Monday, July 18, 2016

Listening to Prestige 195: Tadd Dameron

I spent some time in my just-finished entry on Art Farmer talking about the considerable composing talents of Farmer, Hank Mobley, Gigi Gryce and Kenny Drew. Then I turn around and run smack into one of the great composers of American music: Tadd Dameron.

Dameron is sufficiently highly regarded in the jazz world to have merited a tribute band (Dameronia, formed by Philly Joe Jones, which released three albums of Dameron's compositions during the 1980s), but nowhere near as well known to the general public as he should be. He has said his greatest influences were George Gershwin and Duke Ellington, both of whom are household names. And maybe Dameron isn't quite in that pantheon because maybe no one is, but certainly he deserves to be named among the elite.

 Part of the reason Dameron isn't better known is that his own output is very slim. 1956 may have been his banner year, with this and another album for Prestige. They were very close to his last recordings. There would be one more for Riverside in 1962, making his total output five albums, one of which was released postunously, plus isolated tracks on a few other albums released after his death.

Dameron wrote and arranged for a number of big bands, including those of Count Basie, Artie Shaw, Jimmie Lunceford, Dizzy Gillespie, Billy Eckstine, and Sarah Vaughan, and he liked that big sound. Most of his recordings are with eight to ten pieces, which makes this quartet album all the more unusual.

But with John Coltrane's tenor and Dameron's compositions, what more do you really need? This is a great album, one that I couldn't listen to enough.  "Mating Call" and "Soultrane" may be the ones that grab a listener first, but if I were a practitioner of vocalese, and were looking for a piece to write lyrics to, I might choose "Gnid." It is so melodic. I'd probably have to change the title, if I were looking for a catchy lyric.

Coltrane is as good a choice as you could make to round out this quintet: because he's Coltrane, and a brilliant improviser, but also because he has great respect for Dameron's melodies, and lets them shine through at all times.

Dameron contributes some great solos too, giving his own interpretation to his compositions. Philly Joe Jones contributes some brilliant solos. John Simmons was a frequent contributor to Dameron's music, and if his solos here suggest that the art of bass soloing has gone a little beyond him by the mid-1950s, he's still a strong anchor to a rhythm section.

The session was booked as the Tadd Dameron Quartet, but the initial prestige release calls it Tadd Dameron with John Coltrane, which becomes, on subsequent releases, John Coltrane with Tadd Dameron, and some cuts are included on other Coltrane repackagings.

Dameron's tunes have been widely recorded. On Chet Baker's 1964 comeback album, he included a number of Dameron compositions, including "Mating Call," "Soultrane" and "Gnid."


 Order Listening to Prestige, Vol. 1 here.

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