Considering that the music of serious jazz composers like James Newton, David Murray and Henry Threadgill receives a tiny fraction of the radio air play accorded pop jazz stars, it's remarkable they get a chance to record as often as they do. Of course, one of the benefits of recording frequently is the opportunity to expand upon themes and ideas introduced in the past -- something all three of these musicians have done on their new albums.
'Romance and Revolution' While Newton's masterly "The African Flower" was inspired by the genius of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, his new release, "Romance and Revolution" (Blue Note BT 85134), is deeply indebted to another pair of composers, Charles Mingus and Ornette Coleman. As the title suggests, the music is by turns lyrical and chaotic, poetic and political.
Of the album's four extended pieces, Mingus' "Meditations on Integration" is the most moving, and not merely because its emotionally taut theme, composed during the civil rights movement, seems no less contemporary or relevant today. Newton's arrangement is vibrantly alive. At times his flute sounds an insistent, almost querulous tone above the restless rhythms, like a lone voice trying to be heard in a mob, and when the ensemble joins in on the tune's jaunty refrain, the sextet sounds, as Mingus no doubt intended, expansive and purposeful.
Coleman's "Peace," by contrast, is a quartet session, graced by a lovely melody and fine performances by Newton, cellist Abdul Wadud, bassist Rick Rozie and drummer Pheeroan Ak Laff. With his fluttering rolls and unexpected accents, Ak Laff is marvelously adept at keeping everyone on his toes, and Newton's improvisation is particularly stirring. The album also includes "Forever Charles," a Mingus tribute composed by Newton in 1979, and a beautifully arranged original called "The Evening Leans Toward You."
'New Life' Saxophonist David Murray has had a chance to record in a variety of contexts in recent years. Besides being a member of the World Saxophone Quartet and a big-band leader, he's often heard playing with his own quartet and octet. On "New Life" (Black Saint BSR 0100) he rejoins the octet, whose personnel has changed considerably over the years. Unfortunately, some of the changes haven't always been for the better.
Because of the turnover, "New Life" occasionally seems a bit impoverished when it comes to outstanding soloists. (At least it seems that way compared with older releases by the octet, such as "Home" and "Murray's Steps.") Nevertheless, the album does have its merits. The ensemble is powerfully cohesive, Murray's gifts as a composer are readily evident and his own performances are particularly forceful. And then there's the matter of Mingus looming in the background once again.
His influence has always been felt, and sometimes stressed, on Murray's octet recordings, so it's no surprise to find a similar feeling developing here. The title tune is especially evocative, perhaps as much for its unusual voicings (Murray's percolating bass clarinet is a delight) as for its buoyantly attractive theme.
Another highlight is an unconstrained melody called "Morning Song." Recalling the swaggering cadence of southern marching bands, the tune is punctuated by some of the album's most joyful (and certainly least strident) improvisations. Trombonist Craig Harris, who possesses a rich vocabulary of smears and growls, really stands out, as does drummer Ralph Peterson Jr.
'You Know the Number' All told, though, the Henry Threadgill Sextett album "You Know the Number" (RCA Novus 3013-1-N) is a far more consistent effort. Not only is it obvious from the opening track -- the infectious and uncommonly colorful "Bermuda Blues" -- that Threadgill embraces all forms of jazz and its extensions. It's also clear that he knows how to make seemingly incompatible styles like swing and free jazz joyfully coexist. And if the rest of the album isn't nearly as accessible as this performance, it's no less enjoyable.
A veteran of the avant-garde, Threadgill is clearly drawn to music charged with tension and turmoil. His alto and tenor saxophones are responsible for some of the album's most volatile moments, often in conjunction (and combat) with drummer Ak Laff, who here again brings the best out of the soloists on tunes like "To Be Announced" and "Those Who Eat Cookies."
'The Saxophone Shop' Another impressive album aimed at a similar audience has been released by the Saxophone Choir, a little-known band led by Philadelphia saxophonist Odean Pope. Although the group was founded more than a decade ago, its new release, "The Saxophone Shop" (Soul Note 1129), is likely to turn a lot of heads with its thick textures and appealing melodies.
Best known for his work with drummer Max Roach, Pope composed all but two of the eight selections, and each has a distinct personality. There are gospel-tinged ensembles (Choir is certainly an apt name for this band -- it contains nine saxes), sultry ballads and brash excursions into circular breathing and exotic scales. Best of all, tunes like the album's title track swing with a raucous abandon.