Friday, October 28, 2016

Listening to Prestige 213: Jimmy Raney/Kenny Burrell

This was booked as a Prestige All Star session, but clearly the center of attention is the two guitars, one of them the label's newest star, the other a veteran of the early days of Prestige, who had been away from the label for a couple of years, and would be back for just this session. Kenny Burrell and Jimmy Raney mesh beautifully here, but what's even more interesting is how well all the instruments-- two guitars and two horns--all come together, so seamlessly that you almost don't register the difference between horns and strings as they play the heads together, and one solo follows another. And since several of the pieces are by Mal Waldron ("Blue Duke," "Dead Heat" and "Pivot") you can add that to the mix too. Waldron is always a great soloist, but never better than on his own compositions.

The outliers here are the one cut each where one guitarist takes center stage, and the other sits out. For Burrell, this is "Close Your Eyes," a song that had recently been popular in a version by Tony Bennett, and I had always thought of it as a passable but not very interesting example of 50s pop, but it has a much longer history. It was written by Bernice Petkere, who broke into the boy's club of songwriting in the 1930s and made enough of an impression that Irving Berlin dubbed her "the queen of Tin Pan Alley." "Close Your Eyes" was first recorded in 1933 by Ruth Etting, and it's stuck around, with other jazz versions by Humphrey Lyttleton and Oscar Peterson, and jazz vocal versions by Ella Fitzgerald, Peggy Lee, Betty Carter, Nancy Wilson, and another queen -- Ms. Latifah. Here the spotlight is given to Burrell, and he takes off with it, bypassing the melody almost altogether (perhaps why both Spotify and YouTube have it listed as "I'll Close my Eyes") for some breathtaking improvisational flights.

He then sits out and gives Jimmy Raney a turn on "Out of Nowhere," another 1930s chestnut that became a jazz standard. most famously in a 1937 version by Coleman Hawkins, with a solo described as "so intimidating that no tenor saxophone player tried the tune until eight years later." It had a pretty intimidating guitar solo, by Django Reinhardt, but Raney's version is entirely satisfying.

And one should also mention "Little Melonae," another outlier of sorts. It features the full ensemble, but with special attention to Jackie McLean, who wrote the tune.

This is another of those Prestige All Stars albums where some All Stars are more All Star than others. All the musicians get billed in the same font, but only Kenny Burrell and Jimmy Raney get their first names, and the album is called 2 Guitars.

 Order Listening to Prestige, Vol. 1 here.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Listening to Prestige 212: George Wallington

Strange coincidence -- or are the gods trying to tell me something? The last three recording sessions I've listened to have featured musicians who left the jazz life behind for something more respectable and secure. By the early 1960s, Teddy Charles would hie himself to the Caribbean to become a charter boat skipper, where he took many vacationers on a three hour cruise, and never stranded any of them on a deserted island. Wendell Marshall would hold out a little longer, but by the end of the decade, he would be back in his home town of St. Louis, opening his own insurance agency.

George Wallington may already have had one foot out the door when he walked into the Van Gelders' living room to record these tracks. He was nearing the end of his time in smoky clubs (and exclusive prep schools--one of his final albums was Live at Hotchkiss). He would make two more albums altogether in 1957, the Hotchkiss album for Savoy and one for the tiny East-West label. Then he would adjourn to Florida, and take his place in his family's air conditioning business, where he would remain until making a comeback in the 1980s.

Wallington had paid his dues. He had been around since the early days of bebop, as had bassist Teddy Kotick. Wallington made his first records in 1949 (with a sextet that included Gerry Mulligan and Brew Moore), but he'd already been around for a while. He was with the first bebop group that Dizzy Gillespie brought to 52nd Street,. Max Roach was in that band, and he said of Wallington:
We needed a piano player to stay outta the way. The one that stayed outta the way best was the best for us. That's why George Wallington fitted in so well with us, because he stayed outta the way, and when he played a solo, he'd fill it up; sounded just like Bud.
 And he'd made a powerful impact as a composer. His "Godchild" was one of the tunes on the historic Miles Davis Birth of the Cool sessions (perhaps brought by Mulligan?).

