Three Winners, and an Interestingly Odd Remake of a Classic

Three Winners, and an Interestingly Odd Remake of a Classic

Written by Tom Gibbs

John Coltrane  Giant Steps (60th Anniversary Super Deluxe Edition – 2020 Remaster)

Giant Steps was recorded in May of 1959, right on the heels of Coltrane’s exit from Miles Davis’ first great quintet. Miles had his manager arrange for Coltrane to get a recording contract with Atlantic Records for a princely retainer sum of $7,000 annually (over $60k in current dollars adjusted for inflation!). Coltrane was unhappy with the initial recordings for Giant Steps, and eventually changed sidemen, bringing in Tommy Flanagan on piano, Paul Chambers on bass, and Art Taylor on drums. Only one song, “Naima,” featured a different cast; Coltrane was again unhappy with the results. In December he called on some of his Miles Davis’ Quintet cohorts to fill in; the resulting take that was used for the original release featured pianist Wynton Kelly and Jimmy Cobb on drums.

Giant Steps was well received by the public and critics alike, and was a commercial success, being rewarded with a gold record for sales in excess of 500,000 units. The Penguin Guide to Jazz has called Giant Steps “John Coltrane’s first genuinely iconic record,” and Rolling Stone ranked it no. 102 on their list of 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. Coltrane’s impressive contributions to the Miles Davis Quintet’s five Prestige label albums helped make Miles Davis a household name in the fifties, and Giant Steps helped him reach an equivalent level of success as a leader of his own group at the beginning of the next decade. Considering the challenging nature of some of the music, it’s also an extremely accessible album, helping a whole new generation of fans embrace jazz for the first time.

I’ve owned this album in multiple formats; stereo LP, mono LP, cassette tapes, multiple CD incarnations (including initial and remastered releases), and as part of LP/CD compilation collections. This one fact has remained pretty much true throughout several decades of record collecting: while Giant Steps is one of jazz’s most seminal albums, and a foundation recording for any serious jazz collection, the recorded sound has been consistently less than stellar. That is, until now; this new 60th Anniversary Super Deluxe Edition is undoubtedly the finest sounding version of this album I’ve ever encountered!

While any information for this set I’ve been able to research has left me without answers, I’d swear this set has been remixed as well as remastered. Yes, John Coltrane’s sax is still hard left on all the tunes, but the entire album has a spaciousness and vitality that’s been seriously lacking on previous versions — and there’s a much greater sense of center-fill than on any prior versions I own. The level of realism is simply off-the-charts great — this is a Giant Steps for the ages. The album is being reissued as both double CDs, or two 180-gram LP sets, and they both include multiple takes, false starts, and bonus tracks not on previous reissues. And the LP sets will also include a large format booklet with a new essay and lots of photos, along with a 7-inch vinyl single with additional outtakes. I did all my listening through Qobuz’s excellent 24/96 digital stream, but this experience really got the old juices flowing — I’m ordering the LP! Very highly recommended!

Rhino/Atlantic Records, 2 CD/2 LP (download/streaming [24/96] from Qobuz, Tidal, Amazon Music, Google Play Music, Spotify, YouTube, Apple Music, Pandora, Deezer, TuneIn)


Cat Stevens/Yusuf  Tea For The Tillerman²

Cat Stevens, or Yusuf Islam as he’s currently known, is something of a polarizing figure in the music world: on the one hand, he’s written albums full of graceful, beautiful songs that captivated a whole generation. On the other hand, following his 1978 embrace of the Islamic faith, some of his public remarks have been perceived as incendiary. Certain British media outlets publicly declared him a supporter of terrorism, especially in the light of remarks he made in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks on the US. I personally haven’t really fully studied the situation; I regard Cat Stevens very much the way I regard a lot of musicians. I think they often speak without completely thinking about what they’re saying, and they often say things that are either completely misconstrued by the public, or are taken out of context. Anyway, while some of his albums are essentially “desert island” discs for me, when he stopped performing and recording, I pretty much lost interest.

Of his two albums that have received the most acclaim, 1970’s Tea For The Tillerman and 1971’s Teaser and the Firecat are the pair that most frequently get mentioned as his very best work. And are definitely among his most played records in my collection. There are extenuating circumstances; I was in love with a new transfer student in my sophomore year of high school — her name was Lesa (different spelling, I know!). She seemed kind of despondent after having to move from the big city (Atlanta) into the middle of nowhere. I played both the songs “Sad Lisa” and “How Can I Tell You (That I Love You)” countless times, trying to figure out how to break free of the catatonic state I seemed to fall into whenever she came near. We did have a moment years later, but I guess it just wasn’t meant to be! Anyway, the subject of this new release is Cat Stevens’ (Yusuf’s) new take on Tea For The Tillerman, and it’s now entitled Tea For The Tillerman². Clever use of the superscript, but is a retake on a classic really necessary?

