Thursday, September 24, 2009

Jazz At Lincoln Center Presents: The Fire Of The Fundamentals (1994)

So I'm in a groove (or is it a rut?) (sorry, Peart) with these Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra discs. Collect 'em all. This is their second, and it's not technically an LCJO disc; it's a compilation of things that happened during three seasons of Jazz at Lincoln Center, the organization's home stand, and this means that some of the tracks are by the home team, and some are by visitors.

The only Orchestra pieces proper - the only big band numbers, that is, - are the Charlie Parker number "Hootie Blues" (nice) and the inevitable Ellington, "Multi-Colored Blues" (nice, too).

But the highlights are not the Orchestra pieces, but two numbers by what seem to me to have been subsets of the orchestra, an octet and a septet, both led by Wynton Marsalis and largely if not entirely filled out with Orchestra members.

The first of these highlights is the number that kicks off the disc, the Jelly Roll Morton tune "Jungle Blues." This is just a monster groove, is all. Drums, piano, guitar, and tuba all mashing on the beat, with brass and clarinet getting just as filthy as they can. This is true Storyville stuff, real bordello blues, and with the pristine recording technology and room of the '90s you can begin to understand just how and why the old records were supposed to work. I mean, it's still possible to appreciate Jelly Roll Morton records today, Louis Armstrong, King Oliver, and all the rest of those New Orleans gentlemen, but here things become clear in a different way. You can hear the space and balance between the horns, the rhythm section, the one woodwind. It starts to color in a picture that was only in sepia before, of a wanton woman, that licorice stick, dancing shrill and sunken in siren abandon, surrounded by the gruff, gasping growls of the horns. So that's what it was all about. Always was.

The second highlight is much more on the spiritual side of the spectrum, a cover of Coltrane's "Dahomey Dance." I confess I haven't heard the original of this yet, but the cover is brilliant. Marsalis's trumpet is cool and focused, the saxophones manage to evoke Coltrane without sounding too much like they're trying to ape him, and the bass duel sends shivers up the spine. It doesn't scale the hot heights of delirium that Coltrane was wont to; rather it brings out the cool '60s vibe that was always implicit in his work, and more explicit in contemporaries like Horace Silver.

From Jelly Roll to Coltrane and several points in between: the diversity of the disc is an eloquent testimony to the mission of the LCJO. Persuasive, and that's key this time around, because the trappings of this disc, from the PBS-y cover art to Stanley Crouch's even-more-pompous-than-usual liner notes, give the project the whiff of the textbook, or the school field trip. Y'know, it's Culcher, and you kids better appreciate it. Luckily, the music gets beyond all that.

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