Friday, January 13, 2017

Listening to Prestige 231: Barbara Lea

This is the last Barbara Lea session, three more songs to fill out the Lea in Love album, with her backing group changed just a little. Trumpeter Johnny Windhurst, who worked with Lea a lot, and was on her first Prestige sessions, is back. Dick Cary stays on alto horn here, and Jimmy Lyon on piano. This time they go without a drummer.

New to the mix is harpist Adele Girard. There aren't all that many jazz harpists, and most of them are women, although the first person to use the harp as a jazz solo instrument was a man, Casper Reardon, and probably the most famous American harpist was a man, too: Harpo Marx. There aren't all that many jazz harpists because it's not always easy to
see how a harp fits into a jazz context. Corky Hale and Alice Coltrane are probably the best known. Adele Girard probably should be. Her "Harp Boogie" may be the best jazz harp tour de force ever. She doesn't do that kind of soloing on this session, but she adds nice stuff to the mix.

Lea did four songs on this day three of which made the album, and the fourth was not only unissued, but there's no record of what it was. Two that did make the cut are by Cole Porter. "You'd Be So Nice To Come Home To" has become a jazz standard, beloved by vocalists and instrumentalists alike.

"True Love" was written for the movie High Society, where Bing Crosby sings it to Grace Kelly, and she chimes in a little on the last chorus. This was enough to put her name on the label, and it became Princess Grace's only gold record. There really aren't any other jazz recordings of it (although there's a very weird one by Beatle George Harrison). Is there something about it that says Pop, not jazz? Lord knows Cole Porter has provided many many highlights of the jazz repertoire. But there's not much that says Jazz in the Barbara Lea version, either, although it's a beautiful pop song, and Lea, as always, understands the lyric and delivers it sensitively.

"A Straw Hat Full of Lilacs" is the real show stopper here, partly because it's so obscure. I can't find any other recording of it. The lyric was written by Peggy Lee (who as a 17-year-old appeared on a radio show called Hayloft Jamboree as "Freckle-faced Gertie," wearing a trademark straw hat), but there's no record of Lee ever recording it. The music was by Willard Robison, known for the hauntingly sad "A Cottage For Sale," and this song has some of the same haunting melancholy. If I were a contemporary jazz singer (Teri Roiger, are you listening?), I would take this song and Annie Ross's "The Time Was Right," another neglected gem, and add them to my repertoire.

"Straw Hat Full of Lilacs" was the flip side of a 45, with "Mountain Greenery" as the A side, as well as being on Lea in Love.



 Order Listening to Prestige, Vol. 1 here.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Listening to Prestige 230: Teo Macero

Teo Macero was born in Glens Falls, New York, in the foothills of the Adirondacks, proving that not only can jazz talent come from anywhere, it can inspire a new generation of jazz talent anywhere. Jazz guitarist/keyboardist Larry "the Fluff" Audette, who grew up in Glens Falls a couple of generations later, recalls:
His brother had a bar called maceros. ..Teo used to have his acts try out new material there...I saw max roach w/ Abby Lincoln, etc.

Like Miles Davis, Macero would be moving on to Columbia, for whom he had recorded one album in 1956. This Prestige session was only a blip on the radar screen, because later in 1957 he would return to Colubia, where he would make his greatest reputation as a producer of some of jazz's most highly regarded albums, including most of Miles's Columbia output, most notably Kind of Blue. He also produced Dave Brubeck's Time Out, Monk's Dream, and Mingus Ah Um. Mingus thanked him, in the liner notes to his orchestral work Let My Children Hear Music, for "his untiring efforts in producing the best album I have ever made."

If this was a golden age of jazz, not just a golden age of Prestige Records--and it was--Teo Macero had a lot to do with it. Because it was also a golden age of recording. They didn't have the equpment available today. Rudy Van Gelder created magic in his parents' living room. Les Paul and Buddy Holly and others created new and innovative recording techniques using home equipment. Patti Page, even before the widespread use of tape, managed to overdub herself and create five-part close harmony using acetate. Gil Melle invented a number of electronic instruments. Bo Diddley created guitars that looked like no guitars anyone had ever seen,

Nowadays, pretty much anyone can do pretty much all of this. It's like what I used to tell my screenwriting students after showing them Vittorio DeSica's Bicycle Thief: "Any one of you could do this. It wouldn't take much of a budget. You could use amateur actors the way he did. You could take a hand held camera out into the streets of Poughkeepsie. All you'd need would be genius."

