Saturday, February 5, 2011

Partial Mosaics

A few years ago, I had an interesting email exchange with Michael Cuscuna, Blue Note Records expert and historian, co-founder of Mosaic Records (the great Jazz reissue label), producer extraordinaire. I sent a suggestion to Mosaic, that the enterprising company should compile a definitive, multi-label box set documenting the late-Thirties to mid-Forties transition from Swing to Bebop, pushing beyond Bird and Diz to trace the changing sounds of Monk, Howard McGhee, Coleman Hawkins, Dexter Gordon, Sonny Stitt; the orchestras of Billy Eckstine, Jay McShann, Boyd Raeburn, Woody Herman, Claude Thornhill, etc., with new-style arrangements by Gerry Mulligan, Gil Evans, Ralph Burns, and others; modernist jam sessions at Minton's and Monroe's, and the increase of small combos in the clubs on 42nd Street; exciting developments on the West Coast, and much, much more. "A complex story has been oversimplified and needs to be corrected," was my claim, "preferably by the dedicated Mosaic group."

I was surprised to hear back from Cuscuna himself, that I had a fine idea which indeed should be explored, but that it involved too many small and large record companies, functioning or defunct, for even a Mosaic to accomplish. I responded that box sets from Europe--specifically a 4CD box I'd recently bought devoted to the early work of tenor Wardell Gray--seemed to be creating very interesting compilations by ignoring U.S. copyrights, or at least going by European rules rather than the excessively protective American ones.

And Michael then quietly exploded, lambasting quasi-legal activities abroad, pirate labels avoiding royalty payments, the blind stubborness of U.S. corporations, the greed of Disney and Congress and artists' descendents, the poor sound of overseas sets compiled from records rather than original session tapes, the shady characters involved in such fly-by-night companies, and more. I commiserated in another email and apologized for touching on such a sore subject, but he didn't respond further.

Since then I've found more and more Jazz reissues, creative compilations, and exciting live performance CDs--all on relatively small non-U.S. labels--that seemed worth purchasing, so I did (as will be shown below). None of them was available, assembled thus, from an American record company. If the minimalist address information offered in CD credits can be trusted, then Gambit, Lone Hill, Fresh Sounds, and other Jazz entrepreneurs are manufacturing their discs mainly in Spain (on some rainy plain maybe), but most also with a possibly non-existent company headquarters located in the nearby tiny tax haven and copyright infringement-sheltered nation of Andorra, which consists of a few square miles of mountain terrain that most Americans couldn't find even with a talking GPS!

Yes, the companies are somewhat shady by U.S. legal standards, with a typical single CD offering the equivalent of two, related-in-some-way albums--good sound, "borrowed" liner notes, uncredited photos, and a nice layout combining angular design with cheap "press" type. These... well, I started to say "mini-Mosaics," but Cuscuna would surely take umbrage, so let's call them azulejos instead (handsome blue-and-white tiles,but limited to those colors only). By whatever name, the labels operate successfully within European boundaries--and they are releasing some very choice stuff.

Just to cite three recent acquisitions, I am happy now to own the never-before-issued Jazz Lips Music 2CD set titled Bill Evans Trio & Guests Live in Nice 1978, which actually offers full sets from festivals in both Nice and Umbria, played by an unrecorded Evans trio (Bill, Marc Johnson, and Philly Joe Jones). Even better, the Nice cuts add Lee Konitz for three long quartet tracks, Lee plus Curtis Fuller for a quintet performance, and Fuller plus Stan Getz as another unexpected group of five. Bill plays lyrically, of course, but Philly Joe's presence always lifts the Evans energy level too (somewhat ironic since both men were junkies). Anyway, a major live-album addition to the Evans discography!

Now consider this amazing package on Gambit: a 4CD box of the Complete Studio Recordings of the Jimmy Giuffre/Jim Hall Trio (with Ralph Pena, Bob Brookmeyer, even Ray Brown completing the uncommonly structured, changing threesomes), comprised of Atlantic's great classics The Jimmy Giuffre 3, Trav'lin' Light, The Four Brothers Sound, and Western Suite, plus Verve albums Seven Pieces and The Easy Way, plus outtakes, rejects, and miscellaneous other live trio or differently configured performances, adding up in total to about 300 minutes of clarinet-guitar-and-whatever brilliance--"The Train and the River," "Crawdad Suite," "Pickin' 'Em Up and Layin' 'Em Down," "Four Brothers," "Gotta Dance," "Down Home," and many many more, 61 tracks in fact and in excelsis.

And maybe topping that, another Gambit release, but of un-released Monk, officially titled Thelonious Monk Trio & Quartet Unissued Live at Newport 1958-59, but fortunately including three cuts from Newport 1962 as a bonus (and what a bonus!). Here's what's been unleashed on the Monk-craving world: from 1958, four performances by a threesome featuring Roy Haynes, with the pianist and the drummer having a high old time, very up and at 'em. (They be boppin' around!). Then, from the following year, a quartet of tracks by the now-foursome of Monk, Charlie Rouse, Sam Jones, and Art Taylor, but this is a heated and happy four, energetic, funny, loosey-goosey rather than fixed-fast and settled-in--very much not the later-Sixties, too-cool, shards-of-ice, heard-it-all-before sound of Monk, Rouse, and interchangeable rhythm.

