Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Listening to Prestige Part 170: Elmo Hope All-Star Sextet

Elmo Hope's star, never as bright as it should have been, was perhaps beginning to wane at this point. The session is listed as "Elmo Hope All-Star Sextet," and the album was released as by the Elmo Hope Sextet, but at exactly the same time, so it would seem, it was also released as by Hank Mobley and John Coltrane, as Prestige PRLP 7043 and 7043 (alt).

And Ira Gitler, in his liner notes, describes the session as being "the nominal leader on the date," whatever that means. Gitler also suggests, without actually saying it, that the session is a buncha guys who happened to drop in at Rudy's parents' living room on a Friday afternoon to see what was happening.

If so. that would make this just about the perfect Bob Weinstock jam session, and maybe Gitler is exaggerating the casualness of the ensemble a little bit, but maybe not. I'm willing to take it as mostly true, and I'm willing to credit it as a quintessential tribute to the Weinstock philosophy of what jazz is.

As Gitler goes on to point, out, these musicians were hardly strangers to each other. Donald Byrd and Hank Mobley had played together in the Jazz Messengers; John Coltrane, Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones were the nucleus of the new Miles Davis Quintet, and Jones and Hope went even farther back.

It's interesting to note how strong the rhythm and blues roots were for these musicians. Jones and Hope had first played together in Joe Morris's band, Hank Mobley with Paul Gayten, John Coltrane with Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson. Also interesting that when they get together for a casual jam session, they go to bebop, not rhythm and blues, as a lingua franca.

Even more interesting, to me, is how powerful a lingua franca this is. Gitler, in his liner notes, lists the order of solos, as he oftenh does, and I wonder if he got, or gets, enough credit for this service. Too many serious jazz aficionados are also jazz snobs, and would dismiss this as pablum, but for the rest of us, it's very useful in following a jazz recording. In this case, Gitler gives us a remarkably involved and complex series of solos:
Weejah: Opening riff, Hank, Donald, Trane (bridge), Hank, Donald (4), Hank (2), Trane (2), Hank (1), Trane (1), Hank (1), Trane (1), Elmo (3), Chambers (2), Donald, Hank, Trane in fours with Joe (1), Joe (1), out chorus in same order as opener.
And even with Ira's help, I get lost. Well, I did recognize when Elmo came in. Or:

On it: Donald (8), Elmo (8), Hank (3), Trane (3), then two choruses each, followed by one chorus each, followed by two choruses of fours, two of twos, and another of fours. Hank is first at the beginning of the conversations.
This is a good thing to keep in mind the next time I'm tempted to criticize Gitler as a commentator on jazz. Yeah, I got lost again here. But there are a couple of reasons. One is, at a certain point I have to give up feeling the pressure -- am I going to be able to tell where they go from trading fours to trading twos? -- and just listen to the music.

The other is--it's almost beyond understanding how completely these loose, informal jammers are on the same page. Very often, especially in the early days of bebop, when the music was shifting from dance-centric to listener-centric, and the idea of a virtuoso solo was moved to the forefront, a soloist would finish off his turn with a little statement -- "Here, what are you going to do with that?" -- and there'd be a vamp by the piano or bass (not so often bass when recording engineers couldn't pick him us as well), for the listener and the next soloist to reflect on what had just been heard. Not so here. This music is seamless, so much so that you sometimes even forget to notice whether you're listening to Byrd or Coltrane -- and that's not leaving out of account that we're listening to some of the most distinctive voices in jazz.

Two of the pieces are Elmo Hope compositions -- "riffers which expedite the blowing," in Gitler's words, but they're more than that. Both, especially the bluesy "On It," are lyrical. Hope was a gifted composers, and these two tunes justify this being labeled as an Elmo Hope sessions.

The other two are standards, very much "mainly vehicles for blowing," in that like the two Hope tunes, they give the soloists the basis for work which is so seamless it almost makes a succession of solos sound like an ensemble. "Polka Dots and Moonbeams" was a Jimmy Van Heusen pop hit for Tommy Dorsey/Sinatra which has become a favorite of the moderns, with versions by Bud Powell, Chet Baker, Bill Evans, Wes Montgomery, Blue has been listed as one of the most frequently recorded jazz standards.

I've commented before on how many times beboppers have reached back to a very early age, taking songs from operetta to transform into a modern idiom. "Avalon," in a way, harkens back even farther. It's credited to Al Jolson, Buddy deSylva and Vincent Rose, and while it's questionable whether Jolson really did any of the writing, it's also sort of questionable whether Rose did. The melody is close enough to an aria from Tosca that the Puccini estate was able to sue for plagiarism and win.

