The Month In Jazz – June 2021
The self-titled debut album by Eastern Rebellion is one of the best acoustic jazz records of the 1970s. And when it was reissued this month, revisiting it sent me down a rabbit hole of something like fifteen other albums, all made between 1972 and 1978 and all worth hearing. Some of them, in fact, are brilliant.
Eastern Rebellion was a quartet led by pianist Cedar Walton and featuring tenor saxophonist George Coleman, bassist Sam Jones, and drummer Billy Higgins. The album contained four original compositions: “Bolivia” and “Mode For Joe” by Walton, “5/4 Thing” by Coleman, and “Bittersweet” by Jones, plus a version of John Coltrane’s “Naima.” The music was straight-ahead, bluesy hard bop, but with more of a focus on piano than other, similar groups around at the time, where the saxophone was 100% the lead voice.
“Bolivia,” the opener, is one of Walton’s most famous compositions, and we’re talking about a guy who got his start professionally in 1958, first as a member of trumpeter Art Farmer and saxophonist Benny Golson’s Jazztet — a very underrated band — and then joined Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers alongside Freddie Hubbard and Wayne Shorter, among others. He stayed with Blakey until 1964, playing on albums like Mosaic, Free For All, Indestructible, and more. He’s written a lot of killer tunes.
Coleman got off some excellent solos, and Jones and Higgins drove the whole thing hard, but Eastern Rebellion was Walton’s show. And there was just something magical about this particular combination of men. They had an almost telepathic bond; there’s not a moment of hesitation or an ill-considered move on these five tracks.
There’s a good reason for that. When the group came together in 1975, Coleman was the only newcomer. The other three had been working together off and on for years already, and even had a name: the Magic Triangle. Walton and Higgins first played together in the mid ’60s, and Jones joined them in 1972, to back saxophonist Hank Mobley on what turned out to be his final album, Breakthrough!
They recorded Firm Roots and the live Pit Inn under Walton’s name, and Seven Minds under Jones’ leadership, and appeared on about half the tracks on saxophonist Clifford Jordan’s stunning Glass Bead Games, all in 1974. The following year, their relationship with Jordan continued; they recorded four live albums with him (Night Of The Mark VII and three volumes of On Stage) and two studio albums, Firm Roots — yes, the same title, and three songs (the title track, “One For Amos,” and “Voices Deep Within Me”) were played on both — and The Highest Mountain. All those releases were credited to Clifford Jordan & The Magic Triangle.
Eastern Rebellion made two more albums, simply called 2 and 3, with the Magic Triangle as the center and different horns: Bob Berg took over on tenor sax, and on 3, trombonist Curtis Fuller got into the action. Jones died in late 1981, but the group continued for four more albums with David Williams on bass, finally hanging it up in 1994. The key, obviously, was the relationship between Walton and Higgins. In a 2010 interview, he said of the drummer, “Doesn’t matter to him much who’s on bass or how the bass interprets the beat. He can adjust immediately. There’s no warming up. On the first beat he’s with it, which sets him apart from a lot of drummers. For most, after a while, you hear them and say, ‘Ah, he’s got it now.’ Not Higgins — Higgins was immediate. I always was blown away by that quality of his contribution.”
I interviewed George Coleman in 2017, and asked him about Eastern Rebellion, and why he was only on the first album. He said, in part, “[It] was a thing where it was too much focus on me. Eastern Rebellion, that was Cedar’s band. But everybody thought it was my band. Because the promoter, he would advertise it as such. He would have a poster, and I’d be on top — it’d say Cedar Walton Quartet, but sometimes it’d say George Coleman Quartet, and he would be the sideman. And you know, I didn’t like it. This was Eastern Rebellion, this was Cedar’s band. He should be on top. And when they would write about the band, they would say, ‘Billy Higgins — spectacular. Sam Jones was absolutely fantastic. George Coleman, brilliant as ever. Cedar Walton was a little lackluster.’ Or something negative about him. And it got to the point where I could see. So I went on a tour one time, and when I got back I found out he’d hired Bob Berg. He didn’t even tell me. The promoter had to call me and tell me, ‘Yeah, well, on this next tour, Cedar’s gonna use Bob Berg.’ I said, ‘Oh, really? Yeah, OK.’ I never asked him about it. Most people would have been furious, you know, but… I didn’t like the idea of being out there if it’s Cedar Walton’s Eastern Rebellion and he wasn’t getting the acclaim for it.”
