Wednesday, March 25, 2015

The Jazztet - Hard Bop at Its Refined Best

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


“The Jazztet was formed in 1959, and evolved from a series of associations in several contexts involving trumpeter Art Farmer, tenor saxophonist Benny Golson and trombonist Curtis Fuller. Two of these players, Golson and Fuller, also put in time in the ranks of Art Blakey's outfit, but The Jazztet is not consistently identified as a group in quite the same way as the Jazz Messengers these days (both the All Music Guide to Jazz and the Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD simply list their records under Art Farmer, presumably on the rather non-analytical basis of alphabetical order).

Nonetheless, and despite considerable fluctuation of personnel around the core pairing of Farmer and Golson, The Jazztet created their own sophisticated sound within a basic hard bop framework. Farmer and Golson had worked briefly together in 1953 in Lionel Hampton's band, and again in 1957 with Oscar Pettiford. The trumpeter played on Golson's New York Scene (Contemporary) in 1958, and the saxophonist returned the compliment on Farmer's Modem Art (United Artists) the same year.

All three backed Abbey Lincoln on her It's Magic album for Riverside in 1958, and Golson and Fuller made several recordings together, including Golson's The Other Side of Benny Golson (Riverside), Gone With Golson, Groovin’ With Golson and Gettin’ With It (all Prestige New Jazz), and Fuller's Blues-ette (Savoy), as well as a date with Philly Joe Jones on Drums Around The World (Riverside), and Farmer's Brass Shout (United Artists), a brass tentet session for which Golson supplied the arrangements. Farmer also played on Fuller's third date for Blue Note in December, 1957.

The trombonist assembled a sextet with Lee Morgan and Hank Mobley for Sliding Easy (United Artists) in March, 1959, with some Golson arrangements. The Jazztet name first appeared on record on a Curtis Fuller album for Savoy, Curtis Fuller Jazztet featuring Benny Golson, recorded on 25 August, 1959, but with Lee Morgan on trumpet (a second Savoy session in December, Imagination, also featured a sextet, but not under the Jazztet name this time, and with Thad Jones on trumpet).

The official debut of The Jazztet took place three months later on 16 November, 1959, playing opposite the Ornette Coleman Quartet at the Five Spot in New York. Curtis Fuller, who would leave the band within months, recalled the circumstances of its formation in a Down Beat interview in March, 1981: 'Benny Golson and I had a quintet. That's how it started. He was leaving the Messengers and I was leaving Quincy Jones's band. Anyway, we formed this group and I called it The Jazztet; but there was a little shakeup there. Art Farmer and Benny Golson, being older and the two real musicians of the group, were the power brokers. We got McCoy [Tyner] out of Philadelphia and that made it a sextet. Before that, Lee Morgan and I had been playing in the John Coltrane sextet, so this was in the works anyway - the jazz sextet.'

The Coltrane sextet which he mentions here had recorded the saxophonist's classic Blue Train in 1958, his only date for Blue Note. Miles Davis's great sextet with Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley was also active at this time, but with a front line of trumpet and two saxophones rather than trombone (Miles had dabbled with a trombone in several short-lived bands, including a line-up which briefly included Fuller). Golson had already featured a sextet on his album The Modern Touch for Riverside in 1957 (with Kenny Dorham and J. J. Johnson as the brass players), and the idea of a new working unit in that format was in his mind when he left The Jazz Messengers in 1959, having played a major role in restructuring both the band and its book.

He had been playing regularly in a quintet with Fuller, and the pieces fell neatly into place for the new band, as he described in a Down Beat interview in May, 1960: 'It was very sudden. I was planning to start a sextet last fall. And I heard that Art was leaving Gerry Mulligan. I planned to ask him to join the sextet, In the meantime, unknown to me, he was planning a quintet, and he was thinking of asking me to join him. When I called him, he started laughing. So we got together and consolidated our plans.'


The new band made their studio debut for Argo in February, 1960. Meet The Jazztet featured the three horn men with a rhythm section of McCoy Tyner on piano, Art Farmer's twin brother, Addison Farmer, on bass, and Lex Humphries on drums, but the band was never to achieve much stability of personnel beyond the key Farmer-Golson association at its heart (a reality already reflected in their more prominent billing on the cover).

As the All Music Guide suggests, this album is a genuine hard bop classic. It included three of Golson's best known compositions, the first recorded version of Killer Joe, and the band's takes on I Remember Clifford and Blues March. The principal soloists are in disciplined but inventive mood throughout, while Golson's arrangements add interest beyond the routine ensemble heads of the period, but without tying up the music in overly elaborate fashion. The overall effect is both less driving and more thoughtful than the general run of hard bop.

