Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Listening to Prestige Part 170: Elmo Hope All-Star Sextet

Elmo Hope's star, never as bright as it should have been, was perhaps beginning to wane at this point. The session is listed as "Elmo Hope All-Star Sextet," and the album was released as by the Elmo Hope Sextet, but at exactly the same time, so it would seem, it was also released as by Hank Mobley and John Coltrane, as Prestige PRLP 7043 and 7043 (alt).

And Ira Gitler, in his liner notes, describes the session as being "the nominal leader on the date," whatever that means. Gitler also suggests, without actually saying it, that the session is a buncha guys who happened to drop in at Rudy's parents' living room on a Friday afternoon to see what was happening.

If so. that would make this just about the perfect Bob Weinstock jam session, and maybe Gitler is exaggerating the casualness of the ensemble a little bit, but maybe not. I'm willing to take it as mostly true, and I'm willing to credit it as a quintessential tribute to the Weinstock philosophy of what jazz is.

As Gitler goes on to point, out, these musicians were hardly strangers to each other. Donald Byrd and Hank Mobley had played together in the Jazz Messengers; John Coltrane, Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones were the nucleus of the new Miles Davis Quintet, and Jones and Hope went even farther back.

It's interesting to note how strong the rhythm and blues roots were for these musicians. Jones and Hope had first played together in Joe Morris's band, Hank Mobley with Paul Gayten, John Coltrane with Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson. Also interesting that when they get together for a casual jam session, they go to bebop, not rhythm and blues, as a lingua franca.

Even more interesting, to me, is how powerful a lingua franca this is. Gitler, in his liner notes, lists the order of solos, as he oftenh does, and I wonder if he got, or gets, enough credit for this service. Too many serious jazz aficionados are also jazz snobs, and would dismiss this as pablum, but for the rest of us, it's very useful in following a jazz recording. In this case, Gitler gives us a remarkably involved and complex series of solos:
Weejah: Opening riff, Hank, Donald, Trane (bridge), Hank, Donald (4), Hank (2), Trane (2), Hank (1), Trane (1), Hank (1), Trane (1), Elmo (3), Chambers (2), Donald, Hank, Trane in fours with Joe (1), Joe (1), out chorus in same order as opener.
And even with Ira's help, I get lost. Well, I did recognize when Elmo came in. Or:

On it: Donald (8), Elmo (8), Hank (3), Trane (3), then two choruses each, followed by one chorus each, followed by two choruses of fours, two of twos, and another of fours. Hank is first at the beginning of the conversations.
This is a good thing to keep in mind the next time I'm tempted to criticize Gitler as a commentator on jazz. Yeah, I got lost again here. But there are a couple of reasons. One is, at a certain point I have to give up feeling the pressure -- am I going to be able to tell where they go from trading fours to trading twos? -- and just listen to the music.

The other is--it's almost beyond understanding how completely these loose, informal jammers are on the same page. Very often, especially in the early days of bebop, when the music was shifting from dance-centric to listener-centric, and the idea of a virtuoso solo was moved to the forefront, a soloist would finish off his turn with a little statement -- "Here, what are you going to do with that?" -- and there'd be a vamp by the piano or bass (not so often bass when recording engineers couldn't pick him us as well), for the listener and the next soloist to reflect on what had just been heard. Not so here. This music is seamless, so much so that you sometimes even forget to notice whether you're listening to Byrd or Coltrane -- and that's not leaving out of account that we're listening to some of the most distinctive voices in jazz.

Two of the pieces are Elmo Hope compositions -- "riffers which expedite the blowing," in Gitler's words, but they're more than that. Both, especially the bluesy "On It," are lyrical. Hope was a gifted composers, and these two tunes justify this being labeled as an Elmo Hope sessions.

The other two are standards, very much "mainly vehicles for blowing," in that like the two Hope tunes, they give the soloists the basis for work which is so seamless it almost makes a succession of solos sound like an ensemble. "Polka Dots and Moonbeams" was a Jimmy Van Heusen pop hit for Tommy Dorsey/Sinatra which has become a favorite of the moderns, with versions by Bud Powell, Chet Baker, Bill Evans, Wes Montgomery, Blue has been listed as one of the most frequently recorded jazz standards.

I've commented before on how many times beboppers have reached back to a very early age, taking songs from operetta to transform into a modern idiom. "Avalon," in a way, harkens back even farther. It's credited to Al Jolson, Buddy deSylva and Vincent Rose, and while it's questionable whether Jolson really did any of the writing, it's also sort of questionable whether Rose did. The melody is close enough to an aria from Tosca that the Puccini estate was able to sue for plagiarism and win.

Are there any other modern jazz versions of operatic arias (not counting Porgy and Bess)? Probably. There must be some from Carmen. But I can't think of any offhand.

