Miles Davis – Tutu: Deluxe Edition ★★★★★

Miles DavisWarner Jazz

CD1: Miles Davis (t) plus all additional instruments played by Marcus Miller together with additional contributions by several musicians. CD2: Davis (t; kys), Bog Berg (ts), Robben Ford (g), Robert Irving III, Adam Holzman (kys), Felton Crews (el b), Vincent Wilburn (d) and Steve Thornton (perc). Rec. 1986

There are those dedicated to denigrating Miles Davis’ electric period in general and his post-furlough recordings from the 1980s in particular. Although in the case of one critic one suspects the motives for this are for the purposes of self-aggrandisement and some form of critical recognition (which has worked quite successfully), even a cursory listening of his 1969-1975 recordings is sufficient to make such claims appear nonsense.

Davis’ 1980s output, uneven though it was, can provide a fig leaf of respectability to defend the impossible, but when we come to his last two Columbia albums (You’re Under Arrest, Aura), these claims appear shaky at best and when it comes to Tutu we have a bona fide Davis classic and an album that numbers among the best jazz recordings of the last 25 years, those claims become rank nonsense. A tribute to Bishop Desmond Tutu (the track ‘Full Nelson’ is a tribute to Nelson Mandela), it won two Grammy Awards and perhaps more than any other album of the period, rejuvenated his career. The album began life with the working title ‘Perfect Way’ after a Scritti Politti tune of the same name, and much credit for the writing, conception and production goes to bassist and multi-instrumentalist Marcus Miller.

When the track ‘Tutu’ was completed, Davis dropped his trumpet part in needing only two takes and the visceral impact the music makes made this a no-brainer for the title track. While the album does not completely live up to the promise of its attention-getting opening, it somehow does not matter. Here is Davis redefining himself yet again, and the music still remains fresh and vital today. Tutu is supported in this deluxe release package by a second CD of a previously unreleased live concert from the July 1986 Nice Jazz Festival. Although only two tunes from Tutu appear in the set list (‘Portia’, ‘Splatch’), it is because the focus of the band’s live performances during this period were two memorable covers from You’re Under Arrest – ‘Human Nature’ and ‘Time After Time’ which had begun to define the band live. Twenty-five years on they are enough to evoke powerful memories of Davis in live performance during this period, when to attend one of his concerts was to drink in the aura of perhaps the greatest legend of jazz during his own lifetime.

– Stuart Nicholson

Marvin Gaye – What’s Going On ★★★★★

Marvin GayeUniversal Motown

Gaye (v, p), The Andantes, the Detroit Lions, Bobby Rogers of The Miracles, Eligie and Kenneth Stover (backing v), James Jameson, Bob Babbit (el b), Earl Van Dyke, Johnny Griffith (kys), Joe Messina, Robert White (g), Jack Ashford, Eddie Bongo Brown, Bobbye Hall, Earl De Rouen (perc), Jack Brokenshaw (perc), Eli Fountain (as), Wild Bill Moore (ts) and Detroit Symphony Orchestra conducted by David Van De Pitte. Rec. June, 1970 and March-May1971

Marvin’s masterpiece is possibly to soul music what Miles’ Kind Of Blue is to jazz. Both are works of great sophistication and ambition that opened new pathways in their respective genres. The latest package of Gaye’s high water mark is a 3-CD opus that comprises the original 1971 album as well as the previously released Detroit mix and 19-track collection of odds and ends. Suffice is to say that the original song cycle still has the artistic grandeur that made it so compelling in the first place, and the combination of Gaye’s urbane but emotionally charged vocals, his majestic lament and desperate, bitter holler, seamlessly closes the gap between the highbrow and the honky tonk in black music. Indeed, the contrast between the gliding melodic sophistication of the title track and the biting backbeat of ‘Inner City Blues’ positions Gaye at a coherent crossroads of jazz sensibilities and funk inclinations.

The input of master bassist James Jamerson was crucial to the endeavor insofar as he perambulated so effectively around the lead vocal, almost as a piano or guitar, finishing Gaye’s lines with gorgeously felt-like low phrases. Special mention must also be made of David Van De Pitte whose string score simply heightened the timbral beauty of the backdrops by way of soaring, silken motifs that appeared as a kind of metaphor for human dignity in the midst of cold hearted dehumanization. What’s Going On is, lest we forget, a chef d’oeuvre of protest music, a wake-up call to a world that is destroying itself through war, government corruption and ecological rape, and it’s uncanny that some of the singer’s most poignant lyrics – “there’s too many of you dying”, “fish full of mercury”, “I can’t pay my taxes” – have such a potent resonance in this age of both widespread geopolitical skullduggery and socially divisive economic austerity. Gaye may have written the soundtrack for a Vietnam stress disordered world in 1971, but sadly it also acts as effective incidental music to an Iraq induced planet in 2011. The singer was thus of and beyond his time, and that is the definition of great art, a fruit that just will not wither on the vine.

