Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Listening to Prestige Part 176: Bennie Green

I'm guessing that not all that many jazz fans have this record in their collections, and those that do not are missing out on a treat.

Maybe Bennie Green never got his due. One website that makes lists and rankings puts him at #31 on its list of greatest jazz trombonists of all time (Bill Harris, who won several DownBeat polls in the early 50s, is #32). A site called The Trombone Forum has a discussion of the greatest jazz trombone recordings of all time, and Bennie Green is not mentioned by anyone.

This is just wrong. But even so, if you were inspired by my earlier praise, and decided to pick up a Bennie Green album. you probably wouldn't choose this one. You might go for the earlier 1956 session with Art Farmer and Philly Joe Jones. Or the one from 1955 with Charlie Rouse and Paul Chambers, or the one that added Candido to that mix. Or you might go back to 1951 and the session with Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis, Art Blakey and Tommy Potter.

In short, faced with a blind choice of which record to take a chance on, you'd go with the chalk--the sidemen you've heard of.

Don't do it. Well, do it. Those are all terrific albums. But don't overlook this one with the sidemen you've probably never heard of.

Look at it this way. For Blakey or Farmer or even a brand new cat on the scene, 19-year-old Paul Chambers, this was another gig. For these guys, it may well have seemed the opportunity of a lifetime--a small group session on Prestige!

I don't mean that these weren't highly respected professionals. Green didn't pull them out of thin air.

Eric Dixon was 26 when this session went down, and he had a long and productive career ahead of him. He went on to appear, by some counts, on over 200 recordings, including some other small group sessions for Prestige/New Jazz in the 60s: Ahmed Abdul-Malik, Kenny Burrell, Etta Jones and Mal Waldron. But his main gig starting around the turn of the decade and going on for two more decades, including many recordings, was with the Count Basie orchestra. His one record as leader came in 1974, for the Master Jazz Recordings label, and featured both Lloyd Mayers and Bill English.

Lloyd Mayers recorded in the 60s, with Lou Donaldson, Betty Carter, Ray Barretto and others. but his big break didn't come until 1974--and no, it wasn't the Eric Dixon album. Mercer Ellington tapped him to fill the Duke's shoes in the Ellington orchestra. He was musical director for the 1981 Broadway production of Sophisticated Ladies, the musical based on Duke's music.

Sonny Wellesley and Bill English don't have the same extensive pedigrees. Wellesley played on a Blue Note session with Ike Quebec, recorded in 1959, a couple of the tunes released on 45, not released in album form till until 2000. He seems to have played in 1961 with Sir Charles Thompson, but they may not have recorded. I can't find any reference to a record.

Bill English (not be confused with Willie Nelson's drummer Billy English) made one record as leader, for Vanguard, which was primarily a folk label, and probably didn't do much to promote its occasional jazz titles. The jazz collectibles website lists it for sale under the heading "Obscure jazz drummer Bill English." Lloyd Mayers played on this one, too. Obscure or no, you can find it on both YouTube and Spotify, and it's good stuff.

So perhaps these guys were playing together when Green tapped them, since they certainly seem to have stayed in touch afterwards. They're tight and simpatico on this session.

So if this was an audition for a big time career, they all passed with flying colors--even if, as with today's law school grads and creative writing MFA's, they didn't all get much professional advancement out of it.

The session starts with "Walkin' (Down)," which is better known without the "(Down)" as the Miles Davis classic. "Walkin'" is credited to Richard Carpenter--not the songwriter with the talented sister. This Richard Carpenter was a gonef perhaps rivaled only by Mo Levy, best known for buying songs from hard-up musicians for 25 or 50 dollars and slapping his own name on them. Sometimes he didn't even buy them. When composer-arranger Jimmy Mundy, best known for his work with the Goodman and Basie bands, died in 1983, a copyright certificate was found at the Library of Congress for a tune called "Gravey." The title, and Mundy's name, had been incompletely erased, and "Walkin'" by Richard Carpenter written over them. Junior Mance, who was with him at the time, has also confirmed that Mundy wrote the song and titled it "Gravey."

Cover design by Tom Hannan, an abstract expressionist painter
who doubled as a jazz album cover designer.
And this is a good introduction to the session. It begins with a strong drum figure by English,  then a short statement  of the head by Green, then an extended solo by Mayers. Green is generous throughout with solo space: everyone gets an opportunity to show what he can do. "Walking (Down) is also interesting in that about 3 1/2 minutes into it, the two horns seem to be about to come back to the head and wrap it up, but that doesn't happen. Instead, everything changes slightly, and the piece goes on for over 12 minutes. These shifts of tempo and mood happen a few times during the album. It keeps you on your toes.

