Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Listening to Prestige 190: Barbara Lea

I was sitting with Margaret Whiting one day when she got a call from the organizers of the Kool Jazz Festival, asking her if she'd perform.

"But I'm not a jazz singer," she said. "I only sing the melody."

"We know," the festival guy said, "and do you know how hard it is to find someone who can really do that?"

What is a jazz singer, exactly? Someone who improvises around the melody? What about Frank Sinatra? Some would call him one of the greatest of all jazz singers, and he pretty much sang the melody, although he did improvise around the beat.

Some people, most notably Mel Tormé, have said that "jazz singer" is an oxymoron, there's no such thing as a jazz singer.

But if there is, what makes a jazz singer? Why is June Christy a jazz singer and Jo Stafford not? Why is Peggy Lee sometimes a jazz singer and sometimes not? How about Eartha Kitt? Why was Rosemary Clooney not a jazz singer until she was one? It was said of Sarah Vaughan, whose jazz credentials even Mel Tormé would have a hard time denying, that she used her voice like a horn, but what does that mean, exactly? Annie Ross sang dizzyingly difficult jazz solos, but in a way she was singing the melody -- a melodic line established by an instrumentalist like Wardell Gray. Her famous version of "Twisted," a jazz classic, has been covered by non-jazz singers like Bette Midler, or does singing "Twisted" make Midler a jazz singer? Edie Hart was a jazz singer, but she only sang the last few bars of songs, and then only when Peter Gunn was in the room.

It doesn't get any easier if move into the contemporary postmodern world, where you can probably be everything if you set your mind to it, like Amy Winehouse or Cassandra Wilson or Esperanza Spalding.

Google "what makes a jazz singer a jazz singer," and you get not much of any definitions at all, but you do get advice to aspiring jazz singers, and that advice boils down to: listen to a lotta jazz.

So is a jazz singer someone who sings and listens to a lotta jazz? That's hard to quantify.

So I'll offer this as a definition: a jazz singer is a singer who sings with jazz musicians.

And even that isn't enough. Connie Kay played drums on most of Atlantic's rock and roll sessions, but that didn't make those performers jazz singers. Margaret Whiting is a self-described non-jazz singer (although she did play that Kool Jazz Festival, and knocked 'em dead), but her greatest hit and signature song, "Moonlight in Vermont," was recorded with Billy Butterfield.

So I'll revise my definition. Taking off from the "listen to a lotta jazz" advice, I'll say that a jazz singer is someone who sings with a lotta jazz musicians.

I suppose even that is dodgy. Margaret Whiting recorded "Moonlight in Vermont" with Billy Butterfield and his orchestra, but not really. It was Les Brown's dance band, but for contractual reasons they couldn't use Brown's name.

Which brings us to Barbara Lea, who came into Rudy Van Gelder's studio for two consecutive days
to record a group of songs with a jazz group led by Johnny Windhurst, although the supporting personnel changed between one day and the next. And what makes her a jazz singer, and a very good one, is that she sings with jazz musicians, and connects with them. You can feel the chemistry. This comes through on every song, but if you really want to hear her interacting with jazz musicians, listen to "My Honey's Loving Arms" or "I'm Coming Virginia."

The session is a little unusual for Prestige, especially in the mid-50s, in that the musicians are essentially old school, which was generally Lea's choice. And if it wasn't to Bob Weinstock's mainstream taste, it was an inspired detour. The album was critically acclaimed, and Lea was named Best New Vocalist of the year by Down Beat, which tended to be more than a little snobbish about what was jazz and what wasn't.

Her first New York recording session was two songs released on the Cadillac label (not the Chicago label that later became Chess) in 1954, with a band led by Eddie Barefield, Pee Wee Erwin, and Cutty Cutshall. In 1955 he recorded for Riverside, with a band that included Billy Taylor regulars Earl May and Percy Brice. The songs were included on an album that threw together a hodgepodge of groups,
and came out under Mundell Lowe's name.

Then the Prestige sessions, and she would record for them through 1957, after which her recording career would come to a standstill until the late 1970s, when she made a number of records for Audiophile over the next decade, and Whitney Baillett declared in The New Yorker that "Barbara Lea has no superior among popular singers."