Are there any other modern jazz versions of operatic arias (not counting Porgy and Bess)? Probably. There must be some from Carmen. But I can't think of any offhand.

A couple of digressions before I let you go. A lot of the Prestige catalog was licensed in England to the Esquire label. The Esquire release of this album, which must have been not long after the Prestige release, has cover art by Ralph Steadman. Steadman is one of the great illustrators of our era, and I suspect he may be pretty embarrassed by this, which doesn't begin to suggest Alice in Wonderland or Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. He must have still been an art student at this time, and nowhere in his biography does it mention any work as an illustrator for record labels.

Second digression. And I know I'm preaching to the choir here. Everyone who cares about music, or cares about education, knows how important music education is. Donald Byrd went to Cass Technical High School in Detroit. We think of Detroit today as the epicenter of urban blight and hopelessness, but Cass Tech has held onto its music ed program, and according to its Wiki page, "Cass Tech students' strong academic performances draw recruiters from across the country, including Ivy League representatives eager to attract the top minority applicants."

Because Cass Tech continues to have a music education program, its graduates have made their mark from swing to hip-hop, not to mention opera and gospel. I promise I won't keep posting lists like this, but here are some of Cass Tech's graduates, and of course I'm not including the kids who went on to become teachers, or the kids who simply stayed in school because there was a band and a concert choir.

  • Dorothy Ashby, jazz harpist and composer.
  • Geri Allen, post bop jazz pianist.
  • Sean Anderson aka Big Sean; hip-hop artist signed to Kanye West's Label (G.O.O.D. Music).
  • Kenny Burrell, jazz guitarist.
  • Ellen Burstyn, won Academy Award for Best Actress for Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore and starred in The Exorcist, Tony Award winner, Emmy Award winner, Golden Globe Award winner (did not graduate).
  • Donald Byrd, jazz and rhythm-and-blues trumpeter.
  • Regina Carter, jazz violinist.
  • Ron Carter, jazz double-bassist.
  • Doug Watkins, jazz bassist.
  • Paul Chambers, jazz bassist.
  • Alice Coltrane, jazz pianist, organist, harpist, composer, and the wife of John Coltrane.
  • Muriel Costa-Greenspon, mezzo-soprano who had a lengthy career at the New York City Opera between 1963 and 1993.
  • Jerald Daemyon, electric jazz violinist, composer and producer known for bringing technical refinement to violin improvisation.
  • Delores Ivory Davis, was internationally recognized in opera, oratorio, and for performances with Springfield (Mass.) Symphony, St. Paul Symphony, and Detroit Symphony Orchestra.
  • Carole Gist, 1990 Miss USA, first African American woman to win the Miss USA title.
  • Wardell Gray, jazz tenor saxophonist who straddled the swing and bebop periods.
  • David Alan Grier, actor, comedian.
  • J. C. Heard,[36] swing, bop, and blues drummer.
  • Major Holley, jazz upright bassist.
  • Ali Jackson, jazz drummer.
  • Philip Johnson actor, leading role in the Lifetime movie America.
  • Ella Joyce, actress.
  • Hugh Lawson,[36] was one of many talented Detroit jazz pianists of the 1950s
  • Donyale Luna, model and actress.
  • Howard McGhee, one of the first bebop jazz trumpeters, together with Dizzy Gillespie, Fats Navarro and Idrees Sulieman.
  • Al McKibbon,[36] jazz double bassist, known for his work in bop, hard bop, and Latin jazz.
  • Billy Mitchell,[36] jazz tenor saxophonist best known for his work with Woody Herman when he replaced Gene Ammons in his band.
  • Kenya Moore, 1993 Miss USA.
  • Naima Mora, fashion model, America's Next Top Model winner (Season 4).
  • J. Moss (aka James Moss), Grammy Award-winning gospel singer-songwriter, composer, arranger, and record producer.
  • Greg Phillinganes, (1974) session keyboardist.
  • Della Reese, singer, actress, later famous for playing Tess on the television show Touched by an Angel
  • Frank Rosolino,[37] was an American jazz trombonist.
  • Diana Ross (1962), singer, actress, graduated one full semester ahead of her classmates; major listed in Cass Tech Triangle Yearbook was "home economics"; studied costume design as her curriculum path; 2007 Kennedy Center Honors recipient.
  • Donald Sinta, classical saxophonist, educator, and administrator; in 1969 he was the first elected chair of the World Saxophone Congress.
  • Cornelius Smith Jr., actor, 2010 NAACP Image Award winner for Outstanding Actor in a Daytime Drama Series.
  • Lucky Thompson,[36] jazz tenor and soprano saxophonist.
  • Lily Tomlin, comedian, actress, 2014 Kennedy Center Honors recipient; winner of two Tony Awards, a Grammy Award, 5 Emmy Awards and a Daytime Emmy Award. Listed and pictured in the Yearbook as Mary Jane Tomlin – a cheerleader.
  • Jack White, acclaimed musician and member of The White Stripes, The Raconteurs, and The Dead Weather.[38]
  • Gerald Wilson, influential jazz trumpeter, Big Band leader and composer.

