John Surman: Haywain

In 1992, Surman and Abercombie teamed up with Peter Erskine and Marc Johnson for Abercrombie’s exceptional November platter and the album began with the free-from group improvisation “The Cat’s Back.” Seventeen years later the two Johns combine with DeJohnette and Gress taking Erskine’s and Johnson’s place for the Surman-led Brewster’s Rooster. And once again, the saxophonist and guitarist lead an ensemble through a composition that’s conceived largely on the spot, “Haywain.”

This one begins and ends with DeJohnette, who is better than just about anyone else behind a drum kit at applying his available tools at the right moments in the right measures. He listens closely to the exchange Surman and Abercrombie are having and detects even the slightest mood changes and responds accordingly, including the point of peak intensity erupting just before the five minute mark. He does all this while simultaneously synchronizing his hi-hat to Gress’ rapid runs.

That’s not to diminish the contributions of the others; Surman, Abercrombie and Gress are playing telepathically, too. The drummer, however, pushes “Haywain” out to its substantial potential.

August 03, 2009 · 0 comments

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Gerry Mulligan-Ben Webster: Tell Me When

The Gerry Mulligan Meets Ben Webster album is best known for its exquisite version of Billy Strayhorn's "Chelsea Bridge," but Mulligan's endearing gem of a ballad, "Tell Me When," should not be overlooked. The fact that Mulligan and Webster are so relaxed and in sync with one another on both of these tracks (as well as the other nine selections) is largely due to their friendship and having played together in Los Angeles prior to going into the studio. As Mulligan told Phil Schaap in 1990: "Ben and I were a focused, near-functioning little band. That's why it it worked and of course it's all related to our mutual esteem and musical rapport."

Jimmy Rowles' short-lived, but dark and slightly foreboding intro does not prepare the listener for Webster's luscious, buoyant recital of the winsome "Tell Me When" theme, as Mulligan plays tenderly apt obbligatos along with him. Webster's solo is generally evocative of his main influence, Coleman Hawkins, in the effervescent contours of his lines, but Ben's creamy tone is unmistakably his own. The glorious interweaving of tenor and baritone as they renegotiate the melody is unforgettably poignant and soothing. Unlike on "Chelsea Bridge," Mulligan regrettably does not take a solo, but Webster more than makes up for the omission.

July 06, 2009 · 0 comments

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Charles Evans: It's The Right Toe, Bro

This is a truly impressive track. Charles Evans puts the baritone sax through its paces, drawing out an incredible range of sounds. Evans does play some traditional, bassline-oriented parts, but you'll also be amazed at his extended technique. While you will hear a few squeaks and grunts, the payoff comes with the bombast of shrieking upper register runs, split chords, droning pedal tones, and some truly frightening, almost animalistic sounds. Not for the faint of heart (or the impatient).

April 01, 2009 · 0 comments

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Lars Gullin: Fedja

Recorded at the same session as "Ma," this song was written in tribute to Swedish actor/director Gösta Ekman II, who in his early career directed a play by Tolstoy titled Fedja. Possibly Lars Gullin's hardest-swinging song, "Fedja" is also chockfull of mystery, and might even conjure visions of a prowling, suspicious character darting across streets and disappearing in the shadows of Stockholm's Old Town – or better yet, the forested hills of Gullin's home island of Gotland off the southern coast.

March 13, 2009 · 0 comments

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Lars Gullin: Ma

Troubled by drug addiction for much of his career, Lars Gullin frequently stayed in hospitals, and this song was titled for his nurse, whom he called "Ma." It has an air of inward relaxation from Gullin, as he delicately delivers speech-like phrases over subdued padding from the band. The tune is a staple of his repertoire, in part because it bears his trademarks of structural divergence and a haunting melody (gorgeously played on clarinet by Arne Domnérus). The addition of a second baritone saxophonist, Rune Falk, makes this a unique moment in the Gullin discography.

