Friday, July 31, 2015

Listening to Prestige Part 135: Modern Jazz Quartet

I've mentioned that the MJQ was formed in part out of John Lewis's dissatisfaction with the head-solos-head format that had become ubiquitous in bebop, and this recording session, in its own unique way, is a break from that format, in that it's solo-solo-solo-solo.

Well, not exactly. But perhaps Lewis, in his own way, is simultaneously playing tribute to the classic bebop form and standing it on its ear.  "La Ronde" in a shorter version was part of an earlier MJQ session. The shorter version was a reworking of an earlier Lewis composition, "Two Bass Hit,"originally composed for the Dizzy Gillespie orchestra. The newly Europeanized title -- La Ronde is a fin de siecle play by the Viennese playwright Arthur Schnitzler -- is in keeping with the European classical -- and particularly Francophile -- overlay that Lewis was putting on American bebop. Under either title, it's a good piece, and as "Two Bass Hit" it's become a jazz standard.

As "La Ronde," it makes more sense in its extended suite version. The Schnitzler play is a tag team
series of sexual encounters, and "La Ronde Suite" is a sort of tag team, as well. It's in four sections, with each section featuring a different member of the group in an extended solo.

Kenny Clarke is the drummer for the "La Ronde Suite," and it was his last recording with the group. By their next session, in July, Connie Kay had replaced him.

Most people think of Kay as the quintessential MJQ drummer, and with good reason. He was with them for 40 years. He was a perfect ensemble drummer, in a group that emphasized the ensemble sound. Clarke was one of the innovators of bebop drumming, and like his fellow pioneers Max Roach and Art Blakey, he was much more of a soloist. "La Ronde Suite" would have been different without him.

"La Ronde Suite" was first issued on a 10-inch, The Modern Jazz Quartet Vol. 2, but it's most famous as part of the MJQ's Django album.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Listening to Prestige Part 134: Teddy Charles

This is my first Prestige encounter with an old friend -- J. R. Monterose, who spent many years of his career upstate New York, where he played with the same passion and flair that he brought to his big apple gigs with musicians like Teddy Charles and Charles Mingus. And Teddy Charles could not have chosen a better cat for the saxophone part in this session, which is marked throughout by the closeness of communication between those three principals. So let's talk about the music.

"Violetta" gives good solo space to everyone, and some really interesting duet interplay between Charles and Monterose.

"I Can't Get Started" is taken at a slow tempo, and for about the first half is a meditative solo by Charles. Then Mingus comes in, and stays around for a while -- a longer bass solo than one is used to in recorded jazz, and his musicality never flags--nor does it when he remains prominent, weaving in and out of J. R.'s solo. J. R. would work again with Mingus on his classic Pithecanthropus Erectus album on Atlantic.

"Jay Walkin'" starts with a solo by Mingus, then turns into a three-way conversation between Charles, Mingus and Monterose, sort of like the strands of a lanyard.

"Speak Low," I've just discovered after playing a small role in a production of Much Ado About
Nothing, was actually written by Shakespeare. Well, the first line is. The rest of the song is a collaboration between very European Kurt Weill and very American Ogden Nash. The collaboration was an odd one, but it worked for the musical One Touch of Venus, which produced this song. Actually, the collaboration between the mostly far-out Teddy Charles and the mostly straight ahead J. R. Monterose is an interesting one, too, but Charles often sought out collaborators who kept him grounded. This one starts off with a haunting solo by J. R. on Weill's haunting melody, gives Jerry Segal a chance to show what he can do, and ends with something almost like a restatement of the head.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Listening to Prestige Part 65a: Zoot Sims

(Still filling in gaps from 1952. This incredible session just showed up on YouTube).

Al Cohn and Zoot Sims had played together a lot, starting with Woody Herman, and they would go on to be one of the most satisfying saxophone pairings in jazz history, but this was their first session together in a group led by one of them, and they hit the ground running. Having Kai Winding along doesn't hurt either.

"Tangerine" is a beautiful melody by movie composer Victor Schertzinger. It was given its most popular treatment in 1942 by Jimmy Dorsey, around the time that Zoot was joining the Benny Goodman orchestra as a teenager. It gets a swing to bop treatment here, starting with some amazing counterpointing by Cohn and Winding behind a Sims lead on the head, and then giving plenty of solo room to all three of them.

"Zootcase" begins with a complex lead-in by George Wallington to a simple but catchy unison riff by the three horns, terrific solo work by each of them, with the continued strong presence of Wallington, culminating in a piano solo, then a Blakey solo, after which the ensemble riffs it out.

"The Red Door" is a composition by Gerry Mulligan and Zoot Sims. As with "Tangerine," it starts with an intricate interplay between solo and ensemble, leading into a beautiful, lyrical solo by Zoot, followed by Kai and Al. One expects Al and Zoot to know just how to play together, and how to bring out the best in each other, but Kai adds one more piece of complete understanding to the mix.

"Morning Fun"  is an Al and Zoot composition, played by the quintet after Kai Winding had packed up for the day, and it's more of a blowing session, starting with vivid, uptempo cadenza leading into a two-horn riff, leading into lots more good stuff. George Wallington only takes a brief solo at the end, but his presence is felt throughout.

