"Howlin' for Judy" is flutist Jeremy Steig's best-known track, thanks to the Beastie Boys' use of a sample from it in "Sure Shot." As the title track for this collection, it marks new chapter in Blue Note's Rare Groove series. This seven-track set is compiled from two different albums: 1969's Legwork, which appeared on Solid State, and 1970's Wayfaring Stranger on Blue Note itself -- both of which were originally produced by the great Sonny Lester. Blue Note's Michael Cuscuna produced this collection by paring down the original albums to just the tracks that featured the trio of Steig, bassist Eddie Gomez, and drummer Don Alias. Why? In order to maximize its groove quotient; Legwork had its share of duo cuts and Wayfaring Stranger had some that featured a quartet with guitar. That said, the previous outings were quite adventurous in places: they contained various blues, ostinato workouts, and more ponderous numbers, too. Cuscuna pruned away until only the deeply funky, beat-driven trio tracks remained. That said, there is plenty of adventure -- not just in the music, but in its production: Steig was a fan of stereo separation and overdubbing techniques that were focused to maximize the rhythmic aspects of certain tracks. His own playing style is a great cross between Hubert Laws' more soulful technique and the dynamically rich and physically percussive aspects of Rahsaan Roland Kirk -- both rhythmically attuned players. While many are familiar with the title cut with its two-channel overdubbed bass and flute, far fewer punters know Steig's wildly groove-drenched sound world from the era. What a treat! You are the person this compilation is directed at.
Take "Mint Tea," with Gomez offering a deep wood-toned upright ushering in Alias' skittering breaks and rolling snares. For his part, Steig blows, whispers, moans, and groans through the flute, using an astonishing array of techniques. (Anyone who has ever thought of the flute as an airy, effete instrument has obviously never heard him play!) Alias gets busy with the kit, offering Gomez a solid beat to get behind. There are layers of hand percussion, shakers, and cymbals overdubbed onto that rhythm, so Alias can feel free to let the breakbeats fall. Gomez is hypnotic in his steadiness, and Steig enters by blowing another rhythm track and a staggered melody track overdubbed on top. Only four minutes and 20 seconds in length, this monster is all too brief -- but ripe for beatheads to plunder. There is a beautiful and provocative version of Miles Davis' "Nardis" here, too. It begins sparsely as an Eastern-tinged flute solo on the melody; when the rhythm section enters at about the two-minute mark, it becomes an exploratory folk melody before Alias and Gomez ramp it up into a finger-popping bop number. This might throw some the first time through, but it is one of the hippest numbers on the disc. "Waves," a more languid groover, is a bit more elemental; but when it comes to rhythm and grooves that's a stone positive quality -- the pizzicato work by Gomez on this baby is stellar. Ultimately, Howlin' for Judy signals a new kind of compilation -- where a certain period in an artist's oeuvre is mined for maximum aesthetic effect. Cuscuna took this material from a very brief period in Steig's development as an artist, but he came up with a monster that withstands not only repeated listening, but the hard critical assessment of hipsters, club connoisseurs, and jazz fans. ~ Thom Jurek