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Savoy Reissues
Classic Jazz At Its Best

Review by Jim Merod
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  The Savoy jazz catalogue does not hold an enormous archive of recordings. It is, nonetheless, significant for its Charlie Parker material and significant, as well, for only slightly lesser sessions that construct an invaluable look into the musical life of New York in the '40s and '50s.

Among the many Savoy sessions that frame crucial years in jazz history, several re-releases by Fats Navarro Goin' To Milton's [Savoy 92861-2], Kenny Dorham Blues In Bebop [Savoy SVY-17028], and by Wilbur Harden and John Coltrane The Complete Savoy Sessions [Savoy 92858-2] -- give both casual and serious listeners a deep look into a treasured past.

These re-releases offer jazz historians and archivists priceless witness. Fats Navarro, born in 1923, dead at twenty-six from narcotics abuse and tubercolosis, left behind astonishing work
that has assured his place among the great jazz trumpeters. GOIN TO MINTON'S puts Navarro in the company of Tadd Dameron, on piano, Ernie Henry, on alto sax, Lockjaw Davis, on tenor sax, Sonny Stitt, on alto, Bud Powell, on piano, and Art Blakey (for four tracks) and Kenny Clarke (for four tracks) on drums.

For this writer, Navarro's sly, haunting line, "Nostalgia" -- a song that both Art Farmer and Clifford Jordan put into their permanent repertoires -- is the emotional highlight of the album's twenty two cuts drawn from four recording sessions between September 1946 and December 1947. Rudy van Gelder and Malcolm Addey worked on the deteriorated master tapes in the mid-70s. With the later use of the CEDAR noise reduction system, the disc now contains music restored to more or less decent sonic clarity. The music is compelling. When you hear a young Lockjaw squaring off with Fats, you'll marvel at the freshness of their musical ideas. If you do not know Fats Navarro's playing, I suggest that you pursue his work. This is a good place to start.

The Kenny Dorham disc offers an essentially priceless set of performances. Ten cuts find Dorham co-leading an August 1946 quintet with Sonny Stitt. Bud Powell is on piano. Kenny Clarke is on drums. There are three cuts of Dorham in a January 1949 sextet led by Milt Jackson and another three in a February 1949 Charlie Parker quintet. But the highlights of this album are four cuts from May 22, 1956 led by baritone sax stalwart Cecil Payne with Arthur Taylor on drums and Duke Jordan on piano. As soon as you hear Randy Weston's "Saucer Eyes" you are in rare territory. Well into his seventies, Payne continues to be one of the most important players on his bulky instrument. His collaboration with Dorham is exquisite. The twenty-three minutes that constitute the album's closing four tracks make this compilation whole... and the whole worth more than the price of the disc.

Dorham was, and is, a trumpeter's trumpeter. Perhaps my favorite Dorham sessions are those, on Blue Note, with Joe Henderson and, on United Artists, with John Coltrane, Cecil Taylor, Chuck Israels and Louis Hayes. Almost any of Dorham's recordings show why he is so reverred by the greatest players on his instrument. Art Farmer, for one, used to extoll Dorham's virtues. This album demonstrates Dorham's delicacy and tact, both of which are dedicated to a deeply subtle sense of surging purpose.

The Wilbur Harden sessions from 1958 with John Coltrane exist in a world of their own. 1958 was a seminal year for 'Trane. His playing took on added confidence. The vulnerable innocence of his early approach to his instrument is still evident, nonetheless. That combination of deepened maturity and lyrical fragility is beguiling.

Here, with Harden mostly on flugelhorn, sometimes on rotary valve trumpet, 'Trane emerges as the unintended leader of the three blowing sessions. That these dates were meant as Harden-led studio gigs did not change the fact that Harden had little experience directing (efficiently or otherwise) recording time that brought players such as Tommy Flanagan, 
Louis Hayes, and Curtis Fuller in front of the microphones.

Still, Wilbur Harden's special soulfulness -- a soft, breathy attack that carries deep lyrical feeling -- emerges throughout. From the insouciant opening of take one on "Wells Fargo," on the first disc, to the somewhat well known "Tanganyika Strut" to end the second, the mood is laid back but the blowing is beautifully constructed.

One of the bonus features of a "complete" reissue such as this reveals itself in the display of chops (personal musical "logic") that multiple takes allow. I'm struck by the deeply
crafted introductions that Tommy Flanagan tosses off on three takes (across two songs) on March 13, 1958. Listen to his nearly Horowitz-like touch at the outset of "Snuffy" and on both takes of "Rhodamagnetics."

Much has been made of Coltrane's work that post-dates recordings for Prestige and Blue Note. The Coltrane of the Miles Davis Quintet years is a gentle powerhouse whose direct musical relationship to Charlie Parker is mediated by a deep awareness of Dexter Gordon. When the Atlantic years took Coltrane into Neshui Ertegun's studio, under the watchful recording ears of Tom Dowd and Phil Ramone, a more assertive, focussed, and iconoclastic player emerged. But the late-50s sessions remain among the most emotionally and intellectually stimulating recordings by any single musician in jazz history.

The Savoy sessions with the almost unknown Wilbur Harden are no exceptions. Harden's musical temperament is extremely gentle. His tone is among the most angelic ever created. One thinks of Joe Wilder, Woody Shaw, and the early Donald Byrd. In fact, the Byrd of Horace Silver's second quintet is the nearest analogue for Harden's sound. The surplus that derives from repeated listening to these two discs is the delight and surprise you'll receive hearing an under-used instrument: the valve rotary trumpet. Harden's spare, graceful intelligence combines with a horn sound that is difficult to forget. Coltrane -- darting, dancing, perfect in his lithe execution of controlled emotional outbursts -- is matched beautifully by Harden... a match that Coltrane seldom found among musicians who, like Sonny Rollins for a brief time, were stunned and truly disabled by his technical prowess. Here, on these two Savoy discs, 'Trane is not a technical juggernaut, but an emotional tsunami. Wilbur Harden was there, like we are now, to receive the gift of feeling young and brave and true.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
 

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