Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Listening to Prestige Records Part 93: King Pleasure

Does it seem that every time Bob Weinstock decides to make a record with King Pleasure, he gets it all wrong, and yet it comes out so right?

In earlier sessions, he seems to have thought of Pleasure as a rhythm and blues singer. He's tossed him into recording sessions with other R&B singers, and given him R&B musicians, and come up with one of the most enduring and beloved classics of jazz vocal music, in "Moody's Mood For Love."

The success of "Moody's Mood" didn't give him the idea that he should put Pleasure in with some of the A-list jazz musicians he'd been recording; he did a second session with a rhythm and blues band, on which his tracks were sort of a throw-in -- the session was mostly about Charlie Ferguson's band, but they did include two King Pleasure vocals. On one of them, just as they'd tossed in a chick singer to the "Moody's Mood" recording who happened to be Blossom Dearie, they tossed in another chick singer, a girl who was scuffling around New York after being fired by Lionel Hampton for insisting on singing bebop instead of swing. That was Betty Carter, and the tune was "Red Top." And the other throw-in on the Charlie Ferguson session was "Jumpin' With Symphony Sid."

So this time, he brings in the creme de la creme, the A-list of A-lists, three quarters of the Modern Jazz Quartet, but you can't really hear them -- they're not given any solo time. In fact, at least on "Sometimes I'm Happy," King Pleasure takes something of a back seat to the Dave Lambert Singers.

Dave Lambert, in 1953, was 36 years old and a veteran of the music business. He was a singer and vocal arranger who seemed more at home in a group setting, although he was a pioneer of the bebop scat style that King Pleasure, Eddie Jefferson, Jackie Paris and others were to bring to fruition as solo artists, and that Lambert was ultimately to find the best expression of when he teamed with John Hendricks and then Annie Ross. He had made what many consider the first bebop vocal recording with Gene Krupa's band, as a duet with Buddy Stewart.

In September of 1953, he was coming off what was generally acknowledged to be a failure: Charlie Parker with Voices. This was the followup to the successful and popular "Charlie Parker with Strings," and it featured an orchestra under Gil Evans' direction, and a 12-voice group of Dave Lambert Singers. Marc Myers interviewed Hal McCusick, who played on the session, about what went wrong:
The voice parts were way too complicated. Gil’s charts were beautiful and complex, as always. His arrangements always could push your buttons, musically. But Dave’s vocal charts were heavy, and by the time everyone realized this, it was too late. The recording session was already underway.

JW: Was Dave aware of that?
HM: I'm sure he was. But in all fairness to Dave, he was in over his head. First, there were too many singers.  Dave could have accomplished the same goal with better results if he had used four. All of us in the woodwind section knew it at the time. Second, Dave wasn’t skilled enough as an arranger to write for so many singers. What's more, the singers weren’t polished enough as a group to pull off what Dave had in mind and had written.
This may be a little rough on Lambert, and on the session. You can hear it on YouTube and decide for yourself, but you can understand what McKusick means. He goes on to say that
Dave was terrific when singing take-offs on jazz instrumentals and writing for small-group things. But to write structured charts for so many singers behind arrangements by a guy like Gil Evans requires enormous skill. When you're writing for 10 or 12 singers, you have no choice but to double up voicings. This means two or more vocalists need to sing the same notes. It’s the only way a vocal group can be heard clearly.

But doubling up parts means greater room for intonation error, since you’re more likely to hear somebody wavering off the written notes. When a voice wavers, it throws everyone else off, or the producer catches it and calls for another take. It’s like two people walking a tightrope out of synch. Someone’s more likely to fall. That happened quite a bit that day. The vocal charts were too hard to sing. The result was false starts and re-takes.
Lambert had cut down his ensemble by September. He hasn't found the magic he would capture with LHR -- his arrangements here are more reminiscent of a group like the Four Freshmen -- but he provides a nice group sound for Pleasure to wing it from.

This session didn't provide classics like "Moody's Mood" or "Symphony Sid" or the later "Parker's Mood," but they're still good, and I love Pleasure's solo on "Sometimes I'm Happy." I don't know whose instrumental solos he's basing these on.

