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Ed Blackwell – The Complete Remastered Recordings on Black Saint and Soul Note [TrackList follows] – /Cam Jazz (8 CDs)

Ed Blackwell – The Complete Remastered Recordings on Black Saint and Soul Note (8 CDs) [TrackList follows] – Black Saint/Soul Note Records/Cam Jazz BXS 1030, CD 1: 50:20, CD 2: 39:39, CD 3: 43:56, CD 4: 47:39, CD 5: 38:35, CD 6: 47:29, CD 7: 42:14, CD 8: 77:27 [11/26/14] [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ****:

(CD 1, Walls-Bridges Set 1, 1997. Ed Blackwell Trio: Blackwell – drums; Dewey Redman – tenor saxophone; Cameron Brown – bass)

(CD 2, Walls-Bridges Set 2, 1997. same personnel as above)

(CD 3, Old and New Dreams, 1977. Old and New Dreams: Don Cherry – pocket trumpet; Redman – tenor saxophone, musette; Charlie Haden – bass; Blackwell – drums, gong)

(CD 4, A Tribute to Blackwell, 1990. Same personnel as above)

(CD 5, Transit, 1987. Blackwell – drums; Karl Berger – vibes; Dave Holland – double bass)

(CD 6, In Willisau, 1985. Blackwell – drums; Redman – tenor saxophone, musette)

(CD 7, Morning Song, 1984. David Murray Quartet: Murray – tenor saxophone, bass clarinet; John Hicks – piano; Reggie Workman – bass; Blackwell – drums)

(CD 8, From Bad to Badder, 1991. The American Jazz Quintet: Alvin Batiste – clarinet; Harold Batiste – tenor saxophone; Ellis Marsalis – piano; Richard Payne – bass; Blackwell – drums; Earl Turbinton – alto saxophone (guest))

Drummer Ed Blackwell (who passed away in 1992) was probably best known as an integral constituent of Ornette Coleman’s band. He replaced Billy Higgins, and was then involved in seminal Coleman LP’s such as This Is Our Music (1960), Free Jazz (also 1960), Ornette on Tenor (1961) and other records. Blackwell also worked and recorded with Eric Dolphy, supported numerous musicians, and sporadically led his own ensembles. During his career, Blackwell participated in several projects on the Black Saint/Soul Note label, and that is the focus of the eight-CD set, The Complete Remastered Recordings on Black Saint and Soul Note. This collection has only one album headed by Blackwell, the two-CD live trio venture, Walls-Bridges (taped in 1992, issued in 1997). The other six CDs feature Blackwell as co-leader or group member, and include two from Old and New Dreams, a quartet which included other Coleman alumni; a trio album guided by vibraphonist Karl Berger; a studio release with the David Murray Quartet; a festival duet date with saxophonist Dewey Redman (a Coleman colleague also in Old and New Dreams); and a concert recording with the American Jazz Quintet.

The boxed set has just over six hours of music, which is quite a feast. Most of the music deviates toward progressive post-bop music with plenty of freedom, the kind of musical environment Blackwell thrived in. Blackwell’s style inclined toward older jazz characteristics (he grew up in New Orleans and learned to play traditional jazz and R ’n B while living there) with imaginative use of accents on the one and three of a four-beat measure. He was also not an explosive percussionist; therefore, he did not have the same portion of recognition as, for example, Elvin Jones or Art Blakey, two of Blackwell’s peers. Blackwell’s tone is noticeable on the Walls-Bridges concert document, taken from an early 1992 engagement at Hampden Theatre at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. This CD previously came out in 2003, so it’s good to be able to hear this again. Over the course of nearly 90 minutes, Blackwell, Redman (on tenor sax) and acoustic bassist Cameron Brown (who has recently performed with Jane Ira Bloom) execute expert free-bop and likeminded material.

The concert occurred less than a year before Blackwell succumbed to kidney disease, but the drummer shows no indications of ill health. The trio opens with an explorative, 21-minute explication of Miles Davis’ “Half Nelson.” Redman maintains the spotlight for the most part, until Brown takes a darting solo about 16 minutes into the spontaneous piece. There is an equal amount of uninhibited inclination during a 14-minute run through the standard, “Everything Happens to Me,” where the melody is offered to the audience, then cut and sliced, and restructured. Four of Redman’s compositions are presented, during which the threesome balance between unhindered improv and accessibility. “Boo-Boo Doop” is a highlight; and there is an awareness of going to the edge but not falling which is discerned during the hyperactive title track. Bop history emerges during a short, fast-paced translation of Charlie Parker’s “Dewey Square,” and the trio concludes with a crowd-pleasing, mostly unconventional rendition of Billy Strayhorn’s “Take the “A” Train,” where Redman cavorts with the famous theme.

