Friday, March 31, 2017

Dexter Gordon - "Take the 'A' Train"

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

Earlier this year, the editorial staff at JazzProfiles posted reviews of two newly released recordings by the late, iconic tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon in Europe in the late 1960’s: [1] Fried Bananas [Gearbox GB 1535] and [2] Dexter Gordon: Both Sides of Midnight [Black Lion Records BLP 60103; ORGM-1062].

The distinguishing features of both these recordings was that they were recorded in performance in Europe, with European-based rhythm sections [that included some American expatriates], and all showcased Dex and the group stretching out over extended improvisations.

If this wasn’t a surfeit of riches, along comes a third recording by Dexter with these same distinguishing features in the form of ORG Music Group’s LP reissue of the Black Lion LP - Dexter Gordon: Take the ‘A’ Train [ Black Lion LP 60133; ORGM-2085].

In our commentary about  Dexter Gordon: Both Sides of Midnight we drew the distinction between “stretching out” [taking extended choruses] and “saying something” [playing a long solo that engages a listener’s attention because of the manner in which it is structured and its storytelling qualities].

Besides the technical mastery of the instrument that allows for the easy flow of ideas, why are Dexter Gordon’s extended solos so good?

The answer to that question lies in the late, great bassist, bandleader and composer Charles Mingus assertion that “You have to improvise on something.”

And in terms of that “something,” master Jazz musicians like Charles and Dexter Gordon knew that the better the melodic and harmonic basis for the improvisation the easier it was to take extended solos over them.

Interestingly, two of the tunes on Dexter Gordon: Take the ‘A’ Train are included with the 100 Jazz Standards in the eminent Jazz scholar Ted Gioia’s book The Jazz Standards A Guide to the Repertoire because not only are all Jazz musicians expected to know the melody and the chord changes to these tunes, they are also melodies that musicians find intriguing in the sense that they facilitate their ability to say something in the form of expressive and meaningful solos. They can play all day on the melody and chords of these tunes.

And that exactly what Dex, Kenny and NHOP do on But Not For Me and Take the A Train. Ted explains why this is so in the following excerpts from his definitive book

But Not for Me
Composed by George Gershwin, with lyrics by Ira Gershwin

“One of George Gershwin's most beloved standards, "But Not for Me" seems to find a new crossover audience every decade. Film makers love it—not only did the original Broadway musical (Gershwin's Girl Crazy from 1930) inspire three movie adaptations, but "But Not for Me" has regularly appeared in later hit films, including Woody Allen's Manhattan (1979), Rob Reiner's When Harry Met Sally (1989), and Mike Newell's Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994). The song even inspired its own movie, Walter Lang's But Not for Me (1959), which was one of Clark Gable's final efforts.

The song gained some traction with jazz players during the 1940's—Harry James even enjoyed a modest hit with his 1941 recording, which featured vocalist Helen Forrest — but Gershwin's composition was better suited for the cool jazz stars of the 1950's. Chet Baker may have lacked Ella's technique and range, but his 1954 recording of "But Not for Me" ranks among his finest moments in the studio, both for its quintessentially cool vocal and his lyrical trumpet solo. Four months later, Miles Davis recorded the song for his Bags' Groove album, and his two released takes find him playing it initially in a medium tempo similar to Baker's approach, while the second take is faster, and a better setting for his front-line bandmate Sonny Rollins. Ahmad Jamal delivered an appealingly understated piano performance on his live recording from the Pershing from 1958, which was one of the best-selling jazz albums of the period. The Modern Jazz Quartet and Kenny Burrell offered similarly subdued interpretations around this same time.

Most later jazz renditions of "But Not for Me" have kept to the cool ethos. But Coltrane offered a dissenting view with his 1960 recording from his My Favorite Things album. He incorporates his "Giant Steps" chord substitution scheme into the Gershwin piece, and the result is a case study in the advanced harmonic concepts of the time, worthy of inclusion in the curriculum of any jazz educational institution.

Dexter Gordon dispenses with the Coltrane chord changes but achieves a similar energy level on his 1967 recording in Copenhagen, an intense 15-minute outing on "But Not for Me" — including nine full tenor choruses that persuasively demonstrate why this saxophonist was such a formidable combatant at a jam session.”

