The number of tribute recordings
being issued has risen dramatically over the past decade. No matter what the musical
genre, if youre famous (or infamous) enough, chances are someone is concocting a
compilation in your honor. Some have proved more successful than others: Billy Bragg and
Wilco singing Woody Guthrie was brilliant; on the other hand, do we really need
smooth jazz versions of Beach Boys favorites?
Tribute albums in the jazz realm are hardly a new phenomenon. Satch
Plays Fats, Louis Armstrongs moving dedication to piano giant Waller, was a hit
over 40 years ago. In 1999, jazz players are tripping over one another to cash in on the
centenary of Duke Ellingtons birth by offering their own renditions of the
maestros music. More Money Jungle is head and shoulders above most of the
competition. It offers bold, contemporary arrangements of Dukes songbook, played
with conviction, precision and a fabulous sense of humor. The other two recent tribute
releases discussed on this page also exhibit innovative approaches to material penned by
the artists whose work they celebrate. Caveat emptor: for those who like
their Joni, Duke or Monk delivered "straight, no chaser," its probably
safest to stick with the originals.
Mo Betta Brass
Rhythm & Brass was formed 10 years ago as a spin-off of the
Dallas Brass. The groups three previous recordings offer several glimpses of its
affinity for Ellingtons work, but mostly showcase a refreshing, somewhat irreverent
approach to the classical and jazz repertoires, and to some of Dukes "beyond
category" peers e.g., George Gershwin and Leonard Bernstein.
Right from the start, More Money Jungle commands attention, with
an unidentified band member intoning the album title in a sinister, raspy voice;
the band immediately jumps into action, establishing a funkified groove inspired by Kool
& the Gang (!) and based loosely on Ellingtons "Money Jungle," from
his 1962 trio session with Charles Mingus and Max Roach. Three songs originally on that
date follow, now sporting clever arrangements for this brass-plus-rhythm sextet.
Particularly enticing is "A Little Max," a rumba which finds drummer David Gluck
"chatting" back and forth with his brass brethren for the duration.
Rhythm & Brass also has great fun with several early Ellington
classicsthe band captures the spirit of Dukes Cotton Club years, even as the
players sneak in xylophone and tuba solos here, subtle dissonances there...creative
embellishments which demonstrate jazzs uncanny ability to constantly reinvent itself
through the parallel tools of arranging and improvisation.
The most radical reconstruction here occurs during the medley of
"Caravan" and "Blue Pepper," both given ultra-modern treatments as
world beat and hip hop rhythms mesh seamlessly with smokin horn charts. Narration
from Ellingtons autobiography Music Is My Mistress eloquently recalls the
dramatic impact his orchestras foreign travels had upon his music. R&B also
makes effective use of spoken word by presenting guest Kurt Ellings poignant reading
of Aleda Shirleys poem "Ellington Indigos," which segues naturally enough
into a potent version of "Mood Indigo" (sans vocal).
Andys Monk Mania
Andy Summers, onetime guitarist for The Police, has spent much
of the last 15 years pushing the rock envelope on a series of quirky instrumental albums.
Hes often employed jazz musicians in the studio and on-stage, but the genres
impact on his work seems to have grown since 1993s duo project with fellow Brit John
Etheridge, which featured several covers of Django Reinhardt and Thelonious Monk tunes.
Andys 1997 RCA debut, The Last Dance of Mr. X, found his trio venturing even
more deeply into jazz territory as they tackled classic material like "Afro
Blue" and "Footprints."
Still, those dabblings have hardly prepared the listener for the
"brilliant corners" of Green Chimneys, Andys outstanding paean to
Mr. Monk. Like Rhythm & Brass, Summers succeeds by revealing the essence of his
mentor, without succumbing to imitation. Therefore, "Hackensack" is served up
New Orleans style, a veritable gumbo of tantalizing musical ingredients: Peter
Erskines impeccable second-line beat, gutbucket guitar licks, Joey
DeFrancescos blues-powered Hammond B-3, and twangy cello accents from Hank Roberts.
Monks humor and impish attitude come through loud and clear, but only as reflected
through the prism of a self-assured Andy Summers perspective. The former Police-man also
gives us a searing version of "Shuffle Boil," which sounds like it sprang forth
from the bubbling electric brew of mid-70s Miles. The CD closes with "Ruby My
Dear," performed solo on acoustic guitar; the stark beauty of this track is
all the more striking for the contrast it provides to the manic energy displayed on some
of these delightfully peculiar Monk mutations.
