Saturday, September 27, 2008

Bam Bam Bam !!!

- Steven A. Cerra, [C] Copyright protected; all rights reserved.

This was one of the earliest features on the blog and it posted in three parts beginning on 9/27/2008. I recently made this video with "Bam Bam Bam !!!" as the audio track and thought it would be fun to bring it up on the blog along with all, three parts of the original piece.

While reflecting on this piece after it had finished researching and compiling it, the editorial staff at Jazzprofiles was amazed to note that although the three, different trios it looks at spanned approximately 30+ years [1969-2002], it did not include the dozen or so years Ray spent as the bassist in the Oscar Peterson Trio!

Discussing three decades of his career without even referencing his most renowned association is just one more indication of what a Jazz giant Ray Brown was.

When I asked Ray about this period of his career one evening in June, 1993 during a break at the old Yoshi’s in Berkeley, CA, he said [with a huge smile on his face]: “Not a bad way to spend the last 25 years, huh; the Ray Brown Trio featuring Phineas Newborn, Gene Harris or Benny Green - bam, bam, bam – !!! ”

Although there were some overlaps, in the main, Ray’s trio with Phineas Newborn, Jr. took place in the 1970s, his time together with Gene Harris occurred mainly in the 1980’s and his stint with Benny Green happened primarily in the 1990s.

Each of these trios will become the focus for one part of this piece, or, one “bam!”

The first of Ray’s trios was not a regularly constituted group, but rather one that Ray put together whenever he could bring Phineas Newborn into the studios to record for Contemporary Records. For as Scott Yanow comments in, although Phineas was:

“One of the most technically skilled and brilliant pianists in jazz during his prime, Phineas Newborn remains a bit of a mystery. Plagued by mental and physical problems of unknown origin, Newborn faded from the scene in the mid-1960s, only to re-emerge at irregular intervals throughout his life. Newborn could be compared to Oscar Peterson in that his bop-based style was largely unclassifiable, his technique was phenomenal, and he was very capable of enthralling an audience playing a full song with just his left hand.”

As Scott goes on to point out, after taking New York by storm in the mid-1950s, Phineas [pronounced “Fine as” or, depending on one’s Southern accent, “Fine us”] was largely in danger of being forgotten by the Jazz world a decade later. This might have been the case had it not been for the fortuitous fact that upon moving to Los Angeles in the early 1960s, Phineas received the patronage and support of Lester Koenig, who made three albums with Newborn for his Contemporary Records label from 1961 - 1964. In addition, Ray Brown’s ongoing concern for Phineas’ welfare resulted in three successful attempts to bring him back into studios between the years 1969 – 1976.

Frankly, had it not been for Koenig and Brown, the danger of being forgotten as intimated by Scott Yanow might have turned into a realized prophesy.

Of the four recordings that were produced during the 8-years they collaborated, Brown and Newborn would release three on Contemporary and one on Pablo.

The first Brown- Newborn session took place on February 12-13, 1969 and was to result in two albums that were released ten years apart: [1] Please Send Me Someone to Love [Contemporary S-7622; OJCCD-947-2] and [2] Harlem Blues [Contemporary S-7634; OJCCD-662-2]. Ray said that he had any easy time convincing drummer Elvin Jones to make the recording date because Elvin and Phineas had scuffled together when both first came to New York in the mid-1950s.
The tray plate notes for Please Send Me Someone to Love contained the following synopsis:

“The brilliant pianist Phineas Newborn, Jr. (1931-89) found few occasions to enter a recording studio during his troubled life, though he made the most of what chances he got – especially on the half-dozen trio sessions he recorded for Contemporary between 1961-1976. This album and its companion Harlem Blues [Contemporary S-7634; OJCCD-662-2] document newborn’s initial encounter with bassist Ray Brown and drummer Elvin Jones, two players who brought a technical mastery and stylistic range to the date that matched the pianist’s.”

When he was “on” and particularly sympathetic to the artist in question, Leonard Feather could contribute comprehensive and insightful liner notes to help enhance the listener’s appreciation of the music that were second to none. This is certainly the case in what he had to say about Phineas, Ray and Elvin on their first recording together so we decided to present his comments in their entirety.

I think that this is one of the best and most empathetic reviews that Leonard ever wrote and it could not have come in the service of a more deserving artist. I also think that Ray Brown understood Phineas’ deservedness and this was the main reason that he continue to be an advocate of Phineas’ genius over the years, despite the latter’s health problems. He would just find the times when Phineas could push the demons away and play like only he could.
"For a little more than a half century, there was a series of evolutions in keyboard jazz, which originated in ragtime, then was marked by the successive advent of stride, with its volleying left hand; horn-style piano, characterized
mainly by a fusillade of octaves or long runs of single notes in the right hand; bebop piano, with its central concern for harmonic experiments and relatively limited left-hand punctuations; and a 1950s trend marked by a concern for rich, full chords and a more expansive left-hand concept.

The only pianist who succeeded in absorbing many characteristics of each of these phases, in fact the first authentic and complete virtuoso of jazz piano, was Art Tatum. His death in 1956 seemed to close the book; there was no room for development, no area to examine that he had not already explored.

Time has shown that there were indeed other directions. The atonal improvisations of Cecil Taylor were acclaimed by many observers as taking jazz forward into a freer, more abstract music. Bill Evans launched what I once characterized, in an essay on jazz piano for Show magazine (July 1963), as the Serenity School, creating new harmonic avenues, new voicings, swinging without hammering, asserting tersely yet subtly, rarely rising above a mezzo-forte. McCoy Tyner, armed with exceptional technical facility, moved along still another route with extensive use of modes as a departure from the traditional chordal basis.

All these changes during the late 1950s and throughout the '60s did nothing to demolish the theory that Art Tatum represented the ultimate. Coincidentally, it was during the year of Tatum's death that Phineas Newborn, Jr. first came to New York and emerged from Memphis obscurity (he was born Dec. 14, 1931 in Whiteville, Tenn.) to establish himself as the new pianistic pianist, in the Tatum tradition.
In the above-mentioned Show article, I wrote: "Most astonishing of the dexterous modernists is Phineas Newborn, Jr. As small, timid, and frail as Peterson is big and burly, Newborn belies his meek manner with a relentlessly aggressive style. His technique can handle any mechanical problem and he has, moreover, a quick, sensitive response to the interaction of melody and harmony." Commenting that most critics tended to be skeptical of technical perfection, I wrote of Newborn's A World of Piano album (Contemporary S-7600) that it was "the most stunning piano set since Tatum's salad days in the 1930s."
A year later, in 1964, I went out on a rare limb to declare unequivocally in Down Beat, "Newborn is the greatest living jazz pianist"

Five years later, while perfectly content to let that categorical statement remain on the record, I reflected on what esthetic, what ratiocination led me to this conclusion, Under the spell of a set by Peterson in top form I might have made a similar remark. In either case, my reaction would have been primarily emotional, but the emotions in evaluating a work of art are often guided, perhaps subliminally, by a consciousness of the craftsmanship required for its creation.

Despite the chattering of the anti-intellectuals, I cannot see how any possible advantage call be found in technical limitation. Clearly technique can be abused, or used without imagination; I can drink of a dozen popular pianists, some of them well-known via network television, who have made this point painfully clear. But a man like Newborn, who reached his present command of the instrument by practicing perhaps six or seven hours a day, automatically has an advantage over the simplistic artist, who resorts to simple figures and clich├ęs only because that is as far as his fingers and mind will take him.
Phineas demonstrates all the virtues and none of the handicaps (if there are any) inherent in knowing how to use the piano. Taking him on his own terms, he's an involved, committed artist, for whom the instrument is virtually an extension of the man. This would not be possible if he were in any way hamstrung by not being able to execute whatever idea may cross his mind.

I won't deny that when he uses a personal device, such as the parallel lines in unison an octave apart, I am impressed by the ease with which he dashes off such passages; but even more meaningful to me is the originality and artistry of the melodic structure he has been able to build.

When Phineas plays the blues, as he does on at least three tracks in this album, it is not down-home, backwoods blues, but it's just as deep a shade of blue, and comes just as straight from the heart, as if he were a primitive trying to make something meaningful out of three chord changes and a couple of riffs. I hear in him all that is emotional, as well as all that is cerebral and virtuosic, about jazz piano in one of its most sophisticated forms.

Elvin Jones being in town, it was natural he would be sought out for this session. It has been said many times before, but is worth repeating, that as tremendously complex as Elvin can become, he is no less adept in adjusting himself to the much simpler requirements of supplying a steady pulse for a pianist. His work throughout this album, though energetic and stimulating, is a model of this kind of decorum. In order to provide Phineas with a rhythm section that would offer intuitive support to his unpredictable improvisations, it was necessary to find a bass player who would have instant empathy with the other two participants. This is an unnecessarily roundabout way of saying Ray Brown. if one can rate Phineas the greatest living jazz pianist, a similarly strong case could be made for Ray Brown as the greatest bassist, and for Elvin Jones as the greatest drummer. With three such players, things happened naturally and spontaneously, with just an occasional word of instruction or guidance from Phineas. it took very little time to make a trio of three musicians who had never before worked as a unit.
The material selected, with two exceptions ("Little Niles," and "Brentwood Blues"), all stemmed, by accident rather than design, from the 1940-50 period, when the 12- and 32- bar frameworks and the 4/4 meter still prevailed. it does not require a 7/4 or 9/8 beat, nor a theme 23 in measures long, for an improvising musician of Phineas's caliber to show that he has kept up to date.

"Please Send Me Someone to Love" offers a fine example of his ability to enrich what is, on paper, a very basic tune. The Percy Mayfield hit of 20 years ago, though 32 bars long, has much of the feeling of the blues, along with a certain intensity accentuated by the diminished chord on the fourth bar. Phineas shows immediately how effectively he can use his knowledge of the piano to convey an emotional rather than a purely intellectual message.

"Rough Ridin' " was a bop vehicle for Ella Fitzgerald, written in collaboration with her then pianist, Hank Jones, Elvin's brother. It's a simple, swinging melody used as a launching pad for Phineas's own flights. Notice the block chords ("locked hands") sequence, a style originally popularized by Milt Buckner and later mastered by George Shearing, Phineas, and others.

"Come Sunday," a religious theme from the extended Duke Ellington composition "Black, Brown and Beige," is played first unaccompanied, with a respectful, almost literal adherence to Duke's melody and harmonic pattern. As Ray and Elvin ease in for the second chorus, Newborn continues to bring out all the poignant beauty of this simple and exquisite song.

"Brentwood Blues," introduced by Ray, is an extemporized reminder that the 12-bar blues will never be out of style, in form or in feeling. I was impressed most of all by the majestic sound of the passages in chords, impeccably articulated and superbly recorded. This track brings out the points made above in the evaluation of Newborn, for while the swiftness of the hand delights the ear, so just as surely does the beauty of the thoughts.

"Real Gone Guy" could be part B of "Brentwood Blues," with the tempo doubled up, except that Nellie Lutcher's 1947 vocal line is used to open and close. Elvin, starting in a Latin groove and later taking over for a solo, is exceptionally important and prominent.
"Black Coffee," introduced by Sarah Vaughan in 1948, has since become a standard ballad, more often used vocally (with Paul Francis Webster's fine lyric) than instrumentally, though the Sonny Burke melody has an elegant, Gershwinesque quality that Phineas captures to perfection. Notice particularly his use of the left hand to fill gaps, and the dramatic impact of that A-flat 7 chord at bar 21 of the chorus.

“Little Niles" is a jazz waltz of the late 1950s, dedicated by pianist Randy Weston to his son. Noteworthy in Phineas's sensitive treatment is the group interplay. At times he seems to be playing in four against Elvin's three; the latter shows great sensitivity to changing moods and metric nuances, creating an effect not unlike that of an orchestral arrangement.

"Stay On It," though Count Basle is credited as co-composer with Tadd Dameron, was long associated with Dizzy Gillespie, for whom Tadd wrote it, and whose big band recorded it in 1947. The regular A-A-B-A tune involves a couple of typical bebop touches. For Phineas, Elvin, and Ray, it's a straight-ahead swinger all the way.

Every new Phineas Newborn album (and because there are precious few of them, these few are precious) brings with it a reminder that here we have more than a musician of outstanding talent. He is, as much as anyone around, a symbol of the importance of the piano in the evolution of modem jazz; and like jazz itself, Phineas has never stopped evolving."
- LEONARD FEATHER October 8, 1969 These notes appeared on the original album liner.
As previously mentioned, the material that was eventually released ten years later as Harlem Blues [Contemporary S-7634; OJCCD-662-2] came from this same 1969 recording session. The reasons for the delay as well as a brief annotation about each of the tracks on the album are nicely capsulated in the following insert notes by John Koenig, the son of Les Koenig, the originator of Contemporary Records.

"It's often happened when an outstanding players has recorded that more great performances than could be programmed onto one album have become fixed on tape. This was exactly the case on the mornings and afternoons of February 12 and 13, 1969, when Phineas Newborn made one of his regrettably infrequent peregrinations into the recording studio to make his album, PLEASE SEND ME SOMEONE TO LOVE (Contemporary S-7622). When there is a great quantity of worthy material front which to choose, often one merely assembles performances that complement each other by juxtaposition. These decisions are generally arrived at taking into account such ephemeral qualities as character or intensity, or such mundane considerations as length. Even simple personal predilection sometimes is a factor; while one performance is not necessarily better than another, the producer feels it might fit more appropriately or easily in sequence with others already standing. The higher the quality of the material, the more difficult and the more arbitrary these decisions become. Thus, with the intervening span of ten years for reflection, it's not surprising that the performances embodied on this disc do not suffer at all by comparison to those previously released. In fact, they add dimension to the frequently proclaimed pinnacle of -Newborn's oeuvre.

In the year preceding the recording, Phineas, due to ill health, had been relatively inactive. My father, however, would periodically devise excuses to record him, and in this case, it was the presence in Los Angeles of Elvin Jones that provided the catalyst for bringing this intention to a reality. Ray Brown being one of jazz's reigning bassists was the logical choice to round out the group.
Phineas had recorded with Ray (Teddy Edwards and Howard McGhee TOGETHER AGAIN, Contemporary S-7588), but hadn't recorded with Elvin. Ray hadn't either, but he had played with him a year or so earlier at the Monterey Jazz Festival, of which he was then the music director. The occasion was the formation of a Gil Evans band for the festival which, afterward, traveled to Los Angeles for a week long stay at Shelly's Mannehole, which was "wild" according to Ray.

The session was something of in event, both because of Phineas relative inactivity, and because it was the first session at Contemporary in almost a year and a half Despite the especial atmosphere surrounding the proceedings for some of us invoked in the project, it was, on the surface of it, a relatively unremarkable happening. When Raymond and Elvin had set up, (that is after Elvin's wife, Keiko, had assembled and tuned the drum set), Phineas quietly sat down, called off the tunes, played them through with the rhythm section once or twice, and recorded them. The results, as can be heard here, however, reveal that something remarkable actually did take place. Fifteen different tunes were recorded in the two days, and this release completes the public presentation of them all.
The session was conceived as a means to display Phineas as piano soloist with the bass and drums taking accompaniment roles, rather than as an integrated trio, where the three instruments interact on a more equal level. it underscores the genuine musicianship of Ray and Elvin in that they understood this, and despite their prodigious creative gifts, managed to contain their soloist inclinations while still maintaining he essential intimacy the musical context required. Still, neither was to be entirely denied, as is apparent when one listens to Elvin's fours on Ray's Idea, or Ray's stunning soliloquy at the beginning of Tenderly.
To be sure, Phineas was appreciative of the level of his company. I recall that after we dropped Elvin and Keiko off at their hotel on the evening of the first session, Phineas remarked to my father: "I have nothing hut the utmost respect for Elvin and Ray." Still, this was Phineas' show all the way, as is evidenced by Ray's expression of appreciation after the tape machines had stopped rolling after the first take of the first day, Sweet and Lovely, when he remarked with a certain amount of awe, "We'll dub in the applause."

The material was pretty much made up of things, as Ray Brown recalls, "Phineas kept in his back pocket that he pulls out from time to time."

Harlem Blues is a gospel oriented theme Phineas was fooling around with on the date and Ray and Elvin suggested he record it.

Sweet and Lovely was written by Gus Arnheim and introduced by him with his orchestra, which was well known as the house band at the Coconut Grove for several years. Later made famous by Bing Crosby, it hasn't often been played by jazz musicians as it has a rather complicated bridge.

Little Girl Blue, by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, is from the Broadway show JUMBO starring Jimmy Durante, and with a book by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur. Interestingly, the tune, My Romance, which has often been adapted by jazz players comes from the same show.

Ray's Idea was written by Ray Brown and arranged by Gil Fuller for the Dizzy Gillespie Big Band in 1945 or '46. Phineas liked it - it was something he remembered from the be-bop days and so it was chosen to record.

Stella by Starlight is front the 1944 Paramount picture THE UNINVITED, directed by William Dieterle, starring Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey, and introducing Gail Russell as Stella. The score is by Victor Young. Another Stella was later to be cinematically depicted by starlight, Stella Stevens, in THE NUTTY PROFESSOR with Jerry Lewis.

Since her earlier appearance, of course, Stella by Starlight has become a jazz standard, and one of the denizens of the aforementioned Newborn pocket.

Tenderly was suggested by my father as a vehicle for Ray Brown. Ray learned the tune when he was a member of the Oscar Peterson Trio, and worked occasionally at a now defunct club on the Sunset Strip called The Embers, where pianist, Walter Gross, who wrote the tune, worked as a single. According to Ray, he and Oscar would go into the lounge and ask Gross to play the tune between sets, and that's where he learned it. The song was introduced by Sarah Vaughan in the late '40s, when Gross, who then was music director of Musicraft Records, had her record it for the label.

Cookin' at the Continental, an early Horace Silver opus, was deemed an appropriate up-tempo number to display Phineas' dexterity, and chronologically it fit in well with the rest of the program.

Considering that with one or two brief exceptions, Phineas has remained inactive in the decade following the recording of this album, its release is all the more special to those of us who appreciate the art of piano playing, and it will remain as a document of three giants making music together in a way that, from the look of things in 1979, will stand as a milestone in the years to come."

by JOHN KOENIG, January 31,1979” -Notes reproduced from the original album liner.
....To Be Continued

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