Teddy Kotick, who played with Stan Getz and was one of Charlie Parker's favorite bassists, also knew how to stay outta the way--keep time, understand the subtleties and complexities of bebop, don't solo.

Whoever took the notes or transcribed the notes for this session had a bit of a communication problem. The first track is listed as "In Sarah," but that didn't seem right -- a little too risqué -- and besides, it seemed very familiar. It's probably been 30 years since I played the album I first heard it it on, but back when I first heard it -- good Lord, 50 years ago--I wore it out. The correct title is "In Salah," and the composer is a young piano player who was sort of a protege of Wallington's. Wallington used this tune on this album, and a few more on his next album. The young composer would shortly sign with Prestige, and release his own first album: Back Country Suite, by Mose Allison. Wallington, Byrd and Woods take it at a more boppish tempo than the bluesy, laid back Mose. But we'll be getting to him soon.

The confusion expands with the next tune, a Phil Woods original, or maybe Phil wrote it down and he had really bad handwriting. On the set list, it's "Up Children Reel." The correct title is "Up Tohickon Creek," and unless you were from Bucks County, Pennsylvania, having a hard time with that would be understandable.

"In Salah" is a piano piece for Allison, but Wallington gives Byrd and Woods plenty to do on it. He doesn't stay outta the way, though. He doesn't intrude on their solos, but he goes all out on his own. Different from Allison's, but I'll get to that when I get to Mose. "Up Tohickon Creek" is another uptempo piece, with a killer drum solo by Nick Stabulas.

"Graduation Day" was a current hit for the Four Freshmen, who were always billed as a jazz vocal group, and they sorta were (their Four Freshmen and Five Trombones is considered a classic), but not exactly in step with the bebop era, or the rock 'n roll era. On this version, Byrd and Woods stay outta the way, and Wallington does it as a trio piece. It's taken slowly and dreamily, and with a lot more depth of feeling than the pop version, but what do Freshmen know about graduation day?

"Indian Summer" is the Victor Herbert chestnut turned jazz standard that we've heard before from Stan Getz and Lee Konitz. Teddy Kotick has not exactly stayed outta the way throughout this session, but here he steps forth with a full fledged solo. He should have done more.

The set winds up with compositions by Byrd and Woods. All good stuff.

The album is called George Wallington -- The New York Scene, and it was released on New Jazz. It also had a release as part of an album on the almost totally forgotten 16 2/3 RPM format, under the title George Wallington / Phil Woods / Donald Byrd / Red Garland -- Modern Jazz Survey -- New York Jazz.

The New York Scene.  A cool and catchy title that could have been given to nearly every album in the Prestige catalog. And it's interesting for another reason.

Genres of music get labeled, and sometimes the people who play that music hate those labels. Many jazz musicians hate the term "jazz" -- in Art Taylor's book of interviews, Notes and Tones, written in the 1970, he asks many musicians how they feel about the word, and most of them don't like it. But nothing better has come along. "Swing" wasn't always called "swing," and musical styles like the blues, ragtime and stride piano existed way before they had names. Rhythm and blues was once called "race music," and disc jockey Alan Freed called the contemporary rhythm and blues records that he played "moondog music" until he moved from Cleveland to New York and discovered that a blind street singer already used the name "Moondog," so he started calling the music he played rock 'n roll. In Art Taylor's book, the music that today we call "free jazz" had a slightly different name: Taylor asks his interviewees what they think of "freedom music" (opinions are mixed; he also asks them what they think of the Beatles and that's mostly negative). The music that began its life as "rap," and is still called "rap" by some, mostly goes now by "hip-hop," the name preferred by its practitioners.

So what about bebop? Some suggest it came from the nonsense syllables sung by scat singers (much like doowop). As such, it was also sometimes called "rebop." But before "bebop" caught on, was taken up in public print, and became the standard nomenclature, this music -- developed in Harlem and on 52nd Street, then exported to the world, was called "New York music." Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, and, yes, George Wallington - the New York scene.