And again, speaking of Weinstock's mistakes in recording King Pleasure that turned out to be not so mistaken, why only two songs per session? In 1951 and 1952, no one was thinking about LPs, but a recording session was still generally four songs, so you could put out two 78s. But by 1953, the 10-inch LPs and the 45 RPM EPs were common. The upshot of it was, when it came time to put his vocalese stars on a 12-inch LP, he had not enough songs from Pleasure and even fewer from Annie Ross, so he had to put them together on one disc. And the result? King Pleasure Sings/Annie Ross Sings is one of the absolute treasures of the LP era. You couldn't ask for better.

These two songs came out on both 78 and 45, on an EP with "Red Top," and on a 10-inch LP in 1954.


Sunday, March 22, 2015

Listening to Prestige Records Part 93: Gigi Gryce

This is only on the very borderline of qualifying for this blog. Originally a French Vogue recording, it was first released in the US by Blue Note, and only came out on Prestige as one of their 7800 reissue releases in 1971. It was still Bob Weinstock's in 1971, but he was soon to sell to Fantasy, where it would become strictly a reissue label. I haven't been including any of the 7800 reissues, but I'm including this because...well, because by the time I read the small print and realized I shouldn't be including it, I'd already listened to it a couple of times through, and I was hooked.

This is the Hampton touring band, plus a few French musicians, and again it's Gigi Gryce and Quincy Jones taking center stage, as they continue to make their bones as the hot new, young arrangers. Jones is credited as arranger and Gryce as leader. I suspect that being leader, on this session, may have involved more than just standing in front of the bandstand with a baton. It sounds as though some full-scale conducting was needed. This sound is so full, so orchestral, so dynamic. He had begun his studies in classical composition in 1948, and while this is jazz, not some third stream music, it combines the power and sensitivity of classical music with...well, with the power and sensitivity of jazz.

Most of the rereleases, both European and American, have been under Clifford Brown's name, and Brownie is always an important addition to any session he's on, and he has some great solos, but it's Gryce and Jones who make this a singular experience. Shows what a couple of inspired and ambitious young composer/arranger/conductors can do when you give them their head and a 17-piece orchestra. And it's not what these guys were playing with Hampton. These recordings were made "against Hampton's wishes," according to Gryce's web page. There must have been a certain amount of unrest at this point in the tour. Annie Ross was fired, George Wallington either quit or was fired, and the rest of the band was making music that Hamp did not want them to make.

I love Lionel Hampton. I think that as revered as he is as a giant of jazz, he actually doesn't get enough credit for being the true giant he was. But I'm glad Gryce and Jones went against his wishes here.


Friday, March 20, 2015

Listening to Prestige Records Part 92: Americans in Sweden

Was anyone left in New York or LA in the summer of 1953. It seems as though a goodly portion of the talents of both cities had relocated to Sweden, and it also seems that they were all drawn there by Lars Gullin, the only musician all these sessions have in common. Gullin is one of the most highly regarded of European jazz musicians, and another musician whose career was cut short by heroin. Although he lived until 1976, he was almost completely finished as a musician by the end of the 50s.

The first of these sessions, under Gullin's name, was on August 25, the others on a very busy September 15 and 16. Gullin led--I was going to say a mixed group of East and West Coast musicians, but actually most of the individual musicians are mixed groups in themselves. Conte Candoli is pretty solidly identified with the LA scene, and Konitz, through his close association with Lennie Tristano, surely represents New York. Don Bagley is also a through and through West Coaster. But Frank Rosolino was a Midwesterner from the jazz hotbed of Detroit before he found his way to 52nd Street, and from there to the LA jazz and studio world with which he is most closely associated, and Zoot Sims a native Californian whose jazz life was mostly in New York. I would have associated Stan Levey entirely with 52nd Street and the bebop scene, but actually within months of this session he had relocated to California. Perhaps Candoli and Rosolino bent his ear.

Peter Jones, who listened to this with me, through Spotify, from the hinterlands of northern Louisiana, aptly described this session as "sounds midway between Birth of the Cool and Oliver Nelson," which I thought captured it pretty well.

