Friday, June 13, 2014

Charlie Mariano and Me [From the Archives]

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

“I don’t know any Jazzman who has as good a sense of melodic development in his solos as Charlie.  The lines he finds!  And he’s so warm.”
- Shelly Manne

I have always had a special fondness for combos with a trumpet and alto saxophone “front-line.” Perhaps this was because one of the first Jazz groups I ever worked with had this configuration.

I liked the brightness of the brass and the crackling sound of the higher register alto saxophone, especially when paired with a trumpet.

The combination just sounded so hip.

But I had no idea how brilliant this pairing could sound until I encountered it in the form of Stu Williamson on trumpet and Charlie Mariano on alto saxophone.

Stu and Charlie were on the first Contemporary LP that I ever bought at my neighborhood record shop. The rhythm section was Russ Freeman on piano, Leroy Vinnegar on bass and, of course, Shelly on drums.

Entitled Shelly Manne and His Men, Vol. 5: More Swingin’ Sound [Contemporary S-7519, OJCCD-320-2], it was recorded on July 16th and August 15-16, 1956 and, as I was to learn later, it was a sequel of sorts to Shelly Manne and His Men, Vol. 4: Swingin’ Sounds [Contemporary S-3516, OJCCD-267-2].

Shelly kept this version of The Men together for a little over two-and-a-half years years until Charlie Mariano made the decision to move back to his native BostonMA in 1958.

Nat Hentoff has described the music by this band as “ … lean, angular, rhythmically probing, and emotionally striking in a hard unsentimental way.”

The music on Vol. 5 was fresh, crisp and clean as was much of Southern California in the 1950s. To use a friend’s favorite phrase: it was “happy, joyous and free.”

Richard Cook and Brian Morton writing in the Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, 6th edition reflected that the recording contained – “…excellent early material from a notably light and vibrant band fronted by the underrated Stu Williamson and the always inventive Charlie Mariano. … Shelly played as soft as he ever did, and with great control on the mallets.”

Three things about the music on this album struck me immediately and forcefully: [1] Shelly Manne’s use of tympani mallets, [2] the luminous trumpet work of Stu Williamson who also plays valve trombone surprisingly well and, most of all, [3] the plaintive wail that was so much a part of Charlie Mariano’s alto saxophone tone.

All three were most audibly on display in Quartet, Bill Holman’s extended composition.

Of Quartet, Bill Holman writes: "Originally Shelly's idea was a long piece for the group, possibly with several sections, moods and tempos, long enough to extend the written parts and yet have space for blowing.

My interpretation: a jazz piece written especially for this group with its personality in mind; predominantly written, not too technically difficult to impair the jazz feeling, lines written to be played with a jazz feeling. Several sections to give con­trast, form and continuity necessary for a piece of this length.

Construction: 1st and 4th parts built mainly on traditional blues progression, very closely related thematically. 2nd part related to first and fourth, but to lesser degree. 3rd part melodically unrelated, but drum figures imply theme from 1st and 4th. Shelly improvises drum intro, develops theme. The four sections correspond broadly to the four movements of the classical sonata form. This form used, not because it is a classical form (See: Efforts to Combine Classical and Jazz Music) but because it has proved itself, thru centuries of use, capable of supporting (as framework) a composition of this length.”

I was so enchanted by the warm and melodious sound that Shelly got using mallets on drums that I don’t think I struck my drums for days with a regular drumstick after hearing this album. [He unhinged the snare strainer to gain an additional tom tom sound from that drum and used heavily-cushioned tympani mallets to produce a mellow tone – no pun intended]

But it was Charlie’s playing on the 2nd movement of Holman’s Quartet that really got to me, especially when he begins soloing which you can hear at 3:00 minutes of the following video tribute to Mariano:

I’ve listened to a lot of Jazz over the past 50 years or so, but this one grabs me every time.

The second movement or the “development” portion of the sonata is where the harmonic and textual possibilities of the “exposition” [theme] are explored.

On Quartet, the second movement is taken at a slow tempo, one that is almost at the pace of a funerary dirge. On it, Charlie sounds like he is in mourning, crying after the soul of a lost friend or loved one. His tone has such a vocal quality to it.

“Soulful” would become a word that was used often in relationship to Jazz, but nothing I ever heard then or now is as soulful as Charlie’s playing on this track.

Thus it was that I waited with baited breath for the CD version of this most-favorite album to appear and when it did, I rushed down to the Tower Records Store on Columbus Avenue in San Francisco’s North Beach and snapped up a copy.

But when I got the CD home and played it, I was astonished to find that the producer has substituted a different Part 2 on the disc version of the album!  What’s even more interesting is that Parts 1,3 & 4 of Quartet remain as they were on the LP!!

You can hear the change for yourself as the CD version of Part 2 of Quartet forms the soundtrack to this tribute to the late artist Salvador Dali, 1904 – 1989. 

Charlie’s solo commences at 3:12 minutes on this version. 

Shelly’s use of tympani mallets is on display during the interlude between the end of Stu Williamson’s valve trombone solo [2:34] and the beginning of Charlie’s improvisation.

What a jolt. After listening to this piece on the LP for over three decades and literally having memorized it note-for-note, an alternate track inexplicably materializes.

At first, I was deeply disappointed in not having a digital version of one of my very favorite Jazz recordings.

