Red Mitchell-Harold Land Quintet: Catacomb

This track is a fine example of the work of this excellent but short-lived group. Though this was geographically a West Coast group, their music was much closer in spirit to the style of small-group jazz that was coming out of New York at that time. Harold Land was always one of the most underrated great players in all of jazz, and wrote many distinctive original tunes that appeared on recordings by Wes Montgomery and Bobby Hutcherson, as well as on his own dates. Red Mitchell was one of the most melodic bassists in jazz both as a soloist and accompanist.

"Catacomb" is an attractive 32-bar Land original that provides a stimulating sense of tension and release, both harmonically and rhythmically. It also features a hip off-kilter rhythmic figure that is used as a send-off into the solos.

Land's solo is notable for the combination of intense rhythmic drive, beautifully constructed lines, and distinctive gritty tone quality that made his playing instantly recognizable. Mitchell turns in a spare, warm-toned arco spot. Carmell Jones's solo is notable for its lyricism and warm, glowing sound. Strazzeri's solo is particularly noteworthy for the unconventional way he employs block chords with great rhythmic and harmonic variety. He builds tension by not using conventional right-hand lines until the bridge of his second chorus. Add Frank Strazzeri's name to the short list of jazz soloists who have strong individual styles yet remain practically unknown to the jazz public.

May 20, 2009 · 0 comments


Cal Tjader: When Lights Are Low

Cal Tjader recorded prolifically for Berkeley's Fantasy label, but his last project is my favorite. Released as Breathe Easy on the Galaxy sublabel, this soft-and-sweet session soon went out of print and has never been well known in the jazz world. It finally came back in CD format in 2001, packaged with the music from Tjader's first trio 10 inch album for Fantasy from 1951. I hope this music finally finds a receptive audience in its reincarnation as a compact disk. The rhythm section of Hank Jones, Shelly Manne and Monty Budwig set the tone, which is ultra-relaxed even by the standards of West Coast jazz. Tjader shows off his gift for melodic improvisation, but the real star here is unsung journeyman Allen Smith, who will leave you wondering why you haven't heard more from him.

May 13, 2009 · 0 comments


Bud Shank & Laurindo Almeida: Little Girl Blue

Almost a decade before "Girl from Ipanema" hit the charts, Bud Shank and Laurindo Almeida were exploring ways of combining Brazilian music with the ethos of cool jazz. Contrary to what you might have heard elsewhere, they didn't invent bossa nova—Almeida's guitar is much more on top of the beat than what João Gilberto would deliver in a famous session held a few weeks after this Hollywood date. This Shank-Almeida collaboration captures a more overtly classical sensibility, and establishes its mood with a stately elegance that is rare in jazz of any era. If you want to hear Shank in a loose, blowing vein, this is not the place to start. But the other side of Bud Shank—inquisitive, experimental, and (yes) cool—comes to the fore on this track. The entire Shank-Almeida oeuvre is too often treated as a footnote to the bossa nova story, but deserves to be better known on its own merits.

May 13, 2009 · 0 comments


Dave Brubeck Octet: Curtain Music (Closing Theme)

This signature theme from the Dave Brubeck Octet—a short snippet from 1946—predates the Miles Davis Birth of the Cool nonet by some two years. A few commentators have tried to portray Brubeck as a follower in the footsteps of Mr. Davis, but in truth the music of this ensemble resists pigeonholing of any sort. Even by Brubeck's eccentric standards, this group was an oddity. And if you push hard for a genealogy, you will end up finding more sources in classical music than in jazz. Brubeck discouraged my attempts to connect this music to Stravinsky's Octet from 1922. But he is not shy about making claims for this piece. "You'll have a hard time finding any other jazz piece in 6/4 from this period," he has remarked. My only gripe with this track (which is my same complaint about all of the Octet's work) is that there simply isn't more of it.

May 12, 2009 · 0 comments


Lennie Niehaus: Bunko

The first track Lennie Niehaus recorded as a leader was a sprightly "I'll Take Romance." Well, I'll take Niehaus, and you may too, once you hear the brilliant series of albums he recorded for Contemporary in the mid-'50s – octets, sextets, and no-piano quintets, using only the best of the West. Yes, his sessions represent the quintessence of West Coast cool: his slightly acerbic alto; brief punchy solos; a swinging rather than "blowing" line; contrapuntal playing both elaborate and simple; peppy arrangements for revitalized standards as well as his own catchy originals – even the ballads have a lift.

"Bunko" jumps and shimmers with a bouncy tune you can hum immediately. But Lennie's tricky arrangement shuffles compact ensemble moments using all eight, fleet solos by himself and Stu Williamson, and the melody line played early and late by an inner quartet of alto, Bill Holman's tenor and the rhythm section of Monte Budwig and Shelly Manne. Neatly shifting gears yet always moving forward, this "Bunko" avoids all bunk.

