Gerry Mulligan: Jeru

Gerry Mulligan's immense talent as a performer, composer and arranger were so significantly impressive throughout the mid- to late 1940s and early '50s that he managed to not only reinvent the possibilities of the baritone sax, but concurrently had a hand in developing the entire cool jazz aesthetic – a rare occurrence for a non-dominant lead instrument. While the original "Jeru" from the Birth of the Cool is better known, this 2½ -minute version by the influential Gerry Mulligan/Chet Baker pianoless quartet is just about as close to perfect as a recording can get. Mulligan solos first, and the stunning weight of his beginning statement (00:31-00:39) opens the door for subsequent generations of baritone saxophonists to consistently and inventively "kill it" with the opening line of their improvisations. Also note Mulligan's sensitive comping (no guitar or piano, remember) under Baker's story-time solo. The two then engage in collective improvisation before a brief bass solo ushers in the final cadenza. Definitive West Coast jazz.

December 23, 2008 · 0 comments


Kenny Dorham (featuring Cecil Payne): La Villa

As time goes by, multi-reed specialist Cecil Payne is increasingly recognized as the foremost originator of the bebop style on the baritone saxophone. And rightly so: his bebop agility expanded the improvisatory possibilities on the instrument. In 1946 he played baritone in Roy Eldridge's band, which in turn led to his participation in some of the most influential bebop recordings with Dizzy Gillespie, including the classic "Cubano Be, Cubano Bop." From there, Payne worked with Woody Herman, Tadd Dameron, Coleman Hawkins, Count Basie, Illinois Jacquet, John Coltrane and many others.

Highlighted here on Kenny Dorham's "La Villa," a track from the mid-'50s, Payne flexes his baritone muscles among an all-star bop lineup. His solo statement near the end of the tune provides a powerful lift after already powerful solos by Dorham and Mobley. Note how Payne stumbles upon a brief line he likes (03:39-03:42) and masterfully weaves it into the remainder of his solo. A perfect example of using just the right amount of lyrical repetition.

December 23, 2008 · 0 comments


Dexter Gordon (featuring Leo Parker): Dexter's Riff

Performing with Billy Eckstine, Dizzy Gillespie, and Illinois Jacquet in the 1940s, Leo Parker looked to be prepping for a leading spot in the evolution of the modern baritone saxophone, but a drug habit halted his progress. Nonetheless, this defining track features extended trading between the gritty, rhythm-and-blues-infused Parker and the big-toned tenor legend-to-be Dexter Gordon. Both young guns are overflowing with (borderline sloppy) energy here, and the matchless rhythm section of Dameron, Russell and Blakey is simpatico to the proto-hard bop that these men were experimenting with. Note Parker's amalgamation of brief, bluesy riffs, longer bebop lines, and repeated single-note runs throughout his solo – all of which have come to spell out the modern baritone saxophone vocabulary.

Editor's Note: Lest anyone surmise that the cover photo of Dexter Rides Again scooped Sonny Rollins's Way Out West as the earliest image of a jazz tenorman posed as a cowpoke, be advised that Savoy's compilation of three sessions from 1945-'47 was issued in 1958, a year after William Claxton's classic shot for the Contemporary label, posing New York City slicker Theodore Rollins in a Brooks Brothers suit 'neath the blue sky in California's Mojave Desert. Moreover, the horseman pictured on Dexter Rides Again, reconnoitering Manhattan's Central Park on an overcast day, is not even Dexter Gordon, who was then reconnoitering San Quentin on a heroin bust. If anyone knows the story behind Jos. Bottwin's cover photo (click here for a larger view), please fill us in. – Alan Kurtz

December 22, 2008 · 0 comments


Count Basie Orchestra (featuring Jack Washington): Somebody Stole My Gal

Jack Washington stands with Harry Carney as one of the first featured baritone saxophonists in jazz. Performing in Bennie Moten's Orchestra in Kansas City before joining the Basie Orchestra following Moten's death in 1935, Washington set the standard for the more traditional role of the baritone sax as a foundational force and harmonic colorist. While not featured in the front line nearly as often as Carney was in the Ellington band, Washington's rare opportunity to solo was approached with a youthful, crowd-riling vigor. As "Somebody Stole My Gal" begins, Washington immediately makes his presence felt (though barely heard) with fills between the trumpet melody. After Jimmy Rushing's vocal, Washington plays one of his longest and strongest documented solos. Note how the beginning of his solo is grouped into lyrical 4-bar phrases, and as the solo progresses he develops his lines into sharp 2-bar phrases in order to increase the drama and bring his solo home. A common yet vital improvisational tool perfectly executed here.

