It's telling that many of the recent jazz albums by women musicians have little or nothing to do with sexual politics; it's equally telling that these artists tend to be veterans who have pursued their craft in the doubly difficult context of a male-dominated genre and industry. The open areas haven't changed much since the '20s--it's mostly as pianists and vocalists that women have been given the latitude to develop. The few who avoid this conscription--saxophonists Jane Ira Bloom, Jean Fineberg and Erica Lindsay, trombonist Janice Robinson, and guitarists Monette Sudler and Emily Remler come to mind--have not had exposure commensurate with their talents. Some things change; too many others don't.
Joanne Brackeen, completing a three-night stand at the One Step Down tonight, has just released "Special Identity" (Antilles AN 1001). It's her debut on a label new to jazz and like her previous efforts for other labels, demands listening almost as intense as the playing. Brackeen's style of piano is closest to McCoy Tyner's, with cascading sheets of dense chords and single-note lines chasing each other all over the keyboard. Melodies hardly have time to develop; they simply burst forth, as in the busy "Einstein," in which Brackeen overwhelms the million-dollar rhythm section of bassist Eddie Gomez and drummer Jack DeJohnette.
There is a consistent tension in Brackeen's work that inhibits a sense of contrast even on those tunes that imply quietude, such as "Evening." At least here, the thoughtful interplay of the musicians becomes apparent, but the lyricism that could provide relief from the furiously driving solos seems underdeveloped. Technically, Brackeen is astounding, a whirlwind of complex time changes and twisting rhythms, but that blazing speed seems to encourage sloppy edges to much of her rhapsodic phrasing. It's thunder without the illumination of lightning, what Laurie Anderson would term "difficult music."
Brackeen could learn from listening to "The Explosive Dorothy Donegan" (Progressive PRO7056). While Brackeen came up in the '60s, Donegan is a product of the '50s and exemplifies that period's fascination with top-notch popular songs. Without singing, pianist Donegan is quite eloquent on such chestnuts as "Lover," "Love for Sale" and "The Man I Love," all of which are delightful despite their familiarity. She delivers masterful mainstream jazz, tight chordal blocking from her left hand and vibrant voicing from her right. While Donegan never stops swinging, she also explores bluesy nuances ("Donegan's Blues" and "St. Louis Blues") and Cab Calloway insouciance on her original, "I Just Want to Sing." Donegan races along--drummer Ray Mosca and bassist Jerome Hunter seem happy just keeping up with her--but her dancing lines and melodic momentum beg to be heard again and again. "Explosive" is impressive; it's not a ground-breaking album, but simply the solid harvest of yet another overlooked performer.
Donegan is one of the many artists featured on the five-volume "Forty Years of Women in Jazz" (Stash STB-001). Producer Bernard Brightman has done much to encourage a reexamination of women's contributions to jazz. These records, collected together after being released individually over the last five years, do much to confirm that women have indeed played a greater part in jazz history than they're usually given credit for. The music ranges from New Orleans traditional to New York be-bop, and one senses a struggle for recognition and respect anchored in genderless creative joy.
Some of the names are familiar--Lil Armstrong, Mary Lou Williams, Toshiko Akiyoshi, Ida Cox and Lovie Austin--but most are not. The restraining keyboard-vocal pattern holds true, but a number of soloists stand out on instruments not often associated with women: trombonist Melba Liston, trumpet player Valaida Snow, guitarist Mary Osborne, alto player Vi Redd. Several all-women bands stand out as well--Ina Ray Hutton and Her Melodears in the '20s sound like early Ellington, while the International Sweethearts of Jazz hold down their '50s fort with distinction.
The set includes an illuminating 24-page survey by Frank Driggs that sets Brightman's collection in its context not simply musically, but culturally and politically as well. In listing and describing hundreds of women musicians, recorded and unrecorded, Driggs shows how badly this corner of the jazz garden has been tended. "Forty Years of Women in Jazz" is a fascinating and important collection. Two of its featured performers have new releases on Stash as well. Guitarist Mary Osborne's "Now and Then" (ST215) brings together some 1959 sides cut with a Tommy Flanagan-led trio and recent selections with a rhythm duo. The early material, in which the influence of Charlie Christian is still quite apparent, is much more crisp and swinging; Osborne opts for a relaxed, meditative groove on the new material.
Dardanelle's "The Colors of My Life" (ST217) is a sprightly collection of popular songs from, among others, Rodgers & Hart, Arlen & Mercer, Carmichael & Webster and Cole Porter. Yet another recent returnee to the music scene, Dardanelle has an enchanting voice that enhances the traditional values of her material. Her piano work is less interesting, but it's constantly rescued by George Duvivier's sterling bass work.