The Jazz.com Blog
April 08, 2008 · 5 comments
The public image of West Coast jazz has always emphasized the cool and laid-back aspects of the music. But hot players – such as Clifford Brown, Charles Mingus, Eric Dolphy -- also thrived in proximity to the California coast.
Chet Baker & Crew (Urso on far right)
Tenor saxophonist Phil Urso, who passed away yesterday in Denver, combined the best of both sensibilities. He possessed a hard bop intensity, softened by a Lester Young-ish tone, and for a period during the mid-1950s he ranked among the most promising young players on the scene. But Urso's destiny was to become one of those forgotten musicians who, lacking a flair for self-promotion, are eventually relegated to the sidelines.
Drummer John Arcotta, who knew Urso late in life, after the tenorist's move to the Denver area, commented back in 1999: "Even today, I see a lot of animosity toward Phil. I think people take Phil for granted. The guy was a monster -- he'd come out on the bandstand and kick everybody's ass, even his own. Knowing musically what he knows, I think people get a little intimidated."
Urso enjoyed stints with Woody Herman and Elliot Lawrence, and Claude Thornhill, and performed for a short while with Miles Davis. But he is best known for his collaborations with Chet Baker, which began in the mid-1950s and continued sporadically until the early 1970s. In 1954, Baker lost the services of pianist Russ Freeman, and toyed with the idea of launching his own pianoless quartet, emulating his successful unit with Gerry Mulligan. He chose Urso to fill the sax role in the band, and though the pianoless approach did not go far, the tenorist proved to be an inspired front line player, and the two musicians worked effectively together in a variety of settings.
In truth, Urso was a reluctant West Coaster. He was more at home on the East Coast scene, where he frequented Birdland and other NY clubs. When he started gigging with Baker in Los Angeles, Urso stayed at a motel on Hollywood and Western, rather than settle down in a city that was too spread out for his tastes. He preferred the convenience of the New York subway to car culture. But in time, Urso would choose the middle of the country over either coast, gravitating back to Denver, where he had spent much of boyhood.
Urso can be heard to good measure on the Chet Baker & Crew LP, which is one of the trumpeter's more vibrant releases from this period. I remember the trouble I had tracking down this album in the 1980s, when I was researching my book on the history of West Coast jazz. I finally found a copy at collector’s store in Silicon Valley, where I had to trade in around two dozen other jazz albums to get my hands on this rarity. (Some things do change for the better. These days this release is easily found on CD or for download.) Even the cover, showing the band out sailing, conveys a sense of the robustness of the musical give-and-take. William Claxton recently recalled how Chet (who was quite athletic and active despite his addict image) was the only member of the group who enjoyed this contrived photo setting, and hammed it up for the camera. But in the studio, Urso shined, offering up solid solos and providing an effective spur for Baker.
Around this same time, Urso released his debut leader date, The Philosophy of Urso. Although it received a rare five star review in Down Beat, it remains a hard-to-find collector’s item today. If you found it in a store, you would probably need to trade in a box of goodies in exchange. But it would be worth it. Although Urso never became a jazz star, he continued to enjoy a small but loyal following, especially among the more knowledgeable fans who appreciated his artistry.
Urso cherished a letter he received from Baker in 1971, which began: "I have always felt you were and are the most underrated of America's jazz players and composers." And Baker, who had an exceptional ear even by jazz standards, was a discriminating judge of talent. In his final CD, Urso offered a tribute to Baker, returning to many of the same songs they had performed together in the 1950s.
This blog entry posted by Ted Gioia.