A couple of digressions before I let you go. A lot of the Prestige catalog was licensed in England to the Esquire label. The Esquire release of this album, which must have been not long after the Prestige release, has cover art by Ralph Steadman. Steadman is one of the great illustrators of our era, and I suspect he may be pretty embarrassed by this, which doesn't begin to suggest Alice in Wonderland or Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. He must have still been an art student at this time, and nowhere in his biography does it mention any work as an illustrator for record labels.

Second digression. And I know I'm preaching to the choir here. Everyone who cares about music, or cares about education, knows how important music education is. Donald Byrd went to Cass Technical High School in Detroit. We think of Detroit today as the epicenter of urban blight and hopelessness, but Cass Tech has held onto its music ed program, and according to its Wiki page, "Cass Tech students' strong academic performances draw recruiters from across the country, including Ivy League representatives eager to attract the top minority applicants."

Because Cass Tech continues to have a music education program, its graduates have made their mark from swing to hip-hop, not to mention opera and gospel. I promise I won't keep posting lists like this, but here are some of Cass Tech's graduates, and of course I'm not including the kids who went on to become teachers, or the kids who simply stayed in school because there was a band and a concert choir.

  • Dorothy Ashby, jazz harpist and composer.
  • Geri Allen, post bop jazz pianist.
  • Sean Anderson aka Big Sean; hip-hop artist signed to Kanye West's Label (G.O.O.D. Music).
  • Kenny Burrell, jazz guitarist.
  • Ellen Burstyn, won Academy Award for Best Actress for Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore and starred in The Exorcist, Tony Award winner, Emmy Award winner, Golden Globe Award winner (did not graduate).
  • Donald Byrd, jazz and rhythm-and-blues trumpeter.
  • Regina Carter, jazz violinist.
  • Ron Carter, jazz double-bassist.
  • Doug Watkins, jazz bassist.
  • Paul Chambers, jazz bassist.
  • Alice Coltrane, jazz pianist, organist, harpist, composer, and the wife of John Coltrane.
  • Muriel Costa-Greenspon, mezzo-soprano who had a lengthy career at the New York City Opera between 1963 and 1993.
  • Jerald Daemyon, electric jazz violinist, composer and producer known for bringing technical refinement to violin improvisation.
  • Delores Ivory Davis, was internationally recognized in opera, oratorio, and for performances with Springfield (Mass.) Symphony, St. Paul Symphony, and Detroit Symphony Orchestra.
  • Carole Gist, 1990 Miss USA, first African American woman to win the Miss USA title.
  • Wardell Gray, jazz tenor saxophonist who straddled the swing and bebop periods.
  • David Alan Grier, actor, comedian.
  • J. C. Heard,[36] swing, bop, and blues drummer.
  • Major Holley, jazz upright bassist.
  • Ali Jackson, jazz drummer.
  • Philip Johnson actor, leading role in the Lifetime movie America.
  • Ella Joyce, actress.
  • Hugh Lawson,[36] was one of many talented Detroit jazz pianists of the 1950s
  • Donyale Luna, model and actress.
  • Howard McGhee, one of the first bebop jazz trumpeters, together with Dizzy Gillespie, Fats Navarro and Idrees Sulieman.
  • Al McKibbon,[36] jazz double bassist, known for his work in bop, hard bop, and Latin jazz.
  • Billy Mitchell,[36] jazz tenor saxophonist best known for his work with Woody Herman when he replaced Gene Ammons in his band.
  • Kenya Moore, 1993 Miss USA.
  • Naima Mora, fashion model, America's Next Top Model winner (Season 4).
  • J. Moss (aka James Moss), Grammy Award-winning gospel singer-songwriter, composer, arranger, and record producer.
  • Greg Phillinganes, (1974) session keyboardist.
  • Della Reese, singer, actress, later famous for playing Tess on the television show Touched by an Angel
  • Frank Rosolino,[37] was an American jazz trombonist.
  • Diana Ross (1962), singer, actress, graduated one full semester ahead of her classmates; major listed in Cass Tech Triangle Yearbook was "home economics"; studied costume design as her curriculum path; 2007 Kennedy Center Honors recipient.
  • Donald Sinta, classical saxophonist, educator, and administrator; in 1969 he was the first elected chair of the World Saxophone Congress.
  • Cornelius Smith Jr., actor, 2010 NAACP Image Award winner for Outstanding Actor in a Daytime Drama Series.
  • Lucky Thompson,[36] jazz tenor and soprano saxophonist.
  • Lily Tomlin, comedian, actress, 2014 Kennedy Center Honors recipient; winner of two Tony Awards, a Grammy Award, 5 Emmy Awards and a Daytime Emmy Award. Listed and pictured in the Yearbook as Mary Jane Tomlin – a cheerleader.
  • Jack White, acclaimed musician and member of The White Stripes, The Raconteurs, and The Dead Weather.[38]
  • Gerald Wilson, influential jazz trumpeter, Big Band leader and composer.

This session was released simultaneously under Hope's name as Informal Jazz, and under Coltrane's and Mobley's names as Two Tenors. Later, as Coltrane became the big star, it was reissued under his name as Two Tenors with Hank Mobley.


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