Most of these musicians had big band experience, and specifically, most of them had played with Stan Kenton, and I think a lot of them may have been on a European tour with Kenton in August of 1953. I know that the September sessions featured musicians from Lionel Hampton's touring band - Hampton didn't pay all that much, and his sidemen had to pick up extra work where they could. Checking further -- they all were on Kenton's tour.

So you have a bunch of musicians who've been playing Kenton arrangements, and they take a day off and go to dear old Stockholm -- well, they're probably in Stockholm already -- to make a record with a talented instrumentalist whose life had been changed in 1949 when he first heard the 78s of the nonet sessions and was so powerfully influenced by Gerry Mulligan that he took up the baritone saxophone, then changed again in 1951 by meeting Lee Konitz -- which is, in a way, more of the same change. So what would the Mulligan arrangements for Birth of the Cool sound like if they were played by the Kenton orchestra? And isn't that one of the things we love about jazz...about American music? It's so cross-pollinated. Musicians talk to each other, dance with each other, copulate with each other in combinations that would make a swingers' club pale with envy. And it keeps coming up new.


So all of the musicians from the August session were from the Kenton band. And were all of the September musicians from the Hampton orchestra? It turns out yes -- including Annie Ross. Who knew that she had toured with Hampton? Thanks to Mario Schneeburger, we have the complete personnel of the band, and its complete itinerary. I'll give an excerpt:

    1953/09/05
    Arrival at Fornebu Airport after flight from NYC with SAS.
    These musicians are willing to undertake the adventure of a tour across a foreign continent: Lionel Hampton(ld,vb,p,dr,vcl), Walter Williams(tp), Art Farmer(tp), Quincy Jones(tp), Clifford Brown(tp), Al Hayse(tb), Jimmy Cleveland(tb), George "Buster" Cooper(tb), Gigi Gryce(as), Anthony Ortega(as,fl), Clifford Solomon(ts), Clifford Scott(ts), Oscar Estelle(bs), George Wallington(p), Billy Mackel(g), Monk Montgomery(b), Alan Dawson(dr), Curley Hamner(dr,dancing,vcl), Annie Ross(vcl), Sonny Parker(vcl,dancing). Gladys Hampton, Lionel's wife and band manager, is with them.
    New to the band are Clifford Brown replacing Eddie Mullens, Gigi Gryce replacing Bobby Plater, George Wallington replacing Elmer Gill, and Annie Ross.
    All of them except for Annie Ross and George Wallington stay in the band until the end of the tour.
    The tour is originally planned to last six weeks. Its success leads to a substantial expansion. Lionel Hampton recalls in 1954: "We went over in September for six weeks and we stayed 12."

...

1953/09/07 The band arrives in Stockholm "..directly after successful concert in Oslo", Orkester Journalen. At Stockholm main station the band is bid welcome by Simon Brehm's band. A press conference is held. A welcome party takes place at Hotel Malmen. Hampton and Wallington play a piano duet, Annie Ross sings "Twisted", band members and local musicians jam together. Later on they move to 'Bal Palais' where the party continues until dawn.


[From Sept 8-13: concerts in Helsinki, Finland, then in Sweden's Falun, Hofors, Uppsala,Västerås, Linköping, Norrköping, Örebro, Eskilstuna, so if anyone ever tries to sucker you into a bar bet that no jazz great has ever played Linköping and Norrköping on the same day, don't take it. And finally back to Stockholm, for a]

concert at Konserthuset, starting at 21:15. The concert is recorded and partly issued. The Tom Lord discography gives a wrong date: 1953/09/15. Most other sources give only vague dates such as fall, Sept., Oct. Some days earlier, between September 9 and 12, Lionel Hampton and George Wallington are interviewed at the Swedish radio. In the studio they play a fine How High The Moon at the piano with four hands. Hampton says twice to the radio reporter: "See you on Monday". Coming Monday is September 14. The radio obviously plans to record the concert of September 14 in Stockholm. Recording session in Sweden: Annie Ross and George Wallington (2 titles each).

