Breaking Into the Vaults

It's fitting that a record company's holdings are said to reside in a vault. The word brings to mind Dracula's crypt or a dungeon outfitted with pit and pendulum or the phantom's subterranean grotto or, for those less Gothically inclined, a bank's most inaccessible treasure.

We can only wonder at what dark machinations decide what shall and shall not see the light of day. Most recordings are initially released within a year of production. Yet every so often we learn of gems lost to memory, like prisoners at Guantanamo Bay.

Some have had a brief moment in the sun-for example, Miles Davis' In Europe LP was issued by Columbia in the early 1960s and not since then. Others were shut away from the first, among spider webs and an armadillo or two.

Several of the best discs of 2003 were dredged from a long hibernation in the vaults. No reissue was more revealing than Miles Davis' A Tribute to Jack Johnson, Columbia's five CDs of music, most of it previously unheard, that were part of the process that created the two medium-length selections issued as a 1970 album of that name. The five LPs (plus alternate takes) that constitute Mosaic's Complete Verve Gerry Mulligan Concert Band Sessions had been out at one time or another, but the absence of most of this music from the CD era should disabuse any fan of the idea that all jazz classics are reliably recycled.

Verve released a 1989 Stan Getz album with the euphemistic title Bossas and Ballads: The Lost Sessions. Suppressed is more like it. According to the notes, producer Herb Alpert's company "wasn't set up for a straightahead jazz album," so he buried it in favor of the overproduced Apasionado. Other than Getz's magnificent 1991 duets with Kenny Barron, it represents his last major achievement, and a benchmark of his final triumph against illness and addiction; yet his exceptional quartet (Barron, George Mraz and Victor Lewis) was armadillo food for 14 years-not half as long as Jaki Byard's The Last From Lennie's and Andrew Hill's Passing Ships.

Byard and Hill, despite a 15-year age difference, became influential pianists and composers on the borderline of 1960s avant-garde jazz, working with many of the same musicians-Eric Dolphy, Roland Kirk, Sam Rivers, Booker Ervin and, providing connective tissue between these salvaged albums, Joe Farrell. In a sense, Hill had picked up the reigns Byard had cracked since the latter relocated from Boston to New York. Beginning in 1960, Byard recorded impressively as a solo pianist, sideman and leader, but his early albums were relatively conventional. Another Byard, one given to boisterous free-association, droll eclecticism and redolent melodies, was unleashed on 1965's The Jaki Byard Quartet/Live! Vol.1, the first of three scheduled LPs recorded at a West Peabody, Mass., club called Lennie's-on-the-Turnpike. From then on, working with Prestige producer Don Schlitten, Byard issued diverse jolts to the system, though none were so far out as to alienate, say, the average Oscar Peterson disciple.

Among these was Live! Vol. 2. But as the seasons changed and Prestige was sold, the promise of a Live! Vol. 3 was forgotten, except by a disgruntled few. In 1994, Prestige perversely released an abridged edition of the first two volumes, rather than the hoped-for complete set. A man teed off on the moon, Vietnam defeated America and lost to McDonald's, Nancy Reagan and Monica Lewinsky took charge of the White House and the Soviet Union vanished along with the World Trade Center and the budget surplus, and, still, no volume three-until now. The Last From Lennie's, which restores the ballad medley lopped off the abridgement, is timelessly rambunctious. Bassist George Tucker and drummer Alan Dawson (doubling on vibes) were as inspired as Farrell (note his short and perfect solo on "Strolling Along") and Byard, who provokes express change-ups and somehow makes the quartet sound equilateral-never merely soloist-plus-rhythm. Humor is everywhere. Except for volumes one and two, this disc is unlike any other.

While Prestige liberated Byard's id, Blue Note's Alfred Lion nurtured the more introverted Andrew Hill. After selling the label, however, Lion retired and left Passing Ships to his partner Francis Wolff, who recorded it in 1967 (according to two participants) or 1969 (according to the label's files), and may have aborted its release because of shaky ensemble work. The shakiness is unobtrusive and understandable; Hill's writing is hectic and enchanted, making the most of a nine-piece ensemble. On most selections he toys with 12. "Sideways" is a sort-of blues reminiscent of Roland Kirk's "No Tonic Pres" and highlighted by a de facto piano concerto interlude. The title tune, one of Hill's prettiest, is a four-bar melody played three times plus a four-bar tag; "Cascade" is built with a 12-plus-four configuration; "Plantation Bag" is a jump blues in the manner of Eddie Harris' "Freedom Jazz Dance"; and "Noon Tide" is a revised version of Hill's 1963 "Catta." The players are eager-Farrell, Dizzy Reece, Woody Shaw, Julian Priester, Howard Johnson and Ron Carter, booming in the undertow-and the leader's meditations add another dimension to a career thankfully in progress.

The vaults deserve to be broken into when treasures like these lie within.

Originally published in January/February 2004

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