Jazz and pop, but no pop jazz

The Complete On the Corner
Miles Davis

Columbia’s epic series of “metal spine” Miles Davis reissues — a magnet for accolades since the Davis/Gil Evans box set over a decade ago — concludes with The Complete On the Corner Sessions, more than six hours’ worth of fuzzy-guitar jams, African rhythms, and streetwise grooves that Davis and pioneering producer Teo Macero whipped up into his last album just before a 1972 car crash that led to a six-year seclusion in which Davis swallowed a whole lot of pain pills.

As with some of the previous sets, it’s a handful: utterly fascinating for process-minded fans who like to know how A+B=C; well suited for all-night bliss-outs; and a bit more than most casual jazz lovers can stand. It’s also a stellar period-piece example of a moment when the distinctions between jazz and popular music were pretty damn trivial.

River: The Joni Letters
Herbie Hancock

One vet of those sessions, Herbie Hancock, continued to benefit from that jazz/Top 40 overlap well into the 1980s. Gazing across the record-store aisles again on River (Verve), the pianist devotes an album to the music of Joni Mitchell, offering some songs to vocalists like Norah Jones and Tina Turner (guess who has more character?) while reserving others as instrumental showcases for himself and saxophonist Wayne Shorter. Never just a jazzman-cover effort, the disc stretches to find new things in these familiar compositions, leading to the practically cinematic closer “The Jungle Line,” in which Leonard Cohen intones lyrics as a poem rather than singing them.

Joni Mitchell
(Hear Music)

Mitchell has a new disc out herself, of course: After hinting that she was done with the music biz, she made the unlikely decision to release Shine on Starbucks’ Hear Music label. Instrumentally lush, despite having only a few players on it (there’s plenty of multi-tracking), the music sounds perfectly familiar but not musty, giving the songwriter room to muse on overpopulation and “cell-phone zombies,” many of whom will probably be chattering away ahead of you the next time you’re waiting in line to pay for that three-dollar coffee.

Robert Wyatt

A tiny bit more obscure than Mitchell but just as jazz-friendly, Robert Wyatt (who began his career as drummer for Soft Machine) corrals everything from Caribbean steel drums to the icy Norwegian songwriting of Anja Garbarek on Comicopera (Domino), a three-act record as mysterious and beautiful as any that the wheelchair-confined Wyatt has made in his on-again, off-again recording career.

Sweet Earth Flower
His Name is Alive
(High Two)

This month’s most surprising jazz-pop blend comes from the uncategorizable (and hard-to-find-in-stores) group His Name is Alive, whose latest, Sweet Earth Flower (High Two) centers on compositions by little-known avant-garde saxophonist Marion Brown. A lovely, atmospheric disc that mixes live performances with studio recordings, Flower takes the work of one cult artist and makes it available to another (barely overlapping) cult.

Joe Henry

For my money, the most exciting intrusion of jazz into the pop realm so far during this young century occurred when an Ornette Coleman solo ripped into Joe Henry’s “Richard Pryor Addresses a Tearful Nation” on Scar. Henry returns, sans jazz legends but with an armful of brilliant new work, on Civilians (Anti-), another album that begs the question, Why is Joe Henry not the most famous songwriter of his generation?

Henry’s knack for plucking images from the popular consciousness and transforming them into heartbreaking comments on the American dream asserts itself again here, planting Willie Mays in a Home Depot for “Our Song,” but the mood isn’t always bleak. Shadows of war may hang overhead (even as the arrangements sometimes evoke tin-pan tunes enjoyed during less ambiguous military efforts), but more intimate concerns don’t go wanting — it’s hard to say exactly what the title track is about, but I’m pretty sure the kicker has something to do with having enough time between sunset and sunrise to find someone to keep you warm.


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