Van Gelder and Paul and Holly and Page and Melle and Diddley had vision. So did Teo Macero, and in a 1997 interview with Iara Lee he talked about it:
In the '50's and '60's we didn't have anything lik=e a digital delay. We had to manufacture a digital delay. Now when you want a digital delay, you turn your machine half a step or whatever it is. To me, that doesn't really make the difference. It was the crudeness of all the things that we did.
Q. You were talking about the crudeness being important.
A. Yeah, it was a very inventive period in the '50's and '60's and the late '40's…many times we used a lot of electronic effects on Miles which Miles really didn't have anything to do with except in the final analysis, whether he liked it or disliked it.
I think that the effects that we created in those days were much more real. Everything today, with electronics is synthetic. You turn a button here, you get it a half step higher, turn a button there you get it half a step lower, or you stretch it out. But they're not doing it correctly. I don't think they're doing it the right way- there are no highs and no lows. There's just a bunch of noises. We always had direction. When we were doing it, there was always a pivot point and then you moved on from that and then created these sounds. And that brought them back to simplicity again. Now everybody gets out there and they want to play that stuff ,I do it myself, but after fifteen minutes your mind starts to wander and the players start to wander and there's no definition. I mean music has to have lines, has to have dynamics, has to have emotion, all the elements that make it in music. But today, with the synthetic stuff, you got a gimmick here and a gimmick there, that's still not going to make it.
In the old times, we would take two tapes, put them together on two different machines, record on the third one and try to sort of sync them up. But not sync them up exactly, it's just a fraction off, so that you wonder when you listen back to some of the Miles things, for instance, you wonder how this sound was created. Now, I did all that in the studio.

Times change, and tastes change, but there's always something about imperfection that's wonderful, especially as perfection becomes easier. Robert Herrick knew it in the 17th century, when there wasn't a lot of technological perfection:
Delight in Disorder
A sweet disorder in the dress
Kindles in clothes a wantonness;
A lawn about the shoulders thrown
Into a fine distraction;
An erring lace, which here and there
Enthrals the crimson stomacher;
A cuff neglectful, and thereby
Ribands to flow confusedly;
A winning wave, deserving note,
In the tempestuous petticoat;
A careless shoe-string, in whose tie
I see a wild civility:
Do more bewitch me, than when art
Is too precise in every part.  
And there will always be some who like the other extreme. Disco producer Nile Rodgers was doing a session once with a series of electronic drum tracks, and an engineer finally decided he'd had enough perfection. He programmed a tiny glitch, way down in the mix. When Rodgers heard the playback, it was like the response of the princess to the pea: "If I wanted mistakes," he said, "I'd have hired a real drummer."

Teo Macero sought perfection, but he worked hard for it. From the same interview:

 if I needed something in a hurry, I'd get some loop machines which created a lot of illusions for Miles. They were made, one of them is in here. I got another one in the studio. But they were all sort of electronic pieces that were made that I finally bought from CBS because I thought they were so great. I mean you can't duplicate this today because they have movable heads on it. That was very crude. I mean today you turn a button and you might get the digital delay on one track and not on the other. But we had a lot of fun experimenting...when you cut and you edit you can do it in such a way that no one will ever know. And those days we still were doing it with a razor blade. I mean it's not like digital recording now where you got the 24 tracks and all kinds of equipment. You can put it on the computer. You can do all the things you want to do. If you want to move that thing over, I mean not one beat but maybe a beat and a half or beat and a 1/6. So you create a wash. There's a lot of things that you can do today that we didn't have the techniques to do in the late '50's and early '60's. But I think In A Silent Way is really a remarkable record for what it is. I mean for a little bit of music it's turned into a classic. And we did that with a lot of other records of his where we would use bits and pieces of cassettes that he would send me and say, "Put this in that new album we're working on." I would really shudder. I'd say, "Look, where the hell is it going to go? I don't know". He says, "Oh, you know".
... I have a device called "the switcher", and it takes this program and moves it. We have one record out there with that. I put it on the drums, it sounds like the drummer has got 8 hands and 8 feet. It goes (imitates sound) and it all was done on one track. So I said, you know, the drums come out the center and Miles out the left and something out the right, to me it wasn't the way to do it.
So the way I did it, I got Miles in the center. I put this drum track on this fancy switcher so it created the stereo versions. And then I had the bass and the sax. It's an interesting concept. In fact, we used it just recently on a couple of albums and it works beautifully. I mean those were the kind of electronic things sort of hand-made. They're not very fancy but they do what you cannot do with the synthesizers and electronics at the moment... 
Q. Contemporary digital equipment doesn't create funky music anymore?
A. Contemporary music, electronically... no. Because what happens is it's too beat-oriented, it's locked in, there's no emotion. We never did that. We always played very loose, but we had a direction to go to.
Macero put his heart into it. It would have horrified Bob Weinstock, but it was real to him in a way that the technology of a later generation could never be. I wrote about this when I was doing the Miles Davis Contractual Marathon sessions:
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...what really interests me here is the possibility that the passing of time may have led to a changing of tastes. 
... "Two Bass Hit" took six takes, and the finished version splices the beginning of take two to the end of take five. Artists (including Miles) would come to take it for granted that if they missed a high note, they could come back into the studio and hit just that one note, and have it spliced in.
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.

 There's always a pendulum in any aesthetic. Some small independent jazz labels of the 21st century,
like Mark Feldman's Reservoir Records, went back to two-track recording on the theory that you didn't need anything more to get the true feeling of jazz. And there's a reason why I chose to give my heart and soul to the Prestige recordings of the 50s rather than Columbia Records in the last quarter of the 20th Centtury. But listening to Teo Macero talk about his work in the studio is listening to a man in love with what he was doing.

Macero in 1957 had been on the jazz scene for a while. He went straight from his 1953 Juilliard graduation to working with Charles Mingus, with whom he co-founded the Jazz Composers Workshop. He made several albums with Mingus, and one as leader on Mingus's Debut label. He was active as a composer, and in fact won a Guggenheim fellowship for composition in 1957, and another in 1958. His 1956 Columbia was made with Bob Prince, himself a composer, perhaps best known for his scores for Jerome Robbins ballets.

Both Prince and Macero were known for their experiments with Third Stream music, but there's not much Third Stream on this album, and for that matter, not much of Macero as composer. The selections are two Mal Waldron compositions, one from Teddy Charles, one standard ("Star Eyes," introduced in a forgotten 1943 movie, entered the jazz lexicon when Charlie Parker recorded it), and one tune ("Please Don't Go Now"), that I can't identify.

Macero and Charles were both noted for their avant garde tendencies, and they play off each other in exciting ways here. Mal Waldron is more known as a straight-ahead player and composer, but he rises to the occasion  with the most unusual tune of this session, "Ghost Story," which is never anything but unexpected throughout its six and a half minutes, from its spooky opening to its tuneful head to Teddy Charles's progressively weirder solo, to Macero's moody and melodic solo which finds some unexpected directions of its own.

Macero's own composition, "Just Spring," is, by comparison, pretty mainstream.

The session was produced by Teddy Charles, the first one to feature his Prestige Jazz Quartet by name, although they had worked one other session, the Prestige All Stars with Idrees Suleiman on April 14. The album was released as Teo.



 Order Listening to Prestige, Vol. 1 here.

Monday, January 09, 2017

Listening to Prestige 229: Gil Melle

What happened to jazz? it was America's popular music in the 30s, made by big bands that filled dance palaces like Roseland and were presented live over the radio for people to dance at home.

Then all sorts of things happened. The economics of the music business changed. The Petrillo strike of 1942-44 meant that union musicians could not record, but singers, who were not member of the American Federation of Musicians, could, and suddenly the singer, formerly an adjunct to the big band that was
the featured attraction, became the star. Frank Sinatra or Doris Day or Jo Stafford were big enough draws on their own--they no longer needed the name of Tommy Dorsey or Harry James. Margaret Whiting, who came of age in the 40s, was remembered later in her career as a big band singer, but actually she never sang with a band.

The record companies thought that the new breed of singer didn't need to compete with jazz soloists and jazz arrangers, and they were probably right. Jazz purists of the 50s, while sort of grudgingly recognizing that Frank Sinatra was a pretty good singer, grumbled that he would only reach his full potential if he sang with jazz musicians. But later, in his third career, with Reprise Records, he did sing with jazz musicians, and today everyone pretty much agrees that the Capitol recordings, with Nelson Riddle and Billy May creating arrangements that directed all the focus to the singer, are his greatest. Margaret Whiting did make her most successful records with a  jazz great, Billy Butterfield, but Butterfield understood his role and performed it beautifully.

And jazz was moving away from the dance music of the 30s to the challenging, intellectually stimulating sound of bebop.

This was, of course, going to narrow the audience. There are always going to be more people who want to dance than to be intellectually stimulated. But if jazz had lost the Dionysian excitement of the dance palace, it was creating a new kind of excitement, and that was not entirely Apollonian. Jazz was adventurous, it was on the cutting edge/ With its new emphasis on the virtuoso soloist it offered the unparalleled excitement of being up close and personal to a creative artist at the moment of creativity.