This session was released simultaneously under Hope's name as Informal Jazz, and under Coltrane's and Mobley's names as Two Tenors. Later, as Coltrane became the big star, it was reissued under his name as Two Tenors with Hank Mobley.


Saturday, February 06, 2016

Listening to Prestige Part 169: Gene Ammons

What does a producer of jazz records do? Probably, at best, not all that much. Bob Weinstock recalls that he and Miles Davis would sit down and kick around names -- who's in town, who would you like to record with? -- and that may have been the most of it. Weinstock had his jam session philosophy -- no rehearsal, just get 'em together and let 'em play -- and even so, Miles complained later that he (and every other producer Miles worked with) interfered too much.

So what about this session? Gene Ammons was one of Prestige's stalwarts, going back to the early days, often paired with Sonny Stitt, just as often without, generally preferring the fuller sound of a larger-than-quintet group. For a while he worked with a more or less steady group. almost always including trumpeter Bill Massey. By 1955, he had begun branching out. His three 1955 sessions for Prestige saw almost a complete turnover from session to session (Art and Addison Farmer were on one of them).

Why? Ammons had trouble keeping a group together? Seems unlikely. With his warm touch on ballads, earthy touch on blues, ability to wail with the best of the R&B saxmen, Ammons was one of the most popular jazz artists of the day.

Or perhaps, as he had done with Miles, Bob Weinstock sat down with him and said, "Hey, Gene, let's start mixing it up some. Look how well it worked with Miles. We'll kick around some names, get a bunch of guys together in the studio, see what happens."

So maybe that's what a producer of jazz records does.  And how much careful thought and planning went into choosing that bunch of guys? I'd like to think very little. Art and Addison Farmer were around -- they'd just played the Bennie Green session a week or so earlier. The others were inspired choices, but none of them would have required a lot of thought.

What about Candido? Did Bob Weinstock and Ira Gitler sit up all night, saying "We've got to find something new for the next Ammons recording. How about a French horn, like the Miles Davis nonet? Bring Earl Coleman back for some vocals? Or a pianoless group like Gerry Mulligan? Wait! I've got it! We'll bring in some Latin percussion!" Or did Candido just happen to drop by the office that day, and say "Hola - I'm looking for a gig. Got anything?"

I like to think it was the latter.

And Duke Jordan? He was certainly doing a lot of session work in the 50s, not all that much of it with Prestige. He'd played with Art and Addison on a Farmer/Gryce session the previous fall. But for whatever reason they chose him, it was an inspired choice. It goes without saying that with Candido on board, you're going to have some hot rhythms, but it's Jordan whom I keep hearing driving this session. He turns out to be the real inspired choice.

Jordan had also recently written what was to become his most famous composition, "Jor-du," and one certainly wouldn't be surprised to hear it on a date where he was playing, but not so on this one.

Which raises another "what does a producer do?" question. Who chooses the tunes that will go into a recording session, and what's behind that? Obviously, there's a few extra bucks for the composer, and especially for the publishing rights, but there weren't all that many bucks in jazz overall, in those days. Jackie McLean seems almost certainly to be the composer of "Dig," for which Miles Davis took the credit, but when McLean looked into suing over it, he was told not to bother -- even if he won, there wouldn't be any money in it.

Still, you had a couple of excellent composers on this date (in addition to Jordan) and it's no surprise that they're represented--McLean with "Madhouse," Art Farmer with "The Happy Blues."

It's also not surprising that a standard was included. Ammons was great on ballads, and Weinstock liked standards, and although not much jazz was being released on single records any more by 1956, Ammons was still a jukebox favorite. Why "Can't We Be Friends" in particular? Why not? It's a beautiful song.

The one that really interests me is "The Great Lie," a swing era song by Andy Gibson -- credited to Gibson and Cab Calloway. Perhaps there were lyrics by Calloway? I could not find a version of it that included a vocal, but I did find a reference to it in a list of WWII-era songs by Calloway that had social commentary.

