THE DOZENS: TWELVE TRACKS BY PIANO TRIOS WITH GUITAR AND BASS by Alan Kurtz



                  Nat King Cole, artwork by Suzanne Cerny

According to Donald Clarke’s The Rise and Fall of Popular Music, it all began on opening night in 1937 for Nat King Cole’s quartet at L.A.’s Swannee Inn. “Allegedly,” alleges Clarke, “the drummer [Lee Young] didn’t show up for the gig, and they decided they didn’t need one.” Allegedly or not, the rest is history. Much to the distress of drummers everywhere, piano/guitar/bass trios became all the rage. (You drummers have only yourselves to blame! Better make it to the gig, no matter what your old lady has on tap.)

In any case, jazz cosmologists now confirm that The Swannee Inn Serendipity of 1937 (as it’s known in scientific circles) opened a wormhole into a Parallel Universe where guitar-toting piano trios have gone delightfully drummerless for seven serendipitous decades.

Submitted for your approval: 12 such tracks, offered as proof that some accidents are meant to happen. You have now crossed over into . . . the 98-String Zone. (Talk about string theory!)


Nat King Cole: Jumpin' at Capitol

Track

Jumpin' at Capitol

Group

King Cole Trio

CD

The Best of the Nat King Cole Trio – The Instrumental Classics, 1943-1949 (Capitol CDP 7 98288 2)

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Musicians:

Nat 'King' Cole (piano), Oscar Moore (guitar), Johnny Miller (bass).

Composed by Nadine Robinson

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Recorded: Los Angeles, November 30, 1943

Albumcovernatkingcoletrio-instrumentalclassics

Rating: 95/100 (learn more)

"Jumpin' at Capitol," along with "I Just Can't See for Lookin'" and "Easy Listening Blues," is one of only three songs credited lifetime to Nadine Robinson, a showgirl and Nat King Cole's first wife. Her sparse composer credits were most likely a ruse, possibly for tax purposes, to disguise Nat's own authorship. "Jumpin' at Capitol," in any case, is clearly the prototype for Nat's delectable dialogue with guitarist Les Paul on "Blues," credited to phantom composer Etaoin Shrdlu, and the sole artistic highlight of JATP's première hystérique, staged seven months after this session and likewise in L.A.

Nat's 6-string correspondent on this track is Oscar Moore, a shamefully neglected pioneer of the electric guitar. While it's a critical commonplace that Nat King Cole was a splendid pianist whose subsequent vocal superstardom eclipsed his keyboard work, Oscar Moore suffered the opposite fate, his post-King Cole Trio career proving as dismal as Nat's was spectacular. While Nat churned out one pop mega-it after another, Oscar pumped gas in the desert. Yet hearing the two of them "Jumpin' at Capitol" in 1943, we simply marvel at their brilliance and easy camaraderie. Backed only by bassist Johnny Miller, Cole and Moore set the gold standard to which all piano/guitar/bass trios would thereafter aspire, but few would attain.

Reviewer: Alan Kurtz


Art Tatum: I Got Rhythm

Track

I Got Rhythm

Group

Art Tatum Trio

CD

I Got Rhythm: Art Tatum, Vol. 3 (1935-1944) (GRP GRD-630)

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Musicians:

Art Tatum (piano), Tiny Grimes (guitar), Slam Stewart (bass).

Composed by George & Ira Gershwin

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Recorded: World Jam Session transcriptions, New York, January 5, 1944

Albumcoverarttatum-igotrhythm-volume3-1935-1944

Rating: 94/100 (learn more)

Jazzmen have recorded "I Got Rhythm" >600 times, and based so many of their own tunes on its chord progressions that "rhythm changes" are second in familiarity only to the blues. But for sheer virtuosity, this 1944 piano/guitar/bass trio recording stands out from the crowd. Showing off both his hyperkinetic right hand and stride-style left hand in alternating flashes of brilliance, Tatum also swings mightily—a quality sometimes left at the starting gate in his never-ending race to bedazzle us with technique. Given accompanists not in his league (who was?), Tatum turns "I Got Rhythm" into a frenetically ornamented set piece, demonstrating that jazz doesn't have to be spontaneous to be historic.