Take the A Train
Composed by Billy Strayhorn  

Strayhorn had been working on the piece as early as 1939, but was hesitant about presenting it to Ellington because he feared that it sounded like the type of song that Fletcher Henderson, an Ellington rival, might use. … Ellington's decision to adopt the song as his new theme was validated by its immense success. His February 1941 recording stayed on the chart for seven weeks, and soon the tune was picked up by other bandleaders. ...

The hook in the melody stems from its willingness to land emphatically on the flat fifth — the most modern and unstable of the blue notes — in the opening phrase. The effect is jarring but in an uplifting way, and demonstrates that what most Tin Pan Alley composers might have dismissed as excessive dissonance could, in the context of the Ellington band, serve as the most memorable moment in a hit song. …

"Take the A Train" remains a favorite among musicians and fans, and has become so well known that many outside the jazz arena—from Charlie Watts of the Rolling Stones to the rock-pop band Chicago—have tried it on for size. Like other Ellington-Strayhorn standards, "Take the A Train" is often interpreted with reverent fidelity as a period piece, yet some have managed successful reconfigurations. Clifford Brown and Max Roach mounted a hot hard bop takeover of the tune in 1955, and even do a better job than the Duke at mimicking the sound of an actual train. Among the various solo piano versions, Michel Petrucciani's riveting boogie-woogie arrangement rises far above the usual cliches of that idiom, while Sun Ra's live performance in Italy from 1977 manages somehow to respect the original spirit of the composition while gradually layering on various avant-garde elements, eventually ending with a pedal-to-the-metal explosion that threatens to derail the proceedings. But no tour of "Take the A Train" is complete if it doesn't include composer Billy Strayhorn's own performance, captured in an elegant arrangement with strings from 1961.”

Mark Gardner, a frequent contributor to JazzJournal and other Jazz periodical as well as a significant contributor to Barry Kernfeld, ed., The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, wrote the liner notes to  Dexter Gordon: Take the ‘A’ Train [ Black Lion LP 60133; ORGM-2085] and they provide some wonderful atmospheric detail as to what was going down with Dexter at the time these tracks were recorded.

“The upstairs room of a Birmingham suburban public house was the unlikely setting for my first encounter with Dexter Gordon. That was in the autumn of 1962 when the tenor saxophonist was freshly-arrived in Europe and ready to embark on one of the most productive and happy periods of his career. Clutching a glass of the local brew with no great relish, Dexter chatted affably between sets.

I remember we discussed Wardell Gray at some length, and Dexter smiled fondly as he recalled their intermittent association. He also reported having recently made some recordings with Sonny Clark which he felt were better than his earlier comeback albums.

On the stand, the six foot, five inch figure, sharply togged in houndstooth jacket, charcoal grey slacks and button-down shirt, galvanized that audience with some of the most potent playing any of us had heard. Dexter made a lot of lifetime fans that night.

Five years later, I caught up with Dexter again during a brief weekend gig he made in Manchester, at the behest of the Garside Brothers. Once again on those evenings, his work was electrifying, as Peter Clayton will confirm, since we both sat together spellbound by the power and majesty of Gordon's improvisations.

Just a few months earlier, Dex had been captured on several peak playing nights at his favorite Jazzhus Montmartre club in a series of sets recorded under the supervision of Alan Bates for Black Lion. The resultant performances were of outstanding quality.

They caught Dexter in expansive, relaxed mood in front of an appreciative audience. The Black Lions are undoubtedly among his finest European recordings. This was recognized when a brace of albums from the "Montmartre Collection" were released in the early  1970's and it was comforting to know there were more of that calibre where those came from!

In this new compilation, some 15 years later, here are some of the "more" from those exciting sessions in the Copenhagen venue which was Preacher Gordon's pulpit.

His companions were men with whom Long Tall Dexter felt secure. He had worked with pianist Kenny Drew in California during the mid-1950's, and they had later recorded together for Blue Note in New York and Paris. Close friends as well as being longstanding musical associates, their partnership flourished anew on the Continent.

