Take with the usual grain/caveat of subjectivity-that said, here are some titles from a year-for-the-ear in review:
Nat King Cole, Where Did Everyone Go? Cole's late-night torch-ballad album, long domestically unavailable, resurfaced this past year both as part of a monumental Bear Family box-set and a 2-LP-on-1-CD. With arrangements by Gordon Jenkins, this rivals Frank Sinatra's Sings for Only the Lonely for circa-1960 heartbreak honors. Listen to "I Keep Goin' Back to Joe's" and pour yourself another drink.
Miles Davis, Live at the 1963 Monterey Jazz Festival. The On the Corner box has been garnered most of the critical attention the past few months, but don't overlook this performance of the Seven Steps to Heaven band, when the then-new rhythm section of Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams was kicking Miles out of his early-1960s doldrums and preparing the way for the great breakthroughs of mid-1960s albums like Miles Smiles. (After Jimmy Heath saw the new group he said, "Miles, them .....%##@ers are gonna set everybody on fire!") Also includes the perenially-underrated George Coleman on tenor sax. Fave track: a playfully-wicked take on "Stella By Starlight."
Art Farmer, The Time and the Place: the Lost Concert. An album and performance with a somewhat confused history, but Mosaic straightened it out to present a stellar show of fiery hardbop circa 1966, with saxophonist Jimmy Heath and pianist Albert Dailey threatening at times to run away with the gig. A nice taste of the hardbop songbook as well, with compositions from both Heath and Dailey as well as Kenny Dorham-and then there's the opener, an extended groove on Ferde Grofe's "On the Trail" from The Grand Canyon Suite, which Heath had inaugurated two years earlier as a jazz staple.
Lionel Hampton, Complete Victor Sessions 1937-41. If you're a fan of Billie Holiday's late-1930s small-group dates, check this set out. Utilizing a number of Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington sidemen, Hampton delivered session after session of joyous swing, with a better ratio of musicianship-to-showmanship than he'd ever exhibit again. (Hamp's vocals here, on the other hand, leave much to be desired-or rather, leave one desiring much less.) Loren Schoenberg, as always, provides thorough, highly-detailed, and musically-illuminating liner notes.
Julie London, All Through the Night. Julie London in 1965 with Bud Shank's West Coast jazz group, laying down Cole Porter tunes. Still generally not thought of as a jazz singer, London certainly had the attitude in the moods she put across (check out her late-night torch-ballads record, About the Blues). A refreshing cool-without-ennui vision of the oft-belted Porter songbook.
Bennie Maupin, The Jewel in the Lotus. Maupin was a key member of Herbie Hancock's Head Hunters group, but he's made only a handful of solo records. This 1974 ECM release is more evocative of the early-1970s sextet LPs that Maupin and bassist Buster Williams recorded with Hancock (who's also present here)-what Hancock called "the upper atmosphere of music and the more ethereal kind of far-out, spacey music."
Charles Mingus Sextet with Eric Dolphy, Cornell 1964. On the heels of the Coltrane-Monk and Parker-Gillespie concerts, another unearthed gem. Earlier in the year I wrote: This sounds like a Mingus group having fun… not a word one normally associates with Mingus units, after imbibing the numerous narratives of stage tantrums, smashed instruments, punch-staggered sidemen, etc. But the raucous, biting laughter at the heart of tunes such as the epic 29-minute version of “Fables of Faubus” (and listen to what Jaki Byard does with his interpolations of “Yankee Doodle” and “Lift Every Voice and Sing”), the runaway creativity of “Take the A Train,” and the sheer exuberance of “Jitterbug Waltz” (along with a throwaway of “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling”) signify good times, good times for this ensemble on this particular occasion.
King Oliver, Off the Record: the Complete 1923 Jazz Recordings. Audiophilism can be a deep, dark abyss (remember Steve Martin's "Googlephonics"?), but this stunningly remastered 2-CD anthology of Oliver's seminal recordings with a young Louis Armstrong is rife with revelatory sonic detail. A true signal moment in jazz history, and the exuberance comes through more brilliantly than ever on this new set. Comes with a sumptuous 32-page booklet that explores the musical nuances of every track.
George Russell, Ezz-thetics. Avant-bop of the highest order from what, in retrospect, was a sort of early-1960s super-group, what with the presence of Eric Dolphy, Don Ellis, and David Baker. (The group, albeit without Dolphy, can be heard in the Night Lights program When Russell Met Baker.) This edition includes a new master and alternate take ("Kige's Tune") and retains the knockout delivery of Thelonious Monk's "Round Midnight," with Dolphy leading the way on alto sax. Baker says that Monk preferred the version heard here above all other interpretations.
Various artists, That Devilin' Tune V. 4. Earlier in the year I wrote: An impassioned, non-canonical, and smartly written history, Allen Lowe’s That Devilin’ Tune makes the case for many musicians who’ve been left by the wayside on the lost highway of American music. The book is accompanied by four 9-CD box-sets; volume 4 covers the 1945-1950 era. The breadth of jazz represented here is astonishing and reveals the vitality that suffused the postwar scene in general. (Lowe notes in the accompanying booklet that “the music was moving like an express train.”) You’ll find New Orleans revivalism, progressive big band, jump blues, bebop, Western swing, and jazz/pop vocals of the day, all ordered with an uncanny sense of flow.
Beyond-category category: Various artists, the ESP catalogue. ESP was a small 1960s label that proudly proclaimed, “The artists alone decide what you will hear” on their record sleeves… whether or not the artists actually got compensated is another story, but at least we, lucky listeners, once again have relatively easy access to key works by Albert Ayler and other important 1960s avant-garde figures-not to mention prime broadcast material from bop-era heroes Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, and Billie Holiday.
Best wishes to all for a happy 2008,