Reviewer: Alan Kurtz


The Soft Winds: Early Autumn

Track

Early Autumn

Group

The Soft Winds

CD

The Soft Winds – Then And Now (Chiaroscuro CR(D)342)

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Musicians:

Herb Ellis (guitar), Lou Carter (piano), Johnny Frigo (bass).

Composed by Ralph Burns, Woody Herman & Johnny Mercer

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Recorded: New York, c. 1949

Albumcoverthesoftwinds-thenandnow

Rating: 90/100 (learn more)

Upon their release in 1949, Woody Herman's "Summer Sequence (Part 4)" on Columbia and "Early Autumn" on Capitol served up a double whammy for 22-year-old tenorman Stan Getz, featured on both versions of what was in fact the same composition by Ralph Burns. While each of these discs would've been influential on its own, together they established Getz as a star and made "Early Autumn" a jazz standard.

During this same period, a piano/guitar/bass trio called The Soft Winds offered early proof that "Early Autumn" required neither tenor sax sublimity nor big band backing to be effective. What's most striking about this track is how closely The Soft Winds approximated the sound of George Shearing's Quintet, a vastly more popular group with the same instrumentation plus vibes and drums. Partly it's the plush piano/guitar unisons and Lou Carter's block chords; partly it's the gauzy beauty of Ralph Burns's tune, which lends itself perfectly to such intimate orchestration. (Surprisingly, Shearing himself did not record this made-to-order vehicle until 1960.)

The Soft Winds wafted their separate ways in the early '50s, but their guitarist soon fluttered back into the piano/guitar/bass fold, joining Oscar Peterson and Ray Brown for an unforgettable 5-year run. One listen to The Soft Winds' "Early Autumn" was probably enough to convince Oscar and Ray that Herb Ellis was as empathetic an ensemble player as ever blew into town.

Reviewer: Alan Kurtz


Ahmad Jamal: Pavanne

Track

Pavanne

Group

Ahmad Jamal Trio

CD

Poinciana (CBS Portrait RK 44394)

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Musicians:

Ahmad Jamal (piano), Ray Crawford (guitar), Israel Crosby (bass).

Composed by Morton Gould

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Recorded: New York, October 25, 1955

Albumcoverahmadjamal-poinciana

Rating: 88/100 (learn more)

Notwithstanding the valiant efforts of Pops Orchestras and Summertime Symphonies across the land, Americans have never developed a taste for light classics the way our English cousins have. A quickie search of Amazon USA yields numerous hits for British but few for American "Light Music Classics." (Significantly, the first of the latter to appear is a UK import by the New London Orchestra.) Still, we can muster a handful of composers renowned for their less filling contributions, including John Walter Bratton ("Teddy Bears' Picnic"), Raymond Scott ("The Toy Trumpet"), Leroy Anderson ("The Syncopated Clock") and David Rose ("Holiday for Strings").

In such semi-distinguished company resides Morton Gould, from whose American Symphonette No. 2 (1938) comes "Pavanne," as recorded by Ahmad Jamal in 1955. This was a case of natural selection, since no one better epitomized Jazz Lite in the 1950s than Ahmad Jamal. Atop politely micromanaged arrangements custom-tailored for listeners with only half an ear to spare, Jamal tinkled and octaved as unobtrusively as a society pianist during cocktail hour at the Waldorf-Astoria.

To his credit, though, Jamal's "Pavanne" did spawn one or two genuine jazz classics—just not by him. In 1959 Miles Davis tapped it as a source for "So What," which two years later John Coltrane revamped into "Impressions." The music goes round and round, and eventually Jazz Lite becomes substantial. It's worth the wait.

