THE DOZENS: JAZZ CELLO by Eric Wendell

 cello

Can the cello swing? Can the cello be as melodically sophisticated as traditional jazz instruments? Is the cello capable of strongly accompanying a jazz band? Since the beginning of jazz, stringed instruments have played an important role in the instrumentation of jazz. Different from early jazz string instruments like the violin and bass, the cello has only recently become a more conventional instrument in the jazz ensemble.

Initial practitioners of the instrument included bassists Harry Babasin, Oscar Pettiford and Ray Brown, who all lauded the cello for its dynamic and stimulating musical range and for its difference in size making more rapid playing achievable. Since those early innovations, a second generation of cellists have built upon their early work including Erik Friedlander, Daniel Pezzotti, Diedre Murray and Gideon Freudmann to name a few. With the legacy of its beginning enthusiasts and the work of its current devotees, the cello is poised to continue being an important facet in jazz.

All the artists and songs profiled showcase the extensiveness of the cello in jazz and the innovations that keep the instrument active in contemporary jazz.


Harry Babasin: These Foolish Things

Track

These Foolish Things

Artist

Harry Babasin (cello)

CD

Harry Babasin and the Jazz Pickers (VSOP 39)

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Musicians:

Harry Babasin (cello), Terry Gibbs (vibes),

Dempsey Wright (guitar), Ben Tucker (bass), Bill Douglass (drums)

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Composed by Harry Link, Holt Marvell & Jack Strachey

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Recorded: Los Angeles, July 1957

Harry_babasin___the_jazz_pickers

Rating: 93/100 (learn more)

Throughout the 1940s, Harry Babasin performed with several luminaries of the jazz community including Charlie Barnet, Benny Goodman and Laurindo Almeida. During a break from filming the movie A Song Is Born, Babasin picked up a cello that happened to be on set and enjoyed the timbral quality of the instrument. In order to accommodate himself to the instrument, he tuned the cello in fourths instead of the traditional fifths.

Babasin became the first jazz bassist to double on the cello, recording his first solo on December 3, 1947 with the Dodo Marmarosa Trio. In 1953, Babasin recorded an album with fellow bassist/cellist Oscar Pettiford, further building the profile of the cello in jazz. And in 1957, he showcased his expertise on the instrument with his feature on the song “These Foolish Things.”

After a four bar introduction, Babasin performs a series of brief phrases before building into a longer passage. Babasin employs rhythmic devices on the cello that contrasts with the ballad feel of the song, resulting in a fascinating rhythmic counterpoint. Beginning with his solo at 2:09, he blazes through the changes where he implements straight sixteenth-note phrasing and unexpected double stops then segues into a beautiful coda. A highly recommended track from an early practitioner of the cello in jazz.

Reviewer: Eric Wendell


Oscar Pettiford: All The Things You Are

Track

All The Things You Are

Artist

Oscar Pettiford (cello)

CD

Vienna Blues: The Complete Sessions (Black Lion 760104)

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Musicians:

Oscar Pettiford (cello),

Hans Koller (tenor saxophone), Attila Zoller (bass), Jimmy Pratt (drums)

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Composed by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II

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Recorded: Vienna, January 9, 1959

Oscar_pettiford--vienna_blues

Rating: 95/100 (learn more)

Oscar Pettiford came into prominence during the 1940s through his associations with Coleman Hawkins, Dizzy Gillespie and Duke Ellington. While working with Woody Herman in 1949, Pettiford suffered a broken arm and found it difficult to play the bass. For rehabilitation purposes, he learned to play the cello and after his recuperation, he played it occasionally on gigs. A shining achievement of his cello technique is his 1959 version of “All The Things You Are.”

Pettiford plays the introduction arco, then Koller enters with the melody. Throughout the first chorus of the song, Pettiford develops a call and response pattern with Koller. During his solo from 1:59-2:52, Pettiford incorporates several techniques including even eighth-note patterns, note bends and slides. Zoller enhances the performance by choosing notes that further develop the contour of Pettiford’s solo. “All The Things You Are” serves as a great addition to the history of the cello in jazz and to Pettiford’s late discography.

Reviewer: Eric Wendell


Ray Brown: Ain't Misbehavin'

Track

Ain't Misbehavin'

Artist

Ray Brown (cello)

CD

Jazz Cello (Verve 440 065 395)

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Musicians:

Ray Brown (cello), Don Fagerquist (trumpet), Harry Betts (trombone), Med Flory (alto sax), Bob Cooper (tenor sax), Paul Horn (flute), Jimmy Rowles (piano), Joe Mondragon (bass),

John Cave (french horn), Bill Hood (baritone sax), Dick Shanahan (drums). Arranged and conducted by Russ Garcia

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Composed by Harry Brooks, Andy Razaf & Fats Waller.