Andy Gibson was an underrated composer, whose best known work is probably his brilliant rhythm-and-bluesification of Charlie Parker's "Now's the Time" -- "The Hucklebuck."

It's certainly not unusual for a big band tune to be picked up and adapted by moderns, but I decided to see how this one mutated with different versions, so I listened to four: Cab Calloway (without vocal), Charlie Barnet, Gene Ammons, and Chet Baker/Art Pepper.

I liked Calloway's version, but loved Barnet's. And it brought home to me just how much big band music was an arranger's medium. I don't know who the arranger was for this version of "The Great Lie" -- it could have been Gibson, who worked a lot with Barnet. But it's wonderful, with the shifting horn patterns and solos that weave in and out of them. Charlie Barnet, like Artie Shaw, was heir to millions, and like Shaw, he got out of the music business at a fairly young age, and is probably underrated. Certainly he was by me -- I had listened to "Cherokee," maybe nothing else. This is a terrific band, and a terrific number.

Like Woody Herman, Barnet was open to the influences of bebop, and his later bands had some of the finest modern jazz musicians. But as we move seriously into the bebop-hard bop era, you can hear, listening to Barnet and then Ammons, how much the emphasis has shifted to the soloists. Both versions are hard-swinging, and they share a lot more in common than you'd think. The swing band is fresh and innovative, the bop ensemble is melodic. With all those great soloists, the Ammons band extends the tune a lot longer than Barnet's traditional song, 78 RPM length. Ammons goes nearly nine minutes, and everyone gets solo space, and makes the most of it.

With Baker and Pepper, it's pretty much all solos, and it's cool, and mellow, and all the things you expect from West Coast jazz, and also quite cerebral, but they don't forget to swing, either. And just as I found myself caught up by Duke Jordan's contribution to the Ammons group, I found myself listening to Leroy Vinnegar here, who really propels the swing of the two cool soloists with his bass.

"Madhouse" is the Jackie McLean composition, and it's also the one where Candido really shines.

It's also the one that ended up on the jukeboxes. If Weinstock had thought about using the ballad, he would have had to think again, when the boys stretched it out to over 12 minutes. Of course, "The Happy Blues," which did become the single (as Parts 1 and 2) was also over 12 minutes, but maybe it was easier to edit down. It was also the title track for the LP.

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Listening to Prestige Part 168: Bennie Green

Let's start with the music. Bennie Green and Art Farmer have an affinity for each other that keeps on giving.

I talked about sentimentality in my last post, and defended its place in art, but you can also ignore it altogether. Green and Farmer take "My Blue Heaven" at a bebopper's pace, using the melody as a springboard for great improvisation, pretty much forgetting about Molly and me and the baby, although there's a real sweetness to Farmer's restatement of the melody at the end. And although there aren't any blues in that cozy place with the fireplace, these guys find room for them in their improv.

"Cliff Dweller " is a composition by piano player Cliff Smalls, and it kicks off with some very
complex but driving interplay between Smalls, Addison Farmer and Philly Joe Jones. Smalls worked often with Bennie Green, and there may have been an extra affinity there because Smalls was also a trombonist. Further, they shared a taste for the accessibility of rhythm and blues -- Smalls would go on to be the bandleader for Clyde McPhatter, Smokey Robinson, and Brook Benton.

"Let's Stretch" seems to come with no composer credit, so we'll take it as a collectively improvised Five O'clock Blues, and stretch they do, for a well-spent ten-plus minutes.

They finish the set with a nice moody version of "Gone With the Wind."
Now, moving on to the digression.'s online encyclopedia gives this biographical note:

Bernard Green was born on April 16, 1923 in Chicago, to a family of musicians. His older brother Elbert had played with trumpeter Roy Eldridge in the local Chicago scene, and both attended DuSable High School, a hotspot for music education at the time. It was under the direction of his music teacher at DuSable where Bennie began to study trombone. 

At a time when music education is disappearing from our test-obsessed schools, it's good to stop and remember how important it was to the American Century in music, our great contribution to world culture. People talk about musicians, particularly soul musicians, and how they learned their music in church, but there were far more who learned in school.

And what about DuSable High? Who started their music careers there?

Holy smoke.

