Graded on a Curve:
ORG Music’s Jazz
Reissue Series

As Black History Month nears its conclusion for 2019, the opportunity arises to spotlight seven coinciding jazz reissues made available by ORG Music. Stylistically wide-ranging, including a few masterpieces, some overlooked gems, and a plethora of historical value from Bunk Johnson and Leadbelly, Ben Webster, Milt Hinton, Earl “Fatha” Hines, Cecil Taylor, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, and Albert Ayler and Don Cherry, all seven are out now.

Black history encompasses so much more than just music, of course. But there’s also no denying that music provides a fertile landscape of African-American achievement; even when limiting the scope to jazz, the body of high-quality work and noteworthy accomplishments is large enough that it can seem inexhaustible.

The pool only widens when considering examples that might fall short of the earth-shaking category but are still very much of interest, as history does not consist of an uninterrupted sequence of masterpieces and artistic breakthroughs; there’s a whole lot of interest in between, which is where At New York Town Hall 1947, a live recording on double vinyl featuring New Orleans trumpeter Bunk Johnson & blues-folk singer-guitarist Lead Belly, resides.

In a sense, the recording’s strongest attribute is history. Pressed to vinyl for the first time after hitting CD in 1993, it’s a document of one event from a series put on by an organization called the New York Jazz Club. In addition to Bunk and Leadbelly, this association rounded up an interesting band including trombonist Jimmy Archey, banjoist Danny Barker, clarinetists Omer Simeon and Edmond Hall, pianist Ralph Sutton, drummer Freddie Moore, and tubist-bassist Cyrus St. Clair.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t the greatest night for many in the assembled crew, including Bunk, and even after being mastered for vinyl by Dave Gardner, the limitations and flaws of the source recording are still quite evident. Leadbelly only performs on three cuts, none of them near the peak of his powers, and one being “Yellow Gal” (yellow meaning bi-racial, a problematic but not uncommon term in vintage blues recordings).

I say unfortunately, but At New York Town Hall 1947 is still an enjoyable listen. Some of this is extramusical (there’s a bizarre moment where Johnson tells the crowd that he hasn’t had a meal since 11 o’clock the previous night) but the combination of New Orleans jazz and folk-blues coheres into what would’ve been a satisfying if not life-altering night out (and as there’s an emcee present, this evening may have been broadcast over radio for those preferring to stay home).

Folks wanting to hear Johnson at something like the top of his game (how far up that apex went is the subject of speculation) should seek out Rare And Unissued Masters Volume One (1943-1945), which ORG put out last April for Record Store Day. This follow-up isn’t as sharp, but don’t go thinking it’s a festival of clams; altogether, it’s an engaging dose of the mid-1940s NYC jazz life, and that’s welcome.

Even more appreciated is The Horn, a sweet 2LP of radio transcriptions made in 1944 by the World Broadcasting Service that feature Ben Webster. One of the three great pre-WWII tenor saxophonists alongside Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young, today Webster is probably best known for his early ’40s stint with Duke Ellington, his ’50s participation in Norman Granz’ Jazz at the Philharmonic, and his ’60s work, a portion of which was made after he moved to Europe (he eventually settled in Copenhagen). That means the superb material heard here is deserving of far more attention.

Webster came out of the Kansas City scene, working with Count Basie before making his recording debut with Bennie Moten’s band, but he was still developing as a player when bebop hit. It was a revolution that he welcomed. The style’s impact is certainly tangible here, right off the bat with “Teezol” (and even in the following ballad “Don’t Blame Me”) with noted bop drummer Denzil Best part of a quintet with bassist Charlie Drayton, pianist Clyde Hart, and trumpeter Oren “Hot Lips” Page. Everyone’s in fine form throughout.

Part of the joy of The Horn is how it reveals Webster taking chances, but the constants of his style, especially the warm tone, beautiful but tough, and his brilliance as a soloist are here in spades. This edition combines the two single LPs the Circle label put out in 1982, with the broadcast recordings on the first and the alternates on the second (they were put on one CD by Progressive in ’93). ORG smartly keep the sequence from the original vinyl, which encourages pure pleasure on sides one and two and the opportunity to dig deeper from there. Altogether, it’s a sweet dive into the work of a major artist.