The groups on both of the October sessions are led by trumpeter Johnny Windhurst, with whom Lea worked frequently. Windhurst's career went back to 1944, when Sidney Bechet tapped him to replace Bunk Johnson in his group. Trad jazz giant Ruby Braff has listed him as his major influence. He's little remembered today, partly because he was a trad jazzer after trad jazz had mostly faded into critical irrelevance, partly because he seemed not to have wanted the spotlight. He left New York and moved upstate to Poughkeepsie, in my native Hudson Valley, where he lived with his mother and played in the house band at Frivolous Sal's Last Chance Saloon. Frivolous Sal's, which later became The Chance, one of the Hudson Valley's major music venues, was a place where they played Dixieland jazz and the waiters wore ersatz Gay Nineties outfits. In short, the kind of place that I would not have been caught dead at, which means I missed hearing a great trumpet player. The moral
of this story -- don't turn up your nose at any place that plays live music, especially with musicians who are a little older.

The October 18th session featured Richard Lowman on piano. "Richard Lowman" was a pseudonym -- if you think about it for a minute, you can probably figure out for whom.  Ready? Thinking?


Dick Hyman.

Only four songs were recorded the first day: "Baltimore Oriole," "I Had Myself A True Love," "Nobody Else But Me" and "Thursday's Child."`Perhaps Van Gelder had to spend some adjusting for the presence of a vocalist, because the next day they came back and did eight more.

On the 19th, Lowman/Hyman had bowed out, and Dick Cary, who had played alto horn (not to be confused with alto sax) the first day, doubled on horn and piano. He was equally adept at both instruments. He had made his first mark as a pianist in 1947, when a promoter wanted to present Louis Armstrong, who had been leading a big orchestra for years, in a small group setting, including Jack Teagarden and Bobby Hackett. Cary was the rehearsal pianist. Armstrong didn't actually show up for any of the rehearsals, and on the night of the first performance at Town Hall, there was no one else, and Cary stayed on piano. That turned out to be the beginning of the Louis Armstrong All-Stars, and when they began booking regular gigs, Armstrong remembered "the kid who did the concert," and Cary became the All-Stars' first piano player. His first recordings on alto horn were with Billy Butterfield, and he also played trumpet at Eddie Condon's. According to his obituary,
Unlike the Dixielanders, he was a progressive musician and his apartment became the centre for jam sessions with players like Zoot Sims, Bob Brookmeyer, Bill Evans and Jimmy Raney. From 1956 he worked in the progressive band led by Bobby Hackett.
Al Hall and Osie Johnson were the rhythm section on both sessions, and both were respected music veterans who could play bebop as well as older styles. Hall is best known for his work with Errol Garner, but he also played bebop with Bud Powell, swing with Teddy Wilson, and rock and roll with Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers. Johnson also moved deftly between swing and bebop, no mean feat for a drummer since the demands were so different, and he was a favorite of jazz singers (whatever that means) like Carmen McRae and Dinah Washington.

The second session adds Al Casamenti on guitar, and he had, if anything, an even wider range, from easy listening (Enoch Light) to rhythm and blues (King Curtis) to rock and roll (Screamin' Jay Hawkins) to jazz (Billy Taylor, Wes Montgomery) to Latin (Tito Puente) to pop (Johnnie Ray, Frankie Laine -- including "Rawhide") to jazz singers (Ella Fitzgerald). His lead-in to  "My Honey's Loving Arms" is particularly tasty.

The Prestige album is self-titled.

I've had to skip over an album recorded by Herbie Mann in Sweden because I can't find it anywhere.

Order Listening to Prestige Vol 1 here.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Listening to Prestige Part 189 - Sonny Rollins

Everything that every jazz musician plays is, at root, a tribute to Bird. Today, those tributes are most often paid by musicians who were not yet born when Bird died, but they're nonetheless sincere, and those younger musicians still feel that closeness to Bird. But this session was recorded in 1956, when Bird was only one year and a few months dead, and he was still very much a living presence to every jazz musician, and much more profoundly than the ubiquitous "Bird Lives" graffiti of those days (my favorite legend is the one that said at the moment of Bird's death, a single feather fell from the rafters of Carnegie Hall.

Sonny Rollins had played with Charlie Parker on the 1953 Miles Davis session which would ultimately be part of the Collector's Items  album, not to be released until December of 1956. He remembered Parker's powerful personal influence when interviewed by Art Taylor, for Taylor's powerful book Notes and Tones: Musician-to-Musician Interviews:
Bird was not only great to me as far as music goes; he also befriended me at a very important time in my life.  You know that Bird helped me get off drugs when I was younger. When I made Collector's Items...Bird found out that I had been indulging. He really didn't like it. I saw for the first time that he didn't dig my doing that. I realized I must be doing the wrong thing. Up until that time I had thought it was all fun and games and that it was okay to use drugs. I subsequently got myself off drugs, when he showed me that wasn't the way to go. Unfortunately, when I did get myself straight, I was anxious to let him see I had dug his message, but as life would have it, he passed away before I was able to meet him again,
Rollins entered the federal drug treatment center in Lexington, Kentucky in 1955. Charlie Parker died in March of 1955, probably while Rollins was still at Lexington, so one can only imagine the extent that Parker was still on his mind.