March 13, 2009 · 0 comments

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Lars Gullin: Silhouette

Working in Stockholm as a member of the house band at the popular dance hall Nalen (The National), Lars Gullin was often able to flex his compositional muscles with requests for new material. Although this tune features a slow, danceable melody, the arrangement here wildly departs with an abstraction of pedal points led by the piano, while Gullin solos imaginatively and gracefully. As Gullin progressed in the early 1950s, his command of the "Cool" sound begun by the Miles Davis Nonet made the baritone saxophonist the recipient of many ovations from American and British jazz fans. Unfortunately, the crushing effects of heroin addiction made his career sputter over the next two decades, and the activity that he enjoyed during this formative, lively period of his life was less frequent after the later 1950s.

March 13, 2009 · 0 comments

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Pepper Adams: I've Just Seen Her

The album title Encounter! refers mainly to the rare joining of Pepper Adams with Zoot Sims in the front line. But Adams's striking ballad feature, "I've Just Seen Her," is as good as, if not better than, any of the tracks that capture both horns blazing. The attractive tune came from the failed 1962 musical All American, from which only one other song, "Once Upon a Time," has had any staying power. Adams was inspired by the Duke Ellington version of "I've Just Seen Her" that featured Paul Gonsalves. (Columbia Records had backed the musical, and, in addition to releasing an Original Broadway Cast album, somehow convinced Ellington to record 10 selections from it.)

Tommy Flanagan's lovely impressionistic intro leads to Adams's unpretentious rendition of the theme, direct and without any false sentimentality, his elongated sighing notes particularly effective emotionally. Adams's long solo is a logically constructed exploration of the tune's rich harmonic structure, and his gushing fluidity contradicts the common misconception of the baritone sax as being cumbersome. Flanagan's accompaniment is delicate, detailed and sensitive, words that also describe his lyrical solo, which is in sharp contrast to Adams's brawny, hard-edged yet warmly expressive attack. Adams's reprise artfully reinforces the inherent beauty of this show tune. The overall power of Adams's performance is such that it appears that the producers chose to ignore various pops and squeaks emitted by his horn during his solo, as it's unlikely he reached this high level again, if any additional takes were attempted.

February 10, 2009 · 1 comment

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Gerry Mulligan: All the Things You Are (1957)

This recording was part of a project that "might have been." Columbia Records producer George Avakian asked Mulligan to record an album with a big band. Mulligan wrote a few scores and recorded them over two days with an all-star group. He wasn't entirely happy with the results, later saying that the rhythm section didn't have the looseness he'd achieved with his small groups. However, he cited "All the Things You Are" as one of the recordings he was particularly pleased with. An earlier version of this arrangement was written for the Stan Kenton Orchestra; along with the original pieces Mulligan submitted to Stanley during this period, he was assigned arrangements for dancing, which he considered "dog work." Obviously there was enough interest in this setting to cause him to revisit it. Beginning with an introduction in 3/4 time, Mulligan plays the melody. He is joined in the next chorus by a contrapuntal dialogue between himself, Lee Konitz and trumpeter Don Joseph. The orchestral statement that follows is similar to the Kenton version, and the arrangement features a lovely out-chorus with the 3/4 intro returning.

Avakian shelved the tapes on Mulligan's request, and the project officially died when Avakian left Columbia. Gerry would remember the lessons he'd learned from this abortive project when he formed his Concert Jazz Band, which did have the looseness of a small group.

January 11, 2009 · 0 comments

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Gerry Mulligan: Deception

It's hard to believe that the complete Birth of the Cool, including all 12 studio tracks recorded in 1949 and '50, did not see the light of day on one LP until 1971. Eight titles were collected in 1954, 11 in 1957, but that was it until a Dutch subsidiary of Capitol compiled the 12 titles in 1971.

