No two musicians defined the first half of the Jazz Century more than Duke Ellington & Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong. Duke was the dashingly elegant mad-genius of composition, a black Mozart who imbued jazz with an emotional sophistication and wit that will never be surpassed. Louis almost single-handedly popularized the art of the solo, liberating jazz from the rigid rules of ensemble playing and giving individual musicians a chance to express themselves. Unmistakable in sound, Satchmo’s presence strongly defined every session he recorded on.
Alice Coltrane was not the only harpist on the jazz scene. Though less well known, Dorothy Ashby was the instrument’s other gargantuan talent. An accomplished player, Ashby combined soulful feeling and technical sophistication to push the harp to the fore and give it a new voice.
Of the ten albums she recorded between 1956-1970, Afro-Harping is easily her most funky. Long sought after by collectors, this rare groove classic has been rescued from dustbin obscurity and reissued by Verve for a limited time only (through 2006). Complete with flutes, vibes, B-3 organs, prominent basses, bursts of percussion, and a sampler’s heaven of drum beats, this late ’60s offering is packed with a variety of gems.
Musically trained in London and schooled in the club scene of mid-’60s New York, Mulatu Astatke stands as the exceptional musical innovator of the Ethiopian groove. Starting in 1969, he created the first bands independent of the military, which had previously dominated the country’s music scene. Having immersed himself in Caribbean music, funk, jazz and Latin grooves during his lengthy stint abroad, Mulatu returned to his native land to give rise to a brand new sound.
An album of instrumentals, Ethiopiques Volume 4 is a case study in the inventive blending of influences that comprised the Ethiopian groove. Strains of funk and reggae timings permeate the thick and chunky bass lines, which are pushed prominently forward in the mix. Multiple saxophones swirl with the hypnotic, snake-charming sounds of the East, while at the same time resonating with jazzy tones reminiscent of John Coltrane and Lester Young.
If the name sounds familiar, it may be because Astatke was heavily featured on the Ethiopiques album series (Volume IV is always on heavy rotation during the summer months here at musthear.com HQ). The third record in Strut’s “Inspiration Information” studio collaboration series features a pairing between one of Africa’s great bandleaders, Mulatu Astatke, with the British-based Heliocentrics collective.
Fortunately, this is one “old meets new” project that truly captures the sound of mutual respect. One of Ethiopia’s foremost musical ambassadors, Astatke (he was the first African student at Berklee College of Music) helped create a particular Ethio-jazz sound that flourished during the “Swinging Addis” era of the late ‘60s. No slouches themselves, The Heliocentrics have become one of the UK’s most prominent collectives of musicians, inspired by everyone from Sun Ra and James Brown to David Axelrod.
It’s the rare group of musicians who can put together an album this good in a mere ten days.
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By the time 1968 rolled around, Ray Barretto was a celebrated studio session player whose hard-driving conga rhythms could be heard all over the records of Dizzy Gillespie, Cal Tjader, Cannonball Adderley, and countless others. Once he dropped Acid onto the music world, Barretto firmly established a reputation for himself as an innovator in his own right.
Like the drug itself, Acid had a mind-expanding influence on everyone, allowing for a far more adventurous and eclectic edge to slip into New York’s Latin music scene. A lot less psychedelic than its title and cover might lead you to believe, Acid remains one of the most far-out fusions of Latin and soul music ever conceived.
I first heard The Other Side Of Abbey Road at a cozy coffee shop in Hollywood, California, early in my jazz discovery days. At the time, I was just recovering from a heavy overdose on the Beatles, having listened to all their post-LSD records almost exclusively for several months. I was ready for something new, and an album of Beatles covers was not exactly what I had in mind. Nevertheless, my curiosity was aroused once George Benson’s velvety voice rang out across the cafe singing “Golden Slumbers” against Don Sebesky’s schmaltzy backdrop of strings. “Hmmm…” I thought somewhat dismissively, as the song transitioned into a borderline musak version of “You Never Give Me Your Money.” The lush baroque string arrangement on “Because” had me reaching for my magazine when Idris Muhammad and Ron Carter intervened, knocking me out of my chair with their swampy, indestructible groove on “Come Together.”
There are many things that could happen at a nightclub on a particular night. A guy might be drinking his paycheck, while his wife waits at home. A couple might be thinking of other people, or reaching for each other’s legs under the table. Someone might be in the corner resolving to change his ways. Any or all of these things could have been happening on the night of February 21, 1954 at Birdland in New York. I know because A Night at Birdland Volume 1 puts me there, sitting in the dark, listening to the sounds of sweat, smoke, sex and solitude. This was be-bop hardening into hard bop, and it was young lions feeling their influences and letting them fly.
Ever seen the movie, "Bullitt?" The 1968 movie in which Steve McQueen chases the bad guys through San Francisco’s streets in a Ford Mustang at over 110 mph? How about the beneath-the-subway car chase in "The French Connection," the chase sequences in "Ronin," or the final truck chase in "The Road Warrior," in which Mad Max guns an 18-wheel tanker full throttle as hundreds of post-apocalyptic street trash pursue it, bounce off it, and finally bring it spiralling to the ground? If you haven’t seen these movies, it will be impossible to fully comprehend Wayne Shorter‘s tenor sax solo on the title track of the Jazz Messengers Free For All. In fact, the music on Art Blakey‘s seemingly run-of-the-mill 1964 Blue Note reissue will not only knock you out of your seat, but put you up on two wheels, flip you eleven times and drop you off the Golden Gate Bridge.
1970, the year of this recording, was a mighty exploratory year for jazz. The shock waves of the Miles Davis bombshell, Bitches Brew, were strongly reverberating in open minds. But not every innovator had to plug-in their instrument in order to crackle electrically. Indeed, demonstrates on this live date just how alive and creative acoustic jazz could still be in that pivotal year of 1970. Brooks drives his all star quintet, which includes the grossly underrated Woody Shaw on trumpet, the heavy-weight George Coleman on tenor, the unstoppable Cedar Walton on piano, and the fluid Cecil McBee on bass.
Considered by some to be trumpeter Donald Byrd‘s last worthwhile jazz recording, Electric Byrd is a high-flying relic from 1970. This album can be understood as Byrd’s formidable response to the musical challenges set down by trumpet-rival Miles Davis with his epic Bitches Brew recordings from a year earlier. Clearly Miles is the ghost presence here, with distinct echoes of his sound permeating the vibe of this exploratory set.
Byrd demonstrates on his three originals that he, too, was a force to be reckoned with. The supremely atmospheric “Estavanico” opens the album, inventively fusing together elements of funk, psychedelica, Brazilian music, and hard-bop to create a truly transcendent groove. Clocking in at around 11 glorious minutes in length, “Estavanico” is an absolute masterpiece and must be heard by all fans of the Bitches Brew.