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News makes old jazz young again

By now, most of the great jazz artists from the mid-century crucibles of bebop and its avant-garde successors are gone, and most others, in their eighties and nineties, have retired from touring. Yet there are still plenty of unheard treasures to be discovered – from radio station vaults, concert hall warehouses, musician archives and bootleg collections made by enthusiasts. Some are unreleased and others circulate in unauthorized versions, but a diligent and dedicated community of producers working for specialist record labels has created a small but powerful industry of high-quality rediscoveries and reissues, often working closely with musicians and their estates. This spring brought an unprecedentedly rich flood of such recordings, which, to my ear, stand out both for their musical excitement and their place in jazz history. There’s also a new edition of the octogenarian jazz great who looks younger every year.


Alice Coltrane, «The Carnegie Hall Concert» (Impulse! Records)

Keyboardist and harpist Alice Coltrane has the disadvantage of bearing her husband’s surname, John Coltrane. He was already world-famous by the mid-1960s, when they married and began performing together—their close and fruitful collaboration played a large role in the transformative runs of his final years—and his legend largely obscured understanding of her own individuality. and powerful art. Yet her earlier work under the name Alice McLeod (preserved on live recordings from 1959 and 1960) reveals that she was one of the quietest original jazz musicians of the era. It’s unfortunate that she didn’t have the chance (no doubt because she was a woman) to establish her own recording career before joining John Coltrane’s group. Yet the 1971 release of this concerto, four years after John’s death, makes rich sense of both her musical ideas and her approach to ensemble formation.

Her band is one of a double lineup of two saxophonists (Archie Shepp and Pharoah Sanders), two bassists (Jimmy Garrison and Cecil McBee), two drummers (Ed Blackwell and Clifford Jarvis) and two musicians who were classmates of Swami Satchidananda, Kumar Kramer ( playing harmonium) and Tulsi Reynolds (tambura). Meanwhile, Coltrane is her doppelgänger, playing harp and piano. And the doubling persists even in the structure of the concert, where two of her compositions and two of her late husband’s will be performed. Alice Coltrane’s playing was also notable for its oceanic fullness, something that here is seamlessly enhanced by the band’s spacious textural complexity. Her sense of rhythm is indifferent to bar lines and fixed beats, even when the band accompanies her with a meandering and merry swing (as in the first track «Journey in Satchidananda»). When she plays the piano, her mercurial speed conjures up huge currents, similar to Cecil Taylor’s way, but nowhere near as boisterous.

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In the two pieces she composed, she plays the harp in a way that shows why she found the instrument such a natural extension of her work on the piano: both a sense of an unbroken skein of notes and an enraptured base of repose. the commotion escalates. Her virtuoso harp playing on «Shiva-Loka» makes individual notes almost disappear, immersed in a heavenly complex space of sound. On two of John Coltrane’s compositions, «Africa» ​​and «Leo», he plays piano, as well as in his band. Her six-minute solo on «Leo» is a revelation: after intense duets between Sanders and Shepp on tenor sax, she enters with ringing, impassioned chords that succumb to gospel tremolos that reveal a possessed bass note that rings out. like church bells from space. It’s the single most thrilling concentration of her artistry I’ve ever heard. And it looks like there’s a lot more to come: this record is part of the «Year of Alice,» a sequence of releases and events coordinated by the John and Alice Coltrane Home.


Sonny Rollins, «Freedom Weaver: The 1959 European Tour Recordings» (Resonance Records)

This amazing recording tells a story or part of it. From the summer of 1959 to the fall of 1961 Sonny Rollins, after abandoning his public career in music – from studio sessions and concerts – devoted himself to practicing on the Williamsburg Bridge. He concentrated on reworking his art—its tone and tenacity, its ideas and techniques, and its sense of self. (He also worked to give up cigarettes and alcohol.) An exuberant 1986 painting of the late Faith Ringgold that appeared on Cover issue dated May 6, 2024 The New Yorker recalls this essential drama of jazz history. But musically speaking, what did Rollins leave behind? What was it, in his already famous art, that he was trying to overcome? The clearest answer is in these shows from Europe from March 1959. Rollins hadn’t been in the recording studio since late 1958, so these are the main surviving documents of what he was doing before he went to the bridge. (Many were available on bootlegs; not only did Rollins make no money from them, but their sound was much thinner; on this new, carefully remastered release, they sometimes sound present in the room.)

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Rollins, now ninety-three and retired, has had many different bands throughout his career—particularly in the 1950s and 1960s, which was a passionate period for him—because his main musical concepts are not band-centric. (A deeply researched biography by Aidan Levy, “Saxophone colossusRollins is more of a heroic soloist, and the format that best supports him is the simplest: a trio—only accompanied by bass and drums. (He said of the pianists in 1958, «Their chords interrupted my train of thought.») Rollins’ quest for musical freedom involved jumping out of the tightrope dance of complex harmonic structures that dominated solos in swing and bebop, and these European trio sets find him pushing against those forms harder than he did in the studio. He brought bassist Henry Grimes and drummer Pete La Roca on a 1959 European tour that began in late February; the three-disc set features tracks taken from seven individual concerts between March 2nd and March 11th.

Tellingly, Rollins’ March 4 performances of «I’ve Told Ev’ry Little Star» and «Paul’s Pal» are at their most daring when he trades four with La Roca, suggesting that his ideas and his energy were still limited larger frameworks in which he worked. Rollins seems particularly energized in the three numbers from Stockholm, where La Roca is replaced by Joe Harris, Rollins’ longtime friend from his home neighborhood of Harlem. Rollins is playfully bouncy on an uptempo version of «Will You Still Be Mine?» But his main inspiration comes when he’s unaccompanied, in his deeply introspective cadences at the beginning of «Love Letters» and «It Could Happen to You Too» and at the end «Cocktails for Two». This last one is from the penultimate concert recorded (March 9th in Frankfurt) and Rollins is there in wild, rough form, sounding like he’s aggressively trying to break away from something.

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The last concert from Aix-en-Provence on March 11 (in which La Roca replaces key bop drummer Kenny Clarke, who lived in Paris), takes up the entire third disc and contains only three pieces, each of which runs more. than fifteen minutes. It shows the kind of extended musical expatiation that the trio format fostered and that drove Rollins to seek out new musical instruments—in sound, meaning, and spirit—in his years of self-exploration on the bridge. This period of study also removed inhibitions: his greatest performances in the coming years seem like free associations, springing from deep within, with a force of unbridled inspiration that is also fiercely logical. The 1959 European album shows not only where Rollins was coming from on the bridge, but also where he was going.


Art Tatum, «Jewels in the Treasure Box: The 1953 Chicago Blue Note Jazz Club Recordings» (Resonance Records)

The virtuoso virtuosity of pianist Art Tatum, whose records have led some listeners to believe they are hearing two pianists playing at once, belies his irrepressibly far-reaching inventiveness. As free and boisterous as his performances are, they shimmer with an inimitable precision that defines his genius as much for what he is not as for what he is. Tatum, who lived from 1909 to 1956, played primarily popular tunes from the Great American Songbook and differed from most other major jazz musicians in his lack of vehemence. The music flowed from him with seemingly effortless complexity. His music is joyful but not cheerful, exuberant but not boisterous, sentimental but not sad; in his performances there is neither tragedy, nor comedy, nor a wink of wit, nor bold self-revelation. They are so floridly ornamental that they seem to have no core, yet so impregnably shaped that they feel as solid as sculptures – and timeless. Tatum is outside the categories of swing and bop, modern before his time and yet old-fashioned, if conceptually far advanced.

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