Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Listening to Prestige Part 186: Jackie McLean/Bill Hardman

Bill Hardman was a youthful 23 when Jackie McLean presented him as his pal/protégé, which was actually two years older than Paul Chambers, who was already a veteran...but Chambers started mighty young. Hardman did too,  even though this is is first jazz recording. Even in high school, he was playing with Tadd Dameron's orchestra. After graduating, he joined Tiny Bradshaw's rhythm and blues ensemble, and he can be heard on some of Bradshaw's recordings, although not as a soloist.

He was with Bradshaw from 1953-55, and after that, he was hired by Charles Mingus for a short time -- long enough to become friends with fellow Mingus bandman Jackie McLean (Mal Waldron was also in that group). He would make two more albums with McLean for Prestige, and shortly after this first session, both pals were grabbed up by Art Blakey, who had signed with Columbia, for the second version of his Jazz Messengers.

Hardman would do three different tours with Blakey. And he would endure. Long after bebop and hard bop had gone out of fashion, Hardman kept the flame alive, forming a bop quintet with tenor sax player Junior Cook that was still getting gigs, and appreciative audicnces, through the 70s and 80s.

Hardman died in Paris in 1990, and the headline of his obituary in the New York Times read,
curiously, "Bill Hardman, 57, Trumpeter Known For Improvisations." What did they think jazz musicians did?

Peter Watrous, who does know what jazz musicians do, wrote the obit, and what he actually said was "A fiery but lyrical improviser, Mr. Hardman was one of the last surviving major trumpeters to come out of the 1950's. " This was Watrous's third sentence, and I guess the headline writer didn't feel he needed to read any further.

The composition credits are democratically spread around the group (Jackie was no Miles Davis). "Sweet Doll" is McLean's, "Just for Marty" and "Sublues" are by Hardman, and Mal Waldron brings in "Dee's Dilemma," making for a nice mix and a nice consistency at the same time.

The session is rounded out by Charlie Parker's "Steeplechase" and the standard "It Could Happen To You," which had also recently been recorded by Miles in one of his Contractual Marathon sessions. Listening to both versions back to back is more enjoyable than instructive. The only thing I learned was that when you give a great melody to great improvisers, the results are going to be different. Miles's group takes it at a brisker tempo, even though the tempo-setters on bass and drums are the same for both sessions.

By this time Paul Chambers was established as the bassist in one of the most recognizable ensembles in the history of jazz, and although at this time jazz history was being made, not considered in hindsight, people already knew how important this quintet was.

What people don't always remember is how short-lived it was. Miles formed it in late 1955,  recorded pretty heavily with it in 1956, and disbanded it in 1957, not getting it back together until 1958, and then as a sextet. Its rhythm section recorded independently, together or separately, and continued to grow as musicians -- one of the big differences between the Miles and the Jackie versions of "It Could Happen to You" is Paul Chambers' solo. Chambers is developing, and asserting himself.

The album was first released as Jackie's Pal: Introducing Bill Hardman, which is a little odd. New guys make album debuts all the time. But generous of Jackie. It was later rereleased on New Jazz as Steeplechase, a title that looked back to Bird rather than forward to the burgeoning career of young Hardman.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Listening to Prestige Part 185: Gil Melle

Gil Melle is back in Hackensack two Fridays later, once again trying the experiment of adding three horns to his quartet. The added personnel is a little different this time, perhaps because Art Farmer and Julius Watkins were tied up, perhaps because he still wanted to tinker with the septet sound. Certainly he seems to have had no problems with Farmer, because he brought him back for a 1957 session.

Hal McKusick is back, but Kenny Dorham has replaced Farmer, and Don Butterfield's tuba is in for Watkins's French horn. The result is weirder, and arguably better. Art Farmer brought his own brand of magic to the ensemble, and when he soloed, it became an Art Farmer session. And Lord knows, there's nothing wrong with that. But Kenny Dorham seems to grasp Melle's unique sensibility right away. McKusick has really learned it by this time, and the two of them move from ensemble parts to solos with a full grasp that this is going in a different direction: not a bebop session, or even a hard bop session. That perhaps it's more akin to something that doesn't exist yet: the electronic music that Melle will go on to create.

Don Butterfield for Julius Watkins, tuba for French horn, is an interesting choice, and an inspired one.
Melle had set a deep bottom with his baritone sax, but Butterworth goes deeper and fuller, and in his solos takes Melle's ideas even farther than Melle does.

