New releases should shed light on some of jazz's finest players
By Ron Wynn
FEBRUARY 23, 1999: Since few jazz musicians get anywhere near as much attention as their pop counterparts, it might be inaccurate to label certain ones as "underrated." Still, many top instrumentalists and vocalists labor in obscurity for their entire careers, greatly admired by peers but essentially unknown to the masses--this is, until they get a huge break or die prematurely.
A new crop of releases, plus one reissue, spotlight first-rate artists who, for various reasons, have never achieved widespread recognition. Keyboardists Tommy Flanagan, Jimmy McGriff, and Marcus Roberts, along with saxophonist Charles McPherson, have new records that are uniformly enjoyable and often exciting. If these eminently worthwhile records get ignored, each performer can at least take comfort in knowing that his efforts are substantively better than those of many higher-profile performers.
Flanagan, McGriff, and Roberts have little in common beyond the fact they're keyboard masters. That, and they've enjoyed lengthy careers sticking to a personal vision rather than pandering to trends or responding to commercial pressures. Flanagan made his initial impact in the mid-'50s, when he and fellow Detroiter Kenny Burrell moved to New York. In a whirlwind period from 1956 to 1962, he became a prolific session contributor, recording with Thad Jones, Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, Coleman Hawkins, and John Coltrane.
He subsequently opted for a steady gig over all-star dates, becoming Ella Fitzgerald's accompanist from 1962-65 and again from 1968-78. In the years since, he has continued to work in a variety of settings, and in 1993 he earned the Jazzpar award for musician of the year. Even so, he has never enjoyed the breakout album that would give him widespread recognition outside jazz circles.
Sunset and the Mockingbird (Blue Note), Flanagan's latest, showcases his trio of seven years while reaffirming his abilities as a dazzling soloist and outstanding accompanist. Unlike more dashing pianists, Flanagan doesn't take huge liberties with a melody. Instead, he subtly alters lines, reworks phrases, or configures voicings in such songs as Dizzy Gillespie's "Tin Tin Deo" and Thad Jones' "Let's." He builds tension with nimble left-hand leaps or treble statements, then nicely plays off bassist Peter Washington and drummer Lewis Nash's answering refrains. This date was recorded live during Flanagan's 67th birthday celebration at the Village Vanguard last year, and it serves as a solid document of his still amazing dexterity and imagination.
Jimmy McGriff is among the greatest organists in recent jazz history. Interestingly, he started out playing everything but organ, trying sax, drums, vibes, and piano before taking a job in 1961 as Big Maybelle's organist. He became a champion of the laid-back, bluesy approach, in contrast to the furious, bass-pedal dominated style pioneered by Jimmy Smith. Soulful originals, funky blues tunes, and R&B covers have been McGriff's stock in trade since 1962, when his version of "I Got a Woman" became a mild hit for Sue Records.
Because McGriff's forte is ballads and blues, he has often been derided for not being a challenging improviser. But his latest release, Straight Up (Milestone), debunks that myth. His organ solos on "Oleo" and "Brother Griff" are rigorous, while his accompaniment crisply kicks in behind the joyous, muscular riffs of trombonist David "Fathead" Newman and flutist Frank Wess. Sometimes McGriff and his comrades challenge each other, while on "Doin' My Thing" and "Brother Griff," there's a festive, playful atmosphere.
Marcus Roberts could have reaped riches as a member of jazz's most popular group: He played in Wynton Marsalis' band from 1985 to 1991, distinguishing himself as a frenetic improviser and distinguished composer. He also gained a reputation for being outspoken, at one point expressing his disdain for jazz musicians who dabbled in other styles. He first gained national prominence when he won the initial Thelonious Monk International Piano Competition. In the years since, he has spent much of his solo career examining vintage jazz piano styles such as stride.
His latest, The Joy of Joplin (Sony Classical), a ragtime date, will certainly trigger controversy, especially since he doesn't always stick to Joplin's tempos. Roberts injects contemporary twists and phrases into his renditions of "The Entertainer" and "Maple Leaf Rag." The results can be jarring, especially when he leaps back into ragtime tempo, but they're certainly distinctive. It will be intriguing to see how traditionalists respond to his treatments of "Gladiolus Rag," which is much faster than Joplin's original, and "Magnetic Rag," in which the second verse slows down.
Charles McPherson has been unfairly tagged as little more than a good journeyman. Despite being a superb ballad player and above-average stylist, the alto saxophonist was pegged a Charlie Parker disciple when he first began working at age 17 in Detroit. After he moved to New York, he quickly demonstrated a fresh sound and a challenging approach, proving himself during the mid-'60s and early '70s playing in Charles Mingus' Jazz Workshop.
McPherson's solo career began upon his exit from Mingus' group in '72. He cut some of his sessions for now-defunct imprints like Xanadu and Mainstream, but since '94 he has recorded periodically for Arabesque. His newest for the label, Manhattan Nocturne, displays his trademark spry sound and nimble phrasing.
A smooth, lyric soloist, McPherson is just as capable of red-hot statements, as he shows on "Primal Urge" and the title track. Sometimes he glides above the rhythm section, at other times responding to cues from pianist Mulgrew Miller, while bassist Ray Drummond, drummer Victor Lewis, and percussionist Bobby Sanabria forge their own distinctive textures underneath. The group offers a beautiful, lengthy rendition of "How Deep Is the Ocean," an intriguing reworking of Thelonious Monk's "Evidence," and McPherson's own surging "Fire Dance," all making Manhattan Nocturne worth a listen.
None of the above-mentioned artists are going to change the face of jazz music--and they're certainly not going to register in the pop universe, littered as it is with so many disposable hit-makers. But the fact remains that Tommy Flanagan, Jimmy McGriff, Marcus Roberts, and Charles McPherson all offer worthy musical statements on their latest releases. At the very least, these men deserve a little hype for their efforts.
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