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.


aclev said...

Hey Tad...I had no idea this blog existed. I was at those Wednesday Ed Summerlin gigs in Rosendale, incredible stuff. In fact, we just spoke of Ed over on the Inconstant Sol blog. (I was also at Opus 40 for the Sonny Rollins gig that became the album and film. Boy, we used to get around when I was in my 20s.)

Craig Nixon

Tad Richards said...

Glad you've found me. I was just thinking about Ed recently. I remember when he and Charlie first started playing Wednesdays at Jacks, they were working out some very complex stuff, and the first couple of sessions, it sounded as though they were on different planets. Then every week, it got tighter and tighter. Great stuff.