Mike Zwerin: New Releases

March 12th 2008 09:23 am

Copyright © 2008 Mike Zwerin

By Mike Zwerin

Many people complain that jazz ain’t what it used to be, and it always gives me pleasure to disprove it.

OTIS TAYLOR, Recapturing the Banjo (Telarc) — If you mention “banjo” to an American, chances are they would associate it with country music from Kentucky, or some Red State around there.

Actually, it is a descendant of the African instrument, the xalam. The big question is, when did black become white? Whatever the answer, Otis Taylor has decided to recapture it.

The multi-talented Taylor used to export Native American art to the UK, and import Rolls Royce cars in return, and he once coached a professional bicycle racing team.

Lately, he’s been reinventing the blues.

His music is a remarkable fusion of traditional blues with jazz and other contemporary influences. Here he is accompanied by Corey Harris, Alvin “Youngblood” Hart, and Keb’ Mo’, among others, on banjos.

Taylor’s voice has one of those attractive textures that make you exclaim, “who’s that?” right away. He wrote many of the songs, and the album also includes his arrangements of traditional songs like “Little Liza Jane,” and of such hits as “Walk Right In,” written by the unsung black banjo player Gus Cannon (1883-1979), and “Hey Joe.”

LOUIE BELLSON and CLARK TERRY, The Louie & Clark Expedition (Percussion Power) — Although there are other first-rate big bands, this one is as good as the best, the octogenarian co-leaders are both legendary, and you’ve got to give them up-front points for their band’s name.

As a teenager, Louie Bellson won a Gene Krupa drum contest. As a grown-up, he was married to the late great singer Pearl Bailey, he played for many years with Duke Ellington, wrote more than a dozen books on drums and percussion, and, in 1994, he received the American Jazz Masters award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Clark Terry, was Miles Davis’s trumpet idol, and he has performed for seven U.S. Presidents. A famously prodigious riff-inventor, he was the only sideman to play for extended periods with both Count Basie and Duke Ellington: he was a major influence on both bands. He has 13 honorary doctorates, and is a revered teacher
(explaining a jazz waltz to student drummers, he tells them to accent the first word of the phrase: “Who parked the car?”).

Performing sitting down now, Terry sounds like he’s about 29, although he has been known to preface his sets with the wry observation: “The golden years suck.” He has had three Grammy nominations, and won one Grammy Award.

This is a classic bluesy swing big band, with sounds made from human breath and touch that cannot be duplicated by a synthesizer. The co-leaders are still amazing. We’re fortunate they, and their “expedition,” are still around.

MCCOY TYNER, McCoy Tyner (McCoy Records) — This may be the backup band of the decade: Joe Lovano, saxophone; Christian McBride, bass; and Jeff “Tain” Watts, drums.

Although I’ve never been a big fan of the ex-John Coltrane pianist Tyner, that’s merely a matter of taste, and he’s a great accompanist, and you can’t find a better rhythm section to follow up Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones than McBride and Watts.

People who complain that there are no more major improvisers in jazz ought to listen to Lovano on this album. His sound, technical mastery, and his originality just get better and better as time goes by.

THIRD WORLD LOVE, New Blues (Anzic Records) — Another name to lay on lame jazz fans who are stuck in the past is the young Israeli trumpet player Avishai Cohen (the bass player of the same name is not on this record).

Israelis have recently been making inroads into the world of jazz. For example, trumpeter Cohen’s sister the clarinetist Anat, and, on this album, pianist Yonatan Avishai, and the bassist Omer Avital.

With this CD, you realize that you are listening to improvisers who know how to take chances. (They live in New York.) Investigating elements from other cultures, often in odd time signatures, their subtle music is worth an investment to get to the bottom of.

Mike Zwerin is the jazz columnist for Bloomberg News, which originally distributed this piece. You can find him online at www.mikezwerin.com.

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