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Reissues put real jazz in perspective


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POSTED: Saturday, June 20, 2009

The latest batch of jazz reissues from Legacy Recordings commemorates a time 50 years ago when record labels were in competition, not mega-conglomeration, when music was made by humans, not machines, and grooves were created, not sampled.

It's certainly an indictment of the current state of jazz and the music biz that recordings from 1959 such as Miles Davis' ”;Kind of Blue”; continue to outsell practically every jazz record produced today.

“;Kind of Blue's”; companion in perpetual popularity is Dave Brubeck's ”;Time Out,”; which includes “;Take Five.”; Who could have expected that a tricky tune in 5/4 time would become the first million-selling jazz single on the Billboard Top 100? Five-beat meters are common in Greece, Bulgaria and elsewhere, but were virtually unknown in America. However, “;Take Five”; has a mood, a charm and a spark that are still irresistible.

There's much more to the album than that one seminal tune, though. “;Blue Rondo a la Turk”; is another perennial favorite in an unusual meter, and “;Strange Meadowlark”; is among the prettiest things you'll ever hear. Plus, there's Brubeck's outstanding band, with the brilliant alto saxophonist Paul Desmond, rock-steady bassist Eugene Wright and masterful drummer Joe Morello. And let's not forget the piano player—Brubeck was, and still is, a compelling keyboard artist.

Included in this latest reissue is a second CD of previously unissued performances from the Newport Jazz Festivals of 1961, '63 and '64—“;Koto Song”; is especially lovely—and a DVD with performance footage, a photo gallery, an interview with Brubeck and even an interactive piano lesson.

In all, this is an outstanding, well-considered expansion of a masterpiece, and would make a great gift for newcomers to jazz as well as longtime aficionados.

Miles Davis' ”;Sketches of Spain,”; a collaboration with the ingenious arranger Gil Evans, is presented by Legacy with a second disc of alternate takes and other Spanish-influenced Davis pieces—nice but not needed. Stick with the original album, a great work of musical art that no home should be without.

The surprise of these reissues—all originally on Columbia, except for this—is a two-CD set combining Latin-jazz titan Tito Puente's ”;Dance Mania”; and ”;Dance Mania, Vol. 2,”; from 1957 and '60. The first is touted hyperbolically as “;the album that taught America to dance!”; (and you thought it was Irving Fields' “;Bagels and Bongos”;).

True, timbalero Tito's torrid tempos can help any klutz cut a carpet.

Twenty-one tunes are added to the original RCA albums' 24 tracks. And what tunes! “;Hong Kong Mambo,”; “;Mambozooka”; and “;3-D Mambo”; are just a few. Also here is “;Pa' los Rumberos,”; a truly great little record that was later covered by Santana. Fun, fun, fun—perfect for summertime dance parties, or any season's.

Lastly and certainly not leastly, we have two great ones, plus a few bonus tracks, from the volcanic bassist/composer/bandleader Charles Mingus. ”;Mingus Dynasty,”; from November 1959, contains the complex, colorful “;Far Wells, Mill Valley”; and a classic interpretation of Duke Ellington's “;Mood Indigo.”;

”;Mingus Ah Um,”; from May 1959, is an absolutely necessary album, profound, hard-swinging, spontaneous and passionate. Here are the sanctified groove of “;Better Git It in Your Soul,”; the low-down “;Pussy Cat Dues,”; the acerbic, politically charged “;Fables of Faubus”; (whose anti-segregationist lyrics Columbia refused to record) and the sublime “;Goodbye Pork Pie Hat,”; a moving tribute to tenor man Lester Young on which saxophonist John Handy plays himself into the history books.

Moving under and through it all are the exhortations and forceful bass of Mingus, who didn't need an amplifier to fill a room. He did things his way or else, with love, sweat, anger, tears and pulsing blood.

Don't sip, but drink deeply. This music is meant to be heard through speakers, and loud—headphones won't cut it. And it might make you dance in a way you never have before.

Listen hard but don't sample or steal—Mingus will beat you up.