Webster is also heard on Here Swings the Judge, a record first issued by Famous Door in 1974 (it was also released on CD by Progressive in 2001 with bonus stuff not included here) that spotlights the man cited more than once as the most recorded bassist ever. The number of recordings reaches into the thousands, and yet the number of LPs Milt Hinton cut as a leader is relatively small. This one has much to recommend, with its first side offering a sextet with pianist John Bunch, the great drummer Jo Jones, trumpeter Jon Faddis, and tenor saxophonists Frank Wess and Budd Johnson (who also plays baritone.)

While it would be overstating it to call side one a jaw-dropper, it does provide a highly enjoyable ride loaded with spirited blowing, crisp piano from Bunch (reminding me at times of John Hicks), and of course plenty of sturdiness from the leader; his intertwined back-and-forth with Jones at the end of “Blues Skies” is just one delight amongst a few. The title cut nods back to robust swing in a way that brings to mind the Kansas City jazz reunion documentary film The Last of the Blue Devils.

But it’s the flip that really has the goods, with Hinton in duo with Webster from a private recording made shortly before the saxophonist departed for Europe. Navigating “Sophisticated Lady” and “All the Things You Are,” the playing and interaction are exquisite and made all the more remarkable through the intimate, relaxed setting. And that’s not all; between these selections is “Stridin with Ben,” which offers a taste of Webster playing stride piano with Hinton adjusting to slap bass. It’s a fascinating twist, though the condition of the piano kinda makes it sound like Webster and Hinton are playing in a saloon.

The ivories are in much better shape on My Tribute to Louis, a 1971 LP of solo piano cut by Earl “Fatha” Hines twelve days after the death of the great trumpeter, singer and bandleader Louis Armstrong. It was one of three solo tribute sets recorded by Hines for the Audiophile label in a two-day period (the others tipped the hat to Hoagy Carmichael and W.C. Handy), with the pianist’s abilities undiminished across eight selections and nine tracks (versions of “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South” open and close the record), all of them associated with Armstrong.

We are lucky that Hines was so good so late in life, for he is esteemed by historians, critics and his peers as one of the giants of jazz, both as a bandleader (his group was vastly important in Chicago, and having hired Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and other modernists Hines was key in the transition of swing to bop) and as a player, having joined Armstrong’s second Hot Five group, simply one of the most important bands in the history of 20th century music, in 1927.

This connection (he rejoined Armstrong in the All-Stars for a few years starting in ’48) infuses My Tribute to Louis with the atmosphere of personal gravity and lends it distinction from within a run of solo Hines recordings that is bluntly incredible. Along with the abovementioned tributes, there were sets devoted to Ellington, Gershwin, and Cole Porter, plus many non-thematic records like the excellent Tour de Force for Black Lion, which ORG reissued last year.

If Hines had lost nothing in chops, he was bursting with creativity, and in terms of jazz as an inexhaustible thing, My Tribute to Louis is representative in microcosm. The same can easily be said for another wildly different LP of solo piano, recorded live on July 2, 1974 at the Montreux Jazz Festival, Cecil Taylor’s masterpiece Silent Tongues.

Taylor, along with Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, and Albert Ayler, was one of the leading lights in the original wave of avant-garde jazz, but even as he delivered two essential sets to the Blue Note catalog (Unit Structures and Conquistador!, both from ’66 and both also rated as masterworks) the ’60s weren’t really his decade. Although he debuted on wax prior to Coleman and Ayler and had a string of very worthwhile formative albums throughout the second half of the ’50s, recording and performance opportunities would become hit and miss as his style became more challenging to listeners.

The antithesis of the typical nightclub jazz experience, where truly engaging with the music has long been optional, Taylor’s music cannot be relegated to the background; love it or hate it, Cecil Taylor’s music can’t be ignored. And so, the artist suffered neglect, though in the ’70s the dam of resistance started to break, particularly after the release of Silent Tongues, his third solo record to be released and the fourth chronologically. It was awarded Album of the Year by Down Beat in ’75.