Here's a list from Wikipedia:

  • Gene Ammons — pioneering jazz tenor saxophone player.
  • Ronnie Boykins — jazz bassist, most noted for his work with Sun Ra.
  • Sonny Cohn — jazz trumpet player, perhaps best known for his 24 years playing with Count Basie.
  • Nat King Cole — pianist and crooner, predominantly of pop and jazz works (Unforgettable).
  • Jerome Cooper — jazz musician who specialized in percussion.
  • Don Cornelius — television show host and producer, best known as the creator and host of Soul Train. 
  • Richard Davis — bassist and professor of music at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.
  • Dorothy Donegan — jazz pianist.
  • Von Freeman — jazz tenor saxophonist.
  • John Gilmore — clarinet and saxophone player, best known for his time with the Sun Ra Arkestra, a group he briefly led after Sun Ra's death.
  • Johnny Griffin — bebop and hard bop tenor saxophone player.
  • Eddie Harris — jazz musician best known for playing tenor saxophone and for introducing the electrically amplified saxophone.
  • Johnny Hartman — jazz singer (Lush Life), best known for his work with John Coltrane.
  • Fred Hopkins — jazz bassist.
  • Joseph Jarman — jazz composer, percussionist, clarinetist, and saxophonist.
  • Ella Jenkins — Grammy Award–winning musician and singer educations  best known for her work in folk music and children's music.
  • LeRoy Jenkins — violinist who worked mostly in free jazz.
  • Clifford Jordan — jazz saxophonist.
  • Walter Perkins — jazz percussionist.
  • Julian Priester — jazz trombone player.
  • Wilbur Ware — hard bebop bassist.
  • Dinah Washington — Grammy award–winning jazz singer.

And that's not even all. Soul singers like Joann Garrett. Doowop groups like the Esquires. Other groups like the El Dorados and the Danderliers played talent shows there.

Let's give a tribute to the men and women who taught at Dusable, and contributed so much to our culture.

This  session was released on LP as Bennie Green with Art Farmer.

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Listening to Prestige Part 167: Sonny Rollins/Clifford Brown

It's impossible to listen to this session without looking at the date. Three months later, Clifford Brown and Richie Powell would be killed in an automobile accident.

Clifford Brown's contribution to jazz cannot be overstated. As a trumpeter, he ranks among the very best to ever play the instrument.

As a role model, he may have been just as important. At a time when creativity and drug use were all too often linked in the minds of young jazz musicians. Brownie stood out as an example of the creative and innovative heights that a clean-living artist could attain.

Sonny Rollins is a living testament to that. Rollins stands today, by virtue of artistry and longevity, as one the greatest of all jazz musicians, but in 1955, he was putting the pieces of his life back together, and beset by self-doubt. He had kicked his heroin habit, but he had bought too deeply into the myth that heroin and creativity went together, and he had terrifying doubt about his ability to play and grow as a jazz musician, and because of that, he stayed away from New York for a while. He returned to play with Miles Davis, who had followed a similar pattern--addiction, withdrawal, self-imposed exile. But then later on that year, he became a member of the Brown/Roach group, and experienced his true epiphany: the example of a jazz musician who had always led a clean, drug-free life, and whose creativity was unbounded. Rollins later described Brown's effect on him as "profound."

Brown hit New York in 1953 and appeared on several Blue Note albums, then signed on for the Lionel Hampton European tour, where he recorded extensively with Art Farmer, Gigi Gryce and others of that contingent.

Returning stateside, he joined Art Blakey's quintet (they weren't the Jazz Messengers yet), and an engagement at Birdland yielded enough material on one night of live recording to make several albums for Blue Note (the recording notes list some tunes as being from the fifth set). Then he joined forces with Max Roach, to create one of jazz's most legendary quintets, and they made a series of classic albums for EmArcy. EmArcy also had some of the finest jazz singers around, and they had the good taste to back them with jazz greats instead of syrupy pop arrangements, so we have Brown with Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughan and Helen Merrill. And -- not at all syrupy -- they made an album of standards with the Neal Hefti orchestra.

Brown did some work on the West Coast with different configurations, and in 1955...well, if you
could go back in time to the 1955 Newport Jazz Festival, just so you could catch the now-legendary Miles jam session / audition for George Avakian, you might have missed another remarkable jam session -- Brubeck and Desmond with Clifford Brown, Chet Baker and Gerry Mulligan. "Tea for Two" was captured from that session, and it's not the greatest recording quality, but still....

Rollins joined the quintet in 1955, replacing Harold Land, and they were able to record, in February and March, for both EmArcy and Prestige. The EmArcy recordings mixed standards and originals by Brown; this one has three standards and two Rollins originals.

Both of the two originals have become jazz standards, with "Valse Hot," in particular, now a favorite of a newer, 21st century generation of jazz musicians. There aren't all that many jazz waltzes--Bill Evans's "Waltz for Debbie" is one that springs to mind, and of course John Coltrane's reworking of "My Favorite Things."

