Saturday, April 30, 2016

Listening to Prestige Part 182: The Prestige All Stars (Art Farmer/Donald Byrd)

On the session index, this is listed as the Prestige All Stars, the first but not the last time this designation would be used. Presumably, a bunch of contract players were rounded up for the Fridays at Rudy's session, but none of them were specifically signed on as leader, so they let the producer (can't find out who produced this session) select the tunes and organize the session.

Not sure how this differs from other sessions. Did they tell Hank Mobley, "Hey, we want you to put together a combo for a recording session this week -- oh, but you'll be using Watkins and Taylor"? Or maybe these were all basically Prestige All Stars sessions, but only now did they decide to call it that. Presumably the leader would bring in the tunes, or most of them.  In this nominally leaderless session, they included a tune that was composed by a contemporary jazzer who's not on the session: Kenny Drew's "Contour." Probably Jackie McLean brought it in--he had an affinity for the tune, had played it just recently on one of his 4, 5 and 6 dates (Donald Byrd was on that session, too). In any event, it's a fine tune, and more people should record it, and actually, several have.

Certainly, McLean must have brought "Dig" to the session, given that it's his composition, even though Miles grabbed the composer credit for it, and whatever royalties it accrued, but this is jazz, so there probably weren't many, as McLean was told when he looked into suing Miles -- it wouldn't be worth it.

"The Third" is a Donald Byrd composition, so one figures he brought it in. He probably also brought "'Round Midnight," since he's the only horn on that track. Art Farmer takes "When Your Lover Has Gone" on his own, so it's likely his choice.

"Dig" is the centerpiece of the album, at nearly 15 minutes. I was interested to see how it compared to the version that was laid down the day Jackie first brought it into the studio to record with Miles and Sonny Rollins. The Davis-Rollins-McLean version is more melodic, the Prestige All Stars more intense--and at this length, that intensity has to be sustained, and it is. All the soloists are powerful. I started to try to name a favorite, but I can't.

However far afield an improvisation goes, if there's going to be enough meat to sustain it for 15 minutes, it's got to be a very good tune to start with, and "Dig" is. I'm surprised it hasn't been covered more often.

When the album was actually pressed and given a cover and released, it was called 2 Trumpets and credited to Farmer and Byrd. A rerelease was again Farmer and Byrd, and called Trumpets All Out, and a much much later rerelease just had Byrd's name above the title, which was House of Byrd.

Order Listening to Prestige Vol 1: 1949-1953

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Listening to Prestige Part 181: Hank Mobley

For the rest of the summer, Fridays at Rudy's is scaled back to one session a week, and Hank Mobley is back for this one, with partly changed supporting cast -- Doug Watkins and Art Taylor are still there, and still showing why they're there--Art Taylor's playing on "Message From the Border" is one of the major highlights of this session.

Kenny Dorham was an active presence on Prestige recordings in 1956—with Tadd Dameron in March and Phil Woods in June. He would be back again with Gil Melle in August.

Barry Harris had perhaps decamped for Detroit, because Walter Bishop, Jr., is here on piano. I had wondered if Harris might have left a couple of songs to remembered by, since two of the cuts fro this session are credited to "Harris" as composer, but it turns out to have been two other guys. "These Are the Things I Love" has lyrics by Lewis Harris, and for all I can discover this may have been the only song he ever wrote. The lyrics actually aren't much, but the melody is what counts to a jazz player,
and the melody is a nice one. It's by Harold Barlow, who parlayed his music knowledge into a second career as a consultant on plagiarism. Since one of his clients was George Harrison, you have to wonder how good at it he was.

The other Harris was Benny Harris, who wrote "Crazyology." He has some excellent jazz credentials, including being the guy who convinced Dizzy Gillespie to partner up with Charlie Parker. As a composer, he was favored by Parker, and as a composer, he seemed drawn to the "ology" suffixes. He also wrote "Ornithology" (who knew what wasn't a Bird original?)

So let's get back to Walter Bishop, Jr., whose father. Walter Bishop, Sr., was no slouch as a composer either, with tunes including "Jack, You're Dead," a number one hit for Louis Jordan in 1947, the year that his son got out of the army and into his first gig with Art Blakey. Bishop survived heroin addiction to become an important educator as well as a significant jazz musician. He studied at Juilliard with Hall Overton in the 1960s, taught music theory at several colleges, and wrote a book on jaazz improvisation, A Study in Fourths. He can be seen explaining his theory of fourths in some excellent videos, available on YouTube.

This was Mobley's second Prestige album as leader, and was titled Mobley's 2nd Message (somewhat more formally, on rerelease, as Hank Mobley's Second Message).

