Graded on a Curve:
The Best of 2018’s Reissues, Part Two

Part two of our reissue spotlight extends the diversity; there is live jazz, the early recordings of an icon, some heavy funk, and rock in varying shapes, sizes and levels of strangeness. It all gets capped off with a bountiful helping of vintage African sounds and a series of releases from one of post-punk’s defining bands.  

5. Thelonious Monk, Mønk (Gearbox) + Bud Powell, The Essen Jazz Festival Concert (ORG Music) Uncovered recordings of great artists are likely to bring reassessments, and so it is with this live platter of Thelonious Monk’s quartet from Copenhagen in 1963, the tape of which (made by the Danish Broadcasting Corporation) was reportedly saved just before being carried off in the trash (it was found in a skip). The reevaluation here relates to this incarnation of Monk’s quartet, which features bassist John Ore and drummer Frankie Dunlop together with Monk’s longstanding tenor saxophonist Charlie Rouse. A fine band, and the unit that brought us Monk’s Dream in fact, but not a lineup that has previously stood out as spectacular on live recordings. With this retrieval, the group is now documented as having a great night.

ORG’s The Essen Jazz Festival Concert, which finds Bud Powell in a quartet setting with tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins, drummer Kenny Clarke, and bassist Oscar Pettiford, is not a new discovery. However, giving it a deep listen on the occasion of its reissue provided the opportunity to further revise my assessments regarding the work and the troubled, ultimately tragic life of Powell, who was amongst the greatest pianists in the history of jazz. In short, a recurring stream of thought concerning Powell’s later recordings has been that they are to varying degrees subpar, and while I won’t deny that there are some rough patches in the discography, this performance from Essen, Germany is not one of them. This is not to say that the show isn’t without faults, but most of them aren’t Bud’s, and if this isn’t as strong an affair as Mønk, the opportunity to contemplate Powell in the ’60s without a black cloud hanging over the proceedings is very much appreciated.

4. Nina Simone, Mood Indigo: The Complete Bethlehem Singles (BMG – Bethlehem) + Betty Davis, Nasty Gal (Light in the Attic) Shoddy reissues predate the CD era, but the flood of visually unappealing, noncontextualized releases probably hit its peak in the ‘90s. I won’t deny that I sometimes took the bait and bought some otherwise unenticing releases because there was no other way of hearing the contents, and I indeed picked up a bunch of underwhelming packages in gathering the Bethlehem singles of Nina Simone, specifically because no label ever bothered to package them all together. Well, this year BMG and producer Cheryl Pawelski did, and their smart gesture is a joy to hear as it underscores the depth of Simone’s ability on her earliest recordings. Much of the record (available on CD and on vinyl with a bonus 7-inch) finds Simone singing and playing piano alone with results that are sublime, and while bassist Jimmy Bond and drummer Albert “Tootie” Heath do occasionally back her in a jazz framework, this collection forecasts the wide range of her later work. It provides a fabulous opportunity to soak up the brilliance of the artist long before her career struggles set in.

If Nina Simone suffered from a refusal to be boxed into a single category, the issue with Betty Davis was that she was simply ahead of her time. Musically and sexually bold in an era that seemed primed for acceptance, the aggressive funk of this intense, liberated woman was ultimately too much for the listening public at large to handle, as it wasn’t as openminded a time as has often been claimed; naturally, she’s sustained a cult following in the ensuing years. About a decade back Light in the Attic reissued her ’73 self-titled debut and the following year’s They Say I’m Different, the pair opening the eyes of many, and in 2016 they dished her largely unheard early recordings as The Columbia Years 1968-69. It’s all worthy stuff, but this year they returned to print Davis’ third and best solo LP from ’75, a slab of funk so heavy and wild of personality that her career essentially stalled. If you dig Funkadelic but have yet to get hip to Nasty Gal, you’re in for a doozy.

3. This Heat, Made Available, Repeat / Metal, Live 80 – 81 (Modern Classics) + Swans, Soundtracks for the Blind (Young God) A couple of years back, Modern Classics did the world a solid by reissuing This Heat’s self-titled debut, the “Health and Efficiency” EP and Deceit and then sweetened an already tasty dish by returning to print The Ghost Trade and the collected EPs of Charles Hayward’s ’80s outfit Camberwell Now, a group which began as a continuation of This Heat but then quickly morphed into its own rewarding thing. That combination of canonical experimental rock masterpieces and less-celebrated but highly worthwhile offshoots landed high on my 2016 best reissues list, and as you can see, the label’s latest batch of This Heat vinyl pressings has easily made the cut for 2018. This means everything included in the mammoth 2006 retrospective box set Out of Cold Storage has now been returned to wax, and if you’re a vinyl partisan with a serious love for post-punk and/ or a discerning taste in prog (or to repeat the descriptor above, experimental rock), you’re going to need to own them all.