Butterfield, by 1956, had made the transformation from classical orchestras (and the orchestrated cocktail music to which Jackie Gleason put his name, but not much of anything else) to jazz, and he became a solid part of the jazz scene throughout the 50s and 60s, with beboppers like Dizzy Gillespie, Art Farmer and Jimmy Heath, with funksters like Jimmy Smith, with experimenters like Charles Mingus, Teddy Charles and Rahsaan Roland Kirk, with one-foot-in jazz composers like David Amram -- and I suppose Gil Melle could be included in that last category. In any event, his contribution to this album is inestimable.

All three compositions are unique. Each finds its own direction, and the musicians all find their way along each path. "Sixpence" has actually a sort of head-solo-solo-head structure, but it's not exactly your Uncle Charlie's head-solo-solo-head structure, nor do the musicians treat it as such.

This session completed the tracks for what became the Gil's Guests album. He would record one more album for Prestige, again in two separate sessions, one with guests and one without, and the session with guests was added to the later CD reissue.

Order Listening to Prestige Vol 1: 1949-1963 from Amazon.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Listening to Prestige Part 184: Red Garland

As far as I'm concerned, the music is the great legacy of this era, and everyone who played a part in the creating and presenting of it is a hero. Artists left Prestige for Columbia, and Atlantic, and Impulse, and other labels, because they got better deals, because of creative differences, because of reasons lost to history, and who really cares. The music was made, and recorded, and released, and it's there as long as people care about The American Century in music, and all its greatness.

Miles Davis needed a bigger stage--he was on his way to becoming a larger-than-life performer, the superstar that was evolving from the chrysalis of Prestige and taking wing as he shared top billing with Neil Young at the Fillmore in 1970 (captured in photos by Glen Craig). 

But if Miles was leaving Prestige, he was leaving a little of himself behind. In his May 11 session, he cut 14 tunes -- 10 of them with the quintet, three more with just himself and the rhythm section, and one--"Ahmad's Blues" -- in which he bowed out, and let Red Garland, Paul Chambers and Art Taylor have center stage, as a way of auditioning the trio for Prestige, and it worked, Bob Weinstock signed them, and this is the first fruit of that signing.

The trio play eight songs, six of them standards from The Songbook. It's always interesting to hear jazz versions of these standards for any number of reasons, but certainly one is the fresh focus they give to the songs themselves. Lester Young said that whenever he played a standard, he always had the words in his mind, and certainly a listener is going to be mindful of a familiar lyric. (Well, most listeners. I had a friend who told me she loved the blues, but she never listened to the words. I said, "That's like loving Rubens, but not noticing the nudes." She said, "I do that too.")

So Garland starts off the set with "A Foggy Day," and it's not Fred Astaire's softly melancholy fog. Garland, with his hard-charging block chords, has his fog lights on, and he's not letting a little clammy low visibility stop him, or even slow him down.

"Makin' Whoopee" is a gleeful expression of arch cynicism, but Garland slows it down to an almost stately pace, and you have to listen to it for a bit before you start noticing that the dry archness is there, but subtly.

"September in the Rain" starts with an extended walking bass, which leads to a very brief piano solo, which leads to a bowed bass solo, and if you don't believe a bowed bass can walk, listen to this one. As a result, the head sort of isn't there. and we're really just walkin' in the rain.

The bowed bass solo is a frequent and welcome participant throughout this session. But if you really want to hear a bass solo, listen to "Blue Red," which opens with two and a half minutes of bass, walking, jumping and standing still. A tour de force, and when Garland comes in, you know that this is a blues played by someone who knows how to play the blues. The number also includes a Garland tour de force -- a repeated figure (repeated 16 times) of the sort that one associates more with the saxophone than the piano, and more with rhythm and blues than modern jazz, but since I refuse to recognize any clear line of demarcation between rhythm and blues and modern jazz, why not?

The other non-Songbook tune is a Charlie Parker composition, and it's another interesting departure. Garland's style is generally noted for block chords of the sort that I associated with Thelonious Monk, but on "Constellation" he turns to a nimble style more reminiscent of Bud Powell (whom Garland named as his chief influence). We also hear boppish overdrive on a bowed bass solo, and some nifty soloing by Art Taylor.

The session was appropriately album-length, and was released as A Garland of Red. "Blue Red" also came out as a two-sided 45; the original track, at nearly eight minutes, is a little long for even two sides of a single, so I wonder if they cut the bass intro.  "Makin' Whoopee" also came out on 45, but a few years later, as the B side of Garland's cover of Count Basie's theme music for the TV show M Squad.