"Tangerine" and "Zootcase" were released on an eponymous EP. All four tunes came out on a ten-inch entitled Zoot Sims All Stars, and again packaged with a Stan Getz session (and continuing to trade on the Woody Herman classic) as The Brothers. Modern jazz did have a sense of humor--witness Dizzy Gillespie and Slim Gaillard, among others--but modern jazz packaging was not generally noted for much of a sense of humor, so it's interesting that Prestige had Don Martin as one of its album cover artists. Martin only did about a half dozen covers for them, and I don't know if the association ended because it turned out there was no room in jazz packaging for a sense of humor, or just because he went to work full time for Mad.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Listening to Prestige Part 63a: Bennie Green

(Filling in holes - sessions I wasn't able to find and listen to before. This one goes back to 1952.)

I said in my previous Bennie Green entry that "Bennie Green could play anything, and he pretty much proves it on this set." Well, he didn't quite show everything he could do on that October 1951 session of  "big band swing ... gutbucket blues ... supercharged bebop with some R&B honking thrown in for good measure... a standard with a bebop treatment... a honk-a-thon with two classic honkers, and ... rhythm and blues if the rhythm section were a little more predictable, but it's not. What else could you possibly want?"

What else? What about a string section?

There was a mini-vogue for jazz and strings, kicked off by Charlie Parker's 1950 recordings. Green was one of the first. Chet Baker would follow in 1953 (and later, with 50 Italian strings, in 1959). Clifford Brown in 1955, Billie Holiday in 1958. But there wasn't exactly a pattern set for it, and Green wasn't much for following patterns anyway.

I was able to find and listen to two tracks from this session. Gershwin's "Embraceable You" begins with a lush string passage that could have come from a Jackie Gleason album, but doesn't stay that way. As soon as Green's trombone enters, the strings move into a dialog with him that takes some unexpected and pleasurable turns. Gershwin's songs lend themselves to almost endless possibilities of interpretation. Green's solo work is soulful, sweet, and sometimes even a little dirty. Hey. there are all kinds of embraces.

Tommy Potter never soloed much, and he doesn't exactly solo here, but on "Serenade to Love" he plays a very cool bass line against the string section.

Bill Harris won most of the trombone polls in that era, and then J. J. Johnson. J. J. and Kai were the big story on trombone, once they got together and formed an unforgettable quintet. Scott Yanow, reviewing a reissue for, notes that "trombonist Bennie Green is heard on four ballads from 1952 while backed by a rhythm section and six strings. However, the more significant selections are eight songs that for the first time matched together trombonists J.J. Johnson and Kai Winding..." and he's right. They're historically more significant, and musically very important. But so was Bennie Green, although this session with strings is nearly impossible to find.

The four selections from this session were issued on a 45 RPM EP and two 78s. Prestige liked to package Bennie, JJ and Kai together, with a little confusion as a result. There are two different albums called Trombone by Three.  Prestige PRLP 7023, with a magnificent cover by Don Martin before his Mad magazine days, features selections by the Bennie Green Septet along with selections from separate Johnson and Winding quintets. PRLP 7030 has the tunes from this session, and is titled Kai and Jay - Bennie Green with Strings. But then there's a 16 2/3 album, also called Trombone by Three, with a cover by Andy Warhol before his Campbell's Soup can days, that includes selections from both Bennie Green sessions. If you have a copy of the 16 2/3 version, you probably won't be able to play it, but you'll have some neat cover art.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Listening to Prestige Part 133: Wrapping up 1954

What did 1954 in jazz look like?

I wonder if jazz has a sort of an ongoing death wish. What's that you say? Jazz is the most popular form of music in America? I know! We'll change it! We'll invent a new kind of jazz that nobody likes! Wait...what's that you're saying now? People are getting used to bebop? It's getting popular again? They're using it in movie and TV scores? We can't have that. Let's invent something that absolutely no one understands.

But in the mid-Fifties, we were sort of between self-destructs. No one was quite ready for Birth of the Cool, but that's OK, Capitol had put it on the shelf, and wouldn't be re-releasing it for another couple of years.

But look what was happening. Playboy had begun publication in 1953, with an article on the Dorsey Brothers in its inaugural issue, and Hefner would continue to promote jazz to a mass audience. Mort Sahl described Playboy as a magazine devoted to sports cars and seduction. "The sports cars are in the front, under 'Science,' and the fiction?" He could have added jazz under "Art," but that would have killed the joke, jazz actually being an important art form and all.

Jazz wasn't entirely recognized in America yet, but it certainly was in Europe. Benny Goodman and Louis Armstrong became worldwide ambassadors to Europe and beyond -- Armstrong made his first tour of Japan in 1954, and Goodman would soon become the first jazzman to duet with the jazz-loving King of Thailand. But it wasn't just the traditionalists. An odd offshoot of the Cold War was the CIA's theory that one weapon in the West's arsenal would be avant grade art, since the socialist realists behind the Iron Curtain hated it. So through liberal front organizations, they sponsored abstract expressionist painting, even though they probably mostly hated it in private, and...modern jazz. Dizzy Gillespie was another jazz ambassador sent off on world tours, and if it took the Europeans a little while to appreciate the moderns, they caught on a lot more quickly than the Americans did.