"Pent-Up House" seems to have become a favorite of gypsies, with Stephane Grappelli and the gypsy jazz contemporaries, The Rosenberg Trio. Tito Puente has also recorded a version that burns down the house. But this pent-up house was certainly made for burning, as is made abundantly clear in this original version. Rollins and Brown trade blistering solos, and there's plenty of room for Richie Powell to stretch out as well -- and Max Roach, whose solos throughout the session are a reminder of how great jazz drumming can be, and also how far recording engineering has come.

Of the standards, "Count Your Blessings" is an interesting choice. It's an Irving Berlin song, from his latter years--written in 1954 for the movie White Christmas (the remake of Holiday Inn), it was a hit for Eddie Fisher, in a thoroughly schmaltzy version. Berlin was no stranger to sentimentality, and he pulls out most of the stops in this one.

But sentimentality gets a bad rap. James Joyce defined it as "unearned emotion," but why does emotion have to be earned, and what does one to to earn it, exactly? I had a girlfriend who had an absolute horror of sentimentality, and was constantly warning against unearned emotion, but she was a huge fan of country music, especially the songs of George Jones and Tammy Wynette, and she dealt with their sentimentality by denying there was anything sentimental about them.

The truth is, sentimentality is a tool like any other the artist has at his/her disposal, and it can be used well (as George Jones or Irving Berlin use it), or poorly (Eddie Fisher). The poet Richard Hugo has written,
[20th century] writers came to believe that the further from sentimentality we got, the truer the art. That was a mistake. As Bill Kittredge, my colleague who teaches fiction writing, has pointed out: if you are not risking sentimentality, you are not close to your inner self.
You'd think that modern jazz, with its hip, incisive intellectualism, would be at the opposite end of the spectrum from sentimentality, but some of its greatest performances have come from the sentimental melodies of composers like Victor Herbert and Sigmund Romberg. And a couple of pinnacles of the art form have come from jazz interpretations of valses more syrupy than hot: Coltrane's "My Favorite Things" and Miles Davis's "Someday My Prince Will Come" (or "Surrey With the Fringe on Top," not a waltz, but no less sentimental). And Rollins wasn't the first jazz artist to cover "Count Your Blessings" -- Gene Ammons did it in 1954, while the song was still riding the charts.

Rollins doesn't shy away from the tenderness of the melody, though he gives it a, let's say, finds depth. Irving Berlin may have been sentimental as all get-out, but he wasn't shallow. Richie Powell, in a beautiful solo, probably concerns himself less with exploring the emotional rewards of counting one's blessings, but Rollins brings us back to it.

Sonny Rollins + 4  -- not Sonny Rollins Quintet -- was released on a 12-inch LP.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Listening to Prestige Part 166: Miles Davis

This was part of the Contractual Miles period, but not one of the marathon sessions, and not one of the new quintet sessions, which is interesting, because Miles was pretty well committed to the new quintet at that point. They played on the late 1955 session and the marathon sessions of later this year.

Also interesting was the brevity of this session. Only three songs, but it turned out that was all they needed to make up one of the albums that Miles owed Bob Weinstock. They had an unreleased session from 1953,  and they put it together with this session to make the album called Collector's Items.

This sent me back to the 1953 session. Miles, in his autobiography*, paints that session as something of a disaster. Miles himself was heading into the depths of his heroin addiction. Bird was drunk. He polished off a quart of vodka at the rehearsal, according to this account, but since Bob Weinstock didn't do rehearsals, this was probably at the session itself. At some point he fell asleep, and Davis recalls being so mad he played poorly, or at least that was his opinion, and session producer Ira Gitler's, and this is probably why the session wasn't released at the time. In the liner notes to Collector's Items, Gitler says that the session was shelved because it was too short, and that may be part of it. But Prestige was releasing 45 RPM EPs at the time, and it could have been brought out that way.

Probably a good part of the reason the session was so short was that given the condition of the participants. Sonny Rollins was also addicted at this time, as were Walter Bishop and Philly Joe Jones.

So was the session good enough to be released in Contractual Year 1956?

It was good enough to be released any time.

Don't forget there's another joker in the contractual deck. Miles has already cut his first album for Columbia, due to be released after the Contractual Completion. That album, when it comes out in early 1957, will be called Round About Midnight, and will feature the quintet's version of the Monk classic. Did Weinstock know this, and was he trying to steal a march on George Avakian and the Columbia marketing division?