– Kevin Le Gendre

Freddie Hubbard – Pinnacle: Live & Unreleased From Keystone Korner ★★★★★

Freddie HubbardResonance

Freddie Hubbard (t, flhn), Phil Ranelin (tb), Hedley Caliman, David Schnitter (ts), Billy Childs (p), Larry Klein (b), Eddie Marshall and Sinclair Lott (d). Rec. June and October 1980

With Lee Morgan long gone, Freddie Hubbard had nobody snapping at his heels, not even Miles who, a year after this 1980 date, told Hubbard to his face: “You may never realise it, but you are the baddest motherfucker on the planet right now.” Can’t argue with that. Taped a year earlier to the brace of ‘live’ albums Freddie recorded for Prestige at this very same venue, these previously unreleased great sounding performances find the hero of the hour and his band really piling on the pressure.

Hubbard always surrounded himself with the best available talent and there are no slackers in this extremely capable crew. Leading from the front with his familiar ‘The Intrepid Fox’, Fast Freddie meshes with Phil Ranelin (trombone) and David Schnitter – who alternates on tenor sax with Hadley Caliman – to concoct a fat, brassy post-Messengers sound full of natural dynamics, bright ideas, and, above all, genuine excitement. With diamond cut precision, they attack a programme mainly comprised of five Hubbard originals (that include ‘First Light’ ‘One Of Another Kind,’ ‘Blues For Duane’ etc) plus a spirited stab at ‘Trane’s ‘Giant Steps’. Switching, mid-session, to flugelhorn for Michel Legrand’s ‘The Summer Knows,’ the other horns drop out leaving Freddie and pianist Billy Childs to further impress. I can’t recommend this album more highly, save to say that three decades on the incandescence flame from these recordings still burns brightly.

– Roy Carr

Herbie Hancock – Headhunters ★★★★★

Herbie Hancock – HeadhuntersColumbia/Legacy

Herbie Hancock (kys), Harvey Mason (d), Paul Jackson (el b), Benny Maupin (ts, b clt) and Bill Summers (perc). Rec. 1973

This reissue might seem superfluous given the fact that every self-respecting home should surely already have a copy of Headhunters. And yet even for the most diehard Hancock fan who has heard the opening Moog bass tumble of ‘Chameleon’ a thousand times before, there is still something thrilling, if not joyous, about listening to the same notes wheel into action for the one thousand and first time, simply because the piece arguably represents in earnest the birth of jazz-funk as opposed to jazz-rock.The remaining three tracks, ‘Sly’, ‘Watermelon Man’ and ‘Vein Melter’ are similarly rich in creative substance, above all in the way that they slide so seamlessly into Afro-Latin rhythms from a point of departure in the blues.

The influence of soul iconoclasts Sly & The Family Stone, Stevie Wonder and Parliament is writ large on Herbie’s groove sensibilities as well as on his overall sonic trickery but at the core of everything is both an incredibly cohesive ensemble – the Harvey Mason-Paul Jackson drums-bass axis has a peerless telepathy – and a unique ability to make music whose accessibility does not preclude ambition. The result is black pop art of the highest order.

– Kevin Le Gendre

Miles Davis – Cookin’ at the Plugged Nickel ★★★★★

Miles DavisColumbia/Legacy

Miles Davis (t), Wayne Shorter (ts), Herbie Hancock (p), Ron Carter (b) and Tony Williams (d). Rec. 1965

Was this the apotheosis of jazz? The exaltation of jazz improvisation to such a divine level it has never been surpassed? Quite probably. On this album there are just four tracks, all recorded on the 22 December 1965. In the 1995 box set Miles Davis The Complete Live at the Plugged Nickel 1965 there are three CDs documenting the first, second and third sets from that evening, from which those the four tracks on this album – ‘If I Were a Bell’, ‘Stella by Starlight’, ‘Walkin’, and ‘Miles’ – where taken while there are four CDs from 23 December detailing four sets. Taken together, it s a remarkable body of music.

This album provides a window into those sessions and demonstrates how Davis had taken the conventions of improvising in time over cyclical chord progressions to such a level of sophistication, interaction, spontaneity and creativity it left him with nowhere else to go. Davis’ genius was of course to realise this and within 36 months he had launched out in a new direction entirely, leaving subsequent generations of musicians and fans to look on in awe and wonder at his towering achievement on those two nights in Chicago in December 1965.

– Stuart Nicholson

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