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.

No comments: