A Roundup of Recent Jazz and R&B Reissues

Box sets of recordings by Cannonball Adderley, Yusef Lateef, Sonny Rollins, Mavis Staples and more have made this spring a bumper harvest for Zev Feldman and Verve Records’ series of musical discoveries.

Music Features Reissues
A Roundup of Recent Jazz and R&B Reissues

In the Spotify Era, when anyone can assemble a playlist of their favorite songs by an artist, there’s really no reason for those staples of the vinyl and CD eras: greatest hits albums. But that doesn’t mean that old music can’t be assembled into useful, even revelatory packages—even in physical form. Sometimes, especially in physical form.

Zev Feldman, the self-styled “Jazz Detective,” has proven this again and again with his astonishing series of musical discoveries, released in sumptuous physical box sets. Like a bebop Sherlock Holmes, Feldman has tracked down concert tapes, radio broadcasts, television broadcasts and studio sessions by the likes of Bill Evans, Art Blakey, Wes Montgomery and Ahmad Jamal. Feldman negotiates with the dead musicians’ families and issues these previously unreleased tracks with thick booklets that include interviews with participants in the original recordings and with musicians influenced by the bandleaders. Feldman doesn’t release just any music attached to a famous name but focuses on music from key moments when the artist was trying something new. The discs provide the musical epiphany and the booklets the context.

This spring has seen a bumper harvest from Feldman’s labors, including two-CD box sets from Sun Ra (live in 1976-77), Yusef Lateef (live in 1972), a pair of two-CD sets from Cannonball Adderley (live in 1969 and in 1972) and single-CD live recordings from Chet Baker & Jack Sheldon (live in 1972) and Shelley Manne (live in 1966). Lateef’s Atlantis Lullaby is notable, because André 3000 had cited Lateef as a crucial role model in the OutKast co-founder’s recent move to jazz flute.

All of these are worthy projects, but two of Feldman’s spring releases do more than embellish an artist’s catalog. They become milestones in those discographies. That’s Sonny Rollins’ three-CD set Freedom Weaver: The 1959 European Tour Recordings and Art Tatum’s three-CD set Jewels in the Treasure Box: The 1953 Chicago Blue Note Jazz Club Recordings. Though he lacks the mythology surrounding John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman, Rollins was just as important a post-bop saxophonist. After getting sober in 1955, he stepped up to a new level of virtuosity, able to turn his long solos into inexhaustible fountains of ideas and inventions. In fact, he had so much to say on his horn that he decided to perform without a chordal instrument such as keyboard or guitar so that he could shift keys and ideas without waiting for anyone to catch up.

This was a risky gamble, for it’s very difficult for a horn player working with only a bassist and drummer to create enough melodic, harmonic and rhythmic material to hold an audience’s attention for long stretches. But Rollins pulled it off night after night on a European tour where he was backed only by bassist Henry Grimes and a shifting cast of drummers. To hear Rollins tear through these standards and originals without ever letting the momentum and surprises flag is astounding—especially on disc three where each of the three tunes is sustained for more than 15 minutes.

Equally mind-blowing is the package from Tatum, one of the greatest American pianists of all time—jazz, classical or otherwise. These previously unreleased 1953 tapes come from the end of Tatum’s productive years (he would die three years later), but they prove how potent his gifts were even then. Just as Rollins played with a piano-less trio, Tatum played with a drumless trio, accompanied by guitarist Evertt Barksdale and longtime bassist Slam Stewart. But to call it a trio is misleading, because Tatum’s right and left hands worked so independently, each pursuing its own syncopations and melody lines, that the group functioned as a quartet. It is often said that Tatum learned from old piano rolls, which were usually created by more than two hands, but Tatum mastered it all. That would seem impossible, but it often seems just as improbable that he’s playing all the notes on this live recording with just two hands. It’s not just that he’s fast and agile; it’s that each hand is playing something as daring as it’s tuneful.

