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ALL THAT JAZZ

Hitting High, Low Notes of the Year So Far

July 19, 1996|DON HECKMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

If it's July it must be time for the Midyear Jazz Report--a quick survey of some of the hits and misses of the first six months of 1996 now in a record store near you.

In the Groove: Five must-have jazz albums of the year, so far, run the gamut, from a marvelous reissue box to some never-before-heard Billy Strayhorn, a melding of jazz and Native American music, a new take on Gershwin and a father-son duo.

Composer-pianist Don Pullen's "Sacred Common Ground" (Blue Note) is a posthumous collection issuing from a 1992 commission to compose a "jazz/Indian score" for a new dance work by choreographer Garth Fagan. A year and a half in the making, it links Pullen's African Brazilian Connection with the Chief Cliff Singers, a group of seven drummer-singers from the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Native American reservations in Elmo, Mont. The connections between the musical forms are brilliantly articulated in a performance revealing that Pullen's skills were keen and his imagination resourceful up to the end.

"Portrait of a Silk Thread: Newly Discovered Works of Billy Strayhorn" (Kokopelli) is a performance by the superb Dutch Jazz Orchestra of Strayhorn material either unheard, or largely forgotten, with eight of the 12 tracks never before recorded. The orchestra makes no attempt to imitate the Ellington sound, yet the music has a distinctly Ellington-esque character, suggesting that the importance Strayhorn's role in the development of that character could stand some further reevaluation.

"Portraits in Blue" (Sony Classical) may not please either Marcus Roberts' straight-ahead jazz fans or the Gershwin purist. But it's hard to deny the energy, the excitement and the sheer revelatory quality of the music. By inventively rethinking the "Rhapsody in Blue," moving elements around, opening up areas for improvisation and invigorating its period rhythms with a brisk, jaunty sense of swing, Roberts has properly positioned Gershwin's work within an appropriate jazz environment while retaining its character as a complete composition.

"Loved Ones" (Columbia) features the father-son duo of pianist Ellis Marsalis and saxophonist Branford Marsalis performing a set of romantic ballads. The concept is simple and direct--an album dedicated to "the romantic effect of ladies upon American songwriters." The warm camaraderie of the musical connection is a joy to hear, and Branford Marsalis' open, uncluttered playing is particularly welcome after two years of 15-second sound bites on "The Tonight Show," followed by a stint with his jazz-pop group, Buckshot LeFonque.

"The Mel Torme Collection, 1944-1985," (Rhino Records) includes 92 tracks and more than 100 songs chronicling four decades of Torme's music. The collection, filled with goodies, demonstrates that Torme was very good from the very beginning. An absolute vital entry in anyone's collection of jazz.

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Over the Top: You'd think it would be hard to go wrong with jazz reissues, especially with names such as Count Basie, Coleman Hawkins, Louis Armstrong, etc. But a collection of seven albums released on the Dove label provides no information or documentation regarding the tracks. Many sound like radio broadcasts or live performance tapes and, as such, have a certain value for serious jazz collectors. Only the most dedicated Basie fan, however, would want to acquire an album in which several of the tracks feature the Count playing piano ballads, backed by a saccharine string orchestra. . . .

The jazz flirtation with hip-hop and rap has produced some interesting amalgams--notably from Herbie Hancock and Branford Marsalis--but the connection gets pushed way too far in the pop direction in Blue Note's "The New Groove." Using pop producers to "remix" works by Jacky Terrasson, Donald Byrd and Horace Silver simply underscores the essential creative misunderstandings that lie at the heart of too many pop-jazz amalgams. . . .

The continuing tendency to refer to superficial music best suited for driving up the Pacific Coast Highway on a sunny weekend as "contemporary jazz" is a genuine example of fractured semantics. How about "instrumental pop?"

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Free Jazz: Pianist Cecilia Coleman's Quintet appears in the plaza of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art tonight from 5:30-8 p.m. (Information: [213] 857-6115) . . . Also tonight at 6:30 p.m., the quartet of bassist-arranger John Clayton performs at the UCLA/Armand Hammer Museum in Westwood Village. (Information: [310] 824-6365)

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On the Radio: Pianist Marcus Roberts, who has two albums--"Portraits in Blue" and "Time and Circumstance"--in current release, visits Bonnie Grice's "Live on Hope Street" show today from 8-8:30 a.m., repeating at 5 p.m. on KUSC-FM (91.5).

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