1953/09/15,  Gothenburg. Concert at the Concert Hall. After the concert a jam session takes place at Lorensberg restaurant. Among the participants are Anthony Ortega, Clifford Brown, George Wallington and Jimmy Cleveland with pianist Bengt Hallberg, drummers Kenneth Fagerlund and Arne Milefors among the "locals". "One night we had a recording session [in fact it was a jam session] after the concert in Gothenburg (Sweden). Brownie and Bengt Hallberg played 'Yesterdays' as if the tune would become, by some way, forbidden to be played anymore", remembers Art Farmer. Clifford Brown, Art Farmer and Quincy Jones find the time for a recording session in Stockholm with Bengt Hallberg and other Swedish musicians. This session probably takes place in the morning or early afternoon, before the band's departure from Stockholm to Gothenburg. Recording session in Stockholm on 1953/09/15: Clifford Brown-Art Farmer (4 titles with alternate takes)
Yes, I know I have a tendency to go way, way off on tangents sometimes, but I wouldn't be doing this blog at all if I weren't a little too much in love with jazz history. Anyway, the tour continues. More
highlights include two concerts on the same evening in the Netherlands, fortunately a small country, the first one in Scheveningen at 8 pm, the second in Amsterdam, a "concert at Concertgebouw, starting at 24:00. Hampton is suffering from fever. Nevertheless '..Hampton began to dance with a girl in the audience, and the rest of the hall took up the dance till the whole Concertgebouw seemed to be jumping.'" And trouble the next day in Brussels,  at a
concert at Palais des Beaux Arts. It is Annie Ross' last appearance with the band.
“Annie  Ross  is  fired  by  Hamp  in  Brussels  after  a  few  unruly  hecklers  had  booed  her  performance  there”,  says George Wallington. On the same day or thereafter George Wallington quits the band, either as a gesture of sympathy for Annie Ross, or because he is fired as well.
 Anyway, back to the Stockholm recording sessions. Annie does the Kern/Hammerstein standard (her version omitted from the Wiki discography for this song; I added it), and "Jackie," another from the Wardell Gray/Art Farmer sessions that yielded "Twisted" and "Farmer's Market," this one a Hampton Hawes composition that Annie turns into a history of bebop. Here's Billboard's review:

Jackie: The hip cats should flip for this cool item. The gal delivers a fast-talking story about a wild mouse on her blouse. It's fine for kicks.
 The Song is You: Here Miss Ross, a hip singer, tackles the standard for a reading which the jazz collectors should go for to some extent. She's much better, tho, in handling the [unintelligible] stuff.
The Billboard reviewer isn't entirely wrong. Annie is great on standards, but her vocalese is in a class by itself.

Ross appears with her soon-to-be-ex-bandmates from the Hampton orchestra; Wallington is with a group of Swedish musicians. It's a testament to the growing importance of both Quincy Jones and Gigi Gryce as arrangers that they're credited on these sessions. And although Jones was the one who went on to a megastar career, Gryce more than once arranges sessions on which Jones plays piano.

The piece de resistance, however, of this fine group of Swedish sessions, is the Clifford Brown/Art Farmer set. Both in amazing form, each spurring the other on.

All these were originally issued on the Swedish Metronome label; most also came out on the British Esquire label. Prestige put the Lars/American All-Stars on an EP, Americans in Sweden, as Zoot Sims/Lars Gullin/Kenton All-Stars, along with an earlier Zoot/Lars session from 1950.