One of the big jazz tours of 1954 was Lionel Hampton's, and while Hamp wasn't exactly a bebopper, or even particularly sympathetic to bebop, he had a history of hiring musicians with a modern bent. His great proto-rhythm and blues bands of the 1940s had future beboppers including Johnny Griffin and Charles Mingus. And the Prestige catalog for 1954 is full of recordings by that year's touring Hampton band.

Bebop was turning into hard bop, which was pretty much the same music, except with a little more recognition of the possibility that people might actually like it.

But perhaps the two biggest moves toward developing a new jazz audience in 1954 were when jazz, in the person of a certain Mr. Brubeck, went to college, and when jazz invaded high society as George Wein staged the first Newport Jazz Festival. Here’s the complete lineup for that first fest:

Prologue – STAN KENTON

Traditional Jazz with Wild Bill Davidson, Lou McGarrity, Peanuts Hucko, Ralph Sutton, Cliff Leemans, Bobby Hackett, Pee Wee Russell, Vic Dickenson, Bud Freeman, Jo Jones, Milt Hinton


Milt Jackson, Kenny Clark, Percy Heath, Horace Silver

OSCAR PETERSON with Ray Brown, Herb Ellis


Wade Legge, Charlie Persip, Lew Hackney, Hank Mobley

Red Mitchell, Frank Isola, Tony Frisee

Introduction: STAN KENTON

Lester Young, Buck Clayton, Vic Dickenson, Jo Jones, Milt Hinton, Teddy Wilson





Al McKibbon, Bill Clarke, Jon Thielmans, George Devens

Jo Jones, Milt Hinton

Billy Bauer, Peter Ind, Jeff Morton

Teddy Napoleon, Eddie Shu

John Lewis, Jimmy Woode, Shadow Wilson

The lineup for the MJQ is interesting...Horace Silver? But apparently John Lewis was busy at the time, backing up Ella Fitzgerald.

Of course, you may go to college, and you may go to school, and you may drive a pink Cadillac but you may still have history running against you if in the same year that your music is beginning gain in popularity, a kid named Elvis Presley releases his first record.

Well, you can't have everything. Jazz is still looking pretty good in 1954.

Here is the list of the top albums of 1954 from -- as usual, it's an eccentric list, but an interesting one. I've cut out the non-jazz albums, but jazz, as always, figures high with the rateyourmusic folks. I've just put in a few notes here and there.

1 Clifford Brown and Max Roach (EmArcy)
  • This became a group of legend, and an album of legend, because of Brownie's untimely death, so it may rank higher now than it would have then, but it would have ranked pretty high then. Everyone always knew how good they were.
2 A Night at Birdland, Vol. 1 --Art Blakey Quintet (Blue Note)

3 Louis Armstrong Plays W. C. Handy (Columbia)

4 Chet Baker Sings (Pacific Jazz)
  • No one much liked this when it came out. The consensus was that it should have been Chet Baker Plays, and otherwise shuts up. But in the intervening years it's developed a cult following. Maybe I should listen to it again. Geoff Dyer, in his book of meditations on jazz and jazz musicians, suggests that because Chet Baker was completely soulless, his music had a purity that could touch the soul of any listener. And I suspect that's easier to do with an instrument than with a voice.
5 The Amazing Bud Powell, Vol. 2 (Blue Note)

6 A Night at Birdland, Vol. 2 --Art Blakey Quintet (Blue Note)

7 Dinah Jams --Dinah Washington (EmArcy)
  • This is one of my favorite vocal albums ever. It's got Brown and Roach, and Harold Land and Maynard Ferguson and Clark Terry and more, and Dinah really does jam with them, as few vocalists can jam.
9 Songs for Young Lovers -- Frank Sinatra (Capitol)
  • It was the accepted wisdom back in the Fifties that Sinatra could have been a real jazz singer if he'd challenge himself, and work with real jazz musicians, well, later on, when he started Reprise, his own label, he did record with musicians like Count Basie. But ask anyone what's the best Sinatra - Columbia, Capitol, or Reprise - and you'll get the same answer nine times out of ten: Capitol. Sinatra was a real jazz singer in the Fifties, and the Nelson Riddle arrangements gave him the flexibility to do his best work.
13 Lester Young With The Oscar Peterson Trio (Norgran)

14 The Consummate Artistry of Ben Webster (Norgran)

15 Jazz Goes to College --The Dave Brubeck Quartet (Columbia)
  • If this were a list of the most influential albums of the year, this one would have a strong claim on Number One. Brubeck set out to find a new audience for jazz, and he found it. Or created it.
17 Afro Dizzy Gillespie (Norgran)

18 Images --Sarah Vaughan (EmArcy)
  • I would have thought this had come earlier. It has what may be the quintessential bebop vocal, "Shulie a Bop," the one in which she introduces the members of her band, including "Roy (drumroll) ... Haynes (drumroll)."
19 Something Cool --June Christy (Capitol)

