Buried Treasure From The Jazz Giants

Richard S. Ginell - From Out of the The WestBy Richard S. Ginell: From Out of the West

Segueing over to one of my other musical passions, jazz, I recently found three bound volumes of Down Beat magazine’s jazz record reviews in a Simi Valley antique shop, of all places.  The books cover all of the reviews that DB printed in 1959, 1960 and 1962 – in other words, right at the heart of what many scribes and record company factotums now consider to be jazz’s artistic high-water mark  (one can debate that, but there’s little doubt this was one of the richest periods).

It’s enlightening and amusing to browse through these pages just to see if the critics of that time could recognize a classic when they heard one. Sometimes, they were spectacularly wrong – like the vicious pan of Dave Brubeck’s signature album Time Out (“Vulcan at the forge”) or dismissive wave of the hand at Cannonball Adderley’s In San Francisco, or mostly bored by John Coltrane’s sweeping left turn into the avant-garde in Live At The Village Vanguard (all of these pieces were written by a fellow who is still active more than a half-century later).  Sometimes. they were astute enough to recognize the lasting genius within Miles Davis’s Porgy And Bess, Sketches Of Spain and Kind Of Blue, or Ornette Coleman’s breakthrough albums, or Charles Mingus’s two great records for Columbia, Mingus Ah Um and Mingus Dynasty, or Wes Montgomery’s long-delayed break out of Indianapolis onto the national scene. Sometimes, the opinions are indecisively split when different critics write about the same album. And you can figure out what didn’t make the cut of history – the now-forgotten newcomers, the established names who are now seen to have outlived their heydays.

I also feel some sadness when browsing these books, for whether they realized it or not, these writers were privileged to be living in what now looks like a lost golden age, when most of jazz’s great figures were still around and some were just getting started. While classical music’s development could be measured in centuries, jazz’s evolution took place in mere decades, where it seemed as if every couple of years or so, some new young genius in his 20s would come along and redraw the map of possibilities – or in the special case of Miles Davis, would do so over and over again.  That hardly happens anymore, if at all. If you don’t believe it, try this test on yourself: when was the last time you heard a newly-recorded jazz album that changed your life?  Thought so.

As a result, it so often seems like the only things that can get many of us really excited is when a long-lost or previously-unsuspected mother lode from jazz’s past turns up – like some long-buried Wes Montgomery tapes that recently came from out of nowhere onto an eBay page, and subsequently into a lavishly-packaged new release, Echoes Of Indiana Avenue (Resonance).  Wes was my pathway into jazz as a pre-teen, and what little there was to be mined in the vaults after his shockingly early death at 45 in 1968 had been long exhausted.  But now, we have a new window as to what this intuitively creative guitarist sounded like in 1957 and 1958 just before he went national, recording demos in a studio with his regular trio and his brothers Buddy and Monk, and jamming into the night in some Indianapolis joint.  The most astounding track of all is something labeled “After Hours Blues,” where Wes digs in with some raunchy down-home flailing in a style never before heard on any of his released recordings.

Doors keep opening upon huge archives of jazz on European radio and television tapes.  The Südwestrundfunk in southwest Germany just flung open theirs for a new label, Jazzhaus – and the first sampling is a 1969 Cannonball Adderley date in Stuttgart that captures the waning days of one of his great quintets, the one that scored a surprise Top 20 hit with Joe Zawinul’s “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy.”   “Mercy” isn’t here, but Zawinul is – featured prominently on acoustic piano and an early electric model, seemingly champing at the bit to move on with his electronic explorations (he would leave Cannonball the following year to co-found Weather Report).  The group – with Cannon on alto sax, brother Nat on cornet, Vic Gaskin on bass and Roy McCurdy on drums – is in terrific soulful form, and the broadcast picked up some of Cannon’s inimitable monologues, though sometimes off-mike.  This isn’t even a mere taste of what’s in store, for the Südwestrundfunk claims to have some 3,000 hours of unreleased material. An archive like that might keep them digging away for the rest of the century.

Another set of European broadcast sources yielded three CDs and one DVD of Miles Davis tapes, Live in Europe 1967 – portentously labeled The Bootleg Series Vol. 1 by Columbia/Legacy as if to indicate that here, too, there’s a lot more to come. The date 1967 indicates that this is the second “great” Miles Davis Quintet, with Miles, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams burning hard with the freebop throughout the Antwerp, Copenhagen and Paris sets on the CDs and the Karlsruhe and Stockholm sets on the DVD.  The sets are structured similarly – each begins with “Agitation” and “Footprints” – but the charged-up quintet always finds a way to probe and push so that different things are being said in these uninterrupted streams of consciousness.

Yeah, these are exciting discoveries, and one shouldn’t make any apologies for that. Until somebody starts putting out new stuff that can inspire the love, the adrenaline rush and yes, the controversy from today’s audiences that the music from 1965 and other years did from its audiences and push jazz forward, of course we will immerse ourselves in buried treasure from the past.