Niels Henning 0rsted Pedersen was only 20 at the time of these dates, but Gordon regarded him as the best bass player in Europe, an opinion he probably still holds to this day. Actually, Niels Henning long ago became an international favorite, super soloist and a rock in any rhythm section he graces. The big Dane has more than confirmed Dexter's excellent judgement.

As for Al "Tootie" Heath, drummer and youngest of the richly talented Heath brothers, his propulsive work suited Gordon and meshed perfectly with the accompaniment of Drew and NH0P So in this quartet

A measure of the group's ease and unity of purpose is the fact that practically every performance is an extended workout, but as Dexter and Drew unfurl chorus after chorus of inspired and dramatic improvisation who notices the march of time!

As the recording begins, the leader cuts a surging swath through But Not For Me territory. The leader's style, evolved through such carefully selected influences as Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Don Byas and Ben Webster, also reveals that he closely listened to younger men like John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins. These ingredients were intelligently absorbed in a wholly personal framework. Tonally and rhythmically he is completely his own man, a proud, individualistic voice. But Not For Me contains archetypal Dexter with brilliant contributions from Drew and NH0P in deep examination of Gershwin's excellent progression. The long coda includes a number of throwaway quotations from Three Blind Mice and My Kind Of Love among others.

The other scorching item in this particular selection is an express version of Take The 'A' Train, a Duke Ellington chestnut well roasted by the saxophonist who maintains a musical outpouring that is positively majestic for nine incredible choruses. This is an object lesson in how to build a solo. Drew, whose clever paraphrase of Duke's own intro sets the scene, lays out for the opening brace by Dexter, but returns to prompt and probe. Gordon greets the pianist's resumption with a lick from "And The Angels Sing."

"Take The 'A' Train" is an essential piece of Dexteriana, a brilliant example of his colossal talent and artistic discipline. Listen to this solo 50 times and it will still surprise and satisfy.

Since the time of these recordings, Dexter Gordon has continued to flourish, making his mark as a sensitive actor in the movie Hound Midnight and recording prolifically. He re-settled in the USA during the 1970's and for the first time was signed by a major label.

However, I firmly believe that he performed at his peak in the 1960's and it is now clear that these Black Lion sessions are among his best works - full of vibrant energy and creative consistency.

I find it difficult to believe that the lean, lanky, youthful looking man I first met all those years ago is now a veteran in his 67th year. But with eyes closed and "Take

The 'A' Train" playing -  the years roll back as I'm once again in that smoke-filled pub lounge, and Dexter, knees shaking, and fingers flying is educating us all over again. And it was exactly the same, I'm sure, at the Montmartre as the hip Danes worshiped at the master's feet. We are privy to that experience on this invaluable set.”

Dexter Gordon: Take the ‘A’ Train is available in streaming, audio CD and vinyl formats from Amazon and other online retailers and it is also available through iTunes.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Mel Rhyne: 1937-2013 - R.I.P.[From The Archives]

“Rhyne immediately sounds different from the prevailing Jimmy Smith school of organ players. Instead of swirling, bluesy chords, he favors sharp, almost staccato figures and lyrical single-note runs that often don’t go quite where expected. … He has a way of voicing a line that makes you think of the old compliment about ‘making the organ speak ….’”
- Richard Cook & Brian Morton, The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, 6th Ed.

“Mel Rhyne is certainly among the best Jazz organists. He has fluent ideas, good time, and a clean, light touch. In his hands, the controversial instrument never becomes overbearing or cloying.”
Dan Morgenstern, Director, Institute for Jazz Studies, Rutgers University

"Melvin's very unique because he's got his own thing. He really doesn't play typical organ. The organ just happens to be his instrument but he doesn't use it in the common way. Like any jazz player, he plays his lines, which are really subtle and personal. It's not like he's pulling out all the stops and doing the organ thing. He's unique, like a Hank Jones of the organ, a really subtle player."
- Guitarist, Peter Bernstein

"Melvin's got great time. I noticed that the first time I played with him, that his time does not move. Not only that, his choice of bass notes is always right. In fact, just his choice of notes period, the way he constructs his lines. There's nobody around playing organ like that. He's playing just as good as he did or better than on those classic Wes Montgomery sides. It's a pleasure to play with him because his time is so steady, which is something that doesn't happen all the time and that can be very hard on the drummer. But let me tell you, it's a gas to play with Melvin Rhyne."
- Drummer, Kenny Washington

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

And making music in the context of Hammond B-3 Organ Jazz trios is also “a gas” as I can attest from personal experience.

After playing drums professionally for about 12 years, I went into a different line of work, married and began raising a family.

I did keep a set of drums around and played the odd gig now and again, which is how I happened on to an organ-trio gig that began in the Spring in 1970.

It’s easy to remember the year as April and May of 1970 witnessed the titanic seven game professional basketball battle between the New York Knicks, who were co-led by center Willis Reed and guard Walt Frazier, and the Los Angeles Lakers, co-led by center Wilt Chamberlain and guard Jerry West.

The Knicks won the best-of-seven series in seven games, much to the disappointment of Lakers fans who, at the time, were looking for the team’s first NBA title since it had moved to Los Angeles from Minneapolis a decade earlier.

The venue for the gig was an upstairs room [some referred to it an “attic”] at Woody and Eddy’s, a well-established restaurant and bar that was located at the corner of San Gabriel Blvd. and Huntington Avenue in San Marino, CA [think “the Beverly Hills” of the San Gabriel Valley; northeast of Los Angeles].  

For whatever reasons [probably increased patronage = selling more booze], the owners of Woody and Eddy’s had decided to turn the upstairs room into a Sunday afternoon Jazz club. The gig lasted from , ending just-in-time [good name for a song] for the evening supper crowd.

The call for the job came from an old high school buddy who played what musicians sometime refers to as  “arranger’s piano.” The fact that he was [and still is] primarily an arranger may have something to do with this “choice” of styles.

“Arranger’s piano” usually consists of soloing with chords instead of playing hornlike phrases with the right hand and accompanying chords or intervals with the left.

When my pal called me for the gig, he mentioned the name of a tenor saxophonist/vocalist who would be joining us, the length of the gig and the “bread” involved [money].

When I asked him who would be playing bass he said somewhat evasively: “You’ll see.”

Upon showing up early at Woody and Eddy’s in order to set-up my drums, I suddenly understood “who” the bass player was going to be when there before me was a gleaming Hammond B-3 organ with its bass keyboard foot pedals.

From the first downbeat, we jelled as a trio and the huge sound coming from the Hammond helped to envelope everyone in an atmosphere of musical merriment [the early afternoon glasses of Chardonnay may have also had something to do with the salubrious effect brought on by the music].

Almost instinctively, and perhaps in no small measure due to the presence of the Hammond, our repertoire became -  The Blues.

Also somewhat curative, my arranger- piano friend’s keyboard limitations were more than offset by the Hammond’s suitability to chords and chording.

Using the “stops” [devices that alter the sound texture] on the Hammond and locked hands [playing the same phrase in both hands at the same time], he pounded out explosive chords while the sax player sang “Goin to Kansas City” and I laid down heavy backbeats with rim shots on the snare drum.

My Slingerland Radio King snare drum really got a workout on this gig and I got extra “pop” out of it by using [very large] 1A drum sticks that had been recommended by Ron Jefferson [a drummer who had worked with organist Richard “Groove” Holmes; he was also pianist Les McCann’s regular drummer].

Luckily, too, I had remembered to bring along my 20” K-Zildjan ride cymbal and its harmonic overtones blended in perfectly with the sound of the Hammond, the tenor sax and the blues-drenched atmosphere of the music.

The most fun was watching my buddy dance his feet on the organ foot pedals which produced driving bass lines that soon had the upper floor walls of the club figuratively “breathing in and out” with their pulsations.

It was one of the best times I had ever had on a gig from every standpoint.

But it appeared that it was all going to end all-too-soon when the tenor player called in during the week to share the news that he and his wife had just celebrated the birth of their first child.

While we were delighted for he and his wife, the bad news was that he was no longer going to make the Sunday job at Woody and Eddy’s.

At this juncture, however, serendipity intervened with the result that a good gig was about to become a great one.