22 Piano Solo --Thelonious Monk( Swing)

23 Swing Easy! --Frank Sinatra (Capitol)

25 Songs in a Mellow Mood --Ella Fitzgerald (Decca)

26 After Hours With Miss D --Dinah Washington (EmArcy)

28 Chris Connor Sings Lullabys of Birdland  (Bethlehem)

29 Thelonious Monk Quintet Blows for LP (Prestige)

34 Chet Baker and Strings (Columbia)

35 Jazz at College of the Pacific --The Dave Brubeck Quartet (Columbia)

38 Lester Young With The Oscar Peterson Trio (Norgran)

40 Lennie Niehaus Vol.1 The Quintets (Contemporary)

41 A Night at Birdland, Vol. 3 --Art Blakey Quintet (Blue Note)

44 Kenny Dorham Quintet (Debut)

47 Billie Holiday at Jazz at the Philharmonic (Clef)

48 Blakey (Fontana)

50 Pleyel Concert, Vol. 1 -- Gerry Mulligan (Vogue)

I’m still waiting on Down Beat to create a complete digital archive of its back issues, so I can get a better sense of what’s happening at a given moment in jazz. The New Yorker continues to shy away from modern jazz in its club listings, but we do know that as the year ends Errol Garner is at The Embers; Basin Street has Duke Ellington, Don Shirley and Roy Hamilton; George Shearing and Tito Puente share billing at Birdland; and Marian McPartland is at Hickory House. Jorie’s Purple Onion is primarily a showcase for comedian Jorie Reimes, but Jackie and Roy are also on the bill.

Billboard didn't cover a whole lot of jazz, and their year-end Disc Jockey Poll mostly reached out to DJs like Jack Lacy--not the sort that played a whole of Bird, Pres, Shearing or Count Basie. Their idea of the top jazz albums of the year:

Which tells you, among other things, that even among the Listening to Lacy set, Brubeck was making a major impact.

Here are their choices for best small instrumental combo, and here some more jazz starts nudging out some of the easy listening:

Looking further into the Disc Jockey Poll for 1954, one finds some interesting stuff, starting with this bit of difference between DJs then and DJs now:

Who selects the records played on your show?
  • Myself                 492
  • Program manager    1
  • Music librarian        9
  • Assistant                 1
 And this does strike me as interesting, if mildly off the subject, because I would have thought that the death knell had pretty much been rung for 78s by this time.

What record speed is your station equipped to play?
  • 78          509
  • 45           461
  • 33 1/3     494

Billboard's chief interest was in the business end of the music business, so this article, in the same year-end wrapup issue, gives a pretty good insight into how the jazz business was coming along. There was even the possibility of...binaural jazz!

In the AllAboutJazz timeline for the year, heroin unfortunately continues to be a main part of the jazz story. Miles Davis has kicked addiction, and returned to the recording studio. But Sonny Rollins has decided he needs to take a break from playing, and try to kick his habit. John Coltrane has just been Johnny Hodges for drug use, and he retreats into the rhythm and blues scene, playing for, among others, Jimmy Smith and Big Maybelle, who announces to the audience in the middle of a set that Coltrane is her favorite musician.

And here are the Down Beat Readers' Poll winners for the year:

Hall of Fame: Stan Kenton
Personalities of the Year-Popular: Frank Sinatra, Rosemary Clooney
Personalities of the Year-Jazz: Dave Brubeck
Personalities of the Year-Latin American: Perez Prado
Personalities of the Year-Rhythm & Blues: Ruth Brown
Dance Band: Les Brown
Jazz Band: Stan Kenton
Combo-Instrumental: Dave Brubeck
Vocal Group: Four Freshmen
Alto Saxophone: Charlie Parker
Tenor Saxophone: Stan Getz
Baritone Saxophone: Gerry Mulligan
Trumpet: Chet Baker
Trombone: Bill Harris
Clarinet: Buddy DeFranco
Drums: Shelly Manne
Vibes: Terry Gibbs
Bass: Ray Brown
Guitar: Johnny Smith
Piano: Oscar Peterson
Accordion: Art Van Damme
Miscellaneous Instrument: Don Elliot-Mellophone
Arranger: Pete Rugolo
Male Singer (Not Band): Frank Sinatra
Girl Singer (Not Band): Ella Fitzgerald
Male Singer (With Band): Tommy Mercer
Girl Singer (With Band): Lucy Ann Polk

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Listening to Prestige Part 132: Jon Eardley

These days on Sirius/XM they have five channels in their jazz/standards section, one of which is devoted to the 1940s (defined rather loosely), one to the blues, two to some forms of smooth jazz or new age or something--I can't tell you exactly what because I don't listen to them--and one called "real jazz."