Here's something I wrote a few years ago. It's from a series of poems about a young woman, the daughter of an obscure jazz musician, who has left her husband and is trying to understand who she is, finding much of that understanding in jazz.


A front of warm air reached our region 
around noon today. During
the afternoon, it will ooze on in,
probe with sticky, eighty degree fingers,
so that, she supposes, she could drive
in and out between yesterday’s clammy cold
and the oozing certainty of muggy heat,
like a county with local option on daylight saving,
or the sound from her rain-drenched speakers,
a few bars of Hank Mobley’s reassuring bebop,
then silence. She imagines the missing solo,
how Walter Bishop might have picked it up,
brought it to where the sound kicks in again.
Kenny Dorham is a harder read. Lost,
she moves inside to the weather channel.
The front is squatting now, threatening
impossibly heavy storms – or did he say
possibly heavy storms? A guy calls,
she met him last week. He just wants
to make sure she has candles on hand.
Hurricane lanterns are better. She asks him if
he could fill in the missing parts of a Hank Mobley solo.
Sure, he says. How about Kenny Dorham?
Sure, he says. Him too.

No, you couldn’t, she says.

Order Listening to Prestige, Vol. 1 from Amazon.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Listening to Prestige Part 180: Hank Mobley

Hank Mobley is mostly associated with Blue Note, but he did show up for a handful of Prestige sessions in 1956, starting with Elmo Hope in May, and continuing on into the summer, including two sessions as leader, this being the first.

He shows a healthy respect for the classics here, from pop and particularly from bebop, choosing tunes by Rodgers and Hart, Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk and Charlie Parker--and two of his own compositions, which shows a healthy ego. Neither "Minor Disturbance" nor "Alternating Current" have become jazz standards, but Mobley did go on to become a composer of some note.

Monk composed "52nd Street Theme" in 1944, when 52nd Street was the nerve center of bebop, and Mobley was 14 years old. Powell composed "Bouncing With Bud" in 1946, the year that Mobley took up the tenor saxophone--late, for a guy who mastered it as fully as he did, and almost by accident. He had played the piano before that, as had his mother and grandmother before him, but when he was 16 he was housebound for several months with an illness, and an uncle gave him a saxophone to occupy his time.

He picked it up very quickly -- by 19 he was working with Paul Gayten's rhythm and blues band, and as yet another demonstration of how good those R&B bands of the late 40s and early 50s were, this one included  Cecil Payne, Clark Terry, Aaron Bell, Sam Woodyard and Walter Davis, Jr. And young Mobley stood out even in that all-star aggregation. Recalling those days, Gayten said, "Hank was beautiful, he played alto, tenor and baritone and did a lot of the writing. He took care of business and I could leave things up to him." The tenor sax solo on Gayten's recording "Each Time" may or may not be Mobley--opinions differ.

By 1951, when Bird wrote and recorded "Au Privave," Mobley was a full-fledged member of the elite jazz community--not bad for a late starter. He and Davis were backing jazz stars like Miles Davis, Dexter Gordon and Lester Young as the house band in a Newark jazz club, and one of those visitors, Max Roach, hired the two of them and brought them to New York, where Mobley's gigs included bebop heaven -- Minton's, as part of a Horace Silver-led house band which also included Doug Watkins.

So with tunes by Monk, Bud, and Bird, Mobley embraces bebop in this session, though he was later to become known as the pre-eminent hard bop tenor player--a distinction which I don't particularly care to recognize, as I've made clear before. But that's OK, I don't particularly care to recognize a firm distinction between bebop and rhythm and blues, either.

It's great to hear these classic tunes brought into the framework of a straight-ahead Prestige jam session, particularly "Au Privave." It's always good to be reminded of what an amazing artist Bird was, as composer as well as soloist.

Mal Waldron may have had other plans, because Barry Harris is in as the piano player for this second
July 20th session. Harris would eventually settle in New York, but in 1956 he was on loan from Detroit's jazz hotbed, and among the places I'd go to if I could time travel, Detroit's Blue Bird Inn in the 40s and 50s would be high on the list. Harris is solid throughout, and contributes some hot solos.

Prestige released this session as Mobley's Message,and it's billed as the Hank Mobley Sextet, though it's only a sextet for "Au Privave," when Jackie McLean joins the group. And Donald Byrd drops out on "Little Girl Blue," making that a quartet number. It was later rereleased as Hank Mobley's Message, perhaps so no one would confuse the tenor player with Miss America Mary Ann Mobley.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Listening to Prestige Part 179: Jackie McLean

A recent study has found that listening to jazz makes you smarter and more creative. Makes sense to me.