Max Roach played on a number of Parker sessions, including his first Savoy recordings in 1945, and the legendary Massey Hall concert. He would record his own Parker tribute album a year later, for EmArcy.

Kenny Dorham must have had Parker very much on his mind. He had played with Bird on the great altoist's last gig, on March 5, 1955, at Birdland. Bird would be dead only a week later.

George Morrow never recorded with Bird, but he did play with him, on a number of gigs during Bird's 1946 California sojourn. Morrow, who was 30 at the time of this session, had played with the Roach-Clifford Brown quintet on all their recordings.

Wade Legge, at 22, was the youngest musician to be tabbed for this session, and though he had never
played with Bird, he had gotten his start in Dizzy Gillespie's orchestra. Dizzy, recognizing his talent, originally hired him as a bassist, but then heard him suggesting some innovative changes to the piano player. The bebop great liked what he heard, and immediately installed Legge on piano, the instrument he would play for the rest of his short career. He was highly sought after in the late 1950s, appearing on more than 50 recording sessions, and making one album under his own name (for French Vogue, reissued on Blue Note). By 1959 he had retired back to his native Buffalo, probably for reasons of health. He died at 29 of a bleeding ulcer.

The Bird medley begins with the classic "Parker's Mood" opening riff, then goes into standards closely associated with Parker, and original Parker compositions. "I Remember You" (written by Victor Scherzinger as a vehicle for Dorothy Lamour) is from a 1948 Savoy recording (with Max Roach on drums) and features Rollins as chief soloist. The musicians take turns as leader in each part of the medley. Kenny Dorham is up next on "My Melancholy Baby," recorded in 1950 for the Clef album Bird and Diz, the last studio Parker/Gillespie collaboration, a recording which rescued the 1912 melody from the provenance of weepy drunks in late night piano bars.

"Melancholy Baby" has an odd story, which I'll digress to share. From Wikipedia:
Ernie Burnett, who composed the music, was wounded fighting in the First World War, and he lost his memory together with his identity dog-tags. While recuperating in hospital, a pianist entertained the patients with popular tunes including "Melancholy Baby". Burnett rose from his sickbed and exclaimed: "That's my song!" He had regained his memory.
"Old Folks" is sweetly sentimental, and it comes from the ill-fated Charlie Parker with Voices collaboration with Dave Lambert. The criticism of this session is not unfair, but Bird's solo has a lot of feeling, and it's not hard to see why the guys picked it to be part of this tribute. The medley is not so much an attempt to play like Bird as it is an expression of how musicians felt about Bird, and this one goes to Wade Legge, both horns sitting out. "They Can't Take That Away From Me" is the gorgeous Gershwin melody, recorded by Bird on the Charlie Parker with Strings album, controversial at the time, now pretty universally beloved. Rollins takes the lead. Dorham comes back for "Just Friends."

"My Little Suede Shoes" is one of the catchiest of Bird's original compositions, originally recorded with a Latin percussion, which would seem to make it a natural for Rollins, but Legge takes the lead, and listen to this if you want to appreciated just how good this largely forgotten pianist was. The whole ensemble comes in for the finale. "Star Eyes."

The rest of the album is less Bird-oriented. "Kids Know" is a Rollins original, and one might wonder if a title like "Kids Know" in 1956 was a suggestion that Sonny was going to try rock and roll, but no. Sonny did try rock and roll years later, with the Rolling Stones. When he played a concert at SUNY New Paltz one time, it was promoted as "Sonny Rollins (from the Rolling Stones' Tattoo You album)," so maybe kids don't know everything. My Fair Lady opened on Broadway in 1956, so Bird would never have heard "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face." "The House I Live In" was written as a leftist anthem by Earl Robinson, became a patriotic anthem when recorded by Frank Sinatra, and here serves as a reminder of Rollins's far-ranging ears. It's one of those tunes you can't hear without having the lyrics run through your head, so you can take it as leftist or patriotic, or both.

"They Can't Take That Away From Me" was plucked out of the medley for release as one side of a 45.

Prestige is generally considered to lag behind Blue Note in the artistry of its album covers, but this is often unfair. The cover for Rollins Plays for Bird, by Reid Miles. is stunning. It's only fair to note, however, that Miles was a Blue Note artist.

Order Listening to Prestige Vol 1 here.