December 22, 2008 · 0 comments


Duke Ellington (featuring Harry Carney): Frustration

Harry Carney played the role of personal driver, trusted confidant and all-around best friend to the Duke throughout the majority of his career. Their strong extra-musical relationship extended to the bandstand, where Ellington's baritone-centric reed arranging propelled Carney's rich, round tone into the forefront of the world's finest big band. After Ellington/Carney, it was possible, and more importantly, desirable, to view the baritone sax as a legitimate frontline instrument perfectly appropriate to carry the lead. And just as Ellington himself did for the entire big band genre, Carney provided a beacon to successive generations of baritone saxophonists.

While Ellington classics such as "Sophisticated Lady" and "In a Mellotone" feature Carney's baritone in a leading role, "Frustration" is probably the strongest start-to-finish feature Ellington/Strayhorn wrote with Carney in mind. ("Sono" and "Agra" are two other fine examples.) Even though this is a rather late example, the smooth, just-right tone heard here had been Carney's strongest asset since the 1930s. Note how he chooses to suppress the instrument's power during the middle of his phrases in order to provide an unparalleled low-end punch to conclude (or sometimes, to begin) a powerful line.

December 22, 2008 · 0 comments


Sidney Bechet (featuring Ernie Caceres): What a Dream

November 1938 was a standout in the career of Sidney Bechet. Mid-month, he recorded "Chant in the Night," "Hold Tight," "Jungle Drums" and "What a Dream" (all on this CD) with the unique support of Ernie Caceres's baritone sax and Leonard Ware's electric guitar. Two weeks later, Sidney and Mezz Mezzrow shared reed duties on a Bluebird date for the Tommy Ladnier Orchestra that resulted in "Ja Da," "Weary Blues" and "Really the Blues" – all classic Bechet recordings (and all also on this CD). While the latter session may be better known, the earlier soprano/baritone hookup yielded some of Bechet's more remarkable recordings.

Bechet and Caceres are involved in a direct dialogue throughout much of "What a Dream." Caceres answers Bechet's calls throughout the first statement of the melody, with Bechet delivering the goods and Caceres improvising in and around him. The two then engage in a brief trading session, featuring an impassioned Caceres doing his best to keep up with the master. Guitarist Ware then temporarily takes Sidney's solo position before a high-voltage Bechet returns and handles the concluding improvisation himself. Up until that point, though, this track had consistently highlighted the powerful possibilities of the baritone sax as both a refreshing voice in a supportive role and a commanding voice in a lead role. It's a somewhat unanticipated and altogether enjoyable performance: a shining moment in the recorded history of both underdog saxophones represented.

December 22, 2008 · 0 comments


Jerome Richardson: Warm Valley

Jerome Richardson was one of the best and most successful musicians on the New York scene during the last golden age of the recording industry. He combined a studio musician's versatility and professionalism with a jazzman's flexibility and intuition. In addition to being a recognized heavyweight among jazz flutists, he was seemingly the only saxophonist capable of playing first-rate jazz on all four saxes, from soprano to baritone, sounding like a specialist on each. His skills on the soprano inspired its use by Thad Jones, and thus Jerome can also be said to have indirectly had a huge impact on contemporary jazz arranging.

Jerome's baritone style combined a bebop-oriented harmonic conception with articulation and tone quality derived from Harry Carney. Though the Carney connection is thrown into bold relief by the selection of this Ellington masterpiece as a baritone feature, Jerome is totally his own man here. His sound employs a well-balanced combination of warmth and edge, and his articulation is crystal-clear in all registers, with none of the tubbiness that usually afflicts players who double on baritone. His solo is masterfully constructed, and his double-timing is fluent and always musical. His ability to combine boppish fluency with Ellingtonian warmth is beautiful to hear. Richard Wyands is his usual warmly lyrical self as both accompanist and soloist.

December 02, 2008 · 0 comments


Ronnie Cuber: Con Pasión

For many years, Ronnie Cuber has been one of the most in-demand sidemen and studio musicians on his instrument. Yet, as he turns 67 in December 2008, he is unlikely to be one of the first baritone saxophonists that most jazz fans would name. Eddie Palmieri, Maynard Ferguson, B.B. King, Paul Simon, Woody Herman, George Benson, Frank Zappa, J. Geils, Lee Konitz, Eric Clapton, the Mingus Big Band, Lonnie Smith – the list of his past associations is endless and impressive. However, Cuber has often seemed most at home playing Latin jazz in his searing and nimble hard-bop style.

