Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Charlie Mariano - A JazzProfiles Snapshot

© -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’ve 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, 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.

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.

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