Sunday, January 25, 2015

Listening to Prestige Records Part 75: Teddy Charles

By the end of 1952, Teddy Charles Cohen had heeded his booking agent's warning that he couldn't book a jazz act with a Jewish name, and had become Teddy Charles full time.

This didn't exactly mean that he was going all out for popular approval. You don't name your latest tune "Composition for Four Pieces" if you're looking to compete on the jukeboxes with "Open the Door, Richard." And if you title another tune "Edging Out." you aren't sending a message that you intend to place yourself square in the center.

On two consecutive days, Bob Weinstock went into the studio with vibraphonists, and for the second straight day, with musicians who were edging out of the bebop orbit, but in different directions. Teddy Charles was lighting out for a territory close to that staked out by Lennie Tristano -- cool, cerebral, imaginative, the work of a serious and innovative composer. Wait a second -- that does sound like John Lewis, doesn't it? And in fact Charles's biographer, Noal Cohen, describes his approach to jazz very much the way Percy Heath described John Lewis's -- "he had developed a compositional approach to jazz performance that attempted to transcend the standard theme statement/solos/theme restatement format." But it's different.

A lot of people were ready to bury bebop by the closing days of 1952, but it was still more than just the musical innovation that had transformed American culture: it was still a vibrant and vital force, deeply influencing even those who were edging out of it. There's no John Lewis, no Teddy Charles, without bebop, and there's still plenty of bebop in what they're playing -- in Charles's case, the lightning fast tempi. As Chuck Berry was to say, "I have no kick against modern jazz / Except they try to play it too darn fast." But speed is exciting, especially when it's executed with the virtuoso precision of a Teddy Charles.

There are three originals here (two by Charles and one, "Composition for Four Pieces" by Jimmy Raney), and one standard -- a bebop standard, that is: Dizzy Gillespie's "A Night in Tunisia." As with the recent Monk outing and the very recent MJQ outing, the mixture of the familiar with originals by three of the most original composers in jazz serves to ground the session, and give new insight into the compositional abilities of each.

The interplay between Charles and Raney is wonderful, with Charles edging Raney further out, and
Raney keeping Charles in touch with his inner bebopper. Dick Nivison seems to have no other recording credits besides those with Teddy Charles, but Charles must have really liked him, because when Bob Weinstock, in 1953, sent Charles out to La-la-land to be his West Coast A&R man, he seems to have taken Nivison with him.

Ed Shaughnessy might have been the kind of drummer that everyone in the business wants, but no one outside of the business remembers. He did a lot of anonymous studio work for TV personalities like Steve Allen and Garry Moore. But then one of those TV studio gigs became 30 years as perhaps the most visible drummer on television, when Doc Severinsen hired him for the Tonight Show orchestra.

The tunes for this session were released on the appropriately named 10-inch LP New Directions, Vol 1, and also on a 45 RPM EP with the same title.

No selections from this session have been posted on YouTube.

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