What's With All The Jazz Tribute Albums?

Clockwise from top left: Brian Carpenter's Ghost Train Orchestra, KLANG, Bobby Sanabria and the Manhattan School of Music Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra, Chris Byars Octet.

hide captionClockwise from top left: Brian Carpenter's Ghost Train Orchestra, KLANG, Bobby Sanabria and the Manhattan School of Music Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra, Chris Byars Octet.

Michael Blase/Michael Jackson/Brian Hatton/Michelle Watt/Courtesy of the artist

Well, it's complicated.

More than so many other kinds of music, jazz takes its tradition seriously. There's about 100 years' worth, and most of it has been passed down in sound: by playing with, listening to and studying with the masters. So it makes sense that jazz musicians feel such visceral connections to their ancestors, whether spiritual, intellectual, educational, inspirational, aspirational or even just marketable.

Hence, there are a lot of jazz albums and concerts where a younger musician plays the compositions of an older, or deceased titan. Plenty of them are already out in 2011 alone: I spoke with Guy Raz, host of weekends on All Things Considered, about some of the tribute albums I've been spinning lately. None of them require that you know anything about the original composers — but they all make you want to.

What's With All The Jazz Tribute Albums?

Hothouse Stomp cover

Brian Carpenter's Ghost Train Orchestra

  • Artist: Brian Carpenter's Ghost Train Orchestra
  • Album: Hothouse Stomp: The Music of 1920s Chicago and Harlem
  • Song: Voodoo

Ever heard of Tiny Parham? John Nesbitt? Fess Williams? Neither has anyone except the most specialized jazz historians. But Parham and his peers were some of the most interesting composer-arrangers of their time — when the '20s became the '30s, and New Orleans polyphony became big band swing. Brian Carpenter, who plays the trumpet here, took these old-old recordings, transcribed them for a ten-piece band and added his own touches. It's music with grit to it, with drive and raw energy. It's delightfully familiar, too — or is it? With quirky little arrangements, plus Carpenter's additions of strings and musical saw (responsible for the "voodoo" effect heard here) there are plenty of delights for the close listener.

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  • "Voodoo"
  • Album: Hothouse Stomp: The Music of 1920s Chicago and Harlem
  • Artist: Brian Carpenter's Ghost Train Orchestra
  • Label: Accurate Records
  • Released: 2011
 
Lucky Strikes Again cover

Chris Byars Octet

  • Artist: Chris Byars Octet
  • Album: Lucky Strikes Again
  • Song: Fanfare

Saxophone aficionados may know Lucky Thompson as a talented bebop-and-beyond player who left too few of his own records behind. Chris Byars certainly does — he's a saxophonist himself, and he's noted that Thompson had some interesting ideas with both improvising and composing. So on Lucky Strikes Again, Byars focuses on arranging Thompson's music for a horn-heavy octet. It's a blast from the past — the '50s and '60s, largely — but it feels lived-in, played the way you imagine it should be. Byars has done a number of projects playing the music of other obscure post-bop musicians like Gigi Gryce, Teddy Charles and Jimmy Cleveland. And by studying these distinct musicians who time forgot, he can both honor his predecessors, and refine some of his own ideas as a saxophonist and composer.

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  • "Fanfare"
  • Album: Lucky Strikes Again
  • Artist: Chris Byars Octet
  • Label: Steeplechase
 
Tito Puente Masterworks Live!!! cover

Bobby Sanabria & The Manhattan School of Music Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra

  • Artist: Bobby Sanabria/The Manhattan School of Music Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra
  • Album: Tito Puente Masterworks Live!!!
  • Song: Ran Kan Kan

Tito Puente's bands bulldozed you with Latin percussion — and so does this one, led by veteran percussionist, educator and occasional NPR commentator Bobby Sanabria. You might never guess that this is actually a student band, from the Manhattan School of Music. Far from using Tito Puente's name to sell records, this band is using El Rey's music to learn firecracker Afro-Latin jazz. And learning the music of the greats is the best or maybe the only way young jazz musicians come to appreciate the legacy of those who came before them. This is a live recording called Tito Puente Masterworks Live!!! — and with so much energy, you need all three exclamation points.

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  • "Ran Kan Kan"
  • Album: Tito Puente Masterworks Live!!!
  • Artist: Bobby Sanabria/The Manhattan School of Music Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra
  • Label: Jazzheads, Inc.
  • Released: 2011
 
Other Doors cover

Klang

  • Artist: Klang
  • Album: Other Doors
  • Song: Breakfast Feud

The band KLANG is from Chicago — it's a quartet led by clarinetist James Falzone and featuring vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz. In the 1930s, the iconic clarinetist Benny Goodman had a quartet with vibraphonist Lionel Hampton — among other things, Hampton and pianist Teddy Wilson were black, and Goodman and drummer Gene Krupa were white. This was no small feat, especially for one of the most famous musicians in the country. KLANG's Goodman tribute album is called Other Doors; it's in part a nod to the segregation the Goodman quartet faced, and perhaps also a signal that this ain't music the way Benny Goodman would have played it. (Hello, free improvisation and electrified cello.) It's a sound of a band paying homage to the past by playing like the present.

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  • "Breakfast Feud"
  • Album: Other Doors
  • Artist: Klang
  • Label: Allos Documents
 

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