Friday, May 26, 2017

Listening to Prestige 261: Hal McKusick

Hal McKusick wasn't ignored by the jazz record labels during the fifties. He recorded as a leader on Bethlehem and Jubilee, two labels on the periphery, but doing good stuff. He even led a few sessions on majors -- RCA Victor and Decca. And he played with Gil MellĂ© and Art Farmer for Prestige, and he played with Al Cohn, Benny Golson, Lee Konitz and Jimmy Giuffre, even with Charlie Parker. Most notably, he worked with pianist-composer-theorist George Russell, recording twice with him. If he's not remembered as vividly as he should be, it's certainly not due to any deficiencies in his music,

McKusick's recording career is mostly bounded by the fifties, although he did appear as a sideman on a few sessions in the early sixties. This album for Prestige was his second to last, and perhaps his most atypical. His music is known for theory and advanced arrangement. He worked closely with George Russell when Russell was developing his Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization, an important precursor to the modal jazz of Miles Davis and John Coltrane. Probably more typical of his approach to jazz was the album he made the following year for Decca, featuring five, six and seven-piece ensembles and the work of four very different arrangers: Russell, George Handy, Jimmy Giuffre and Ernie Wilkins, each of whom was asked, McKusick said in a later interview, for "their most advanced thinking."

So how did Bob Weinstock's casual, unrehearsed jam session approach fit with McKusick's talents? Very well indeed, and we're lucky to have this album, and this side of McKusick, just as we're lucky to have the Decca Cross Section--Saxes. Everyone likes to just cut loose and blow every now and then, and the bebop improv approach of head-solo-solo-solo-head, with some casual but intricate duets and dialogs thrown in, can yield some wonderful music, especially with musicians like these.

Billy Byers, like McKusick, came out of the swing era, and worked as a section man in bands featuring the best arrangers. He later would become Quincy Jones's assistant at Mercury Records. So he wasn't exactly the typical Prestige guy either--this was his first session for the label, and he would only do one other, in 1963--but like McKusick, he finds that sweet spot, and the stuff they do together is especially rewarding.

Charlie Persip had done only one previous session for Prestige, but he'd been in the studio on at least one other memorable occasion, as a witness to the strange and thorny afternoon with Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk. He would be back several more times, in the course of a long and distinguished career. Eddie Costa was also making his second appearance on Prestige. The first had been on the vibes, accompanying Bobby Jaspar and Tommy Flanagan. He looked to be at the dawn of a major career. In 1957, he would be named Down Beat's new star on both piano and vibes, the first time a musician had gained that honor on two different instruments. But an auto accident would take his life a few years later.

Paul Chambers was, by this time, one of Prestige's stars, and with good reason. His solos, both plucked and bowed (on "The Settlers and the Indians") are musical gems, and that's not by chance. Chambers, as we know, hit New York as a 19-year-old wunderkind, already a master of his instrument. After all, he had started in the jazz cauldron of Detroit, where musicians matured early. His friend, drummer Hindal Butts, remembers (again from Lars Bjorn and Jim Gallert's indispensable Before Motown: A History of Jazz in Detroit 1920-1960):
Paul was determined to make the bass a solo instrument and he practiced, hour upon hour. I waited on Paul to take a couple of girls out, and he wouldn't stop practicing! He loved to bow and he mastered the bow.
Butts was a member of a quartet led by Kenny Burrell and Chambers, called the Four Sharps. And, given that this is the early 50s, that would almost sound like a doo-wop group, wouldn't it?

Well, yeah. This was Detroit, where music was music. The group played modern jazz, and they also sang four-part harmonies. We can't exactly know how good the Four Sharps (who also, at various times, included Tommy Flanagan, Frank Foster, Yusef Lateef and Pepper Adams) were as a vocal group, because no records of their music have survived, but we sort of can. Again, from Hindal Butts:
We recorded "The Nearness of You" ... Kenny sang the lead, we sang the backup and we did the bridge in unison ... Kenny called me one day and said, "Turn the radio on." He was mad ... I turned the radio on and the Four Freshmen were singing [our arrangement of] "The Nearness of You" almost note for note.
Butts recalled that the Four Freshmen, when they were playing Detroit, used to stop in at Klein's Show Bar when the Sharps were playing there, and request the number over and over.

McKusick composed three of the tunes for this session. He turned to some top composers for a couple of others: Dizzy Gillespie's much-recorded "Con Alma" and Jimmy Dorsey's "I'm Glad There is You."

And some more surprising choices. "The Settlers and the Indians" was written by Bobby Scott, who was, at just about the same time, climbing the Top Forty charts with a rock 'n roll song called "Chain Gang." He would later write "He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother" for British rockers The Hollies, and win a Grammy for "A Taste of Honey." Incidentally, I've lauded Wikipedia for their excellent entries on jazz albums, but that doesn't mean you can count on the Internet across the board. There are a whole bunch of sites devoted to lyrics, and I don't know who's ripping off who, but if there's a mistake in one, the same mistake will be in all of them. Take, for instance, the lyrics to "The Settlers and the Indians." Every one of these sites features lyrics to "The Settlers and the Indians," and every one of gives what are actually the lyrics to "Don't Worry 'bout Me." Maybe someone was listening to this album, because McKusick also does "Don't Worry 'bout Me," a song by Rube Bloom and Ted Koehler that's a standard for jazz vocalists, my favorite version being King Pleasure's.

"Something New" is credited to Albert Gamse and Ricardo Lopez Mendes, both of whom were lyricists, but someone must have chipped in a melody. And "Saturday Night" is the really interesting one. It was the title song for a musical with a book by Julius and Philip Epstein, who had co-written the screenplay for Casablanca, and had turned the composer job over to an unknown, who remained unknown, as Saturday Night never made it to Broadway, and lord knows where McKusick found it, especially since the young unknown was being told at that point to stick to lyrics, because his melodies weren't quite good enough. And in fact, while McKusick was recording "Saturday Night,"  Steven Sondheim's lyrics were making their mark on Broadway to Leonard Bernstein's music for West Side Story.

The album was called Triple Exposure. McKusick's "Interim" and "Don't Worry 'bout Me" didn't make the cut, but were later included in the New Jazz compilation album, Bird Feathers.

McKusick lived a long and productive life, dying in 2012 at the age of 87. He composed music for two plays by his friend Edward Albee, "The Sandbox" and "The Death of Bessie Smith." He taught for a number of years at the exclusive Ross School on Long Island, where he moved in the early 1970s. Of his years on the jazz scene of the 1950s, he said this, in an interview with the AllAboutJazz website. He was talking about Cross Section--Saxes, but he could have been talking about Triple Exposure, or indeed, any album by any of the New York jazz musicians:
The sound was a reflection of our lives in New York--the intensity, the art, the optimism all squeezed together.

Order Listening to Prestige, Vol. 1 here.


Friday, May 19, 2017

Listening to Prestige 260: Ray Draper - John Coltrane

Bob Weinstock must have had a lot of confidence in his barely 17-year-old prodigy Ray Draper, giving him John Coltrane as a bandmate. It's tough enough playing bebop on a tuba, without being asked to play it off against one of the most advanced improvisers of the era. And to up the stakes a little more, either Weinstock or Draper decided not to go with their tried and true reliables in the rhythm section. Each of them had played on only one other Prestige session. Gil Coggins had played on a Jackie McLean session in August.  Spanky DeBrest had appeared on Draper's debut as leader, though he was already an established figure with Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers. Larry Ritchie had also worked with Draper, on the July 12 Jackie McLean session.

All of this works. Coggins is a jagged, percussive piano player, and sets the tone that this is going to be a different kind of session. Draper and Coltrane work well together in the ensemble passages. Draper proves that he's a first rate composer on his originals, particularly "Clifford's Kappa," and he shines as a soloist.