When Old and New Dreams were formed in 1976, it was a considered a jazz supergroup. The four members had been in Coleman’s group at various times, but by the bicentennial year they were acknowledged for their own work. This Black Saint/Soul Note package includes two releases by the quartet which comprised trumpeter Don Cherry, Redman, bassist Charlie Haden and Blackwell. It’s bittersweet to hear this music now: Haden died earlier this year, Redman in 2006, Cherry in 1995 and Blackwell in 1992. The self-titled debut (reissued last year) traverses an assortment of alternative-jazz music with a predilection toward post-Coleman composition. The foursome commence with a sprint through Coleman’s contrapuntal “Handwoven,” and then move onto Haden’s tender character sketch, “Chairman Mao,” which weaves in some Asian influences. There is timelessness to Redman and Cherry’s dual horn lines, as well as Haden and Blackwell’s rhythmic exchange. Redman and Cherry have two tunes apiece. During Redman’s “Dewey’s Tune,” Blackwell illustrates his melodic percussive proficiencies. The title track discloses the world music inspirations which fueled much of Cherry’s solo endeavors, while Redman provides an Asiatic feel on the high-pitched musette, which has an oboe-like tonality. Cherry’s two cuts exhibit a bop-disposed backdrop with a dollop of blues swing on the lengthy “Augmented” and a significant late-1950s perspective on the Coleman-esque “Next to the Quiet Stream.” The 1990 A Tribute to Blackwell was the final Old and New Dreams release. It details a late 1987 concert at the Ed Blackwell Festival in Atlanta, Georgia, broadcast on WUFT-FM, the Univ. of Florida student radio station. Blackwell was already suffering from kidney problems, but his playing is phenomenal during the 47-minute, five-track proceedings. The group recasts three mostly-unknown or little-heard Coleman compositions (“Happy House,” “Law Years” and “Street Woman”), one Blackwell piece (“Togo”) and Redman’s “Dewey’s Tune” makes a reappearance. Everyone is at a penetrating peak of playing and construct innovative and instinctive music infused with freedom and traces of tradition. The sound is high quality as well, with no suggestion of the flatness which permeates some radio broadcasts issued on CD.

Coleman serves as a de facto muse on 1987’s Transit, led by Coleman devotee, vibraphonist Karl Berger, alongside bassist Dave Holland and Blackwell. Although recorded the same year as A Tribute to Blackwell, this has a different deportment. Berger states in his liner notes it’s unmistakably motivated by Coleman’s harmolodic system, a key ingredient which goes into each cut. An African framework underscores “Dakar Dance,” where Blackwell reveals an intricate rhythmic footing heightened by piano and Holland’s deep, acoustic bass. The propulsive homage, “Ornette,” is a showpiece for Berger’s individualistic vibes. He has an inimitable approach to which is harmonically unusual and he is well worth discovering by vibes aficionados who are not familiar with Berger. The seven numbers depict diverse moods, from melancholy (the affectionate “Out There Alone,” about the shift from boyhood to young manhood) to upbeat (the rhythmically-challenging “Drums First,” where Blackwell really goes all out). Transit appears to have been out of print since 1993, and this is first-rate music which deserves more widespread reception. The new remastering pushes the audio quality to the forefront: the vibes, bass and drums are fantastic to hear.