Tuesday, June 07, 2016

Listening to Prestige Part 188 - Blind Willie McTell

In 1956, Blind Willie McTell was singing on the streets of Atlanta. He was recorded by a local record store owner, but before the recordings could ever find a label or be released, McTell was dead.

He died in 1959. Bob Weinstock founded his Bluesville subsidiary in 1960, which was actually a little ahead of the curve. King of the Delta Blues Singers, the rerelease of Robert Johnson's Vocalion recordings of 1936 and 1937, didn't come until 1961. Charley Patton, one of the earliest pioneers of Delta Blues, had his reissue in 1962, 28 years after his death.

The Blues Hall of Fame started recognizing the titans of the Blues in 1980, did not get an actual building until 2015.

In 1940, John Lomax had recorded McTell for the Library of Congress Archives. He would do very little recording in the intervening years.

Recorded blues had an odd and spotty history. The first blues recording came out in 1920. An African American songwriter, Perry Bradford, one of the very few composers working  on Tin Pan Alley, the tight cluster of New York music publishing firms that produced most of America's popular music in the first quarter of the 19th Century. had written a song called "Crazy Blues." He first offered it to Sophie Tucker, one of the most popular singers of her day, but she wasn't looking at any new material just then. A couple of other singers passed on it, so Bradford suggested recording it with a colored singer. The response: Bradford was crazier than his blues. No one would ever by a record by a colored singer. But they did take a chance and record "Crazy Blues" with Mamie Smith, and it was a smash, and it started the blues craze of the 1920s. But the Depression forced cutbacks in the recording industry, and the black performers were the first to be cut.

The real return of recorded blues was post-World War II, and it was part of the developing interest in
folk music (the vital electric blues being recorded in Chicago, Detroit and Los Angeles was considered commercial and inauthentic by the folkies).  And this made for an interesting development, since the blues was essentially a music of realism, with the underlying message that things were never going to get better, and the white leftists who were a great part of the folkie audience believed that we could get together and make a better world.

The blues that were to become the center of the new blues explosion were from the Mississippi Delta. Delta musicians like Muddy Waters and Sonny Boy Williamson made their way north to Chicago, where they created an electric blues style that folk purists wanted nothing to do with. Musicians from Oklahoma and Texas went to Los Angeles, where they created their own electric style (T-Bone Walker was one of the pioneers of the electric guitar). There was much less of a blues scene in New York, always more of a jazz town, hospitable to jazz-based blues singers like Bessie Smith. The blues musicians who came to New York were mostly from the East Coast, and played in a style that came to be known as Piedmont blues, which was characterized by many things, but one of them was that many of its exponents, like Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, sang in accents that were easier for the mostly white folkie audience in New York than the heavier accents of Delta bluesmen like Charley Patton. The Delta bluesmen would soon be championed by a new group, the blues purists, who were different in many respects from the folk purists. Brownie McGhee had been recorded by Bob Weinstock early in his career, when he was trying to make a name as a rhythm and blues singer.

All of this would change with the nascence of the blues purists, who were a different breed altogether from the folk purists, and the British blues imitators, who were not purists at all.

Blind Willie McTell was a Piedmont bluesman, and although Bob Weinstock was a jazzer rather than a folkie, this seems to have been one of the styles he gravitated toward. But I actually probably shouldn't be spending anywhere near this much time on McTell, since he wasn't one of Weinstock's recordees, or one of his first Bluesville releases, for that matter.

But he was a good pickup for Bluesville, and it's good that these late recordings are available. Bob Dylan sang that no one could sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell, but it may have been more true that no one's name fit the rhythm and rhyme scheme of his song like Blind Willie McTell's. McTell in many ways hearkened back to an earlier age. The black street singers in the South were "songsters," and they sang a bit of everything, including the blues. When the blues craze of the 1920s hit, the songsters became bluesmen. By 1956, McTell was still singing on the street, and he had some of the repertoire of the old songsters, like "Wabash Cannonball," a 19th century ballad popularized by country and western pioneer Roy Acuff. It was cool to hear it done with a blues twist.

Also on the session, "Beedle Um Bum," which had been recorded by Tampa Red and McKinney's Cotton Pickers.

The Bluesville album was released in 1962 as Last Session. The following year, "Beedle Um Bum" made a reappearance on a compilation album called Bawdy Blues.

Anyway, more about Bluesville and Bob Weinstock's blues when we get to 1960.

Wednesday, June 01, 2016

Listening to Prestige Part 187: Prestige All-Stars

John Coltrane, Hank Mobley, Al Cohn and Zoot Sims together as the sax section for one recording session. What could possibly go wrong?

