Sunday, January 29, 2017

Listening to Prestige 238: John Coltrane - Paul Quinichette

In general, I try not to look ahead, but to consider one recording session at a time. This isn't exactly a rule, but it's a general preference, and in this case, it's one that I held to. In my last blog entry, on the Mal Waldron sextet with John Coltrane, I wondered if one could chart the seeds of progress toward the revolutionary changes to come -- Giant Steps, My Favorite Things, A Love Supreme, Ascension. And now, in the very next session, or perhaps a continuation of the same session, since they happened on the same day, Trane is paired with swing giant and Lester Young acolyte Paul Quinichette.

So--is Coltrane moving on a steady course toward a more advanced, avant-garde approach to music? Or how about this for an alternate question -- did Trane ever care about that? In 1961, during his Impulse years, when we was making his most advanced music, he recorded an album of ballads, and two years later, in 1963, he collaborated with Billy Eckstine acolyte Johnny Hartman on another album of standards. Coltrane was one of the most important developers of modal jazz, the definitive break from the improvisation around chord changes that was the hallmark of bebop, but his best known modal album--probably his most popular album of all time--was built around one of schmaltz kings Rodgers and Hammerstein's schmaltziest songs. and if he didn't exactly deliver it in a brown paper package tied up with string, he certainly knew that was where it came from.

In other words, Coltrane moved wherever the spirit moved him, and if it moved him to find a groove with the Vice Pres, that's what he was going to do. And there's no star heirarchy in this session. It's two cats blowing together, and finding that groove, and sharing the experience. Neither of them concede anything stylistically, and neither of them has to--Coltrane with a hard-edged, driving sound, and Quinichette sweeter and gentler. It really does give you a sense of what it would have been like if Trane and Lester Young had ever played together, especially on "Cattin'."

Again, Mal Waldron is called upon to supply most of the music here, with four originals and some wonderful solos--again, especially on "Cattin'."

I should, if I haven't recently, stop and give credit to the anonymous scholars who have created so many Wikipedia pages for individual albums. That's where I get most of my information on composer credits for jazz originals, hard to come by anywhere else on the web.

All the tunes from this session except "Tea for Two" came out on album called Cattin' with Coltrane and Quinichette, which for some reason was delayed a couple of years before release. "Tea for Two," where Quinichette takes the lead, eventually surfaced on the Body and Soul compilation album on Status that seems to have handled a lot of the overflow from other sessions.


 Order Listening to Prestige, Vol. 1 here.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Listening to Prestige 237: Mal Waldron

This is the second of two sessions featuring Mal Waldron and a sextet, with basically the same instrumentation but different players. Idrees Sulieman and Sahib Shihab replace Bill Hardman and Jackie McLean, with Shihab doubling on baritone sax.

One of my real joys in the recent era of Prestige releases has been a rediscovery of Mal Waldron. I knew him as a pianist, but I hadn't realized the extent of his contributions as a composer. Virtually every Prestige album he's appeared on has featured at least one of his compositions, generally more, and they've all been striking.

Interestingly, of the three tunes on this session, only one is his. The other two are standards by outstanding composers: Jerome Kern ("The Way You Look Tonight") and Cole Porter ("From This Moment On"). So he wasn't afraid to match himself up against the best. Nor would he need to. All three of these cuts are stellar.

At this point, any Prestige session involving John Coltrane is as important in the history of John Coltrane as it is in the history of Prestige records -- and there will still be a few more. Coltrane left Prestige for Atlantic in 1960, and recorded the groundbreaking Giant Steps. That album, Miles Davis's Kind of Blue, and Ornette Coleman's first albums changed jazz.

And as Giant Steps was a break from jazz past, it was
a break from Coltrane past. So these 1956-59 albums are important because they show the development of one of the most important talents in jazz, as he distinguished himself from the rest while still working within the context of the jazz of that era, whether you call it hard bop or anything else. Can we hear the seeds of the change to come? I'm not good enough to answer that. I know that when I first heard Giant Steps, it sounded like nothing else I'd ever heard.

Meanwhile, here's Coltrane with two other fine horn players, and I love what they do together, especially Coltrane and Sulieman. And with Mal Waldron. If it's a couple of steps short of Giant Steps, it's still important music, and it's an important part of the Mal Waldron story.

The three cuts from this session became part of Mal-2, issued under Waldron's name. They were never specifically rereleased under Coltrane's name, as were a lot of the Prestige sessions Trane took part in,


 Order Listening to Prestige, Vol. 1 here.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Listening to Prestige 236: Curtis Fuller / Red Garland

Bob Weinstock had Curtis Fuller back in the studio three days later, with some continuity and some changes. There's still a Detroit nucleus, with Fuller, Sonny Red and Louis Hayes. And the switch of bass players -- Paul Chambers for Doug Watkins -- still keeps the Detroit motif. But Detroiter Hank Jones gives way to Texan Red Garland. And perhaps the key change was the addition of a New Englander: Teddy Charles takes over for Bob Weinstock as producer.

Weinstock produced most of the Prestige sessions during the 50s. In the 60s, he would largely turn
that task over to others -- Chris Albertson, Ozzie Cadena (who originally put J. J. and Kai together), Esmond Edwards, Don Schlitten. Weinstock's production philosophy, as we know, was mostly hands off - create the open, spontaneous feel of a jam session. And as we've seen, it was a successful philosophy. 

Charles may have been a little more hands-on, which could explain why this session, three days after Fuller's debut, is so different. 

The difference begins with the first cut. Paul Chambers has replaced Doug Watkins, and Watkins was a great bass player, but Paul Chambers was Paul Chambers. "Slenderella" (mislabeled "Cinderella" in the set notes) is one of two Sonny Red compositions, but Red may not have thought of starting it with a 30-second walking bass vamp that immediately lets you know this is going to be different. Or, I should say, immediately lets the musicians know there's going to be a new sound, because although "Slenderella" was recorded first, it wasn't first on the album as released.

Much has been made of the way J. J. Johnson introduced a new fluidity to the trombone, an instrument thought to be too unwieldy to handle the fast pace of bebop. Certainly there had been very good trombonists in the earlier days of jazz--Kid Ory, Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, Trummy Young (whom Fuller nearly replaced in Louis Armstrong's group)--but bebop created a whole new set of demands. Curtis Fuller is often mentioned as Johnson's most accomplished successor, and he certainly shows it already, on this early album. In "Slenderella," he sets himself some amazing challenges for fast fluid runs on the trombone, and meets them all.