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Recorded: Los Angeles, August 31 or September 1, 1960

Ray_brown--jazz_cello

Rating: 96/100 (learn more)

Ray Brown's 1960 album Jazz Cello was one of the first albums in mainstream jazz to be devoted entirely to the cello. Featuring a full horn and rhythm section, Brown treated the cello as a fully realized melodic instrument. On the standard “Ain’t Misbehavin,” he proved that the cello could be featured in a big band setting. After a brief introduction from the ensemble, Brown plays the melody pizzicato, and embellishes the melody with slight ornamentation. With Russ Garcia's delicate orchestration, the cello cuts through the large instrumentation. Brown plays a soulful solo leaving plenty of space for the band figures. A delightful track from a late lamented jazz master.

Reviewer: Eric Wendell


Eric Dolphy: Out There

Track

Out There

Artist

Eric Dolphy (alto sax) and Ron Carter (bass)

CD

Out There (Prestige 5708)

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Musicians:

Eric Dolphy (alto sax), Ron Carter (bass), George Duvivier (bass), Roy Haynes (drums).

Composed by Eric Dolphy & Charles Mingus

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Recorded: New York, August 15, 1960

Eric_dolphy--out_there

Rating: 100/100 (learn more)

For his second album for Prestige, Eric Dolphy added Ron Carter to his group. The instrumentation of the group was similar to the Chico Hamilton quintet, of which Dolphy had been a member. Carter was originally a cellist, but switched to bass as a teenager. His cello technique was still strong, as witnessed by his performance on the Dolphy album’s title tune.

Dolphy and Carter begin the song by performing the melody in unison. Carter’s bowing style gives his sound a primal quality, which complements Dolphy’s acidic tone. Carter holds the last note of the melody as he begins his solo, and he manipulates that note for nearly half a minute with a variety of classical bowing techniques. Dolphy provides an ear-stretching alto solo before Duvivier’s exploratory solo. “Out There” remains an essential recording1 in the catalog of Dolphy and modern jazz cello repertory.

Reviewer: Eric Wendell


Sam Jones: Visitation

Track

Visitation

Artist

Sam Jones (cello)

CD

Visitation (Steeplechase 31097)

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Musicians:

Sam Jones (cello), Terumasa Hino (trumpet), Bob Berg (tenor sax), Ronnie Matthews (piano), Al Foster (drums).

Composed by Paul Chambers

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Recorded: Copenhagen, March 20, 1978

Sam_jones--visitation

Rating: 100/100 (learn more)

With the application of the cello into the jazz ensemble, many used the instrument to explore new melodic terrain. Sam Jones took it in a different direction by playing walking bass lines on the cello. Sam’s technique of using the cello as an accompanying instrument can be best represented by the title song from his album “Visitation”.

Jones and Berg play the melody in unison with their tones blending seamlessly into one cohesive sound. Jones displays a straightforward, yet intricate touch during his solo from :37-1:53 by taking small ideas from the melody and incorporating them into his solo. Equally impressive are Jones’ accompanying skills, which he modifies depending upon which member is soloing. For Berg, he tends to stick to the root of the chord and for Hino he performs higher on the neck in order to match the timbre of the trumpet. At times, Jones’ slides sound more like a fretless electric bass than a cello. A great song by a great band, “Visitation” is highly recommended for its use of the cello in modern jazz accompaniment.

Reviewer: Eric Wendell


Julius Hemphill: Body

Track

Body

Artist

Julius Hemphill (reeds) and Abdul Wadud (cello)

CD

Flat-Out Jump Suite (Black Saint 40)

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Musicians:

Julius Hemphill (reeds), Abdul Wadud (cello), Olu Dara (cornet), Warren Smith (percussion).

Composed by Julius Hemphill

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Recorded: Milan, June 4 & 5, 1980

Julius_hemphill--flat_out_jump_suite

Rating: 100/100 (learn more)

As one of the few jazz musicians to play only the cello (as opposed to doubling on bass) Abdul Wadud is equally versed in both classical and jazz styles. Wadud’s resume includes stints with everyone from the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra to Arthur Blythe. His work reached a particular peak of experimentation on the song “Body” from Julius Hemphill’s 1980 album Flat-Out Jump Suite. Wadud firmly grasps the funky feel of the song by performing with a raw bluesy touch. Wadud’s wide and distinct sound stands out when he plays in unison with Hemphill and Dara. The song goes through several tempos and textures, with Wadud adding slight ornamentations during each change. When the song moves into a swing feel, Abdul goes back and forth between a walking bass line and chordal accompaniment. Though his is the only stringed instrument in the ensemble, his performance is the heart of the song and an excellent addition to contemporary jazz cello style.

