Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Listening to Prestige Records Part 83: Joe Holiday

The big band era ended with World Wat II, and a combination of social and economic factors, and some aesthetic factors as well --people liked the supple acrobatics of the great bebop soloists in a small group setting -- a rhythm section and one or two -- at the most, three -- soloists. But there's still something about the texture, and the power,that can come out of a larger group of musicians, and there was always the temptation to try and recreate it. Dizzy Gillespie put together a big band. Others tried to capture theflavor of the big bands in different ways. Louis Jordan came from the Chick Webb orchestra, and his search for a way to capture the spirit of Chick Webb with a smaller group led to the sound that we now know as one of the cornerstones of rhythm and blues.

Others tried different approaches,and in the early '50s, in what was coming to be known as the poat-bebop era, perhaps the most influential sound of a group that was larger than a sextet was the Miles Davis nonet, which I know I keep coming back to, but you can't help it. And although there were several arrangers for the Birth of the Cool sessions, including John Lewis, who take his search for the new sound in a different direction, perhaps the most influential were two of the greatest arrangers jazz has ever produced: Gerry Mulligan and Gil Evans.

So it's hard to hear a group of this size without thinking of the nonet, and ruminating on what they took from that seminal sould. Joe Holiday, of course, had taken jazz in his own direction, back toward dance music, with his mambo jazz, but this was different. He was coming back toward the mainstream, and although the general public didn't know it yet, that mainstream was flowing from the Royal Roost in 1948, and the records that Ira Gitler described as "the sound heard 'round the world," that were still four years away from being released on an LP by Capitol. I loved the Joe Holiday mambo stuff, but it's easy to see why any jazz musician would want to try putting together this sort of small big band. I hear an Evans influence more than Mulligan in these arrangements.

An octet is an ambitious undertaking, the more so when you remember Bob Weinstock's prohibition on rehearsal time. You have to be be pretty good to hold it together, and Holiday proves himself pretty good, especially when you consider the disparate group of musicians he put together.

It helps to start with Max Roach, the consummate drummer of the era, and a mainstay of many a Prestige recording session. And one of the fathers of bebop.

John Acea was of Cuban ancestry, but not a mambo man. He was born in Philadelphia, and grew up in that city's musical scene. He was gifted on nearly every, but settled on piano after he got out of the army, and played on a wide range of sessions, behind vocalists from Dinah Washington to Patti Page, with jazz groups from Cootie Williams to Zoot Sims. He was one of those guys you're glad to get for a session.

I can't find much on Franklin Skeete, but he was on the scene. There's a Lester Young session with Horace Silver and Connie Kay, a session with Cecil Payne. They're earlier, and it could be that after this session he sort of faded out of the scene.

Payne played up and down the sax scale, but when he settled on baritone, he became one of the leading boppers on the instrument. He was essentially a child of the bebop era, getting his start with J. J. Johnson and Dizzy Gillespie, although he did play a stint with Roy Eldridge, and made some hot R&B sides (with Franklin Skeete) for Decca in 1949.

Idris Sulieman was one of the first jazz musician/Islam converts, with Art Blakey (Abdullah Ibn Buhaina) being the most famous. His early credits show the range in a jazzman's life: studied at the Boston Conservatory of Music, then got his first professional experience with the Carolina Cotton Pickers. Like Cecil Payne, he came up in the bebop era of the 40s, became an important figure in the hard bop era of the 50s. Like Payne, he is treasured by jazz enthusiasts, not really known to the casual listener.

Earle Warren (misspelled on the session list) was from a different source altogether. He was a longtime member of the Basie band, and played some rock and roll with Alan Freed.

So how indebted is Joe Holiday to the Birth of the Cool nonet? I think a lot, especially in the two ballad numbers, "And Now it is Love" and "My Funny Valentine," in their exploration of the tonal and textural possibilities of a medium sized band. I confess I was a little disappointed on first listening not to hear more mambo jazz, and I responded more to the uptempo numbers, "Cotton Candy" and "Martha's Harp." But on repeated listenings, the ballads grew on me, and the disappointment fled.

These came out on 78, 45, and 45/EP; not in album form till many years later, in the reissue days.


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