The Miles Davis Nonet was essentially a streamlined model of the Claude Thornhill Orchestra, aiming to add fresh and welcoming coloration and texture through written arrangements to the prevailing technically brilliant yet often intimidating bebop methodology of the day. In 1991, original Nonet member Gerry Mulligan decided it was time to record a new version of Birth of the Cool. Miles Davis was interested in participating, but his untimely death resulted in Wallace Roney taking his place. Another Nonet alumnus, Lee Konitz, had prior obligations and was replaced by the "hotter" Phil Woods. Mulligan was able to recruit Bill Barber and John Lewis, who had performed together on a good number of the original tracks, including "Deception."

"Deception" is a reworking of George Shearing's "Conception," which Davis had performed at Birdland a month before his Birth of the Cool recording, captured in a live broadcast with Stan Getz. The 1950 Nonet rendition was dominated by two run-throughs of the arranged section, with limited solo space available for only Davis and J.J. Johnson. While the "Re-Birth" interpretation follows the same arrangement, its longer length allows time for solos by Roney, Mulligan and Woods, as well as brief fills by bassist Dean Johnson and trombonist Dave Bargeron. The lithe theme, the woven lines of the trumpet and alto parts, and the intricate and pleasing ensemble harmonies are all superbly executed. Roney's warm, logically built solo is Miles-like, as is his wont. Mulligan is probing and inquisitive, while Woods is more biting and urgent, thanks to his darting runs and broad vibrato.

January 06, 2009 · 0 comments

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Maria Schneider (featuring Scott Robinson): The Willow

Beginning in the early 1990s, Maria Schneider has emerged as the strongest modern-day baritone-centric big band arranger, offering nods to Ellington/Carney with both baritone features and arrangements with the bari on top. Throughout much of her career as a big band leader, Schneider's Carney has been multi-instrumentalist Scott Robinson, who according to his web site "has been heard on tenor sax with Buck Clayton's band, on trumpet with Lionel Hampton's quintet, on alto clarinet with Paquito D'Rivera's clarinet quartet, and on bass sax with the New York City Opera."

He's actually recorded most often, though, and especially more recently, on baritone sax, and some of his finest playing can be heard on Maria Schneider's recordings. The delicate melody and radiant colors in Schneider's baritone feature "The Willow" make the bari sound as refined and mature as it ever has. For a musician so experienced and adept at playing multiple instruments, Robinson's improvisation here is filled with historical awareness and a distinct, tender personality.

December 23, 2008 · 0 comments

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Three Baritone Saxophone Band: Line for Lyons

You'll get no argument from this quarter If you conclude from this disc that "the more the merrier" is perhaps not the best philosophy to apply to the baritone saxophone. A small dose of this record, however, or large doses of any of these saxophonists' respective solo material, will reveal some of the strongest post-bop baritone voices. Originally assembled to pay tribute to Gerry Mulligan at the 1996 Jazz and Image Festival in Rome, the Cuber-led Three Baritone Saxophone Band recorded for the first and only time on this similarly intentioned studio date.

"Line for Lyons," the album's opening track, works best, featuring careful arranging from Cuber that creates a colorful illusion of a wider instrumentation. While it's sometimes tricky to tell the impressive modern sounds of Brignola and Smulyan apart in this context, Cuber's individual personality shines through, remaining the most expressive and comfortingly straight-ahead of the three. It's apparent that Cuber's long history of juggling jazz, soul and rock/pop gigs has yielded a universal approach, one that has influenced many modern baritone saxophonists.

December 23, 2008 · 0 comments

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Hamiet Bluiett & Concept: I'll Close My Eyes

Hamiet Bluiett, a co-founding member of the Black Artists Group (BAG) in St. Louis, alumnus of the bands of Charles Mingus, Sam Rivers, Stevie Wonder, and Marvin Gaye, and a founding member of the World Saxophone Quartet, was once asked what drew him to the baritone sax. "I just fell in love with the instrument from the sight of it. That was it," he responded. "I think it can stand toe to toe with you like Shaquille O'Neal and take you out." Later in the interview, Bluiett went on to state that his major influence, once the "love at first sight" wore off, was Harry Carney, and it is indeed a combination of the classic Carney sound and Bluiett's own confidently forceful, avant-garde experimentation that makes Hamiet one of the more exciting and original baritone saxophonists of his generation. Bluiett and pianist Don Pullen, who are both perfectly comfortable at balancing the frenzied and the beautiful, participate in restrained, sophisticated interaction throughout "I'll Close My Eyes." Two underrated masters in fine form.

