Bluiett and the Baritone Nation: BlueBlack

Maurice Bottomley

Bluiett and the Baritone Nation


Label: Justin Time
US Release Date: 2002-03-26

One baritone sax always makes its presence felt, whether it be Harry Carney with the Ellington orchestra or some honking, early '50s rhythm and blues combo. Four together might seem a little (ok, completely) excessive, especially when there is just a drummer to offer contrast. However if such a proposition is going to succeed at all, then Hamiet Bluiett is the most likely candidate to make it do so. For not only is he a gifted musician, but he has long experience of making unusual experiments accessible and even fun. When one considers that the trio he has with him includes the mighty James Carter and that the drummer is none other than the ever inventive Kahil El'Zabad, there are grounds for an almost complacent optimism.

That state of expectation is almost but not fully rewarded. This is an attention grabbing and at times highly engaging album, but it is not a complete triumph. It is a good second division modern jazz session. What stops it from being at the very top of the tree, where Bluiett usually resides, is a certain scrappiness and a suspicion of self-indulgence. I may be wrong, but I don't think this record is quite as clever or cutting edge as it appears to believe itself to be.

Blueblack has passages of breathtaking daring and is awash with exuberance and panache and boasts unbridled energy. Yet it lacks something in the way of finesse and, oddly for so passionate a set of performers, emotional variety. It is the sort of set that would undoubtedly blow you away live, but on disc veers too often towards shapelessness. It still runs rings around much of what counts as jazz these days, but is unlikely to go down as the St. Louis veteran's finest hour.

Proceedings open promisingly enough with a tune called "You're Still My Girl in Spite of Everything". This is an irreverent treatment of the Temptations' "My Girl", which starts with a swaggering (tongue-in-cheek but relatively conventional) reading then mutates into a deconstructive, Ornette Coleman-after-six-pints session of free blowing. It is glorious on first hearing, with that mixture of humour and avant-gardism that is a Bluiett trademark, but loses some of its robust charm after the third or fourth play. It is not the quality of the execution which, as throughout the album, is first-rate, nor is it the excess of baritones (each sax man can be distinctly identified -- having been recorded so that you can at all times identify who is where). It is just that the conceit is less fresh than it perhaps seemed in the studio and in the end you almost wish they had opted either for straight blowing or all out atonalism. The same is true of the R&B blastathon that is "Zipping" which would certainly have benefited from a tighter structure.

On the slower front, the four horns (Bluiett, Carter, Patience Higgins and Alex Harding) offer a number called "Humpback", which is an aural rendition of, I assume, whale song. Again, it is initially attractive, but begins to smack of novelty and gimmickry after a while. There is surely more to jazz than sound effects, no matter how wittily constructed?

After that it is gruff modernism all the way. Ironically, these more "difficult" tracks are generally satisfying, if you have the patience to stick with them. The group interplay is astounding and as individual soloists each musician is in good shape. The compositions are mostly Bluiett's or Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson and I would welcome hearing more of the latter's work with a more day-to-day line-up.

Adept as the musicians are and intriguing as such pieces as "Lament for JJ" and "Angles" often are, the whole sound cannot help becoming much of a muchness some of the time. Sheer gusto and lung power almost saves the day but, I warn you, prolonged exposure is quite exhausting and may not always seem worth the effort. Pleasure comes in marvelling at the complex four-way exchanges, which do weave a wayward magic all of their own. Then there is the title track which has crucial input from El'Zabar and is weird in all the right, imaginative ways. If Tom Waits played baritone sax he would sound like this. The mood is half way between an After Hours session and Shock Corridor. Magnificent and more than a little scary.

Finally there is the demanding but very powerful solo piece "Sasa -- Here and Now" which closes the set. Here Bluiett makes his case as both a composer and performer of the highest stature -- it is a tonal and textual tour de force. Some of these sounds appear to have come from no previously known musical deposit box and the result is very invigorating. It does perhaps suggest that one baritone was indeed all that was really ever needed and that there was indeed something of overkill in the blueprint.

Modernist aficionados and baritone fetishists will have a field day. For this listener though, a little went a long way and I must confess myself rather steam-rollered by the full scale experience. In small doses very exciting, but some leavening would not have gone amiss. Bluiett freaks will know what to expect and will be duly grateful. Risk taking is part of the excitement of jazz and Bluiett is one of the best at that game, but listen to what he can do with slightly more standard trios (last year's The Calling for instance) and you may wonder whether this sax only course, which he has promoted now for over 20 years, is any longer his wisest option.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Keep reading... Show less

Pauline Black may be called the Queen of Ska by some, but she insists she's not the only one, as Two-Tone legends the Selecter celebrate another stellar album in a career full of them.

Being commonly hailed as the "Queen" of a genre of music is no mean feat, but for Pauline Black, singer/songwriter of Two-Tone legends the Selecter and universally recognised "Queen of Ska", it is something she seems to take in her stride. "People can call you whatever they like," she tells PopMatters, "so I suppose it's better that they call you something really good!"

Keep reading... Show less

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions.

It's a common enough gambit in science fiction. Humans come across a race of aliens that appear to be entirely alike and yet one group of said aliens subordinates the other, visiting violence upon their persons, denigrating them openly and without social or legal consequence, humiliating them at every turn. The humans inquire why certain of the aliens are subjected to such degradation when there are no discernible differences among the entire race of aliens, at least from the human point of view. The aliens then explain that the subordinated group all share some minor trait (say the left nostril is oh-so-slightly larger than the right while the "superior" group all have slightly enlarged right nostrils)—something thatm from the human vantage pointm is utterly ridiculous. This minor difference not only explains but, for the alien understanding, justifies the inequitable treatment, even the enslavement of the subordinate group. And there you have the quandary of Otherness in a nutshell.

Keep reading... Show less

A 1996 classic, Shawn Colvin's album of mature pop is also one of best break-up albums, comparable lyrically and musically to Joni Mitchell's Hejira and Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks.

When pop-folksinger Shawn Colvin released A Few Small Repairs in 1996, the music world was ripe for an album of sharp, catchy songs by a female singer-songwriter. Lilith Fair, the tour for women in the music, would gross $16 million in 1997. Colvin would be a main stage artist in all three years of the tour, playing alongside Liz Phair, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, Meshell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, Lisa Loeb, Erykah Badu, and many others. Strong female artists were not only making great music (when were they not?) but also having bold success. Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill preceded Colvin's fourth recording by just 16 months.

Keep reading... Show less

Frank Miller locates our tragedy and warps it into his own brutal beauty.

In terms of continuity, the so-called promotion of this entry as Miller's “third" in the series is deceptively cryptic. Miller's mid-'80s limited series The Dark Knight Returns (or DKR) is a “Top 5 All-Time" graphic novel, if not easily “Top 3". His intertextual and metatextual themes resonated then as they do now, a reason this source material was “go to" for Christopher Nolan when he resurrected the franchise for Warner Bros. in the mid-00s. The sheer iconicity of DKR posits a seminal work in the artist's canon, which shares company with the likes of Sin City, 300, and an influential run on Daredevil, to name a few.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.