Finally, the bonus tracks: in 1962, Monk sat in with the Ellington Orchestra (or vice versa!), and some enterprising fan taped them off the radio; and these two pieces of music ("Monk's Dream" and "Ba-lue Bolivar Ba-Lues Are") with light arrangements by Billy Strayhorn and a long verbal introduction by Duke constitute the big piece de resistance, a joyous once-in-a-lifetime 10 minutes of Jazz history, with bootleg-quality sound but the elegant Ellingtonians playing Music of The.Sphere's, and never the Strides again shall meet!

There are many more azulejo issues worth discussing, but I prefer just to post a visual selection for your delectation and delight and debate. Should these geodes of Jazz be forgiven their rocky path and trespass on copyrights? Are they acceptable because ultimately serving the elusive history and ephemeral artifacts of improvised music?


Ed Leimbacher said...

Doug Ramsey of Rifftides informs me that Jordi Pujol of Fresh Sound (no plural -s on Sound) reputedly attempts to pay royalties where expected, and his Barcelona-based company should not be tarred with the brush I'm wielding broadly; good to know that not all the Spain-and-environs labels are commiting piracy in American legal terms.

Alan Kurtz said...

Splendid overview of some great music, most of which has gone in and out of print over the years, some of which has never seen the light of CD, except for these and other "shady, fly-by-night" European labels. The listener's choice has often been either to: (a) ignore U.S. copyright laws, which are themselves a flat-out disgrace, and enjoy this music; or (b) stupidly refuse to buy the Euro-product and thus deprive oneself of countless hours of listening pleasure, subpar as the audio quality might be. It's a no-brainer, Ed.

I Witness said...

good thing I got no branes

Christopher Ruston Rich said...

I've had some fun thoughts on all of this. It is interesting, for example how a person may want to see the period shortened for other people's work but would they agree to forgo a revenue stream on their own?

I've also been thinking about what we all did before music was recorded. We made our own. Someone found Mark Twain's long lost guitar a few years ago. That was Twains equivalent to an iPod while a parlor piano was a home stereo system.

Music collection turns in part on a kind of vicarious fetishism and the illusion of some greater genius we then covet. What of our own sleeping genius?

We chafe at the price and gloat if we beat it.

But you can always make your own music and it is free. I like to whistle and sing childlike nonsense lyrics when I spot some funny word bits. I have plenty of music I paid for but I rarely listen to any of it any more. I like to listen to sound of the world around me. Cardinals are molting now and starting their elaborate finch songs. Free music at its best.

Christopher Ruston Rich said...

For example, lets say your own perfectly excellent and worthy Robert Johnson screen play finally finds a producer who would do it justice.

And then let's say it's a hit. I bet you'd want your spouse, daughter and grandchildren to benefit from any revenue earned by your effort for as long as possible.

It is your estate, your legacy and your gift of your gifts to those dearest to you.

I can only assume most musicians feel the same way. If I run into one who says otherwise, I'll let you know.

I Witness said...

Good to hear from you, Chris... twice, even. I can admire and agree with most of your a-musing, but oddly maybe, I really do believe that my spouse and children are folks enough to benefit; the grandkids and others can be proud, maybe, but don't really "deserve" any financial gains--50 years, in other words seems long enough to me for fixed, familial copyright.

I don't accept the lucky genes, lucky sperm, descendents get all for nothing approach that the U.S. is wallowing in. The Koch brothers? A Bush (or Clinton) dynasty? Youth-fading, social-set brats like the Whosit sisters? The whole damned cult of celebrity, not to mention reality television? Pfui. A pox on all such houses.

Luck together with hard work is fine, but Luck alone (Lottery, Las Vegas and tribal casinos, whatever fits) is something I may envy but will still distrust and maybe rail against. Our nation needs jobs, work enabling people to earn and survive and be able to hold their heads up proudly... and then have something to pass on to their children. We need to embrace those FDR-styled, government-backed, three-letter infrastructure jobs programs, but the rucking Feebublicans keep turning their thumbs and thumbing their noses at the classes from Middle on down.

Oh well. I'm creeping up on 70 with Parkinson's creeping into me, so I guess instead of ranting more I'd rather listen to quasi-legal CDs.

Christopher Ruston Rich said...

Disc pricing is another item and that is where American labels have failed.

Legacy recordings that are older than we are should reflect their longevity by having a lower tier of prices.

it is also an aspect of catalog depth. Back catalog is valuable when it is available and the potential of download sale or production on demand can address this failing.

It is flatly ridiculous that you can't just buy these works at the appropriate discovered price in a way that fits your music player preferences.

That's deep that you would forgo a part of revenue potential for your own work for a better good.

America once was a lot more like you. Now it suffers from some greed malady that will just lead to neo feudalism.

Grotesque over compensation for celebrities and others is an outcome of tax policy.

If top tax brackets reverted to where they were under that evil liberal Richard Nixon, it would remove incentives to confiscate wealth from the many by expensive event prices and what have you and return that to the people as tax revenue to fix all the things now slowly falling apart.

I Witness said...

Amen, Brother C. From your mouth to Big O's ear. Even my old-style Midwest Republican father knew the value of those CITIZEN DUES otherwise known as taxes. Why should the top 2% and U.S.gone-global Corpos not pay their Dues--which the rest of us have done forever--at a fair and help-to-sustain-nation level? I guess patriotism stops at the pocketbook.