Sunday, December 8, 2013

Johnny Hodges: "The Rabbit Returns"

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

“Hodges was best known for his earthy blues playing and for his sensuous ballad interpretations.

He won the admiration of generations of saxophonists for his exceptional command of the sound and expressive nuances possible on his instrument.”
- Barry Kernfeld, The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz

I always wanted to write an essay about alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges for these pages.

And then I read the one that Whitney Balliett wrote about him in Dinosaurs in the Morning [Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, 1962] and realized that I didn’t have to.

Here’s why.

© -Whitney Balliett, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“THE CELEBRATED FICKLENESS indulged in by admirers of the arts, most of whom resemble housewives selecting cantaloupes, reaches epic proportions among jazz audiences. Thus, the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, flourishing in 1920, had been largely forgotten by 1930. In 1935, King Oliver, famous less than a decade earlier, was in total obscurity. The nouvelle vague of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Stan Kenton had, by the late forties, replaced almost completely such recent landmarks as Count Basie, Benny Goodman, Ben Webster, Art Tatum, and even Duke Ellington. This capriciousness increased in the fifties. Gillespie was abruptly set aside for Miles Davis. Basie reappeared and Ken-ton went under. Woody Herman, pumping furiously in the forties, became largely a memory, while a West Coast movement made up of musicians like Shorty Rogers, Shelly Manne, and Jimmy Giuffre rose and fell precipitously. Sonny Rollins burst briefly into view, then was overtaken by John Coltrane, and early in 1960 Ornette Coleman blanked everyone out. The reasons for these lightning love-hate cycles are fairly clear. Jazz thrives both artistically and socially on rebellion; indeed, it is the most liberal of musics. Until recently, its audiences have been composed mainly of the young, who relish such hot sauces. And these audiences, more unskilled than not, often train their ears only on what they are told is worthy by the jazz press, which tends to confuse newness with progress and progress with quality. One of the most striking victims of this fickleness has been the fifty-four-year-old alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges. Unlike many other swing musicians, Hodges was toppled by a double whammy. He suffered, along with his colleagues, from the rise of bebop, but he also suffered because the leader of that movement, Charlie Parker, played the same instrument. When Parker died, in 1955, Hodges had become an out-of-fashion leader of a small semi-rock-and-roll group. However, the tastemakers were at work, and by 1959 Parker's enormous ghost had been sufficiently laid to allow Hodges to win the Down Beat critics' poll, an award that paid a considerable compliment to Hodges' staying powers and none at all to the fitful perceptions of those who had voted it.

A short, taciturn man with a beak nose, heavily lidded eyes, and an impassive Oriental air, Hodges, who is incongruously known as Rabbit, has been almost perpetually bound up with Duke Ellington since 1928. (He left the Ellington band in 1951 but rejoined it, apparently for good, in 1955.) Unlike most Ellington musicians, who have unwittingly come to depend on Ellington for balance and inspiration and who generally head downward when they leave the band, Hodges functions well with and without Ellington. He is most comfortable in a small band, which became plain in the late thirties and early forties on those invaluable records made by chamber groups from the Ellington band. Nearly nonpareil among Ellingtonians, Hodges has become one of the big five among saxophonists, the rest of whom are Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, Lester Young, and Parker. Even more important, he belongs in that small collection of jazz musicians who, lyric poets all, function closest to the heart of the music—such men as Webster, Herschel Evans, Sidney Bechet, Buck Clayton, Bill Coleman, Vic Dickenson, Red Allen, Pee Wee Russell, Charlie Mingus, and John Lewis. And within that collection, he has joined Bechet — who tutored him extensively on the soprano saxophone in the early thirties, and who had a good deal to do with his ultimate style — in bringing jazz perilously close to a sentimental music.

Hodges' bent toward sweetness did not emerge until the mid-thirties, when he began recording, with Ellington, a series of slow solos based on tunes like "In a Sentimental Mood" and "Passion Flower." On such occasions, which he still indulges in, Hodges employs a tone that falls between the country-cream sound of Tab Smith and the flutings of Willie Smith. It is a tone that seems to be draped over the notes like a lap robe. Hodges does little improvising in these ballads. Instead, he issues fulsome statements of the melody, languorous legato phrases, and long glissandi topped by an almost unctuous vibrato. Because of their richness and lack of melodic variation, they sometimes suggest that Hodges could easily be slipped into a Guy Lombardo saxophone section. Hodges' Edgar Guest strain is generally well concealed, though, and it is nowhere in sight when he plays the blues, which have long provided his basic materials. Here, Hodges moves up onto his toes and grows alternately oblique and goatlike. His tone shrinks, occasionally even becoming dry and sharp, he uses more notes, his vibrato steadies, and his impeccable sense of rhythmic placement—how long to tarry on this or that note, just where to break a pause, which notes (if any) should be emphasized in a run — is put to work. In a medium-tempo blues—the speed at which Hodges most often jells — the result is a mixture of lullaby delicacy and gentlemanly emotion.

