In March, around the same time that Norah Jones was scooping up an armload of Grammys for her polished pop-cum-jazz debut, Atlantic Monthly ran a lengthy obituary bemoaning the death of jazz. The once-lofty genre was murdered, music scribe David Hadju concluded, in part by the antiseptic approach to the music that Wynton Marsalis championed.
A generation ago, the outlook was quite different. A wave of talented gadflies saw the barrier-breaking groundwork laid down in the 1950s by the likes of Ornette Coleman, Charles Mingus, Miles Davis, and countless others as a call to arms. And they were eager to take up the cause. Chief among these iconoclasts were Pharoah Sanders and Rahsaan Roland Kirk, and two new reissues of concerts from their glory days remind us what extraordinary reedmen they were.
Fronting a smoldering quartet, Sanders knocks a handful of appreciative Southern California fans on their butts on his 1981 recording. He plays, shouts, and burns his way through a fierce five-song set that climaxes in a screaming 23-minute reading of "Docktor Pitt," which sounds as if it could be a soundtrack to World War III. The Kirk CD is even more riotous. His stunning 10-minute cover of "My One and Only Love" travels in eight different directions at once. And the funk-laced "Blacknuss" finds him transformed into mad preacher, rapping on the virtues of John Coltrane and sweet potato pie.
Neither disc is for the faint of heart, or for fans who are used to a more button-down approach to music. But adventurous listeners, tired of sleepwalking their way through Wynton-and-Norah-style "lite" jazz, may owe themselves a trip back to the future.