What’s great about the various Magic Triangle sessions and live tapes is that although they’re the product of three very strong musical voices — Walton’s bluesy take on bebop, which occasionally got a little showy but always kept one foot on the ground, was simply astonishing; Sam Jones was equally gutsy, but composed some fascinating tunes and doubled on cello; and Billy Higgins’ beat had enough uplift in its swing to work behind Ornette Coleman and the players on about a thousand Blue Note sessions — they’re able to shift gears seamlessly when they want to. Clifford Jordan was more of an avant-garde player than any of the other three, so when he wanted to do a droning piece called “John Coltrane” that even included some chanting, the trio simply fell in behind him and killed that shit.
I’ve put together a playlist of as many albums featuring Cedar Walton, Sam Jones, and Billy Higgins backing various horn players as I could find on Spotify. Listen to it in sequence, or shuffle through it; it’s far from the worst way you could spend 11 hours.
And now, new music!
Tim Mayer - “Hand In Glove”
I’ve always liked octets. Eight pieces — five horns plus a rhythm section — is an unusual configuration, not a big band but more than you usually get, and when deployed properly, on albums like McCoy Tyner’s Tender Moments or David Murray’s Ming, they can deliver extraordinary power and lush beauty. Saxophonist Tim Mayer has put together an octet for his first album in ten years; the band includes trumpeter Anthony Stanco, trombonist Michael Dease (who produced it and runs the D-Clef label), alto saxophonist Adam Rongo, baritone saxophonist Tony Lustig, pianist Miki Hayama, bassist Rodney Whitaker, and drummer Ulysses Owens. They tackle some well-known material, including Tyner’s “Passion Dance,” John Coltrane’s “Naima,” and the standards “Bye Bye Blackbird” and “Blame It On My Youth,” but one of the major standouts is a version of the Jazz Messengers tune “Hand In Glove,” written by — hey, look at that! Cedar Walton. Hayama gets a very nice solo right up front, but the horns get plenty of spotlight time too, Mayer taking a gruff tenor solo followed by a high-energy but precisely controlled statement from Dease, who’s been quietly delivering superb performances for decades and just now seems to be getting the attention he deserves (he won the DownBeat critics’ poll for trombone this year). (From Keeper Of The Flame, out now via D-Clef.)
Dahveed Behroozi - “Imagery”
Pianist Dahveed Behroozi released his first album, Games, in 2012. It was a live disc with bassist Thomas Morgan, who also works often with Vijay Iyer, and drummer Tim Bulkley. This studio release was recorded in 2019, and features Morgan again, but Billy Mintz is now behind the drum kit. The music has some of the depth and romanticism of classical, combined with the exploratory spirit of jazz. Behroozi favors the keyboard’s lower middle range, never dipping all the way into the depths like Matthew Shipp might, but still creating an ominous mood. Morgan’s bass playing is assertive, not foundational; he’s not there to indicate a path for Behroozi, but to make his own statement. Mintz’s cymbal work, which could easily have been annoying in its persistence, actually becomes a third, equally dominant voice and is fascinating for it. The opening track, “Imagery,” is a slow and evolving piece. Like ink poured into a glass of water, it swirls around, coiling and filling the space and gradually achieving balance, creating something that’s dark, but still translucent. (From Echos, out now via Sunnyside.)
Charnett Moffett - “Love For The People”
Bassist Charnett Moffett was a teenager when he played on Wynton Marsalis’s Black Codes (From The Underground), one of the best acoustic jazz albums of the ’80s. He also appeared on Sonny Sharrock’s 1991 Ask The Ages, with Pharoah Sanders and Elvin Jones, and Ornette Coleman’s twin 1996 albums Sound Museum: Hidden Man and Sound Museum: Three Women, among many, many others. He’s also made well over a dozen albums as a leader, covering a broad range of styles, but even for him, New Love is a departure. He plays fretless electric bass throughout, joined by guitarist Jana Herzen, drummer Cory Garcia (Malick Koly subs in on two tracks), and saxophonist Irwin Hall. On several tracks, he and Herzen sing; “Love For The People” is one of them. Between the lyrics, the world-funk groove, and Hall’s excited-but-not-quite-ecstatic soloing, the connections to late-period Pharoah are hard to miss. (From New Love, out now via Motéma Music.)