Jon Eardley is real jazz. He didn't make the mark that some of his trumpet contemporaries did, but he's still for real. As Marc Myers says in a JazzWax blog entry on Eardley,
Jazz was so crowded with talent in the 1950s that it's easy for great artists from the decade to slip into obscurity today. This is especially true of trumpet players. We fixate on Miles Davis, Chet Baker, Kenny Dorham and Clifford Brown, not to mention Dizzy Gillespie, Harry "Sweets" Edison and Roy Eldridge. Rightfully so, but there were plenty of others. One who deserves much more recognition than he has received thus far is Jon Eardley.
Eardley did one earlier Prestige session, with Phil Woods, about which I said "if two guys were ever made to play together, it's Phil Woods and Jon Eardley."

Eardley most frequently played in a quintet-or-more setting, but here he's the only horn, which means he has a lot to carry, and he's up to it. I don't really have the language to describe what's unique about his style, so I'll go to Marc Myers again:

What made Eardley special during the '50s was his ability to blow hot but with laid-back  distinction. The faster the tempo, the more harmoniously rich he would become, taking on a rolling, punctuating style.
I can say that his style is distinctive, with a beautiful tone that takes advantage of what a trumpet can do, the same thing I hear in Art Farmer.

Eardley had left the New York jazz scene by the end of the 50s, and by the mid-60s he had moved to Europe, where he lived the rest of his life, raised a family, and put his family first, not every jazz musician's choice. He explained to British interviewer Les Tomkins:
I live in Cologne now, together with my wife and two children. I work with what they call the Westdeutscher Rundfunk, which is the German radio in Cologne. This has been the case for practically nine years, and now it’s come to the point that they’ve decided they want the orchestra I work with to be full–time. In other words, when I can’t play the trumpet any more they’ll still pay me. Because of the fact that I am married and have children, I don’t like to travel too much. You can understand that—I like to be around my children while they’re growing up
These tunes were cut in Los Angeles, where Eardley had gone to play with Gerry Mulligan. One has to guess at a couple of the titles -- has them as "Lute Leader" and "Cross," Spotify as "Late Leader" and "Gloss," Discogs as "Late Leader" and "Cross." Eardley didn't record often in a quartet setting, so here he has the opportunity and the challenge of stretching out, and he delivers.

These tunes were released on New Jazz and Prestige 10-inchers as Jon Eardley In Hollywood.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Listening to Prestige Part 131: Miles Davis

This is an all-star's all-star session, and one might wonder why they didn't do it more often, but the wonder seems to be, instead, how they got through it at all. In terms of personality clash, it's one of the great disasters in jazz history. In terms of music, it's magnificent.

The big story that came out of the session was Miles and Monk almost coming to blows. Or so some say. Miles says no. Actually, everyone says no, as far as actual blows being landed.

Monk says no: "Miles'd got killed if he it me."

Miles agrees: Monk "was too big and strong for me to even be thinking about fighting."

But there was an argument. You can hear part of it on take one of "The Man I Love," at which point Miles may have been a little fed up with Monk. Monk can be heard asking when he should start playing, and Miles breaks in, telling Rudy Van Gelder, "Hey Rudy, put this on the record, man – all of it!"

So all of it is there.

If Monk's question seems a little odd, it's because Miles had told him, earlier in the session, to lay out -- to stop playing during Miles's solo -- and Monk had not taken kindly to the suggestion.

But no fisticuffs. Ira Gitler, who was there for part of the session but did not produce it, writes,

things were not serene when I left towards the dinner hour (the session had started somewhere between two and three in the afternoon). Later that night, at Minton's, I saw Kenny Clarke who answered my "How did it go?" with "Miles sure is a beautiful cat," which was his way of saying that despite the obstacles Miles had seen it through and produced something extraordinary and lasting.

One of those obstacles is described by drummer Charli Persip in a video interview. Persip had been invited to the session by his mentor, Kenny Clarke, and as he tells it,
I'm sitting there in heaven. Here I am in the same room with Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis. And Monk...there's one spot on one tune where Monk's solo -- he started playing ding-da-ding-ding-ding-ding, ding-ding-ding, ding-da-ding-ding-ding -- what happened was, he had a beer, and he knocked it over on the floor, and he was trying to get that beer up
before Rudy Van Gelder would see it, because he knew there'd be hell to pay, so he's fumbling around down there trying to get the bottle to stop it from leaking on the rug, and at the same time he was still playing the solo! And after, to keep Rudy off of him -- Rudy came in with a rag, and he was fussing and carrying on, but he wasn't really too upset, because it wasn't his equipment, it was just the rug. But Monk wanted to impose his will on [Persip says "Rudy" here, but I'm sure he means Miles], so every time [Miles] would start playing, he'd stand up and look stupid, just look off into space...Everybody broke up, every time he did it."
And the story gets a little mumbly here, but basically Miles told him to cut it out, which is probably why, by the time they got to  "The Man I Love," Miles told Rudy to leave everything in.

And once again, one has to tip one's hat in gratitude to Mr. and Mrs. Van Gelder, who no doubt had to deal with the beer stains on their living room rug.

The session itself...what more can you say than that it's great? And, fortunately, take one of "Bags' Groove" was preserved, so we hear Monk's beer solo. And one could say, with Ernie Bushmiller's Nancy, that this shows you could get away with anything in bebop...but it's actually a wonderful solo. A little strange, but musical. And reaching up from the floor, scrambling around for his beer, Monk still swings. And appropriately enough, Bags finds the groove and adds some appropriate fills.