"Con Pasión" bristles with emotion, recalling Gato Barbieri at his best. After Cuber's romantic, yearning intro, he warmly sways through the lilting theme, embellishing it with intense extended lines and dancing Latin-rhythmic figures. His upper-register excursions, always one of his strengths on the big horn, are as usual deftly executed. Drew, Jr., a more flamboyant pianist than his father, creates dense, rippling, technically brilliant arpeggios during his gripping solo, which elicit a shout-out from at least one appreciative bandmate. Cuber's reprise fluctuates between his brawny and tender sides, concluding an extremely moving ballad performance with a flourish.

November 15, 2008 · 0 comments


Pepper Adams: The Long Two/Four

10 to 4 at the 5 Spot delivers a single set of music from the famed NYC jazz club in 1958, a combination of Blakey-school hard boppers (Byrd, Watkins and Timmons) and the unique personalities of Adams's leading baritone sax and Jones's polyrhythmic drumming. This tune begins with a military-march statement from Elvin, reminding us that, even though we are used to hearing him involved in an intense swinging environment, he can execute just about anything behind a drum kit. Adams offers an adventurous solo, followed by an enjoyable yet somewhat underwhelming offering from composer Byrd. Bobby Timmons executes a fantastic solo (especially the first 15 or 20 seconds) on a regrettably out-of-tune piano. Elvin's solo is brimming with original ideas and flawless technical execution, especially the melodic run from 7:08-7:24. On second thought, the rest of this early Elvin solo is really just as great.

September 16, 2008 · 0 comments


Glenn Shambroom: Wakeless Nights

Tom West’s creeping B-3 stirs and sets the scene for this clandestine piece that calls to mind a classic movie theme. The main characters are two stealthy-fingered second-story men. The larger of the two resembles a bottom-heavy, raspy-voiced bari sax; the other is a long slender fellow with the demeanor of an alto flute. The duo begins their caper in harmony against the backdrop of a languid city night. They split up and the sax takes the first flight of stairs with a dizzying penthouse solo. The flute slinks in, a cat proficiently padding between the changes. West covers the waterfront with his low-key cool, pumping the bass like the subway. Sensual sound, soulful playing, slick writing.

September 13, 2008 · 0 comments


John Coltrane: Route 4

Among the many innovative technological failures of the mid- and late 1950s, the 16-rpm phonograph record stands as the industry's answer to the Edsel. One of Prestige's contributions to this auditory dustbin was an LP on steroids titled Baritones and French Horns under the supervision of vibist, composer, arranger, A&R man Teddy Charles.

The baritone side of this album was reissued twice on LP and twice more on CD under Coltrane's name, though Pepper Adams was the actual leader on these sessions. There is a track titled "Mary's Blues" that many people later assumed was dedicated to the legendary "Cousin Mary," but as Pepper explained it to me, the name came from the fact that the recording date took place on Good Friday. (Oh, that Mary!) So much for fascinating trivia.

The music is stimulating and a lot less slapdash than that on most Prestige dates of the period. Charles's arrangements are detailed and fresh sounding, avoiding the potential for muddiness that such low-end instrumentation can produce in the wrong hands.

"Route 4" is an up-tempo minor-key original in AAB form with Cecil Payne's dark, plaintive sound stating the theme in the A sections, and a startling color change occurring when Coltrane plays lead on the B sections. Mal Waldron's ruminative solo, exploring the dark side of Bud Powell, kicks things off, after which Payne follows with an anxious, probing spot that is a revelation for its contrast with the cheerful buoyancy that normally characterized his style. All three saxophonists present a fascinating contrast in styles, with each possessing a tone that perfectly complements the rhythmic, harmonic and melodic content of his playing. Coltrane and Adams sound great, and each man's work is representative of his style at the time. But Cecil Payne's playing here reveals a deep, dark side that comes as a pleasant shock.

September 05, 2008 · 0 comments


Glenn Shambroom: Make Room For Snappy

Glenn Shambroom is a dichotomous creation: he's one part bari sax, the other guitar; he's also a serious musician with a spicy sense of humor, who can write a swingin', rib-stickin' chicken shack blues, then stir up a Mancini-flavored, cocktails-at-a-corner-table ballad. This track is an example of the former. The full horn section on the head is the main course, with nice sides of sax and an appetizing piano solo. Chef Shambroom prepares his melodies and arrangements like characters, and they're all of a palatable sort. Oh, and if you're wondering who Snappy is, it just might be you while you're feasting on one of Glenn's tasty, 4-star tunes.

September 05, 2008 · 0 comments


Pepper Adams: Reflectory

Recorded shortly after Pepper Adams left the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis band to set out on his own as a soloist, "Reflectory" – both the single track and the entire album – includes some of Pepper's finest work. Being frequently teamed with the great George Mraz inspired Adams to write several intriguing originals pairing Mraz's bass in harmony or unison with the baritone sax.