And that's saying a lot, considering what he was up against. Everything from this session is good, better than good. But Coltrane was on fire. When he solos, everything else melts away. I've been following Coltrane's progression here, from the Miles sessions through the wide-ranging array of sideman gigs that Weinstock used him for, through his sessions as leader, looking for clues as to what he would burst forth into come the 1960s, and not really finding them. In each of his Prestige sessions, including this one, he is right there in the present moment, making the music he's brought in to make. And making all the right choices. And listening to his recording sessions in chronological order, all I can say is that he keeps getting better and better.

His solos here virtually stop time and space, and exist in their own dimension. But that doesn't mean he's ignoring what's around him. He's working with Draper and Coggins, building on what they're doing, and they're doing some very, very good stuff.

In spite of all that, it's hard to know what to do with a tuba player, and Weinstock was not going to do more. This is Draper's last session for Prestige, and it was released on New Jazz, which generally meant it was not going to get the promotional push that went behind a Prestige release. Draper would record only sporadically after that, succumbing to heroin addiction and drug-related prison time. He died in 1982, meeting an ironically grisly end for a musical prodigy: he was shot and killed by a hold-up gang led by a 13-year-old.

The original New Jazz release was called The Ray Draper Quintet featuring John Coltrane. A much later Prestige reissue was title The John Coltrane/Ray Draper Quintet.

Order Listening to Prestige, Vol. 1 here.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Listening to Prestige 259: Red Garland

Not much more to say about this amazing collection of musicians, except to wonder if this is Donald Byrd's first pairing with John Coltrane.

Well, not quite. And once again the story goes back to Detroit, and Cass Technical High School. As Byrd remembered it in a 1998 lecture at Cornell University, one of the many institutions at which he taught,

I met him in the 11th grade in Detroit. I skipped school one day to see Dizzy Gillespie, and that’s where I met Coltrane. Coltrane and Jimmy Heath just joined the band, and I brought my trumpet, and he was sitting at the piano downstairs waiting to join Dizzy’s band. He had his saxophone across his lap, and he looked at me and he said, ‘You want to play?’
So he played piano, and I soloed. I never thought that six years later we would be recording together, and that we would be doing all of this stuff.
 And in fact, not even close. Byrd and Coltrane recorded together more than I would have guessed. Here's the best I can do for a complete list, relying on information from the amazing New York Public Library Research Desk, Wikipedia,, and Amazon:

Elmo Hope All Star Sextet, Informal Jazz (Prestige, May 1956) With Hank Mobley, Paul Chambers, Philly Joe Jones

Paul Chambers Sextet, Whims of Chambers (Blue Note, September 1956). With Kenny Burrell, Horace Silver and Philly Joe Jones.

Art Blakey Big Band  (Bethlehem, December 1957). They were featured on two tracks as the Art Blakey Quintet, playihg a composition by Byrd and one by Trane.

Sonny Clark Sextet, Sonny's Crib (Blue Note, October 1957). With Curtis Fuller, Paul Chambers and Art Taylor

John Coltrane Quintet, Lush Life, Black Pearls (Prestige). These were both from the Coltrane compilations issued after Trane had left Prestige. Lush Life included one cut from a January 1958 session with Red Garland, Paul Chambers and Louis Hayes. Black Pearls was a May session with Garland, Chambers and Art Taylor.

Oscar Pettiford All-Stars, Winners Circle - Down Beat Poll Winners from 1956 (Bethlehem, October 1957). With Gene Quill, Al Cohn, Freddie Green, Eddie Costa, Philly Joe Jones and Ed Thigpen in various mix-and-match combinations.

And, since we were just talking, in the context of Mose Allison, about musicians getting duped out of publishing rights, here's another Donald Byrd story, this time with Byrd as the voice of experience, and Herbie Hancock as the callow youth. When Byrd gave Hancock his recording debut on a Blue Note session, Blue Note wanted to sign the young pianist to a recording contract, and Byrd warned him that under no account should he surrender the publishing rights to his music. So of course, that was the first condition Blue Note made.