And modern jazz had an edge of danger, as it morphed from the music of the bobby soxer to the music of the hipster (the real hipster, not these guys in pony tails selling designer chocolate). It was Jack Kerouac on the road, it was Anatomy of a Murder and  Peter Gunn. Another shot-lived TV show brought the jazz-danger connection even closer, with John Cassavetes playing Johnny Staccato, a jazz pianist/private eye.

And of course, it was dangerous because it was black. All American music, even country and western, has its roots in the blues, but modern jazz was different. It was made by black musicians who consciously rejected the role of entertaining the white folks. If you wanted to listen to modern jazz, you had to go out and meet the black experience on its own terms, in the thorny personae of Charlie Parker or Charles Mingus or Miles Davis.

Or not. Jazz was a small niche in a world made by white men, as Miles Davis found out one summer evening when he had just finished recording what would be the best selling jazz album of all time, Kind of Blue, and was playing a gig at Birdland.
I had just finished doing an Armed Forces Day broadcast, you know, Voice of America and all that bullshit. I had just walked this pretty white girl named Judy out to get a cab. She got in the cab, and I’m standing there in front of Birdland wringing wet because it’s a hot, steaming, muggy night in August. This white policeman comes up to me and tells me to move on. At the time I was doing a lot of boxing and so I thought to myself, I ought to hit this motherfucker because I knew what he was doing. But instead I said, “Move on, for what? I’m working downstairs. That’s my name up there, Miles Davis,” and I pointed to my name on the marquee all up in lights.
He said, “I don’t care where you work, I said move on! If you don’t move on I’m going to arrest you.”
I just looked at his face real straight and hard, and I didn’t move. Then he said, “You’re under arrest!” He reached for his handcuffs, but he was stepping back. Now, boxers had told me that if a guy’s going to hit you, if you walk toward him you can see what’s happening. I saw by the way he was handling himself that the policeman was an ex-fighter. So I kind of leaned in closer because I wasn’t going to give him no distance so he could hit me on the head. He stumbled, and all his stuff fell on the sidewalk, and I thought to myself, Oh, shit, they’re going to think that I fucked with him or something. I’m waiting for him to put the handcuffs on, because all his stuff is on the ground and shit. Then I move closer so he won’t be able to fuck me up. A crowd had gathered all of a sudden from out of nowhere, and this white detective runs in and BAM! hits me on the head. I never saw him coming. Blood was running down the khaki suit I had on.  Then I remember [journalist] Dorothy Kilgallen coming outside with this horrible look on her face — I had known Dorothy for years and I used to date her good friend, Jean Bock — and saying, “Miles, what happened?” I couldn’t say nothing. Illinois Jacquet [the saxophonist] was there, too.
It was almost a race riot, so the police got scared and hurried up and got my ass out of there and took me to the 54th Precinct where they took pictures of me bleeding and shit. So, I’m sitting there, madder than a motherfucker, right? And they’re saying to me in the station, “So you’re the wiseguy, huh?” Then they’d bump up against me, you know, try to get me mad so they could probably knock me upside my head again. I’m just sitting there, taking it all in, watching every move they make.

If you were white, and a modern jazz fan, you felt a closeness to that abyss--it could happen to you, too. Though, of course, it couldn't. And I'm not putting down white jazz fans of the 50s. I was one. Just saying there was a jazz culture that it felt exciting to be a part of.

And al that would change too. Not the racism, but the perception of jazz. Most art forms follow a pattern: folk art to popular art to high art. Jazz did it faster than most, but that's the pattern. I was going to say "follow an arc," and in a way that's right: the middle stage is the apex of popularity. But one could equally call it a trajectory: as an art form matures, it gains, subtlety, complexity, richness. Or so one hopes. But anyway, it can't stand still. Nothing can.

Perhaps the handwriting started to appear on the wall when Benny Goodman played Carnegie Hall instead of the Palladium. Certainly it was growing bolder on that same wall when John Lewis and his cohorts put on tuxedos and called themselves the Modern Jazz Quartet, a name that demanded serious attention in the way that Miff Mole and his Little Molers or Terry Gibbs New Jazz Pirates or J. J. Johnson's Boppers did not.

