Monday, September 15, 2014

Tadd Dameron - Fontainebleau - Max Harrison

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

Fontainebleau originates from Tadd Dameron’s last full year of freedom [1956] before the term of imprisonment that more of less ended his career [he was released from prison in 1962 and died of cancer in 1965].

It is a fine set with no clutter in the horns. The title piece if entirely written-out with no scope for improvisation.

Here is Jazz critic Max Harrison’s of it from the February, 1960 edition of the Jazz Review.

© -Max Harrison, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“Dameron should have been one of the most prominent jazz composers, arrangers and bandleaders in the immediate postwar years for he was certainly among the most gifted. He lacked technical slickness, and that was surely a disadvantage in the busy world of the record makers, but nearly everything he wrote was modestly yet firmly individual. The melodic style, warm but fresh, was the most distinctive single aspect of Dameron's work, yet his orchestration for small and medium-sized groups was instantly recognisable, too. Confining himself mainly to conventional instrumentations, and never seeking really unusual sounds, his textures are almost always striking.

The concise inventiveness of many of his themes, such as Ladybird, Cool breeze, Stay on it, Jahbero, Our delight, The Squirrel, Half step down, please, Symphonette, Hothouse and Good Bait, won them classic status in the jazz of the 19408, and they gave rise to remarkable improvisations by Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Fats Navarro and others. Navarro was, indeed, the finest interpreter the composer ever found, and they recorded together often during those years. Following the great trumpeter's premature death in 1950, Dameron's career appeared to lose its impetus, and from then until his own demise in 1965 little was salvaged except bits and pieces. Malcolm Lowry (Dark as the Grave, London,1969) compares an artist to a fireman rescuing valuables from a burning house, that house being the work of art, unscathed, intact in the mind which conceived it, but which the artist has had to set on fire before he can exteriorise it. What he finishes with—the 'completed work' —is a small heap of salvaged objects. This will scarcely serve for the greatest works of art, but it would be hard to better as an image of the last decade and a half of Dameron's life.

He had the more gifted jazzman's usual ambition to break out of the straitjacket of repeating twelve- and thirty-two-bar choruses, and wrote an extended piece called Soulphony for Gillespie to play at Carnegie Hall. This has sunk without a trace, but he made further attempts, and the most convincing is Fontainebleau, which he first recorded in 1956 (American Prestige D7842). It tries to suggest, rather than directly portray, the palace of that name (described in the sleeve note of the original American issue as "where the Bourbons used to cavourt"!) and the surrounding forest.

According to Dameron, the quite simple formal plan has three parts. The first, Leforet, opens with a brooding introductory theme that is heard first on the string bass, then on bass doubled with baritone saxophone, then on the remaining horns—trumpet, trombone, alto and tenor saxophones. This leads to the main theme of the section, and of the whole work, stated by Kinny Dorham's trumpet. It is a flowing, lyrical melody characteristic of the composer, and, though perhaps unsuitable for large-scale development, is entirely suitable for its limited use here. This theme is extended in a written-out (not improvised) alto saxophone solo played most expressively by Sahib Shihab, and by the ensemble. A transitional piano solo from Dameron himself leads to Les cygnes.

This opens with a brief ensemble that manages to suggest the main Foret theme without direct statement, and then a baritone saxophone ostinato bridges to the Cygnes theme, the other principal idea of Fon-tainebleau. It is announced on baritone saxophone and trombone accompanied from above with another ostinato by alto and tenor saxophones. As this is developed, trumpet and alto interject motives derived from the main Foret theme.

Transition from Les cygnes to L'adieu is ill-defined and the third section introduces no fresh material. It begins with another ensemble suggesting the chief Foret theme, followed by the baritone saxophone ostinato that earlier appeared at the be ginning of Les cygnes. Over this a modification of the Cygnes theme itself is given out by alto and tenor saxophones, and it resolves, still supported with the baritone ostinato, to the introductory Foret theme on alto, then on both alto and tenor. This, too, is in modified form—almost jaunty compared with its sombre initial appearance. Restatements of this motive, by trumpet, then by alto and tenor saxophones, alternate with two further ensembles, the last of which brings Fontainebleau to a close.

It is typical of Dameron to proceed by suggestion rather than direct statement, but his thematic cross-references from one section to another help to produce a satisfyingly tight structure. And the listener's interest is sustained by real melodic invention. As usual, the orchestration is effective, and recalls a comment by Dexter Gordon (Quoted in Ira Gitler, Jazz Masters of the 40s, New York, 1966), made after playing some Dameron scores, that every line—all the subsidiary parts—had melodic significance, not just the top one. In fact variety is achieved here with diversified themes and the melodic extensions arising from them, by line, that is, not colour. Colour and texture have their place, however, and the composer gets a notable effect by introducing two of his themes— the Foret introduction and Les cygnes—in low register and then transposing them to high on their reappearances. Similarly, the baritone saxophone ostinato is succeeded by an alto and tenor one in Les cygnes.

These changes, allied to the slowly quickening tempo, produce a feeling of increasing brightness as the work moves from its brooding start to an affirmative conclusion. The weaknesses, as noted, are the vague demarcation between Les cygnes and L'adieu, and the fact that the latter, because it introduces no material of its own, does not constitute a truly independent third section: another theme was needed, and it is hard to believe that Dameron would have found it difficult to think of one.

Fontainebleau leaves no room for improvisation, but this performance is considerably aided by Dorham's trumpeting, by Sahib Shihab's alto and Cecil Payne's baritone saxophone, and by Shadow Wilson's drumming. The ensemble playing is scarcely in the highest class, yet a more cleanly executed reading by a larger group which the composer recorded in 1962 (American Riverside RLP419]) has a rather unpleasant routine-session glibness which robs the piece of some of its character. Dameron often complained about the poor quality of the performances his work received, and insisted that he was poorly represented on records, but Dorham and Co. showed a proper understanding of his pithy yet relaxed music ….”
Jazz Review, February 1960

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