What I’ve been listening to lately

  • Byard Lancaster – It’s Not Up To Us. The star of this piece of free-jazz marginalia from 1968 is the criminally under-recorded electric guitar innovator Sonny Sharrock, delivering an early example of his extraordinarily forceful attack. When I saw Sharrock live in the early 1990s, he kept a stack of guitar picks on his amp, and wore them out at a furious pace–a physical approach to guitar noise that no one has matched. The theme “John’s Children” from this album was later reprised in more epic fashion as “Many Mansions” on Sharrock’s late-career masterpiece Ask The Ages. For more on his career, see this 1989 interview.
  • Sonny Rollins & Coleman Hawkins – Sonny Meets Hawk. The Jazz Great Meets Jazz Great formula beloved of midcentury record producers was not very reliable at actually generating good albums, though a few classics did result. Among them are Coltrane’s session with Ellington, and this one from 1963. I had not sought it out before because I just assumed it would be a courteous, traditional blowing session. Nothing could be further from the truth: it’s actually one of Rollins’ more adventurous recordings, featuring young avant-gardists like Paul Bley and Henry Grimes. Hawkins, whose own avant-garde credentials go back to his “Picasso” of 1948, meets them on that territory and plays wonderfully.
  • Dave Easley – Byways Of The Moon. Fellow practitioner Susan Alcorn has called the pedal steel guitar “the last musical instrument borne of the mechanical age” and its potential in a jazz context has still been barely tapped. In this recording, the Louisiana-based Easley demonstrates the fiendishly complex instrument’s capabilities in a recital of tunes by Monk, Miles, Coltrane and Carla Bley, also throwing in a couple of transformed pieces from the rock repertoire (Led Zeppelin, Brian Wilson). It sounds great.
  • William Parker – O’Neal’s Porch. Recorded in the opening months of this century but unheard by me until recently, this is a stunningly good session. It’s recognizably in the “freebop” mode of Ornette Coleman’s quartet (sax, trumpet, bass, drums) but with a radically different and funkier rhythmic approach from Parker and longtime comrade Hamid Drake on drums. Right now, I can think of few recordings that better mine the tension between rhythmic drive and vertiginous improvisation that is one of the singular pleasures of jazz. This 20th anniversary appreciation has good context on how the album fits into Parker’s impressive career.
  • Ben Goldberg – Everything Happens To Be. Improvisational counterpoint is one of my favorite things and there’s plenty of it on this new-ish session from an unusual quintet. The woody tone of Goldberg’s clarinet mixes wonderfully with the dry, breathy sounds from Ellery Eskelin’s tenor sax and Mary Halvorson’s guitar. And the rhythm section of Michael Formanek on bass and Tomas Fujiwara on drums is one of the best in jazz right now, one of the few rivals to the Parker-Drake combo.

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