The Jazz.com Blog
June 22, 2009 · 9 comments
Saxophonist Charlie Mariano, who passed away in Germany last week at age 85, was one of the most expansive players of his generation. Yet American jazz fans saw little of this artist’s breadth and depth, since much of the finest and most creative work of this Boston-born altoist took place overseas. Jazz.com’s Paris-based contributor Thierry Quénum experienced this music up close, and spent time with Mariano on a number of occasions. He shares his thoughts and recollections below. T.G.
Lots of American jazz musician have settled in Europe for a shorter or longer time over the past decades, beginning with Sidney Bechet and Kenny Clarke in the fifties, on to Ed Thigpen, Chet Baker, or more recently Leon Parker.
Charlie Mariano, who just died age 85 in Cologne, Germany—where he had settled more than 30 years ago—was a good example of a musician whose crossing of the Atlantic was coupled with an opening up to the music by the world at large. Meanwhile, he maintained his ability to play the jazz styles he’d learned as a young man, and continued developing as a master improviser and balladeer. He thus became an example and a favorite partner for the younger European musicians he often played with.
Having had the privilege of hearing Charlie Mariano a number of times on stage and in the recording studio and having talked with him on several occasions backstage and in various other places, I though the best eulogy I could do for him was to share that experience with jazz amateurs who might have lost track with this fine stylist of the alto saxophone, and exquisite human being.
Most jazz buffs know about Mariano’s stint with the Kenton band, where he replaced Lee Konitz in 1953. Ironically, Mariano told me that he didn’t like this orchestra—nor did Konitz who, by the way was, to become his ‘almost neighbor’ in Cologne a few decades later; as an improviser, Mariano was never much interested in playing with big bands at large. Unlike lots of his Kenton band mates, he didn’t care much either for the relaxed Californian atmosphere, and soon went back to his native Boston after Kenton. There he studied, then taught at the Berklee College of Music (Richie Beirach kept reminding him he’d been his student, Charlie told me), and in the fifties, except for his good friend Frank Rosolino, Mariano always felt closer to Bostonians—like Jaki Byard, Herb Pomeroy, Dick Twardzik, Alan Dawson or Quincy Jones—than with the West Coast players.
TRACKS REVIEWED ON JAZZ.COM FEATURING CHARLES MARIANO
Bill Holman: You Go to My Head
Quincy Jones: King Road Blues
Stan Kenton: Hav-A-Havana
Stan Kenton: The Opener
Shelly Manne: Bernie’s Tune
Charles Mariano: Avoid the Year of the Monkey
Charles Mariano: Helen 12 Trees
Charles Mariano: Neverglades Pixie
Charles Mariano: Parvati’s Dance
Charles Mariano: Thorn of a White Rose
Charles Mingus: Track a Solo Dancer
Frank Rosolino: Frank n’ Earnest
See also jazz.com encyclopedia entry on Charles Mariano
Neither was he as close to Bird as most altoists of his generation were. Mariano’s parents and elder sister were Italian-born. They listened to a lot of opera and Neapolitan songs and his sister became a classical pianist. All this made Mariano conscious of his specific cultural background and of his interest for lyrical playing rather than for Parker-like virtuosity. So, when he settled for a time in Japan with then wife pianist-arranger Toshiko Akiyoshi, Mariano got more interested in composing melodies and learning the flute than in tackling complex big band music.
His return to the US in the early sixties saw him, among others, in two unusual situations. The first one was with Charles Mingus, with whom he recorded three times. Mariano’s recollection of the reputedly often irate bassist and leader is paradoxically that of a man who was always nice to him and defended him when people asked why he’d hired a white musician. Second, though he’d met Coltrane several times, admired him and was influenced by him, Mariano admits that he was scared to death when Elvin Jones hired him in 65 to record Dear John C. for Impulse.
But for Mariano the big turn of the sixties was his trip to Malaysia which triggered his interest in South-Eastern and Indian music, a subject that he studied passionately for years. In the last years of his life, Charlie still went to India for a couple of months each winter, to play and study. Avowedly a non-spiritual musician, unlike Coltrane, Mariano saw in this type of music a brand new field of exploration for his interests in melody and rhythm, and an occasion to play new instruments like the nagaswaram, which he’d often used on future recordings, or to perform with ensembles like the Indian Karnataka College of Percussion.
In the early seventies, when he decided to come to Europe—where he’d heard there were more playing opportunities than in Boston—he knew few musicians there. Still he soon became familiar with the likes of German bass player Eberhard Weber and Italian drummer Aldo Romano as well as Belgian guitarist Philippe Catherine and Belgian keyboardist Jasper Van’t Hof, with whom he played and recorded until the last years of his life. In Europe he also met Lebanese oud player Rabih Abou Khalil, with whose international band he played, recorded and toured from the mid eighties onward.
Over the course of his 30 some years in Europe, Mariano evolved into one of the most broadly open musician you could meet both sides of the Atlantic. You could hear him in India with young jazz musicians like guitarist Hamid Heri, eager to mix the US tradition with their own non-harmonic roots or with traditional Algerian players like the Smahi brothers. You could hear him in Europe with musicians hardly younger than him such as Swiss drummer Daniel Humair and Spanish pianist Tete Montoliu, as well as with other ones who could be his grandsons like French pianist Jean-Christophe Cholet, German bass player Dieter Ilg, or Hungarian drummer Elemér Balàzs, playing standards or original compositions. You could hear him in quartet with fellow US pianist Bob Degen, or with seasoned arranger Vince Mendoza, improvising on Ravel melodies scored for a jazz orchestra.
What’s more, Mariano never sounded his age, and never indulged into nostalgia about any type of “glorious past.” When asked about the decline in the tradition of playing standards, which he mastered so well, he answered me : “It’s not that important to me. The standards used to be a vehicle for musicians to communicate during jam sessions. Today we play mostly original compositions and that’s very challenging. All this remains music, anyway.” The very words of an old wise man with a youthful vision of the art he’d practiced for so long, on four continents.
This blog entry posted by Thierry Quénum