The two standards on the session include Harold Arlen's beautiful and oft-parodied "Stormy Weather" (viz Ronny Graham: "Can't go on, all my nembutals are gone...Leonard Feather"). The mournful tone of this one has been indelibly set by Arlen's melody and Lena Horne's definitive version of it, so Fuller is called upon to trade in his bebop dexterity for sensitivity, and he does just that, starting from a haunting vamp by Chambers and Garland, never straying far from the melody, and taking most of the solo work on himself.

And the Teddy Charles touch really asserts itself in the last cut of the day, and the last cut on the finished album, which is a Charles composition, "Roc and Troll." This is not the kind of thing that you'd have expected to hear at the Blue Bird Inn in Detroit. It's a whole different kind of challenge, and it really shows Fuller's and Garland's versatility. Sonny Red's solo takes it back to the
language of bebop, which is interesting in itself, and shows once again that the often-maligned head-solo-solo-solo-head structure of much small group jazz makes for some fascinating conversations between styles and approaches

The session notes give this as the Curtis Fuller-Red Garland Quintet. The album cover tilts the credit a little more in favor of Fuller--Curtis Fuller with Red Garland. And for some reason, it was released on New Jazz--perhaps because it followed so closely on the heels of another Fuller album? But that wouldn't necessarily be a problem. Albums weren't always released in the order of their being made.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Listening to Prestige 235: Curtis Fuller

In an interview in later years (from an article published in 2010), Curtis Fuller describes John Coltrane's seminal Blue Train recording for Blue Note as his first recording. And Lord knows it was important. Trane has described it as his favorite album. And it's impossible to overstate the importance of John Coltrane to the young Fuller In the same interview, he says "meeting Trane was the greatest thing that ever happened to me. It was Miles Davis who took me to New York, and Coltrane was in the band, as well as Paul Chambers, Philly Jo Jones. Trane took me aside...he had confidence that I didn’t have; he saw something that I didn’t see. A great man."

But actually, Blue Train wasn't recorded until September of 1957-- well after the Paul Quinichette session, and after this session, a day later.

As important as Blue Train was in young Fuller's development, this early couple of days in May, a Fridays with Rudy session that spilled over into Saturday, with Fuller as sideman and then leader, should not be overlooked.

So, about Curtis Fuller...but it's so easy to get sidetracked, isn't it? Hank Jones is on this session, too, and he did a number of sessions for Prestige over the years, but wasn't really one of their regulars. Before this session, he had only been on board for two dates supporting vocalist Earl Coleman. And just listen to him on "Blue Lawson." His vamp leading into the head is enough to draw you in, and his solo coming out of it would melt the resistance of Doris Day on a blind date with Rock Hudson. Oh, heck, just keep on listening to "Blue Lawson," and you'll come right back to thinking about Curtis Fuller again, whose trombone solo has been studied by succeeding generations of trombone players. And Sonny Red. And Doug Watkins.
Transcription of Curtis Fuller's solo on "Blue Lawg.

Fuller is yet another musician to have had his initial training in the jazz cauldron of Detroit. His Jamaican-born parents died when he was very young, and he was raised in an orphanage, but went to school with Paul Chambers and Donald Byrd, and later, at Wayne State University, roomed with Joe Henderson. Everyone in Detroit in those days must have fallen under the jazz spell, because young Curtis had his life turned around when a nun at the orphanage took him to hear J. J. Johnson (in a theater--it's too much to ask, to imagine a nun at the Blue Bird). Fuller told interviewer Jon Solomon,
He was coming out the side of the theater. He stopped and squeezed my hand, and he gave me that look — the J.J. Johnson look. And throughout the years, he never forgot me. And as I got older and went to school, and then went to the service and came out, I saw him again with Kai Winding, and he remembered me. When I got to New York, he told Miles [Davis] about me and about my progress.
Fuller would study with both Johnson and Frank Rosolino, and many years later (1980), he would team up with Kai Winding in a reprise of the famous J. J. and Kai pairing. Now a jazz legend himself (and still with us), Fuller has some serious legends as mileposts in his career. Coltrane and Winding are two, but just as important was Lester Young. "I remember talking to Billie Holiday about being surprised that Lester wanted me," Fuller told Solomon. "She said, 'Well, he asked for you. He must've wanted you.'"

And then there was the legend that got away. He auditioned to replace Trummy Young in Louis Armstrong's All Stars, and he really wanted this gig -- for one thing, Young was getting $1500 a week, which was about three times what he had ever earned. But his sound was too modern for Armstrong.

Hank Jones was another Michigan native, but not so much a part of that Detroit scene. He played in territorial bands around Michigan and Ohio, and he left for New York in 1944, before the Blue Bird Inn had really become a bebop mecca.

Sonny Red was known by that name pretty much throughout his career, starting with Two Altos, released in 1959 but recorded in 1957, and his 1960 debut as leader on Blue Note, but on these early Prestige albums he's billed as Red Kyner, and although most of his composer credits are as Sonny Red, there's at least one tune credited to Sylvester Kyner. He was another Detroiter, whose early work in the Motor City included gigs with Barry Harris and Doug Watkins. He came to New York with Fuller, and they started out together, sharing digs and gigs. Before Motown: A History of Jazz in Detroit 1920-60, by Lars Bjorn, includes a reminiscence about Sonny from a fellow musician*:
So me and my friends, we go down to the Craftsman's Club one night and there is Sonny Red playing alto and it floored me because I didn't know he had that kind of talent. I said "Wow!" because he sounded like Charlie Parker to me. And I went up to him and said, "Red, I didn't know that you could do this." He said, "Yeah, man." I said, "How long have you been playing? Tell me!" He said, "You just do it!" So he became a motivator to me. I said if he can do it, I can do it. You know, he was with Barry Harris, Doug Watkins on bass, Sid Roman on drums and Claire Roquemore on trumpet. Man, you can hardly believe what these guys were blowing. And the thing about it, no matter how much they played, we could still dance.
Swing-to-bop. Like Paul Quinichette. In New York, the virtuoso soloist became king because dancing was not allowed in the small clubs. In Detroit, a guy could be playing like Charlie Parker and they were still dancing.

