Monday, November 21, 2016

Listening to Prestige 216: Ray Draper

Don't ask me why Webster Young gets the special "introducing" credit in the session notes. New performers were introduced all the time, especially with Jackie McLean. Ray Draper had just made his debut a month earlier on a session with McLean and Bill Hardman, himself a McLean introducee. But that's what it says.

Draper's debut as a leader is noteworthy for a couple of reasons: (a) there aren't all that many jazz combos led by a tuba player, and (b) Draper was still only 16. But he had leadership qualities, and if he hadn't lost so many years to heroin addiction (it must have been tough to handle being 16 and being thrust into the cauldron of the New York jazz life), he could have done a lot more. As it is, he is credited with being the first musician (even before Miles) to form a jazz-rock fusion group

There are a bunch of faces new to Prestige here. Except for McLean and Mal Waldron, this is a new mix, which once again leads to the speculation on how a group is put together for a session. Sometimes musicians who grew up together will coalesce to make a record, like the various Detroiters, or Harlem high school pals Sonny Rollins, Kenny Drew, Jackie McLean and Art Taylor. But Ray Draper certainly wasn't calling on guys his age from the old neighborhood, because there weren't any other guys his age playing jazz on this level. Webster Young, Spanky DeBrest and Ben Dixon were all in their early twenties, but there's a big gap between that and 16.

But we know a certain amount about this session, from a reminiscence by Webster Young in Jazz and Blues Musicians of South Carolina, by Benjamin Franklin V. Young was living in Brooklyn and mostly playing with a bunch of guys in Brooklyn, although he would come in to Manhattan to informally apprentice with Miles Davis, and occasionally sit in with him on gigs. Miles, he said, would encourage him but keep him in check:
If you wanted to show off, Miles would say, "You got a Cadillac outside?" In other words, "What's wrong with you?" I dug it, I needed that.
Ray Draper would occasionally show up at the Brooklyn jam sessions.
He'd been playing at some sessions in New York and some competitions at Birdland...He was a nice cat [but] full of himself. I was a little bit older, and I helped him to be serious...Ray came up with a proposal. If he could play with us, he'd get us to the New York competitions. I said "No." And I didn't want a tuba player. But the other cats said if we did it, we'd be doing something. So I thought if we didn't do it, I'd lose the band. We let Ray play with us, and we had the competitions. Nat Hentoff...was one of the judges. We played three competitions. We won them all.
Young was invited to meet Jackie McLean and hang out during Draper's first recording session with McLean, and
...during intermission, Bob Weinstock came over to Ray and said he was going to record him and Webster. He didn't even know me.
So that's how Young got on the session. He was also the one who recommended drummer Ben Dixon, a fellow South Carolinian. The two had moved to Washington and then Brooklyn together, and Young had told Draper that "I'd make the date as long as we had Ben Dixon on drums."

Dixon would go on to a substantial career in New York, becoming a sought-after drummer especially for Blue Note's soul jazz recordings, working a lot with Lou Donaldson and Grant Green. Young played on several Prestige dates in 1957, and that was pretty much the end of his recording career, although he continued to be in demand as a working musician. He told Franklin that he had reservations about doing a lot of recording because he didn't want to be tied down to a day job, although he eventually did take a day job, becoming a respected educator.

Jackie McLean is the veteran here. Although only 25 himself, he was already considered a major jazz star, and one of the most recorded jazz musicians of his time. There were a couple of reasons for this. First, that he was really good and really versatile. Second, that his situation was almost exactly the opposite of Webster Young's: he was largely limited to day jobs. He battled heroin addiction throughout the '50s, and his arrest and conviction for heroin possession meant that he could not get a cabaret card to work in New York City clubs. As Young recalls in his taped reminiscence, Jackie "was the cat," but because of his ubiquitous exposure and his innate generosity, he gave much of the solo space to the younger musicians.

Draper and Young each contributed two songs to the set, each of them paying tribute to a mentor, Young with "House of Davis," and Draper with "Jackie's Dolly," dedicated to McLean's young daughter. And Webster paid tribute to another idol with his suggestion of "You're My Thrill," one of his favorite Billie Holiday recordings.

Mal Waldron's "Pivot" had previously been done on the Jimmy Raney / Kenny Burrell version of the Prestige All Stars, and here it shows Waldron's piano chops as well as his compositional skills.

Jazz instrumentalists were doing amazing things with unlikely instruments during this era. J. J Johnson and Kai Winding had shown that fast, complex bebop figures could be played on the trombone. The bass had become a flexible solo instrument in the hands of players like Paul Chambers and Oscar Pettiford, and Ray Draper was ready, at 16, to step out front and make the tuba a significant solo instrument. And to show just how much can be done in those lower registers, he played some exciting bass-tuba duets with Spanky DeBrest (best known for his work with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers).

The session was released as Tuba Sounds, with "introducing Webster Young" as part of the front cover text.

 Order Listening to Prestige, Vol. 1 here.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Listening to Prestige 215: Bobby Jaspar

A star-crossed session, with two wonderful players destined to die far too young. Vibraphonist Eddie Costa would die in an auto accident in 1962, leader Bobby Jaspar of a heart attack in 1963.

This was Jaspar's recording debut, and the American debut for the Belgian-born musician. He was probably better known as a saxophonist in Europe, but most of his American recording, and therefore most of his reputation, was on the flute.

Jaspar came to the US in 1956. The Swedes like Lars Gullin and Bengt Hallberg had paved the way for acceptance of European jazz musicians, and Jaspar arrived with a reputation as a cat who could play.

He also arrived with an American wife. He had married semi-expatriate Blosssom Dearie in Paris in 1955 (they would divorce in 1957, around the time he was making these Prestige sides).

Eddie Costa, also making his Prestige debut with this session, was really hitting his stride in 1957, the year that he was named the Down Beat new star of the year on both piano and vibes, the first time a musician had ever won two categories in the same year. He first hit New York in 1949, with his older brother Bill. It wasn't a long drive from his home town in central Pennsylvania--only 150 miles--but culturally, it might as well have been a moon shot. Atlas, PA, was a coal mining town, and not much modern jazz made it there. But brother Bill played piano, and had a taste for swing, which he passed on to Eddie. The two of them hit the big city together, where Eddie first heard Bud Powell, and found his true musical love. He recorded with Sal Salvador in 1954, and made his first recording as a leader in 1956, a trio session with Vinnie Burke and Nick Stabulas that was released by two primarily rhythm and blues labels, Jubilee and its subsidiary Josie.

Bobby Donaldson was also new to Prestige, but hardly new to the music business. He went back to the swing and jump blues days in the 1940s, but by this time he was a sought-after session drummer in virtually any genre you'd care to name.

If you were going to assign signs of the zodiac to musical instruments, flute would be an air sign, vibes and piano water signs. Bass and drums, of course, would be earth signs. So minus the fire sign of a saxophone, this session is earth, wind and water, and a very cool combination it is. I was particularly struck by the compositions, which I guessed might be all Bobby Jaspar tunes, but I was wrong. "Flute Bob" is Jaspar's, but "Flute Bass Blues" is by Doug Watkins and "Solacium" by Tommy Flanagan. Which says something about how many talented composers there were in the jazz world of the 1950s, even though many of these compositions were caught in flight at the one session they were brought to, and then soared on into the jazz ionosphere. "Flute Bass Blues" was recorded in a very different era as a duet for Jeremy Steig and Eddie Gomez, where it becomes much more a vehicle for bass virtuosity, although Watkins does have a short and effective solo on this cut; and "Solacium" became best known as a vehicle for John Coltrane, on album that showcased Tommy Flanagan's compositions.

Interestingly, "Solacium" is the cut that has the least of Flanagan for this session. It's very much a flute-vibes duet. It's the first cut of the session (although the last of the subsequent album) and establishes the chemistry between the two soloists.

These three tunes became part of an album called Flute Flight, with a second session that featured Herbie Mann and Joe Puma taking Costa's place, and Mann and Jaspar sharing leader billing.

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

Listening to Prestige 214: Mose Allison

This album means so much to me. It was one of the first albums I bought after I had become a convert to jazz, and it was the first one by a new artist making his recording debut. So even though I was such a novice, and I knew there was a rich history that I had to learn, and a lot of music I had to listen to, I could still feel that I was in at least this vanguard.

Mose Allison was the right guy for me at the right time. I had come to jazz through rhythm and blues, and I loved the easy, bluesy feeling that Mose gave to the music. In those days, and this hasn't changed much, people argued about the relationship of race to American music, particularly to blues and jazz. The blues revival of the 60s hadn't happened yet. White guys like John Hammond, Jr., Eric Von Schmidt, Spider John Koerner, playing and singing in the style of traditional acoustic blues musicians. were still beyond the horizon. In 1957, the white guys who sang the blues had names like Elvis Presley, and the jazz audience didn't take them seriously. White musicians had always played jazz. Roy Eldridge had famously said that he could always tell whether a musician was black or white from his style of playing; and as famously, when Leonard Feather gave him a blindfold test, he guessed wrong 60 percent of the time. R&B disc jockey John R. used to get calls from listeners asking, "are you black or white?" to which he would only respond, "why do you care?"

What Mose Allison sang was his own. On the Back Country Suite album, he covered an R&B tune, but he did not particularly try to emulate the original. As Shelly Manne said in a Down Beat interview (quoted in Ira Gitler's liner notes to Local Color), "Funk is as old as jazz. It's an earthy quality of playing, dating back to original blues. A guy like Mose Allison plays funk because it's natural. He's from Mississippi, I think."

Allison today is best known as a singer/songwriter, an unusual category for jazz. When one says "singer/songwriter," the image that springs to mind is James Taylor, or Joni Mitchell, or most famously, Nobel laureate Bob Dylan, and that's kind of interesting, because the white folkies or folk-rockers were certainly not the only performers who played and sang their own material. Blues musicians like Charley Patton or Blind Lemon Jefferson or Elmore James sang songs that they wrote, but no one called them singer/songwriters, perhaps because in the early days of the blues, no one thought much about songwriting.

Traditional country performers like Hank Williams or Jimmie Rodgers aren't called "singer/songwriters" either, and if you were going to name the godfather of singer/songwriting, it would probably be Rodgers. When he auditioned for Ralph Peer's 1927 recording sessions in Bristol, Tennessee, for what are generally regarded as the first commercial country music records, he sang sentimental popular songs of the day, and was told that no, they wanted authentic folk music. He didn't know any authentic folk songs, so he and his sister-in-law Elsie McWilliams wrote a bunch.

The songwriters who created what became known as the Great American Songbook didn't sing, for the most part. Hoagy Carmichael did, but he was primarily a songwriter for other performers, who would from time to time sit down at the piano and sing some of his own compositions. In jazz, the guys who wrote and sang their own material were people like Eddie Jefferson and King Pleasure and Annie Ross, and they were putting lyrics to the solos of instrumentalists who were improvising off of melodies by still other composers.

But I digress. In 1957, Allison was essentially known as a piano player. He had come to New York in 1956, and found work with Al Cohn and Zoot Sims, and later with Stan Getz and Gerry Mulligan. And although he had grown up in the South listening to the blues and playing blues, he had early fallen under the spell of bebop. Nat "King" Cole was his strongest original piano influence, but he was also listening to, and learning from, Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk and even Lennie Tristano.

A really important influence, and a mentor in his early New York days, was George Wallington. Cohn and Getz and Mulligan didn't record any of Allison's compositions, though Allison recalls that Getz would let him play a few on live gigs, in a trio setting when Getz would sit out a number. But Wallington did--his recording of "In Salah" for Prestige preceded Allison's debut. And it's interesting to compare the two versions. Wallington is urbane and boppish, featuring uptempo solos by Phil Woods and Donald Byrd. Allison matches Wallington's speed out of the box, and his piano style is very reminiscent of Wallington's bebop, but he finds his own jaunty rhythm, and his own bluesy tone.

The songs that make up the actual "Back Country Suite" make up the first side of the album. Revisiting this album is revisiting my youth, and every note of it finds a familiar niche in my ears and in my soul. What I hadn't remembered is how short each of the individual compositions are: some less than a minute and a half, the longest two minutes and 15 seconds. I did remember that "Blues," the one vocal, later to be given rock immortality by The Who as "Young Man Blues," was short. Of course, when you think of it, they'd have to be: ten individual tunes on one side of an LP.

Long playing technology was hardly a novelty by this time, and jazz musicians had long since discovered that they could stretch out and explore improvisational possibilities way beyond what one side, or even both sides of a 78 RPM record could handle. This is a little different: a series of vignettes, each one too short, by itself, to make a 78 or a 45. If Bob Weinstock had foreseen the later immense popularity of "Young Man Blues" and decided he would grab a little of it by releasing "Blues" as a single, he maybe could have. "Stay," by Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs, made Number One on the charts, and it was only a minute and 37 seconds long, so "Blues" would only have come up ten seconds under that...but no. Would not have worked. But these vignettes together make a beautifully realized, interconnected piece that fits perfectly on one side of a vinyl LP.

So people who think of Allison as a singer/songwriter may also remember him as a pianist/composer. Probably fewer remember him as a working jazz musician. When I heard him at the Half Note in New York in 1959, as part of the Al Cohn-Zoot Sims quintet, I remember being surprised even then -- Wow, that's Mose Allison! I didn't know he did gigs like this. But as a working jazz musician, he played the range of tunes that most jazz musicians play, but, of course, his own version of that range. The second side of this album has one Allison tune, the Wallington-covered "In Salah," and an interesting variety of covers. Two are well-known: tunes from earlier decades which had just recently become mega-hits. "Blueberry Hill" was originally a singing cowboy ditty from a 1940 Gene Autry movie, but it crossed that Red River Valley into Hollywood, where it became a Number One hit for Glenn Miller, and finally reached its zenith when Fats Domino recorded the definitive version. Mose makes a sweet addition to the catalog, with a boppish uptempo version.

Buddy Johnson wrote a lot more good songs than a lot of composers who have bigger reputations, "Since I Fell For You" was his biggest hit. Originally recorded by his sister Ella in 1945 it became a big pop hit in 1963 for Lenny Welch. It's become a jazz standard in versions by Coleman Hawkins, Lee Morgan, Stanley Turrentine and George Benson, and a vocal standard for pretty nearly everyone, from Nina Simone and Dinah Washington through blues singers, doowoppers, Sixties rockers, and even country performers...and Mose Allison.

Johnson was a classically trained pianist who led a jump blues band in the 40s, and held it together through the 50s, though by then there wasn't much of a market for jump blues. His other compositions include "Fine Brown Frame" and "Did You See Jackie Robinson Hit That Ball?"

Johnson's "You Won't Let Me Go" is an absolutely beautiful blues ballad that's been recorded by Ray Charles, Lonnie Johnson, Hadda Brooks, and Charles Brown -- twice, in a vocal version and an instrumental with Johnny Moore's Three Blazers. Brown was a strong influence on Allison, both as pianist and singer. This was never the hit that "Since I Fell For You" was, but it's just as good. Listen to a couple of those fine renditions.

"I Thought About You" is the one standard from the Songbook, written by Jimmy Van Heusen and Johnny Mercer.  It, maybe even more than "In Salah," is the number where you can really hear the Wallington influence.

I loved "One Room Country Shack" when I first heard it. The liner notes say that Mose learned it from a recording by a blues singer named Mercy Dee, so when I went out to look for the original, way back then, I had trouble finding it, until I discovered that the singer's name was actually Mercy Dee Walton, and he had recorded it for Specialty. If I live long enough, and am ever crazy enough to do this with another record label, it will be Specialty.

Allison is accompanied by Taylor LaFargue on bass. This may have been LaFargue's only recording, although Allison recalls him playing (as Jug Taylor) with Stan Getz's quintet during Mose's tenure there. Drummer Frank Isola also played with Getz, and is the one who brought Allison into Getz's group. Getz had interesting hiring practices. From Fifties Jazz Talk: An Oral Retrospective:
I didn't audition for him because he never really auditioned anybody; the job was the audition, and if he was satisfied with you on the night you stayed with the band.
In the same oral reminiscence, he talks about Isola:
The whole idea about drums for me is momentum without magnificence, or to put it another way, momentum without volume. A lot of good drummers get the momentum but there's too much volume. I like the guy who can get the momentum without excess volume, and Frank was the master of that.
Back Country Suite was released in 1957, to wide acclaim. I wasn't the only one who was turned on by it. Dom Cerulli in Down Beat said:
 This is an important record. Not so much because of the suite, which in itself is charming, fresh, and rooted in the blues, but also because Allison is a talent which bears watching. If his subsequent writing has the individuality of approach and the same earthy quality as in this excursion, jazz will have added another exciting voice to its roster of spokesmen. This deserves hearing.” 
We know what his subsequent writing produced. "Your Molecular Structure," "Your Mind is on Vacation," so much more.

"Blues" was too short to make a single, but Prestige did release "One Room Country Shack" on 45. b/w two of the pieces from the suite, "New Ground" and "Warm Night."

 Order Listening to Prestige, Vol. 1 here.