This month we cover lost folk pop icons, jazz giants and a weird absurdity or two. And a message from the Maltese Mafia...

Calling the Wolf King Of LA
In their '60s heyday, the Mamas and the Papas could do no wrong. Graced by sunny Laurel Canyon good vibes, glorious vocal harmonies and the stellar songwriting of John Phillips, the pop quartet dominated the charts and even drew comparisons to Lennon and McCartney. "California Dreamin'", "Monday, Monday" and "I Saw Her Again" were just a few of their massive hit singles. Tall, gangly and immensely talented, 'Papa John' Phillips seemed destined for greatness with or without the Mamas and the Papas. After the band split up in 1968, Phillips wandered, got addicted, hung out with Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty and recorded his first solo album, John The Wolfking of LA (Dunhill, 1970). The album bombed, Phillips became more heavily involved with drugs but continued to write, recording the soundtrack to David Bowie's The Man Who Fell to Earth and even penning a hit for the Beach Boys, "Kokomo". Even up to his death in 2001, Phillips was playing music; Phillips 66 arrived later that same year.

With all that road dust and heartbreak in his solo history, the newly reissued John The Wolfking of LA is a historic document that deserves a second hearing. Chockful of great songs, the album has an upbeat, easy flow that hints at good things to come, a confident sense that this, like all of Phillip's previous efforts, would woo the world and top the charts. That confidence gives the music a bittersweet allure, its early 70s acoustic shine recalling a simpler time with beautifully crafted songs. Taking from the then-popular country rock style making the rounds in LA, the album rises above the genre due to rolling songs performed by a stellar cast that included Elvis Presley's band and members of LA's illustrious studio gang, the Wrecking Crew. Though not a great singer, Phillips nonetheless sounds like he singing directly to you alone, the music easily on par with then popular country rock icons like Poco, the Eagles, Linda Rondstadt and the Souther Hillman Furay band. Only Phillips' songs are consistently better, less commercial and more comfortable in their own skin. Phillips never sounds like he is working up a sweat to make great music. Highlights include the yearning opener "April Anne", the paddlewheel flowing "Let It Bleed, Genevieve" and the scat[filled, steel guitar spinning "Down the Beach". The album also includes seven previously unreleased songs and a few are humdingers. "Shady" has a down-at-the-heels punch not unlike Dylan's Nashville Skyline, "Lady Genevieve" is all finger picking glow and Phil Ochs allusions, "Black Girls"' sad tale revels in a descending melody, a dreamy bookend to "California Dreamin'".

Blue Note's ongoing reissue campaign of jazz goodies from their golden vaults gets an even bigger lift with The Rudy Van Gelder Editions. Originally recorded by Van Gelder at his famous Englewood Cliffs studio, the old master returns to remaster his work, transferring analog to digital at full 24-bit resolution. Often surpassing the initial CD reissues, the RVGs benefit from the vastly better sonics and the still golden Van Gelder touch.

Pianist Duke Pearson's Sweet Honey Bee (Blue Note 7243-5-90834-2) was recorded in December 1966 and is thus full of popping good gospel grooves and warm ensemble performances. And the cast is killer: Freddie Hubbard (trumpet), James Spaulding (alto sax, flute), Joe Henderson (tenor), Ron Carter (bass) and Philadelphia's mighty Mickey Roker (drums). Sweet Honey Bee is classic Blue Note in the truest sense. Everyone is spitting and slapping, soloing and swinging at an easy full bore, from Henderson's sprawling solo in "Sudel" and the luscious late-night groove of "Gaslight" to the sassy spark of "Big Bertha" and Pearson's typically gleaming accompaniment. Like all great Blue Notes, Sweet Honey Bee has a mood, a vibe, extended by great musicianship and all that good 60s tube gear!