Saturday, May 07, 2016


I was asked by Gerry Pallor to interview photographer Glen Craig at the opening, at Soho's Morrison Hotel Gallery, of Craig's exhibit entitled "A Day in the Life of Miles Davis." The day, we discovered in talking to Craig, actually lasted several months, as he explains in the interview.

I've been deep into Miles in my Listening to Prestige odyssey, as he wrapped up his contractual obligations to the label with a series of marathon sessions in 1956, so this was a rare treat for me. I got to talk to Glen and to Nell Mulderry, project director for Sony's release of the Miles at the Fillmore sessions, and--a particularly pleasant surprise--to reconnect with old friend Peter Knobler, who originally commissioned the Craig photo essay.

Miles's extended day in the life came well after his Prestige era, when began his campaign to win over the counterculture and the rock audience with his historic Fillmore appearances.

But here's the story, in Gerry Pallor's video:

Friday, May 06, 2016

Listening to Prestige Part 183: Gil Melle

Art Farmer shows up for an afternoon with the usual Fridays at Rudy's gang to find...


Yes, this is a different sort of Friday. And you have to wonder if this is exactly what Gil Melle was expecting, for that matter, from the name hung on the ensemble. Here's the quartet, and what exactly are we going to do with these other guys?

He probably wasn't taken by surprise. Art Farmer may have been a Rudy's regular, but Julius Watkins and Hal McKusick weren't. In any case, whether he came prepared or had to arrange on the fly, he came up with some interesting arrangements, particularly on "Block Island."

As a baritone sax player, Gil Melle was no Gerry Mulligan. If anything, he was Mulligan's renegade stepbrother. He was probably more interested in the tonal qualities of the baritone sax than he was in improvisation. So how is it that the arrangement on "Block Island" sounds so much like Mulligan? Or the bizarro Mulligan. Or Mulligan's evil twin.

All the musicians on this session are good. One of the things we have Melle to thank for, in addition to The Andromeda Strain, would be giving Joe Cinderella a chance to be heard on one of the important jazz labels.

Vinnie Burke is the newcomer to Melle's quartet. Burke was a solid professional, a guitarist/violinist who had taken up the bass after mangling his little finger on the assembly line at a munitions factory. Through the 40s and 50s he played with a range of musicians, many of them, like Bucky Pizzarelli, the Sauter-Finnegan Orchestra and Marian McPartland, on the not so far out end of the scale. Of course, the same was true of Ed Thigpen, and both of them worked well with Melle. Burke's career would extend well into the 80s, and he could always get work.

Hal McKusick got his start with two bandleaders who were more forward-thinking than a lot of their 1940s dance band contemporaries, Boyd Raeburn and Claude Thornhill. They may have given him a taste for challenging assignments, because he went on to work with the likes of Gunther Schuller,
George Russell, Lee Konitz and John Coltrane. He also co-led a group with Bill Evans in 1958.

But the top soloist here is Farmer. Melle gives him his head, and he contributes some remarkable stuff.

These three cuts went onto an album called Gil's Guests, which also featured, in later sessions, Kenny Dorham, Don Butterfield and Zoot Sims.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Listening to Prestige Part 182: The Prestige All Stars (Art Farmer/Donald Byrd)

On the session index, this is listed as the Prestige All Stars, the first but not the last time this designation would be used. Presumably, a bunch of contract players were rounded up for the Fridays at Rudy's session, but none of them were specifically signed on as leader, so they let the producer (can't find out who produced this session) select the tunes and organize the session.

Not sure how this differs from other sessions. Did they tell Hank Mobley, "Hey, we want you to put together a combo for a recording session this week -- oh, but you'll be using Watkins and Taylor"? Or maybe these were all basically Prestige All Stars sessions, but only now did they decide to call it that. Presumably the leader would bring in the tunes, or most of them.  In this nominally leaderless session, they included a tune that was composed by a contemporary jazzer who's not on the session: Kenny Drew's "Contour." Probably Jackie McLean brought it in--he had an affinity for the tune, had played it just recently on one of his 4, 5 and 6 dates (Donald Byrd was on that session, too). In any event, it's a fine tune, and more people should record it, and actually, several have.

Certainly, McLean must have brought "Dig" to the session, given that it's his composition, even though Miles grabbed the composer credit for it, and whatever royalties it accrued, but this is jazz, so there probably weren't many, as McLean was told when he looked into suing Miles -- it wouldn't be worth it.