March 04, 2009 · 0 comments


Lennie Niehaus: You Stepped Out of a Dream

Neglected master composer/arranger of West Coast, counterpoint-styled Jazz, and no slouch as an alto saxman either, Lennie Niehaus is better known these days for his later work on the scores of Clint Eastwood films. But any fan of Mulligan, Baker, and great playing in general should seek out the series of CD reissues on Lone Hill Jazz that showcase Niehaus's amazing '50s run of quintet and octet albums on Contemporary Records.

To pick a single representative track is kind of laughable, so I'll just make the arbitrary choice of "You Stepped Out of a Dream," recorded in mid-1954 during his second session as a leader, and a solid example of his call-&-response, bob-&-weave arranging. Plus this track lets Lennie step out front with two faster-than-dreamy solos – so up, so clean, so cool (oops, excuse the 4-letter word) – with swift, echoing support from the saxes of Jack Montrose and Bob Gordon, and the happy underpinning of Monte Budwig and Shelly Manne. In less than 3 minutes, all five have their say, with no wasted notes – the performance nearly over before you suddenly realize the source tune.

March 03, 2009 · 0 comments


Dave Brubeck: On the Alamo

The classic Dave Brubeck Quartet didn't actually come together until 1957. Before that, Dave and Paul Desmond enjoyed a revolving-door cast of drummers and bass men. At first, the fledgling quartet's reputation was built on, and nourished by, live performances, recorded at one college after another. But the Storyville club in Boston became another rich source – a place where the lead two could experiment more – and a terrific album came out on Columbia in 1954, announced by a clever fake newspaper printed on front and back covers. One main headline read, "'Alamo's My Best,' says Brubeck," and I wouldn't think of arguing with the indomitable pianist; it's certainly a definitive performance.

Previously waxed by bandleaders Isham Jones and both Dorseys, "On the Alamo," positioned as leadoff track, offers a near-perfect example of Wild West Dave pummeling a tune and a club piano, pounding both down but not out or flat. Remember that original Alamo? Stone walls demolished by cannon fire, Crockett & Bowie and the rest shown no mercy? Dave, Paul, Ron and Joe mount the attack this time, and they are definitely on this "Alamo." Crotty and Dodge hold a rocking treadmill pace (strict time was all that Dave required of his early rhythm guys), while Desmond soars above the walls, reconnoitering like a strange meadowlark for a couple of minutes before retreating in the face of what slowly becomes Brubeck's relentless barrage. Dave alternates between lyrical and heavy-weighted, riding on the rhythm at times and radically across it at others – hanging back, speeding up, striking single notes or block chords, staying harmonic, then striding into atonal territory, mixing the melody in with Monkish stomps and Classical Modernist chords, shaping a 6-minute take-no-prisoners solo completely reflective of his unique, love-it-or-hate-him, keyboard-as-drum-kit approach. This locked-hands mélange of Manne and Milhaud, Jeru and Jamal, Bach and Bartok (and bar backtalk too) was the pre-Time signature of Brubeck the no-BeBop, no-Powell nonpareil. (The track then ends peacefully with some fine Brubeck/Desmond counterpoint.)

Dave mellowed much over the many years; he focused more on composing, rounded off the rough corners and edges of his style, wound up playing more all-of-a-piece solos. Me, I miss the early iconoclast of the keyboard and am thankful he left us this "Alamo" worth remembering.

February 02, 2009 · 0 comments


Gerry Mulligan: My Funny Valentine (1953)

While Chet Baker was widely known for his vocal versions of "My Funny Valentine," he first recorded the song as a trumpet feature with the original Gerry Mulligan Quartet. Both the Fantasy and Pacific Jazz versions were recorded live, but the Pacific Jazz is the longer and better take. Bunker's opening tom-tom roll announces a dramatic start, and suddenly it is only Baker with Smith's spare bass backing. But listen again, and faintly in the background are the unison singing voices of Mulligan, Smith and Bunker! Baker's plaintive solo displays his natural sense of melody and phrasing. He says so much with the simplicity of his ideas and the burnished sound of his horn. Mulligan was a superb ballad player as well, and his more complex solo acts as a fine counterpoint to Baker's statement. And this time, Baker leads the vocal background, which in keeping with Mulligan's multi-noted solo is more intricate than the backgrounds for the trumpet solo.

January 20, 2009 · 0 comments


Barney Kessel: Viva el Toro!

The late-'50s craze for jazz versions of Broadway and television shows scored hits (several fine Porgy and Bess albums; the jazz-paced Peter Gunn and Staccato private-eye TV series) and silly misses (Victory at Sea? The Sound of Music?). One odd release had no contemporaneous referent, but was great fun nonetheless: Bizet's beloved opera Carmen as jauntily reshaped by Barney Kessel, and played by the guitarist, Andre Previn and Shelly Manne (all popular Contemporary Records regulars) plus a smattering of saxes, brass, woodwinds and others.

