Saturday, February 06, 2016

Listening to Prestige Part 169: Gene Ammons

What does a producer of jazz records do? Probably, at best, not all that much. Bob Weinstock recalls that he and Miles Davis would sit down and kick around names -- who's in town, who would you like to record with? -- and that may have been the most of it. Weinstock had his jam session philosophy -- no rehearsal, just get 'em together and let 'em play -- and even so, Miles complained later that he (and every other producer Miles worked with) interfered too much.

So what about this session? Gene Ammons was one of Prestige's stalwarts, going back to the early days, often paired with Sonny Stitt, just as often without, generally preferring the fuller sound of a larger-than-quintet group. For a while he worked with a more or less steady group. almost always including trumpeter Bill Massey. By 1955, he had begun branching out. His three 1955 sessions for Prestige saw almost a complete turnover from session to session (Art and Addison Farmer were on one of them).

Why? Ammons had trouble keeping a group together? Seems unlikely. With his warm touch on ballads, earthy touch on blues, ability to wail with the best of the R&B saxmen, Ammons was one of the most popular jazz artists of the day.

Or perhaps, as he had done with Miles, Bob Weinstock sat down with him and said, "Hey, Gene, let's start mixing it up some. Look how well it worked with Miles. We'll kick around some names, get a bunch of guys together in the studio, see what happens."

So maybe that's what a producer of jazz records does.  And how much careful thought and planning went into choosing that bunch of guys? I'd like to think very little. Art and Addison Farmer were around -- they'd just played the Bennie Green session a week or so earlier. The others were inspired choices, but none of them would have required a lot of thought.

What about Candido? Did Bob Weinstock and Ira Gitler sit up all night, saying "We've got to find something new for the next Ammons recording. How about a French horn, like the Miles Davis nonet? Bring Earl Coleman back for some vocals? Or a pianoless group like Gerry Mulligan? Wait! I've got it! We'll bring in some Latin percussion!" Or did Candido just happen to drop by the office that day, and say "Hola - I'm looking for a gig. Got anything?"

I like to think it was the latter.

And Duke Jordan? He was certainly doing a lot of session work in the 50s, not all that much of it with Prestige. He'd played with Art and Addison on a Farmer/Gryce session the previous fall. But for whatever reason they chose him, it was an inspired choice. It goes without saying that with Candido on board, you're going to have some hot rhythms, but it's Jordan whom I keep hearing driving this session. He turns out to be the real inspired choice.

Jordan had also recently written what was to become his most famous composition, "Jor-du," and one certainly wouldn't be surprised to hear it on a date where he was playing, but not so on this one.

Which raises another "what does a producer do?" question. Who chooses the tunes that will go into a recording session, and what's behind that? Obviously, there's a few extra bucks for the composer, and especially for the publishing rights, but there weren't all that many bucks in jazz overall, in those days. Jackie McLean seems almost certainly to be the composer of "Dig," for which Miles Davis took the credit, but when McLean looked into suing over it, he was told not to bother -- even if he won, there wouldn't be any money in it.

Still, you had a couple of excellent composers on this date (in addition to Jordan) and it's no surprise that they're represented--McLean with "Madhouse," Art Farmer with "The Happy Blues."

It's also not surprising that a standard was included. Ammons was great on ballads, and Weinstock liked standards, and although not much jazz was being released on single records any more by 1956, Ammons was still a jukebox favorite. Why "Can't We Be Friends" in particular? Why not? It's a beautiful song.

The one that really interests me is "The Great Lie," a swing era song by Andy Gibson -- credited to Gibson and Cab Calloway. Perhaps there were lyrics by Calloway? I could not find a version of it that included a vocal, but I did find a reference to it in a list of WWII-era songs by Calloway that had social commentary.

Andy Gibson was an underrated composer, whose best known work is probably his brilliant rhythm-and-bluesification of Charlie Parker's "Now's the Time" -- "The Hucklebuck."

It's certainly not unusual for a big band tune to be picked up and adapted by moderns, but I decided to see how this one mutated with different versions, so I listened to four: Cab Calloway (without vocal), Charlie Barnet, Gene Ammons, and Chet Baker/Art Pepper.

I liked Calloway's version, but loved Barnet's. And it brought home to me just how much big band music was an arranger's medium. I don't know who the arranger was for this version of "The Great Lie" -- it could have been Gibson, who worked a lot with Barnet. But it's wonderful, with the shifting horn patterns and solos that weave in and out of them. Charlie Barnet, like Artie Shaw, was heir to millions, and like Shaw, he got out of the music business at a fairly young age, and is probably underrated. Certainly he was by me -- I had listened to "Cherokee," maybe nothing else. This is a terrific band, and a terrific number.

Like Woody Herman, Barnet was open to the influences of bebop, and his later bands had some of the finest modern jazz musicians. But as we move seriously into the bebop-hard bop era, you can hear, listening to Barnet and then Ammons, how much the emphasis has shifted to the soloists. Both versions are hard-swinging, and they share a lot more in common than you'd think. The swing band is fresh and innovative, the bop ensemble is melodic. With all those great soloists, the Ammons band extends the tune a lot longer than Barnet's traditional song, 78 RPM length. Ammons goes nearly nine minutes, and everyone gets solo space, and makes the most of it.

With Baker and Pepper, it's pretty much all solos, and it's cool, and mellow, and all the things you expect from West Coast jazz, and also quite cerebral, but they don't forget to swing, either. And just as I found myself caught up by Duke Jordan's contribution to the Ammons group, I found myself listening to Leroy Vinnegar here, who really propels the swing of the two cool soloists with his bass.

"Madhouse" is the Jackie McLean composition, and it's also the one where Candido really shines.

It's also the one that ended up on the jukeboxes. If Weinstock had thought about using the ballad, he would have had to think again, when the boys stretched it out to over 12 minutes. Of course, "The Happy Blues," which did become the single (as Parts 1 and 2) was also over 12 minutes, but maybe it was easier to edit down. It was also the title track for the LP.

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