New York music. Why not? We have New Orleans jazz. Kinda too bad it didn't stick.

 Order Listening to Prestige, Vol. 1 here.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Listening to Prestige 211: Art Taylor's All Stars

This is not in any particular way noticeably different from a Prestige All Stars session. And it features Donald Byrd and Jackie McLean, both of whom have been leaders on previous Prestige recordings. So why is it Art Taylor's All Stars? Taylor ha been on a bunch of Prestige sessions -- a couple of dozen in all, led by such as Jackie McLean, Gene Ammons, Red Garland, Hank Mobley not to mention the various Prestige All Stars sessions.

So what makes this an Art Taylor session? More drum solos? There are some terrific ones.

Does it have a unique sound, something Taylor heard in his head and wanted to bring to fruition in a session that he directed? To these amateur ears, maybe yes. There's a quality...what's the opposite of strident? Mellow? It's anything but that. It has the urgency of the best jazz, especially given that it's propelled by Taylor's drumming. But there's a fullness and rightness to the sound. The fullness of course is helped by having three horns, but it's there in the solos, too.

Charlie Rouse is not entirely new to Prestige--he had done a couple of Bennie Green sessions and one with Gene Ammons. He was still a couple of years away from his most famous collaboration, the one with Thelonious Monk. He is one of relatively  few jazz musicians to have an asteroid named after him (asteroid 10426 was officially named Charlierouse by American astronomer Joe Montani of Spacewatch, who discovered it in 1999)  He is, however, not the only one --- Montani also named an asteroid after Monk. And Montani's cultural/astronomical reach is even more eclectic. He has named asteroids after Allen Ginsberg and Erik Satie.

Wendell Marshall had only one previous session on Prestige, backing up Earl Coleman, but he did not lack for work. After leaving Duke Ellington in 1955, he was featured on over 150 sessions up until about 1963, when he opted for steady employment as a Broadway pit musician--and eventually an even steadier life, as he returned to his native St. Louis and ran his own insurance business. If he had any business acumen, he probably didn't insure a lot of jazz musicians.

Ray Bryant was a good choice for a session led by a drummer. His rhythmic style was grounded in the blues and gospel and traditional jazz, opened up by bebop, and nourished by his continued exploration of all styles. During this period, he would often sit in with the trad guys at the Metropole in the afternoon, then go down to the Five Spot at night to play with Benny Golson and Curtis Fuller. A musical stretch? Bryant didn't think so: "A C chord is a C chord no matter where you find it. I never made a conscious effort to play differently with anyone."

And that rhythmic sureness and brilliance, combined with that sound for all seasons, translated into some hit records, including his own version of "Cubano Chant," "Little Susie,"  and his biggest hit, "Madison Time."

Taylor called upon the work of a couple of the finest composers in jazz for this session. There are two compositions by Gigi Gryce (as Lee Sears) and two by Monk. But if I were planning on issuing a single from this album, looking for a jukebox hit, I would definitely have gone with Bryant's "Cubano Chant." It's a great tune, catchy and meaty. And it's been recorded by artists as disparate as Harry James and Art Blakey, not to mention such Latin greats as Gato Barbieri, Mongo Santamaria and Cal Tjader (the only Swedish Latin bandleader). And a more contemporary version by Steely Dan. Here it has the great hooks that characterize the melody, some powerful solo work, and Taylor all the way through it, pushing and shaping it.

There were no singles from the album, which was released as Taylor's Wailers, including everything from this session and one cut from a later session with John Coltrane.

 Order Listening to Prestige, Vol. 1 here.

Saturday, October 08, 2016

Listening to Prestige 210: Prestige All Stars

Some new additions to the All Star roster, and some new combinations of familiar faces, and I'll start with them, because one of the highlight of this session is a showcase of two of the best composers of this era. "Touche" and "Potpourri" were written by Mal Waldron. "Blues Without Woe," "Dakar" and "Hello Frisco" are all by Teddy Charles, who also produced the session.

