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Sal Mosca: Holland, June 1981

Sal Mosca
One of the most important collections of Sal Mosca's piano work has just hit the market. The five-CD package—Sal Mosca: Too Marvelous for Words (Cadence)—includes 56 tracks by the pianist performing on tour in the Netherlands in June 1981. The material features five solo concerts between June 19 and June 24 and gives us an opportunity to hear him at his finest. Best of all, there's little overlap of material as Mosca courageously challenged himself to move forward rather than repeat what he performed days earlier.

For those not in the know, Mosca was probably the purest exponent of the Lennie Tristano school of jazz piano—an ever-shifting and highly original improvisational approach that borrowed liberally from bebop and modern classical forms to establish the cool style of jazz in the late 1940s. In the process, Tristano, who was blind, developed a dry sound that tamped down flowery emotion and swing in favor of a more tightly structured, metronome-like counterpoint attack that offered its own flash and daring.

Mosca studied with Tristano (above) from 1945 until the 1950s and played with saxophonists Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh, two other Tristano master students and exponents. Mosca spent most of his career picking up where Tristano left off, teaching Tristano's approach but adding elements of his own personality to his educational curriculum and live performances.

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Resisting what he called "the web of commercial success," Mosca mostly steered clear of studio recording. His early, recordings for Prestige between 1949 and 1956 are essential listening for those who favor cool jazz. His sporadic recordings with bassist Peter Ind and Warne Marsh in the 1950s and 1990s, respectively, also are important. My most recent post on Mosca looked at a previously unreleased solo concert recording in the Netherlands in 1992. Now, on Too Marvelous for Words, we have extensive material on Mosca in concert 10 years earlier, with the pianist's explorations of standards and originals. They become spectacular wilderness treks for the listener, as Mosca weaves in and out of melodies with lengthy side trips into densely textured uncharted improvisational territory.

Like the 1992 album, the concert material on the newly issued Cadence set also features previously unreleased recordings. These CDs give us a rare look at Mosca's piano approach in the early 1980s and are among the most enjoyable and significant collections of piano jazz issued this year. The music was discovered after Mosca's death in 2007, when bassist Don Messina, who played with Mosca, was preparing Mosca's collection for the archives at Rutgers University's Institute of Jazz Studies. In a box labeled "1981 European Tour," Don found seven tapes.

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As Don (above) writes in his liner notes, Mosca likely recorded these concerts himself. Others who helped make this release possible include Cadence owner Bob Rusch, the Mosca family, Dick Hyman, Kazzrie Jaxen, Larry Bluth, Connie Crothers and Jimmy Halperin.

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A majority of the music was well recorded and offers a clean, live sound. Mosca is in complete command of his improvisational explorations and offers robust renditions without wheel-spinning or repetitious figures. The result is pure brilliance and beauty. From a tender Time Was at the Hague on June 19, 1981 and Moonlight in Vermont in Amsterdam on June 21 to an off-to-the-races Donna Lee in Utrecht later the same day, Gone With the Wind in Rotterdam on June 20 and a whirling Lennie-Bird from Maastricht on June 24, the listener feasts on a wide range of songs covered in a compact period of time.

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The only slight drawback is the hollow hall-like sound on the Maastricht material, where the mic may have been a tad high off the piano. But even with this vault-y sound, I'd still opt to have the 10 Maastricht songs included. Ultimately, the tracks take little away from the music's clarity or sensuality, only some of the color.

As more Mosca performances surface, it's clear that his live solo work rivals that of Bill Evans for sheer intensity and listener engagement. Early on, Evans was indirectly influenced by Tristano through the recordings of Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh. Like Evans, Mosca here offers thoroughly satisfying performances framed as expanded poetic expeditions, with plenty to hear along the way. While Evans was more emotional and romantic as a performer, Mosca in 1981 offered plenty of both deep inside his Tristano-trained improvisational approach.

JazzWax tracks: You'll find Sal Mosca: Too Marvelous Sal Mosca For Words (Cadence) here, where it's $65 (including shipping) and considerably cheaper than at Amazon ($88 plus shipping).

JazzWax clips: Here are five tracks— one from each of the discs—so you have a sense of the music and sonic quality:

Here's Time Was...

Time Was

Here's Moonlight in Vermont...

Moonlight in Vermont

Here's Donna Lee...

Donna Lee

Here's Mosca's Give a Rag a Ride...

Give a Rag a Ride

And here's Talk of the Town...

Talk of the Town

JazzWax notes: For lots more on Sal Mosca, including a biography and discography, go here.

A special thanks to Don Messina, Bob Rusch and Seth Kaplan.

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