on “The Way You Look Tonight.” It’s an engaging collection, one that deserves praise for actually tries something different as holiday vehicles go.

 

Balsam Range
“It’s Christmas Time”
(MountainHome)

The North Carolina bluegrass ensemble Balsam Range has won lots of praise and industry awards for their prowess with traditional bluegrass material, but their latest outing may surprise old and new fans. Not only have they issued a six-song holiday EP, they’ve joined forces with the Nashville Recording Orchestra. The concept of bluegrass and strings isn’t one you hear often, but “It’s Christmas Time” works well. Their versions of “Rocking Around The Christmas Tree,” “The First Noel” and even “Jingle Bells” neither grate on the ears nor fail to jell, while “I’m Going Home, It’s Christmas Time,” a tune co-written by Ralph Stanley, and the update of Doc Watson’s “Christmas Lullaby” are expertly performed. This is a nice plus for bluegrass and/or holiday music buffs.

Side C – Books

Susan Whitall
“Women of Motown: An Oral History”
(Devault-Graves)

Detroit journalist, critic and author Susan Whitall’s first volume devoted to Motown’s often undervalued, unsung women contributors earned plenty of praise, and offered critical insights into the role women played in the label’s rise to glory. The second volume continues telling their key story. It spotlights memories from Mable John, Claudette Robinson, Janie Bradford and Kim Weston that are especially welcome. It’s not that the stories told by The Supremes or Martha Reeves aren’t equally valuable or necessary, because they certainly are. But hearing from or about others like The Velvelettes, Brenda Holloway, and tragically Tammi Terrell and Mary Wells, is even more vital. Not everything here is cheery or encouraging, and these women speak frankly and openly about what they faced, how they were treated, and the struggles they faced being Black women in a company ostensibly celebrating Black culture and accomplishment. “Women of Motown: An Oral History” in both its first and second editions shows just how much Motown history still has NOT been told, and gives some of its most overlooked figures the chance to set the record straight.

Jack Wright
“The Free Musics”
(Spring Garden)

Saxophonist Jack Wright’s experience with and knowledge of free jazz dates back to 1967, and an unexpected encounter and interface with bassist Charlie Haden, who was then a key member of Ornette Coleman’s band. Wright’s life and approach were forever altered, and his book “The Free Musics” is as thorough and detailed an examination and exploration of this style and its impact as has ever been done. Wright became a dedicated and devoted player in this idiom, and offers both an insider’s view and technical appreciation and breakdown of it possible only from a player.

This book’s value will be directly proportional to the reader’s interest in the style. Unlike some works that are done in broad enough fashion to offer something for everyone, Wright has clearly aimed this at the free jazz audience and fan. For example, if you’ve never heard guitarist Derek Bailey’s unconventional playing, it’s hard to fathom how a chapter on him would have much meaning. Likewise, some may find such chapters as “Collapse of the Free Jazz Movement” and “Free Jazz In Revival” filled with debatable premises.

But agree or not, “The Free Musics” details many provocative, stimulating and delightful encounters, memories and situations, and gives those who stick with it insight into a genre you seldom get. Highly recommended and worth getting.

Holly Gleason
“Woman Walk The Line: How Country Music Changed Our Lives”
(University of Texas)

Acclaimed music historian and critic Holly Gleason’s outstanding new book offers an extremely inclusive and diverse look at country music by spotlighting various women performers and having them in turn profiled by other women writers. The list of subjects covered includes those you would expect like Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton, but also some you wouldn’t like Lil Hardin (much better known in jazz and blues circles as both a fine player and former wife of Louis Armstrong) and k.d. Lang, Gleason’s choice of writers and artists is uniformly sharp and ideal. What was originally supposed to be a project about Emmylou Harris instead morphed into something larger, the type of invaluable work that doubles as both a mammoth research document and entertaining collection of memories and reflections. Gleason’s book also shows that country, just like every other form of American roots music, is broader, edgier and more unpredictable in its impact than those who approach it from a merely commercial mode ever understand. No matter whether you love or ignore contemporary country music, “Women Walk The Line” is an extremely important and enjoyable volume.

(Both Susan Whitall and Holly Gleason will be interviewed in more detail in an upcoming “Giant Steps” column).

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