He achieved this without any compromise. Taylor’s style; angular, aggressive, unpredictable, percussive (it’s often been said he plays the piano like a set of 88 tuned drums) and deeply in touch with the European classical tradition, is in full-flower across this five-part suite (plus two encores, as the crowd was loving it), but while elevated technique and pure stamina are a part of Taylor’s grand equation, they are never the main course. Instead, those elements combine with beauty, energy, dissonance, mystery, and the pursuit of new possibilities. Silent Tongues has it all and will never run out of gas.

Taylor, who passed last April at age ’89, led some magnificent bands of varying size; constant at the forefront of them all was the translation of the pianist’s musical ideas. That is, he was hardly ever a collaborator in a larger scheme not of his direction, though Thelonious Sphere Monk: Dreaming of the Masters, Vol. 2, a 1991 release by the Art Ensemble of Chicago, is an exception.

That’s not a great record, in part because at some point in the admirable endeavor of celebrating Thelonious Monk it manages to lessen the considerable presence of the Art Ensemble and along the way diminishes Taylor, who just seems plugged in. By contrast, My Friend Louis is an effort intrinsically tied to Armstrong’s legacy, but it’s always 100% Earl “Fatha” Hines.

But I digress. For a great LP from the Art Ensemble, one could hardly do better than Tutankhamun, which was recorded in ’69 as part of the spurt of collective brilliance the group laid down during their sojourn in Paris (not yet including drummer Don Moye), a slew of records of which I’ve never been able to pick a definitive favorite. Tutankhamun wasn’t released until ’74 by Freedom, which was the same label that put out Taylor’s Silent Tongues.

Directly launched from the Chicago-based Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, the Art Ensemble diverted away from hierarchy and did so without spurning individualism, as Malachi Favors’ bass (both bowed and plucked) and Lester Bowie’s wild, wide-ranging trumpet are among the highlights of Tutankhamun’s title track.

Roscoe Mitchell and Joseph Jarman also blow strong and inventive throughout, and if it’s not always clear who’s playing what (other times it’s clear as a bell), that’s part of the idea. But Tutankhamun is ultimately less about driving home a point than it’s dedicated to simply extending the potential of sound in recording and performance, and it’s a treat for adventurous ears. Please note that the two bonus tracks from Black Lion’s CD reissue are included on this edition.

When it comes to individuality in free jazz, nobody beats saxophonist Albert Ayler, and for the majority of his discography he was indisputably the “leader” of his bands. That’s how it originally was with Vibrations, which was released first in Europe (it was recorded in Copenhagen) in 1965 as Ghosts by the Debut label and credited to the Albert Ayler Quartet, featuring trumpeter Don Cherry, bassist Gary Peacock, and drummer Sunny Murray.

This is the trio that cut Ayler’s first record for ESP Disk, ’64’s massive Spiritual Unity, augmented by one of the crucial figures in the ’60s jazz avant-garde. The combination proved extremely productive, with the record including two dives into Ayler’s signature tune “Ghosts” (one long one short). It’s a must for fans of the saxophonist and for lovers of free jazz in general.

Indeed, Cherry adapted so well that the co-billing (and retitling) of Freedom’s mid-’70s edition (which is what ORG is reissuing here) registered as something other than an attempt to merely increase sales through boosting name recognition. However, Ayler’s approach is in full effect, specifically the searching, often burning abstraction extending from a foundation that could occasionally be quite hummable (as is the case with “Ghosts”).

Interestingly, Ayler recorded with Taylor during the European visit that produced Vibrations. Additionally, the saxophonist shared with the Art Ensemble a desire to tap into the spirit of pre-Armstrong New Orleans jazz and bring it into the eternal now. As this overview has progressed it might seem we’ve traveled pretty far afield of Bunk Johnson, but in a sense,  we’ve just creatively circled back in the vastness that is African-American history.

Bunk Johnson & Leadbelly, At New York Town Hall 1947

Ben Webster, The Horn

Milt Hinton, Here Swings the Judge

Earl “Fatha” Hines, My Tribute to Louis

Cecil Taylor, Silent Tongues

Art Ensemble of Chicago, Tutankhamun

Albert Ayler & Don Cherry, Vibrations

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