Nothing, as it turns out. Talk about four brothers! These are four of the all-time greats on the instrument that became the heart and soul of jazz and rhythm and blues of the 40s and 50s.

No one is listed as the leader on the session, although it may have sort of been Hank Mobley, who contributed two original compositions (the other two tunes are standards). Eventually, as John Coltrane's star continued to rise, the album was reissued under his name. Interestingly, although that star continued until Trane had risen to the firmament populated by Miles, Bird and Armstrong, it's the leaderless Tenor Conclave cover that adorned the CD reissue.

And no one takes over as leader, or tries to. in her liner notes to the reissue, Ann Giudici* says
As opposed to the popular "cutting session" of years gone by, this date merely offers four different players a chance to display their ideas. No one was out to blow the other off the stand. The atmosphere is one of forceful but relaxed blowing."
Maybe this is a characteristic of jazz of the Fifties. Certainly we've heard competitive sessions, like the Coltrane/Sonny Rollins Tenor Madness. But as often as not, the leitmotif is camaraderie. We heard it in the earlier Prestige All-Stars session, with Art Farmer, Donald Byrd and Jackie McLean. Or the Phil Woods session from back in June, with Woods and Gene Quill paired on altos, Donald Byrd and Kenny Dorham on trumpets.

How good an album is this?

Very, very good.

Is it four times as good as an album with one of them?

The answer is yes and no.

No, because if you compare it with albums featuring any one of them -- say, John Coltrane with the Red Garland Trio, one of my all time favorites, and also on Prestige, you wouldn't want to even consider the question of which one is better. It would be like choosing between your children.

But yes, because it's mythic. Like knowing that "Tenor Madness" is the only recorded collaboration between Coltrane and Sonny Rollins. Like the discovery, five decades after the fact, of a live recording of Coltrane and Thelonious Monk at Town Hall.

The myth is important. One of the wonders of art is that it stays with you, and gestates inside your mind and your soul until it becomes a new entity, the offspring of you and the artist(s). And that new enitycomes out into the world and plays with new friends, half-sisters and brothers, the offspring of the artist(s) and your friends, or people you meet in online forums, or people you meet by reading their books and articles and liner notes and poems (like Michael S. Harper's paeans to Dear John, Dear Coltrane). Imagine making love to someone after listening, together, to Stan Getz or Louis Armstrong or Ornette Coleman. You're imagining (or better yet) remembering three very different experiences, aren't you? And each one with a special richness that would not be there without Stan or Louis or Ornette. **

Part of that gestation is the art itself, and part is the history, the personalities, the stories--especially in jazz, which is such a collaborative art, and such an endless melding and blending and separating of personalities and sensibilities, the Miles Davis nonet or J.J. and Kai or James Moody and Tito Puente or the musicians Norman Granz brought together for Jazz at the Philharmonic or Ella Fitzgerald and George Gershwin.

In a review of the album on, Lindsay Planer says that " It takes a couple of passes and somewhat of a trained ear to be able to link the players with their contributions," and this is certainly true to my not very trained ear, but the sense of those different voices and sensibilities coming together is palpable and intoxicating. The London Jazz Collector, in his blog, characterizes the four voices as "Mobley’s tone is pure chocolate, Coltrane is spiced lime, Sims is a good Claret, Cohn is mocha garnacha." Which is beautiful and allusive and mysterious, especially since I had no idea what mocha garnacha is.

Ira Gitler, always helpful, runs down the solos in his liner notes to the original album:

* Always interested in new names that crop up on the periphery of the music and the scene, I looked up Ann Giudici and found not very much. In the early 60s, she was apparently producing plays off-Broadway, and Hackensack station WJRZ, which was having success with old time radio dramas, hired Ann Giudici to produce original dramas and adaptations of short stories with a local repertory company. JRZ had a varied format including jazz (Les Davis was a DJ), but shortly afterwards they switched to an all-country format.

** Here's an imagined look at jazz and lovemaking. This will be included in my forthcoming collaboration between me (poems) and Nancy Ostrovsky (drawings), She Took Off Her Dress.


She said jazz
is how life should be
flexible rhythm but
you count it off
beyond that

melody left behind
now it’s your call
you know where
the roots are you don’t

know where it’s taking you
she herself was
Chet Baker
Gerry Mulligan
touching where you didn’t

know you tingled
or she was
Thelonious Monk
threading her way along
narrow pathways

with broad steps
on either side are
Arizona cactus
long spined blooming


Order Listening to Prestige Vol 1: 1949-1953 from Amazon

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.