An essential Blue Note in anyone's book, Introducing Johnny Griffin (Blue Note 946-3-74218) finds the young saxophonist staking his claim for the tenor crown, blasting and blowing up a full gale storm. From the first note of "Mil Dew" and its juggernaut tempo, the joint is fit to burst. Joined by Wynton Kelly (piano), Curly Russell (bass) and Max Roach (drums), this 1956 recording is all burn and fire, its demeanor falling somewhere bebop's manic joy and the coming grooves of 60s' gospel jazz and post bop. Griffin's youth and intensity seem to grab a bit from Sonny Rollins but mostly he is his own man, sending out wailing, endless solos like he is riding waves of freedom. It's tough blowing but the music is mostly oh so cool, Roach pinning it all down with his usual spitfire grace. The band stretches on most every tune, letting Griffin run rampant as Roach drops the occasional bass drum bomb. Wynton Kelly, as one would guess, is the perfect foil to Griffin's hot-headed style, draping the music in flowing notes of subtle harmonic textures. This is summer music for sure, open the windows, blow out the cobwebs and let Johnny and Co. do their business. And when sunset comes. click the CD to a lovingly lazy rendition of "These Foolish Things" and a truly transcendent solo.

Rougher, gruffer but no less swinging, Stanley Turrentine enjoyed greater crossover success than perhaps any other Blue Note tenor player, with 1966's The Spoiler (Blue Note 946-3-74224) just one of his many successful albums. Though my personal favorite is Stanley's butt-kicking Easy Walker, The Spoiler is cut from the same cloth. The band is typically stellar, the musicians in full accord as on many classic Blue Note dates. With Blue Mitchell, (trumpet), Julian Preister (trombone), James Spaulding (alto), Pepper Adams (bari), McCoy Tyner (piano), Bob Cranshaw (bass) and Mickey Roker on board, you are assured of some gorgeous ensemble work and plenty of soulful solos. The album kicks off hard but second track "When the Sun Comes Out" is when the magic really begins. A gorgeous swinger, it's all slow motion heat like a hammock swinging in the breeze, and the backing horn harmonies are honey-toned and stunning. Rudy Van Gelder captured these amazing players at their peak and the sound is simple and sublime. The group kicks it up a notch with the Latin bump of 'La Fiesta", covers 60's hit "Sunny" with a righteous bossa nova and R&B bump, adopts a pleasant stride tempo on Andre Previn's easy "You're Gonna Hear From Me" and closes the joint with Max Roach's pensive ¾ swinger "Lonesome Lover", which sounds country and western, gospel infused and political all at once. That the Blue Notes continue to be reissued to healthy sales is a godsend for jazz lovers the world over.

Taking AIM
Australian jazz label AIM has been releasing a handful of unusual CDs of late, including Herbie Hancock's Jazz to Funk (AIM 1604) and Charles Mingus' Thrice Upon A Theme (AIM 1602), both double discs. CD one of the Hancock twofer was originally released as a 1969 Albert Tootie Heath album called Kawaida. The music is heavily percussive and even African in intent, featuring Don Cherry, James Mtume, Buster WiIliams, Ed Blackwell and Jimmy Heath. This is deep, driving music, balancing 60's experimentation with heated jazz improv. Fans of Herbie's African-influenced period -- Sextant, Mwandishi -- will dig this though the music is equally mainstream and driving. Disc two is much stranger. Comprised of outtakes from the sessions for Hancock's score to Blow Up, the tracks supposedly feature heavy '60s players like Joe Newman, Phil Woods and Jim Hall. "Witch Fire", "Jammin' with Herbie", "Rock Your Soul", "Smoochie" and "Hot Piano" - the tracks are good but not great and except for the tenor blowing and glimmers of piano work, I have my doubts that the credited musicians actually appear on the album (the bari player isn't credited at all). It's pretty standard 60s swing,like a typical club date in NYC. The liner notes do state that Hancock originally recorded the soundtrack with inferior British musicians, scrapped the project and recorded the date with American musicians. To my ears, the entire second CD is well below the standards of players like DeJohnette, Henderson, Hall, and Woods. Buyer beware.