December 23, 2008 · 0 comments

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Donald Byrd (featuring Pepper Adams): Jeannine

From 1958-'63, Donald Byrd and Pepper Adams combined to form one of the most appealing hard-bop partnerships. Byrd's carefully developed lyrical improvisations were greatly contrasted by the sheer intensity of Adams's "Knife"-like improvisatory onslaught. An alumnus of the groups of Charles Mingus and (later) Thad Jones/Mel Lewis, Adams's work with these famed artists and as a leader and co-leader in his own right warranted his reputation as the leading purveyor of the aggressive, post-bop baritone sax style.

His solo on this hard-grooving Duke Pearson composition has it all: a forceful sound that will knock you to the ground, a multitude of satisfying vertical leaps and bounds (none more amusing than the perfectly placed accidental squeak near the end of his first line at 5:08), and most importantly, brilliantly executed connecting threads that lend his improvisations a tangible storyline. The entire span from 6:00-7:00 is special playing indeed.

Quick sidebar: In his extended improvisation on this track, Donald Byrd returns to the same (rather long) motivic theme no fewer than 9 times over the course of the solo. Is this variation-on-a-theme lyricism an example of giftedly constructed motivic development? Or does he cross the line and deliver a phoned-in, planned-from-the-start performance?

December 23, 2008 · 0 comments

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Serge Chaloff: A Handful of Stars

The best baritone saxophonist most listeners have never heard of: Serge Chaloff, whose rather incredible talents combine Harry Carney's tone and Cecil Payne's vocabulary. After early runs with Boyd Raeburn and Jimmy Dorsey, Chaloff teamed with Stan Getz, Zoot Sims and Herbie Steward to form Woody Herman's "Four Brothers." There was quite a buzz surrounding his playing after those performances, but Chaloff failed to capitalize, in part due to a serious drug habit that frequently interrupted his recording career. In the early to mid-'50s, however, Chaloff managed to kick the habit and release a handful of outstanding recordings as a leader, before tragically suffering from spinal paralysis and an untimely death.

Blue Serge, the highlight of these late-career sessions, features consistently inspired playing from Chaloff and the superb rhythm section Clark, Vinnegar and Philly Joe Jones. Note how amazingly hard Chaloff is swinging right off the bat during his expressive statement of the melody, while maintaining a light, "is-this-really-a-bari?" tone. The intensity spikes as soon as his solo starts, utilizing the full dynamic range of his horn with a blistering run of 16th notes supported by a double-timing Philly Joe. Vinnegar's solo and the trading among all four members at the tune's conclusion also distinguish this exceptional track.

December 23, 2008 · 0 comments

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Quincy Jones (featuring Lars Gullin): Sometimes I'm Happy

Jazz Abroad presents the first recording sessions led by, respectively, Roy Haynes and Quincy Jones. Don't be confused by the album cover: the two sessions were separate, and the two artists do not appear together. Haynes, while on a European tour with Sarah Vaughan, recorded in Stockholm in October 1953, while Jones, who was on tour with Lionel Hampton, combined some of his fellow Hampton bandmates with the top Stockholm musicians for this November '53 date.

Scandinavian cool baritonist Lars Gullin begins the soloing on "Sometimes I'm Happy." Given his penchant for floating, experimental lines, it's easy to see how he hooked up with American cool and/or Tristano school musicians such as Chet Baker and Lee Konitz. Gullin has a well-defined cool jazz aesthetic under his fingers here, only months removed from the seminal Mulligan/Baker quartet sessions. He and Art Farmer play the finest solos, backed by Alan Dawson's crisp, clean brushwork.

December 23, 2008 · 0 comments

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