Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Dameronia: Theatre de Boulogne Billancourt/Paris

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

“There are artists who create beauty but whose character fails to reflect it; Tadd was not one of those."
- Dan Morgenstern

Here’s another installment in our ongoing feature about the late composer and arranger Tadd Dameron [1917-1965], this time from the perspective of Dameronia, a tribute band originally created by Tadd’s close friend, drummer Philly Joe Jones.

The origins, personnel and music of Dameronia are discussed at length by the esteemed Jazz writer and critic Dan Morgenstern in the following insert notes which he prepared for the Soul Note CD - Dameronia: Live at The Theatre Boulogne-Billancourt/Paris [121202-2] - and which Dan has graciously allowed us to reprint on these pages.

© -  Dan Morgenstern; used with the author’s permission; copyright protected; all rights reserved. [Paragraphing modified to fit blog format.]

“It is both touching and ironic that a band (Dameronia) that was formed in memory of a great musician (Tadd Dameron) by another great musician (Philly Joe Jones) who had learned much from him was in turn reincarnated some four years after Philly Joe's death to commemorate both Tadd and Philly Joe, and that this performance by that band, now issued five years later, becomes a further memorial to two fallen heroes who performed so well on that occasion, Walter Davis Jr. and Clifford Jordan.

And what was the occasion? A concert held at the Theatre de Boulogne Billancourt, not far from Paris (whose denizens know it as TBB) as part of the fifth season of spring jazz events, in 1989 dedicated to the theme "Around Charlie Parker." And that theme certainly fits the music of Tadd Dameron, whose most famous Parker-associated tune is the opener on this program, Hot House.

Dameron was a very special presence on the modern jazz scene. Like Thelonius Monk, who also was that rare thing - a quintessential jazz composer - Tadd was in but not of bebop.

To be sure, many of his pieces lent themselves well to bop (among those included here, that would fit the two blues, Good Bait and The Squirrel; Lady Bird and the aforementioned Hot House). Moreover, it was in particular Dizzy Gillespie, who came to love Tadd's writing while in the Billy Eckstine band, who took many of Tadd's charts into his own big band after Mr. B had given up band leading. Also, it was Dizzy's replacement in the Eckstine band, Fats Navarro, who became perhaps the supreme interpreter of Dameron's music.

Yet the rich and warm harmonies and essentially romantic melodies that flowed from Tadd's imagination were neither structurally nor rhythmically bebop per se. A piece like the lovely tone-poem Fontainebleau may be closer in spirit to Duke Ellington, and to the world of big band music into which Dameron was born.

Professionally, he came to music relatively late, at age 21, after he'd given up studying medicine because he couldn't tolerate the sight of carnage and suffering. His first recorded arrangements and compositions appeared in 1941/42, on discs by Harlan Leonard and his Rockets, a Kansas City band. He subsequently wrote for Lunceford (who recorded some of his charts) and Basie (who didn't, but played them; we have airchecks), and Don Redman (who performed Tadd's For Europeans Only in 1946 in Copenhagen, where I first heard a sample of Dameronia).

By next spring, I'd emigrated to the U.S., and in 1948, I found myself at the Royal Roost, listening to Tadd's fine band with Fats Navarro, Kai Winding and Allen Eager. I was escorting not one but two quite stunning girls, one of whom knew some of the cats in the band. When they came by on their break, the only one who took the slightest interest in me was Tadd, who was so friendly to and curious about this 19-year-old European import that I never forgot it.

Years later, Tadd and I became friends. There are artists who create beauty but whose character fails to reflect it; Tadd was not one of those. He was a gentle and noble soul, and consequently, life kicked him hard. Drugs became a way to hide from pain; but they cost him dearly: first his freedom, then his health.

Had Tadd Dameron had an orchestra, or a permanent smaller group at his disposal, there's no telling what his legacy could have been. Meanwhile, we must be thankful that he was productive enough to leave us more that a few works of substance. In Dameronia, there was finally, if only temporarily, a first-class ensemble to interpret them.

Dameronia wasn't launched overnight. Philly Joe had long nursed a dream of forming a band to give Tadd "credit for all the beautiful music he left us," but first that music had to be put together. Sadly, almost all Dameron's scores had been lost over the years. lt was when the drummer met multi-faceted Don Sickler- trumpeter, transcriber, researcher, publisher- that Dameronia began to take shape. Don and his friend and fellow transcriber, pianist John Oddo (perhaps best known today for his excellent work with Rosemary Clooney) went to work on Tadd's recorded music, mostly following the original instrumentation, but sometimes (as in the case here of Soultrane, a quartet recording) adapting Tadd's piano voicings to an expanded instrumental!urn- and very idiomatically, it must be acknowledged.Eventually, a library of 19 scores was ready for performing.

Dameronia made its debut in Philly Joe's hometown, where he'd first worked with Tadd in singer-saxophonist Bullmoose Jackson's band, and after its Philadelphia engagement, the band opened in April of 1982 at the short lived but well remembered Lush Life club in Greenwich Village. 

The reviews were ecstatic. As Robert Palmer wrote in the New York Times, "word spread that something extraordinary was happening...... By the weekend, the club was packed for every set, and people had to be turned away. A loving and scholarly re-creation turned into a box office smash." Two months later a record was made for the small but enterprising Uptown label.

That original group included several players also on hand for this recreation; Sickler, of course; saxophonists Frank Wess and Cecil Payne; bassist Larry Ridley, and Walter Davis Jr. By the time Dameronia made its second album for Uptown in July 1983, Virgil Jones and Benny Powell were also on hand. So this 1989 version was a very authentic Dameronia. It was a wise choice to let young Kenny Washington fill the late leader's shoes; Kenny loves Philly Joe's playing and understands it so well that he doesn't need to copy. As for Clifford Jordan, he was a more than able replacement for the group's original tenor sax, Charles Davis.

Indeed, this was a formidable saxophone section, led by a master, Frank Wess, and anchored by one of the bosses of the baritone, Cecil Payne, who'd worked and recorded with Tadd back in 1949. As for the brass, the underrated Virgil Jones is among the most able of trumpeters on the New York scene, while Benny Powell has continued to grow in stature as a soloist since leaving Basie many years ago, and director Sickler, when he lets himself take a sole role, shows he can hold is own fast company. We've mentioned Kenny Washington; his rhythm section mates leave nothing to be desired. Professor Larry Ridley knows and loves Tadd's music, and Walter Davis Jr. was a true master of both solo and accompaniment, and never played better than during the final years of his life.

Ensemble figures work well behind the soloists on Hot House; they are Jones, Powell, Payne and Davis. This is an expansion of a quintet piece, while Mating Call (like Gnid and Soultrane) stems from the famous quartet album of the same name, with Coltrane and Philly Joe. Jordan's solo is the centerpiece here, and Clifford certainly had Trane in mind. Fine Davis here, too. Gnid's pretty melody is in Wess's good hands for openers; after the piano solo, Powell comes into his own. Benny's humor here brings to mind his early favorite, Bill Harris. Wess returns for the recapitulation of the theme, authoritatively.

There was a time when no jam session was complete without a rendition of Lady Bird- it's the kind of piece that makes musicians want to play. Clifford is outstanding here, and Ridley has a fine solo spot. Good fills by the drummer spruce up the finale. (There was a big-band version of this piece in the Gillespie book, but the most famous recording, of course, was the Blue Note one with Fats.) Good Bait is taken at the right tempo-relaxed. Both trumpeters are heard here, as well as Powell and Davis- the latter is outstanding; at times, he came closer to the essence of Bud Powell than any other pianist but always with his own accent.

Soultrane belongs to Frank Wess, who here reminds of the still-so-fresh Benny Carter. Frank's tone is gorgeous, without ever becoming too sweet, and his intonation is impeccable. Payne's fat sound adds to the ensemble flavor, and Frank tops it all off with an elegant cadenza. (I'm looking forward to playing this cut on the radio.)

The Squirrel is a blues that captures the motions of its namesake. Davis's fills are in a Tadd groove, Payne takes five booting choruses, there's an ensemble variation (probably based on a solo from one of the many recorded versions), nice Jones trumpet, and an agile arco solo by Ridley. Philly Joe Jones is one instance where all original recording had the exact instrumentation of Dameronia. The changes remind of Dizzy's Woody'n You, and while Kenny is marvelous here in the featured role, using dynamics, space and imagination brilliantly, we should also mention Jordan's best solo (I think) on this disc, and the fine piano. This piece builds to a genuine climax and Larry was right to ask Kenny to take a bow.

We conclude with a masterpiece- the mini-suite Fontainebleau inspired by a visit when Tadd was in France for the first time for the 1949 Paris Jazz Festival (where Miles Davis, James Moody and Kenny Clarke were sidemen in his group). The three segments (La Foret, Les Cygnes, L 'Adieu) are performed without interruption, and the shining instrumental textures allow each instrument a moment in the sun. The playing here does justice to a composition that indicates what Tadd might have been capable of creating in larger forms had he been given the opportunity.But we're lucky to have what we have of Tadd Dameron's legacy, which this recording further enhances.”

- Dan Morgenstern

The following video montage of images of drummers Philly Joe Jones and Kenny Washington is accompanied by the Dameronia version of Tadd’s Philly JJ that was recorded at Alice Tully Hall at the Lincoln Center in New York City in August 1988. Kenny’s drum solos on the piece give a nod to Philly Joe Jones’s influence but are powerfully Kenny’s statement from conception to execution. Today’s Jazz drummers tend to be in the ambit of Elvin Jones and Tony Williams, but Kenny found his muse in Philly.

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