Anyway, the progress was inexorable: out of the raffish smoke-filled clubs, out of the mob-controlled joints where Louis Armstrong played in Chicago, out of 52nd Street where jazz groups alternated with strippers, into the concert hall, and into Jazz at Lincoln Center. It had to happen, and jazz is the better for people like Wynton Marsalis and the foundations that keep jazz alive.

All of which is a free-flying digression, pushing the limits even for me, and I've probably said a lot of it before. I promise I will get to Gil Melle eventually. But there's a reason why it's on my mind now, and that is that all of this is simply history repeating itself, as I discovered when reading a fascinating book, The Romantic Revolution by Tim Blanning.

The same thing was happening in the18th century. Just as the hipsters and beatniks of the 40s and 50s dismissed the Harry James and Tommy Dorsey fans as moldy figs, so the avant garde of that era, the aficionados of the new, challenging music made by people like Franz Lizst dismissed the fans of Gioachino Rossini's wildly popular operas as Philistines.

And then, as now, an element of fun was fading. Blanning quotes Fanny Burney's eponyous heroine Evelina:
About eight o'clock we went to the Pantheon. I was extremely struck by the beauty of the building, which greatly surpassed anything I could have expected or imagined. Yet, it has more the appearance of a chapel, than a place of diversion, and though I was quite charmed by the magnificence of the room, I felt that I could not be as gay and thoughtless there as at Ranelagh [a pleasure garden], for there is something in it which rather inspires awe and solemnity, than mirth and pleasure.
So, getting back to the subject at hand. Does Gil Melle inspire awe and solemnity, or mirth and
pleasure? Melle was working out of a slightly different pushcart than some of his contemporaries, although not entirely different. His rhythm section was made up of mainstream jazzers, and you don't include two Ellington compositions, particularly "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)," if you're planning to do something really weird. Melle, like Teddy Charles, kept one foot in the avant garde and one in the mainstream.

His avant garde foot was mostly set down later, when he moved to Hollywood, indulged his fascination with electronic instruments, and began writing movie TV scores. In that capacity, he was one of those who changed the musical voice of suspense for soundtracks. Just as Ennio Morricone completely upended the Dmitri Tiomkin (out of Ferde Grofe) convention for scoring a Western, so the electronic composers replaced jazz scores as the motif for suspense, Melle would write the music for TV series Kolchak: the Night Stalker and Rod Serling's Night Gallery.

This stands more on the mainstream foot, with some surprises."Walter Ego" begins with what could almost be a Gerry Mulligan arrangement. As an instrumentalist, Melle was no Mulligan or Pepper Adams, and he knew it, but he was a brilliant musical mind, and "Walter Ego" soon goes in surprising different directions.

As much as Melle would become known later for his film scores, "Rush Hour in Hong Kong" was not an audition for a movie to be made twenty years later, though it almost could have been. And his version of "It Don't Mean a Thing" really does swing, with outstanding solos from George Duvivier and Shadow Wilson in addition to Joe Cinderella.

"Quadrama" became the title song for the album.




 Order Listening to Prestige, Vol. 1 here.

Thursday, January 05, 2017

Listening to Prestige 228: Barbara Lea

What's important about these growth years for Prestige? The first great Miles Davis quintet albums. The Modern Jazz Quartet forming and making the records, like Django, that they're still remembered for. The early John Coltrane, playing with Bobby Jaspar or Kenny Burrell or Jackie McLean,  or matched against two baritone saxes, finding and growing his genius.

Hell, yeah. But no. The answer is it's all important. Musicians coming into the record store of a 19-year-old kid who loved jazz and was inspired by a Thelonious Monk record played for him by Alfred Lion to start his own record company. Hey kids...we've got a barn...we've got all this talent...let's put on a show!

A girl from Detroit who grew up listening to the French light operas composed by her great-uncle, who sang with dance bands until she got a music scholarship to Wellesley, graduated, came to New York, made a 78 for a tiny label with some very good trad jazzmen -- Cutty Cutshall, Eddie Barefield, Peewee Erwin -- then found herself on two of the hottest modern jazz labels in New York, first Riverside, then Prestige, for whom she went out to Hackensack and Rudy Van Gelder's studio twice in 1956 (winning Down Beat's best new singer award), then four more times in 1957. Then a long hiatus, during which she worked as an actress and a teacher, until the late 1970s, when people started remembering that here was a singer who cared deeply about the best American popular songs, and could interpret a great lyric like no one else.

And, as always, every session is different, and the story of the leader on the date is only part of the story. Barbara Lea had recorded five days earlier with a trio. On April 24th and 26th she was back in the studio with a seven piece band. It included Dick Cary, who played on all of her sessions, and Prestige veteran Jimmy Raney.