Suggesting but never commanding, Hodges may start such a solo by sounding four descending notes, which are placed on successive beats and connected by an almost inaudible threadlike hum, as if he were two instrumentalists in one—the first playing the four notes and the second providing background choir chords. After a short pause, he will applaud his own natty lightness by repeating the pattern, adding a single offbeat note and increasing his volume. Then he will double his volume and deliver a soaring exclamation, which he will sustain only long enough to make it ring, and end it with an unexpectedly soft blue note. He may start this cry once more, break it off with a complex descending-ascending-descending run, and, all delicacy gone, launch into a second chorus with a short, heavy riff, which will either be repeated, with variations, or give way to several rapid staccato phrases. He will close his solo by returning to a whispered three-or-four-note passage, which floats serenely at one, slips past, and offhandedly disappears. Hodges' blues solos are child's play in comparison with Parker's. But they are also classic balancings of tone, dynamics, rhythm, and choice of notes. There is no extraneous matter, and no thinness. There is no opacity. It is mot-juste improvising, and because of its basic understatement it illuminates completely the elegance and purity of the blues. At faster tempos, Hodges relies almost entirely on his rhythmic capacities. The solos he thus achieves are often the quintessence of "jump" playing. They move on and sometimes ahead of the beat, and there is a good deal of tasteful repetition. At the same time, Hodges' rhythmic attack is mainly implied; he rolls rather than tramps toward his destination, which, in contrast to the majority of jazz soloists, he always reaches.

Hodges is in tonic condition in "Side by Side: Duke Ellington and Johnny Hodges" and "Blues A-Plenty: Johnny Hodges and His Orchestra" (Verve). Of the nine titles on the first record (four blues, four standards, and an Ellington original), three were recorded by Hodges, Ellington, Harry Edison, and a rhythm section including Jo Jones. These three are notable for Hodges' strict jump choruses in "Stompy Jones" and for all Ellington's solos, which are given uncommon lift by Jones, particularly in "Stompy Jones." Edison, despite similar assists, remains Johnny-one-note throughout, and it is difficult to see why he was matched with Ellington and Hodges. On hand with Hodges on the rest of the record are Roy Eldridge, Ben Webster, Lawrence Brown, Wendell Marshall, Billy Strayhorn, and Jones. "Big Shoe" is similar to those attractive medium-tempo blues that made up most of Hodges' small-band recordings in the forties. Eldridge, in his Sunday-best, delivers two perfect choruses bracketed between exhilarating but controlled dashes into the upper register and deep-down growls. Hodges' second chorus is largely smears. "Just a Memory" and "Let's Fall in Love," which are done in medium tempo, include gentle statements from all the horns, who demonstrate precisely how to construct solos with a beginning, a middle, and a climactic end.

Four of the nine numbers in "Blue A-Plenty," which is played by the leader plus Eldridge, Webster, Vic Dickenson, Strayhorn, Jimmy Woode, and Sam Woodyard, are better-than-average Hodges rhapsodies. He neither weeps nor moans, and in "Satin Doll" he delivers much of the melody in a blunt lower-register manner that suggests Webster. (Hodges taught Webster much of what he knows.) The rest of the numbers are excellent blues. Most remarkable of all is the long medium-tempo "Reeling and Rocking/' which, after the ensemble, is given over to a succession of choruses by Hodges, Dickenson (followed by a restatement of the melody), Webster, Eldridge, and Hodges again that are consummate lyrical jazz improvisations. Each soloist, his cliches left at home, is in peak shape, and the results are five studies in the blues that are singular for Hodges' way of seemingly attacking his notes from behind (first solo) and then for his landing on them in an almost soundless slow motion (second solo); for Dickenson's jumble of smears, growls, knucklings, and swaggers at the outset of his second chorus; for Webster's sliding, hymnlike statement; and for Eldridge's reined-in fury. This is one of those rare jazz performances that defy all faddishness, fickleness, and foolishness.”

The following video tribute to Johnny has him performing "Big Shoe"[Jimmy Hamilton] with Roy Eldridge [trumpet], Lawrence Brown, trombone, Ben Webster, tenor saxophone, Billy Strayhorn, piano, Wendell Marshal, bass and "Papa" Jo Jones, drums.

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