The album's cartoon cover of a mean-looking yet comical bull (a parody, rose-in-his-teeth Ferdinand looming over Kessel's abandoned specs) warned of the album's good-humored intentions, as did the very first cut, "Swingin' the Toreador," with reeds and ready guitar atop Joe Mondragon's walking bass. But hipper and cooler (yes! the West Coast Fifties!) is the track "Viva el Toro!" merrily reworking Bizet's "March of the Toreadors." The ensemble steps out in a sprightly non-march, letting the lightly Latin beat remind us of the familiar tune, and then sideslips into a cowbell-driven Afro-Cuban montuno, accented by the counterpoint of Herb Geller's alto, Ray Linn's trumpet and Harry Betts's trombone – the soloists bobbing and weaving in and out and over each other, Africa to Andalucia, Havana to Hollywood.

Latin Jass: in the parlance of those cheerier times, not profound maybe, but still a gas.

January 03, 2009 · 0 comments


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


Lee Konitz & The Gerry Mulligan Quartet: Too Marvelous For Words

The highly original alto saxophonist Lee Konitz came to prominence with small groups led by cool jazz pioneer Lennie Tristano in the late 1940s. But by early 1953 he was appearing as a featured soloist with Stan Kenton's big band. On nights off during the band's Los Angeles stay, Konitz joined Gerry Mulligan's popular pianoless quartet at a local club. "Too Marvelous for Words," with the altoist as the only soloist, was recorded live. It finds Konitz at the top of his game, generating a seemingly endless stream of fresh ideas expressed through a pure, Lester Young-influenced tone and a prodigious technique.

December 08, 2008 · 0 comments


Barney Kessel: 64 Bars on Wilshire

Kessel's busy ode to a traffic-soaked Los Angeles thoroughfare contains several wild conflagrations by pianist Hampton Hawes, but Kessel himself steals the show with rapid-fire guitar leads. His name is rarely heard today (possibly because his parents named him Barney), and the disregard of his musical legacy is unfortunate. Such tracks leave me with the impression that Kessel is one of the more underrated guitarists in jazz history, despite his familiarity to many hardcore fans. Repeated airings of this easily obtainable track confirm those suspicions, as these bars have led to one of his best and most inspired moments.

October 23, 2008 · 0 comments


Shelly Manne: Summertime

In 1959 producer Lester Koenig had the good sense to record Shelly Manne & His Men for four nights at San Francisco's Blackhawk. It was an audacious move: none of the sidemen was particularly well known, and the band was in transition, using Feldman as a temporary substitute for Russ Freeman. The resulting four LPs (later expanded to five CDs) are beloved in the jazz community because the musicians played in peak form throughout and the arrangements were fresh takes on familiar material. "Summertime" opens the first album and sets the stage for the 5+ hours of remarkable music to follow. Starting with Budwig's double stops and Manne's light cymbal touches, Gordon intones the theme while the rhythm section creates a mood rather than states the beat. Gordon, in Harmon mute, uses a pure straight tone and his ideas are pointed and direct, with no extraneous notes or terminal vibrato to soften the edge. Kamuca's warm tone and flowery ideas contrast Gordon's, and Feldman builds and releases tension in his solo without sacrificing the overall mood.

July 29, 2008 · 0 comments


Dave Brubeck (with Paul Desmond): Blue Moon

At the start of this 1953 track, Brubeck actually plays "Blue Moon" straight, sticking to the original chords and not engaging in any of his usual games. Ah, but we know this won't last for long. Brubeck and Desmond always had some tricks up their sleeves, especially during this early period, when no standard was given the standard treatment. Midway through Desmond's solo, the band moves from major to minor, and the altoist starts playing unexpected variations on "Lullaby of the Leaves," which another famous West Coast quartet had recorded five months earlier. Brubeck is not to be outdone, and kicks off his solo with some off-the-wall counterpoint, before showing that he can also play the major-to-minor switcheroo. Before they have called it a night, this band has played "Blue Moon" and "Red Moon" and "Tangerine Mood" and every other shade they could muster on the fly. These early Brubeck-Desmond sides are always a delight, and sound very spontaneous. You can hear the fun these two creative minds had in playing off each other's wildest flights. A winning moment from a historic band.

June 24, 2008 · 0 comments


Art Pepper: Star Eyes

Art Pepper doesn't meet "a" rhythm section on this 1957 date – he meets the rhythm section. Best known for their tenure with Miles Davis (with whom they were still working at this time), Garland, Chambers and Jones combined the simple sophistication of Swing Era groups with the prodigious fire of the great bebop bands. They collectively improvised, delicately supported their leader, played comfortably fast, and perhaps most importantly artfully interacted on quieter mid-tempo tunes and sensitive ballads. This team therefore pioneered the all-encompassing post-bop rhythm section – even though they were often playing bop. Perhaps most illuminating here is the enormous amount of space left for Pepper, notwithstanding all three rhythm section mates playing plenty of notes. Their sympathetic musicality allowed for Pepper to take his improvisation wherever he wanted – an important development in modern jazz. The rhythm section, though, with their uncanny predictions, was always a step ahead.

June 11, 2008 · 0 comments


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