And this circles back around to a question I pondered in my last Miles blog entry:

The first Columbia album, Round About Midnight, came out in 1957, and was not all that well reviewed. Critics found it wanting in comparison to the Prestige albums, though this judgment was to change over time, and Round About Midnight would become a classic and beloved jewel in the Davis crown. But the first response to it was tepid, and this strikes me as interesting.
...what really interests me here is the possibility that the passing of time may have led to a changing of tastes. Today, there's a lot more awareness of the evils of conglomerates and mega-corporations than there was in the 50s, and an indie label, or no label at all, might get a more sympathetic ear from critics, especially indie critics. But back then, I don't think this would have been an important issue.  
...Today some critics, perhaps many of them born and raised in the in the era of studio perfection, are a little snarky in assessing the Prestige catalog. Ragged, they say. Bob Weinstock preferred quantity to quality, rushed his sessions, didn't allow his musicians to rehearse, never did more than a couple of takes. But maybe back then, that ragged edge was more appealing, more authentic. Maybe the critics of 1957 were put off a little by the studio-perfected sound.

Maybe. And the 1953 "Charlie Chan" session provides an even greater contrast: a finely honed, rehearsed session vs. a total mess. And out of that whole chaotic fiasco, "Round Midnight" was probably the most chaotic. As Gitler describes it euphemistically, "for various reasons the date had not jelled to expectations," and by six o'clock, when the engineer (not Van Gelder) was scheduled to go off duty, and had announced that there'd be no overtime, they only had three tunes in the sack. Actually, only two, but for Collector's Items they use two different versions of "The Serpent's Tooth." They were planning to finish off the day with Monk's "Well, You Needn't," but they couldn't get it together. With 15 of studio time left, they somehow managed to pull it off.

Which is better, the once-maligned, now treasured Columbia version, or the once-shelved, now mostly overlooked collector's item?

Dumb question, of course. They're both magnificent, and no one should be expected to choose one. But, God help me, I like the earlier one. Gitler, in his liner notes, says that Bird's opening solo "is full of the pain and disappointment he knew too well. That borders on the pathetic fallacy, assigning such specific emotions to an abstraction like a piece of music.

But Gitler is right. The pain is nearly palpable. One can't help but be moved.

So, on to the new session, with only Paul Chambers from the
quintet, with Miles in full possession of his Harmon-muted voice, And with another unexpected collaboration-of-sorts, between the two jazz mega-stars of their era: Miles and Dave Brubeck. The session starts with a beautiful Brubeck composition, "In Your Own Sweet Way." There are some--not many-- who have reservations about Brubeck as a pianist, but I don't think anyone can question his brilliance as a composer. Miles would record "In Your Own Sweet Way" again with the quartet, and it has become a kind of touchstone for trumpeters, with versions by Chet Baker, Woody Shaw and Art Farmer.

"Vierd Blues" is a Miles composition that has become a standard, often for pianists (Bill Evans, George Shearing, Oscar Peterson), but also for unlikely artists such as German avant-gardist Albert Mangelsdorff. It has a striking piano solo here by Tommy Flanagan, who had just arrived in New York from Detroit (where he had been house pianist at the Blue Bird Inn) with a reputation that preceded him: in one week in March, he broke into the recorded jazz canon with sessions with Thad Jones, Kenny Burrell, Jones again, and this session with Miles.

This is a session without much or a history. It was released in 1956, and then again in a 1971 compilation-of-this-and-that reissue. But like everything else Miles did in his Contractual Farewell Tour, it has immediacy and urgency.

* Taken from Wikipedia

Listening to Prestige, Vol 1, 1949-53, available in book or Kindle format here.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Listening to Prestige Part 165: Tadd Dameron

How do you make a modern jazz sound with a full group after Miles Davis's nonet, with its tubas and French horns and world-changing arrangements? If you're Tadd Dameron, you assemble an octet of mainstream instrumentation: trumpet, trombone, three saxophones, rhythm section. You get extraordinary musicians, with an emphasis on a great trumpet player just coming into the full flowering of his greatness -- Clifford Brown on Dameron's first Prestige album, Kenny Dorham on this one. And do what Dameron said was most important to him, and what he did so well: you make it beautiful.

All the tunes here are Dameron's compositions, as well they should be. He was one of the important composers of his era.

Let's start with "Fontainebleau." How do you make a new modern jazz sound with an octet? Well, you can start by not worrying all that much about whether it's modern. "Fontainebleu" is a beautifyl melody that became a tone poem in the hands of Benny Goodman, and (with lyrics by Milt Gabler), a bouncy ballad (with no crying) for Johnnie Ray. In Dameron's own version, it has beauty enough to melt the heart of a romantic, and innovation enough to get the blood of a modernist racing. It's mostly ensemble work, with the ensemble voices doing counterpoint, call-and-response, and fascinating rhythmic shifts. Most of all, they keep it melodic. And I love the closing riffs.

