Monday, December 19, 2011

Best of 2011, Part II: Historical Releases

Year after year, I think that surely every note must have been wrung from the musical archives and that there are fewer and fewer ways to re-package the old and familiar. And every year I am proved wrong... Here's a look at what I think were the best historical releases of 2011:

10. Howlin' Wolf - Smokestack Lightning / Complete Chess Masters (1951 to 1960) (Hip-O Select) Chester Burnett, aka Howlin’ Wolf was one of the most primordial and influential figures on the blues scene from the 1950’s to the 1970’s. His protean voice and harmonica, and rudimentary guitar were a force of nature. This four disc set collects his 45 rpm releases for the legendary Chess label.
9. Patti Smith - Outside Society (Sony Legacy) As much as a one disc compilation can capture the essence of an artist as complicated as Patti Smith, this one does and succeeds quite well. A prime introduction to neophytes coming to her music and a potent reminder of her power to longtime fans.
8. Albert Ayler - Love Cry/The Last Album (Impulse!) It’s a haunting reminder of the power of his music. The Impulse! Recordings of Albert Ayler are ripe for re-appraisal. The Greenwich Village recordings at the beginning of his tenure with the label are justly praised, but all of his albums for the label show a man who was always on a quest: for new sounds, new meaning and new ways of connecting.
7. William Hooker and Thomas Chapin - Crossing Points (NoBusiness) Hooker and Chapin are a match made in free-jazz heaven and frequently encourage each other during this performance with shouts of joy. Cathartic beauty for the heart and soul at its finest and an absolute must for those who explore the edges of jazz and improvisation.
6. Miles Davis - Bitches Brew Live (Columbia) Evolving faster and faster, the band develops a wilder and much looser feel, playing the music as a continuous suite with Davis giving subtle nods for change in themes and tempos. The music is often daringly intense and they are rewarded with rapturous applause from the huge crowd.
5. Julius Hemphill - Dogon A.D. (International Phonograph) It is great to see this important album, one of the finest jazz albums of the 1970's, back in print again. Anyone interested in adventurous and exciting jazz music will be thrilled. This is truly a model re-release, with great care taken to the music and the presentation and it is a first rate and classy job all around.
4. John Coltrane - The Impulse! Albums Volume 4 (Hip-O Select) Taking late period Coltrane LP’s restoring them to their original LP format, stripping alternate takes, extra liner material and the like, while returning the music to its originally released format, with the artwork and notes as appeared during their first release in 1965-1968. Although much of the music on these recordings is of an experimental nature, moments of sheer beauty and jaw-dropping power abound.
3. Sam Rivers and the Rivbea Orchestra - Trilogy (Mosaic Select) Comprehensive three disc collection of original compositions and arrangements through the specialty label Mosaic Records. Rivers’ large band writing is thoroughly modern and quite frequently explosive with intricate orchestral arrangements making way for powerful instrumental solos.
2. Robert Johnson - The Centennial Collection (Sony) Using the hundredth anniversary of his birth as an excuse for a major sonic upgrade of the Johnson catalog, it casts fresh light on the man, the legend, and most importantly, the music. The re-mastering of the music is wonderful, sounding warm and natural, but still of its time.
1. Miles Davis Quintet - Live in Europe 1967: The Bootleg Series Vol. 1 (Columbia/Legacy) This is a really extraordinary package by one of the finest working bands jazz has ever produced. The music developed on this tour and the bands studio recordings continues to resonate and provide inspiration today.

P.S. The "one that got away" for me was the Henry Threadgill and Air compilation on Mosaic. I've heard a lot of the music contained within and it is superb, but I just couldn't get my finances together in time...

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