But they seem to be saying that jazz is an undemanding sort of music, so you can put it on as background while you're studying, and that makes you smarter? I couldn't exactly swear to it. I didn't quite read the article all the way through. Maybe I'm not smart enough. So I should listen to more jazz.

And more creative? Absolutely. I always listen to jazz when I write this blog. But maybe I'm not a representative sample. As Etta Place told Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, "your line of work requires a specialized vocabulary."

But I am listening to jazz at the moment, and I am writing, and it's another Friday at Rudy's, and once again the day begins with Breakfast with Jackie, and the same quartet: Mal Waldron, Doug Watkins, Art Taylor.

And once again with a ballad. "When I Fall In Love" was written by Victor Young, who is best known for writing lush movie scores like Around the World in Eighty Days, but who actually had something of a jazz connection, which probably shouldn't be surprising, considering the wonderfully tangled family tree of American music, and which leads me to a convoluted digression, which also shouldn't be surprising, because listening to jazz has made me creative. Young's first big break was something of a reverse spin on jazz, when he was hired by bandleader Isham Jones to take an uptempo jazz number and rearrange it as dreamy ballad. The tune was Hoagy Carmichael's "Stardust," and one would have to say the rearrangement was a success.

It led to Young's being signed by Brunswick records to record more dance music. The recordings were strictly for squares, featuring waltzes and semi-classics, but he was able to give employment to up-and-coming jazz musicians like Bunny Berigan, Tommy Dorsey, Joe Venuti and Eddle Lang. His Wikipedia  entry mentions that one of his most interesting recordings of this period was "Goopy Geer (He Plays the Piano and He Plays By Ear," composed and performed by Herman Hupfeld, who also wrote "When Yuba Plays the Rhumba on the Tuba." Oh, and a little thing called "As Time Goes By."

Back to "When I Fall in Love," which has the syrupy quality one might expect from the composer of "Around the World in Eighty Days," but also seems to have the jazz possibilities one could expect from the employer of Berigan, Dorsey, Venuti and Lang, not to mention the Boswell Sisters and Lee Wiley. At any rate, it has a remarkable jazz pedigree, with recordings by any number of the giants. Here it's given a rendition that's less reverent than McLean's "Sentimental Journey," and hits just the right tone for the material. Great stuff.

"Abstractions" is one of Mal Waldron's first recorded compositions, and he would go on to establisn himself as a significant jazz composer, best known for John Coltrane's "Soul Eyes."

As with the previous Friday, McLean roped in a couple of the cats who were on tap for the next session: Donald Byrd, who had sat in with them the previous week as well, and Hank Mobley, new to the Fridays with Rudy gang. So what do you play if you're getting together for a jam session? How about Charlie Parker? With musicians like this, and a tune by Bird, you can't miss.

This is billed in the discography as a sextet session, even though only one track features the sextet. That track is also the "6" in the title of the album that conjoined the two Fridays: Jackie McLean -- 4, 5 and 6. It was released on both Prestige and New Jazz.

Monday, April 04, 2016

Listening to Prestige Part 178: Gene Ammons

Art always involves a series of contracts or promises between artist and audience, and that is particularly true in the narrative arts like literature or music, when one momentary experience follows another in time. The reader of a poem is always going to read the first line first, then the second, then the third, and so on.  If a poet writes a line in iambic pentameter, he's making a promise to the reader that the next line will also be ten syllables long, with an accent on every other syllable. If someone strikes a bluesy chord on the guitar and sings a line, he's promising that he'll sing the same line over again, and follow it with a line that rhymes. If someone starts playing a blues in B-flat, the promise is that the notes that follow will be consonant with the key of B-flat.

Sometimes these promises are strictly kept. Boudleaux Bryant, who wrote (with wife Felice) most of the Everly Brothers' hits, believed in whole rhymes, and obvious rhymes, because, he said, them made the listener a sort of co-composer. If you listen to

There goes my baby, with someone new,
She sure looks happy, I sure am... can sing the end of the line before you even hear it.

Other times--and this is what makes art so exciting--the promise is broken. T. S. Eliot famously broke one at the beginning of "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," when he promised the reader a tetrameter line, rhymed couplets, and a dreamy romanticism with
Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
and then he breaks all three of those promises with
Like a patient etherized upon a table.
If you break a promise, you have to break it with purpose. not like the young saxophone player who jumped up on the Jazzmobile stage in New York and wanted to jam with Frank Foster. Foster graciously welcomed him, and called for a blues in B-flat.  The young guy burst into a cacophony of yawps and screeches.

"What are you doing?" Foster asked.

"I'm just playing what I feel."

"Well, feel something in B-flat, motherfucker."