The two Annie Ross songs came out on a Prestige 78. The Wallington session was an EP, George Wallington And The Swedish All Stars. Clifford Brown and Art Farmer seem to have been on EP, were definitely on a 10-inch LP with cover art that's credited to David X. Young, although it doesn't look like his work. It's certainly not his best work.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Listening to Prestige Records Part 91: Teddy Charles

I continue to wonder what was the master plan involved in sending Teddy Charles out to be Prestige's West Coast representative. Was it to find out what the evolving West Coast sound was all about, and tap into it for Prestige? Or was it to find a new group of musicians to plug into the evolving Teddy Charles sound? If the former, he might not have been the best choice. (Certainly not the worst choice. That honor goes hands down to Art Rupe of Specialty Records, who, when he lost Bumps Blackwell, who had brought him Little Richard, Lloyd Price, Larry Williams, etc,, chose as his new New Orleans talent scout and A&R man...Sonny Bono?) My guess, it was a little of the former (in Bob Weinstock's mind) and a little of the latter (in Teddy Charles's mind). Anyway, Charles didn't come back with the next Brubeck or Mulligan/Baker, but he came back with some remarkable music.

And wondering leads to Google, and Google led me to this interview with Charles, which I had not seen before, where he talks about his West Coast sojourn:

One day in late 1952 or early 1953, after I had recorded those New Directions dates, he asked if I wanted to move to the West Coast to be the A&R director out there. The West Coast was a completely new scene for East Coast labels. They didn't quite get what was happening there, but they knew they had to be in on it.

"The first thing Bob wanted me to do was record Wardell Gray, which I did. Wardell was the hot guy out there. He and I had played together in Benny Goodman's group in the late 19940s. Bob had wanted me to put together a couple of sessions and record standards. But I had other things in mind. I wanted to put different musicians in challenging musical situations to see what came of it.

You don't have to have read too many of my blog entries to know that in my opinion, bringing Wardell Gray into any project is bound to be a good idea. I've written about that session. Listening to it, and especially listening to this session, I also couldn't help wondering whether Charles completely bought into Weinstock's "get together and jam" philosophy. Well, no. There was only one Bob Weinstock, and he made it work. He had a fan's enthusiasm, and it carried over into the making of some of the greatest jazz records ever made, so you'll never hear me knocking his philosophy. But it was a fan's philosophy; a musician's is bound to be different. So from the same interview, here's Teddy Charles talking about rehearsal, and also about tapping into the emerging West Coast sound:
In most cases, I’d get guys together and we’d run through the material I wrote. If it worked, we’d go into the studio. Or we’d have a date set, and we’d be in my apartment rehearsing. I also played quite a bit at the Lighthouse down at Hermosa Beach.

When I got out on the West Coast, I didn’t want to do the West Coast cool jazz thing that was so popular then. Frankly I didn’t care for the West Coast style of playing. The music was too laid back and didn’t have the sound. Not enough urgency. Instead, I brought an East Coast sound I was experimenting with out there, and I used West Coast guys to play it.
This interview was conducted by Marc Myers for his JazzWax blog. He's one of the great interviewers, so I strongly recommend reading the whole thing...and his blog is a treasure. Charles told Myers about one session he tried to put together with Stan Getz, Chet Baker and Al Haig, which ultimately had to be abandoned, as he discovered that not all great musicians had a feel for what he wanted to do --  "Stan could play anything, of course, [but] the music wasn't happening and felt forced."

I would have thought Shorty Rogers an odd choice for a Teddy Charles session. I wasn't that familiar with his work, and thought of him as a typical West Coaster, with an ear toward the pop market. I'd heard his album of jazz takes on contemporary pop songs, Chances Are It Swings, and I knew he'd done some Hollywood stuff, like The Man With the Golden Arm. I hadn't realized he had such an interest in experimental music. When you look at some of his credits, you can see why Charles gravitated toward him. From Wikipedia:

In the 1950s, when Igor Stravinsky began experimenting with dodecaphony, one of the twelve-tone techniques originally devised by Arnold Schoenberg, Stravinsky was very impressed with Rogers's playing, which, as Robert Craft reports in his book Conversations with Stravinsky, influenced the composer's 1958 choral work Threni.
Rogers is the sole horn on the first four tracks, from the August 21 session, and he works well with Charles, understanding and developing his ideas. I think the group is even better when Jimmy Giuffre joins them on August 31 -- of course, this is also ten more days of rehearsal.

Shelley Manne was one of the most ubiquitous, and one of the most commercially successful musicians on the West Coast. His albums like My Fair Lady Loves Jazz, with Andre Previn, showed that you could satisfy the demands of art and the market at the same time. But did his comfort level stretch far enough to accomodate the seriously experimental sounds of Teddy Charles?


