Saturday, September 22, 2012


Cool headline, huh? I sweated on it for hours. A few weeks ago, I wrote a couple of brief reviews for some rockabilly compilations on the Ace label. It actually sparked a modicum of interest from readers, and hence I will give airspace to one of my absolutely fave Ace collections - in fact just about the best comp' of '50s blues/R & B I've ever heard - one which documents the complete blues, R & B and gospel recordings of the Bihari brothers' Meteor label. The brothers Bihari - Lester, Jules, Saul and Joe -were the owner/operators of the Modern/RPM behemoth in the '40s/'50s/'60s, one of the most important independent labels of the post-war era (probably only pipped in regards to its importance by Sun and Atlantic, given that many on those rosters are much more well known today), and one which released a massive array of blues, R & B, hillbilly, jazz and rockabilly recordings in its day. The Modern/RPM story deserves its own book, so let's discuss Meteor instead, a label which only existed from 1952 - 1957 but whose consistent excellence is the stuff of legend. Meteor was managed by Lester Bihari. As the history books tell it, Lester was being such a pain in the ass in the offices of Modern/RPM in LA that his brothers felt it was best for him to be shuffled off elsewhere so they could go about their business. Also, at that critical juncture, something else important had happened: Sam Phillips had started up Sun Records in Memphis and was pinching all the talent which he, as a producer/talent scout, would usually record and then sell to the Biharis. They needed a man on the ground in Memphis, so off Lester was shipped w/ the instructions to set up a label which would grab the cream of the crop before Phillips could pinch them for Sun. Given all of this was based on pure commerce - the Biharis understood music, but they were businessmen first and foremost - the fact that Lester managed to pick such an incredible array of talent and get them to record some of their best material (if not moreso) is testamant to something or other. Blind luck? A & R genius? I'll have to delve further into the story before I can answer that question. Strangely, given how excellent much of what they released was, the label was a flop, and had to fold in 1957. By then, the kids wanted Elvis and Jerry Lee, and many of the great independents of the '40s/'50s had hit the skids, both financially and artistically. That's not to say that Meteor didn't have its successes - they released relatively popular discs by the likes of Charlie Feathers, Elmore James, Rufus Thomas and Little Milton in their time - but the difference in the marketplace between the years 1952 and 1957 (thank or blame Elvis for that) was a lifetime. So, what do you get here? Well, you do get a handful or two killer tracks from Elmore James, one of the wildest and greatest artists of his day (I will concur w/ James "The Hound" Marshall's opinion: Elmore didn't record a dud track in his lifetime), my fave being the instrumental cut, "Hawaiian Blues", a number he recorded several times for different labels, some cool R & B/blues from Little Milton and a stack of obscurities which really make the grade: Carl "Mr. Broadway" Green's tracks are highlights for me - jumpin'-yet-smooth R & B which reminds me of a more rough-house take on the great Charles Brown. And don't forget Smokey Hogg, another fave of mine, a Texan player from the era who also emitted a cool, lonesome take on the blues which was somewhere twixt the boogie of John Lee Hooker and LA club sound of (once again) Charles Brown. There's also some great, upbeat gospel here by The Angel Voices and others, and in all you get 54 tracks and two CDs of unbeatable tunes, a hefty, fact-filled booklet which gives you the track-by-track details and the kind of release which, as a package deal, is something very special indeed. I bought this straight after reading Nick Tosches' The Unsung Heroes Of Rock & Roll a few years back, given Tosches' frequent referencing to the label in his book, and, despite all the myriad compilations and artist releases I've purchased in the intervening years documenting the R & B/blues/rockabilly underbelly of the post-war years, I always come back to this 2CD set. Sun Records may get all the glory - and they deserve it - but for me and others in the know, Meteor's documentation of Southern roots music was equally as impressive, if not as financially viable, as Phillips' operation. There's another 2CD on Ace which gathers the complete hillbilly and rockabilly recordings of the Meteor label, and it's equally as essential.

This is a fascinating release for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it is the only release in the vast ECM catalogue which happens to be a reissue of recordings from another label; and secondly, these 1961 recordings are exceptional, and possibly the best, examples of clarinet player Jimmy Giuffre's unique approach to improvisation. Born in Texas in 1921, he started out by arranging music for Woody Herman before moving to southern California, where he was a major player, alongside Shelly Manne and Shorty Rogers, in what is commonly referred to as West Coast Jazz. What set him apart from many of his peers in this scene, which was very much into the idea of composition, was his willingness and ability to improvise; for many, Giuffre is considered one of the great pioneers of free jazz. But do not for a second think that Giuffre's music was comparable to Albert Ayler or Cecil Taylor. Giuffre was all about quiet intensity. Here's a great quote from the man in the accompanying booklet: "It is my feeling that soft jazz can retain the basic flavour and intensity that it has at a louder volume and at the same time perhaps reveal some new dimensions of feeling that loudness obscures". Giuffre's trio on display here also provides another unique aspect to the music: there is no drummer. Giuffre started up the idea of a drummerless trio in the mid '50s, when he recorded w/ guitarist Jim Hall (later to record w/ Ornette) and bassist Ralph Pena. Influenced by the freedom of jazz and the music of Ravel, Copland and Debussy, his trio was key in inventing a new kind of chamber jazz, one which played brief, expressive and often completely improvised music: musical miniatures of, as he was fond of saying, quiet intensity. In the early '60s, he started a new trio w/ bassist Steve Swallow and Canadian pianist Paul Bley. Bley's history went right back to playing briefly w/ Charlie Parker and he would later become a key player in the avant-jazz scene of the 1960s, releasing some truly fruity and impressive discs in the early '70s (check out a track he and Annette Peacock recorded here), often using a synthesiser rather than an acoustic piano. This 2CD set which I speak of, and haven't even properly introduced as yet, is entitled 1961 by the Jimmy Giuffre 3, and was (re)issued in 1992. It's made up of two seperate Verve LPs: Fusion and Thesis, and both are made up of Giuffre originals and even a couple of tracks apiece written by Bley's wife, Carla. The lack of a drummer may seem like an odd proposition at first, but as you find yourself engaging w/ the music, you actually begin to forget about the absence of this percussive propulsion, the clarinet/piano/bass instrumentation creating its own sense of space and momentum. It really is a remarkable set-up, creating a music which is both cerebral yet free. Giuffre would go on recording w/ other trios until the 1990s - some of them even featuring drummers - even recording w/ the great Joe McPhee in 1993, and there's much more there worth exploring. He finally left this mortal coil in 2008. For a white guy who often wore a suit and tie and looked like he should be filling out insurance forms for a living, his own brand of - let me say it one more time - quiet intensity still demonstrates a pioneering, one-of-a-kind approach to improvisation.

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