Graded on a Curve:
The Best of 2020’s Reissues, Part Two

It seems the year’s lack of live shows might’ve played a role in the sheer number of performance documents on this list. If so, that’s fine. Having something snatched away can really illuminate its value.

5. Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers, Just Coolin’ (Blue Note) & Jimmy Giuffre 3, Graz 1961 (ORG Music) It might seem paradoxical, but that Just Coolin’ is just now seeing release roughly 61 years after its recording is ultimately indicative of Art Blakey’s good fortune as a drummer and bandleader. The creative juices were flowing, the club dates were happening, and the personnel was changing. This lineup, featuring Hank Mobley on sax, Lee Morgan on trumpet, Bobby Timmons on piano, and Jymie Merritt on bass, didn’t last long, which adds to the worthiness of this fantastic hard-bop session.

Drummer-led combos like Blakey’s are rare in jazz. So are combos lacking in a drummer, though multi-reed man Giuffre’s groups made a habit of it. He started out with Woody Herman and came to be associated with cool jazz, but by the early ’60s Giuffre’s trio with pianist Paul Bley and bassist Steve Swallow were exploring a unique, and far less frequently traveled, avenue of the budding avant-garde. That Giuffre chose this route over the more accessible-commercial opportunities pursued by many of his West Coast cohorts is laudable, as Graz 1961 is amongst the most rewarding jazz documents of its era.

4. Dexter Gordon, The Squirrel (Rhino / Parlophone) & Marion Brown, Porto Novo (ORG-Music) To be blunt, the live recordings of saxophonist Gordon are plentiful. It’s unlikely that a subpar one (excluding issues of fidelity) has been released, because by the time he was being documented on the bandstand on a regular basis, he was blazing trails of positivity with consistently solid sidemen. Still, some nights are better than others, and the one heard on The Squirrel, with Kenny Drew on piano, Bo Stief on bass and Art Taylor on drums is one of the very best, partly because the band stretches out so intensely.

Like The Squirrel, saxophonist Marion Brown’s Porto Novo dates from 1967 and also transpired in Europe; Gordon’s show is from the Cafe Montmartre in Copenhagen, while Brown’s session was held in Soest in The Netherlands, with the Dutch rhythm section of bassist Maarten Van Regteren Altena (later just Maarten Altena) and the prolific drummer Han Bennink. Porto Novo ranks as one of Brown’s greatest, partly because the blowing is fiery and is all Brown (many of his other great records feature larger ensembles). It’s another of ORG’s commendable reissues of classics from the jazz avant-garde.

3. V/A, Strum & Thrum: The American Jangle Underground 1983 – 1987 (Captured Tracks) & Swans, Children of God & Feel Good Now (Young God / Mute) The first installment in Captured Tracks’ Excavations series (“dedicated to compiling forgotten music from the 1970s–1990s”) is going to be a hard act to follow. Across four sides of vinyl, Strum & Thrum is a meticulous dive into the sound and scene of the comp’s title, except that it should be emphasized that many of the bands here (and like C86, it’s all bands), were essentially local entities. This 2LP is the very essence of record collecting.

By the time of Children of God’s release in 1987 (the Michael Gira-led outfit’s fifth album), they were known, one could even say they were notorious, far and wide. This was directly due to the earlier output of pummeling negativity. To be sure, the piledriver attack (a sort of Industrial tribal pound) is still evident here, and especially on the Feel Good Now live album (documenting the ’87 European tour) that accompanies this reissue, but there are also moments of quiet that make the atmosphere even more unsettling. For Swans, Children of God deepened the sound and set in motion a new phase.

2. Camille Yarbrough, The Iron Pot Cooker (Craft Recordings) & Ellen Fullman, In the Sea (Superior Viaduct) Original copies of Yarbrough’s 1975 LP for Vanguard have changed hands for a Franklin or more, so there is a contingent that’s clued-in to its worthiness, but still, after spinning it numerous times in 2020, a year where its social commentary resonated as quite relevant, I can’t shake the viewpoint that the contents are underrated next to Gil Scott-Heron and The Last Poets. Hopefully, this will change. Yarbrough’s ideas and the funk accompaniment are equally sharp, and she’s a terrific singer.

Ellen Fullman’s first album, 1985’s The Long String Instrument, took its name from the musical apparatus of her creation, 70 feet long and primed for the drone with metal wires anchored by a wooden resonator. That album and this double set compiling her two self-released cassettes from ’87, In the Sea and Work for Four Players and 90 Strings, comprise the entirety of her output in the decade. With the great Harry Partch as an influence, Fullman’s sound is amongst the most psychedelic in the drone field, huge, and surprisingly, also extremely moving.

1. Rashied Ali & Frank Lowe, Duo Exchange: Complete Sessions (Survival) & TEST and Roy Campbell, S/T (577) There was once a false notion spread around with malice that after the deaths of John Coltrane and Albert Ayler, free jazz all but died, too. Fusion took its place, then came the neo-trad brigade. The reality is that the free jazz scene largely turned to self-reliance, with the music often experienced in lofts and public spaces rather than in the clubs of yore.

Others, like Rashied Ali, started labels and put out their own records. That was the case with Duo Exchange, which carried the sax and drums template of Coltrane and Ali’s Interstellar Space (recorded in 1967 but not released until ’74, notably a year after Ali and Lowe’s record hit store shelves). Duo Exchange is a masterpiece of improvisation as sheer communication, getting right down to the core of it. It is a thrilling experience that benefits from its reissue expansion, as it was released this year alongside First Time Out: Live at Slugs 1967, a previously unheard performance by the Rashied Ali Quintet.

When the music of TEST hit wax and CD in the late 1990s, it was with an intensity that recalled the wildest free jazz from previous era, but with a clarity of collective vision regarding its essence that was reminiscent of the self-reliant ’70s. TEST, which featured Daniel Carter on alto and tenor sax, trumpet, and flute, Sabir Mateen on alto and tenor sax, flute, and clarinet, Matthew Heyner on bass, and Tom Bruno on drums, played free jazz in parks and subways, and on April 16, 1999, joined with trumpeter Roy Campbell to play a benefit in aid of repairing the tour van of the No Neck Blues Band.

The audio of that performance is as vital as many of the canonical works in the jazz avant-garde, including Interstellar Space and Duo Exchange, though more appropriate comparisons might be to Lowe’s Black Beings and Frank Wright’s One for John. The uninterrupted 47-minute soul-gush is one of the wildest and most beautiful sounds of 2020. It’s something to be truly thankful for.

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