A recording contract isn't  just a temptation to a young musician, it's the temptation. That's why so many young musicians give away so many rights. And it seemed inconceivable to Hancock that he could walk away from it, but he did. Blue Note caved. Hancock kept the publishing rights, and when Mongo Santamaria had a hit with "Watermelon Man"...well, the rest of the story comes not from a music publication, but from Road and Track (by way of Wikipedia). Hancock took the royalties from "Watermelon Man" and bought a Shelby Cobra, which is now renowned as the oldest production Cobra still in the hands of its original owner.

Of course, the real story here is the music. There's one new name, George Joyner, who would not have that name for long. He had come to New York after a stint playing the blues with B. B. King, and recorded first with Phineas Newborn. After converting to Islam, he became first Jamil Sulieman and then Jamil Nasser, and had a long association with Ahmad Jamal, and a career that went well into the 90s;

This was a long day in the studio, which would have come as no novelty to Garland and Coltrane, who were both on board for the Miles Davis Contractual Marathon. Ten songs, and one of them, "All Mornin' Long," went on pretty much all evening long, clocked in at 20 minutes, and made up a whole side of one of the LPs to come out of the session. And even after that, they weren't quite willing to call it a day, as they came back the next month to do five more.

"All Mornin' Long" was a Garland composition, and although it was the last piece recorded that day,
it was the first side of the eponymous first album released from the session. It holds attention all the way through, particularly the long piano solo by Garland that features some beautiful dialogue with Joyner/Nasser, leading into a bass solo that makes you understand why this guy was welcomed into the fold. Two other pretty fair composers took up the second half, George Gershwin ("They Can't Take That Away From Me") and Tadd Dameron ("Our Delight").

All Mornin' Long was a pretty quick release, in the spring of 1958. The others were a little longer in coming. Soul Junction saw the light of day in 1960, again with the Garland composition giving the album its title. Garland shared composing space with jazz giants: two by Dizzy Gillespie ("Woody'n You" and "Birks Works") and one by Duke Ellington (I've Got it
Bad"). The final composer honors for the album went in a different direction, to 1920s Broadway composer Vincent Youmans, but Youmans might not have recognized their bopped-out, uptempo, nonstop version of his "Hallelujah." It's a rousing enough tune, as performed by Glenn Miller and others, but not always this rousing.

The rest of the November session--"Undecided" (Charlie Shavers) and "What Is There to Say?" (Vernon Duke)--had to wait until High Pressure in 1962, along with three songs from the December session: "Soft Winds" (Benny Goodman / Fletcher Henderson), "Solitude" (Duke Ellington) and "Two Bass Hit" (Dizzy Gillespie/John Lewis).  When you're getting together to play that much music, without much rehearsal, it's probably a good idea to mostly choose tunes that everyone knows. Bird's "Billie's Bounce" and Garland's "Lazy Mae" were on a later 1962 LP called Dig It!, which put together numbers from three different sessions.

Tuesday, May 09, 2017

Listening to Prestige 258: Mose Allison

All it took was Back Country Suite to get me hooked on Mose Allison. I bought all his subsequent Prestige albums as soon as they were released, and most of his later albums, on Columbia, Atlantic and Blue Note.

So many jazz greats got their first break with Prestige, then moved on to other labels. Miles, Monk, MJQ, Sonny Rollins, Billy Taylor, just to name a few. Of course, one of the main reasons for moving from a small label to a bigger one is money. Another is creative differences and career management--Monk moved from Blue Note to Prestige to Riverside, all small labels, and stayed with Riverside for years. But money doesn't come easily to jazz musicians, and it never came easily to musicians who recorded for Prestige. I recall reading an interview with Allison some years ago, in which he said that he'd never seen a royalty from Prestige for Back Country Suite. But apparently this was not a rare experience for Mose. In a 1998 interview with Blues Access Magazine, he says that he never got royalties from any of his labels, meaning Columbia and then Atlantic, which in 1962 was an independent on the verge of becoming a major. Allison remembers the first real money he ever made from a recording:

I got a check in the mail from Jazz Editions for $7000. I thought, ‘Man, what the hell is this? This must be some mistake.’ I’d been gettin’ 20 dollars and 30 dollars, and I couldn’t figure out what had happened. I didn’t know anything about ’em [the Who]... the first time I ever made any money off a record.
 The Who had recorded Allison's vocal vignette from Back Country Suite on their album Live at Leeds as "Young Man Blues." Jazz Editions was George Wallington's publishing company, and yet another source for money that did not come to Allison. Most musicians didn't really understand the concept of publishing rights in the 50s, which is why so many of the early rhythm and blues, rock and roll and doo wop performers, as well as jazz musicians,  found that most of their money wound up in the pockets of whoever had taken the publishing rights to their songs. But Wallingford did bring Allison to Prestige, and got his career started.

Local Color was sort of like Back Country Suite, a series of pieces by Allison that reflected his own unique perspective on the blues. Back Country Suite had been short interconnected vignettes, in part inspired by
Bela Bartok. At LSU I heard him for the first time, one of his things, the piano suite, "Hungarian Sketches," or somethin’, just a piano playin’ fairly simple tunes. But they were so evocative. That gave me the idea. I said, "Well, hell, I can do that. With my background, the music I grew up with, I ought to be able to come up with somethin’ like that."
 The Local Color tunes have the same quality, but they're worked out at full length, as opposed to the vignettes of the first album. And again, the second side of the album is given over mostly to the work of other composers. There's a traditional blues credited to New Orleans musician Richard M. Jones, and songs by Percy Mayfield, Bennie Benjamin/George David Weiss, and Duke Ellington.

The blues is "Trouble in Mind," and Allison plays trumpet on it. He would record a few more trumpet pieces on subsequent albums, but eventually, as he became more and more a singer, it dropped out of his repertoire. I'm not qualified to discuss the technical merits of Mose's trumpet playing. It sounds good to me. And it sounds very much of a piece with his piano and voice.

A while back, I was teaching a course in public speaking at a New York State prison, and one of my students, who I'll call M____, was extraordinary. I had a lot of good students, but M____ had a naturally academic mind. In another, perhaps fairer world, he would have been getting a Ph.D. someplace. When he gave his last speech of the semester, I told him there was nothing I could offer in the way of criticism: subject matter, research, development of argument, delivery. Just one thing, perhaps: maybe it's time you paid attention to conventional subject-verb agreement, and got away from formulations like "he say" and "he be." That sparked a discussion, with good and thoughtful points being made on both sides. At one point, another student in the class said "I want to hear the real M____, not M_____ the intellectual." I said, "I have to disagree with you. I think M_____ the intellectual is the real M_____."

And so with Mose Allison. His trumpet, his piano, his voice -- all carried the down home authenticity of his background in rural Mississippi and the literate sophistication of his degree in English from LSU. That was Mose, and that was Mose. And there was no contradiction.

"Lost Mind" is one of the two vocal performances on the album, and it's the recording that turned me on to Percy Mayfield, known as "The Poet of the Blues." I had heard and loved "Please Send Me Someone to Love," but it was Allison's version of "Lost Mind" that really made me focus on Mayfield, who, according to Specialty Records head Art Rupe, could have been, with the right encouragement, another Langston Hughes.

"Lost Mind" is great, but it was the other vocal, Allison's own "Parchman Farm," that made his reputation as a singer and songwriter. "Blues" (later known as "Young Man Blues") from the first album had been a vignette from the suite, but "Parchman Farm" was full length, fully realized, and ready to me marketed on 45 RPM. Which it was, twice. Once with Duke Ellington's "Don't Get Around Much Anymore (from Young Man Mose) and once with Willie Dixon's The Seventh Son. It became his most popular song, although he eventually stopped doing it, perhaps because it was criticized for being politically incorrect (although on those grounds you'd have to throw out at least three quarters of the blues), perhaps because it just stopped seeming relevant. From an interview in Nine-O-One Network Magazine, quoted in Wikipedia:

I don't do the cotton sack songs much anymore ["One Room Country Shack" also features one]. You go to the Mississippi Delta and there are no cotton sacks. It's all machines and chemicals.