It included some of the finest accompanists of jazz and popular singers. Jimmy Lyon was best known as Mabel Mercer's accompanist, but also worked with June Christy, Polly Bergen and Connie Haines. Beverly Peer began his career with Ella Fitzgerald in the Chick Webb orchestra, and also worked with Sarah Vaughan, Lena Horne, Johnny Mathis, and Barbra Streisand. Osie Johnson played on a session with Dinah Washington.

And it also included a musician with a truly remarkable career, one that began before some of the musicians on this session were born, and continued into the modern jazz, and even the free jazz era. Garvin Bushell recorded with some impressive female vocalists too: Mamie Smith, who recorded the first blues record ever made, and Ethel Waters. He was a member of the Louisiana Sugar Babies with Jabbo Smith, Fats Waller, and James P. Johnson. He worked
with Fletcher Henderson, Cab Calloway and Bunk Johnson. And, jumping ahead, he recorded with Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy. His autobiograpy, Jazz From the Beginning, is must reading for every jazz fan. And here's a video of an interview with him, talking about those early days.

Lea called upon the services of some of the greatest songwriters in that American Songbook. Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart, Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer (for the obscure and wonderfully titled "Sleep Peaceful, Mr. Used-to-be") and others. She had the services of some wonderful musicians and some very interesting arrangements. And she delivered.

All of these were issued on the Lea in Love album. "Mountain Greenery" became a 45, along with "A Straw Hat Full of Lilace" from a subsequent session.

 



 Order Listening to Prestige, Vol. 1 here.

Wednesday, January 04, 2017

Listening to Prestige 227: Prestige All Stars

This session became best known as a John Coltrane gig when it was rereleased in 1963 under his name, but its original incarnation was a little weirder. Its weirdness doesn't have so much to do with its instrumentation -- a tenor and two baritones -- which is a tremendously effective combination, as it turns out. Nor with the leaders du jour. Kenny Berger in jazz.com says that this was really a Pepper Adams date, and the producer (and principal composer) was Teddy Charles. Both were important jaz figures who deserved leader status, and Coltrane played on a lot of gigs in those days.

No, the weirdness lay in the way it was released: as part of what would now be called a double album, but was for a short time in the mid-fifties one LP disc, made to be played at half the speed of a regular 33 1/3 album -- the 16 2/3 RPM LP  The format never really caught on. It was OK for spoken word recordings, but not great for music. It was also utilized for one of the dumbest innovations in portable music: Highway Hi-Fi, a turntable, supposedly shock and skip-proof, included in Chrysler autos from 1956 to 1959. They never worked very well, and after their demise mobile music lovers had to wait till the mid-60s,and the battle between 8-track and cassette tapes -- and we know how that worked out.


Teddy Charles produced two sessions for this mega-LP, this one with the two baritones and Coltrane, the second with two French horns plus a trombone (Curtis Fuller) and an alto (Sahib Shihab), and the whole package was released as Modern Jazz Survey: Baritones and French Horns, with the wielders of the eponymous instruments getting top billing on the cover.

The Teddy Charles compositions are "Dakar" and "Route 4," both of which have entered into the jazz repertoire. They're both great tunes, with "Dakar" being maybe the highlight of the album, if you have to pick one. I love the way the saxophones work with each other on this one. "Route 4," interestingly, seems to have the more Middle Eastern feel of the two.

 "Catwalk" (on the album cover, "The Cat Walk" on the session notes) is attributed, depending on where you look, to Charles or Mal Waldron. There are actually several jazz compositions called "Catwalk," and most of them seem to have the alternate title of "The Cat Walk." I'd kinda guess that it's Charles, but I'm no expert. It's in fragmented, short phrases which seem more Charlesian, and it doesn't have the extended Waldron solo that one expects in his compositions, though his solo is terrific and really captures the essence of the composition.

"Velvet Scene" is unequivocally by Waldron, though it doesn't feature a Waldron solo at all.  It's a ballad, with some beautiful work by Coltrane.

The last two tunes are by Pepper Adams, himself a pretty major jazz composer. He's credited with 43 tunes. Gary Carner, the creator of the website The Complete Works of Pepper Adams, provides this particularly winsome bit of scholarship:
Adams’ oeuvre can be loosely grouped into the following categories: Swingers (18), Blues (7), Ballads (7), Latin (5), Waltzes (3), and Rhythm Changes (3).
I guess "Mary's Blues" is a blues, though it could be a ballad. Either way, it's beautiful. And "Witches Pit"? A blues? A swinger? I'd call it a bebop blues, and as rockabilly legend Carl Perkins once put it, "All my friends are boppin' the blues, so it must be goin' round."

Strangely enough, this collection of interesting instruments never made it, as a unit, to any other form except 16 2/3 RPM. The Adams-Coltrane-Payne sides became the John Coltrane album Dakar, and "Dakar" was definitely the hit tune from the day. It was included on the compilation album Prestige Groovy Goodies, Vol. 2. Yes, I know even one album called Groovy Goodies is one too many for a hip jazz label, but this was the Sixties. "Dakar" was also released on 45 b/w "The Believer," a McCoy Tyner composition off a later album, in what must have been severely truncated versions of both, especially "The Believer," which clocked in at over 13 minutes and took up the whole side of an LP
 



 Order Listening to Prestige, Vol. 1 here.

Monday, January 02, 2017

Listening to Prestige 226: Barbara Lea


April 19 was a busy day at the Van Gelder studio. After Mal Waldron's sextet had finished up, Barbara Lea came in with a trio and recorded four songs, only two of which ever made it to vinyl. Had to say why. The unissued two were "Aren't You Glad You're You?" and "Ain't Misbehavin'," and a good singer, two good songs...what could have gone wrong?

She was back a week later to record a bunch more, this time with a septet. The link between the two dates, besides Lea, was Dick Cary, who had also played on her first two Prestige sessions. Not so surprising: you get a good accompanist, like Cary, and you want to keep him at the keyboards where he knows what you want and how to give it to you. A little more surprising: Cary played the piano on this session, but a very different instrument on the others.

Her sessions of the previous fall covered two days, and on the first one he played the little heard (and not very imaginatively named) alto horn. The piano player was the not very imaginatively pseudonymed Richard Lowman, otherwise known as Dick Hyman, who certainly would not be the low man on anyone's totem pole, but for whatever reason was not back the next day, so Cary doubled on alto horn and piano. And for Lea's final Prestige outing, a week after this one, Jimmy Lyons took over on piano and Cary went back to the alto horn. Barbara Lea's Prestige albums were also released in England on the Esquire label, where they might have identified Cary's instrument by its British name, the tenor horn.

Lea was riding high in 1957. She had won the Down Beat International Critics' award for Best New Singer in 1956. She was a little off the beaten path for Prestige, leaning more toward traditional than modern, but she was always worth listening to.

Both of these songs were included on the Lea in Love album. She sings "Autumn Leaves" in both the original French and the later English version, honoring two writers of distinction: the French poet Jacques Prevert (also the author of the screenplay for Les Enfant du  Paradis) and Johnny Mercer.

A poem by Prevert was the inspiration for a poem of mine which was also set to music, by Fred Koller, so I'll toss that in here too.


Friday, December 30, 2016

Listing to Prestige 225: Mal Waldron

We're really getting into the Coltrane era at Prestige now. As with Miles, Bob Weinstock seems to have wanted to present Trane in a variety of settings, which is good. Unlike the Miles recordings, however, the Trane sessions did not necessarily present him as the heavy hitter of whatever group had been gathered.

Here's a quick rundown of his post-Miles oeuvre with Prestige, up to this current session.