Louis Hayes also came out of Detroit, where he was leading groups in  clubs before he was 16, and where he first played with Yusef Lateef.

Completing the all-Detroit tenor of this session, "Blue Lawson" is a tribute to Detroit piano man Hugh Lawson, who came to New York with Lateef and worked in his group.

When people talk about "if you could go back in time, where would you go?" The Globe Theater in Shakespeare's day? The Renaissance? Conservative political theorists want to go back to McKinley's presidency. Woody Allen, in Midnight in Paris, wanted to go back to Paris in the Twenties, and one of the characters in that movie thought the Twenties were boring, and wanted to go back to La Belle Epoque. I've always said I want to go back to New York in the 1940s, to 52nd Street and Minton's and Monroe's. Now I think I'd like to make a side trip in that time travel, and go to Detroit as well. I would have heard some bad cats I could never hear anywhere else. Who was Claire Roquemore? Again from Lars Bjorn's book (no Google references to Roquemore anywhere else):
Claire Roquemore was by many accounts a very promising young trumpeter who never fulfilled his promise. Frank Gant's assessment: "Claire had technical fluidity: I saw him wipe Miles out many a time. He seemed like he had that breath control where he can play forever.
All of the cuts from this session except "Alicia" were included on the album Curtis Fuller - New Trombone. "Alicia" was ultimately put into a Status budget album called Body and Soul.


 Order Listening to Prestige, Vol. 1 here.

* This is taken from the excerpt in Google Books, and the name of the musician who provided this oral history is cut out. You can get a hardcover copy of Before Motown from Amazon for $350, but I also found a used paperback for ten bucks, including shipping, so I've ordered it and will be able to fill in this information later.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Listening to Prestige 234: Paul Quinichette

The name of the group, on the session list, is Paul Quinichette's New Stars, and it lives up to its billing. Even Quinichette, while not altogether a new star, is new to Prestige, and pretty much new to recording in a bebop context. He's not new to recording, having led his first session in 1951, and even when he was new in that context he wasn't altogether new, being 35 years old and with a fairly impressive career behind him, from Jay McShann to Johnny Otis, Louis Jordan, Lucky Millinder, Hot Lips Page, and most notably with Count Basie, where he became known as the Vice President, because of his stylistic similarities to Lester Young, and of course because of taking the lead tenor sax chair in the Basie band. And his debut album with Prestige, with a new label and really a new approach, came when he was 41.

You don't play with bandleaders like McShann, Otis and Jordan without learning something about the importance of entertaining people, and as Quinichette began his association with boppish Prestige, he brought that background with him. Prestige had been started by 21-year-old Bob Weinstock after he had been jolted out of his trad jazz fandom by a Thelonious Monk 78, and his first recording session featured Lenny Tristano, so he was no stranger to the cutting edge of jazz experimentation. But he wasn't afraid of feel-good music either, and both of these tastes are what gave Prestige its vitality and importance for so many years.

Quinichette, on this and subsequent sessions with Prestige, worked in that genre that I've called, writing about artists like Zoot Sims, swing-to-bop (which was also the title of a classic cut by perhaps the original swing-to-bopper, Charlie Christian). The early boppers, of course, came out of the swing bands, but by this time, the young modern players had grown up on bebop. So it's interesting, instructional, and basically just plain delightful to hear a veteran like Quinichette with this group of New Stars.

Of the new stars, the rhythm section isn't entirely new, but is of the bebop-bred generation.

Mal Waldron was the oldest at this point, at 32, but his whole career had been with the moderns. He did begin with Ike Quebec in 1952, but soon moved to Charles Mingus, and aside from a very important stint with Billie Holiday (1957-59) always worked in a modern and even free jazz idiom.

Ed Thigpen was five years younger than Waldron, but came from a traditional background--his father was the longtime drummer for Andy Kirk's Clouds of Joy, and he was perhaps best known for his work with Oscar Peterson, Billy Taylor and Ella Fitzgerald.

Doug Watkins was still only 23, and had made his Prestige recording debut just a year earlier, with Jackie McLean (and in 1955 on a live album with Art Blakey), but he was already a veteran of some 20 sessions on Prestige alone.

John Jenkins had played on a couple of recent sessions (and was also brought up modern, starting out with Art Farmer and Charles Mingus), but he was still a pretty New Star, and Curtis Fuller and Sonny Red were the newest of the New.

Sonny Red was 25, and this seems to have been his debut on record. He was active through the 50s and 60s, never really breaking through as a major figure, but doing some good work. Curtis Fuller was two years younger, one of the Detroit guys, and did go on to make a significant name for himself. They would both come back the day after this session to record under Fuller's name, so I'll hold off saying much more about them, except to note that each of them were at one point caught up in the twin-instruments thing I got into in my last post. Well, not really. Sonny Red is featured on an album called Two Altos, and it has a picture of two altos on the cover, and the names Art Pepper and Sonny Red, but it's actually two completely different sessions, done at different times on different sides of the country. Curtis Fuller...another J.J. and Kai? Blue Note apparently thought so. They recorded him and Slide Hampton as the co-leaders of a quintet in 1958. And then apparently thought better of it, as the session went unreleased until 1980 in Japan, and 1996 in the USA.

So here we have veteran Paul Quinichette with the young cats, and with a young composer - three tunes by Mal Waldron, along with two standards, and the results are uplifiting. Someone calling himself GastonBulbous has posted "Blue Dots" on YouTube, and describes it as "a head by Mal Waldron that cleverly bridges Quinichette's origins as a Basie-ite with the more beboppish ambitions of his sidemen." It's that and more. The head is Waldron's modern-style take on a McShann or Otis-type head, and solo work, taking Quinichette's cue, is joyous swing-to-bop. All of it wonderful, but you can't help but be particularly caught up in Quinichette's solo, and Waldron's brief one at the end.

Bob Weinstock must have been as struck as I was by the infectiousness of "Blue Dots," because he released it as a 45. The album was called Paul Quinichette on the Sunny Side. The British Esquire release has the same title and the same frying pan, but adds "the Vice Pres" to Quinichette's name. The 45 changes the listing of New Stars to the familiar Prestige All Stars. It was released later, so presumably the stars weren't quite so new any more.


 Order Listening to Prestige, Vol. 1 here.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Listening to Prestige 233: Irrelevant musings and a lost session

The small group isn't entirely a modern jazz phenomenon: look at Louis Armstrong's Hot Five and Hot Seven. But it's a jazz structure that came to be associated with the beboppers in the wake of the jazz revolution that succeeded the big band era. Well, and also the rock and rollers, from Louis Jordan to the Beatles, but that's another story.

But staying with the moderns, where did the splinter phenomenon of a quartet led by two practitioners of the same instrument come from? My guess is J.J. and Kai, and if that's so, starting with a pair of slightly offbeat instruments.

What are slightly offbeat instruments? Well, the core of traditional jazz instrumentation could be said to be the trumpet and clarinet, the core of modern jazz instrumentation the trumpet and tenor saxophone. And the piano, but as Professor Longhair observed to documentarian Stevenson J. Palfi, "piano players rarely ever play together." Al Cohn and Zoot Sims, two tenormen, may well have been the very first leaders of a paired-instrument quintet. The legendary epicenter of bebop was Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, and the saxophone-trumpet quintet has always been a staple, and a beloved one.

J.J. and Kai may have set some kind of record for number of different labels for one small group, They were first put together for a session on Savoy by producer Ozzie Cadena, and they clicked so well that they stayed together for three years, then reunited periodically, They recorded for Savoy, Prestige, "X"/RCA, Bethlehem, Columbia, Impulse, A&M/CTI and A&M/CTI (Japan).

But Bob Weinstock must have liked what he heard, because he would come back to it briefly in 1956, on a Sonny Rollins quartet session, on which John Coltrane came aboard for one memorable cut, the legendary "Tenor Madness."

And he really picked up on in it in 1957, starting in January with not just two, but three trumpets and a rhythm section. The three were Donald Byrd, Art Farmer and Idrees Suleiman, and the resulting album was called Three Trumpets. And if three weren't enough, what about four? And if tenor madness wasn't enough, what about alto madness? Gene Quill, Hal Stein, Sahib Shihab and Phil Woods were the entire front line for another Prestige All Stars session, in February.

In March, Herbie Mann and Bobby Jaspar led a sort of twinned instruments session. Both played flute, both played tenor sax, and both occasionally played the same instrument at the same time. And alto madness returned with Phil Woods and Gene Quill. Phil and Quill would record together more than once, and if they weren't J.J. and Kai (though they shared rhyming names with them), they were still a significant duo.

I don't know if you can count the April three-sax session with John Coltrane, Cecil Payne and Pepper Adams, since that was a tenor and two baritones. It came out on an album called Baritones and French Horns, which also featured a session with two French horns, but they weren't the only lead instruments. Anyway, I'll get to that one shortly.

And in May, alto madness became "Alto Madness" with Jackie McLean and John Jenkins.

The purpose of all this? Partly, I just like to explore digressions like this. I like thinking about music, and going where my thoughts take me. Partly, it has to do with a session I can't find, and I have gotten to the point of obsession with this project where any session that I can't write about cuts me deeply. If I ever get an advance to do this series of books, I will invest in the collector's-item prices for the vinyl discs that got away.

On May 10, Kenny Burrell and Barry Galbraith went into Rudy Van Gelder's studio to record four tunes, with Leonard Gaskin and Bobby Donaldson. One of them was never issued, and even its title is lost to posterity. The other three came out on a compilation album of Burrell sessions released on Prestige's budget line, Status, and again on a much later release called The Best of Kenny Burrell. This is unfortunate, among other reasons, because although Barry Galbraith was one of the most in-demand session musicians (Marc Myers on JazzWax gives the figure as 594 recording sessions, and says that he was recording virtually every other day), he did very little as a leader, co-leader or even featured sideman. Myers interviewed Galbraith's friend Hal McKusick, and got this
Barry was content to be busy doing all the dates he did. A wise a&r man would have been wise to capture his talent on many albums, in different settings, but sadly it was not to be.
Barry was very organized with his time. He would go home after a day of recording, with a night gig added in some cases, and practice classical and other pieces in his basement. He was a truly dedicated musician, quiet, efficient and a great sight-reader. He also had the finest taste in phrasing, articulation and voicings.
We spent many hours at his home (when he lived on Long Island) exploring songs and working out ensemble sounds with guitar and alto. That was the beginning of my recording career as a leader, utilizing what we had discovered together.
Barry is one of the great unsung heroes in music, known and respected by those who are aware of his contribution and terrific musical ability.
Back again next time with a session I can actually discuss, rather than just mourning its absence.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Listening to Prestige 232: Jackie McLean - John Jenkins

Jackie McLean was known, especially early in his career, as Bird's foremost acolyte, and starting off the session with a Parker tune shows that he's not quite ready to shake off that mantle. "Bird Feathers," as it turns out, did not make the cut for the album that emanated from this session (though it did eventually see vinyl), but it does set the tone.

On this session, McLean is paired with another Bird acolyte, John Jenkins, and two altos, plus LP technology (hardly a new development at this point) mean that they can do something that Bird was not able to do on his original waxing of this tune, and that's go on twice as long. More, actually. The original Parker/Miles Davis cut came in at under three minutes, 78 RPM dimensions, and McLean
and Jenkins take it to nearly ten minutes. In fact, all the cuts from this session are extended, which is why  they weren't able to fit them all on one album.

Even in Bird's late recordings, he didn't go much beyond five minutes, the exception being the live Jazz at Massey Hall. So length is one of the interesting features of this session. Not to say this gives us an insight into what Bird would have done with ten minutes or more to develop an individual piece in the recording studio, since no one can tell what Bird might have done with anything had he lived long enough to develop his genius further. And it goes without saying, not to say it gives us an insight into what if there had been two Charlie Parkers. Still, it's interesting.

The session shapes up much like a Parker session too, with one original ("Bird Feathers") and two standards, one ballad tempo ("Easy Living") and one uptempo ("The Lady is a Tramp"). The other two cuts are both John Jenkins originals, and he brings something of value to the party. In fact, his "Windy City" is probably my favorite cut. Art Taylor contributes a blazing drum solo to "Windy City," and Wade Legge is equally powerful.

We've heard Legge once before--on another Charlie Parker tribute session, that one led by Sonny Rollins. Legge himself was too young ever to have played with Bird, but he did tour and record extensively with Dizzy Gillespie. This session and two with Charles Mingus were his last on record. He would shortly return to his native Buffalo, and die a few years later at the age of 29, perhaps by his own hand.

Alto Madness was the title of this album, and "Bird Feathers" became the title cut of the New Jazz compilation album it eventually found its way to, with cuts from the March Phil Woods/Gene Quill session, and a later date with Hal McCusick and Billy Byers--which was not, oddly enough, devoted to Parker compositions.


 Order Listening to Prestige, Vol. 1 here.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Listening to Prestige 231: Barbara Lea

This is the last Barbara Lea session, three more songs to fill out the Lea in Love album, with her backing group changed just a little. Trumpeter Johnny Windhurst, who worked with Lea a lot, and was on her first Prestige sessions, is back. Dick Cary stays on alto horn here, and Jimmy Lyon on piano. This time they go without a drummer.

New to the mix is harpist Adele Girard. There aren't all that many jazz harpists, and most of them are women, although the first person to use the harp as a jazz solo instrument was a man, Casper Reardon, and probably the most famous American harpist was a man, too: Harpo Marx. There aren't all that many jazz harpists because it's not always easy to
see how a harp fits into a jazz context. Corky Hale and Alice Coltrane are probably the best known. Adele Girard probably should be. Her "Harp Boogie" may be the best jazz harp tour de force ever. She doesn't do that kind of soloing on this session, but she adds nice stuff to the mix.

Lea did four songs on this day three of which made the album, and the fourth was not only unissued, but there's no record of what it was. Two that did make the cut are by Cole Porter. "You'd Be So Nice To Come Home To" has become a jazz standard, beloved by vocalists and instrumentalists alike.

"True Love" was written for the movie High Society, where Bing Crosby sings it to Grace Kelly, and she chimes in a little on the last chorus. This was enough to put her name on the label, and it became Princess Grace's only gold record. There really aren't any other jazz recordings of it (although there's a very weird one by Beatle George Harrison). Is there something about it that says Pop, not jazz? Lord knows Cole Porter has provided many many highlights of the jazz repertoire. But there's not much that says Jazz in the Barbara Lea version, either, although it's a beautiful pop song, and Lea, as always, understands the lyric and delivers it sensitively.

"A Straw Hat Full of Lilacs" is the real show stopper here, partly because it's so obscure. I can't find any other recording of it. The lyric was written by Peggy Lee (who as a 17-year-old appeared on a radio show called Hayloft Jamboree as "Freckle-faced Gertie," wearing a trademark straw hat), but there's no record of Lee ever recording it. The music was by Willard Robison, known for the hauntingly sad "A Cottage For Sale," and this song has some of the same haunting melancholy. If I were a contemporary jazz singer (Teri Roiger, are you listening?), I would take this song and Annie Ross's "The Time Was Right," another neglected gem, and add them to my repertoire.

"Straw Hat Full of Lilacs" was the flip side of a 45, with "Mountain Greenery" as the A side, as well as being on Lea in Love.

 Order Listening to Prestige, Vol. 1 here.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Listening to Prestige 230: Teo Macero

Teo Macero was born in Glens Falls, New York, in the foothills of the Adirondacks, proving that not only can jazz talent come from anywhere, it can inspire a new generation of jazz talent anywhere. Jazz guitarist/keyboardist Larry "the Fluff" Audette, who grew up in Glens Falls a couple of generations later, recalls:
His brother had a bar called maceros. ..Teo used to have his acts try out new material there...I saw max roach w/ Abby Lincoln, etc.

Like Miles Davis, Macero would be moving on to Columbia, for whom he had recorded one album in 1956. This Prestige session was only a blip on the radar screen, because later in 1957 he would return to Colubia, where he would make his greatest reputation as a producer of some of jazz's most highly regarded albums, including most of Miles's Columbia output, most notably Kind of Blue. He also produced Dave Brubeck's Time Out, Monk's Dream, and Mingus Ah Um. Mingus thanked him, in the liner notes to his orchestral work Let My Children Hear Music, for "his untiring efforts in producing the best album I have ever made."

If this was a golden age of jazz, not just a golden age of Prestige Records--and it was--Teo Macero had a lot to do with it. Because it was also a golden age of recording. They didn't have the equpment available today. Rudy Van Gelder created magic in his parents' living room. Les Paul and Buddy Holly and others created new and innovative recording techniques using home equipment. Patti Page, even before the widespread use of tape, managed to overdub herself and create five-part close harmony using acetate. Gil Melle invented a number of electronic instruments. Bo Diddley created guitars that looked like no guitars anyone had ever seen,

Nowadays, pretty much anyone can do pretty much all of this. It's like what I used to tell my screenwriting students after showing them Vittorio DeSica's Bicycle Thief: "Any one of you could do this. It wouldn't take much of a budget. You could use amateur actors the way he did. You could take a hand held camera out into the streets of Poughkeepsie. All you'd need would be genius."

Van Gelder and Paul and Holly and Page and Melle and Diddley had vision. So did Teo Macero, and in a 1997 interview with Iara Lee he talked about it:
In the '50's and '60's we didn't have anything lik=e a digital delay. We had to manufacture a digital delay. Now when you want a digital delay, you turn your machine half a step or whatever it is. To me, that doesn't really make the difference. It was the crudeness of all the things that we did.
Q. You were talking about the crudeness being important.
A. Yeah, it was a very inventive period in the '50's and '60's and the late '40's…many times we used a lot of electronic effects on Miles which Miles really didn't have anything to do with except in the final analysis, whether he liked it or disliked it.
I think that the effects that we created in those days were much more real. Everything today, with electronics is synthetic. You turn a button here, you get it a half step higher, turn a button there you get it half a step lower, or you stretch it out. But they're not doing it correctly. I don't think they're doing it the right way- there are no highs and no lows. There's just a bunch of noises. We always had direction. When we were doing it, there was always a pivot point and then you moved on from that and then created these sounds. And that brought them back to simplicity again. Now everybody gets out there and they want to play that stuff ,I do it myself, but after fifteen minutes your mind starts to wander and the players start to wander and there's no definition. I mean music has to have lines, has to have dynamics, has to have emotion, all the elements that make it in music. But today, with the synthetic stuff, you got a gimmick here and a gimmick there, that's still not going to make it.
In the old times, we would take two tapes, put them together on two different machines, record on the third one and try to sort of sync them up. But not sync them up exactly, it's just a fraction off, so that you wonder when you listen back to some of the Miles things, for instance, you wonder how this sound was created. Now, I did all that in the studio.

Times change, and tastes change, but there's always something about imperfection that's wonderful, especially as perfection becomes easier. Robert Herrick knew it in the 17th century, when there wasn't a lot of technological perfection:
Delight in Disorder
A sweet disorder in the dress
Kindles in clothes a wantonness;
A lawn about the shoulders thrown
Into a fine distraction;
An erring lace, which here and there
Enthrals the crimson stomacher;
A cuff neglectful, and thereby
Ribands to flow confusedly;
A winning wave, deserving note,
In the tempestuous petticoat;
A careless shoe-string, in whose tie
I see a wild civility:
Do more bewitch me, than when art
Is too precise in every part.  
And there will always be some who like the other extreme. Disco producer Nile Rodgers was doing a session once with a series of electronic drum tracks, and an engineer finally decided he'd had enough perfection. He programmed a tiny glitch, way down in the mix. When Rodgers heard the playback, it was like the response of the princess to the pea: "If I wanted mistakes," he said, "I'd have hired a real drummer."

Teo Macero sought perfection, but he worked hard for it. From the same interview:

 if I needed something in a hurry, I'd get some loop machines which created a lot of illusions for Miles. They were made, one of them is in here. I got another one in the studio. But they were all sort of electronic pieces that were made that I finally bought from CBS because I thought they were so great. I mean you can't duplicate this today because they have movable heads on it. That was very crude. I mean today you turn a button and you might get the digital delay on one track and not on the other. But we had a lot of fun experimenting...when you cut and you edit you can do it in such a way that no one will ever know. And those days we still were doing it with a razor blade. I mean it's not like digital recording now where you got the 24 tracks and all kinds of equipment. You can put it on the computer. You can do all the things you want to do. If you want to move that thing over, I mean not one beat but maybe a beat and a half or beat and a 1/6. So you create a wash. There's a lot of things that you can do today that we didn't have the techniques to do in the late '50's and early '60's. But I think In A Silent Way is really a remarkable record for what it is. I mean for a little bit of music it's turned into a classic. And we did that with a lot of other records of his where we would use bits and pieces of cassettes that he would send me and say, "Put this in that new album we're working on." I would really shudder. I'd say, "Look, where the hell is it going to go? I don't know". He says, "Oh, you know".
... I have a device called "the switcher", and it takes this program and moves it. We have one record out there with that. I put it on the drums, it sounds like the drummer has got 8 hands and 8 feet. It goes (imitates sound) and it all was done on one track. So I said, you know, the drums come out the center and Miles out the left and something out the right, to me it wasn't the way to do it.
So the way I did it, I got Miles in the center. I put this drum track on this fancy switcher so it created the stereo versions. And then I had the bass and the sax. It's an interesting concept. In fact, we used it just recently on a couple of albums and it works beautifully. I mean those were the kind of electronic things sort of hand-made. They're not very fancy but they do what you cannot do with the synthesizers and electronics at the moment... 
Q. Contemporary digital equipment doesn't create funky music anymore?
A. Contemporary music, electronically... no. Because what happens is it's too beat-oriented, it's locked in, there's no emotion. We never did that. We always played very loose, but we had a direction to go to.
Macero put his heart into it. It would have horrified Bob Weinstock, but it was real to him in a way that the technology of a later generation could never be. I wrote about this when I was doing the Miles Davis Contractual Marathon sessions:
The first Columbia album, Round About Midnight, came out in 1957, and was not all that well reviewed. Critics found it wanting in comparison to the Prestige albums, though this judgment was to change over time, and Round About Midnight would become a classic...what really interests me here is the possibility that the passing of time may have led to a changing of tastes. 
... "Two Bass Hit" took six takes, and the finished version splices the beginning of take two to the end of take five. Artists (including Miles) would come to take it for granted that if they missed a high note, they could come back into the studio and hit just that one note, and have it spliced in.
Today some critics, perhaps many of them born and raised in the in the era of studio perfection, are a little snarky in assessing the Prestige catalog. Ragged, they say. Bob Weinstock preferred quantity to quality, rushed his sessions, didn't allow his musicians to rehearse, never did more than a couple of takes. But maybe back then, that ragged edge was more appealing, more authentic. Maybe the critics of 1957 were put off a little by the studio-perfected sound.

 There's always a pendulum in any aesthetic. Some small independent jazz labels of the 21st century,
like Mark Feldman's Reservoir Records, went back to two-track recording on the theory that you didn't need anything more to get the true feeling of jazz. And there's a reason why I chose to give my heart and soul to the Prestige recordings of the 50s rather than Columbia Records in the last quarter of the 20th Centtury. But listening to Teo Macero talk about his work in the studio is listening to a man in love with what he was doing.

Macero in 1957 had been on the jazz scene for a while. He went straight from his 1953 Juilliard graduation to working with Charles Mingus, with whom he co-founded the Jazz Composers Workshop. He made several albums with Mingus, and one as leader on Mingus's Debut label. He was active as a composer, and in fact won a Guggenheim fellowship for composition in 1957, and another in 1958. His 1956 Columbia was made with Bob Prince, himself a composer, perhaps best known for his scores for Jerome Robbins ballets.

Both Prince and Macero were known for their experiments with Third Stream music, but there's not much Third Stream on this album, and for that matter, not much of Macero as composer. The selections are two Mal Waldron compositions, one from Teddy Charles, one standard ("Star Eyes," introduced in a forgotten 1943 movie, entered the jazz lexicon when Charlie Parker recorded it), and one tune ("Please Don't Go Now"), that I can't identify.

Macero and Charles were both noted for their avant garde tendencies, and they play off each other in exciting ways here. Mal Waldron is more known as a straight-ahead player and composer, but he rises to the occasion  with the most unusual tune of this session, "Ghost Story," which is never anything but unexpected throughout its six and a half minutes, from its spooky opening to its tuneful head to Teddy Charles's progressively weirder solo, to Macero's moody and melodic solo which finds some unexpected directions of its own.

Macero's own composition, "Just Spring," is, by comparison, pretty mainstream.

The session was produced by Teddy Charles, the first one to feature his Prestige Jazz Quartet by name, although they had worked one other session, the Prestige All Stars with Idrees Suleiman on April 14. The album was released as Teo.

 Order Listening to Prestige, Vol. 1 here.

Monday, January 09, 2017

Listening to Prestige 229: Gil Melle

What happened to jazz? it was America's popular music in the 30s, made by big bands that filled dance palaces like Roseland and were presented live over the radio for people to dance at home.

Then all sorts of things happened. The economics of the music business changed. The Petrillo strike of 1942-44 meant that union musicians could not record, but singers, who were not member of the American Federation of Musicians, could, and suddenly the singer, formerly an adjunct to the big band that was
the featured attraction, became the star. Frank Sinatra or Doris Day or Jo Stafford were big enough draws on their own--they no longer needed the name of Tommy Dorsey or Harry James. Margaret Whiting, who came of age in the 40s, was remembered later in her career as a big band singer, but actually she never sang with a band.

The record companies thought that the new breed of singer didn't need to compete with jazz soloists and jazz arrangers, and they were probably right. Jazz purists of the 50s, while sort of grudgingly recognizing that Frank Sinatra was a pretty good singer, grumbled that he would only reach his full potential if he sang with jazz musicians. But later, in his third career, with Reprise Records, he did sing with jazz musicians, and today everyone pretty much agrees that the Capitol recordings, with Nelson Riddle and Billy May creating arrangements that directed all the focus to the singer, are his greatest. Margaret Whiting did make her most successful records with a  jazz great, Billy Butterfield, but Butterfield understood his role and performed it beautifully.

And jazz was moving away from the dance music of the 30s to the challenging, intellectually stimulating sound of bebop.

This was, of course, going to narrow the audience. There are always going to be more people who want to dance than to be intellectually stimulated. But if jazz had lost the Dionysian excitement of the dance palace, it was creating a new kind of excitement, and that was not entirely Apollonian. Jazz was adventurous, it was on the cutting edge/ With its new emphasis on the virtuoso soloist it offered the unparalleled excitement of being up close and personal to a creative artist at the moment of creativity.

And modern jazz had an edge of danger, as it morphed from the music of the bobby soxer to the music of the hipster (the real hipster, not these guys in pony tails selling designer chocolate). It was Jack Kerouac on the road, it was Anatomy of a Murder and  Peter Gunn. Another shot-lived TV show brought the jazz-danger connection even closer, with John Cassavetes playing Johnny Staccato, a jazz pianist/private eye.

And of course, it was dangerous because it was black. All American music, even country and western, has its roots in the blues, but modern jazz was different. It was made by black musicians who consciously rejected the role of entertaining the white folks. If you wanted to listen to modern jazz, you had to go out and meet the black experience on its own terms, in the thorny personae of Charlie Parker or Charles Mingus or Miles Davis.

Or not. Jazz was a small niche in a world made by white men, as Miles Davis found out one summer evening when he had just finished recording what would be the best selling jazz album of all time, Kind of Blue, and was playing a gig at Birdland.
I had just finished doing an Armed Forces Day broadcast, you know, Voice of America and all that bullshit. I had just walked this pretty white girl named Judy out to get a cab. She got in the cab, and I’m standing there in front of Birdland wringing wet because it’s a hot, steaming, muggy night in August. This white policeman comes up to me and tells me to move on. At the time I was doing a lot of boxing and so I thought to myself, I ought to hit this motherfucker because I knew what he was doing. But instead I said, “Move on, for what? I’m working downstairs. That’s my name up there, Miles Davis,” and I pointed to my name on the marquee all up in lights.
He said, “I don’t care where you work, I said move on! If you don’t move on I’m going to arrest you.”
I just looked at his face real straight and hard, and I didn’t move. Then he said, “You’re under arrest!” He reached for his handcuffs, but he was stepping back. Now, boxers had told me that if a guy’s going to hit you, if you walk toward him you can see what’s happening. I saw by the way he was handling himself that the policeman was an ex-fighter. So I kind of leaned in closer because I wasn’t going to give him no distance so he could hit me on the head. He stumbled, and all his stuff fell on the sidewalk, and I thought to myself, Oh, shit, they’re going to think that I fucked with him or something. I’m waiting for him to put the handcuffs on, because all his stuff is on the ground and shit. Then I move closer so he won’t be able to fuck me up. A crowd had gathered all of a sudden from out of nowhere, and this white detective runs in and BAM! hits me on the head. I never saw him coming. Blood was running down the khaki suit I had on.  Then I remember [journalist] Dorothy Kilgallen coming outside with this horrible look on her face — I had known Dorothy for years and I used to date her good friend, Jean Bock — and saying, “Miles, what happened?” I couldn’t say nothing. Illinois Jacquet [the saxophonist] was there, too.
It was almost a race riot, so the police got scared and hurried up and got my ass out of there and took me to the 54th Precinct where they took pictures of me bleeding and shit. So, I’m sitting there, madder than a motherfucker, right? And they’re saying to me in the station, “So you’re the wiseguy, huh?” Then they’d bump up against me, you know, try to get me mad so they could probably knock me upside my head again. I’m just sitting there, taking it all in, watching every move they make.

If you were white, and a modern jazz fan, you felt a closeness to that abyss--it could happen to you, too. Though, of course, it couldn't. And I'm not putting down white jazz fans of the 50s. I was one. Just saying there was a jazz culture that it felt exciting to be a part of.

And al that would change too. Not the racism, but the perception of jazz. Most art forms follow a pattern: folk art to popular art to high art. Jazz did it faster than most, but that's the pattern. I was going to say "follow an arc," and in a way that's right: the middle stage is the apex of popularity. But one could equally call it a trajectory: as an art form matures, it gains, subtlety, complexity, richness. Or so one hopes. But anyway, it can't stand still. Nothing can.

Perhaps the handwriting started to appear on the wall when Benny Goodman played Carnegie Hall instead of the Palladium. Certainly it was growing bolder on that same wall when John Lewis and his cohorts put on tuxedos and called themselves the Modern Jazz Quartet, a name that demanded serious attention in the way that Miff Mole and his Little Molers or Terry Gibbs New Jazz Pirates or J. J. Johnson's Boppers did not.

Anyway, the progress was inexorable: out of the raffish smoke-filled clubs, out of the mob-controlled joints where Louis Armstrong played in Chicago, out of 52nd Street where jazz groups alternated with strippers, into the concert hall, and into Jazz at Lincoln Center. It had to happen, and jazz is the better for people like Wynton Marsalis and the foundations that keep jazz alive.

All of which is a free-flying digression, pushing the limits even for me, and I've probably said a lot of it before. I promise I will get to Gil Melle eventually. But there's a reason why it's on my mind now, and that is that all of this is simply history repeating itself, as I discovered when reading a fascinating book, The Romantic Revolution by Tim Blanning.

The same thing was happening in the18th century. Just as the hipsters and beatniks of the 40s and 50s dismissed the Harry James and Tommy Dorsey fans as moldy figs, so the avant garde of that era, the aficionados of the new, challenging music made by people like Franz Lizst dismissed the fans of Gioachino Rossini's wildly popular operas as Philistines.

And then, as now, an element of fun was fading. Blanning quotes Fanny Burney's eponyous heroine Evelina:
About eight o'clock we went to the Pantheon. I was extremely struck by the beauty of the building, which greatly surpassed anything I could have expected or imagined. Yet, it has more the appearance of a chapel, than a place of diversion, and though I was quite charmed by the magnificence of the room, I felt that I could not be as gay and thoughtless there as at Ranelagh [a pleasure garden], for there is something in it which rather inspires awe and solemnity, than mirth and pleasure.
So, getting back to the subject at hand. Does Gil Melle inspire awe and solemnity, or mirth and
pleasure? Melle was working out of a slightly different pushcart than some of his contemporaries, although not entirely different. His rhythm section was made up of mainstream jazzers, and you don't include two Ellington compositions, particularly "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)," if you're planning to do something really weird. Melle, like Teddy Charles, kept one foot in the avant garde and one in the mainstream.

His avant garde foot was mostly set down later, when he moved to Hollywood, indulged his fascination with electronic instruments, and began writing movie TV scores. In that capacity, he was one of those who changed the musical voice of suspense for soundtracks. Just as Ennio Morricone completely upended the Dmitri Tiomkin (out of Ferde Grofe) convention for scoring a Western, so the electronic composers replaced jazz scores as the motif for suspense, Melle would write the music for TV series Kolchak: the Night Stalker and Rod Serling's Night Gallery.

This stands more on the mainstream foot, with some surprises."Walter Ego" begins with what could almost be a Gerry Mulligan arrangement. As an instrumentalist, Melle was no Mulligan or Pepper Adams, and he knew it, but he was a brilliant musical mind, and "Walter Ego" soon goes in surprising different directions.

As much as Melle would become known later for his film scores, "Rush Hour in Hong Kong" was not an audition for a movie to be made twenty years later, though it almost could have been. And his version of "It Don't Mean a Thing" really does swing, with outstanding solos from George Duvivier and Shadow Wilson in addition to Joe Cinderella.

"Quadrama" became the title song for the album.

 Order Listening to Prestige, Vol. 1 here.

Thursday, January 05, 2017

Listening to Prestige 228: Barbara Lea

What's important about these growth years for Prestige? The first great Miles Davis quintet albums. The Modern Jazz Quartet forming and making the records, like Django, that they're still remembered for. The early John Coltrane, playing with Bobby Jaspar or Kenny Burrell or Jackie McLean,  or matched against two baritone saxes, finding and growing his genius.

Hell, yeah. But no. The answer is it's all important. Musicians coming into the record store of a 19-year-old kid who loved jazz and was inspired by a Thelonious Monk record played for him by Alfred Lion to start his own record company. Hey kids...we've got a barn...we've got all this talent...let's put on a show!

A girl from Detroit who grew up listening to the French light operas composed by her great-uncle, who sang with dance bands until she got a music scholarship to Wellesley, graduated, came to New York, made a 78 for a tiny label with some very good trad jazzmen -- Cutty Cutshall, Eddie Barefield, Peewee Erwin -- then found herself on two of the hottest modern jazz labels in New York, first Riverside, then Prestige, for whom she went out to Hackensack and Rudy Van Gelder's studio twice in 1956 (winning Down Beat's best new singer award), then four more times in 1957. Then a long hiatus, during which she worked as an actress and a teacher, until the late 1970s, when people started remembering that here was a singer who cared deeply about the best American popular songs, and could interpret a great lyric like no one else.

And, as always, every session is different, and the story of the leader on the date is only part of the story. Barbara Lea had recorded five days earlier with a trio. On April 24th and 26th she was back in the studio with a seven piece band. It included Dick Cary, who played on all of her sessions, and Prestige veteran Jimmy Raney.

It included some of the finest accompanists of jazz and popular singers. Jimmy Lyon was best known as Mabel Mercer's accompanist, but also worked with June Christy, Polly Bergen and Connie Haines. Beverly Peer began his career with Ella Fitzgerald in the Chick Webb orchestra, and also worked with Sarah Vaughan, Lena Horne, Johnny Mathis, and Barbra Streisand. Osie Johnson played on a session with Dinah Washington.

And it also included a musician with a truly remarkable career, one that began before some of the musicians on this session were born, and continued into the modern jazz, and even the free jazz era. Garvin Bushell recorded with some impressive female vocalists too: Mamie Smith, who recorded the first blues record ever made, and Ethel Waters. He was a member of the Louisiana Sugar Babies with Jabbo Smith, Fats Waller, and James P. Johnson. He worked
with Fletcher Henderson, Cab Calloway and Bunk Johnson. And, jumping ahead, he recorded with Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy. His autobiograpy, Jazz From the Beginning, is must reading for every jazz fan. And here's a video of an interview with him, talking about those early days.

Lea called upon the services of some of the greatest songwriters in that American Songbook. Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart, Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer (for the obscure and wonderfully titled "Sleep Peaceful, Mr. Used-to-be") and others. She had the services of some wonderful musicians and some very interesting arrangements. And she delivered.

All of these were issued on the Lea in Love album. "Mountain Greenery" became a 45, along with "A Straw Hat Full of Lilace" from a subsequent session.


 Order Listening to Prestige, Vol. 1 here.