Summers may not be an extraordinary soloist, but he has obviously
learned from the likes of Bill Frisell and John Abercrombie about how to construct vivid
aural environments in which creative improvisations can thrive. The music on Green
Chimneys sounds fresh and vitalno copycatting here! Even the fairly
straightforward rendering of "Round Midnight," featuring vocals by Andys
old buddy Sting, comes off well, thanks to some minor variations: a "Little
Wing" intro and outro, and an understated guitar break from the leader.
Lahminations for Joni
As a longtime admirer of Joni Mitchells work, I had been
anticipating keyboardist David Lahms tributebegun in 1993since I first
heard about it from Thomas Chapin, a key contributor to this album. Lahms homage to
a woman he describes as "the best and most original post-Tin Pan Alley songwriter
weve ever heard" has finally been released by one of the most promising new
independent record labels: Arkadia Jazz (www.arkadiarecords.com).
The Canadian native first made her mark as a member of the burgeoning
folk-rock scene in Southern California during the late 1960s. However, by the time
everyone was clamoring to crown her the new queen of folk, shed already shed the
guitar-toting-hippy-poet image. As a matter of fact, Joni has spent much of her
professional life defying critical and public expectations. Shes assimilated
elements of blues, pop, Latin, jazz, African, R&B and orchestral forms into her
compositions. Her collaborators have included Charles Mingus, Wayne Shorter and Pat
Metheny, as well as Willie Nelson, Peter Gabriel and the Warrior Drums of Burundi, among
many others! Jonis relentless pursuit of the Muse has made her one of the most
respectedand least marketableartists in the world of so-called popular music.
Lahm, a favorite accompanist of many vocalists, steps out front once in
a blue moon to lead an intriguing recording session...then fades quietly back into
obscurity, leaving behind another collectors item. Thanks to Arkadias
widespread distribution, and to Jonis worldwide recognition, perhaps Lahm will get
to enjoy the limelight for awhile this time around.
The leader, despite setbacks and delays, ultimately assembled an
hours worth of inspired Jazz Takes on Joni Mitchell, featuring 18 excellent
New York players, in various groupings. He chose some of Jonis lesser-known
compositions as the foundation for his unusual instrumental arrangements; next, he
carved out space within each piece to allow his colleagues an opportunity to convey
through their instruments the emotions evoked by the songwriters original lyrics and
expansive musical vocabulary.
Consequently, Jazz Takes sports some remarkable soloing:
the prayer-meeting fervor of Thomas Chapins alto sax on "Shadows and
Light," David Friedmans angelic vibes on "Song for Sharon," and the
ecstatic swing of Lew Tabackins tenor on "Solid Love," to site several of
the most obvious examples. And Randy Breckers stunning flugelhorn contributions
throughout the angst-ridden "Edith and the Kingpin" surely rank among the finest
recorded examples of his work on this horn.
Lahms wry arranging skills are in the forefront on "The
Fiddle and the Drum," conceived by Joni as an acappella piece. Here, Lahm places
trombonist Ed Neumeister in the "vocal" role, and pits him against violinist
Mark Feldman, who is assigned a counter-theme borrowed from jazz composer George Russell.
Ron Vincent adds another "voice," personifying the drum metaphor Joni used in
her 1968 original. While each player executes his part with ample passion, this
arrangement is also the most glaring example of the albums shortcomings. The author
was able to deliver a powerful antiwar soliloquy without accompaniment, thanks to the
significance of her words. Its much more difficult to convey the meaning of this
piece instrumentally, since the lyrics were so integral to the original. The Jazz Takes
rendition of "The Blonde in the Bleachers" suffers a similar fate.
Listeners unfamiliar with the vocal versions of these songs are thus
denied some of their magic. Lahms liner notes offer insight into each
compositions "story," minus Jonis sublime imagery, of course. Still,
producing this project was obviously a labor of love for David Lahm and company, and the
music theyve created is a testament to the esteem long due this dedicated artist by
her peers. Come to think of it, there are few singers who can really do justice to
Jonis songs, so perhaps Lahm should ask her to sit in for a second volume of Jazz
Takes on Joni Mitchell. Now, that might make for some magical music!
Copyright©WWUH: July/August Program Guide, 1999