Reviewer: Eric Wendell


David Eyges: Crossroads

Track

Crossroads

Artist

David Eyges (cello)

CD

Crossroads (Music Unlimited 7432)

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Musicians:

David Eyges (cello),

Byard Lancaster (alto sax), Sunny Murray (drums)

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Composed by David Eyges.

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Recorded: New York, November 19, 1981

David_eyges--crossroads

Rating: 95/100 (learn more)

Alongside Abdul Wadud, David Eyges refined the presence of the cello in smaller ensembles. Originally trained at the Manhattan School of Music, Eyges heard blues musicians such as John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters after leaving college and as a result, he developed an earthy, blues-based style. The title composition from his 1981 album Crossroads is a perfect example of Eyges’ unique style.

Eyges begins the song by performing a motif with strong emphasis on beats one and three giving the entire song a rock-like feel. Eyges displays a great rhythmic interplay with the ensemble, displaying more of a solid accompaniment role than Murray. The relationship between Eyges and Lancaster is of special importance with the two men developing a call and response pattern early on, resulting in an exciting push and pull element throughout. Murray also contributes to the push and pull effect, switching between an even pulse on the ride cymbal to a swing feel. This change in feel interrupts the atmosphere at times, resulting in ebbs and flow with the rhythm throughout the song. These interruptions keep Eyges and Lancaster on their toes, allowing them to experiment with different phrasings and ornamentations.

Reviewer: Eric Wendell


Dave Holland: Life Cycle-Resolution

Track

Life Cycle: Resolution

Artist

Dave Holland (cello)

CD

Life Cycle (ECM 1238)

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Musicians:

Dave Holland (cello).

Composed by Dave Holland

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Recorded: Ludwigsburg, Germany, November 1982

Dave_holland--life_cycle

Rating: 100/100 (learn more)

By the early 1980s, bassist Dave Holland had already cut his teeth with a who’s who of jazz superstars including Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk and Stan Getz. In the late 1960s, Holland began to play the cello while working with the group Circle. In 1982, he released the album Life Cycle, his first album of unaccompanied cello compositions. As the last section of a five-part suite, “Resolution” is a brilliant example of the capabilities of the modern unaccompanied cello.

Holland begins the piece with an exciting arco passage that calls to mind the compositions of an early influence, Béla Bartók. The arco phrase comes to a sudden halt at 1:05 where Dave switches to pizzicato without losing any intensity. The pizzicato passage easily segues into a bluesy section beginning at 2:39 where Holland fully evokes the textures of the blues with the simple addition of minor thirds. The song captures more emotions than entire albums can, with the cello being the instrument to accomplish such a feat.

Reviewer: Eric Wendell


Bill Frisell: Little Brother Bobby

Track

Little Brother Bobby

Artist

Bill Frisell (guitar) and Hank Roberts (cello)

CD

Lookout For Hope (ECM 1350)

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Musicians:

Bill Frisell (guitar), Hank Roberts (cello), Kermit Driscoll (bass), Joey Baron (drums).

Composed by Bill Frisell

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Recorded: New York, March 1987

Bill_frisell--lookout_for_hope

Rating: 100/100 (learn more)

Hank Roberts’ sound incorporates the diverse styles of jazz, classical, rock and folk. As a student at the Berklee School of Music, Hank was able to hone and sharpen his performance expertise, creating an original improvisational style. Upon relocating to New York City in the 1980s, he began an association with Bill Frisell, which continues today.. Roberts made his debut with Frisell on the guitarist’s album Lookout for Hope, which featured the song “Little Brother Bobby,” a tour de force that showcases his contributions to contemporary jazz cello.

The song exhibits Frisell’s reverb-soaked tone, which works brilliantly with Roberts’ smooth melodic resonance. Roberts displays a lyrical performance style that contains equal parts avant-garde, classical and traditional folk methods. The overall quality of his tone remains the same throughout the subtle shifts in tempo and character. Though Baron sometimes supplies discordant rhythmic patterns, the interaction between Frisell and Roberts is what makes the song flourish and thrive, with Hank performing with a more legato technique when Frisell is displaying a more staccato sound. The subsequent rhythmic counterpoint enhances the overall excitement of the piece and is a testament to the talents of Hank Roberts.

