THE DOZENS: TWELVE ESSENTIAL JAZZ FLUTE PERFORMANCES
by Alan Kurtz

“The flute,” flutist Bud Shank informed historian Ted Gioia in 1988, “is a stupid instrument to be playing jazz music on.” As Gioia later commented, “Sometimes artists are not the best judge of their own work.”

Luckily, the flute—lacking even a family to call its own—is impervious to insult. Traditionally classified a woodwind, modern flutes have less wood than a twig following a feast of famished termites. Or it’s grouped among reeds, despite having no such thing.

In fact the flute comes closer to the human voice than to any other instrument. Music teachers tirelessly tell students to “sing” through their instrument, even when such advice is strictly figurative. With the flute, however, a player really does sing, sometimes literally.

As for jazz, the flute was orphaned until 1956, when Down Beat adopted a new Readers Poll category initially won by Bud Shank, then monopolized by Herbie Mann (1957-1970) and Hubert Laws (post-1970).

Accordingly, our flute cocktail samples those happy-go-lucky ‘50s, chic ‘60s and adventurous ‘80s. We’ve mercifully skipped the 1970s cultural wasteland, but we do accord Hubert Laws the last word with a 21st- century track proving that some jazz elders don’t just get older, they get wiser.


Bud Shank & Bob Cooper: Sweet Georgia Brown

Track

Sweet Georgia Brown

Artist

Bud Shank (flute) and Bob Cooper (oboe)

CD

Blowin' Country (Pacific Jazz CDP 7243 94846 2 7)

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Musicians:

Bud Shank (flute), Bob Cooper (oboe), Howard Roberts (guitar), Don Prell (bass), Chuck Flores (drums).

Composed by Ben Bernie, Maceo Pinkard & Kenneth Casey. Arranged by Bob Cooper

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Recorded: Los Angeles, November 29, 1956

Albumcoverbudshank-bobcooper-blowincountry

Rating: 97/100 (learn more)

A longtime jazz favorite, "Sweet Georgia Brown" (1925) became beloved by millions after the Harlem Globetrotters made it their theme in 1952. Amazed crowds worldwide, watching the Globetrotters' comic basketball wizardry, whistled along with "Sweet Georgia Brown." Likewise bouncing with skill and surprise is this quintessential 1950s West Coast jazz track. Although classical composers had long paired flute and oboe, Shank & Cooper here demonstrate the tandem's superior jazz IQ. With Cooper's call-&-response arrangement coyly teasing the melody, "Sweet Georgia Brown" tips off tiptop players at the top of their game.

Reviewer: Alan Kurtz


Frank Wess: Low Life

Track

Low Life

Artist

Frank Wess (flute)

CD

Jazz for Playboys (Savoy 17088)

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Musicians:

Frank Wess (flute), Joe Newman (trumpet), Kenny Burrell (guitar), Freddie Green (rhythm guitar), Eddie Jones (bass), Ed Thigpen (drums).

Composed by Johnny Mandel

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Recorded: Hackensack, NJ, December 26, 1956

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Rating: 93/100 (learn more)

Six months to the day after these same musicians (except Burrell and Thigpen) recorded "Low Life" with Count Basie's big band, they reconvened for this sextet version featuring Frank Wess's flute, which had become emblematic of Basie's New Testament band. Not surprisingly, Basie's busmen on holiday remain very much in Count's bag. After all, any track on which Freddie Green plays rhythm guitar is going to sound like Basie. Hell, if Freddie had recorded Beethoven's Ninth with the New York Philharmonic, we'd expect Leonard Bernstein to exclaim "One more time!" at the finale à la Basie's "April in Paris."

Reviewer: Alan Kurtz


Herbie Mann & Buddy Collette: Give a Little Whistle

Track

Give a Little Whistle

Artist

Herbie Mann (flute) and Buddy Collette (flute, piccolo)

CD

Flute Fraternity (V.S.O.P. #38 CD Mode 114)

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Musicians:

Herbie Mann (flute), Buddy Collette (flute, piccolo), Jimmy Rowles (piano), Buddy Clark (bass), Mel Lewis (drums).

Composed by Leigh Harline & Ned Washington

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Recorded: Hollywood, July 1957

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Rating: 94/100 (learn more)

Disney's animated morality play Pinocchio (1940) depicts a puppet's quest to become human by resisting corruption. "And if you start to slide," he's advised, "Give a little whistle! And always let your conscience be your guide." Too bad the movie wasn't required childhood viewing for future Enron, Adelphia and WorldCom executives, who might've subsequently avoided having whistles blown on them. These five jazzmen, though, must've had front-row seats. Their integrity is impeccable. As for who's who, Buddy's on the left channel; Herbie's to the right; and that little whistle you hear is Collette's peeping piccolo. Jiminy Cricket, this swings!

