Modern Jazz Quartet: Pyramid

Rating: 8.1/10
Rated as
: Album
Album Status
: Genre Recommendation
Released: 1960
Specific Genre: Cool Jazz
Main Genre: Jazz
Undertones
: Third Stream
Label: Atlantic

1 Vendome 2 Pyramid 3 It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got that Swing) 4 Django 5 How High the Moon 6 Romaine

Cool, but not loungy, progressive, but not sonically avantgardistic

There are no fundamentally weak releases in the Modern Jazz Quartet’s catalogue, but which albums would you recommend as their absolute top picks? That’s no trifling matter. Discounting their live albums, Pyramid is a slight contender among their studio work, with its focus on sophisticated vibraphone-and-piano duels that draw their power from subtlety bordering on inconspicuousness. The Modern Jazz Quartet had entered their phase as elderly statesmen, and alongside their (in my view) epochal Third Stream Music, they were ready to further test out the possibilities to turn their jazz quartet format into a chamber music style that could have potentially broken loose from either jazz or classical – yet without strings or clarinet, they end up on the slightly conventional side of cool, sneaky swing once more.  

As such, this is a terrific jazz release: cool, but not loungy, progressive, but not sonically avantgardistic, minimalistic, but not sparse. It works just as well as background music as it does for an intense listening. Given the fact they barely seem to touch their instruments, these guys put down one mean swing.

Jimmy Johnson: Tobacco Road

Rating: 8.1/10
Rated as
: Album
Album Status
: Genre Contender
Released: 1978
Recorded: 1977
Specific Genre: Chicago Blues, Soul Blues
Main Genre: Electric Blues, Blues
Label: MCM Blues Records

1 Long About Midnight 2 Strange Things Happening 3 Look on Yonder Wall 4 I’m Crazy About My Baby 5 Tobacco Road 6 Breaking Up Somebody’s Home 7 Sweet Little Angel 8 Three Times Chicago

Can’t control the vibration, after all I didn’t make it myself

Most discographies will allude to 1979’s Johnson’s Whack as Jimmy Johnson’s first album, or might be referring to qualifications like his ‚domestic‘ debut and whatnot, but this little gem from 1978 (recorded 1977) is Johnson’s actual debut (and was issued in France – and he did record half an LP in 1975, on the same French label). At fifty years of age, Johnson suffered the fate of many great bluesmen of the postwar generation: important as a studio session for decades, important to the sound of the soulful Chicago blues of bigger names, and too late into the game now to make a big splash for himself.

On Tobacco Road, Johnson sports the melismatic, exhilarated singing style of B.B. King and a not unsimilar guitar technique than another King (Albert) – somewhere between an articulate sting and a bending, organic wail. But he is distinct from both as Johnson goes sneakily funky where BB King goes smooth, he goes raw where King goes schmaltzy and he kicks into a dryly cool, rugged groove where King faceplants in overexcited horn sections. While this somehow got a „live“ tag, there clearly is no audience present (at some points, you can hear what amounts to background studio chatter), so this is probably closer to a studio session which greatly benefits the slightly ramshackle, laid-back couch-groove of the whole set. In terms of cool Chicago soul blues, this is not unlike what Earl Hooker did in the mid-1960s, but with a jazz-informed drummer and a really steady rhythm guitarist supplying a comforting background for Johnson to take off from. Watch out for some funky little drum fills and some great breakdowns which showcase Johnson’s vocals – especially on the hurt, grief-stricken yet somehow defiantly energetic showstopper „Feel Like Breakin’ Up Somebody’s Home“.

As electric soul blues goes, this is a highly recommended set precisely because it moves in areas somewhat out of fashion at the time – it isn’t self-consciously trying to be overly theatrical and doesn’t fall into any of the flashy traps of the genre, it’s just some bloke, some beers, and some emotive, low-key blues.

Cannon’s Jug Stompers: The Complete Works 1927–1930

Rating: 8.1/10
Rated as
: Collection
Compilation Status: Decent Overview
Released: 1992
Recorded: 1927–1930
Specific Genre: Jug Band
Main Genre: Blues, Acoustic Blues
Label: Yazoo

1 Minglewood Blues 2 Walk Right In 3 Going to Germany 4 Bring It With You When You Come 5 Bugle Call Rag 6 Prison Wall Blues 7 Feather Bed 8 Noah’s Blues 9 Wolf River Blues 10 Madison Street Rag 11 Viola Lee Blues 12 Cairo Rag 13 Last Chance Blues 14 Mule Get Up in the Alley 15 Pretty Mama Blues 16 Money Never Runs Out 17 Pig Ankle Strut 18 Jonestown Blues 19 The Rooster Crowing Blues 20 Hollywood Rag 21 Heart Breakin‘ Blues 22 Ripley Blues 23 Tired Chicken Blues 24 Big Railroad Blues

Played around the little town, your head chock full of rum

Jug band blues is an odd hybrid of folksy and urban, ragtime-y, jazzy and country blues elements. The reverbarting, murmuring sound of the jug, the rattling banjo and dominating harp make for an overall make-shift street corner atmosphere. Gus Cannon’s Jug Stompers were among the most successful and – since some of their numbers became blues standards as well as pop hits for other, much later artists – endurig combos for this comparatively small and short-lived genre. It’s restricted, free-wheeling sound is removed from deep blues through the hustling, bustling city sound it had to dwell in – playful, hurried, sketchy, but always amiable and slightly mischievous. There’s little here in terms of melody or heavy emotion, but the shaggy underdog attitude makes more than up for it, at least when consumed in slight doses – this is about entertainment, presented by next-door-rascals – their lyrics often revolve around trouble with small town judges for petty crimes. As one of the quintessential outfits of this sound, the Jug Stompers are among the quintessential roots of urban blues, there is a strict need to have their material, even if you mostly find yourself listening to the odd grumbling of «Viola Lee Blues» or the tumbling, hungover «Minglewood Blues» every so often. Good stuff.

As for this particular collection, here’s from my series of «consumer guide reviews», so to speak:

Gus Cannon recorded 26 sides (as in 13 singles) with the Jug Stompers. While the vinyl version (Yazoo 1989) of this CD contained all 13 sides plus the solo material Cannon recorded as Banjo Joe, this CD-reissue only contains tracks by the Jug Stompers and is even missing 2 of their sides («Riley’s Wagon» and «Springdale Blues»).

If you want to avoid tedious holes in your collection and get the real deal (that is, Cannon’s solo stuff plus the Jug Stompers catalogue), you’ll need to get Gus Cannon’s Complete Recorded Works in Chronological Order: Volume 1 and theComplete Recorded Works in Chronological Order: Volume 2 (credited to Gus Cannon & Noah Lewis) by the Document Records label: They have all of it and some more side stuff, so they are the definite CD-picks. If you then get Cannon’s revival record Walk Right In from 1963, you’re about set.

Having said that, when this came out, it was the most complete Jug Stompers compilation on a single CD – which it remains until today. All the other single disc compilations claiming to be complete have less track than this one. If you want an overview of how to acquire the complete recordings of Cannon and his Jug Stompers, compare my list Complete Blues Discographies: What to Get.