Oh, god, yes. Rogers and Giuffre work beautifully with Charles, but Manne does more. He brings ideas that take Charles to a new level. As I listened to these sides over a number of times, which is what I do in writing one of these entries, I found myself more and more looking forward to "what's Shelly going to do next?" Give a listen and see what I mean.

These came out on two 10-inchers, New Directions 3 and 4, and again in 1956, when Prestige had moved to the 12-inch LP standard, as Collaboration West - Teddy Charles/Shorty Rogers.



Index to Listening to Prestige Records 



Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Listening to Prestige Records Part 91:Art Farmer Septet

A septet is an interesting alignment, not quite a big band, but big enough that it's not just two guys and a rhythm section. Even three guys and a rhythm section is still a small combo, but with a septet it's probably a good idea to have charts and an arranger, and this septet had two, by the time it was finished. The 12-inch, 7000-series LP that contains the tunes from this session is called The Art Farmer Septet Plays the Arrangements of Quincy Jones and Gigi Gryce (on the front. On the back it's "Compositions and Arrangements of...) This session seems to be the Quincy Jones, half. The composer credits are Jones and Farmer on three of the songs. The fourth, "Up In Quincy's Room," one might well expect to have been written by Jones, but in fact it was written by Gryce.

Quincy Jones was 20 years old in 1953, and he had been touring with the Lionel Hampton Orchestra, that cradle for so many great jazzmen. He had shown promise as an arranger very young, and had done some arranging for Hampton. I'm trying to figure out if this was his first recording session, both as performer and arranger, and I think it may be.

Art Farmer was only 25, and this was his first session as a leader, and his first session in New York -- his breakthrough had been his West Coast recording with Wardell Gray the previous year. So these were young musicians, guys who had not been around for the birth of bebop, certainly not for the big band era. Jones had played with Hampton; Farmer had had an unsuccessful audition for Dizzy Gillespie's band in 1948, and had played briefly with Jay McShann, before joining the Hampton tour where he met Jones and Monk Montgomery; but basically these were the jazz generation of the 1950s.

Jones, of course, would follow a career trajectory that would take him beyond jazz...if one wants to look at it that way. I don't see jazz as a barrier to creativity that has to be broken through. It was what Jones wanted to do, and he probably wanted to do it from a pretty young age. His first album as a leader, in 1956, was called This is How I Feel About Jazz, which sort of implies "now I've got that out of the way, I'm going to on and tell you how I feel about other things."

It's easy to knock Quincy Jones. Sold out to money and movies and Michael Jackson. One could say of him, in the words of Michael S. Harper's poem,
A friend told me
he'd risen above jazz.
I leave him there.

But he went in the direction, or directions, that his restless talents took him. And his contribution to jazz was real, and significant. His contribution, at age twenty, to his first recording session is pretty damn significant, just as young Art Farmer's was to Wardell Gray, on his first recording session. He's not rising above jazz, whatever that means, in these tunes. He's creating a rich and exciting texture that makes full use of the seven piece band, and makes space for some amazing solos by Farmer.

The only musician over 30 on this date was Monk Montgomery, but he was really just getting started in music. His first professional gig, also with Lionel Hampton, came at age 30. Montgomery was a pioneer of the Fender electric bass, and this session may have been the first use of Fender bass in a jazz recording. "Mau Mau" has some powerful electric bass in the intro, as well as some percussion that seems to be uncredited.

Oh, and I have made a contribution, in a small way, to Oklahoma jazz history. The Oscar Estell page on the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame website says that Estell's only recording session was this one with Art Farmer. I wrote and told them that he had also recorded with Tadd Dameron, and if anyone is actively maintaining the site, hopefully that will be updated.

"Mau Mau" was released as two sides of a 78. "Mau Mau" and "Work of Art" on an EP, and the whole session on a 10-inch LP entitled Work of Art. The later 12-inch release, combined with the Gryce sessions, is described above.



