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Music CD/DVD Review: Various Musicians Delmark: 55 Years Of Jazz & Delmark: 55 Years Of Blueselm

When Bob Koester started selling old jazz and blues recordings that he scrounged in second hand stores out of a box in his collage dormitory back in the early 1950's I doubt he would have believed you if you told him that years later he would not only still be selling records, but would also be the owner of one of the oldest independent record labels in the United States. After all, his love of jazz and blues notwithstanding, his ambition was to become a cinematographer not a record producer. Yet somehow those boxes under the bed turned into Delmark Records, arguably one of the most influential jazz and blues labels in North America. (For a detailed account of Delmark and Koester's history read the interview I conducted with him about a year ago)

Through buying up the back catalogues of defunct jazz and blues labels and lovingly restoring recordings from their master tapes (and in some cases the piano rolls of player pianos) Delmark has created a catalogue of recordings that traces the history of the music as far back as the 1920's and through all their changes in style. However, even in their early years the company was just as concerned with recording the music of current performers as they were with the past and have continually searched out the talented and innovative indiscriminate of style or age. There aren't many labels who can boast issuing current recordings of Dixieland jazz and releases by members of Chicago's avant-garde jazz community at the same time, but with Delmark you never know what treasures they have in store for you.

I've seen and heard everything from a German traditional jazz band featuring a washboard player performing at an Ace Hardware in downtown Chicago (it had originally been a jazz club in the 1920's where people like Louis Armstrong had played), to stuff so experimental I doubt I'll ever understand it, but that left me strangely moved anyway. Delmark's blues catalogue is just as diverse as it includes everything from barrelhouse piano, country blues from Texas, Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee, to live recordings from the stages and floors of Chicago's blues clubs where Buddy Guy still plays and Little Walter once stood.
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Even more remarkable is the role that Delmark, and Koester, have played in ensuring the future of blues recordings. Not only did they help establish the Chicago Blues Festival and continue to record blues artists of all stripes either live or in the studio, they have been the training ground for those who have gone on to found important blues labels like Alligator, Earwig and Rooster Blues. For those of you like me who've not been able to see the inside of a Chicago blues club, Delmark's DVD recordings of gigs around the town have brought the blues alive in a way that no other label has. Entering into a neighbourhood bar like B.L.U.E.S through the lens of one of the cameras recording the performance is the next best thing to actually being there to watch Jimmy Burns and his band sweat their way through a riveting set of high energy, electric blues.

In the past few years of reviewing discs I've been fortunate enough to watch and listen to a great many of Delmark's recordings. However that only represents three years of the fifty-five years of material they have produced so each of the two, two disc sets (one CD and one DVD) made to commemorate the label's fifty-fifth anniversary, Delmark: 55 Years Of Jazz and Delmark: 55 Years Of Blues, contain tracks that I've not heard before. As DVD production has only been added to their catalogue in the last few years the CDs are a more accurate representation of the label's history with tracks like Big Joe Williams' "Coffeehouse Blues" dating back to his 1961 release I Got Wild and Speckled Red's " The Right String But The Wrong Yo-Yo" from one of the earliest recordings, The Dirty Dozens of 1956.

On Delmark: 55 Years Of Jazz they've included a little something special extra - some of their re-issues. The 1944 album Rainbow Mist featured a band that contained Coleman Hawkins, Dizzy Gillespie and Max Roach among others, and the track selected, "Bu-De-Dant", has Hawkins taking the lead. Twelve years later Sun Ra released Sun Song, and the track "Brainville" may not follow in exact chronological order from the Hawkins' number, but it comes right after it on this disc and is another recording that Koester and company gave a second life.
When the Chicago avant-garde first started to hit their stride and groups like the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) were forming up, it was Delmark who produced their first two discs. Although there aren't any examples of their work on this release, a couple of their descendants, so to speak, show up on the DVD. Both the Ritual Trio; Kahil El'Zabar (kalimba), Ari Brown (tenor sax), Yosef Ben Israel (bass), and guest Billy Bang (electric violin), and Chicago Underground Trio; Rob Mazurek (cornet, computer, moog source), Chad Taylor (drum kit and percussion), and Jason Ajemian (bass and electronics), are taking jazz to, and beyond, frontiers that twenty years ago nobody would have believed possible.

It's only fitting that both of these bands are represented on the DVD half of the release, as they really have to be seen to be believed. Chronicle, the DVD that the Chicago Underground Trio's track "Power" is taken from, was accompanied by visual effects created by filmmaker Raymond Salvatore Harmon that the music inspired. While this is only an excerpt taken from "Power", its enough for you to see the amazing potential for combing abstract video art with the type of experimental music that the Trio is creating. What's even more amazing is that you're watching it on a disc produced by a commercial company, not public television or a state funded art gallery.

Yet, that's what Delmark Records is all about, making sure that all types of jazz and blues are being recorded, not just what's popular at the moment. Dixieland, or traditional jazz, has fallen out of favour among certain circles in the jazz world, but that doesn't stop Bob Koestler from seeking out and recording bands that are still actively playing it. In our interview (see links earlier) Koestler mentioned that one of the things he really appreciated about the people involved in the AACM was that they understood there's a history to jazz and they weren't afraid to use what had been done before as a springboard for what they were doing.

Listening to either Delmark: 55 Years Of Jazz or Delmark: 55 Years Of Blues you are given a unique perspective of that history as you hear the various styles and means of expression that each genre has gone through over the last fifty-five plus years; a small slice of the nearly century's worth of music the label represents. Names like Anthony Braxton and Roosevelt Sykes might not have shown up in any of the history books you studied while in school, but they are part of the fabric of our society. It's not often you get to not only see and hear history, but also see and hear it being made - yet that's what Delmark Records does with every disc they release, and these two are no exception.

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