SONNY ROLLINS | ROAD SHOWS VOL. 1 | Doxy/Emarcy | For years the rap on Rollins has been that he shows his best stuff not in the studio but on the concert stage, and even there inconsistently, revving himself up, trying to find something he's never played before, hammering riffs to make them yield gold. Here the problem is solved: working with Rollins fan Carl Smith's collection of tapes and his own soundboard recordings, Clifton Anderson (Sonny's nephew and trombonist) culled live performances from 1980 to 2007 and then submitted them to the saxophonist's exacting standards. The result is one of the best live Rollins albums, and therefore one of the best albums in his career. The pieces are sequenced for pacing rather than chronology, so part of the fun is in jumping from the up-tempo original "Best Wishes" to the medium-tempo ballad standard "More Than You Know" with no diminution in energy or imagination — and then realizing that they were recorded 20 years apart. His tone throughout is generally big and wet, and on pieces like the Afro-Latin "Blossom" you can hear how his fierce rhythmic articulation is inseparable from his melodic invention. More reflective on "Some Enchanted Evening," from a 2007 Carnegie Hall show, Sonny takes a few moments to comp quietly along with Christian McBride's bass solo, as if from across a crowded room.
FRANCISCO MELA | CIRIO | Half Note | Here's a whole other kind of rhythm. Drummer Mela (a regular on the Boston scene) is Cuban, but his grooves are as tantalizingly abstract as they are earthy and elemental. And here he has a whole other kind of saxophonist, too — Mark Turner, with his oblique flurries, start-stop phrasing, and lyrical chromatic flights up and down the full range of his horn. On "Tierra and Fuego" (apt title), Turner and guitarist Lionel Loueke play the odd-phrased tune over an equally odd-accented pattern by pianist Jason Moran and bassist Larry Grenadier. Mela, meanwhile, plays both inside and outside the rhythm at once. It's impossible to describe how good this sounds, especially as Turner gains velocity and Moran and everyone else start messing with that groove. There are also more-"traditional" pieces here, among them a couple of Mela's gentle son-montuno vocals, intimate and affecting. Melao (Ayva) was one of the best jazz discs of 2006; Cirio is a frontrunner for 2008.
CARLA BLEY BIG BAND | APPEARING NIGHTLY | ECM | Recorded live in a Paris club, this is Bley's tribute to big-band music of the '50s, from her formative days as "a cigarette girl at Birdland or checking coats at Basin Street or the Jazz Gallery." But, since she's Bley, the music is anything but typical big-band swing. You can hear the signature Bley idiosyncrasies in the loping, tragi-comic alto-sax line and rhythm that usher in the opener, "Greasy Gravy" — and in its allusions to "Pretty Baby" and "April in Paris." Bley's pieces fall so smoothly on the ear that's it's easy to overlook those idiosyncrasies, or to take for granted their craft and humor. Snippets of American songbook and bebop standards are woven all through these pieces, but as fleeting memories, subordinated to Bley's voice. So the Gershwins are acknowledged with half a title and a passing reference in "Someone To Watch," and "Salt Peanuts" jumps out as a lightbulb exclamation. Backgrounds and foregrounds merge: trombonist Gary Valente's exuberant bray sounds all the better because of the tension between it and the rising organ-and-brass harmonies exhorting quietly behind him. The composer and her players have worked hard so that you won't have to.
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