Sunday, March 08, 2015

Listening to Prestige Records Part 90: Contemporary Jazz Ensemble, Mary Lou Williams

The farther away from New York City (with the exception of LA), the less likely for a Prestige recording to survive the test of time, unless you're James Moody and you happen to have stopped in a recording studio in Sweden to try out an unfamiliar alto sax on a little ditty called "I'm in the Mood for Love." But Charlie Mariano and Al Vega and the other musicians who recorded "new sounds from Boston" have slipped through the reissue cracks, and so have the musicians who called themselves, perhaps taking a page from the fledgling Modern Jazz Quartet, the Contemporary Jazz Ensemble. Their session, recorded in Rochester, NY, and released on a 10-incher called New Sounds From Rochester With The Contemporary Jazz Ensemble, has disappeared even more completely than the new sounds from Boston. And although it's not as big a town as Boston, Rochester isn't exactly a musical backwater. It's the home of the Eastman School of Music, which presumably was the magnet that drew these musicians together.

Too bad this one has disappeared; I would have liked to have heard it. I knew Ed Summerlin, the tenor player. He made his mark as a composer of jazz liturgical music which was quite beautiful. One winter back in the 1980s, when I was tending bar in Rosendale, NY, Ed and bassist Charlie Knicely asked if they could use our bandstand on Wednesday nights to rehearse some music they were working on. Wednesday nights of a Rosendale winter did not add up to large crowds, but they just wanted the space, and I was privileged to be their audience. The first Wednesday, it might as well have been one of them in Rochester and the other in Sweden--I couldn't imagine they'd ever come together musically. But every week, as I listened, they brought this difficult music closer together, until they were playing as one, and Wednesdays were a delight. Well, all those Wednesdays were a delight. It was a course in music education for me.

I'm particularly sorry not to be able to listen to this, because it represents a snapshot in time of musicians who were to take remarkably divergent paths. Bob Norden, on trumpet here, later on trombone, stayed with music -- he recorded in 1971 as a member of Bobby Bradford's Spontaneous Music Ensemble, described as "a style somewhere between the freewheeling post-bop of Ornette Coleman and the cerebral improvisations of European avant jazz." Alto player Bob Silberstein moved in a less experimental direction -- his resume includes backing Nat King Cole, Johnny Mathis, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Peggy Lee, Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme, Pearl Bailey and Tony Bennett. And he stayed with music, too -- he released his first album under his own name in 2005. Neil Courtney (Courney on this session) went in a third direction, becoming the double bassist for the National Symphony and the Philadelphia Orchestra. and he too had a long and distinguished career in music, retiring from the Philadelphia Orchestra in 2010. There's a wonderful interview with him here. These are the lives of the unsung heroes who are the backbone of the music you love.

Mary Lou Williams made this recording in London with British session musicians who had interesting Trinidadian connections. Ray Dempsey played for many years with Edmundo Ros, and Trinidad-born Rupert Nurse started by playing calypso, learned big-band jazz from a mail-order book on arranging by Glenn Miller, and when Americans came to the island (the sailor boys immortalized in Norman Span's "Brown Skin Girl"), he began playing with them and writing jazz arrangements of calypsos.

These were issued on the British Esquire label, and then picked up by Prestige for inclusion on a ten-incher along with an Al Haig session.

Williams is a jazz legend and a jazz master. She influenced Thelonious Monk, among others (his "Rhythm-a-ning" is essentially a Williams tune). In 1922, at age 15, she started playing with Duke Ellington's early band, the Washingtonians. She learned her trade in the rough and tumble world of the Midwestern territorial bands, and came to Kansas City with Andy Kirk's Twelve Clouds of Joy. Eventually relocating to New York, she became a mentor to a new young group of musicians including Monk and Dizzy Gillespie, becoming known as the "mother of bebop."

And her recorded work is widely available--with, it seems, the exception of this album. I was able to listen to "Melody Maker" and "Musical Express," both of which seem to have been commissioned by the British music magazines of the same names. She's a unique talent, and an influential one -- you can hear how she influenced Monk. On these sessions, if she reminds me of anyone, it's Art Tatum -- the same incredible virtuosity linked to a wonderful ear for melody and unerring swing. It's odd to think of someone as a link between Tatum, widely considered the greatest piano virtuoso in jazz, and Monk, whose genius is not generally associated with virtuosic performance, but amazingly, the link is there.