There's one Green original on the album, the curiously named "East of the Little Big Horn," which seems never to have been picked up by anyone else. Too bad, good tune. And three standards. A favorite cut? It would be hard to choose. "Walkin' (Down) is a contender: it's always a treat to hear Bennie play the blues. But it's hard not to get caught up in the firestorm of traded licks between Green and Dixon on "It's You or No One."

The album takes away the parentheses, puts back the missing "g," and is called Walking Down.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Listening to Prestige Part 175: Sonny Rollins

If Prestige records in general have been underserved by critics and historians, there are exceptions, and this album would have to be one of them. It was released under the title Saxophone Colossus, and if Rollins was still only on the verge of meriting that distinction, this recording cemented the deal. Saxophone Colossus he became, and saxophone colossus he remained, and remains to this day. It became the title of a 1986 documentary by Robert Mugge (half of it filmed at a concert at Opus 40).

The recording has remained to this day a favorite of jazz fans and of Rollins fans. Many consider it his best work, and it ranks high on virtually every list of top jazz albums of all time.

The one track that stands out even in this all-around stellar session is "St. Thomas," which has become virtually a signature song for Rollins. The tune is based on a Caribbean folk song which in tune was based on an old English folk song. It had previously been recorded in a jazz version as "Fire Down There" by Randy Weston, and was a staple of the repertoire of a young calypso singer called The Charmer, who would later become much better known as Louis Farrakhan.

The composer credit for "St. Thomas" is given to Rollins, although he has disavowed that, and has said that he would have preferred not to take composer credit, but the management of Prestige insisted.

Well, we know that composer credit in American popular music is a weird business. Performers added their names to songs that they recorded (Elvis Presley adding his name to Mae Axton and Tommy Durden's "Heartbreak Hotel"). Music industry professionals like Alan Freed and Mo Levy did it regularly, taking shared composer credit, and more importantly, publishing rights, in return for a record deal or the promise of radio promotion.

Jazz musicians wrote new melodies over existing chord progressions, and since chord progressions are not copyrightable, there was no plagiarism issue. Tunes or riffs brought into the studio for recording at a particular session were sometimes given the session leader's name for composer credit, no matter who had brought it in. Often that didn't much matter -- the finished product was a group effort, and the tune wasn't likely to be re-recorded anyway.

Sometimes it did. It seems pretty clear that Jackie McLean wrote "Dig" -- Miles Davis has even acknowledged this -- but Miles has the composer credit. McLean looked into bringing a lawsuit, but was told there wasn't enough money in it to make it worthwhile.

And "St. Thomas"? That is so completely a Sonny Rollins tune that it's hard to imagine giving credit to anyone else.

Latin rhythms have always been a part of jazz, going back to Jelly Roll Morton's assertion that all true jazz needed a Spanish tinge, through Artie Shaw doing the Carioca, through Charlie Parker with Machito and Dizzy Gillespie with Chico O'Farrill, through Joe Holiday's mambo jazz. through the girl from Ipanema and James Moody inviting "Tito Puente you can come on in and you can blow now if you want to." The island rhythms of calypso were getting to be a craze in the mid-50s, as Harry Belafonte's classic album became the first LP to sell a million copies. Rollins's parents came from the Virgin Islands, and he grew up with the infectious island rhythms that he would continue to explore in tunes like "Brown Skin Girl," "Hold em Joe" and "Don't Stop the Carnival." The challenge of "St. Thomas" was to sustain the joyous lilt of calypso with the sophisticated musical demands of bebop, and its enduring popularity shows how how successful he was.

Prestige captured both Rollins and John Coltrane at moment in time when both were becoming recognized as the preeminent tenor saxophonists of the day, and a time when both were getting ready to move on to new stages of their careers. They match up musically and stylistcally on "Tenor Madness;" in the next decade they would have found it difficult to play together.

Coltrane would go his own way. Rollins would stay closer to the mainstream, but still forge new musical paths, in clubs, on record, and under the Williamsburg Bridge, where he was to retreat a couple of years after this recording, dissatisfied with his music and wanting to rediscover himself before he recorded or played in public again.

The new Coltrane was probably not going to be playing "Traneing In" or "Blue Train" on the same set with "A Love Supreme." The new Rollins would still play "St. Thomas," but it would be metamorphosed into the new Rollins.

This is probably one of the advantages of being a jazz musician. The disadvantage, of course, is that you don't make the money a rock star does. But you're allowed to go on evolving. If you're someone like, say, Clarence "Frogman" Henry, then as long as you go on touring you're going to have to keep singing "Ain't Got No Home" every night, and make it sound exactly the way it did on the record. Rick Nelson said that if memories were all he sang, he'd rather drive a truck, but he never did go into truck driving, and his audiences went on wanting to hear "Hello Mary Lou."

Sonny Rollins could play "St. Thomas" differently every time he played it. A friend remembers hearing him with Jim Hall in the mid-60s, and the rhythm had become bossa nova. It could go on changing, reflecting his evolving musical understanding, and still remain a fan favorite.

But the version on Saxophone Colossus remains a jazz icon, preserved on record like Dorian Gray in reverse.

An important part of the reason for the iconic status of the tune, and the album, is the presence of Max Roach, at an amazing midpoint of his amazing career.

Roach was 32, compared to compared to Rollins's 26 (Tommy Flanagan was also 26; Doug Watkins was 22). Those six years encompassed a lot of experience, and a lot of jazz history. He had been one of the pioneers of bebop, playing on 52nd Street and at Minton's, recording (in the days when limitations in recording technique severely limited what a drummer could do) on many of the seminal sessions of modern jazz. With Clifford Brown, he had formed one of the most influential quintets of the early 50s. He had been the natural choice for "the greatest jazz concert ever," the one given at Massey Hall in Toronto in 1953, featuring Roach with Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell and Charles Mingus.

Rollins and Roach had become partners when Sonny joined the Brown-Roach ensemble, and they continued together after Clifford Brown's tragic death. They are certainly partners on this session, with Roach setting the tone as well as the tempo with his lead-in to "St. Thomas," and remaining a force throughout.

"You Don't Know What Love Is" has become a jazz standard, but it has an odd genesis for a ballad associated with the Great American Song Book. It was originally written (by Don Raye and Gene dePaul) for an Abbott and Costello movie, but was cut from it, and eventually saw daylight in an even less likely debut for a beautiful ballad, a movie featuring the Ritz Brothers. It's one of the other places where Rollins and Coltrane touch base with each other. Trane recorded it in 1961 on his first album for Impulse. Five years was a generation in the jazz of this era, and Trane, with McCoy Tyner, Elvin Jones and Jimmy Garrison, was already exploring new dimensions. This album, Ballads, was his first for Impulse, and he may have been taking a break from the avant-garde to give them something that might sell a few copies, but it still makes a striking contrast to Rollins in 1956.

"Strode Rode" is a riff-derived composition that's become something of a standard, and well-deserved. It's very nearly as catchy as "St. Thomas." Gary Bartz has recorded it, and so have a lot of contemporary jazz musicians, particularly Europeans. Rollins revisited it in 1990, with George Duke, Stanley Clarke and Al Foster.

I wonder if Rollins had known what a worldwide hit song "Moritat" was going to be, if he would have approached it differently. The first statement of the theme is reserved, as if someone had managed to reconfigure Miles Davis's Harmon mute for the tenor saxophone. By mid-improvisation, though, he's found the swagger that one expects from Mack the Knife.

"Blue Seven" has also been covered a number of times, which is interesting in that it doesn't really have a melody or main theme. It builds off a long bass intro by Doug Watkins, and has all kinds of good playing by everyone in the quartet. The title? Perhaps it was a long day in the studio, and they finished up with a seven o'clock blues.

Saxophone Colossus was the album. Two singles were released on 45: "St. Thomas" and "Moritat."

Saturday, March 05, 2016

Listening to Prestige Part 174: Phil Woods

All right, it's mid-1956, which means we are smack dab in the middle of the hard bop era, and I haven't really talked about hard bop, or what makes it different from bebop, or where one leaves off and the other starts, and actually don't really intend to, because I don't know and don't care. There are two pretty standard definitions of hard bop. One is "what the Miles Davis Quintet played," and that obviously isn't much of a definition, but it more or less means the 1955-56 sessions for Prestige, which makes Prestige the quintessential hard bop label. The other definition has to do with getting funky, and mostly centers around Horace Silver and Art Blakey, which makes Blue Note the quintessential hard bop label, which is probably closer to the target.

One definition of the distinction is that bebop is more of a player-centric music, and hard bop a more listener-centric: "players like Diz, Bird, and Monk would play through a tune without playing the "head" first. They approached the music thinking that the listener had already digested the standards of the day and would recognize them by their chord structure. Hard Bop is based more around the melody in that you usually hear the melody at least one time, then the performer(s) will start in on a (usually) technically challenging solo."

And there may be something to be said for that, although musicians of the bebop era who were trying to pull away from it, like John Lewis, were specifically trying to move away from the head-solo-solo-solo-head template, and in a way the hard boppers, or neo-beboppers,were actually coming back to it. But the idea of hard bop being a more listener-friendly music makes sense.

It's a truism of jazz history that jazz went from being America's popular music, in the 30s, to being an art form that was not especially popular in the 40s. And like many truisms, it's mostly true. The musically and intellectually challenging concepts of the beboppers were not likely to go to the top of anyone's hit parade. It's even harder to imagine Snooky Lanson or Dorothy Collins singing "Scrapple from the Apple" or "Moody's Mood for Love" than it was to hear them singing "Sh-Boom" or "Heartbreak Hotel."