By their second date for Argo in September, 1960, only Farmer and Golson remained from the earlier line-up. Fuller had left the band in not entirely amicable fashion in June (Down Beat reported that the trombonist 'pulled out without giving notice at the end of a one-day engagement at the Brooklyn Paramount theater'), to be replaced in quick succession by Willie Wilson, Bernard McKinney and, by the time of the record date, Tom Mclntosh.

McCoy Tyner had joined John Coltrane (Golson has told the story of how his old Philadelphia buddy had helped rescue a stranded Tyner when he broke down en route to New York to join The Jazztet, then promptly 'stole' him for his own band, although Coltrane had the pianist in mind prior to his arrival in New York in any case), to be replaced firstly by Duke Pearson, then Cedar Walton. Tommy Williams had taken Addison Farmer's place on bass, and Tootie Heath, another Philadelphian, occupied the drum seat.

That version of the band recorded Big City Sounds in September, and the game of musical chairs settled down long enough for the same personnel to record two more albums for the label. In December, 1960, they met up with pianist John Lewis for a session released as The Jazztet and John Lewis. It featured six of Lewis's own compositions which he had arranged specifically for the date, including versions of Django, Milano and 2 Degrees East, 3 Degrees West. They closed their account at Argo with The Jazztet at Birdhouse, a live set recorded at the Chicago club of that name on 15 May, 1961.

Big City Sounds again foregrounded Golson's skills as a composer and arranger, including four of his own tunes, The Cool One, Blues on Down, Bean Bag, and the evocative Five Spot After Dark. His subtle harmonies and voicings again lent a sophisticated air to the music, providing both attractive ensemble passages and a productive framework for the soloists. Golson described his aims as a composer in the original sleeve notes for the record: ‘I don't want to venture too far out. I don't want to be too complex. Basically I'd like to stay simple. I'd like to write melodically, and pretty harmonically. I'm not looking for anything that's going to revolutionize music. I like, most of all in writing, beauty.'

Farmer, on the other hand, was an infrequent composer - he had contributed one tune, Mox Nix, to Meet The Jazztet (it had previously appeared on Modern Art), but none on this session. The other selections include a sparkling version of Randy Weston's Hi-Fly, with Walton in scintillating form, their interpretations of Dizzy Gillespie's Con Alma and J. J. Johnson's Lament, and the standards My Funny Valentine and Wonder Why.

Mclntosh is not Fuller's equal as a soloist, but holds his own, while Farmer and Golson vie with one another to produce the most fluent, lyrical soloing, and trade glowing exchanges in Five Spot After Dark. The live setting on the Birdhouse disc allows the band to stretch out, notably on an extended version of Farmer's Farmer's Market and Monk's ‘Round Midnight, both arranged by Golson, and an arrangement by J. J. Johnson of his own Shutterbug.


At their best, The Jazztet leavened the visceral, earthy appeal of hard bop with a more sophisticated approach to arranging, and achieved a highly effective balance between the two. While their command of uptempo material was exhilarating, one of the most vivid examples of their approach is found in their live version of ‘Round Midnight from the Birdhouse set.

Golson's arrangement opens unexpectedly, with a single declamatory brass note. Walton begins an atmospheric introduction which glides into Farmer's opening statement of the melody on flugelhorn, eventually harmonised by a lovely voicing on the other horns. Golson comes in with a warm, romantic tenor statement, quickening the pace in deft fashion just ahead of another declamatory ensemble statement. Farmer's bold second entry is on trumpet, again supported by delicate horn fills, and provides a striking contrast with his earlier contribution.

Golson's tenor solo is the centrepiece of the performance, a buoyant, lyrical creation which gradually deepens and darkens, growing in both invention and emotional intensity. It is as good a statement of his gifts as a soloist as exists on record. Farmer returns on flugelhorn, imposing a reversion to a gentler mood, and generating an evocative late-night atmosphere within another impeccably controlled narrative.

Walton opts for a bluesy feel in keeping with Farmer's mood, expanding his original idea in a short but inventive solo. Mclntosh is more prosaic in his own solo, but retains the evolving feel of the piece, and the other horns again weave subtle background statements around his trombone, leading into the concluding ensemble finale, which supplies a quietly dramatic ending to a quietly epic performance. As an example of the way in which they were consistently able to marry imaginative soloing with meticulous structural integrity, it can hardly be bettered.

The band made only two more records in this first phase of their existence, both for Mercury. Here and Now was recorded in February and March, 1962, and Another Git Together followed in May and June. Both featured another new version of the group, in which Farmer and Golson were joined by Grachan Moncur III on trombone, Harold Mabern on piano, Herbie Lewis on bass and Roy McCurdy on drums. The other notable change on these discs is the increasing use of flugelhorn, an instrument which Farmer quickly came to favour over trumpet.

Both these sessions produced strong albums, but The Jazztet did not succeed in making any real financial success, and the co-leaders decided to call it a day. The two principals went in contrasting directions.”   [Sources Argo and Mercury LP insert notes and Kenny Mathieson’s Cookin’].”


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