Reviewer: Alan Kurtz


Vince Guaraldi: Fenwyck's Farfel

Track

Fenwyck's Farfel

Group

Vince Guaraldi Trio

CD

Vince Guaraldi Trio (Fantasy OJCCD-149-2)

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Musicians:

Vince Guaraldi (piano), Eddie Duran (guitar),

Dean Reilly (bass)

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Composed by Vince Guaraldi

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Recorded: San Francisco, CA, April 1956

Albumcovervinceguaralditrio

Rating: 90/100 (learn more)

Even before he sprouted the mustache that made him a star (well, his 1963 hit "Cast Your Fate to the Wind" may also have had something to do with it), Vince Guaraldi could cook. In this case, rustling up a tasty tureen of every mother's favorite cure-all, noodle soup. "Fenwyck's Farfel" didn't make Vince any dough, but it showed how well he could use his noodle. Letting the broth simmer at an easygoing pace over the low flame of a minor blues, Guaraldi and guitarist Eddie Duran stir in just enough funky flavor to please even the most particular palate. If this warmly nourishing track doesn't get you up and off to work or school, something must be seriously wrong. In that event, Mama had better admit defeat and call the doctor—or the undertaker.

Reviewer: Alan Kurtz


Jim Hall: Things Ain't What They Used To Be

Track

Things Ain't What They Used To Be

Artist

Jim Hall (guitar)

CD

Jazz Guitar (Toshiba EMI 6819)

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Musicians:

Jim Hall (guitar), Carl Perkins (piano), Red Mitchell (bass).

Composed by Mercer Ellington & Ted Persons

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Recorded: Los Angeles, January 10 & 24, 1957

Albumcoverjimhall-jazzguitar

Rating: 96/100 (learn more)

It's a matter of historical record. Jim Hall was born in Buffalo. What we can't figure out is which section of Buffalo produced such a bluesy jazz guitarist. Is there a Delta buried beneath all that Lake-effect snow? On this track from his debut as a leader, Hall is joined by another New York native, bassist Red Mitchell, and Indianapolis's Carl Perkins on piano (no, not the rockabilly originator of "Blue Suede Shoes") for a composition by Mercer Ellington, who like his somewhat better known papa was born in Washington, DC. Amazingly, this city-slicker confederacy of Yankees yields such easygoing, laid-back blues as would make even dyed-in-the-cotton Mississippians tap a toe or two in approval. Mitchell's solo is an especial broken- slatted front-porch down-home delight.

THIS JUST IN:  We can now report that as a child Jim Hall moved with his family to Cleveland. Now that explains everything.

Reviewer: Alan Kurtz


Oscar Peterson: When Lights Are Low

Track

When Lights Are Low

Group

Oscar Peterson Trio

CD

A Jazz Odyssey (Verve 589780)

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Musicians:

Oscar Peterson (piano), Herb Ellis (guitar), Ray Brown (bass).

Composed by Benny Carter & Spencer Williams

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Recorded: Civic Opera House, Chicago, September 29, 1957

Albumcoveroscarpeterson-ajazzodyssey

Rating: 95/100 (learn more)

Traversing the shortest distance between two points, a young musician named Oscar Peterson derived not only inspiration from his idol Nat King Cole, but also the instrumentation and even an instrumentalist from Nat's trademark late-'40s combo. There was, however, one notable difference. When Oscar's original guitarist (Irving Ashby, formerly of the King Cole Trio) was succeeded by Barney Kessel and, a year later, Herb Ellis, Peterson's bands became racially integrated at a time when that was fraught with difficulties, not to mention danger.

In 1957 we find the O.P. Trio live in Chicago, presumably out of danger and indisputably in their prime. Although Oscar often set house-on-fire tempos, the better to show off his blazing technique, he was more appealing—to this listener, at least—when not whizzing by in a turbojet flurry of flash and filigree. Consider as evidence this decaffeinated version of Benny Carter's delightful "When Lights Are Low." The opening is so quiet, we can hear Oscar's shoe-leather metronome beating beneath the melody. Of course, after Ray Brown's witty upward glissando and Ellis's bongo-style punctuation rouse the attentive and appreciative audience, excitable Oscar can't help but fire off enough double-time volleys to impress the impressionable. Soon, fortunately, calm is restored for a relaxed landing right on schedule at O'Hare. How rare is that?