Feldman is perhaps best known for bringing more than 10 Bill Evans albums to light for the first time. But a new Evans package comes not from Feldman but from Verve as part of its Acoustic Sound Series to reissue many of its classic jazz albums on audiophile vinyl pressings. Previously Unreleased Recordings is taken from a 1964 studio session by Evans and saxophonist Stan Getz with Ron Carter and Elvin Jones. It wasn’t released till 1973, and it’s that version that’s now being released with refurbished sound. The co-leaders were very different, and they don’t always mesh, but when Getz draws more emotion from Evans and the pianist more understatement from the saxophonist, the rewards are great. The Verve series also has newly remastered albums from Ben Webster and Ella Fitzgerald.

It’s often forgotten now, but Southwest Ohio was one of the main regions where funk music got started and flourished. It happened that way because Georgia’s James Brown recorded most of his greatest music in the ‘50s and ‘60s for King Records, which is based in Cincinnati. It was during those years that Brown refined his percussive R&B sound into what we now call funk with the help of two young Cincinnati musicians: bassist Bootsy Collins and his guitarist brother Catfish. The Isley Brothers, born and raised in Cincinnati, followed Brown’s lead in evolving from raw R&B into funk.

That influence traveled 54 miles north to Dayton, where the Untouchables renamed themselves the Ohio Players in 1965. Like the Isleys, the Players also gradually recast themselves as a funk outfit—scoring five #1 R&B singles in the ‘70s. The first of those chart-toppers was 1973’s “Funky Worm” from the previous year’s Pleasure album. The song’s synth riff by Walter “Junie” Morrison (later a crucial P-Funk keyboardist and composer) has been sampled by Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, N.W.A., Too $hort and De La Soul, among many others, and the back-and-forth between Morrison’s keyboards and Leroy “Sugarfoot” Bonner’s guitar spark the album’s best moments.

Now you no longer need to go digging through crates to find a vinyl copy. Westbound Records has remastered and reissued the album complete with its controversial cover art of bald model Pat “Running Bear” Evans with chained wrists. Even rarer are the late-‘60s tracks the Ohio Players recorded before finding success at Westbound; those transitional tracks have now been collected and reissued as Observations in Time: The Johnny Brantley/Vidalis Productions. Brantley was the group’s producer who recorded a series of singles that he licensed to various small labels with little success—though one of them, “Here Today and Gone Tomorrow,” was recorded by David Bowie on his David Live album. 11 of those singles were compiled into a 1969 Capitol album also called Observations in Time, but the new compilation adds 13 additional tracks. The band’s roots in jazz instrumentals and soul harmonies are more pronounced on these songs, but you can also hear the first stirrings of their signature funk sound. Dayton went on to become a funk capital, where acts such as Zapp, Slave and Lakeside were also based.

Mavis Staples is represented by two new releases. One is a reissue of 2004’s Have a Little Faith, the first album she made after her father Roebuck “Pops” Staples had died. The Staples Sisters had been off the road for a while, and Mavis had to rebuild her career from scratch. This album launched that effort with vocals rooted in gospel and the blues and roots-rock arrangements that recalled the Band. In a sense, it was a sequel to Mavis’s appearance on the Band on The Last Waltz. Producer Jim Tullio and guitarist Jim Weider had also worked with that group’s members, and they capture that sound perfectly. The understated power of Have a Little Faith makes it an overlooked gem in Mavis’s catalog.

Appearing for the first time in legal form is Africa 80, remastered from the often bootlegged soundboard recordings of the Staple Singers’ 1980 African tour. This nine-song set opens with funk arrangements of three of the quartet’s biggest hits, “Respect Yourself,” “Let’s Do It Again” and “Come Got with Me.” The mood shifts with the deep blues lament of Pops’ “Why Am I Treated So Bad?” and Mavis’s Mahalia-fied version of Dionne Warwick’s “A House Is Not a Home.” Two hand-clapping hymns set up the climactic, nine-minute version of “Touch a Hand, Make a Friend,” an anthem of optimism that exemplified the group’s blurring of boundaries between religious and secular, political and folk wisdom. Those are not easy bridges to cross, and it’s good to have another example of how they did it.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin