Sunday, April 23, 2017

Listening to Prestige 256: Paul Quinichette

Some jazz labels are linked with a particular style. Blue Note, though it had a long life starting in the swing era and extending to the present day, is very much identified with hard bop. Pacific Jazz lived up to its name and became identified with the West Coast sound, or the birth of white cool. Windham Hill is so closely associated with New Age jazz that "Windham Hill" is virtually a synonym for New Age.

Prestige also recorded a lot of hard bop and bebop, but because it was so much a one-man operation, Bob Weinstock was able to indulge his enthusiasms across a wide spectrum. Paul Quinichette had come under the Prestige umbrella in 1957, recording bop albums with John Coltrane, with Webster Young (perhaps he misunderstood, and thought Weinstock was saying "Come in for a session with Webster and Young"), and even one under his own name with a group of boppers. That came out as Paul Quinichette's New Stars, and they were all newer than him, for sure. Like his mentor Lester Young, Quinichette was open to new sounds and new ideas, but he was a Basie-ite at heart, so why not record him in a Basie context? Prestige was a big tent.

The album is For Basie, the tunes are all from the Basie playbook, and the musicians are Basie veterans.

Shad Collins' ties to Basie go back to the 30s, and the Lester Young days. He also played with Cab Calloway (he replaced Dizzy Gillespie), Benny Carter, Don Redman, Jimmy Rushing, and Sam "The Man" Taylor, another jazz-to-rhythm and blues cat. He had an important reputation as an arranger and considerable success as a composer, including "Rock-a-Bye Basie." He also wrote Cozy Cole's Top Forty hit, "Topsy."

No musicians are more closely identified with Basie than Walter Page and Freddie Green, In fact, Basie was a member of Page's band, the Blue Devils, in Kansas City. Page is credited with being one of the first to shift the primary rhythmic responsibility in a band to the bass, thus freeing up the drummer and piano player to improvise more. When you hear a singer, like Lonette McKee in Round Midnight, talk about the importance of listening to the bass, she has Walter Page to thank for it. This may have been Page's last recording, as he died suddenly and unexpectedly in the winter of 1957.

Freddie Green joined Basie in 1937, and stayed with him for the next 50 years. Jo Jones joined Green and Page as integral figures in the creation of the Basie sound. He played with Basie until 1948, then freelanced with others, including Duke Ellington.

Nat Pierce is best known for his work with Woody Herman, but also for having an uncanny ability to recreate Basie's piano style, so during the late 50s he led a number of groups of Basie veterans.

No one can resist the sounds of Count Basie, and it's pretty damn hard to resist these guys, either.

So...a step backward? No. There's really no backward in jazz. Some may have still been talking about hipsters and moldy figs, but this was an era when Louis Armstrong and Kid Ory were still making music, when Benny Goodman and Lionel Hampton were still making music, Machito and Tito Puente, the Count and the Duke, Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman and Eric Dolphy. Probably no other art form has ever been so inclusive.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Listening to Prestige 255: Yusef Lateef

Yusef Lateef is, among his fellow Detroiters, a late arrival on the New York scene, and not because he represented a younger generation. Not at all. He was 37 when he first came to New York in the spring of 1957 to record for Savoy and Verve, and then to make this album for Prestige. And he wouldn't actually move Eest for good until 1960.

He had not been entirely homebound. He'd started playing professionally at 18, touring with swing bands and eventually with Dizzy Gillespie, but by 1950 concerns for his wife's health brought him off the road and home to Detroit, where he became an important figure, not only for his musicianship but also his cultural leadership. He was a founder and vice president of the New Music Society, an organization that reached out to younger jazz musicians and gave them a place to grow and develop. 1950 was also the year he converted to Islam.

His late arrival on the New York scene is part of the reason why, although he'd been an active musician for over 20 years by the time the decade turned, he is more associated with the jazz of the Sixties than the Fifties. The rest of that reason is his free-flying creativity, which seem like a Sixties thing, but was part of Lateef's creative personality even back in Detroit. Pianist Terry Pollard recalls that
He sometimes had me blow into a pop bottle. He'd fill it with get different sounds, to make the song sound like Yusef wanted it to be. And so I ended up blowing into these pop bottles. I didn't know how, and I would get dizzy every night.*
While he was still in Detroit, Lateef began to experiment with Middle Eastern music, turned on to it by a fellow assembly line worker at the Chrysler plant. He
realized I had to widen my canvas of expression. I spent many hours in the library...studying the music of other cultures. I met a man [at Chrysler] from Syria and he asked me if I knew about the rabat.
He would bring all of this knowledge, and all the instruments he was experimenting with, to his New
York recording sessions, along with his Detroit band from their regular gig at Klein's Showbar.
We were so tight we were able to go to New York on off nights and do two albums, easily...We got off Sunday nights and jumped in the...station wagon, and we would drive all the way to Hackensack, New Jersey, and record on Monday and we'd turn right back to Detroit and open up on Tuesday.
The October session with its twelve tunes would have been an impressive feat for a group motoring over from Weehawken, let alone five guys and their instruments packed into a station wagon and barreling in from Detroit. Impressive for the sheer amount of work, impressive for how good it was, and really impressive for its range.

"Playful Flute," the first tune laid down, was composed by brass player Wilbur Harden, but it embodies Lateef's love of Middle Eastern music, learned in the library, from his fellow Chrysler worker, and certainly also from his pilgrimages to Mecca. It incorporates the flute and the argol, or arghul, a two-tubed woodwind instrument that dates back to ancient Egypt.

"Taboo" is one of those tunes that's always used when a movie soundtrack wants something Latin and exotic. Either that or Margarita Lecuona's only other hit, "Babalu." Or one of the compositions of her cousin Ernesto, like "The Breeze and I" or "Malaguena." To refresh my memory, I listened to versions by Les Baxter (boring) and Cuban bandleader Jack Costanzo (not boring). But no one brings to it quite what Lateef does. From Oliver Jackson's arresting drum intro to Lateef's flute work, he turns what's generally an ersatz exotic into a genuine exotic. Which is no small feat.

And, of course, I'm not so much interested in a critique of the Lecuona cousins' oeuvre as I am in following my reactions to Lateef's range and the courage of his choices. "Taboo" is a tune that could easily be dismissed as kitsch. Not so here. And it's interesting to consider how it might have been chosen.

This was a quintet that Lateef held together for five years, working a regular five-night-a-week gig in a very hip jazz town. Five nights a week for five years means you work out a lot of material, and sometimes you're just goofing around. Hey, let's take a tune that's straight from Squaresville, and see how we can mess around with it. And if you're Yusef Lateef, and you're playing what some have described as "world music before there was world music," even goofing around can lead to new discoveries.

"Anastasia" might have been another one of those tunes. From an Oscar-nominated movie soundtrack by Alfred Newman, it had become a pop hit for Pat Boone, and you can't go much deeper into Squaresville than that. Here, Lateef does the really unexpected by staying quite faithful to the melody, but giving it a bit of a Middle Eastern twist, and a moody cast. Making it new.

Lateef's own compositions for this date are as eclectic as his covers. "Ecaps," in spite of its spacey title, is pretty much rooted on earth, with bop-influenced flute and tenor playing, and a very nice boppish piano solo by Hugh Lawson. Others range from boppish to proto-world music. And then there's "Love and Humor."

Most of the odd instruments listed in the session notes come into play here, including the balloons handed to Wilbur Harden and Hugh Lawson, for that unmistakeable sound of two balloons being rubbed together -- and Lawson is given Terry Pollard's 7-Up bottles. I couldn't help but think, as all of these unusual sounds wove their way into the mix, what kind of a challenge this session must have been for Rudy Van Gelder. The mood may be (sort of) Middle Eastern, with Lateef playing flute and argol, but the instrumentation is worthy of Spike Jones, who also knew something about love and humor. Lateef's humor is a little more subtle, and this is a very special cut, moving some distance away from jazz as we knew it, expanding our musical vocabulary. Lateef had used some of these instruments and sound effects on his earlier Savoy albums, but nothing quite like this.

I wonder if Bob Weinstock had entirely been expecting "Love and Humor." But he didn't shy away from it. It went onto his first Lateef release, The Sounds of Yusef, along with "Playful Flute," "Buckingham," "Meditation," and "Take the 'A' Train," and not only that, it was released as a 45 b/w "Meditation."

"Taboo," "All Alone," "Lambert's Joint," "Mahabs," "Minor Mood" and "Anastasia" all went onto the New Jazz album Other Sounds, released in 1959. "Ecaps" was held off until the 1960 New Jazz Cry!-Tender, the rest of which came from a later and much different session.

* This and all the other quotes -- in fact, much of the Detroit information -- from Lars Bjorn and Jim Gallert's amazing book, Before Motown: A History of Jazz in Detroit.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Listening to Prestige 254: Prestige All Stars - John Coltrane

What to say about this session? I've already talked about the pleasures of a Coltrane-Quinichette collaboration, and they're here again in abundance, all the more pleasurable when Frank Wess is added to the mix. Wess, like Quinichette, was a Basie guy and a Lester Young guy on tenor. He also played the flute, an instrument that is finding its way more and more into Prestige sessions. The tenor saxophone is never going to go away. It's the beating heart of jazz and its rambunctious cousin rhythm and blues. But new colorations are finding their way into the music, and both the solid groove and the newer sound are featured here, as Wess plays both flute and tenor. The Basie swing of Quinichette and Wess is a part of the jazz vocabulary that Coltrane is internalizing, ready to burst forth.

And I've talked more than once about the brilliance of Mal Waldron as a composer, and as an interpreter of his own compositions. Very often, when a group is playing a Waldron tune, he'll take a late solo, or the last solo, and he'll add something that the other brilliant musicians on the take have missed -- something that goes to the heart of the song.

So what to talk about here? Well, one thing that you very rarely find on a Bob Weinstock recording, the existence of alternate takes. Weinstock, as we know, valued spontaneity and didn't encourage a lot of second and third tries on a tune. Also, as we know, he valued recording tape and didn't like to waste it, so most unused takes were taped over.

Alternate takes are often a treasure to the jazz scholar, just as often a pain in the neck to the jazz lover who just wants to hear music, not study it, and whose enjoyment of the CD version of an album he once loved is marred by having to listen to five different takes of some group's version of "Ornithology." But because they are so infrequent on Prestige, and because I am sort of pretending to be a jazz scholar in this project, they're a rare treat.

I listened to the final take of "Wheelin'" first, the alternate take second, wondering if I'd hear the difference, or get why they were dissatisfied with the first. And maybe I did. This is a very swinging group, with two Lester Young acolyte Basie-ites, and a piano player who would be tapped by Pres's soulmate Billie Holiday as her accompanist, and as great as the first version is, maybe they thought that they could swing harder.

Especially Mal Waldron. On the final take, I was blown away by his piano solo, hard as nails, played almost entirely on the topmost end of the piano. The earlier version is mellower, and it seems as though Waldron decided to trade sonority for percussiveness, not unlike what Illinois Jacquet did in his classic recording of "Flying Home" with the Lionel Hampton band, when he created the honking tenor sound, with all its emotional immediacy. Waldron is doing something a lot more complex, but no less immediate.

Other thoughts about this session: I was drawn in by the inescapable beat of the rhythm section on Mercer Ellington's "Things Ain't What They Used to Be," one of the numbers that features Wess on flute. And speaking of Illinois Jacquet, his "Robbins Nest" is one of the great jazz standards, with an irresistible melody and ample room for improvisation, done proud by this ensemble. Jacquet's collaborators on "Robbins Nest" were Sir Charles Thompson and Bob Russell, a fine lyricist (Songwriters Hall of Fame) who seemed to have a penchant for writing lyrics that were rarely used, although there is a version of "Robbins Nest" by Ella Fitzgerald.

All of the final takes m this session were on the Prestige album Wheelin' and Dealin', credited to the All Stars. The two alternate takes made it to a budget Status album, The Dealers, credited to Waldron and also featuring two cuts from his April 19 session. The alternate takes inevitably made their way onto the CD reissue of Wheelin' and Dealin'. Weinstock must have been moved as I was by the irresistible beat of "Things Ain't What They Used to Be," because it was released as a two-sided 45, under Coltrane's name.

Tuesday, April 04, 2017

Listening to Prestige 253: Gil Evans

Gil Evans is best known for his early work with Claude Thornhill, where he began to sow the seeds for modern jazz big band arranging; for his seminal work with Miles Davis on the Birth of the Cool sessions, thought by many to be the most important jazz album of the 50s (although recorded in the 40s); and the great orchestral albums he made with Miles for Columbia: Miles Ahead, Porgy and Bess, Sketches of Spain. He had already recorded Miles Ahead at the time he went into Rudy Van Gelder's studio on three dates in September and October to record his first album as leader. He used 21 pieces on Miles Ahead.

According to the excellent Evans biography Castles Made of Sound, by Larry Hicock, Evans's work with Miles was far more extensive than the album credits would suggest. He had input into virtually every recording Miles made, and during his angriest, most anti-white periods, Miles still spoke to Gil nearly every day.

This is Evans's first album under his own name as leader, and if it doesn't register with the same historical force as the Miles Davis sides, it surely registers musically. Evans works with eleven instruments, including some of the Miles Ahead crew (John Carisi, Louis Mucci, Willie Ruff, Jimmy Cleveland, Lee Konitz and Paul Chambers), and including himself on piano (Wynton Kelly had done the Miles sessions). I hadn't realized what a good piano player he was.

But his greatest strength was as an arranger, and a group this size gives him all the room he needs to work with textures, dynamics, the shifting and balancing of parts.

The first day's work was two songs, Irving Berlin's "Remember," and "Ella Speed," a blues ballad best known in its 1944 recording by Lead Belly, and a continuing favorite of folk singers.

"Ella Speed" was rejected. Not "unissued," meaning put on the shelf, but sooner or later it might turn up on a later album or compilation. Rejected. One imagines Bob Weinstock's response: "Hey, Gil, what is this shit? We're a progressive jazz label. If you want to do folk songs, go over and see Moe Asch at Folkways."

But if such was the case, Evans was not dissuaded. He came back a week later for his second session, and this time led off with "Ella Speed." And this time, it was accepted, and it became a part of the Gil Evans canon.

And rightly so. There's something about a simple folk melody that lends itself to being a showcase for brilliant arrangements. Around the same time that Evans was recording "Ella Speed," British jazzman Johnny Dankworth made a record called "Experiments With Mice," in which he played "Three Blind Mice" in the styles of the great bandleaders and arrangers of the day: Billy May, Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Gerry Mulligan, Sauter-Finnegan, Stan Kenton. And Victor Borge, on Broadway, was doing baroque and romantic variations on "Happy Birthday to You." And so "Ella Speed" really shows off Evans at his best.

Miles Davis and Gil Evans
Leonard Bernstein's "Big Stuff" isn't quite a jazz standard, but it could be. It was written for Bernstein's first theatrical venture, the score for Jerome Robbins' ballet Fancy Free. "Big Stuff" is the ballet's prologue, and was written with Billie Holliday in mind, but at the time Bernstein thought Lady Day was out of his league, and didn't show it to her. As it turned out, Bernstein was right. Holiday loved the song, and later recorded it. The Evans version is the only other jazz recording of it that I've found.

Some of Evans' musicians: Willie Ruff was already starting to make a name for himself as half of the Mitchell-Ruff Duo, a name he was to continue to inhabit for the next 50 years. He and Dwike Mitchell became international ambassadors for jazz, the first jazz group to play in China and the Soviet Union.

Steve Lacy was at the beginning of a career that would make him one of the most versatile and widely recorded jazz stars of all time, and he was already showing his versatility, having recorded with Dixieland groups and with avant-gardist Cecil Taylor. He may have been the first significant musician to bring the soprano sax into modern jazz, well before John  Coltrane.

Of the lesser known players, Lou Mucci was revered as a teacher. I particularly loved this story from one of his students:
I went to see Louis Prima at the Paramount Theater. The trumpet players had very shiny trumpets and I wanted one. I asked Mr. Mucci if he would give me a note for my parents so that they would buy me a shiny trumpet. He tried my horn and said that I did not need a new horn and that he was doing the Patti Page TV show and he would use my horn.
That is a good man.

Gil Evans and Ten was released on Prestige, and later rereleased on New Jazz as Big Stuff.


 Order Listening to Prestige, Vol. 1 here.