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Something Old, Something New, Something Blue

December 08, 1996|Don Heckman | Don Heckman is The Times' jazz writer

It was a banner year for jazz recordings, with something for everyone. There were plenty of carefully thought-out reissue packages, attractive outings by veterans and career-establishing performances by younger artists. Here's a selective overview of some of the more appealing CDs:

*** KENNY BARRON AND MINO CINELU, "Swamp Sally," Verve. Barron's odyssey through the varied territory of jazz (he seems to have played with almost everyone) continues in this duet album with percussionist Cinelu. The combination is magical, with Barron producing some of his most unusual piano playing.

*** ORNETTE COLEMAN, "Sound Museum Three Women" and "Sound Museum Hidden Men," Verve/Harmolodic. An odd pair of CDs that provide alternate takes of the same tunes. On the plus side, Coleman's pieces and sax playing harken to the energy and innovation of his earliest performances.

**** MILES DAVIS & GIL EVANS, "The Complete Studio Recordings," Columbia (six CDs, $110). Just about everything anyone could ever want to know about the classic Davis and Evans Columbia studio recordings is included in this comprehensive boxed set. The encounters between Davis' sensual trumpet and Evans' gorgeous orchestra textures on the "Miles Ahead," "Porgy and Bess" and "Sketches of Spain" albums are well worth the price of admission.

**** BILL EVANS, "Turn Out the Stars: The Final Village Vanguard Recordings, June 1980," Warner Bros. (six CDs, $90). This set was recorded shortly before Evans' death in September 1980, and he was still at the top of his form. His performances here are filled with the blend of emotional intensity and romantic lyricism that was essential to his music. A must-have collection for jazz piano fans.

*** 1/2 STAN GETZ, "A Life in Jazz: A Musical Autobiography," Verve. An entrancing survey of rich and diverse music produced by the tenor saxophonist over more than three decades. Among the high points: Getz's collaboration with Eddie Sauter in the quasi-classical piece "Focus"; "Corcovado," from the bossa nova years; and a moving duet with Kenny Barron on "Night and Day," recorded three months before Getz's death in 1991.

*** 1/2 DEXTER GORDON, "The Complete Blue Note Sixties Sessions," Blue Note (six CDs, $90). Gordon was nominated for an Academy Award for his role in "Round Midnight" (1986). But, as these solid performances from the '60s make clear, he also was a tenor saxophonist who played with brusque force, a dark, immediately identifiable sound, and a propulsive sense of swing.

*** 1/2 HERBIE HANCOCK, "The New Standard," Verve. Pianist Hancock is still captivated by the songs of pop, but here he uses them well, starting with songs by Peter Gabriel, Kurt Cobain, Prince and Lennon & McCartney and winding up with some of his most outward-bound, pure jazz improvising.

**** STAN KENTON, "The Complete Capitol Studio Recordings of Stan Kenton 1943-47," Mosaic ($96; call [203] 327-7111 to order). The Kenton band of the '40s was an enigma: popular yet controversial. And this seven-CD, 10-LP set reveals the ensemble's frothy pop music as well as its compellingly adventurous, if not always successful, attempts to create a massive orchestral jazz style.

*** 1/2 ELLIS & BRANFORD MARSALIS, "Loved Ones," Columbia. Originally planned as a solo ballad outing, pianist Ellis Marsalis decided, instead, to add his son's tenor saxophone to the mix. The result is a delightful, continually intriguing musical rendezvous between two generations of jazz's first family.

*** BRANFORD MARSALIS, "The Dark Keys," Columbia. Marsalis takes a big chance on this one, working on the saxophone with only the accompaniment of bassist Reginald Veal and drummer Jeff "Tain" Watts. But his gift for triggering solos that vary quick, melodic fragments with stretched-out virtuosic displays produces enticing music.

*** 1/2 GERRY MULLIGAN, "The Complete Pacific Jazz Recordings of the Gerry Mulligan Quartet With Chet Baker," Pacific Jazz (four CDs, $60). Mulligan's pianoless West Coast group of the '50s is presented in detail. Forty years later, the music is still pleasingly melodic, the playing overflowing with imagination and surprise.

*** 1/2 DON PULLEN, "Sacred Common Ground," Blue Note. Recorded less than two months before Pullen died of cancer in April 1995, this is an extraordinary composite of music, blending the rhythmic flow and the improvisational spontaneity of jazz with the insistent percussion of Native America. The mortar binding it all together is Pullen's own deeply insightful piano playing.

*** JOSHUA REDMAN, "Freedom in the Groove," Warner Bros. Yes, the recording has its commercial moments, and there's no denying Redman's desire to reach a wider audience. But there's also a lot of fine blowing here, as well, from a saxophonist who looks to be the most successful jazz artist of the decade.

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