Gerry Mulligan: Catch As Catch Can

It takes cheek to show up in New England on the Fourth of July sporting a red blazer. Yet as shown by Jazz on a Summer's Day (1960), Bert Stern's documentary of the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, Gerry Mulligan had cheek aplenty. Less than two hours' ride from Lexington and Concord, the red-coated redhead charged in leading his pianoless quartet, a formation he'd commanded for most of the 1950s. Significantly, though, this edition was so raw that Farmer, Crow and Bailey had by then engaged in but a single rehearsal with the lanky baritonist. To make matters worse, Mulligan's musical material was as ill-chosen as his uniform color. Disdaining the sound advice of 1957's teen hit "Rock and Roll Music," Mulligan tries to play his tricky, up-tempo original "As Catch Can" too darn fast—Chuck Berry's only kick, after all, against modern jazz. Raggedness predictably ensues. Indeed, a short drum break following Farmer's leadoff solo so boggles the beat that the band sputters like an engine about to stall. Mulligan quickly takes charge, wresting the engine back on track through the sheer willpower of his playing. It's an impressive rescue, but doesn't absolve the redcoat general of under-drilling his green troops. To hear how "As Catch Can" was meant to be executed, check out the same group's spit-&-polish studio performance recorded five months later.

April 09, 2008 · 0 comments


Dinah Washington: All of Me

It's easy to see why novice filmmaker (and non-jazz fan) Bert Stern picked "All of Me" instead of a different Dinah Washington number for Jazz on a Summer's Day (1960), his documentary of 1958's Newport Jazz Festival. Having belted the opening chorus with customary gusto, Dinah steps aside for most of Terry Gibbs's ensuing solo, only to mischievously butt in near the end for some 4-handed vibes frivolity that's as visually entertaining as it is musically negligible. Strictly for listening, however, this track has less to recommend. Max Roach rushes the tempo as the second chorus begins, and Urbie Green's throwback trombone solo, while technically admirable, makes you wonder why J.J. Johnson wasn't at Newport that year.

Another track from the same day, though, shows Miss Washington at her brash best. "Backwater Blues," a tribute to its composer, Bessie Smith, is Dinah-mite with the fuse lit. Backed only by Roach, bassist West and the extraordinary Wynton Kelly on piano, Dinah does her precursor proud. If Bessie was Empress of the Blues, Dinah was the Doyenne of Delight.

April 08, 2008 · 0 comments


Jimmy Giuffre: The Train and The River (live at Newport, 1958)

On its face, the Jimmy Giuffre 3 playing their signature contrapuntal folk-jazz opus "The Train and The River" seems an oddly low-key opener for Jazz on a Summer's Day (1960), Bert Stern's documentary of the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival. For that matter, Giuffre's drummerless chamber jazz seemed as ill-suited to the NJF's open-air park on a balmy summer afternoon as a string quartet at Yankee Stadium. Yet the filmmaker's instinct proved canny. By not showing the musicians until two minutes into the performance, Stern not only teases us with an appealing tune underneath his main titles, but actually builds suspense as to when or even if the players will appear onscreen. Finally they do, and in close-up at that—so close up, in fact, that guitarist Jim Hall goes unseen until the track concludes and he rises to take a bow. Otherwise, Stern holds a single shot of Giuffre bobbing and weaving with his tenor sax, as Bob Brookmeyer hovers behind him in a supporting role, for a remarkable 2½ minutes.

Rendering this piece on the previous year's CBS telecast The Sound of Jazz, Giuffre's trio consisted of clarinet/sax, guitar and bass. Six months later, the bass had been replaced by valve trombone, creating one of the most unusual instrumentations in jazz history. While the audio on this 2004 CD is erratic (it sounds better on the actual movie soundtrack), anyone wishing to concentrate on the music can do so sans artsy images of reflections in marina water. With or without pictures, "The Train and The River" is one of the finest 1950s jazz compositions, and this live performance on the 4th of July glitters like the first sparklers at twilight.

March 29, 2008 · 0 comments


Horace Silver: Señor Blues (Live at Newport)

I read in the paper the other day that the value of Silver is on the rise. The folks at Blue Note must have taken notice, and dug into their vaults for some hidden Silver artifacts.

Okay, you want to gripe that Blue Note kept a great session unreleased for a half century. But that wouldn't be fair. In point of fact, the label only waited 49 years, 6 months and 28 days before letting us hear Horace Silver's dynamic Sunday afternoon set from the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival.

But we're lucky to get this at all. Thanks to Michael Cuscuna, who tracked down tapes (currently housed in the Columbia archives) that George Avakian had made of the entire festival that year, we can enjoy the sound of a great Silver band playing at top form. The sound quality is also outstanding -- not always a given when the Gringott's goblins dig up lost tapes from their dark, deep vaults.

Silver had enjoyed a mini-hit the previous year with "Señor Blues," and Blue Note even issued a 45-rpm single version to take advantage of the song's appeal. But the Newport audience is treated with the extended version, almost nine minutes long. Silver was a master of Latin, funk and hard-bop grooves, but he rarely did a better job of putting them all together into a single arrangement. Not only has this performance held up well after five decades, but it makes one nostalgic for the days when a memorable instrumental chart could become a jazz classic and a popular hit.

January 31, 2008 · 2 comments


Miles Davis: 'Round Midnight

Miles Davis, photo by Herb Snitzer

Miles Davis almost missed the 1955 Newport Jazz Festival, and was only added at the last minute to a jam session. Davis selected Monk’s "‘Round Midnight" for his feature number, and his haunting muted trumpet work left the audience mesmerized. Columbia signed him largely on the basis of this performance, and Davis reprised the ballad on his debut LP for that label. He does little more than embellish the melody, but with such sensitivity to phrasing we ask for no more. Davis leaves the harmonic dissection to John Coltrane, who offers a restless, probing solo. A definitive version of a classic song.

October 26, 2007 · 0 comments


Duke Ellington: Diminuendo in Blue (and Crescendo in Blue)

The Duke Ellington Orchestra’s appearance at the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival made for one of the most legendary performances in the history of jazz. Paul Gonsalves’s 27-chorus solo on “Diminuendo in Blue and Crescendo in Blue,” as the festival was about to close, was so explosive that it nearly led to rioting. (Is this why alcohol is banned at the festival today?) Even now, more than 50 years later, the recording raises the hairs on the back of one’s neck. Twenty-seven choruses! And not a thought repeated. Throughout Gonsalves’s solo his fellow musicians and the audience can be heard egging him on with shouts of encouragement. The air was so charged that Ellington had to take the orchestra through a few quieter numbers to calm things down. The CD labels the track that follows “Announcements, Pandemonium.” After sitting – no, dancing – through Gonsalves’s firestorm, pandemonium was to be expected.

October 26, 2007 · 0 comments


John Coltrane: I Want to Talk About You (Live at Newport, 1963)

This Coltrane performance is essential jazz listening for two reasons. First, it is the most complete performance of the classic Coltrane quartet without one of its major members – Roy Haynes is subbing for Elvin Jones on drums. Jazz fans are so used to the interaction of the classic quartet that listening to three members working with a different drummer (Trane called Haynes’s drumming “spreading” versus Elvin’s “driving”) is fascinating. Additionally, this track features a Trane cadenza that extends over three minutes and is an ideal representation of Trane’s ability to retain emotional impact while performing at a blistering rhythmic pace.

October 23, 2007 · 0 comments


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