Simon Moullier - “Hot House”
Vibraphonists release albums as leaders, but the very nature of their instrument means there’s almost always someone else sharing the front line. Even the greatest modern vibes players, Bobby Hutcherson and Milt Jackson, always had some kind of co-lead instrument, whether piano, saxophone, or guitar. But Simon Moullier has taken the rare step of going it alone, with just bassist Luca Alemanno and drummer Jongkuk Kim. Countdown is a collection of standards, including pieces by John Coltrane (the title track), Thelonious Monk (“Work” and “Ask Me Now”), Charles Mingus (“Goodbye Pork Pie Hat”) and more. “Hot House” is a bebop workout by Tadd Dameron that thousands of musicians have interpreted over the years. Moullier delivers the melody line at blinding speed, with Kim playing a lightly dancing rhythm behind him and Alemanno maintaining a bass line that doesn’t walk so much as sprint. The complexity of Moullier’s improvisation, delivered at this absurd tempo, is jaw-dropping, but it’s not just about virtuosity and dexterity. There’s a very strong, old-school melodic sense at work. This whole album is a loving tribute to decades of jazz tradition, while still sounding new. (From Countdown, out now via Fresh Sound New Talent.)
Julian Lage - “Saint Rose”
Guitarist Julian Lage has been kicking around for quite a while, recording as a leader for a string of labels while also appearing as a sideman with drummer Eric Harland, saxophonist Dayna Stephens, and trumpeter Dave Douglas, playing in several of John Zorn’s ensembles, and much more. Now he’s signed to Blue Note with a trio featuring bassist Jorge Roeder and drummer Dave King, and the music rocks surprisingly hard. Unlike many jazz guitarists, Lage is unafraid to get loud or to play with real bite, and with a rhythm team like this behind him, the energy level never flags. “Saint Rose” has a big, rolling-down-the-highway backbeat and Lage’s guitar twangs and rings out like a cross between Bill Frisell and Duane Eddy. In some ways, it’s more of a late-’50s/early-’60s instrumental than a jazz tune. (From Squint, out now via Blue Note.)
Bruce Harris - “Ellington Suite”
Trumpeter Bruce Harris’ debut as a leader, Beginnings, was released in 2017, but he’d been on the scene since the late ’90s, grabbing whatever gigs he could, including studio work on pop records and appearances in two Broadway shows, After Midnight and Shuffle Along. Beginnings featured a collection of saxophonists (alto, baritone, and three different tenors depending on the track) exploring some original tunes, pieces by Horace Silver and Bud Powell, and a version of Prince’s “Do U Lie?” On Soundview, he’s the sole horn, a relative rarity for trumpet players, and the tunes are by Gigi Gryce, Hank Mobley, Randy Weston, and Barry Harris, among others. The “Ellington Suite,” coming near the end of the album, combines “Black Beauty,” “Drop Me Off In Harlem,” and “Echoes Of Harlem” into a single nine-minute medley. Pianist Sullivan Fortner, bassist David Wong, and drummer Aaron Kimmel lay down a supple, subtly shifting groove while also taking short breaks for themselves. Fortner’s unaccompanied passage builds suspense and energy before the band comes back in, and he gets absolutely thunderous at the five-minute mark. Harris doesn’t resist the obligatory growling mute, but also plays open horn on the track, quite effectively. (From Soundview, out now via Cellar Live.)
Harold Land - “Vendetta”
Tenor saxophonist Harold Land had a unique tone, darker and richer than many other bebop or hard bop players, and he was there at the genesis of the style, as the first saxophonist with the Clifford Brown/Max Roach Quintet in 1954 and 1955. (His replacement? Sonny Rollins.) He was based in Los Angeles, made more than a dozen albums as a leader, and had long-running creative relationships with players like trumpeter/bandleader Gerald Wilson and vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson, among others. He died almost exactly 20 years ago, in July 2001, but he left behind a deep and rewarding catalog as both a leader and a sideman. Westward Bound! is a collection of live performances from 1962-65, recorded at the Seattle jazz club the Penthouse and originally broadcast on local radio. The version of “Vendetta” that opens the disc features Carmell Jones on trumpet, Wes Montgomery’s brothers Buddy and Monk on piano and bass, respectively, and drummer Jimmy Lovelace. It’s a complex hard bop head set to a fast, bouncing groove, and both horn players deliver taut, gritty solos in between sprints through the unison melody. (From Westward Bound!, out now via Reel To Real.)