Much better is Mingus' Thrice Upon A Time. Recorded directly before and after the master bassist and jazz composer's stint at Atlantic Records, the sessions were originally released on two 10-inc LPs, Jazzical Moods and The Jazz Experiments of Charles Mingus on the tiny Period label, later to be re-released on Bethlehem. The dates feature essential players working that unmistakable Mingus style. CD one is haunting in its material and driving in execution, sounding far beyond its credited 1954 (!) recording date. Mingus was a trailblazer and this is an essential disc for his faithful followers. Seemingly ignored for years even among the jazz cognoscenti no doubt due to the challenging nature of his more daring compositions and his impressionist renditions of standards, Mingus has lately received his due with none other than the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. The recording technique used on disc one contributes to the haunting nature of the music, single mics placed over a semi large ensemble producing echoes that seem to bounce right through the black and white world of 1950s New York City. Throughout, Mingus' unique horn harmonies and broad arrangements are romantic sounding and decidedly progressive for the period. The second disc (recorded 1957) is a trio of Mingus, drummer Dannie Richmond and brilliant if troubled pianist Hampton Hawes, billed as The Mingus Three. Opening with the appropriately evocative "Laura", gliding through "Hamp's New Blues", going tribal for "Summertime" (complete with bizarre piano percussive effects) and dipping down low for "I Can't Get Started" (with a beautiful Mingus solo), this documents Mingus at the height of his powers. And that power remains. Highly recommended.

So long Michael Brecker
Blue Note may have the cred and cache, but Sony Legacy has the back catalogue! They reissue material on a regular basis to the point where it is hard to keep up. But three recent Legacy/Bluebird Signature Series editions caught my eye: Count Basie's One O'Clock Jump (Bluebird/Legacy 2876-81744-2), Dizzy Gillespie's Night in Tunisia, (Bluebird/Legacy 2876-84866-2) and The Brecker Brother's Sneakin' Up Behind You (Bluebird/Legacy 2876-84865-2). There is nothing new here to speak of but the packaging is solid and the remastered sonics are typically excellent. Detailed credits for every track on each disc add to their worth. Old school hawkers will dig the Basie and Dizzy discs, you simply can't go wrong with these collections. And with the recent passing of Michael Brecker, Sneakin' Up Behind You demands re-evalution of the Brecker Brother's fusion period.

Culling tracks from 70's era albums like Heavy Metal Bebop, Détente, Straphangin' and Don't Stop The Music, Sneakin' Up shows the bros in all their 70s and 80s glory. Creating some of the best jazz rock of the era, tracks like "Squish", "Inside Out" and "Sneakin' Up Behind You" are laced with punchy horn figures and incredible ensemble interplay from the best players in New York. In retrospect, most of the players were probably jacked up on cocaine as they ran between pop and jingle sessions but the high degree of musicianship is simply mind-blowing and these hard hitting tunes retain their visceral impact, some 30 years on. Michael Brecker RIP.

For those dedicated followers of retro fashion, this month's free CD (US residents only) is my very own Ultimate Cheese collection, Volumes 1 and 2. Vol. I covers mid to late 1960s soundtracks like Thunderball, The Prisoners, Man from Uncle, I Spy, The Taking of Pelham, The Avengers and the UK fave, The Sweeney! Spoken word interludes increase the cheesy effect.

Vol. 2 adds more interludes from those "badass dudes and super freak chicks" of the 70's Blaxploitation genre culled from such unforgettable films as Black Caesar, Hell Up in Harlem and Shaft in Africa. Soundtracks from Hollywood and Hong Kong, flicks like Three Days of the Condor, Thunderfist, Baretta and Bullitt as well as the works of soundtrack masters Roy Budd (Get Carter) and Lalo Shifrin (Mannix) provide the melodic/rhythmic mayhem.

These CDs are super bad. Like Pam Grier says, "Your friends are dead - and I killed them all!" Can you dig it? You must conform!