I wondered if Thad Jones and Frank Wess were brought in by Charles because of past association, but such was not the case. Neither had ever recorded with Charles before, and it's unlikely that they'd ever done much, if any, playing with him. Both were regulars, all through this period, of the Count Basie orchestra. Jones did have a connection to this ensemble, but it wasn't Teddy Charles -- it was his own younger brother Elvin, making his third appearance on the label.

Charles was never a man to stand still, but for him, movement in a new direction could mean almost anything. When he moved to the West Coast to produce the new evolving West Coast sound for Bob Weinstock in 1953, his first move was to decide not to produce the new evolving West Coast sound. As he put it,
When I got out on the West Coast, I didn’t want to do the West Coast cool jazz thing that was so popular then. Frankly I didn’t care for the West Coast style of playing. The music was too laid back and didn’t have the sound. 
Instead, he put together a solid mainstream group featuring one of the finest swing-to-boppers, Wardell Gray, and a young Charlie Parker acolyte, Frank Morgan. After that, he made a second recording with Shorty Rogers, who would become identified with the West Coast sound, but was, at this point in his career, a dedicated avant-gardist.

Charles would continue move farther out, recording with experimentalists like Hall Overton and Gil Melle, And he'd hit the mainstream hard, with gritty soloists like J. R. Monterose.

And here, he goes even closer to the bone of mainstream jazz, bringing in two stalwarts from the Basie band. Avant garde music in general, and avant garde jazz in particular, is noted for all kinds of experimental approaches: experiments with tonality, with stretching the limits of harmony, with unusual or shifting time signatures, with textures of sound. But not necessarily with the rollicking swing of an ensemble like the Count Basie Orchestra.

So what would this session be? Avant garde, or Basie-esque swing?

Well, it's a Teddy Charles sesssion, which means none of the above. Or all of the above. It swings, but the ensemble sections have a tonality that nods to the avant garde, and the solos by Jones and Wess are not solos that they would have been likely to play in a Basie arrangement.

What they are, is amazing. If you were asked to pick the top ten Prestige albums, you'd likely start with something from the Miles Davis Contractual Marathon, or the MJQ's Django album, or Sonny and Trane's tenor duet, or King Pleasure / Annie Ross, or any one of a number of great albums we haven't gotten to yet. Probably not this one. Because unless you're really steeped in jazz lore, you might never have heard it. I'm moderately steeped in jazz lore, and I never had. Thad Jones is best known for his legendary Thad Jones - Mel Lewis big band; Frank Wess made a number of albums as leader, and won several Down Beat polls in the flute category, but is still probably most associated with Basie. Teddy Charles is a special talent who's probably known to a niche audience today, as well as to aficionados of charter sailing boats in the Caribbean. You won't find it in anyone's 100 essential jazz albums list, because the folks who make them gravitate, not unreasonably, to the top names. But I'd nominate it right now.

The flute was just beginning to come to the forefront as a jazz instrument, and Wess's solos,
particularly on the Mal Waldron compositions, are a powerful argument for the instrument. But if I were to pick one cut from this session, it would be the Charles tune "Blues Without Woe," on which Wess moves to tenor.

Without woe these blues may be, but they're certainly without "Whoa!" This track never lets up; it's one burning solo after another. In my entry on Kenny Burrell's "Drum Boogie," I commented that Elvin Jones seemed to have held back from the blistering solo one might have expected in a modern version of Gene Krupa's classic. Any such reticence is gone here, and he comes through with that powerhouse drumming that we've come to expect, but which must have been something of a revelation to a 1957 listener.

The album was released as a Prestige All Stars session, titled Olio. You'd expect the album title to be drawn from one of the cuts, but such is not the case here. Still, it's apt. What do get when you mix together a 50s avant-gardist, a soon-to-be 60s avant-gardist of the Coltrane school, two Basie-ites and two solid boppers. You get an admixture of heterogenous elements. An olio. Or a potpourri. Maybe it is drawn from one of the cuts after all. On the British Esquire release, Olio plays a tiny second fiddle to the musicians' names, and the cover is a very nice piece of work in the David Stone Martin tradition, though I don't think it is Martin, and it doesn't quite have room for Doug Watkins.

