various artists The Riverside Story
EXCEPTING SOME STUFF from France--a country that understands the secret of stinky cheese--most jazz-fusion variants marketed under the handle of "acid jazz" could disappear from the face of the earth tomorrow without having left an aesthetic ripple. The last thing the world needs is more lightweight groove bands trying to play jazz. On the other hand, we could sure use some heavyweight jazz bands that appreciate the power of a groove. You can savor that pleasure, along with some other equally exquisite ones, on the 4-CD Riverside Story box, which offers some of the best post-bop jazz ever recorded, and reclaims the term "crossover" from the pop-music insult glossary.
Like the nonexistent Rough Trade box I've wasted way too much of my life waiting for, this set documents the short but significant history of an indie label that helped define an era. Riverside was born in 1952 with a handful of reissues, but became a major player when it signed Thelonious Monk in 1955. That's where this set begins, with Monk's precisely wobbly investigation of Ellington's "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)." (Monk's conclusion? It does if it's got this swing.) That's followed by another swing entirely: Mongo Santamaria's Latin boogaloo classic "Watermelon Man," which actually made it onto the Billboard Top 10 pop chart in 1963. With occasional exclamations from vocalist La Lupe, and a horn chart that swells like an exceptionally tuneful head rush, it leaves the likes of Kenny G. slumped outside the bodega with an empty 40-ounce, mumbling something about "soul power."
Nothing else here was as commercially successful, but there are plenty more pop-wise, pre-rock aberrations, like Cannonball Adderly's gospel-charged "This Here" and Charlie Byrd's string-soaked bossa nova "Meditation." Of course, the label's adventurous heart really belonged to the sort of post-bop that made more history than dollars: Sonny Rollins's stark and muscular "Freedom Suite" with Oscar Pettiford and Max Roach; Bill Evans's beautiful "Waltz for Debby"; and two versions of Monk's "Ruby, My Dear," one with Coleman Hawkins on sax, the other with John Coltrane. This is all pop, too, of course--just conceived for a more perfect world. (Will Hermes)