But it's less commented on that jazz made something of a commercial comeback in the 50s. It still wasn't challenging Elvis and Fats Domino, or even Eddie Fisher and Connie Stevens, for top 40 ascendancy, but it wasn't scaring people away in droves.

Jazz was still a hipster's music, but as the Eisenhower era moved on, the hipster (not today's gourmet chocolate makers in Brooklyn, but the real hipster) became a more approachable outlaw.  Jack Kerouac became the Errol Flynn of a new generation, the buccaneer with a twinkle in his eye, living outside the mainstream, and Charlie Parker and Miles Davis were the Erich Korngold and Bernard Hermann of the Beat Generation soundtrack.

Jazz came to television with Peter Gunn, to Hollywood with Anatomy of a Murder. Steve Allen featured jazz musicians on his popular network show.

Playboy played a big part in bringing modern jazz into the mainstream. Playboy in the 50s offered its readers a shortcut to sophistication, and jazz was a part of that sophistication.

And it worked, for one reason or another. George Wein opened up a new audience by bringing jazz to Newport, Dave Brubeck by bringing jazz to college. Did it make a difference that a lot of white people were playing jazz? Probably. It certainly made a difference to the popularity of what had once been called rhythm and blues. But there weren't any Fabians in jazz. It was essentially a meritocracy. Was Brubeck really better than Oscar Peterson? It's a fair question, and the answer is no, and that's an important answer. The economic story of American music is inextricably tied up with racism. But in another way, it's the wrong question. Here's another one: was Brubeck deserving of the accolades and rewards he got? Yeah, he was. I applaud every dollar that went into Dave Brubeck's pocket as opposed to Dick Cheney's, and people aren't going to forget his music in a hurry.

Brubeck, Playboy, Peter Gunn, the Beats, Steve Allen. In 1955, Billboard reported that jazz was loud at the cash register. And a 1959 album, Miles Davis's Kind of Blue, is by most accountings considered to be the biggest selling album of all time, although it's also considered to be a break from all things bop, although that's a bit of an overstatement.

So, the difference between bebop and hard bop? Maybe it's a generational thing? The beboppers grew up playing big band swing, and for them modern jazz was a revolution...for a younger generation, it was just what they played. Which doesn't explain Art Blakey.,

Or how about this? If it made money, it's hard bop. If it didn't, it's bebop. Or free jazz.

Or how about this? It mox nix. It's all music.

This Phil Woods septet is made up of musicians from either side of the divide. Woods, Kenny Dorham, Gene Quill and Philly Joe Jones on the older side, Donald Byrd and Tommy Flanagan on the younger. So is their music bebop or hard bop?

Two answers. (a) I don't care, and (b) this is the last time I will ever raise that question.

I'm more interested in comparing this session to two others we've listened to recently -- the Sonny Rollins/John Coltrane duet of May 24, and the Elmo Hope Sextet session of May 7. Coltrane stayed around from that session to record with Miles and then with Sonny; Donald Byrd didn't stray far either. And Philly Joe Jones virtually never left the studio.

But it's the horns that mostly hold my interest here. Three of them on the Hope session, four of them here with Woods. You'd think that would require some serious arranging, especially here, with mini-reed and mini-brass sections, but the casualness of the Hope session seems to be the order of the day here, too. Maybe there's something about getting a bunch of musicians together that inspires a sort of collective camaraderie. There's a brotherhood in the Coltrane-Rollins collaboration, but at the same time a competitive edge. They each know what the other is doing, and neither is going to be left behind. Here, as in the Hope session, there's that fluidity. And perhaps as a result, though there's great virtuoso playing, and I mean great virtuoso playing, by all concerned, you're not really going to walk away whistling any one of the horn parts in particular. You might, instead...all right, you can't walk away whistling a drum solo, but Philly Joe Jones gets the real bravura parts.
Cover design by Harry Peck, who did some very nice work for the
British Esquire label releases of Prestige product.

Three of the tunes are Phil Woods compositions. They're vehicles for jamming: none of them has seen much recording by other artists. So it's worth noting how good some of these composed-on-the-spot vehicles for jamming in the modern jazz era were. Each of these has an arresting melody, and each provides a framework for inspired soloing by seven different guys,

'Suddenly It's Spring" is the one standard here, and if you were doing a blindfold test, and were asked to pick out the standard, you might not guess it. The guys here do all the things that give Chuck Berry his kick against modern jazz: they play it pretty darn fast, and they don't worry much about the beauty of the Jimmy Van Heusen melody. They come into it jamming, horns blazing, maybe more than on any of the spur-of-the moment compositions. There's none of the yearning romanticism that you get from the vocal versions, and it's not missed.

"Pairing Off" is the tune that gave the album its title, appropriately referencing the instrumentation.