Better Get Hit In Yo' Soul

A mid-year roundup of 2005 jazz highlights

Mingus Big Band, Orchestra, & Dynasty,I Am Three(Sue Mingus Music)

Every musician should face the daunting privilege of brandishing a Charles Mingus composition. The bassist's signature works are steeped in the blues, braced by hard-swinging syncopation, resplendent in their lush, unique harmonies, buffeted and replenished by changes in mood and tempo. For I Am Three, his loyal widow Sue Mingus, who previously started rare-Mingus-devoted Revenge Records in an attempt to beat the bootleggers, has launched another label and mixed and matched the three repertory groups--the 23-piece Big Band, the Dynasty septet, and the Euro-classically oriented 10-piece Orchestra--that have enhanced his compositional profile in the 26 years since his death. She has emphasized obscurities--only the final two tunes on the ten-song disc are well known--and the blues. I could do without Frank Lacy's typically hammy vocal on "Paris in Blue," and truncating the orchestral epic "Epitaph" down to the four-minute "Chill of Death" isn't worth the trouble. But after that, I'm out of quibbles. The ballads brood, rail, reminisce, and put the pang in poignancy. The rave-ups rumble with harmonic depth, goaded by arranger John Stubblefield's fidelity to the Mingusian tenets of spiritual passion and ongoing innovation. And tenor saxophonist Abraham Burton is a budding star, sounding here like the second coming of the late, great Booker Ervin.

Making homework fun for the attentive listener: Wayne Shorter
Chris Cuffaro
Making homework fun for the attentive listener: Wayne Shorter

Ernest Ranglin,Surfin'(Telarc)

Biréli Lagrène Gipsy Project,

Move(Dreyfus)

Kurt Rosenwinkel,Deep Song(Verve)

The alpha musicians of rock, guitarists are mostly utility players in jazz. But this trio of beguiling discs neatly showcases the breadth, and fuzzy boundaries, of jazz guitar. The 73-year old Ranglin is regarded as the father of Jamaican ska, and the easygoing manner in which Surfin' dapples notes across the island's rhythms (ska, reggae, lover's rock, etc.) reveals a bent toward a hedonism so humbly sublime, it clarifies my revulsion for Jimmy Buffett. As a gipsy teen prodigy, Biréli Lagrène caused an inevitable sensation as a faux-Django. Now pushing 40, he's transcended the shadow enough to engage Django's legacy with a blistering rendition of "Hungaria," a sprightly "Nuages," and a weepy "Danse Norvégienne," and still burnish his bop cred with glorious renditions of "Cherokee" and Denzil Best's "Move." He's as lightning-quick as Ranglin is measured.

As for Deep Song, I had succinct slurs already etched in my brain for Rosenwinkel (pretentious), Joshua Redman (facile) and Brad Mehldau (somnambulistic) before the disc dropped in February and promptly ambushed my arrogance. In particular, Rosenwinkel's Scofield-esque guitar lines and Redman's curlicue tenor phrases generate seamless and irresistible harmonies (reprised when Rosenwinkel guests on Redman's new Momentum CD). They gambol like a couple of mating birds on a trio of uptempo tunes ("The Cross," "Cake," and "The Next Step") that reliably serve as ecstatic, house-cleaning music. Meanwhile, from his right-then-left-then-two-handed tour de force on "Cake" to his melodically resonant intros and fills throughout the disc, Mehldau has never sounded more inspired.

 

Wayne Shorter Quartet,Beyond the Sound Barrier(Verve)

The daunting intelligence displayed by this airtight ensemble is a product of ears as much as brains. In any conversation, musical or verbal, attentive listening makes for sophisticated responses, and these guys are finishing each other's thoughts with such alacrity, empathy, and leapfrogging wisdom that the notion of solos (or, alas, grooves) is outmoded. As if to prove that this approach can apply to any genre, Shorter includes an Arthur Penn movie soundtrack tune from the '40s, a swatch of Mendelssohn, some collectively improvised "free jazz," and a couple of compositions, relieved of their processed cheese, from his execrable late '80s release Joy Ryder. Now in his 70s, Shorter has molded the other quartet members--pianist Danilo Perez, bassist John Patitucci, and drummer Brian Blade--in his elliptical, harmonically advanced style. The result is a masterwork that can feel like homework if your mood isn't right. But if you want a better understanding of small-group jazz dynamics as a rarefied art, let your ears lead your brain, and the rewards from this symposium will outweigh the rigors.

 
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