Monday, July 14, 2014

Listening to Prestige Records Project - Part 6

Part of the springboard for starting this project was a series of conversations I'd had over time with my Peter Jones, about growing up in love with jazz in the 50s. Peter turned to jazz as an early teen. I came to it later, in college. I remember the night vividly. My dorm room in the World War II barracks that still served as dorms at Bard College then, no roommates around, a little too much to drink (probably - this was something else I'd just learned to do.) AM radio, middle of the night, those odd clear channel stations from all over. Twisting the dial, looking for some late night rhythm and blues. Suddenly hearing the sound I'd been waiting to hear all my life, without knowing it. Standing there, looking at the radio (we did that in those days) transfixed. It was John Coltrane with the Red Garland Trio -- Paul Chambers and Art Taylor. It was the first jazz record I bought, and it was on Prestige -- as were three of my first four jazz records. The other two were Mose Allison's Back Country Suite, and King Pleasure Sings - Annie Ross Sings. The outlier was Gerry Mulligan and Chet Baker on World Pacific.

That night with Trane and Red many years later became a poem, although with poetic license Trane became Miles, and I created a scene that never happened with an older brother I never had. But the poem is true to the heart of experience.


I was just fifteen when Charlie Parker died
My older brother took me aside
And said, Kid, it's a bad day
It's a sad day
Well, I didn't know why and I had to be told
Hey, but I grew up
And I learned my stuff
And I learned enough
And I'm not so old

When I was a kid just starting to move
I filled my soul with that rhythm and blues
And I listened to the Clovers
And the Coasters
And I couldn't get enough of that rock and roll
I was growing up
And the beat was mine
And it still sounds fine
And I'm not so old

Then one night I turned on the radio
Looking for some of that rock and roll
And I heard some bebop
Brought me to a full stop
Didn't know what it was but it moved my soul
I was almost grown
And they said it was Miles
I still dig his style
And I'm not so old

I saw Monk dance around the Five Spot floor
And a cat from Texas made the Five Spot roar
His sax was plastic
His sound fantastic
And I went back again to hear Ornette blow
I was all grown up
And he made jazz free
Still sounds good to me
And I'm not so old

Once they said that jazz had passed away
But I go down to hear the young cats play
They play in the tradition
They've got a mission
They play sweet and strong and free and bold
Well, I may be grown
But the cats blow on
And the music's young
And I'm not so old
Anyway, that's my particular love affair with Prestige. Shared by everyone? I'm not sure. Prestige, as I've noted before, has been somewhat the forgotten stepbrother to Blue Note. The New York Times' obituary for Bob Weinstock was a little backhanded -- " Prestige releases...weren't known for perfection. Mr. Weinstock generally set up recording sessions with no rehearsal time."

Well, perfection is overrated. And Peter Jones and I, talking about those days, have commented on what we remember as the incredible level of quality of those independent jazz labels -- it was all good.

Was it? I guess that's what I'll be finding out with this blog project. Next up, April 8, 1949, the Stan Getz Octet, including Five Brothers.

We think of the guys like Getz who became such giants in their field as having been born leading a group, playing "Desafinado" on TV, but Stan was 22 and newly graduated from the Woody Herman band, in one of his first sessions as a leader. Even at 22, he was a veteran - he'd joined the Jack Teagarden band at 16, when he was so young that Teagarden made him his ward.

An octet is big for a small jazz group, small for a big band, and this album is not big band jazz, certainly -- it's the combo format,a stated theme followed by virtuosic soloing, that was the hallmark of the bebop era. The most famous large small combo of the era -- or what came to be the most famous, since it was pretty much ahead of its time, was the Miles Davis "Birth of the Cool" nonet. Getz's octet was more straight-ahead -- I guess in the Prestige tradition of getting a bunch of guys together to blow with no rehearsal (although actually alternate takes don't seem to be so rare).

Getz was best known at this time as one of the Herman Herd's "four brothers," the four-saxophone section of Getz, Serge Chaloff, Zoot Sims and Herbie Steward -- and later Al Cohn. Sims and Cohn are the carryovers from those brothers, joined now by Alan Eager (a Herman alum but not a brother) and Brew Moore -- four tenor players, with Getz choosing baritone for this session. There's actually a sixth saxophone-playing brother involved, and this one makes them stepbrothers, in a way, to Miles' nonet -- Gerry Mulligan is listed as arranger.

I am writing this blog as a fan, as an archivist, not as a music critic or musicologist. I'm not that good. I can't tell you who's soloing when. I'd be a washout on a Leonard Feather blindfold test. In his bio of Brew Moore, critic Scott Yanow suggests that as a quintet of Lester Young acolytes, they all pretty much sounded the same on that session, so maybe I'm not the only one.

I can tell you that this is real Prestige jazz, the kind that makes you glad you're a jazz fan, and you get to sit still and listen to it, or snap your fingers to it, or stand still in the middle of the night and stare at whatever your contemporary equivalent to an old AM radio is. YouTube and Spotify both have this
session completely represented, including the alternate takes.
Both takes of "Battleground" were actually released on 78, one as Prestige release and the other as a New Jazz. So I was able to listen to all of it.

All the brothers were young. Al Cohn and Zoot Sims were 24,  Brew Moore was 25, Alan Eager like Getz a junior member at 22. But all were seasoned veterans. And all the brothers were valiant. Having five brothers in a small combo means succinct solos, and they make it work brilliantly. Generally a string of solos means a cutting contest. Here it's brotherly love, and wonderful cooperation to make a unified sequence.

In "Battle of the Saxes" (the only one without an alternate take) one gets the feeling that if they'd had just a little rehearsal time, they might have learned the tune, but once they start soloing, it could matter less.

With all those horns, there's not a lot of space for solos from the rhythm section, but Walter Bishop, Jr. has a few nice moments on piano. The others are Gene Ramey (bass) and Charlie Perry (drums). I wasn't at all familiar with Perry, but research reveals he's considered one of the great teachers of drumming technique, and one of his books on jazz drumming (co-authored with Jack deJohnette) is available (excerpted) online.

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