Pedal to the metal

Phil Johnson gets next to a stack of recent jazz releases. They, in turn, get next to him

Like a Library of Congress compilation of bygone Americana, the guitarist Bill Frisell's wonderful new album, entitled Bill Frisell Quartet (Nonesuch) is full of a sense of place - lots of places, in fact. The gentle repetitions of the simple themes roll like tumbleweed across a Western landscape, echoing the rollicking rhythm of a horse and trap or the mannerist distortions of the Thomas Hart Benton drawing on the cover. The band of violin/tuba, trumpet, trombone and guitar adopts the raggedy gait of an itinerant jug-band and the slack harmonies of a New Orleans marching band too knackered to march much any more to great effect, creating a spare, minimalist version of the century's jazz styles. Recorded in San Francisco, mixed in Seattle, and sounding like a hi-fi fan's dream test-recording, the album's tracks mostly began their life as film-music, and include six themes from an animated version of Gary Larson's Tales from the Far Side, the cartoonist's quirkiness matched by Frisell's strange, mutant-hillbilly style.

Perhaps the most original guitarist of his generation (he's 45 and was brought up in Denver), Frisell pioneered the pedal-driven sound of loose- stringed, airy atmospherics that has now entered the everyday vocabulary of the instrument, colouring the productions of Daniel Lanois and U2. Unfortunately, he also likes to rock out Hendrix-style, but mercifully reins himself in for most of this album. Though there's the odd bit of plinky-plonk business, and a touch of rock heroics on the opening track, it's a stunning set full of odd angles and sudden shifts of perspective. It also uses the drummer-less format of the multi-instrumental quartet with uncommon taste and wit, provoking a sense of real delight. As a bluesy ensemble bash suddenly resolves itself into calypso harmonies or the midnight- blue colours of mid-period Miles Davis plangency, the listener is apt to sigh and reach for the repeat button.

Of all the stand-by formulas for recording jazz, the album of Thelonious Monk compositions is hard to beat. Even if the performance misses the mark, there's always the tunes to fall back on. Panamanian pianist Danilo Perez's Panamonk (Impulse), is more than a workaday go at the tunes, and it successfully translates the see-sawing Monkian themes into a Latin idiom without compromising the abiding authorial presence of the composer. As an ostinato left-hand rhythm cues in "Bright Mississippi" - Monk's variation on "Sweet Georgia Brown" - or the rhythm section vamps a samba opening to "Think of One", the tunes retain their integrity while Perez gets to demonstrate his command of the keyboard. If anything, there is too much respect for the material.

Another Latin album, Friends From Rio, on the London-based Far Out Records, takes the fashionable acid jazz sound of Seventies Brazilian samba back to Rio, where the album was recorded, getting old hands such as Marcus Valle and Raul De Souza to perform in a manner they have no doubt long since abandoned in favour of the esperanto of international fusion. A furious percussion work-out, heavy on the whistling, leads into what could be Chick Corea's Return to Forever in 1972, replete with retro Fender Rhodes piano, and thence on into lugubrious ballads, scat-singing in the mode of Flora Purim, and the kind of de-natured funk that could have come from anywhere. Listened to while wearing a Seventies Brazil football shirt, it sounds great, and could be one of this summer's most effective soundtracks.

Though it's completely mad (pairing a strident vocal choir with a jazz septet featuring Clifford Jordan, Richard Williams, Julian Priester and Mal Waldron among the ranks, plus vocalist Abbey Lincoln), the heroic enterprise of Max Roach's It's Time, recorded in 1962 and re-released on Impulse CD, is so emphatically swinging, so marvellously funky, and its civil rights message so deeply heart-felt, that it must stand as one of the greatest jazz recordings. As the choir (conducted by Coleridge Perkinson) emote African "ya, ya, ya-yas", and the band belt out old-school be-bop phrases, with trumpeter Williams and tenor saxophonist Jordan wailing over the top with abandon, you are transported to a world where jazz wasn't just a question of the appropriate clothing. Another Impulse re-issue, Gil Evans's Out of the Cool from 1961, is beautifully dark and brooding, the colours of the band tending to the melancholy mauve end of the colour spectrum.

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