Most mornings, while I’m having coffee and catching up on the day’s headlines, there’s a nice little feature on the Mozilla Firefox browser I use called Pocket, and it’s a page that’s populated with interesting and unusual stories that regularly resonate with me. Recently, I came across a story that featured a writer for a northeastern newspaper who had a particular lifelong fascination with Cat Stevens. And who, like me, had basically lost touch when Stevens dropped off the face of the music world decades ago. Suddenly, it’s the 2000s, and Cat Stevens (Yusuf) is touring again — this guy got tickets, even though it had been decades since he’d last seen him live, and really didn’t know what to expect, at all. Shockingly, Cat Stevens was as charmingly entertaining as he’d found him all those years ago. A little grayer, and a touch more worse for the wear, but the essence of the music and the songs came through with the same intensity as so many years before, he was happy to announce. Reading that article was probably the first time I had actually tried to visualize Cat Stevens as a performer, other than through replay of his classic songs, in literally decades.

So that makes Tea For The Tillerman², in actuality, and for me at least, not such a stretch after all. I’ve listened to the Qobuz CD-quality stream of this record several times, and my takeaway is that the experience is probably not at all dissimilar to attending a current-day Cat Stevens concert. There are some bizarre embellishments to a couple of the songs; for example, “Wild World” is played at an unusually quick tempo, with a jazzy sort of accompaniment. Yusuf’s explanation is that he owns one of those electric keyboards that has midi-synthesized “genres” available; he started playing one named “Ragtime,” and started singing the words to “Wild World” to the oddly enjoyable (to him, at least) background. A crazy story, I know, but apparently how the song has evolved to its current state of existence. I really (despite my obvious baggage) missed the fact that songs like “Sad Lisa” are now no longer mostly acoustic-based; the astonishingly good grand piano of the original is now replaced by an electric keyboard of some sort. And the worse for the wear part of the story mostly applies to Yusuf’s voice, which isn’t as pristine as it once was — he’s in his seventies, after all — so I guess you can forgive the guy for suffering from a few voice cracks here and there.

Overall, this is a YMMV album — if you’re a huge fan, it’s a must listen. Otherwise, it probably won’t add much to the existing catalog for the majority of listeners.

UMC (Universal Music Catalog), CD/LP (download/streaming [16/44.1] from Qobuz, Tidal, Amazon, Google Play Music, Pandora, Deezer, Apple Music, Spotify, YouTube, TuneIn)


Thelonious Monk  Palo Alto 

In the late 1960s, a Palo Alto High School (California) student named Danny Scher decided he was on a quest to bring some culture — and perhaps racial unity — to the mostly white southern suburb of San Francisco. The Vietnam war was in full swing, and both Bobby Kennedy and MLK had been assassinated, sparking some racial tensions with nearby East Palo Alto, which was mostly Black. He began to convince a variety of jazz acts to perform at the high school auditorium, among them vibraphonist Cal Tjader, singer Jon Hendricks, and pianist Vince Guaraldi. Buoyed by his string of successes, Danny set his bar a bit higher, and started plying the management team of his idol, Thelonious Monk, with requests to get his quartet to play there as well. At the time, the late sixties were seen as a somewhat less than productive period for Monk, and the record-buying public hadn’t been particularly kind to the string of resulting albums, classics like Monk’s Dream, It’s Monk’s Time, Straight, No Chaser, and Underground. Monk was in debt to the record company, and was hitting the road to raise some cash; he was on the verge of settling into an upcoming three-week engagement at San Francisco’s legendary Jazz Workshop. While at first, he didn’t take Danny Scher’s offer seriously, he soon decided what the heck, and agreed to play the high school date — he needed the dough.

The record company wasn’t involved in any way, and there were no plans to record the live performance. On the day of the show, Danny’s older brother Les (who had just gotten his driver’s license!) drove to San Francisco to pick up Monk and his band, and chauffeured them to the high school auditorium. The high school’s janitor approached Danny, and asked if he could record the concert; if so, he was a piano tuner on the side, and would tune Monk’s piano for him in exchange. Danny agreed, and a few mikes and the tape machine were set up; they were able to capture all 47 minutes of the show on tape. The show went on as planned; Monk and his band were in excellent form, and the sell-out crowd left happy. Danny Scher eventually went to college, and ended up getting a job with big-time promoter Bill Graham for many years, but the live Monk tape basically languished in the attic of the Scher family home for almost fifty years. Until he stumbled across it a year or so ago, and contacted T.S. Monk, Thelonius Monk’s son; after being restored and remastered, the concert tape is being widely heard for the first time ever.