At any event, this is the only studio album Miles and Monk ever made together, and it may help to explain why the Columbia album Miles and Monk at Newport actually features the two cats leading two different groups, in two different years.

The ready-for-prime time version of "Bags' Groove" made it onto a 10-inch, Miles Davis All-Stars, along with "Swing Spring," a Davis original.  Monk's "Bemsha Swing" and the approved version of "The Man I Love" are on a second 10-inch, Miles Davis All-Stars Vol 2. Miles Davis and the Modern Jazz Giants, on the short lived 16 2/3 format, had the whole session, along with an earlier 1954 session. All except for the two versions of "Bags' Groove" also appeared on the standard 33 1/3 RPM 12-inch LP of the same title, released in 1959. The two versions of "Bags' Groove" were on an LP of the same name, released in 1957.

Wednesday, July 08, 2015

Listening to Prestige Part 130: Modern Jazz Quartet

Given the long and illustrious career of the Modern Jazz Quartet, the many amazing recordings they made, and the fact that most people consider the real MJQ to date with the installation of Connie Kay as drummer, it would be hard to point to any one album as their best.

But Django, the album that includes this session, and which has Kenny Clarke on drums, is the one that frequently makes lists of the hundred best jazz albums.

Perhaps it's because this is an almost mythic era in modern jazz. The late 40s (mostly because of Charlie Parker) and especially the 1950s were the time that really defined it.

Or that's one theory. I decided to put it to a test, so I looked at the New Yorker's list of 100 essential jazz albums, and found that 29 of them were recorded in the 50s, or partly in the 50s. There were a few more that I could have counted because they were released in 1960, and so were probably recorded in 1959, but they were albums like My Favorite Things that really belong to the 60s. Actually, a lot of the albums recorded in the 50s were by artists we don't really associate with the 50s, but what can you do? If I left them out, it would mess up my theory. Anyway, here's the list: Armstrong, Ellington, Basie, Benny Carter, Parker, Monk and Coltrane, Tristano, Davis 2, Powell, Mulligan, MJQ, Tatum, Brown/Roach, Vaughan/Brown, Mingus 2, Fitzgerald, Rollins 2, Puente, Sun Ra, Abbey Lincoln, Blakey, Jamal, Brubeck, Witherspoon, Coleman, Dinah Washington, Betty Carter, Sinatra.

Not every great jazz classic is a great composition. Some of the best -- best performances, best improvisations, best damn records -- are based on simple riffs. Look at Dexter Gordon and Wardell Gray's unforgettable "The Chase." Look at "One Bass Hit," from this session. It was written by Dizzy Gillespie for Ray Brown, and it's a showpiece for bass virtuosity -- one that allows a bass to become the lead instrument for an entire piece of music. Here, it allows Percy Heath to show what he can do, and it's delicious.

But "Django" is a great composition. It's one of the most haunting melodies I've ever heard. It carries a touch of the Eurojazz of Django Reinhardt, a touch of the blues, a touch of...well, here's guitarist Jim Hall describing it:
This tune has a beautifully constructed melody. It starts out with a kind of a simple motive in F-minor. Kind of a slightly sad idea for a melody, and then so it's this, and then there's a sequence, which is up a second, except that goes up instead of down. So first, it's this perfect answer and then it continues. It's going into the relative major key, if anybody cares, now it has some surprises. It has a great arrival point, that high G, and then it winds its way down. Almost sounds like he's saying Django's name here. And then the same thing an octave lower. So that's the tune anyway. It has kind of simple chords, but beautiful.
 "Milano" is the third tune on the session. Another beautiful melody, but there's a reason "Django" became the title cut for the album, and a reason why it's the one that's most remembered. They also recorded "I'll Remember April" that day, and it was never released. It's hard to imagine the MJQ screwing up "I'll Remember April" and maybe they didn't -- maybe it was a technical flaw of some sort. In any event, they re-recorded it successfully the following July.

 "Django" was released as a two-sided 45, and the three tunes made an EP, and were included (with "La Ronde") on a 10-inch LP, before the release of the classic 12-inch album which has made so many top 100 lists.

Saturday, July 04, 2015

Listening to Prestige Part 129: Billy Taylor

I may be forgetting something, but I think this is the first live album we've seen from Prestige. There was a Wardell Gray session recorded at the Bluebird, but never released.

The Billy Taylor trio is without regular drummer Charlie Smith. Percy Brice, the drummer on this session, did do quite a bit of work with Taylor.

We're starting to see the the generation of musicians who were born in the mid-Thirties, the Depression babies like Paul Chambers, on a more and more sessions, but Percy Brice is an old-timer, born in 1923, and already a veteran of a lot of jazz. A solid professional, he can be heard in this short interview, where he talks about following Max Roach as the drummer in Benny Carter's band. He played with a wide range of musicians, from Carter to George Shearing to Herbie Mann, and vocalists including Sarah Vaughan and Carmen MacRae, and especially Harry Belafonte, who he worked with for eight years.