"Delirium" is wilder, with a lot of back and forth between the horns, leading into some powerful solos, particularly by Dorham. It's a great change of pace from the first cut. There are so many tunes named "Delirium" I can't really track the discography for this one.

"The Scene Is Clean" gives Dameron his first extended solo space, and he turns it into what feels like a succession of different solos, each of them remarkable, one of them a dialog with bassist John Simmons. Simmons and drummer Shadow Wilson are both mostly associated with pre-bopmusicians. Simmons played with Teddy Wilson, Nat "King" Cole, Benny Goodman and Louis Armstrong among others. Wilson was a swing-to-bop guy, playing with  Lucky Millinder, Benny Carter, Tiny Bradshaw, Lionel Hampton, Earl Hines, Count Basie, and Woody Herman, and later with Erroll Garner, Thelonious Monk, Sonny Stitt and Phil Woods.

Dameron was certainly a modernist, one of the great composers of the bebop era, but for this session his choice of two veterans could not have been better. This would be Wilson's second Prestige session within the week--he had backed up Earl Coleman as well..

"The Scene is Cleean" has been widely recorded: by Brown and Roach, by Kenny Barron, Zoot Sims, Ronnie Cuber, Joe Lovano, Archie Shepp and others.

"Flossie Lou" has the melody, the Dameron solo work, but more than anything Kenny Dorham. This was another that was most famously recorded by Clifford Brown and Max Roach.

"Bula Beige" has all of the above, and with 11-plus minute to work with, it has even more of the above, and some great ensemble and solo work from the entire horn section. "Bula-Beige" is another Dameron tune that was picked up by a great pre-modernist, in this case Jimmy Dorsey.

Speaking of the horn section, the one who recorded the least, but was certainly not least in talent, was Joe Alexander. He was another one of those guys who mostly eschewed the big recording centers of New York and LA, but he became a legend in his adopted home town of Cleveland--so much so that one tavern where he played regularly issued a challenge -- $500 to anyone who could outblow Joe Alexander.

Prestige issued this LP as Fontainebleau. It was also scheduled to be a New Jazz release under the title Dameronia, but somehow that never happened. Dameronia did become the title of a later reissue. The session, minus "Bula-Beige," also became part of an album entitled Gil Evans/Tadd Dameron--The Arranger's Touch, and these were two arrangers who were touched by the angels.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Listening to Prestige Part 164: Earl Coleman

This is the first of two sessions that would be released by Prestige as Earl Coleman Returns, though what he was returning from, it's hard to say. Probably not the two Gene Ammons sessions that he appeared on, both of which were pretty much buried by Prestige. Perhaps a long-postponed return from his one big success--the 1947 session with Charlie Parker and Errol Garner that brought him his one hit record?

Actually, Earl Coleman never quite returned, never quite went away. His singing style, the rich Mr. B-type baritone, faded in popularity, but he hung on, singing in what one presumes were smaller venues, but always called upon to sing in some pretty distinguished musical settings. When he died in 1995, he received a featured obituary in the New York Times, which is something not given to every veteran jazz musician. including some who one might think of as having made more of a musical impact.

Coleman broke in in 1939, singing with Ernie Fields (he could only have been 14 at the time). The '40s saw him with Jay McShann, Earl Hines, and, interestingly, the Billy Eckstine orchestra, before his 1947 recording debut with Bird, and his one hit, "This is Always." He would also record with Howard McGhee and Fats Navarro.

In the 50s, he also recorded with Sonny Rollins and Elmo Hope, in the 60s with Don Byas (in Paris). with Gerald Wilson, and with Billy Taylor and Frank Foster. In the 8os, he worked and recorded for several years with Shirley Scott.

So what kept him, maybe on the fringes of jazz royalty, but still never far from those fringes, for a lot longer than a lot of the other Eckstine acolytes?

He was very good. And I really started to appreciate how good he was, listening to this session with some much younger musicians (and a veteran rhythm section composed of considerably older musicians--a very interesting group). His sound is very much influenced by Al Hibbler, as well as by Mr. B., and what's probably most important about him is that he works very well with musicians. He doesn't improvise a lot, but he listens to what they're doing, and he gives them a solid ground to solo from. This is true for Farmer and Gryce, and especially true for Jones.

Earl Coleman Returns was made up of this session and another later in 1956, with a smaller group.

No one has posted any of the Earl Coleman Returns tunes on YouTube, so to give you a sample, here he is with Billy Taylor;