History has been a bit more kind to the memory of Monk’s mid-to-late sixties quartet; it’s now regarded as one of his best, and the resultant albums are all considered undeniable classics. This new release, Palo Alto, captures Monk’s band featuring saxophonist Charlie Rouse, bassist Larry Gales, and drummer Ben Riley in top form. Monk’s health was declining, and the Palo Alto concert, along with the Jazz Workshop dates, would be among this quartet’s last performances together. This amateur tape — virtually unheard for almost fifty years — captures the quartet at the apex of their powers, and for one of the last times, in shockingly good restored sound.

The song selection is no surprise here; it’s mostly chestnuts from throughout Monk’s career, and the concert opens with a great rendition of “Ruby My Dear,” followed by a thirteen-minute blowout of the classic “Well You Needn’t,” which has a pretty great Ben Riley drum solo in the middle. The following tune, “Don’t Blame Me,” also features some nifty stick work by Riley. He is definitely one of the underrated jazz drummers of that era, or any, for that matter. Another really great fourteen-minute version of the classic “Blue Monk” follows; and the concert begins to wind down with Monk’s perennial set-closer, “Epistrophy.” Monk comes back out for a surprise solo version of the Rudy Vallee song “I Love You Sweetheart of all My Dreams.” And this one, as they say, was in the books.

The live sound is a bit variable in a few places (duh, it was recorded by the school janitor!); yeah, the highs (especially Charlie Rouse’s tenor) are a bit screechy, but switching over to a tube amp helped ameliorate that to a certain extent. Tubes definitely improved its listenability; but in terms of 1960s vintage live jazz recordings, it’s still shockingly good, and I’ve heard much worse from the likes of Miles and Coltrane. The 24-bit stream from Qobuz is great, and Palo Alto is very highly recommended!

Impulse! Records/Legacy Recordings, CD/LP (download/streaming [24/44.1] from Qobuz, Tidal, Amazon, Google Play Music, Deezer, Apple Music, Spotify, YouTube, TuneIn)


Gillian Welch  Boots No. 2 – The Lost Songs

Gillian Welch was a California-born daughter to show-biz industry parents who indulged their daughter, sending her east to fulfill her desire to get into the music industry by getting an education at the Berklee College of Music. She immersed herself in songcraft while there, and when she and partner David Rawlings emerged in the mid-nineties with their debut disc, Revival, she was soon the queen of the alt-country/Americana genres. She sang songs of Appalachia and hill country folk that totally belied her SoCal upbringing, and captured the attention of everyone from LA to Austin, Nashville, and beyond.

Of course, mistakes would be made along the way, and in her haste to get recorded, she signed an early publishing contract (for songwriting only) — not at all unusual in the music industry. This one was for nine years, and unless she fulfilled a numerical obligation (she needed to provide the publisher with an additional 48 songs), she’d be bound for an additional period of time. With their first two albums beginning to make a big difference in how she and David perceived themselves as artists, she decided that within six months (the contract renewal date at the beginning of 2002), she’d provide the necessary songs. She and Rawlings pored over notebook sketches of a hundred or more songs, and over a single weekend, they recorded demo tapes for all 48 songs needed to cancel the contract!

The tapes languished in boxes in their Nashville home for almost two decades; during the aftermath of the strong tornadoes that ravaged parts of Nashville in March of 2020, they stumbled upon the tapes again. And in the ongoing pandemic, have revisited them and released them in a new “Boots” series; this album, Boots No. 2 – The Lost Songs, is the second of these excellent releases. For fans of Gillian Welch (the duo as they are known, not just Gillian herself), it’s a literal treasure trove of previously unreleased material — none of these songs has seen the light of day. The recordings mostly consist of simply the guitars and voices of Welch and Rawlings, with an occasional harp solo thrown in for good measure here and there. That said, the recording quality is superb for what are essentially home-studio demos, where they basically just set up a recorder, rolled tape, and played. The album is a remarkable document, and a stunning companion to their already impressive catalog of work.

The songs range from the straight fingerpicking of “Hundred Miles” to the more traditional folk of songs like “Rambling Blade,” to waltz-time classic country like “ I Only Cry When You Go.” “Fair September” takes the soundtrack down a more folkishly ghostly turn, and “Wella Hella” has Gillian telling you that she “can really shake it” — if need be! The 24-bit Qobuz tracks possess a warmth and vitality that totally belies their nearly two-decade-old origins. The album only clocks in at a tad over 41 minutes, but listening to fifteen previously unreleased tracks of classic, mid-period Gillian Welch is literally miraculous. For true fans, and new converts alike, this is essential listening. Very highly recommended!

Acony Records, CD/LP (download/streaming [24/44.1] from Qobuz, Tidal, Amazon, Google Play Music, Deezer, Apple Music, Spotify, YouTube)

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