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Best jazz recordings of last year

Cam Miller

On the order of 300 jazz recordings intended for review cross my desk each year. Some never make it out of the jewel box and into a CD player. Others do, but shouldn’t. There are others that do and are fairly rewarding, and then there are those that do and earn a special place in the Miller record library.

And it’s from the latter category that come the 10 that qualify for my choice as the best jazz recordings for the year 2001. Most have been reviewed in this newspaper, some have been reviewed in other publications, and some have yet to be reviewed in any periodical.

And away we go …

Ken Burns Jazz, various artists, Columbia Legacy – A remarkable compilation of recordings by pioneers of early jazz and both unknown and well-known artists from each succeeding period. The five-disc box set contains music of artists who were featured in Burns’ splendid multi-part television series that traced the history of jazz.

The Calling: A Tribute to Sarah Vaughan, Dianne Reeves, Blue Note – There have been other tributes to songstress Sarah Vaughan, but none have the carried the impact of Reeves’ super salute to Sassy. Reeves swoops and swings through a litany of songs that capture the essence of the Divine One but, nevertheless, carry Dianne’s personal stamp.

For Hamp, Red, Bags & Cal, Gary Burton, Concord – One of today’s ranking vibraphonists, Burton pays homage to fellow mallet men Lionel Hampton, Red Norvo, Milt Jackson and Cal Tjader. Burton and Norvo are all but blood brothers – Burton’s take of “Indiana” is a prime example – but he also does justice to Bags, Hamp and Cal though Burton’s attack lacks Tjader’s crispness.

Satchmo: A Musical Autobiography, Louis Armstrong, Columbia Legacy – A three-disc box set, the Armstrong compendium takes us through the years with the musician whose influence on other musicians is unmatched. The recordings are unique in that they are not cleaned-up takes of original Armstrong studio sessions, but instead tracks laid down by Pops’ all-star combos and full band in the ’50s with a decidedly more modern flavor.

A Portrait Of Duke, Dan Barrett and Frank Robertschuten, Arbors – American trombonist Dan Barrett and Netherlands reedman Frank Robertschuten emerge as nominal leaders of a seven-piece international ensemble that includes the late Australian multiple instrumentalist Tom Baker. The end product is one of the tastiest tributes ever to Duke Ellingon, that benefits immensely from Barrett’s charts, tram and cornet and Robertschuten’s warm saxes and clarinets and Chris Hopkins’ Basie-like piano.

The Tenor Giants, Zoot Sims And Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, Pablo – Taken from a series of overseas concerts nearly 30 years ago by Mr. Smooth Sims) and Mr. Groove (Davis), the disc is testimony to the fact the woodwinders were indeed tenor giants. With pianist Oscar Peterson, bassist Niels-Henning Orsted Pederson and drummer Louis Bellson for soulmates, the two tenor titans run through a program of eight standards as though the musicians were one.

To a Lady, Tom Talbert Orchestra, Discover Jazz Records – You can never overestimate the quality of any recording involving veteran big-band leader-composer-arranger Talbert. The latest outing of his orchestra brings together a mix of graybeard musicians (trumpeter Joe Wilder, for one) and young lions (guitarist Howard Alden, for example) to perform stunning charts of proven ballads like “Little Girl Blue” and originals such as “Month of Sundays.”

Lean, Mean Swing Machine, Bill Allred Classic Jazz Band, Sun Jazz – Eight men going like 80 is a description that fits trombonist Allred’s killer octet. With a four brass, one-reed front line and a rock-ribbed rhythm section, the band digs into the blues bag for this little big-band outing – “Bye, Bye Blues” is the opener and “Limehouse Blues” closes up shop – although the highlight is a tram chase between the two Allreds (Bill and son, John) on “Dig,” aka “Sweet Georgia Brown.”

Live Trane, John Coltrane, Pablo – A handsome seven-disc box set captures world-class tenor saxman Coltrane at his best during a critical period in the musician’s career. The sessions demonstrate ‘Trane’s transition from chordal to free blowing, embracing the essence of Far East sounds, and teaming with fellow reedman Eric Dolphy for extended and exciting choruses that one or the other often develops into duets with timekeeper Elvin Jones. All tracks were recorded during a series of European concerts in the ’60s in the company of both a quintet and quartet that included such gifted sidemen as pianist McCoy Tyner, Dolphy and Jones.

Sidewalk Meeting, Ted Nash, Arabesque Records – Wildly inventive, incredibly spirited and, at times, a tad off the wall. That’s as good a description as any for reed player Ted Nash’s five-piece Odeon that graced the Grass Valley Veterans Memorial Building last fall on Jazz Weekend. And the disc under consideration captures the very essence of Odeon, whether it’s the melodic title track that features the blend of Nash’s bass clarinet and Wycliffe Gordon’s wonderful wah-wah trombone work or Bill Schimmel’s moody accordion setting the tone for “Summer Night in the Deep South” or Nash’s klezmer clarinet coloring “Tango Sierra.”


Cam Miller is a free-lance jazz critic in Lake Wildwood. You may write to him care of The Union, 464 Sutton Way, 95945.

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