Far Cry

a column by
Brian Morton

Peter Bernstein                                                                                                            Nick Gordon©2009

In the palaeoecology of jazz recording, it counts as one of the great mass extinctions. The first edition of the Penguin Guide to Jazz – which appeared so long ago LPs and cassettes were still reviewed, though eight-track had gone the way of the passenger pigeon – contained a substantial trawl of Xanadu records. Among them were a batch of fine Barry Harris records from the 1970s, some good things by that almost forgotten guitarist Ted Dunbar, oddities like bassist Sam Jones’s Cello Again (which prompted a rare difference of opinion between the PGJ authors), tenor saxophonist Jimmy Heath’s Picture of Heath and altoist Charles McPherson’s exquisite Beautiful! I didn’t have pianist Dolo Coker’s California Hard, which was easier to bear because the late Richard Cook didn’t either. Completism is thicker than friendship . . .

The Muse catalogue disappeared around the same time, though it was destined to reappear in part thanks to one of Joel Dorn’s short-lived reissue programs. When Cook and I started work on the second edition of the Guide, it was as if a swathe of forest had gone down in a storm, leaving welcome space for nursery growth and for a short time mitigating the struggle to squeeze a quart into a pint pot. (Mixing metaphors is an occupational hazard of the reference book writer. You can have fun tracking back through those early editions and finding all the instances where cricket and boxing metaphors were included in the same review.) We did, however, feel a certain strange regret that Xanadu had gone, and within a couple of years those vanished records seemed as unattainable and exotic as the city visited by Marco Polo, Kublai Khan’s summer capital.

There’s probably a simple reason for the nostalgia. Xanadu’s brief existence coincided with what most fans recognize as a pretty fallow period for jazz recording and a difficult time for a newcomer to get to grips with the classics of the bebop era; Xanadu’s ‘Gold Series’ was ahead of the field in making available again some of those modernist icons. Purely personally, Xanadu’s existence coincided with my beginning to collect jazz. But I guess the other reason we loved the label was the mismatch between the implicit chinoiserie of its title and the cheerfully workaday and artisanal nature of the music that went out under it. Monochrome covers; no frills music. ECM was getting under way at the same time, but we found much of it perfumed and epicene in comparison. And incidentally, if when you hear the name ‘Xanadu’ your first thought is ‘Olivia Newton-John’, you’ve strayed onto the wrong website. If it’s ‘Samuel Taylor Coleridge’, we might still have something to talk about. Either way, recent news about Xanadu seems like a dream . . .

Don Schlitten learned his craft at Signal Records, which he founded in 1955, the year of Charlie Parker’s death, and had gone on to work on Prestige, Muse, Cobblestone, Onyx and others I’ve probably forgotten. He and Joe Fields had co-founded Cobblestone and it was when their working relationship sundered – how amicably or not I’ve never heard – that Schlitten went off to establish Xanadu, leaving Joe at Muse. A bebop loyalist, Schlitten seemed to have a near-apostolic sense of vocation. Where Muse was happy to turn out Willis ‘Gator’ Jackson records by the yard – and very good some of them were – Schlitten took his lesson strictly from the synoptic gospels of Parker, Gillespie, Powell and Monk.

Given that, it’s entirely appropriate that the first Xanadu release for many, many years should bear the simple title Monk. It’s by guitarist Peter Bernstein, whose last record (that I’m aware of) was Stranger in Paradise released in 2004 on Venus. Which almost doesn’t count: I confidently expect to see my mother releasing something on Venus pretty soon. Bernstein’s return is a cheerfully bib-and-braces run through the Monastic canon with bassist Doug Weiss and drummer Bill Stewart, a set that equally smilingly rejects any qualifier to the bop label, whether ‘hard-‘, ‘nebr /o-‘, ‘post-‘or, God help us, ‘free-‘.

Always great to hear of a venerable label being revived, though inevitably it happens at the cost of ‘not as good as it used to be’ mutters from the faithful. Better still is the news that the Xanadu catalogue has been acquired by The Orchard, a global distributor of digital downloads and videos, and we will again see some of those great titles back in circulation. Disappointingly, no sign yet of McPherson’s Beautiful! (Prepare to fight to the death if someone reaches for it ahead of you at a record fair) or Coker’s California Hard (which I’ve never heard, an omission that obscurely obsesses me). Instead, the reissue component of Xanadu’s renascence is doggedly from the ‘Gold Series’ end of the spectrum. We get Bud in Paris, some good 1959 and 1960 recordings with Johnny Griffin and Barney Wilen; we get Earl Hines and Roy Eldridge at the Village Vanguard in 1965; and a couple of various artists compilations, Bebop Revisited and Harlem Odyssey.

Easy to think that market considerations are driving the reissue program, but it may be higher-minded than that. Does anyone aged 21, 22, 23 know any of this stuff? Do they have any sense that it exists at all, other than as a component of folk-memory? And with that in mind, isn’t it incredibly refreshing that the ‘new’ Xanadu should recognize how important it is to go back to brass tacks and basics in presenting modern jazz. Bebop is now further from us in stylistic terms than bop was to Armstrong and Kid Ory in the 1940s, and yet it remains the lingua franca of contemporary jazz, its harmonic and rhythmic innovations – which were actually evolutions – curiously filtered, arguably distorted, by Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy. Here’s an initiative that puts us back into unexpected touch with the wellsprings of contemporary jazz. I can’t imagine anyone hearing these records – by whatever means and route they acquire them – and not subjecting listening habits and imperatives to a fairly radical rethink. I can think of nothing more salutary. That said, if they don’t get around sometime soon to reissuing Barry Harris’s The Bird of Red and Gold (which my ex-wife seems to have used as a heat-mat – which is why she’s my ex-wife, ka-ching!) I’ll have to rethink my position.

Nostalgia famously isn’t what it used to be, but it has a feeling that thanks to The Orchard, nostalgia may be about to acquire a better reputation than it has had for years.

Brian Morton©2009

Michael Wilderman Jazz Visions Photography

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