The beboppers would famously promise a romantic ballad from the Great Americam Songbook, then break that promise by upping the tempo as they began to improvise, playing it, in Chuck Berry's words, "too darn fast," and "changi[ing] the beauty of the melody until it sounds just like a symphony."

And that broken promise became the promise, one that the fan who really had no kick against modern jazz came to expect.

And so it is with Gene Ammons, on the second session of this Friday at Rudy's. Jackie McLean is still there, and so is Donald Byrd, and so is the rhythm section. Art Farmer has joined the merry crew.

And on the second song of the session, which is "We'll Be Together Again," Ammons knows that you know he's going to keep the promise to break the promise, so he teases a bit, drawing out notes almost to the breaking point. The song was written by an unlikely contributor to the Great American Songbook: Frankie Laine, with music by his pianist and music director Carl T. Fischer. It's a beautiful melody, one that found its way into the repertoires of some of our finest singers. Ammons, a great ballad player, gives us the beauty of the melody, but the tease is there too. And with McLean, Byrd and Farmer along for the ride, there's plenty of adventure ahead, enough to make ten minutes of wonderful music, coming back in the end to the melody, and Ammons' drawn-out notes.

The session also has "Jammin' with Gene," a version of "Red Top" that allows for fourteen minutes of jammin', and "Not Really the Blues," another Ammons tease, because anything he plays is really the blues. One odd choice: Donald Byrd is identified on the album's front cover (though not the back) as Don Byrd.

Saturday, April 02, 2016

Listening to Prestige Part 177: Jackie McLean

This was the beginning of a very busy summer in Mr. and Mrs. Van Gelder's living room. Let's hope they'd gone to Grossinger's for a summer vacation.A core group of musicians was constantly in and out of the studio in shifting combinations--Friday at Rudy's.

The festivities started on Friday the 13th--July 13, 1956--with two separate sessions. Jackie McLean was the nominal leader on the first one, though he played on both.

McLean starts the session with "Sentimental Journey," an interesting choice in that bebop's journeys were rarely sentimental. And it was a tough one to unsentimentalize. Written by dance band leader Les Brown and his arranger Ben Homer, recorded by Brown and Doris Day, it had been a huge hit in 1945, as ir became a sort of unofficial theme song for returning GIs. Only a decade later, as veterans were still having a painful time readjusting to civilian life (and this was not really recognized back then), the painful, bittersweet (at best) nature of that sentimental journey was still very real.

McLean's take on the song isn't sentimental, but it isn't exactly unsentimental, either. He plays it with a feeling for the melody that's not ironic. The improvisations are a little more hard-edged, but still in keeping with the feeling. McLean would have been 14 when the war ended, an age when boys are romantics and secretly hope the war will go on a little longer, so that they can get into it. You outgrow those feelings, but they're always part of you.

Two members of the rhythm section were to become no strangers to the Prestige studios. Art Taylor
already wasn't, having made his label debut in 1954, and having played on nine sessions already. Mal Waldron was making his Prestige debut. Both would go on to appear on a plethora of Prestige albums. In recent biographical material, they are often referred to, respectively, as the"house drummer" and "house piano player" for the label. It's not altogether clear what this means. Alan Dawson has been described as the house drummer for Prestige during part of the 60s, but he says this is nonsense -- they called him for a lot of gigs, but he was never the house anything.

Doug Watkins rounded out the rhythm section, and he was very much a presence on Prestige recordings in those days, too.

Bebop altered the concept of the rhythm session, as drummers like Max Roach, Kenny Clarke and Art Blakey took the beat away from the bass drum and shifted it to the lighter ride cymbal. The bass took over the principal responsibility for keeping the beat, and jazz singers learned to listen to the bass, not the drums, as their guide for keeping the beat. As drummers became virtuosi, bass players like Curly Russell and Tommy Potter, who could provide a solid foundation for the shifting intricacies of bebop, were in demand.

By the 1950s, bass players, though still anchoring the rhythm section, were becoming virtuosi too.
Players like Charles Mingus, Paul Chambers and Oscar Pettiford soloed as Russell and Potter never did.

How much could you do with a bass solo? Listen to Doug Watkins on "Sentimental Journey" and
you'll hear just how much. Watkins's career was cut short by the auto accident that claimed his life in 1962, but he made a lasting mark.

Donald Byrd joined the group for "Contour" (and stuck around for the afternoon session with Gene Ammons, and changed the mood dramatically. "Contour" is full-out bop, with the two horn almost percussive as they chop away at notes.

This session would be part of a McLean album called Jackie McLean -- 4, 5, and 6, covering both the 4 and 5 parts. It was issued on both Prestige and New Jazz.