The vocals are so good that sometimes people forget that Mose was first a jazz piano player, discovered and encouraged by Al Cohn and George Wallington. So I've put up one of the instrumental pieces from Local Color as my listening choice for today.

Order Listening to Prestige, Vol. 1 here.

Sunday, May 07, 2017

Listening to Prestige 257: Steve Lacy

In my last post, Paul Quinichette's Basie tribute, I talked about the 1950s in jazz as an era where the entire history of jazz coexisted, styles and eras side by side: New Orleans traditional, Kansas City blues, swing (both white and black), bebop, rhythm and blues, hard bop, cool, avant garde. And these styles overlapped and fed off each other. The break that begat bebop came from a Kansas City jump blues number: Charlie Parker's solo on Jay McShann's "Sepia Bounce." Rhythm and blues jumped out of the horn of Illinois Jacquet on Lionel Hampton's "Flying Home." Pop balladeer Billy Eckstine put together a big band that jumpstarted the careers of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie.

Benny Goodman integrated jazz first behind the scenes by hiring Fletcher Henderson as arranger, then out front with Teddy Wilson and Lionel Hampton. Gerry Mulligan took the ideas he had been working out with Miles Davis out to the West Coast and sparked a whole new geographically eponymous school. Veterans like Lennie Tristano and Lee Konitz were developing an avant garde that would soon be taken over and pushed beyond boundaries by younger musicians like Ornette Coleman, Eric Dolphy, Albert Ayler.

The original beboppers came out of the swing era. Most of them had played in swing bands, and many, like Zoot Sims and Wardell Gray, carried a lot of the swing sensibility into their modern playing. That sort of progression was radical, but it was also incremental.

Steve Lacy was another story. Born in 1934, he had his first professional gig at age 16. That's 1950, when bebop had already passed its infancy and entered its mature phase, but Lacy didn't start with bebop, or even with swing. He went back to an earlier era, playing traditional New Orleans jazz with musicians like Henry "Red" Allen and Zutty Singleton. And then, in a quantum bounce, he leapfrogged over the dominant sounds of his generation and the previous generation, and landed foursquare (well, hardly square) in the avant garde, playing on Cecil Taylor's debut album, Jazz Advance, in 1956.

This Prestige session was Lacy's own debut as a leader, and it finds him somewhat more in tune with the times than the visionary work with Taylor would have suggested.  But he was playing his instrument of choice, the soprano saxophone, and that in itself set him apart. After John Coltrane took up the soprano sax, others started experimenting with it, but in 1957, it was pretty much Steve Lacy alone. So that sets him apart. He is working with the general structure of improvisation from a melody, but he's already heard the call of a muse in a different room.

If it's 1957, and you're going to be looking for new directions...well, of course, bebop was a new direction, which is why Charlie Parker was so important, and continues to be important today. In 1957, his innovations were still fresh, and people were still finding important things to say under the bebop umbrella, but there were other new directions too. And if you were searching for your own way, the path was likely to lead through Thelonious Monk, who had always been in bebop but not of it. Cecil Taylor had included a Monk tune, "Bemsha Swing," on Jazz Advance. Lacy included Monk's "Work," and it was the beginning of a long fascination with one of jazz's most original composers. He would later become the first jazz artist to record a whole album devoted to Monk's music, and would play briefly in Monk's band.

Wynton Kelly had made his Prestige debut with Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis on a couple of 78s in 1950, and had appeared on an Art Farmer album in 1954. By 1957 he was seriously in demand, appearing on a couple of dozen albums in that year alone, on virtually every significant jazz label. He would appear on a handful more Prestige albums in the ensuing years, but never a session as leader. Red Garland and Mal Waldron were the label's go-to piano guys.

Kelly was the straight-ahead side of Lacy's debut sound; Buell Neidlinger and Dennis Charles were the avant garde. Both had been on Jazz Advance, and both would have long-time associations with Taylor. Niedlinger would go deeper into the avant garde later, working with composers like John Cage and George Crumb.

Reflecting the uniqueness of Lacy's instrument, the album would be called Soprano Sax.