"Reflectory," however, is a well-constructed 2-part invention in which the baritone and bass engage in an interesting call-and-response that, while cleverly conceived, is totally devoid of the cloying cuteness that afflicts most contrapuntal jazz tunes. As is the case with all Adams originals, it contains a great set of blowing changes that he devours like a hungry pit bull.

Like all of Pepper's best solos, this one has a beginning, a middle and an end (what a concept!), building motivically off a quote from the old Billy Eckstine hit "Everything I Have is Yours" and accumulating a stunning amount of momentum. The way Pepper employs the horn's low register at the climax of his final chorus marks this solo as one that could have been played only on the baritone saxophone and only by the inimitable Pepper Adams.

August 29, 2008 · 0 comments


Gerry Mulligan with Marian McPartland: C Jam Blues

At this stage of his career, Gerry Mulligan was best known for leading a quartet without a piano. Yet here he is at the legendary 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, sitting in with a trio led by the future hostess of NPR's long-running Piano Jazz. As part of a day-long Ellington tribute, Mulligan and Marian McPartland jam on "C Jam Blues," a jam session staple since jamming originated, which was shortly after the note C was discovered. (It had been left unattended in a cave next to the Dead Sea Scrolls by a wandering harpist who, having tired of C, moved on to what she hoped would be the greener pastures of D. Little did she suspect what heathen dangers lurked therein!)

Unlike some bandleaders, who prefer the comfort zone of their own steady group, Mulligan relished playing with other musicians, and obviously delights in the present company. This happy-go-lucky 10-minute track also affords plenty of solo space for McPartland and bass giant Milt Hinton. (Drummer Ed Shaughnessy contents himself with swinging his butt off and occasionally rattling sleigh bells in quirky punctuation. Can you imagine the dedication required to schlep sleigh bells from New York City to Rhode Island in mid-summer?) If you're looking for an exemplar of the distinctively mid-'50s style that encompassed both traditional and modernist strains, go directly to M&M's "C Jam Blues." Melts in your ears, not in your hands.

May 25, 2008 · 0 comments


Duke Ellington: Prima Bara Dubla

Whole careers, it was said, could be rejuvenated with a single triumph at the Newport Jazz Festival. Case in point: Duke Ellington in 1956. Never mind that, far from languishing in the doldrums before causing a sensation at Newport that year, Duke had grossed, according to the ever-materialistic Time magazine, between $500,000 and $700,000 annually, with his sidemen collecting "the highest pay in the business." Despite its untruth, the myth of a faded star magically rehabilitated amidst Newport's sea air, trees, history and haut monde set journalists to salivating like Ulanov's dogs (not to be confused with Pavlov's pooches, who wouldn't have known Duke Ellington from the Duchess of Windsor).

Following Duke's 1958 NJF appearance, Columbia Records tried to make lightning strike twice by issuing mostly in-studio retakes, plus overdubbed canned applause, a technique with which they'd successfully duped consumers two years before. Thankfully, for the 2007 reissue of Newport 1958, Mosaic Records restored the undoctored retakes sans phantom audience, and coupled them with six live tracks actually recorded at Newport. Among the latter, "Prima Bara Dubla" stands out.

In 1958, jazz's two most significant baritone saxophonists were unquestionably Harry Carney, longtime heart of Duke's nonpareil sax section, and Gerry Mulligan, who'd helped Miles Davis give birth to the cool and subsequently spearheaded the early '50s West Coast Jazz phenomenon. Pairing the two saxophonists in a new Ellington/Strayhorn piece composed expressly for them was one of those inspired ideas not even Columbia Records could botch.

Ellington & Strayhorn wrote to each baritonist's strength, capitalizing on Carney's low-note majesty and Mulligan's upper-register mastery, although both men play equally well across the bulky horn's entire range. Guest stars didn't always mesh well with Duke's band, and one-off festival arrangements were too often throwaways. But throughout his career, Mulligan demonstrated not just an eagerness to play with jazzmen of earlier generations, but an uncanny ability to fit in with them without sacrificing his own essential modernism. And of course, even a one-off festival arrangement is likely to be memorable when the names Ellington/Strayhorn adorn the score.

"Prima Bara Dubla" is a droll, lilting, mostly two-beat treat that sinuously showcases Harry & Gerry but also makes deft use of the full band. It's a worthy addition to the discography of either Ellington or Mulligan. To the dual discography of Ellington and Mulligan, it is joyfully unique.

April 19, 2008 · 0 comments


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