Sidebar: This track's deceptive original album packaging bears explanation. The Oscar Peterson Trio at the Concertgebouw, it was titled. Which is all well and good, except that the Verve LP was recorded entirely at Chicago's Civic Opera House, a long way from Amsterdam. According to urban legend, Verve's front-office secretary then was Miss Louella Litella—you guessed it: Emily's maiden aunt. Told to acquire a cover photo of the Windy City, she ordered instead "a windmill that's pretty." Declining to throw good money after bad, Verve retitled the album and ran the picture. If this account is not strictly true, then, as Emily herself regularly admonished: "Never mind."

Reviewer: Alan Kurtz


Oscar Peterson: Okie Blues

Track

Okie Blues

Artist

Oscar Peterson (piano)

CD

The History of an Artist (Original Jazz Classics 2625702)

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Musicians:

Oscar Peterson (piano), Barney Kessel (guitar), Ray Brown (bass).

Composed by Oscar Peterson

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Recorded: Los Angeles, December 27, 1972

Albumcoveroscarpeterson-thehistoryofanartist-volume1

Rating: 91/100 (learn more)

This track reunites the 1951 Oscar Peterson Trio, two decades hence, doing an O.P. original named for prodigal picker Barney Kessel, who was, in the words of Merle Haggard's 1969 redneck anthem, proud to be an Okie from Muskogee. But both halves of Oscar's title were equally true, for Barney's blues roots were planted deep in what remained of the Oklahoma prairie lands during the devastating Dust Bowl of his childhood. For that matter, O.P. himself—contrary to carping by such perpetual naysayers as Miles Davis—could be a convincingly bluesy pianist when he wanted to be. And here, obviously, he wanted to be. Which leaves only bassist Ray Brown, about whom nobody anywhere would dare question his ability to play anything. This is not a perfect track: at about 6½ minutes in, Barney's and Oscar's chords clash distressingly for a chorus. (Has one of Kessel's strings fallen out of tune?) But Oscar quickly saves the day with his trademark two-handed rolling tremolos. If, as Longfellow held, "Music is the universal language of mankind" (and where else but Jazz.com could you find a 210-word review that invokes both Merle Haggard and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow?), then blues is the dialect that all jazzmen must speak. The speakers here are downright eloquent.

Reviewer: Alan Kurtz


Tal Farlow: Fascinating Rhythm

Track

Fascinating Rhythm

Artist

Tal Farlow (guitar)

CD

A Sign of the Times (Concord Jazz CCD-4026)

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Musicians:

Tal Farlow (guitar), Hank Jones (piano), Ray Brown (bass).

Composed by George & Ira Gershwin

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Recorded: San Francisco, August 2, 1976

Albumcovertalfarlow-asignofthetimes

Rating: 92/100 (learn more)

Tal Farlow must not have received many Christmas cards from drummers. After establishing himself as a member of the drummerless Red Norvo Trio from 1949-1953, Farlow likewise dispensed with drummers for his mid-'50s trio albums with piano and bass. And here, 20 years later, he was still at it, shunning the company of drummers as if they carried bubonic plague in those unwieldy wheel-shaped cases they religiously lugged to gigs. Yet when a band can swing like this one does without aid of cymbals, snares, bongos or castanets, who needs a percussionist? While it's true that Tal's guitar chops in the '70s were not what they'd been in the '50s (whose were?), his playing still dazzles, especially when, as part of a prearranged unison with Hank Jones before the out chorus, Farlow plays a descending chordal glissando that sounds for all the world like some appreciative fan exclaiming, "Whew!" He took the word right out of my mouth.

Reviewer: Alan Kurtz


New York Swing: Till Tom Special

Track

Till Tom Special

Group

New York Swing

CD

Live at the 1996 Floating Jazz Festival (Chiaroscuro, released 1998)

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Musicians:

John Bunch (piano), Bucky Pizzarelli (guitar),

Jay Leonhart (bass)

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Composed by Benny Goodman & Lionel Hampton

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Recorded: live at the 1996 Floating Jazz Festival (presumably on the high seas)

Albumcovernewyorkswing-liveatthe1996floatingjazzfestival

Rating: 89/100 (learn more)