Reviewer: Alan Kurtz


Yusef Lateef: Playful Flute

Track

Playful Flute

Artist

Yusef Lateef (flute)

CD

The Sounds of Yusef (Prestige OJCCD-917-2)

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Musicians:

Yusef Lateef (flute),

Wilbur Harden, Hugh Lawson, Ernie Farrow & Oliver Jackson (percussion)

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Composed by Yusef Lateef

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Recorded: Hackensack, NJ, October 11, 1957

Albumcoveryuseflateef-thesoundsofyusef

Rating: 95/100 (learn more)

"Mohammedan leanings are shown by many bebop musicians," Life magazine reported in 1948 at the height of a short-lived bop craze. Among the first-generation boppers who embraced Islam during that period was Yusef Lateef. We mention this because, far from being the evidence of kookiness that Life implied, Lateef's spirituality has thoroughly informed his music. Exotic modes and unusual instruments reflect Lateef's unquenchable cross-cultural curiosity. Here, from opening trills to climactic passages of simultaneous humming and playing, Lateef ranges from Africa to the Amazon by way of the Middle East. A fascinating 4-minute excursion by a unique musical explorer.

Reviewer: Alan Kurtz


Moe Koffman: The Swingin' Shepherd Blues

Track

The Swingin' Shepherd Blues

Artist

Moe Koffman (flute)

CD

Instrumental Gems of the Fifties (Collectors' Choice CCM-080-2)

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Musicians:

Moe Koffman (flute), Ed Bickert (guitar),

Hugh Currie (bass), Ron Rully (drums)

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Composed by Moe Koffman

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Recorded: Toronto, Canada, February 7, 1957

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Rating: 92/100 (learn more)

As Canadian flutist Moe Koffman's 2-minute "Swingin' Shepherd Blues" swung for three months on the U.S. pop charts, he and his swingin' shepherds flocked their hit on TV robed as Franciscan friars, cowls and all. Although the connection between flutes, shepherds and Franciscans was never explained, Moe's follow-up "Little Pixie" sold well enough to make him a 1½-hit wonder. As for why "Swingin' Shepherd Blues" became the token totem of late '50s jazz, it was probably the reverb. This track appears to have been recorded deep in the echoic catacombs of Carlsbad Caverns. Maybe the cowls were protection against bats.

Reviewer: Alan Kurtz


Paul Horn: Mirage for Miles

Track

Mirage for Miles

Artist

Paul Horn (flute)

CD

Sound of Paul Horn / Profile of A Jazz Musician (Collectables COL 7531)

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Musicians:

Paul Horn (flute),

Emil Richards (vibes), Paul Moer (piano), Jimmy Bond (bass), Milt Turner (drums)

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Composed by Paul Horn

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Recorded: Los Angeles, March 30, 1961

Albumcoversoundofpaulhorn-profileofajazzmusician

Rating: 94/100 (learn more)

The exceptional versatility of jazz flutists transcends the fact that most were primarily saxophonists. Even fulltime flutists such as Herbie Mann and Hubert Laws were discontented with a single genre. Nobody encapsulates this restless eclecticism better than Paul Horn, who spent two years with Chico Hamilton, graced Roger Corman's beatnik flick A Bucket of Blood (1959), performed a jazz mass, took up tran- scendental meditation, recorded unaccompanied solos at the Taj Mahal and Egypt's Great Pyramid, and played duets with killer whales. With this stylish allusion to Miles Davis's "So What," Horn shows his killer jazz chops and wails without whales.

Reviewer: Alan Kurtz


Roland Kirk: You Did It, You Did It

Track

You Did It, You Did It

Artist

CD

We Free Kings (Verve 826 455-2)

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Musicians:

Rahsaan Roland Kirk (flute), Hank Jones (piano), Wendell Marshall (bass), Charlie Persip (drums).

Recorded: New York, August 17, 1961

Albumcoverrolandkirk-wefreekings

Rating: 98/100 (learn more)

Among the portable pawnshop of strange instruments slung around Roland Kirk's neck was an ordinary transverse flute. Ordinary, that is, until he played it. Not even the Marquis de Sade could have more thoroughly debauched this genteel staple of 18th-century Parisian salons. Under the roguish Captain Kirk's aegis, the celestial flute beamed down to earth faster than a photon torpedo. Throughout this slow, accusatory blues, the Captain spits, snarls, grunts through, and otherwise gutturally accosts his flute for 2½ wrenchingly expressive minutes. Oh, and lest we forget, it's funnier than a Marx Brothers movie. A fabulous track by an incomparable jazzman.

Reviewer: Alan Kurtz


Herbie Mann: Comin' Home, Baby

Track

Comin' Home, Baby

Artist

Herbie Mann (flute)

CD

Atlantic Top 60: Jazz, Jive and Strut (Rhino Atlantic)

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Musicians:

Herbie Mann (flute),

Hagood Hardy (vibes), Ben Tucker & Ahmad Abdul-Malik (basses), Rudy Collins (drums), Ray Mantilla & Chief Bey (percussion)

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Composed by Ben Tucker & Bob Dorough

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Recorded: New York, November 17, 1961

Albumcoverherbiemann-atlantictop60-jazzjiveandstrut

Rating: 95/100 (learn more)

Herbie Mann's 1957 decision to flute exclusively was an unprecedented risk. Hard as it was to earn a living playing only jazz, fulltime fluting would be a fluke fit for a flake. To his lasting credit, Herbie Mann-aged this feat, establishing himself as jazz's most popular flutist for over a decade, and in so doing also solidifed the flute's rightful place in jazz. Recorded live, "Comin' Home, Baby" demonstrates Mann's appeal as he nimbly hang-glides above a steady 12-bar blues vamp anchored by two bassists and three drummers. (Pretty hard to miss the beat with that crew.)

