Sunday, February 10, 2013

Gerry Mulligan: The New Concert Jazz Band in Scotland

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

For many Jazz fans, Gerry Mulligan’s Concert Jazz Band [CJB] was a phenomena of the 1960’s.

Unless you were aware of his earliest roots in the music business with the big bands of Gene Krupa, Elliott Lawrence and Stan Kenton, the CJB seemed to come out of nowhere.

Gerry’s greatest fame seemed to mainly rest with his 1952-1953 piano-less quartet that featured trumpeter Chet Baker.

While musicians, especially those on the West Coast in the decade of the 1950’s were certainly aware of the Birth of the Cool records made for Capitol that Gerry arranged and composed for in 1949-50, the general public was largely familiar with him as a small group leader.

[A sextet followed the quartet and it, too, was piano-less unless Gerry played some piano to give trumpeter Jon Eardley’s and valve-trombonist Bob Brookmeyer’s “chops” a rest].

Formed in New York in the 1960’s, the 12-piece Concert Jazz Band was really a matter of Gerry returning to his big band roots.

Renown as a baritone saxophonist, Gerry’s first love was “… to play the band; I really love expressing my music through my charts “[musician speak for arrangements and orchestrations].

In particular, Gerry was interested in bringing the lightness and airiness of small group Jazz into a big band setting; to put it another way, he wanted to bring the movement and flexibility of Jazz played by fewer instruments into a bigger context.

The Birth of the Cool sessions were an attempt by Gerry and its other arrangers to incorporate the less ponderous texture or sonority that Gil Evans had achieved in his charts for the Claude Thornhill Orchestra.

After his interregnum with small group Jazz in the 1950s, Gerry was picking up where he left off with The Birth of the Cool sessions and some work he had done for a 10-piece group he had organized largely for recording purposes.

The original Concert Jazz Band was a smashing, artistic success and Gerry’s arrangements for it just sparkled.

Sadly, keeping a big band going on a regular basis became such a drain on Gerry that he fell farther and farther away from his main purpose in forming it – he didn’t have time to write for it because he was so busy trying to keep it viable, commercially.

The writing fell to Bob Brookmeyer, Al Cohn a host of other, talented composers while Gerry scrounged around for the schimolies to keep the band happening.

The Concert Jazz Band eventually failed, but fortunately, Gerry and many of the band members were able to keep body-and-soul together with the lucrative studio work then still available in New York.

Gerry put the band back together briefly in 1971 for a recording session which is documented on The Age of Steam album issued on A&M Records [0804].

But he really didn’t bring the Concert Jazz Band out of retirement until 1980 and then he did so with a vengeance.

The resurgence was made possible by the burgeoning European Jazz Festival scene of the 1980s and Gerry and the CJB were everywhere, present.

Whether it was in Holland or Sweden or France or in Scotland, Gerry fans from the CJB’s earlier European tours were ready for more and so was Gerry.

Original compositions and arrangements began flowing out of his pen at a rapid rate, including a series of tiles named after famous train locomotives [The Flying Scotsman and K-4 Pacific] and loving tributes to Dizzy Gillespie and Billy Strayhorn. He also reached back for some Jazz chestnuts like I’m Getting Sentimental Over You, Georgia on My Mind and Satin Doll and gave them gorgeous new treatments.

Even tunes that were written primarily for his quartet and later adopted into the first CJB like Bweebida Bwoobida were spruced-up with new orchestrations. New harmonies and new voicings are in place throughout.

He beefed-up the band by adding a fourth trumpet, a bass trombone and five saxes [including another baritone sax with whom he played in unison on some parts].

Relatively young players like Laurie Frink on trumpet, Bill Charlap on piano and the magnificent Dean Johnson on bass were brought on the band and given a chance to shine in the solo spotlight.

He also added instruments that were new to the band such as flute and soprano saxophone, the latter also becoming a solo vehicle for him.

He sought out Bobby Rosengarden, an “old pro” drummer, who really knew how to kick-the-heck out of a big band by dropping bombs and explosive kicks and fills.

And he wrote more aggressive, propulsive and pulsating arrangements that captured a spirit that seem to say to the Jazz world – I’m BACK; Bigger and Better than ever.

This was a powerful band; not the lighter, airier and nimble CJB of Gerry’s original conception. It reflected the way in which he heard the music at this point in his life.

Gerry Mulligan was happy again because he was doing what he loved best – writing for and leading a big band.

You can hear that joy in all of its power and expressiveness in the following three tracks from the Concert Jazz Band’s appearance at the Glasgow, Scotland Jazz Festival on July 3, 1988.

Welcome back, Geru.