Brand New Old Music

So I was lying back, listening to three of my favorite LP box sets on the old turn-table–Buddy Bolden’s Funky Butts and Uptown Struts: Bootleg Recordings, Volumes 1-6, Fate Marable’s Rollin’ on the River, 1918-21 and King Oliver’s Live! From Lincoln Gardens–when word arrived that unknown or long unavailable music had been unearthed. As the discoveries eventually arrived on CD, one after another, like ghosts of Christmases past, I felt like H. G. Wells’ time traveler. Wells’ hero chased the future; I prefer the past. In the future, you may encounter a Parker or Monk or just a bunch of Molochs. With the past, you’ve got a sure thing.

It’s hard enough for working jazz musicians to compete in the marketplace with the departed legends of jazz; but to have to vie with new recordings by them must be especially galling. Imagine: You’re a young comer, say Robert Glasper, with a Blue Note contract under your belt and a new disc to fully justify the deal, and everywhere you turn music lovers who ought to be paying attention to you are glassy-eyed with astonishment about records made 60 years ago.

Sorry, but no one is more glassy-eyed than me, so please indulge a list of favorite albums that come from out of the past.

Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, Town Hall, New York City, June 22, 1945 (Uptown). I wasn’t alive when Bird and Diz reconfigured music, but they recorded so much in the studio and, inadvertently, through radio broadcasts, that it never much bothered me to have missed out on the Three Deuces, let alone a Town Hall concert I had never heard of. Yet did any scalper ever offer a more rewarding ticket to ride than this bebop Rosetta Stone, the origins of which remain rather murky? Gillespie is magnificent throughout, especially on the opening tracks, but come “Salt Peanuts,” Parker soars into the clouds for four rapturous choruses, entering and exiting with searing cries. The excellent sound balance favors Max Roach, and, for the first time, we hear the details of his revolutionary drums.

Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane, At Carnegie Hall (Blue Note). Unreal. The first two-minutes of “Monk’s Mood,” a mini-sonata, let you know that Monk is raring to go, playing with a pensive accessibility that, until now, I associated chiefly with his later solo San Francisco album. Coltrane’s entrance signals a push-me pull-you enjambment that they sustain with prickly inspiration. Here is the best, the truest Monk-Trane on record. Monk, never rising from the keyboard, comps like a demon, his tunes played with the assurance and familiarity of classic Americana. The second set is an express train, as Coltrane tears through “Blue Monk” as if the blues were mother’s milk and proof of his newfound liberation. Shadow Wilson, a drummer’s drummer, misses nothing, amplifying every twist and turn. Library of Congress archivist Larry Appelbaum, who found the tape, can command my tax dollars any day.

Art Tatum, Live, Volume 9 (Storyville). A pinnacle even for this matchless series, including Tatum’s only duets with Slam Stewart, a surreal semi-collaboration with a fey radio orchestra and a badly recorded home tape are preludes to small-hours piano-bar conviviality captured at a Central Avenue nitery in 1952. Despite constant yapping and a sing-along pal, the great man plays and sings (not least a pointed parody of a drunk on “Let Me Call You Sweetheart”) with vivacious precision till breakfast time.

John Coltrane, One Down, One Up: Live at the Half Note (Impulse). They were sitting on this how long? The 27-minute title track, previously heard on inadequately transferred bootlegs, now makes the shortlist of greatest performances by the quartet–McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison and especially Elvin Jones are fired in a way “Chasin’ the Trane” could only imply. The 1965 marathon tenor solo is ripe with details and so compelling in its drive and focus that it accrues the majesty of a great symphony.

Jelly Roll Morton, The Complete Library of Congress Recordings by Alan Lomax (Rounder). The oversized, piano-shaped packaging of this Morton set is more unwieldy than clever, but you can understand the desire for a blockbuster presentation. This material has not been readily available since the Riverside edition half a century ago! Morton’s Storyville tales and musical illuminations all but disappeared from jazzcrit or, worse, were mangled by self-styled revisionists. Now a new generation can experience for itself the pleasure of a great raconteur who, in 1938, regenerates a lost age with piano and voice.

Ray Charles, Pure Genius–The Complete Atlantic Recordings (1952-1959) (Atlantic). Like the Morton, this Charles box set, whose casing simulates a portable 1950s record player, is a definitive collection. In addition to the studio and concert sides, there is a wonderfully revealing running tape from a 1953 rehearsal and a DVD of an entire set at the 1960 Newport Jazz Festival, including a “Drown in My Own Tears” that’s almost as good at the classic version recorded in Georgia.

There were even more unexpected treasures that arrived recently: Miles Davis’ 1956 Gene Norman Presents concert appended to the two-CD reissue of ‘Round About Midnight as well as the trumpeter’s The Cellar Door Sessions 1970 box set, both on Columbia/Legacy; Sonny Rollins’ Without a Song: The 9/11 Concert (Milestone), possibly the first installment in a series; and Louis Armstrong in Scandinavia, Vol. 2 (Storyville), recorded in 1952 and 1955. At this point, nothing would surprise me, not even a seventh volume of Buddy Bolden.