Reviewer: Eric Wendell


Heath Brothers: Nostalgia

Track

Nostalgia

Group

The Heath Brothers

CD

As We Were Saying... (Concord Jazz 4777)

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Musicians:

Percy Heath (cello), Jimmy Heath (tenor sax), Albert "Tootie" Heath (drums), Jon Faddis (trumpet), Slide Hampton (trombone), Mark Elf (guitar).

Composed by Fats Navarro

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Recorded: New York, February 23 & February 24, 1997

Heath_brothers--as_we_were_saying

Rating: 100/100 (learn more)

Percy Heath is a musical titan whose work has graced countless albums. Percy replaced Ray Brown in the Modern Jazz Quartet and performed with the MJQ for the better part of twenty years before teaming up with his equally noteworthy brothers Jimmy and Albert. On the 1997 release As We Were Saying…, Percy demonstrates his cello virtuosity on the Fats Navarro bop classic “Nostalgia.”

The song begins with Mark Elf and Albert Heath performing with a light, breezy feel while Percy performs the melody with slight decorations and inflections. Percy’s solo is noteworthy for the way he phrases his ideas, carefully picking notes in order to suffice the chord change at hand as well as to complete his melodic concept. For the last chorus, Jimmy performs the melody with Percy responding to his performance by playing four-note phrases to contrast the melody. For the last A section, both Jimmy and Percy play the melody together in unison ending the song a strong note. A fine song from an under-appreciated ensemble.

Reviewer: Eric Wendell


Fred Lonberg-Holm: And You Smile

Track

And You Smile

Artist

CD

Terminal Valentine (Atavistic 180)

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Musicians:

Fred Lonberg-Holm (cello),

Jason Roebke (bass), Frank Rosaly (drums)

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Composed by Fred Lonberg-Holm

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Recorded: Chicago, July 24, 2006

Fred_lonberg-holm--terminal_valentine

Rating: 100/100 (learn more)

Fred Lonberg-Holm straddles the line between jazz and experimental music. After studying with Anthony Braxton and Morton Feldman, Lonberg-Holm began to establish himself in the New York avant-garde music scene. After his move to Chicago in the late 1990s, Lonberg-Holm increased his visibility with performances with Peter Brotzmann’s Tentet and Ken Vandermark. With his 2007 effort Terminal Valentine, Lonberg-Holm offers ten compositions that display a wide range of styles. One of the album’s highlights is “And You Smile”.

Beginning with a gorgeous arco passage, Londberg-Holm starts with a legato phrase before transitioning into a disjointed sounding melodic figure. What is most interesting about his sound is how easily he can change his expressions throughout the piece, at times sounding like a classical cellist and at other times resembling a free jazz saxophonist. The dynamic between the three musicians is quite palpable, with the solid rhythmic design of Roebke and Rosaly further augmenting Lonberg-Holm’s sophisticated performance. An essential addition to the current state of improvisational cello.

Reviewer: Eric Wendell


Erik Friedlander: Spinning Plates

Track

Spinning Plates

Artist

CD

Broken Arm Trio (SkipStone 3)

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Musicians:

Erik Friedlander (cello),

Trevor Dunn (bass), Mike Sarin (drums)

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Composed by Erik Friedlander

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Recorded: New York, January 24-25, 2008

Albumcovererikfriedlander-brokenarmtrio

Rating: 100/100 (learn more)

Whether accompanying John Zorn, Laurie Anderson or Fred Hersch, Erik Friedlander has exhibited a complex knowledge of the cello that has placed him at the vanguard of both improvisational jazz and contemporary classical music. Named after the incident that prompted Oscar Pettiford to begin playing the cello, Friedlander’s 2008 release Broken Arm Trio continues his progressive vision for the cello in the 2000s. A fine example of his vision is the album’s opening track “Spinning Plates.”

Friedlander combines a swinging melody and an unyielding rhythm section to secure his musical statement. During his solo from :33-1:30, Friedlander keeps the energy going with lengthy arpeggios and lively themes. Sarin’s sometimes spasmodic performance keeps Friedlander’s solo fresh with Dunn going back and forth from rhythmic to melodic roles whenever he sees fit. Friedlander punctuates his melodies with wonderfully executed double-stops at 1:40 which spice up the arrangement and allow Dunn to improvise. The double-stops are a welcome accompanying device as opposed to a walking bassline or a more traditional chordal playing. A true testimony to the achievement of a modern cello giant.

Reviewer: Eric Wendell


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