Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Listening to Prestige Part 167: Sonny Rollins/Clifford Brown

It's impossible to listen to this session without looking at the date. Three months later, Clifford Brown and Richie Powell would be killed in an automobile accident.

Clifford Brown's contribution to jazz cannot be overstated. As a trumpeter, he ranks among the very best to ever play the instrument.

As a role model, he may have been just as important. At a time when creativity and drug use were all too often linked in the minds of young jazz musicians. Brownie stood out as an example of the creative and innovative heights that a clean-living artist could attain.

Sonny Rollins is a living testament to that. Rollins stands today, by virtue of artistry and longevity, as one the greatest of all jazz musicians, but in 1955, he was putting the pieces of his life back together, and beset by self-doubt. He had kicked his heroin habit, but he had bought too deeply into the myth that heroin and creativity went together, and he had terrifying doubt about his ability to play and grow as a jazz musician, and because of that, he stayed away from New York for a while. He returned to play with Miles Davis, who had followed a similar pattern--addiction, withdrawal, self-imposed exile. But then later on that year, he became a member of the Brown/Roach group, and experienced his true epiphany: the example of a jazz musician who had always led a clean, drug-free life, and whose creativity was unbounded. Rollins later described Brown's effect on him as "profound."

Brown hit New York in 1953 and appeared on several Blue Note albums, then signed on for the Lionel Hampton European tour, where he recorded extensively with Art Farmer, Gigi Gryce and others of that contingent.

Returning stateside, he joined Art Blakey's quintet (they weren't the Jazz Messengers yet), and an engagement at Birdland yielded enough material on one night of live recording to make several albums for Blue Note (the recording notes list some tunes as being from the fifth set). Then he joined forces with Max Roach, to create one of jazz's most legendary quintets, and they made a series of classic albums for EmArcy. EmArcy also had some of the finest jazz singers around, and they had the good taste to back them with jazz greats instead of syrupy pop arrangements, so we have Brown with Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughan and Helen Merrill. And -- not at all syrupy -- they made an album of standards with the Neal Hefti orchestra.

Brown did some work on the West Coast with different configurations, and in 1955...well, if you
could go back in time to the 1955 Newport Jazz Festival, just so you could catch the now-legendary Miles jam session / audition for George Avakian, you might have missed another remarkable jam session -- Brubeck and Desmond with Clifford Brown, Chet Baker and Gerry Mulligan. "Tea for Two" was captured from that session, and it's not the greatest recording quality, but still....

Rollins joined the quintet in 1955, replacing Harold Land, and they were able to record, in February and March, for both EmArcy and Prestige. The EmArcy recordings mixed standards and originals by Brown; this one has three standards and two Rollins originals.

Both of the two originals have become jazz standards, with "Valse Hot," in particular, now a favorite of a newer, 21st century generation of jazz musicians. There aren't all that many jazz waltzes--Bill Evans's "Waltz for Debbie" is one that springs to mind, and of course John Coltrane's reworking of "My Favorite Things."

"Pent-Up House" seems to have become a favorite of gypsies, with Stephane Grappelli and the gypsy jazz contemporaries, The Rosenberg Trio. Tito Puente has also recorded a version that burns down the house. But this pent-up house was certainly made for burning, as is made abundantly clear in this original version. Rollins and Brown trade blistering solos, and there's plenty of room for Richie Powell to stretch out as well -- and Max Roach, whose solos throughout the session are a reminder of how great jazz drumming can be, and also how far recording engineering has come.

Of the standards, "Count Your Blessings" is an interesting choice. It's an Irving Berlin song, from his latter years--written in 1954 for the movie White Christmas (the remake of Holiday Inn), it was a hit for Eddie Fisher, in a thoroughly schmaltzy version. Berlin was no stranger to sentimentality, and he pulls out most of the stops in this one.

But sentimentality gets a bad rap. James Joyce defined it as "unearned emotion," but why does emotion have to be earned, and what does one to to earn it, exactly? I had a girlfriend who had an absolute horror of sentimentality, and was constantly warning against unearned emotion, but she was a huge fan of country music, especially the songs of George Jones and Tammy Wynette, and she dealt with their sentimentality by denying there was anything sentimental about them.

The truth is, sentimentality is a tool like any other the artist has at his/her disposal, and it can be used well (as George Jones or Irving Berlin use it), or poorly (Eddie Fisher). The poet Richard Hugo has written,
[20th century] writers came to believe that the further from sentimentality we got, the truer the art. That was a mistake. As Bill Kittredge, my colleague who teaches fiction writing, has pointed out: if you are not risking sentimentality, you are not close to your inner self.
You'd think that modern jazz, with its hip, incisive intellectualism, would be at the opposite end of the spectrum from sentimentality, but some of its greatest performances have come from the sentimental melodies of composers like Victor Herbert and Sigmund Romberg. And a couple of pinnacles of the art form have come from jazz interpretations of valses more syrupy than hot: Coltrane's "My Favorite Things" and Miles Davis's "Someday My Prince Will Come" (or "Surrey With the Fringe on Top," not a waltz, but no less sentimental). And Rollins wasn't the first jazz artist to cover "Count Your Blessings" -- Gene Ammons did it in 1954, while the song was still riding the charts.

Rollins doesn't shy away from the tenderness of the melody, though he gives it a depth...no, let's say, finds depth. Irving Berlin may have been sentimental as all get-out, but he wasn't shallow. Richie Powell, in a beautiful solo, probably concerns himself less with exploring the emotional rewards of counting one's blessings, but Rollins brings us back to it.

Sonny Rollins + 4  -- not Sonny Rollins Quintet -- was released on a 12-inch LP.

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