Saturday, December 05, 2015

Listening to Prestige Part 156: Gene Ammons

This is another one of those What Were They Thinking? sessions. Not the musicians -- they were there to play, they delivered as promised: a beautiful ballad, a blues, and a rhythm and blues stomper that's so close to rock and roll that you could even call it that. And, in fact, they did. The tune is titles "Rock-Roll."

No, it's more a question of what was management thinking? They hired seven musicians, led by one of their most popular leaders, plus a singer, Earl Coleman, and they seem to have done very little with it. "Ghost of a Chance" seems never to have been released until many, many years later by Original Jazz Classics on an Earl Coleman CD reissue, at a time when there was very little interest in Earl Coleman. "Rock-Roll" was the flip side of a 45 that featured "Sock!" as the A-side, and it was the A-side of a 78 that had the other Earl Coleman vocal, "Haven't Changed a Thing," on the flip. Nothing from this session made it to an LP until the 1965 release of Gene Ammons--Sock! and then it was only the two instrumental numbers.

"Rock-Roll" was written by the great jazz composer/ arranger/ bandleader Chico O'Farrill, and it's a powerful recording--the kind of tune that used to open up a 1950s Alan Freed stage show, stirring up the audience and allowing space for a solo by one of the brilliant tenor sax players employed by Freed, Red Prysock or Sam "the Man" Taylor or Big Al Sears. In this case, it's Gene Ammons, with strong ensemble backing and some tasty licks by Cecil Payne.

Ammons brought a lot of new musicians into the studio with him. His previous session in June, while also very rhythm and blues-based date, had featured top name jazz musicians. Before that, in February, he'd led a group of excellent but unsung R&B cats, plus Earl Coleman, but the only holdover from that group to this was drummer George Brown.

Which meant it was kind of too bad for these guys that this session was so thoroughly buried, because most of them didn't get much more of this kind of exposure. Cecil Payne, of course, had a noteworth career. But I can't find anything about trumpeter Nat Woodyard, not even whether he was related to Ellington drummer Sam Woodyard. Edwin Moore not only played trombone here, he also contributed a really nice bluesy tune, "Blues for Turfers," but I can find no other mention of him anywhere.

George Brown went the expat route, and became a legend in Paris jazz circles, but before that he had fashioned a strong career in US jazz circles, most notably with Wes Montgomery.

Ernie Shepard was an expat of a different sort, eschewing the recording centers of New York and LA for most of his career, staying in Chicago, where there was lots of music, but not much or it committed to wax (or vinyl). In the mid-60s he toured and recorded with Duke Ellingon. Steve Wallace describes his playing on Ellington's live album, The Great Paris Concerts,, thus:
His sound is massive and vibrant, his beat irresistible and there’s a lot of interplay between the ideas he plays (even while simply walking) and the rest of the band and the soloists.
Which is pretty good description of his playing on "Rock-Roll."

Just because I can't find any discographies for Nat Woodyard or Edwin Moore doesn't mean that they didn't get work. Rhythm and blues session men are rarely noted. But I can absolutely guarantee that this was 20-year-old Lawrence Wheatley's only recording, and not because there was no demand for him. Wheatley was passionately committed to live jazz, and refused to record. Instead, for 40 years he led a weekly live jam session in Washington, DC, where he was revered as a "local musical godfather" and mentor to generations of Washington jazz musicians.

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