"The Third" is a Donald Byrd composition, so one figures he brought it in. He probably also brought "'Round Midnight," since he's the only horn on that track. Art Farmer takes "When Your Lover Has Gone" on his own, so it's likely his choice.

"Dig" is the centerpiece of the album, at nearly 15 minutes. I was interested to see how it compared to the version that was laid down the day Jackie first brought it into the studio to record with Miles and Sonny Rollins. The Davis-Rollins-McLean version is more melodic, the Prestige All Stars more intense--and at this length, that intensity has to be sustained, and it is. All the soloists are powerful. I started to try to name a favorite, but I can't.

However far afield an improvisation goes, if there's going to be enough meat to sustain it for 15 minutes, it's got to be a very good tune to start with, and "Dig" is. I'm surprised it hasn't been covered more often.

When the album was actually pressed and given a cover and released, it was called 2 Trumpets and credited to Farmer and Byrd. A rerelease was again Farmer and Byrd, and called Trumpets All Out, and a much much later rerelease just had Byrd's name above the title, which was House of Byrd.

Order Listening to Prestige Vol 1: 1949-1953

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Listening to Prestige Part 181: Hank Mobley

For the rest of the summer, Fridays at Rudy's is scaled back to one session a week, and Hank Mobley is back for this one, with partly changed supporting cast -- Doug Watkins and Art Taylor are still there, and still showing why they're there--Art Taylor's playing on "Message From the Border" is one of the major highlights of this session.

Kenny Dorham was an active presence on Prestige recordings in 1956—with Tadd Dameron in March and Phil Woods in June. He would be back again with Gil Melle in August.

Barry Harris had perhaps decamped for Detroit, because Walter Bishop, Jr., is here on piano. I had wondered if Harris might have left a couple of songs to remembered by, since two of the cuts fro this session are credited to "Harris" as composer, but it turns out to have been two other guys. "These Are the Things I Love" has lyrics by Lewis Harris, and for all I can discover this may have been the only song he ever wrote. The lyrics actually aren't much, but the melody is what counts to a jazz player,
and the melody is a nice one. It's by Harold Barlow, who parlayed his music knowledge into a second career as a consultant on plagiarism. Since one of his clients was George Harrison, you have to wonder how good at it he was.

The other Harris was Benny Harris, who wrote "Crazyology." He has some excellent jazz credentials, including being the guy who convinced Dizzy Gillespie to partner up with Charlie Parker. As a composer, he was favored by Parker, and as a composer, he seemed drawn to the "ology" suffixes. He also wrote "Ornithology" (who knew what wasn't a Bird original?)

So let's get back to Walter Bishop, Jr., whose father. Walter Bishop, Sr., was no slouch as a composer either, with tunes including "Jack, You're Dead," a number one hit for Louis Jordan in 1947, the year that his son got out of the army and into his first gig with Art Blakey. Bishop survived heroin addiction to become an important educator as well as a significant jazz musician. He studied at Juilliard with Hall Overton in the 1960s, taught music theory at several colleges, and wrote a book on jaazz improvisation, A Study in Fourths. He can be seen explaining his theory of fourths in some excellent videos, available on YouTube.

This was Mobley's second Prestige album as leader, and was titled Mobley's 2nd Message (somewhat more formally, on rerelease, as Hank Mobley's Second Message).

Here's something I wrote a few years ago. It's from a series of poems about a young woman, the daughter of an obscure jazz musician, who has left her husband and is trying to understand who she is, finding much of that understanding in jazz.


A front of warm air reached our region 
around noon today. During
the afternoon, it will ooze on in,
probe with sticky, eighty degree fingers,
so that, she supposes, she could drive
in and out between yesterday’s clammy cold
and the oozing certainty of muggy heat,
like a county with local option on daylight saving,
or the sound from her rain-drenched speakers,
a few bars of Hank Mobley’s reassuring bebop,
then silence. She imagines the missing solo,
how Walter Bishop might have picked it up,
brought it to where the sound kicks in again.
Kenny Dorham is a harder read. Lost,
she moves inside to the weather channel.
The front is squatting now, threatening
impossibly heavy storms – or did he say
possibly heavy storms? A guy calls,
she met him last week. He just wants
to make sure she has candles on hand.
Hurricane lanterns are better. She asks him if
he could fill in the missing parts of a Hank Mobley solo.
Sure, he says. How about Kenny Dorham?
Sure, he says. Him too.

No, you couldn’t, she says.

Order Listening to Prestige, Vol. 1 from Amazon.