Blackwell and Redman were an exceptionally simpatico team, and their interplay, interaction and amity flourish on the 1985, 47-minute In Willisau, taped in summer 1980 at the jazz festival held in the small Swiss township. This was last reissued in 1993, so it’s overdue to hear the successful synthesis of Redman (who again switches between tenor sax and musette) and Blackwell. Redman is authoritative throughout, while Blackwell utilizes a comprehensive cross-section of redolently rich rhythms, complex counter rhythms and percussive components. The set list consists of five Redman originals. The twosome begins with the 14-minute, post-bop excursion “Willisee,” where Redman is in top form. Blackwell and Redman’s personal musical relationship and empathy can also be heard on another 14-minute piece, the aptly-named “Communication,” where Blackwell is given generous solo space. The approximately ten-minute “We Hope” is not as memorable, unless someone is drawn to the musette’s high, reedy tone: for most, the instrument is an acquired taste, and this sizable tune most likely won’t win new converts to the instrument. Some listeners might not be comfortable with the lack of other instruments, such as bass or piano, which adds to an absence of chordal development, whereas others may appreciate Blackwell and Redman’s modifying stance.

The last two CDs contain Blackwell as timekeeper for others. First there is the David Murray Quartet’s 1984, 42-minute Morning Song, a comparatively straightforward, six-track album. The tenor saxophonist (who also employs bass clarinet) is joined by the late pianist John Hicks (who died in 2006), bassist Reggie Workman (who was part of the Miami Jazz Project this year) and Blackwell. There are three, enthusiastic, post-bop originals by Murray; a thoughtful interpretation of the standard “Body and Soul”; a reworking of Fats Waller’s “Jitterbug Waltz” (where Murray changes to bass clarinet for a pre-war timbre); and former Murray bandmember Butch Morris’ leaping “Light Blue Frolic.” There are some stimulating numbers, and lots of melodic occurrences accomplished by the outstanding foursome. Hicks is impressive on “Body and Soul”; Murray echoes Coltrane’s sometimes screechy tendency during “Light Blue Frolic”; and Murray redoes “Jitterbug Waltz” to incorporate some discord, which gives the composition an intriguing and sharp aspect. The American Jazz Quintet’s 1991 CD, From Bad to Badder, is a return to roots project as well as a welcome reunion. The live music also comes from the 1987 Ed Blackwell Festival. The American Jazz Quintet was active in the late 1950s in New Orleans and this get-together reunites the group’s director, Harold Batiste (tenor sax), with the late clarinetist Alvin Batiste (Harold’s cousin), pianist Ellis Marsalis, bassist Richard Payne and Blackwell. The eight pieces (which total 77 minutes) are a mix of ballads (Marsalis’ considerate “Nostalgia Suite” and doleful portrait, “Tony”), and various bop-bouncing nuggets, including three by Alvin Batiste. Some of the material, at times, hints at modernist jazz. For example, Blackwell’s roving percussion occasionally propels the music into stretches which reverberate into progressive areas, particularly during a two-minute drum solo, and an improvised section during the closer, Batiste’s “Mozartin.” Batiste’s “Imp ’n Perry Too” also has a liberal slant. But, for the most part, this is swinging music which traditionally-minded listeners will embrace. The sound is crystal clear, and benefits from the remastering, with a sonic excellence which conceivably betters what the audience experienced.

Typical of other Black Saint/Soul Note remaster reissues, this Blackwell package is a bare-bones collection. The eight CDs are stored in simple, cardboard sleeves housed inside a thicker cardboard box, with reproduced artwork on each sleeve. The back cover liner notes for Transit and the 1976 Old and New Dreams album are recreated, but the very tiny text cannot be read without squinting through a magnifying glass. The credits on some of the other reprinted back covers are correspondingly difficult to examine. But, the sound is superb and that’s an important consideration when deciding if you want to buy this for yourself, or as a gift for a Blackwell fan.


CD 1: Half Nelson, Everything Happens to Me, Boo-Boo Doop.

CD 2: Dewey Square, Walls-Bridges, Obeeso, Blues for J.A.M., Take the “A” Train.

CD 3: Handwoven, Dewey’s Tune, Chairman Mao, Next to the Quiet Stream, Augmented, Old and New Dreams.

CD 4: Happy House, Law Years, Togo, Dewey’s Tune, Street Woman.

CD 5: Dakar Dance, Transit, Chimney Road, Ornette, Out There Alone, Drums First, We Change.

CD 6: Willisee, We Hope, F I, Communication, S 126 T.

CD 7: Morning Song, Body and Soul, Light Blue Frolic, Jitterbug Waltz, Off Season, Duet.

CD 8: Stephanie, Nostalgia Suite, To Brownie, Ed Blackwell, Imp’n Perry Too, Edith, Tony, Mozartin.

—Doug Simpson

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