For obvious reasons, I had been listening to the three, superb organ-trio albums that the late guitarist Wes Montgomery made for Riverside Records before that label was besieged by financial woes and Wes made the jump to Verve Records and subsequent fame and fortune.

While listening to these sides, it dawned on me that since my earliest days in music, one of my closest friends was a guitarist who had recently gotten back into town after going on the road with Buddy Rich’s “new” big band.

To make a long story short, I telephoned him, he said that he’d love to make the gig and after we played our first song together, we knew something special was happening.

The Management at Woody and Eddy’s did as well and extended our time at the upstairs room through the Summer of 1970.  They even supplied and staffed the bar in the attic room so that the patrons didn’t have to [dangerously] go up and down the stairs to replenish their tankards [there was an elevator, but for some reason, no one ever took it as it negotiated the one flight slower than a hospital lift].

To top it all off, the guitarist taught us all of Wes’ original compositions from the Riverside albums.

I got to play on Fried Pies, Jingles and The Trick Bag, the latter becoming a solo vehicle for me until some of the early dinning patrons in the below restaurant complained to the owners about “the racket coming from upstairs.”

The organist on these, three classic organ-guitar trio LPs that Wes made for Riverside was Mel Rhyne.

Unlike my arranger-piano friend, Mel played the organ like a piano, foregoing the instrument’s theatrical effects in favor of a legato style of phrasing his solos. One thing they did have in common was a love for the instrument’s foot pedal keyboard, although Mel employs it in a more understated fashion.

After Mel made the Riverside LPs with Wes, he retired to the relative obscurity of the Jazz scene in his native Indianapolis and later moved to MilwaukeeWI where he had a prosperous career and where he was rediscovered in the 1990s by Gerry Teekens at Criss Cross Records.

All you need to know about the “disappearance” and reappearance of Mel is contained in the following insert notes by Lora Rosner from Mel Rhyne’s first Criss Cross CD which is appropriately named Melvin Rhyne: The Legend [Criss Cross Jazz 1059].

You can locate more about Mel’s Criss Cross Recordings by going here.

More of Mel with Peter Bernstein and Kenny Washington can be found at the conclusion of Lara’s notes in a video tribute to Jazz guitarist Peter Bernstein which uses as its audio track Billie’s Bounce from Melvin Rhyne’s Mel’s Spell Criss Cross CD [1118].

© -Lara Rosner/Criss Cross Records, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

"Legend" is derived from the Latin verb "legere", meaning "to collect, gather or read" and the word has come to mean "things to be read or collections of stories about notable figures"; legends are both such people and the lore that surrounds them. When a musician makes a historic contribution or is part of a historically significant group, an undying interest in the personality and the documents he has left behind, combined with a lack of current information will often engender tales of his recent activities and past achievements which are created to satisfy and feed the public's curiosity and hunger for such news. While Mel Rhyne is too modest to feel comfortable being called a legend (Teekens' title), the legend of his whereabouts and his slim recorded output from 30 years ago are now happily supplemented and brought up-to-date with fresh recordings by this brilliant, original voice on the organ and master of his instrument at the peak of his powers.

Mel Rhyne (born 10/12/36) is best known as the lyrical, inventive, understated organist and longtime associate of Wes Montgomery who complemented the guitarist so beautifully on four of his Riverside LPs, including his first and last for the label: Wes Montgomery Trio; Boss Guitar; Portrait for Wes; Guitar on the Go. Wes' Riverside recordings document the period of his first maturity and the core of his purest, most inspired, small group playing (10-9-63). Wes and Rhyne both played with great imagination and a certain disregard for convention; they also shared great respect for one another. Wes loved his "piano player's touch." Mel has a good left hand from learning boogie woogie from his father as a child, which made playing basslines easier when he began playing organ in the mid-50's in order to get more work as a sideman.