"I was hurrying homeward that holiday afternoon," wrote S.J. Perelman in The New Yorker of May 15, 1937, referring to Washington's Birthday, "pretty much in the groove, humming an aria from 'Till Tom Special' and wishing I could play the clarinet like a man named Goodman." Sid Perelman wasn't the only tomcat purring that tune. When the Benny Goodman Sextet featuring Charlie Christian recorded Sid's in-the-groove aria, John Bunch and Bucky Pizzarelli were impressionable teenagers; coincidentally, both grew up to become sidemen with B.G. and, not coincidentally, 56 years after its maiden voyage re-launched "Till Tom's Special" at the 1996 Floating Jazz Festival, where this track was captured live. (Or was it? A stupefying lack of in-person ambience persists until track's end, when what seems like spliced-in applause suddenly shatters the aura of studio reenactment. Of course, it's possible the entire audience was preoccupied on deck playing shuffleboard and arrived only in the nick of time to acknowledge the completed performance.) In any case, New York Swing's revival is so buoyantly affectionate that we suspect Christian's ghost, grinning with pleasure, and Benny's specter, dour as always, may have been stowaways for this infectiously swinging cruise.

Reviewer: Alan Kurtz


Diana Krall: I'm An Errand Girl for Rhythm

Track

I'm An Errand Girl for Rhythm

Artist

Diana Krall (vocals, piano)

CD

All For You (A Dedication to the Nat King Cole Trio) (Impulse IMPD-182)

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Musicians:

Diana Krall (vocals, piano), Russell Malone (guitar),

Paul Keller (bass)

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Composed by Nat King Cole

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Recorded: New York, October 3-8, 1995

Albumcoverdianakrall-allforyou-adedicationtothenatkingcoletrio

Rating: 95/100 (learn more)

Fifty years after Nat King Cole's "I'm An Errand Boy for Rhythm" sped to its appointed rounds, Diana Krall's "I'm An Errand Girl for Rhythm" relaxes the tempo slightly—still fast, but more lope than gallop. After all, errand persons were by October 1995 less hyper than in October 1945, when deliveries were fueled by World War II surplus adrenaline. Even so, for her King Cole Trio tribute album, Krall remains faithful to more than just their patented piano/guitar/bass instrumentation; she respects and reflects the spirit of that consummately cool combo and its unassumingly heroic era. Krall is ideally suited for this role. Both she and Cole were superior jazz pianists who took up singing and became vocal superstars, after which their instrumental abilities were predictably overshadowed. The limelight, after all, illuminates only so much. Which makes this track especially helpful. It will delight the many fans of Diana's singing, but will equally reward those who haven't paid much attention to Krall the pianist. Her playing here is worthy of . . . well, Nat Cole himself, and that's the highest praise a hipster born in 1945 (speaking of surplus adrenaline) can bestow. If you require an errand girl for swinging, call Ms. Krall.

Reviewer: Alan Kurtz


Roger Kellaway: Killer Joe

Track

Killer Joe

Group

Roger Kellaway Trio

CD

Heroes (IPO Recordings IPOC1010)

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Musicians:

Roger Kellaway (piano), Bruce Forman (guitar),

Dan Lutz (bass)

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Composed by Benny Golson

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Recorded: Ojai, CA, November 4-5, 2005

Albumcoverrogerkellaway-heroes

Rating: 92/100 (learn more)

Dedicated to Oscar Peterson's 1950s drummerless trios, Roger Kellaway's 2006 CD Heroes also by implication pays homage to the King Cole Trio, which pioneered the piano/guitar/bass coterie in 1937. We should immediately reassure law-&-order types, however, that the title of Benny Golson's "Killer Joe," first vamped by The Jazztet in 1960 and covered to hit effect by Quincy Jones in 1969, is a misnomer. Counselor Golson's opening recitative on the original track identifies Killer Joe merely as a ne'er-do-well ladies' man and smalltime gambler. There's no evidence that Joe is a hardcore criminal. Even so, he's obviously not someone you'd want hanging around the local schoolyard. Unless, that is, he's escorted by parole officer Kellaway with two husky deputies on guitar and bass. In that case, even the kiddies will dig this arresting (ouch!) evidence, which proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that, after a 70-year stretch, Nat Cole's instrumentation still sounds as copasetic as the day it was arraigned.

Reviewer: Alan Kurtz


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