Mainstream swing was on the run in the ‘70s. The commercial power of rock and funk was a siren song for jazz-slanted musicians, and several were trying their hand at a heavier approach. Miles Davis was amping up, at one point sharing the stage with three electric guitarists. A few of his former hires, specifically Chick Corea and John McLaughin, were cranking the volume and expounding about visions of the emerald beyond and hymns of the seventh galaxy. The rhythms were wildly aggressive and the increasingly younger audience was lapping them up.
To some degree this trend waylaid established acoustic jazz players working in an overt swing lingo. The money was being made on the rock side of the street, so there’s actually a dash of heroics in the fact that the Xanadu label swooped in and flew the flag of trad jazz during this era. Renowned leaders as well as revered also-rans comprised the indie label’s roster during the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. From Dexter Gordon to Duke Jordan, the artists who cut tracks for Xanadu owner Don Schlitten were working the straight-ahead sound, be it bop, hard-bop or some offshoot in between.
The catalog has been out of print for quite some time, but the first six titles of Elemental Music’s Xanadu Master Edition Series remind just how entertaining the label’s music could be. This first batch of reissues’ is marked by the return of Heavy Love, a duet between saxophonist Al Cohn and pianist Jimmy Rowles. Both were respected improvisers often heralded for the sheer amount of tunes they knew. Heavy Love came about when Cohn, then in his 50s and Rowles, seven years his senior, connected in New York for a glide through standards they’d been informally rehearsing at the saxophonist’s Jersey lair.
The first 30 seconds of “Them There Eyes” spills the beans on the rest of the album – fraternity, invention and swing are dead ahead. Cohn’s solo tenor sax skips forward with the kind of verve that instantly changes an environment, and as they connect, genuine esprit leaps from the speakers. Through “Takin’ A Chance On Love” and “These Foolish Things,” their coordination is flawless. Sometimes they chop at the melody, sometimes they bask in its protection. Rowles, a magnificent improviser, occasionally takes on the role of a drummer and bounces all sorts of inflections at his mate. Like Jim Hall and Bill Evans’ classic Undercurrent, it’s one of those duet discs that never gets old.
The reissue series also gives fans a chance to focus on one of the decade’s most memorable repertory albums, 1975’s Barry Harris Plays Tadd Dameron. The esteemed pianist helped codify bop’s grammar, and as he dedicates himself to some of the composer’s best tunes, he proves how wise and quick-witted he is. Harris rolls through “Soultrane” and “Our Delight” with enough authority to make you believe he wrote them himself. Though he rather dominates his crew of bassist Gene Taylor and drummer Leroy Williams, the music truly sings.
The value of Schlitten’s curation skills is also obvious in Jimmy Heath’s Picture of Heath. After solid work for Riverside and other labels in the early ‘60s, recording opportunities dried up for the terrific horn player. It wasn’t until he united with the producer (who worked at other indies before starting Xanadu) that his “comeback” began to solidify. With a gorgeous tone, fluid parlance and killer rhythm section at his side (Billy Higgins, Sam Jones, Barry Harris) Heath’s program bristles with spirit and smarts. To some degree the same could be said for several of the imprint’s other titles. The remastered sound of these Xanadu titles exudes the focus and vigor of the dates. Can’t wait to hear more in the upcoming batches.