Reviewer: Alan Kurtz


Eric Dolphy: Gazzelloni

Track

Gazzelloni

Artist

Eric Dolphy (flute)

CD

Out to Lunch (Blue Note 98793)

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Musicians:

Eric Dolphy (flute), Freddie Hubbard (trumpet), Bobby Hutcherson (vibes), Richard Davis (bass), Tony Williams (drums).

Composed by Eric Dolphy

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Recorded: Englewood Cliffs, NJ, February 25, 1964

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Rating: 96/100 (learn more)


Eric Dolphy, artwork by Michael Symonds

Summer 1963. Manhattan. Avant-garde composer John Cage is performing his Variations III, in which individually amplified Slinkies suspended above the stage go BOING-BOING. Great stuff. Anyhow, during intermission, whom do we meet in the audience but Eric Dolphy! Introducing ourselves, we tell him how much we admire his work and ask whether Cage's sonic experiments might apply to jazz. "I don't know," Eric replied. "But I like what I'm hearing." The next year, his atonal tribute to Italian avant-garde flutist Severino Gazzelloni reinforced our wonder at the borderless map of Eric Dolphy's imagination— adventurous, uncompromising and, for listeners, relentlessly rewarding.

Reviewer: Alan Kurtz


Dave Valenin: Mountain Song

Track

Mountain Song

Artist

Dave Valentin (concert flute, pan pipes, bamboo flutes, Romanian pan flute, porcelain flute, Peruvian bamboo bass flute, assorted whistles and sequencer)

CD

Live at the Blue Note (GRP GRD-9568)

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Musicians:

Dave Valentin (concert flute, pan pipes, bamboo flutes, Romanian pan flute, porcelain flute, Peruvian bamboo bass flute, assorted whistles and sequencer).

Composed by Dave Valentin

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Recorded: New York, May 31, 1988

Albumcoverdavevalentin-liveatthebluenote

Rating: 96/100 (learn more)

Armed with flutes of various nationalities and sundry construction, Dave Valentin adds sequencing and other electronic effects for a crowd-pleasing live display of what promises to be god-awful gimmickry. This promise goes spectacularly unfulfilled. Instead, Valentin's self-described "mind painting" is a vivid tropical landscape exploding with exotic colors and unclassifiable species, a too-brief travelogue of a solitary summer vacation in the rainforest. "Mountain Song" is 3½ minutes of aural artistry. Book your passage now.

Reviewer: Alan Kurtz


Buddy Collette & James Newton: Flute Talk

Track

Flute Talk

Artist

Buddy Collette (flute) and James Newton (flute)

CD

Flute Talk (Soul Note 121 165-2)

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Musicians:

Buddy Collette (flute), James Newton (flute).

Composed by Buddy Collette & James Newton

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Recorded: Milan, Italy, July 4, 1988

Albumcoverbuddycollette-jamesnewton-flutetalk

Rating: 96/100 (learn more)

Excavated flutes fashioned from a mammoth's tusk or swan's bones have been dated to >35,000 years. Imagine the shock of hearing that first flutist! And how long did it take before a second joined in? "Flute Talk," improvised by modern masters playing state-of-the-art instruments, obviously cannot be compared with cave art. But at its heart is the same impulse that motivated the prehistoric duet of tusk and bone, namely to make sounds that interest not just one player and listeners, but multiple players whose conversation may have been an entirely new human experience. "Flute Talk" preserves a profound tradition. Beautifully.

Reviewer: Alan Kurtz


Hubert Laws: Muchacha Extraña

Track

Muchacha Extraña

Artist

Hubert Laws (flute)

CD

Baila Cinderella (Scepterstein SRI-1011)

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Musicians:

Hubert Laws (flute),

Otmaro Ruiz (piano), Hussain Jiffry (bass), Joey Heredia (drums), Kevin Ricard (percussion)

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Composed by Hubert Laws

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Recorded: Los Angeles, July 2000

Albumcoverhubertlaws-bailacinderella

Rating: 96/100 (learn more)

As a recording artist, Hubert Laws has amassed an extraordinary body of dreck. Is there another jazzman considered the most accomplished ever on his chosen instrument whose output less justifies said claim? Laws cannot be solely blamed for the 1970s, but he played a big part. In 2002, however, revisiting "Strange Girl" from Flute By-Laws (1965), Laws showed with a simple, born-again bossa nova how far both he and jazz have come. When this lovely, wistful track concludes, he remarks, "That's the one." No argument. The only thing Extraña about Hubert's Muchacha is how long it took her to arrive.

Reviewer: Alan Kurtz


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