You'd have to call this a Teddy Charles session, but Charles, always generous, gives Jones and Wess room to shine, so the album is often credited to Thad Jones as leader.A later re-release credits Jones and Wess as co-leaders, and another, part of a double album (Olio / After Hours) is listed as by Thad Jones and the Prestige All Stars.

 Order Listening to Prestige, Vol. 1 here.

Wednesday, October 05, 2016

Listening to Prestige 209: Jackie McLean

We've heard a lot of Jackie McLean through 1956 and early 1957, sometimes with Gene Ammons, sometimes with his own group, or with the ubiquitous and amorphous Prestige All Stars, always in an ensemble. There are a couple of quintet sessions, but more often he's favored a sextet or septet. Here is our first chance to hear him carrying a whole session, and he is more than capable. His set list is mostly standards, mostly on the brooding end of the spectrum, and he has the sensitivity to make them cut through to the heart.

Reflections on a couple of the cuts: "These Foolish Things" has always been a favorite of mine. It turns out the Beatles weren't the first musical British Invasion -- Londoner Jack Strachey made a minor sortie into the Great American Songbook with this tune and a couple of others, including the closer to home-themed "A Nightingale Sang in Barclay Square." McLean gives it a sensitive rendition that stays close to the melody and the words, but it's definitely an instrumentalist's reading, not a line that a vocalist would take. It's very much his own--his and Mal Waldron's. Waldron contributes a solo with commentary by bassist Arthur Phipps, and McLean answers him with a concluding solo that's even more beautiful than what's gone before.

"Old Folks" has become a jazz standard, ever since it was recorded by Bird. That was on his ill-fated album Charlie Parker with Voices, but nothing done by Bird is ever totally ill-fated, and many others have been attracted to its haunting melody, including Miles Davis, Sonny Stitt, Kenny Dorham, Dexter Gordon, Pat Metheny--and Sonny Rollins, for his Prestige album Rollins Plays for Bird. The melody is by Willard Robison, and as a composer he was drawn to the melancholy--"A Cottage for Sale," "Don't Smoke in Bed." Lyrics to the tune were written by Dedette Lee Hill, and they capture the poignance of the melody, but the song hasn't been as widely recorded by vocalists. Carmen MacRae has a lovely version; so does Etta Jones. Hill was a professional songwriter, and racked up a lot of credits, but this is her only really memorable effort. Her husband, Billy Hill, was somewhat more successful, and he had his own rather different vein of melancholy: one of his hits was "I'm Headin' for the Last Roundup."

Arthur Phipps is the newcomer to Prestige here, though not unknown to McLean--they were both from the same Harlem neighborhood He had a solid career, and a varied one: in addition to the cream of the boppers, he also played with David Amram.

Jackie and his men cut eleven tunes on this session, but there was no Contractual Marathon about it. They just must have hit a groove, felt good, and kept going, Its release history, however, was more speed bumps than grooves. It ended up, like a corporation taken over by Carl Icahn, being carved up and distributed in pieces. "Strange Blues" was the first to make it to vinyl, and actually the only cut to  to be released on the Prestige Label -- all the rest bore the New Jazz imprimatur. It became the title cut of an album cut on three different dates and released in late 1957. McLean's Scene combined "Our Love is Here to Stay," "Old Folks" and "Outburst" with three cuts from the second session with pal Bill Hardman, and it came out from New Jazz in 1959. 1960 saw the New Jazz release of Makin' the Changes, which conflated tunes from this and an August '57 session, and included "Bean and the Boys," "What's New," "I Never Knew" and "I Hear a Rhapsody." I also learned a new word from this bit of research. A tune based on the chord changes of another tune is called a contrafact, as in  "Bean and the Boys" is Coleman Hawkins's contrafact of "Lover Come Back." Finally, A Long Drink of the Blues, using the same two sessions as the previous album, with Embraceable You." "I Cover the Waterfront" and "These Foolish Things" from the February session, was released from New Jazz in 1961.

 Order Listening to Prestige, Vol. 1 here.