Anthony Braxton - “Composition No. 410”
Anthony Braxton has two new releases out this month. One is a 13-CD box set of live recordings, mostly jazz standards (plus a surprising number of Simon and Garfunkel tunes). This one is an audio Blu-Ray featuring 12 compositions, each lasting between 40 and 70 minutes, and featuring anywhere from six to nine musicians. I’m choosing to share with you the shortest track, “Composition No. 410,” which runs just under 41 minutes and features Braxton on reeds, Taylor Ho Bynum on brass, Dan Peck on tuba, Jacqui Kerrod and Miriam Overlach on harps, Adam Matlock on accordion and aerophones, and Tomeka Reid on cello. I have this theory that the human brain can only process about five to ten minutes of music as a whole, less if it’s lacking in conventional structural patterns (verse/chorus, head/solo). A piece like this, where the music speeds up and slows down, and sometimes layers quick squiggling passages from some instruments over longer drones from others, but the only constant is change, ceases to be “a piece of music” that you can follow from beginning to end and becomes something more like an environment that you live in for an hour or so. I mean, if you listened to this track twenty times in a row you could probably memorize a lot of the sequence of events, but would that improve it for you in any way? Better to treat it like sitting in a room while birds wheel around over your head. (From 12 Comp (ZIM) 2017, out now via Firehouse 12.)
Amaro Freitas - “Sankofa”
Brazilian pianist Amaro Freitas has one of the most fascinating and unprecedented piano styles I’ve heard in a long time. His two previous albums, 2016’s Sangue Negro and 2018’s Rasif, brought the pounding rhythms of northern Brazil to a piano trio context; at times, drummer Hugo Medeiros seemed able to emulate an entire street drum corps by himself, while still swinging. He and bassist Jean Elton are Freitas’ longtime collaborators, present on all three albums and making emphatic statements as one. Sankofa opens with its title track, a relatively gentle piece for about three minutes — it operates in a kind of E.S.T./GoGo Penguin modern-ballad zone — but then the drums kick in, the bass becomes even more insistent, and the piano lingers on an ostinato-esque figure before developing a slowly evolving, cellular melody that builds to a peak of fierce intensity. When the storm finally breaks, you can still feel the vibrations in the air. (From Sankofa, out 6/25 via Far Out Recordings.)
Charles Mingus - “Peggy’s Blue Skylight”
Mingus At Carnegie Hall was always an album for the hardcore. The original 1974 release had just two side-long tracks, versions of Duke Ellington’s “C Jam Blues” and “Perdido.” Now, nearly five decades later, the full concert has been released as a two-CD set, two hours of music in all. The core band was Mingus’ working group of that time, with tenor saxophonist George Adams, baritone saxophonist Hamiet Bluiett, pianist Don Pullen, and drummer Dannie Richmond, and they’re joined by several guests: trumpeter Jon Faddis, tenor saxophonist John Handy, multi-instrumentalist Rahsaan Roland Kirk, and alto saxophonist Charles McPherson. There are six tracks now, plus a short spoken introduction, and five of them run between 18 and 25 minutes. “Peggy’s Blue Skylight” is the shortest, at just 11:54. Mingus was a brilliant composer, but the complex, gutsy, post-Ellington arrangements of his albums are stripped to the bone here, turning the pieces into heads and therefore platforms for extended solos. Faddis takes a fierce, Dizzy Gillespie-esque spotlight turn on this track, with some incredible high note runs, and he’s followed by multiple saxophone solos, of which Bluiett’s rich, lyrical baritone stands out. Mingus and Richmond, joined by Pullen, are a crushingly heavy, but also incredibly swinging rhythm section; this is jump-out-of-your-seat stuff. (From Mingus At Carnegie Hall (Deluxe Edition), out now via Rhino Entertainment.)