The Prestige release is called Al Haig / Mary Lou Williams - Piano Moderns.
 

Friday, March 06, 2015

Listening to Prestige Records Part 89: Modern Jazz Quartet

The 1956 12-inch LP that contained this session, Django, was in my collection and on turntable a lot. I don't remember when I bought it -- certainly not 1956, because I wasn't listening to jazz that early. Probably 1959 or so. By that time, the Django LP had been out long enough to become a classic, and the original releases on 10-inch, 45 and 78 had been out even longer, so I don't know what the first critical reaction was. I'm guessing they hadn't heard anything quite like "The Queen's Fancy" before.

But they had, really. It's still Dizzy Gillespie's rhythm section, guys who'd been around since the birth of bebop, guys who were present at the creation of modern jazz and were playing modern jazz--who had, in fact, even named themselves after modern jazz. And if "The Queen's Fancy" starts out with a fugue that could have been written by Bach, why not? The musical tradition that these great musicians came out of was everything that came before them, the music they were looking to make was everything that lay ahead. Dale Turner, the fictional jazzman played by Dexter Gordon, surprises his French host when he acknowledges his debt to Debussy, but there should be no surprise there, either, any more than a debt to Louis Armstrong, Russian Jewish immigrant composers, or the blues. Duke Ellington was exactly right when he said that there are only two kinds of music, good and bad.

So these beboppers developed something beautiful. Tadd Dameron said it always has to be beautiful, and Lewis, Jackson, Heath and Clarke knew that too. They made beauty out of a fugue, and out of a bebopper's tribute to the hot jazz of the Hot Club of Paris, and out of compositions by Vernon Duke and George Gershwin -- transforming beauty into beauty, which may not sound alchemical, but it surely is.

You take what you know, and take it somewhere new. If you're like John Lewis and his cohorts, you know a lot, and you can see the road ahead with clarity and excitement. I interviewed the poet Billy Collins some years ago, and he described what he did as “a kind of travel writing, a genre in which the poet can take the reader on vicarious trips to places that may be otherwise inaccessible...[I find] a common ground that the reader and I can both stand on...and try to deliver pleasure by taking the reader into a state of suspended animation, where the subject matter is left behind, and other explorations begin." The Modern Jazz Quartet does something very similar, and for that experience to be happening for the reader/listener, it has to be happening for the artist as well, whether that artist be a poet like Collins, a composer like Lewis, a master improviser like Milt Jackson.


This comes from a total involvement with your art. Larry Audette, himself a fine jazzman, told me of a conversation he recently had with Tootie Heath about his brother. Percy, on his deathbed, was still listening to music through headphones. Finally, when it was time, his wife took the headphones off, and he slipped quietly away.

"The Queen's Fancy" and "Autumn in New York" were released as a 45 RPM single. The other two songs weren't, although all were released on 78, in a different configuration -- "The Queen's Fancy" b/w "But Not For Me," and "Delaunay's Dilemma" b/w "Autumn in New York." Odd to think that in 1953 the 78 was still the dominant format, but 78s lasted well into the 50s. According to the Yale Library's guide to music cataloging, the 78 was pretty much phased out by 1955, although there's no exact record of the last 78 to be issued -- in fact, according to Yale, some children's records came out on 78 as late as the 70s. I bought my first record in 1954. I was 14, and it was rock and roll -- "Bazoom," by the Cheers, the first rock and roll hit by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, whose songs I would come to worship with a passion. I think that by the end of that summer, I was buying more 45s than 78s, and by the next year nothing but 45s, so my personal history pretty much tracks the Yale Library, The four songs also came out on a 45RPM EP, which seems to have been a form favored early by Prestige, before they'd really embraced the 45 RPM single. There was a 10-inch LP, and then the classic Django in 1956, and many later repackagings and reissues.