Jazz in a concert hall was still a relatively rare phenomenon, and this set by Taylor was part of a larger program of jazz for that evening. For Taylor, one of the best things about was that he was able to play a 9-foot concert grand piano, which was not the standard fare for his club dates.

Taylor must have known that his Town Hall audience was going to want to hear some standards, so he mostly sticks with them. His one original on this set, "Theodora," fits right in with tunes like "A Foggy Day" and "I'll Remember April." "Theodora," dedicated to his wife, was written on the day of the concert and is basically unrehearsed.

"Sweet Georgia Brown" certainly was in 1954 most closely associated with the Harlem Globetrotters, and maybe still is. It's a staple of trad jazz, not so much of modern (although Charlie Parker recorded it), but Taylor makes it fit right in here. Taylor is mellifluous but always inventive, easy to listen to but definitely not easy listening.

Actually the odd tune out here is "How High the Moon." The others are all song length, three to five minutes. "Moon" tops 13, and features an extended drum solo by Brice. "How High the Moon" is probably most famous, in progressive jazz circles, as being the set of chord changes over which Charlie Parker fashioned "Ornithology."

All but "How High the Moon" were released on a 10-inch LP. The entire set is on the 1957 12-inch release.

Friday, July 03, 2015

Listening to Prestige Part 128: King Pleasure/Quincy Jones

Every King Pleasure session leaves me with more questions. How exactly did he fit into Prestige's world? How did he fit into anyone's? He has to have been one of Prestige's bestselling artists, but he seems to have been recorded as an afterthought, generally with a rhythm and blues band. This session is unusual in that he has a fantastic array of A-list musicians backing him up, but it also doesn't seem that it was exactly his session.

And we've seen this before, too. In 1952 there's a session by the Charlie Ferguson Quintet. Ferguson didn't exactly become a household word, even in jazz households, although he put together a fine group, including bassist Peck Morrison. And of the eight songs recorded that day, six of them instrumentals, Prestige only released four, and only two of them were Ferguson instrumentals. The other two that did get released featured a vocalist. Yes, it was King Pleasure, and yes, these two have become jazz classics: "Red Top" (also featuring Betty Carter) and "Jumpin' With Symphony Sid."

So here, again. That session is listed in the Prestige discography as "The Charlie Ferguson Quintet" with King Pleasure. For this one, at least Pleasure gets top billing: King Pleasure with Quincy Jones Band. But again, two cuts with vocals, two without.

This is the fifth of five sessions Pleasure would do for Prestige. They'd be collected in the now-legendary King Pleasure Sings/Annie Ross Sings LP in 1957. By then Pleasure had gone on to record a couple of singles for Aladdin (including a remake of "Moody's Mood for Love"), then Jubilee, HiFi Jazz, and United Artists ("Moody's Mood" again). Then nothing. He died in 1981, pretty much forgotten. I was only able to find one obituary, on a blog called The People vs. Dr. Chilledair, a reprint of a piece the author had written in 1981 for the LA Jazz Dispatch, and it doesn't add much to what we know about his life, which is close to nothing. But he adds this:
Postscript: Years later, after writing this, I encountered the singer’s last drummer, John Gilbert, on the internet. Here is what he wrote on his website: “This picture of me was taken in 1965 by King Pleasure at a service club in North Carolina. He was traveling through that part of the country using local rhythm sections. [Singer] Earl Coleman recommended me to King Pleasure for the gig, and it turned out to be a lasting friendship. I came to California in 1969 and we played some in L.A. until his health failed badly (emphysema). Pleasure stayed with my wife and I for a while in Sherman Oaks, Ca. My son was an infant and he would serenade him to sleep. I was also associated with Earl Coleman at the time. King Pleasure was initially impressed with the fact that I knew all of the words to 'Moody's Mood For Love' and other tunes that he had recorded. He was a sweet man and very helpful to me. Pleasure related to me that the greatest moment in his musical career came in New England. He was at a low point in his life, sitting at the back of a bus when a group of school children boarded the bus and one was chirping out 'Moody's Mood' which was a hit at the time. They had no idea that the figure in the back of the bus was the man himself. He got a big kick out of this and often happily reflected on that moment in time.”
I had wondered if Pleasure was particularly difficult, and maybe no one could stand to have him around for more than two songs at a time. When one thinks about jazz musicians of this era, one can't help but be aware that addiction is a possibility, but I'll never assume that.

Another possibility: maybe he only had so much material. Vocalese isn't exactly like instrumental improvisation. You're basically not improvising at all. You're following someone else's improvisation, so it has to be learned, and it's a little more complicated than learning a couple of verses and a bridge to standard. Plus, you have to write lyrics to that complex and often labyrinthine musical structure. Which also means finding the solo that'll work, and exposure to too much bad vocalese over the years has certainly shown us all that that's not a guarantee. Annie Ross went home one night and came back in the morning with"Twisted," but it's not that easy. Pleasure was a great singer, but he got his start performing an Eddie Jefferson lyric, and maybe putting together a successful vocalese piece didn't come easy to him.