  • Elmo Hope All Star Sextet, May 7, 1956. This was actually issued two different ways, at the same time and with the same catalog number, but with two different covers and two different billings: as Elmo Hope - Informal Jazz and as Hank Mobley/John Coltrane - Two Tenors. He would finally get top billing in a 1969 re-release: John Coltrane - 2 Tenors With Hank Mobley. Wikipedia's entry on the 1969 release comments: "As Coltrane's fame grew during the 1960s long after he had stopped recording for the label, Prestige assembled varied recordings, often those where Coltrane had been merely a sideman, and reissued them as a new album with Coltrane's name prominently displayed." But "merely a sideman" only describes the billing on the album cover. In a quintet or sextet album of jazz masters, there's no merely. Everyone contributes.
  • Sonny Rollins Quartet With John Coltrane, May 24, 1956. Trane gets featured billing on the session notes, not on the album cover. There it's Sonny Rollins - Tenor Madness, and on the reissue, Sonny Rollins - Taking Care of Business. But there's a reason for this. The title cut, "Tenor Madness," is an epic duet -- the only one between these two tenor legends. But it's also Coltrane's only cut on the session.
  • The Prestige All Stars, September 7, 1956I don't think any of the Prestige All Stars sessions were actually packaged as "Prestige All Stars." Generally, the album cover had the whole cast, sometimes omitting the rhythm section, with each musician getting equal billing. Such was the case here. This was two of the original Four Brothers, Al Cohn and Zoot Sims, with two new brothers, Coltrane and Hank Mobley. The album was titled Tenor Conclave, and listed the brothers (Mobley - Cohn - Coltrane - Sims) on the cover. The order isn't alphabetical, and it isn't by seniority. Maybe they just flipped a coin. Two later reissues were under Coltrane's name, the first keeping Tenor Conclave and the second including a Tadd Dameron session and titled On a Misty Night.
  • Tadd Dameron Quartet, November 30, 1956. Booked as a Dameron session. there was co-billing on the album cover: Tadd Dameron/John Coltrane - Mating Call. It would be rereleased as On a Misty Night, under Trane's name alone, and the "On a Misty Night" track would also be put on another Trane repackage, John Coltrane Plays For Lovers --misnamed, if you ask Tom Cruise. In Jerry Maguire, Cruise's friend gives him a Miles Davis and John Coltrane tape to play during lovemaking, but when the moment comes, Cruise listens to a few bars, says "What is this shit?" and throws it out.
  • The Prestige All Stars, March 22, 1957. Released as Interplay For 2 Trumpets And 2 Tenors, with the usual equal billing for all musicians. The two trumpets were Idrees Sulieman and Webster Young, the two tenors were Trane and Bobby Jaspar. This was reissued as Jazz Interplay, but never got a reisssue under Coltrane's name. 
  • Art Taylor's All Stars. March 22, 1957. One cut, from the same date, this one a quartet with Taylor, Coltrane, Red Garland and Paul Chambers, for inclusion on a different Taylor session that didn't quite fill out an album.
  • The Prestige All Stars, April, 1957. Just the day before the current session, and released as Tommy Flanagan / John Coltrane / Kenny Burrell.
Up to this point, no sessions with Coltrane as leader, although that will come, and a marvelous potpourri of musicians.

I basically approve of the democratic approach to billing on the All Stars sessions, and as stated above, I take issue with the Wiki writer's "merely a sideman." None of the were merely anything. And I suspect this is an echo of the condescension contemporary writers show toward Prestige -- in a addition to sloppy and unrehearsed, Weinstock's label is also put down for the frequency of its repackagings. You know how I feel about all of these criticisms. The hell with them.

And speaking of marvelous potpourris, the tune that Mal Waldron wrote for an earlier session with Thad Jones, Frank Wess and Teddy Charles makes its reappearance here.

"Potpourri" is pure bebop, and surely one of the reasons why bebop retains its vitality well into the 1950s is the emergence of composers like Waldron,

The other Waldron originals: "J. M.'s Dream Doll," and that must have been some dream, or some doll. Some great solos here, but Waldron's is really outstanding. And "Blue Calypso." Remember the
mambo bebop craze of a couple of years back, with Joe Holiday and Billy Taylor as its champions, but also contributions from James Moody, Sonny Rollins, Sonny Stitt, Kenny Graham (mambo bebop from England!). Well, it turns out you can do it with calypso, too. Sonnny Rollins, from island-born parents, would make calypso his own, but here in 1957, with Harry Belafonte topping the charts with one of the most popular albums of all time, Waldron, Coltrane et al. show how its rhythms can be assimilated into the language of bop.

"Don't Explain" was written by Billie Holiday and her frequent collaborator Arthur Herzog, Jr., and covering a song associated with Billie inevitably means finding a correlative to the intensity of feeling that she put into everything. "Falling in Love with Love" is by Rodgers and Hart, and nothing Lorenz Hart wrote was entirely sentimental, but this song is often given a sentimental treatment by crooners. Not here.

"Potpourri," "J. M.'s Dream Doll" and "Don't Explain became part of Waldron's Mal-2 album, Mal-2, released in 1957. "Blue Calypso" and "Falling in Love With Love" had something of an odder fate. In spite of whatever sales potential a calypso may have had in 1957, both were left off and not released until 1964--and then only on the short-lived Prestige subsidiary Status, which was definitely a budget label, pressed on cheaper quality vinyl and marketed straight to the budget bins. That album, which put together outtakes from two Waldron sessions, was called The Dealers. The session was ultimately released under Coltrane's name in a much later CD box called Side Steps, a title which suggests "like Giant Steps but less important." Well, maybe so. Very few things touch Giant Steps. But great stuff nonetheless.


 



 Order Listening to Prestige, Vol. 1 here.