That is until I realized how shortsighted I was in not accepting the gift that was being presented to me.

Now I had two, different solo interpretations by Charlie of this most beautiful Jazz ballad.

I told Charlie my story at a 3-day festival in May, 2003 sponsored by the Los Angeles Jazz Institute.

He said that he rarely ever went back to listen to his old recordings but he was so touched by my reaction that he would listen again to Vol. 5 and More Swingin’ Sounds.

I wonder if he ever did, listen again?

I do, often.

Here are some salient features of Charlie’s career.

Charlie Mariano: jazz saxophonist

The alto saxophonist Charlie Mariano had two distinctly different musical personalities. On the one hand he was an incisive bebop soloist who extended the ideas of Charlie Parker with skill and panache, contributing to many recordings with Stan Kenton, Shelly Manne and the bands of his former wife Toshiko Akiyoshi. On the other he was a restless musical explorer whose style was difficult to categorize, investigating Eastern music and learning to play the “nagasvaram”, fusing Indian music with jazz, playing free improvisations with the cream of the European avant-garde, and pioneering rock fusion, most famously in his own group Osmosis and in the multinational United Jazz and Rock Ensemble.

For the most part, Mariano’s musical identities were separated by the Atlantic Ocean. He made his initial reputation as a bebop player in his native United States, before settling in Europe at the start of the 1970s and using his home in Cologne as the launching pad for his travels and exploration. However, one aspect of his work transcended physical and musical boundaries, in that Mariano was a gifted and strong-minded teacher, passing on his wealth of knowledge to students worldwide after the success of his first teaching posts at the Berklee School of Music in Boston.

Born into an Italian-American family in Boston, Carmino Ugo Mariano soon had his name Anglicized to Charles Hugo, and before long, simply Charlie. Although he listened keenly to opera and jazz in roughly equal proportions at home, he did not begin to play music until he acquired his first saxophone at the age of 18. However, he soon made up for lost time, playing within months of starting the instrument in some of Boston’s roughest bars before being drafted into a military dance band.

Stationed in Los Angeles in 1945 he heard Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie at Billy Berg’s Hollywood nightclub, and was immediately inspired to learn all he could about their style, transcribing Parker’s records and learning his solos by heart.

Back in Boston in 1946 he went through the standard musical apprenticeship of the era, paying his dues in the bands of Shorty Sherock, Larry Clinton and Nat Pierce, but simultaneously studying at Schillinger House, which was expanded into the Berklee School during his time there. In 1953 he was recruited for Stan Kenton’s band on the West Coast, and after two years in this high-profile job he joined the drummer Shelly Manne for a more settled work pattern involving less touring and more time in the Los Angeles area. This produced some of his most distinctive early records, such as his contributions to Manne’s album The Gambit.

Leaving the West in 1958 to return to Boston, Mariano started teaching at Berklee, and playing with the trumpet tutor there, Herb Pomeroy. He met and was married to the Japanese pianist Toshiko Akiyoshi, forming a quartet with her that first recorded in December 1960. The group (and the marriage) lasted seven years, and during that time they traveled widely, making several records in Tokyo for RCA Japan with a mixture of Japanese and American jazz musicians. Mariano also arranged for Akiyoshi’s Japanese All Stars big band.

Back at Berklee for a time in the early 1960s, Mariano also played and recorded with Charles Mingus, most famously on the album The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady. Mariano greatly liked Mingus’ workshop methods of developing new music, using experience as much as academic theory, and formed his own jazz workshop-cum-nightclub in Boston.

Mariano’s interest in fusion started when rock music was in its infancy. Osmosis was formed in 1967, and he went on to work with the European free jazz and rock fusion band Pork Pie with the guitarist Philip Catherine and keyboard player Jasper Van’t Hof.

From the late 1960s to the mid-1970s he also traveled widely in the Far East and India, absorbing local music and instrumental techniques.

In 1975 he was invited to join the United Jazz and Rock Ensemble, originally formed for a German television chat show, but soon developed by the keyboard player Wolfgang Dauner into an independent band in its own right. Mariano played reeds alongside the English saxophonist Barbara Thompson, and also in the line-up were the trumpeters Kenny Wheeler and Ian Carr (obituary, February 25, 2009), the bassist Eberhard Weber and the drummer Jon Hiseman. The group’s debut recording Live in Schützenhaus became Germany’s biggest selling jazz album of all time. The group continued to tour and record into the present century.

From the late 1980s until the present, Mariano had been an energetic freelance. He worked with the Swiss bandleader George Gruntz, in individual projects with several members of the United Jazz and Rock Ensemble, and with the oud player Rabih Abu-Khalil. He also returned to his earlier American style of playing at occasional reunions of Kenton band colleagues, and in Al Porcino’s Big Band.

In 1995 Mariano was given a diagnosis of prostate cancer and warned that he might only survive another year. He threw himself into work with greater zeal than before, as well as undergoing alternative therapies, and brought his burly frame, shock of white hair and broad-toned saxophone sound to a characteristically wide range of musical projects, culminating last year in a final series of reunions with Catherine and Van’t Hof both in the recording studio and in a triumphant concert at the Theaterhaus in Stuttgart.

Charlie Mariano, jazz saxophonist, was born on November 12, 1923. He died on June 16, 2009, aged 85

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