I’m slowly making my way through Sacrifice and Transcendence, Nick Soulsby’s most excellent oral history of Swans, so the band has lately been in the forefront of my mind. Formed in 1982 and led through numerous incarnations (and a long hiatus) by multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Michael Gira, Swans stands as one of the more unexpected examples of enduring success to have sprung from the ’80s u-ground music scene. I say unexpected due to how their pummeling early stuff didn’t exactly paint a portrait of a band that was built to last. But survive and evolve and prosper they did, and since 2014 Young God has been reissuing some of Swans’ prime stuff. Soundtracks for the Blind is especially notable, as until now it’s never been on vinyl. Originally a 2CD, this 2018 edition necessitates four LPs in the harnessing of its nearly two and a half hour running time. That means I debated including it in the box sets’ roundup, but then that would’ve misconstrued Soundtracks for the Blind’s grandly scaled but self-contained reality.

2. Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band, Trout Mask Replica (Third Man) + Hampton Grease Band, Music to Eat (Real Gone) Since its release in 1969, the third LP, a double, from Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band has been well-ensconced in the annals the very strangest records ever made; it’s quite likely the craziest-sounding thing ever funded by the money of a major record label. It’s also one of the greatest, a status considerably aided by its resistance to imitation. To effectively copy this record’s sound, the group of humans devoted to the task would have to work really fucking hard. It would seem that keeping a quality edition of Trout Mask Replica in print would be much less difficult, but whole big chunks of time have been dominated by crummy-looking, thin-sounding CDs and pricy second-hand wax. Third Man’s Vault Series isn’t inexpensive, but nothing about the release is cheaply done, including the white-vinyl repress of the record’s only single, which came out only in France.

Trout Mask Replica wasn’t a hit when released, but it’s sold a fair amount of copies over the years, most of them played once. The Hampton Grease Band’s Music to Eat, is reputed to be the second-worst seller in Columbia Records’ history, or at least it was at some point; it was reissued on CD in 1996 and received the same treatment on vinyl this year, where it makes a fine companion to Beefheart’s tour de force. Both double albums and both belonging to the very slim genre of Dada-rock, Music to Eat isn’t as out-there as Trout Mask, as the band do tangibly rock-out at points, but it’s still plenty bent, in large part through the presence of Bruce Hampton (later Col. Bruce Hampton, a noted figure in the ’90s jam-band scene). I’ll admit that I had some serious second thoughts about placing this record so highly here, but the flat fact is that every time I’ve played the thing over the years it’s brought me considerable pleasure. That it’s been returned to print on wax cheers me to no end.

1. V/A Hugh Tracey, Listen All Around: The Golden Age of Central and East African Music (Dust-to-Digital) + Wire, Pink Flag, Chairs Missing, & 154 (Pink Flag) Ethnomusicologist Tracey had a long career, recording and archiving from the 1920s to the ’70s, but this 2CD-book focuses on his work from ’50-’58 in a region of Africa now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo, with the aim the documentation of rumba music and its variants. The 47 songs Tracey collected here are glorious in their beauty and are greatly enhanced by the insights provided in the 84-page book, with Dust-to-Digital’s objectives mirroring Tracey’s; this isn’t just about sweet sounds, it’s about cultural exchange. Along with their Voices of Mississippi 3CD-book, it’s tempting to say Dust-to-Digital has done it again, but the reality is that the label doesn’t release subpar material; they do it right every single time.

The first three records by Wire cohere into a magnificent achievement, bursting out of the ’77 UK punk scene with an arty edge (Pink Flag), blossoming into one of the leading-lights of the emerging post-punk movement (Chairs Missing), and then honing and transcending the style (154) before taking a break to recoup; it was well-deserved, as they’d knocked out three masterpieces in as many years. These records have jazzed me with consistency since I first met their acquaintance, and spending time with them anew this year has been an unqualified treat. But as great as they remain, they share top honors here due to the utility of Pink Flag’s reissue program, with all three released separately as 2CDs with 80-page books to sate the bonus track-crazy and knowledge-obsessed, while also being offered in standard CD and vinyl versions for those who just want to engage with the core documents. This multiplicity of approach (digital is of course an option) helps to ensure that we’ll be talking about Wire’s music for decades to come.

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