In this case, he had some pretty serious support-- one of the hottest arrangers in the business, and two backup vocalists who were the royal court of the kingdom of vocalese, in Eddie Jefferson and Jon Hendricks. More backing vocals were provided by the Three Riffs, who weren't a group that went on to  stardom, but they were very good (one of them, Joe Seneca, actually did go on to a distinguished career as an actor).

He also had a powerful group of musicians working under Quincy Jones's direction. J. J. and Kai were really hitting their stride as a trombone team. Lucky Thompson probably never quite the recognition he deserved. This may have been 19-year-old Paul Chambers's first recording session.

The resulting songs may never have quite gotten the recognition of Moody's or Parker's moods, but they should have. "Don't Get Scared" is a Stan Getz solo, from a recording made in Sweden with Bengt Halberg and Lars Gullin. The Getz solo is sung by pleasure, the Gullin solo sung (and written) by Jon Hendricks, whose clever vocalese lyrics once earned him the nickname "the James Joyce of Jive."

"I'm Gone" is a Quincy Jones original, and the lyrics are credited to making Pleasure, but the arranged vocal ensemble parts, to the repeated phrase "I'm gone, I'm gone I'm gone I'm gone" are as important as the solo part.

So maybe this was essentially a Quincy Jones session. Jones wasn't exactly a regular in the Prestige stable, though he had done a couple of other arrangements, and he was a rising star, and maybe he brought the vocalists in as part of it, but the vocal tracks weren't all he wanted to do.

Maybe...but the vocal tracks are the ones that are remembered from this session. King Pleasure really was that good, with the right material, and he didn't record all that much.

But the instrumental tracks are worthwhile too. There's some masterful writing and masterful playing. "Funk Junction," which is sort of a continuation of the ideas in "I'm Gone," shows what happens when this same ideas are given to a bunch of talented improvisers. Of particular note is a solo by young Paul Chambers.

"I'm Gone" came out on 78 b/w "You're Crying." "Don't Get Scared" had two different releases--on 78, b/w "Funk Junction," and on 45, b/w "Red Top."

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Listening to Prestige Part 127: Kai Winding/J. J. Johnson

If you were going to put together a new quintet in 1954, your reason for doing it would be (a) they were so naturally attuned to each other, or (b) you thought two trombones would be an interesting combination, and who else would you go to?

The answer pretty much has to be (b). Johnson and Winding were not automatically thought of as musically compatible. They were both modernists, but Johnson the more unequivocally modern of the two, the man who had brought the trombone to bebop and bebop to the trumpet.

But...who else would you go to? Neither of them was considered the dominant trombonist of the day. Although by 1954 the beboppers had won the day from the moldy figs, the trombone (like the clarinet) was still mostly considered a swing era instrument. The trombone greats were Kid Ory, Tommy Dorsey, Glenn Miller. And the year-in, year-out poll winner on trombone for the last 5 years had been Bill Harris. But Harris was better known for his work with big band leaders like Benny Goodman and Charlie Ventura, although he had also been with Woody Herman, who was closer to the modern sound. The other trombonist of note at that time was Bennie Green, who had one foot in
the big band camp and one in the moderns'.

And in fact, Ozzie Cadena, a young jazz fan with aspirations to be a producer, who had thought up the two-trombone gimmick, at first wanted to pair Johnson with Green. But Winding and Johnson were the true modernists. Both had played (on different tracks) on the Miles Davis Birth of the Cool sessions. Their approach to the trombone, and to modern jazz, was very different, but each admired the other's work, and in their hands, the two-trombone quintet became much more than a gimmick.

Cadena (who would later become a producer for Prestige) brought the duo to Savoy Records. He recorded them in August of 1954, in the Van Gelder studio, with Billy Bauer, Charles Mingus and Kenny Clarke. The recording was a success, and it led to one of the most celebrated dual-led groups of that time. And it seems that they couldn't wait to do it again. By December, they were back in Hackensack, recording for Prestige, and in between, they recorded a live session at Birdland, which was not to be released until many years later. Bob Weinstock produced the December session.

The tunes here are a mixture of originals and standards. Well, "Dinner for One Please James" was something of a minor standard--it was a 1934 tune that was something of a knockoff of Cole Porter's "Miss Otis Regrets," but it was also a current pop tune, having been recorded in 1953 by Nat "King" Cole. It did have something of a career as a jazz standard, recorded by Dexter Gordon and Branford Marsalis (and, oddly, by Western Swingster Hank Thompson as a country song). "Hip Bones" and "Riviera" are Johnson originals, "Wind Bag" and "Don't Argue" are Winding's. "Bags' Groove," of course, is one of the great jazz standards.

The Jay and Kai version of "Bags' Groove" was also released on 78, as the flip side of "Don't Argue." And on an 45 RPM EP, along with "Don't Argue," "We'll Be Together Again," and "How Long Has This Been Going On?" The other four tunes had their own EP. The entire set was released on a 10-inch LP, and a year later, as part of a 12-inch, 7000-series LP called Kai and Jay, Bennie Green With Strings. This time Kai got first billing, and they'd continue to swap for the time they were together, which was about two years. They parted amicably, because they felt at the time that they'd taken the two-trombone idea as far as was productive, although they would reunite from time to time.