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Box Set Illustrates Clifford Jordan's Impeccable Taste In Musicians


This is FRESH AIR. Starting in the late 1960s, jazz saxophonist Clifford Jordan produced a series of recordings mostly by other leaders that came out on the musician's own Strata-East label. Those seven albums are now collected in a box set. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says Jordan the producer had impeccable taste in musicians.


KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Clifford Jordan on tenor from a 1968 quartet date led by bassist Wilbur Ware with Edward Blackwell on drums. It was first issued a couple of years ago and is now scooped into a box of albums the saxophonist produced around then, "The Complete Clifford Jordan Strata-East Sessions," six CDs on Mosaic.

The sound on these albums is just OK, but they all feature fiery playing, original material and great and underappreciated players, especially rhythm players. Ex-Monk bassist Ware and ex-Ornette Coleman drummer Blackwell turn up all over. A session by bebop baritone saxist Cecil Payne teams Ware with a great drummer now enjoying a late career revival, Albert Tootie Heath. Wynton Kelly is on piano.


WHITEHEAD: Some folks look at jazz in the '60s as a war between mainstream and avant-garde musicians. Clifford Jordan's blues-drenched playing put him close to the mainstream, but the records he produced for Strata-East's Dolphy Series mostly veered left. Tenor saxophonist Charles Brackeen would soon develop his own sound, but in 1968, he was deeply into Ornette Coleman's slippery, bluesy free jazz. Brackeen's album "Rhythm X" sets him down in Ornette's old band, Blackwell on drums, Charlie Haden on bass and bugling cornetist Don Cherry.


WHITEHEAD: The big news in the new box of Clifford Jordan productions is the previously unissued album "Shades of Edward Blackwell." The drummer preferred the long version of his first name, though record sleeves always call him Ed, a name I'm told he associated with a talking horse.

Blackwell's drumming often had a strong West African strain. Using mallets on tom-toms, he'd evoke the speech-like contours of so-called talking drums.


WHITEHEAD: Edward Blackwell underscored his West African connections on the same album with Pieces for Six percussionists on trap sets and log drums.


WHITEHEAD: The seven sessions Clifford Jordan produced for Strata-East also include one by majestic tenor howler Pharoah Sanders and two fine ones of his own, 1969's "Clifford Jordan and the World" and the terrific double-album "Glass Bead Games" from 1973, with the ultra-swinging Billy Higgins on drums. "Glass Bead Games" is the last and easily the best recorded album in "The Complete Clifford Jordan Strata-East Sessions." All that on-the-job training as producer paid off.


GROSS: Kevin Whitehead writes for Point of Departure, Downbeat and eMusic and is the author of "Why Jazz." He reviewed "The Complete Clifford Jordan Strata-East Sessions" on Mosaic. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kevin Whitehead is the jazz critic for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. Currently he reviews for The Audio Beat and Point of Departure.
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