One of the first jobs he did on organ was with Roland Kirk, another highly original, maverick performer grounded in the roots of jazz and the blues. While he later became a fan of the John Coltrane Quartet with McCoy Tyner, a devotee of Red Garland and a student of great organists like Milt Buckner, Jimmy Smith, Wild Bill Davis and Jackie Davis, his earliest musical education was based on listening to Nat Cole, Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson and Erroll Garner records.
People interested in jazz history know that Chicago had DuSable H.S., Detroit had Case and Sam Brown taught at Jefferson High in south Los Angeles. Russell Brown was the open-minded band director and free spirit at Crispus Attucks, the only high school in Indianapolis' black neighborhood, who encouraged the jazz activity and featured the talents of many famous Indianapolites: J.J. Johnson; Slide Hampton; Leroy Vinnegar; Larry Ridley; Buddy Montgomery; Mel Rhyne; Freddie Hubbard; Virgil Jones; Ray Appleton - to name a few. Many young musicians took night school classes at the city's numerous clubs and after-hours joints such as the Turf Bar, the Hub-Bub, the 19th Hole, the 440 Club and of course the Ebony Missile Room where Wes Montgomery often held forth, drawing young talent and music lovers to him like a magnet.

From 1959-64 Rhyne played and toured with the guitarist except when Wes had the chance to work with his brothers as part of the Mastersounds. The difficulty of transporting an organ contributed to the group's demise but the final deathblow came when Riverside went into receivership and Creed Taylor, Wes' new manager, led him off into a world of large orchestras and more commercial music where Rhyne would have felt superfluous and out-of-place.

In 1969 Rhyne moved to Madison, Wise, to work with guitarist John Shacklett and his brother Ron Rhyne on drums and also appeared on Buddy Montgomery's This Rather than That (Impulse). Early in his career, Mel had backed great acts like T-Bone Walker, B.B. King, the Four Tops, Aretha Franklin and Arthur Prysock, but after working with Wes he only wanted to play jazz. Buddy Montgomery persuaded him to move to Milwaukee in 1973, a town with enough jazz activity at the time to keep him working and stimulated. Last year Herb Ellis asked him to play the B-3 on Roll Call (Justice) and a few months ago Milwaukee native, trumpeter Brian Lynch who has known Mel since 1974, asked the organist to appear on his third CD for Criss Cross.

A few weeks before his record date Lynch heard guitarist Peter Bernstein at the Village Gate and was so taken with his playing that he asked him to be on the date as well. Bernstein predictably gains the respect of every great musician he works with; Jimmy Cobb first asked Peter to work with him in April '89 when he was all of 21 and the guitarist recently led his own quartet featuring Cobb for a standing-room-only week at the Village Gate. Lou Donaldson thought he was listening to a Grant Green record the first time he heard Peter play, subsequently featured him on his CD, Play the Right Thing (Fantasy). Peter's playing incorporates the best qualities of Wes Montgomery and Grant Green. He's an expressive soloist whose horn-inspired lines draw much of their power, beauty and effectiveness from his soulful time.

Criss Cross producer Gerry Teekens was so pleased with the results of Lynch's date that he asked Rhyne to do an impromptu trio recording the next day and Mel was quite happy to have Bernstein and young veteran Kenny Washington with him again in the studio. Although Organ-izing (Jazzland) was issued under Rhyne's name in order to capitalize on the organ fad of the time, the LP (1960) was a thrown-together session of four blues featuring horns, organ, piano and bass which limited his role as an organist; he had no idea he was the leader of the date. It seems hard to believe but The Legend is Melvin Rhyne's first recording as a leader; the world has waited long enough and so has Rhyne. His stunningly original ideas, impeccable taste and time, humor and unique sound make this CD special from its opening moments.

After so many years of imposed silence Rhyne bursts onto CD with a performance of Eddie "Lockjaw" DavisLicks A-Plenty which conveys his youthful exuberance and enthusiasm and sheer delight in making music. While the title is an apt description of the head, a good name for the solos (especially Rhyne's) might be "Expect the Unexpected." The rhythmic shapes of his lines are irregular and unusual and have an arresting vocal quality. He plays with his audience setting up riffs which he deconstructs with subtle amendments, sly timing or the big sound of surprise when he pulls out a few more stops during a shout chorus. A drummer of Kenny Washington's caliber is needed to keep up with the organist's utterances. Bernstein can't help but respond to Rhyne and his solo reflects some of Mel's rhythmic originality. In his discreet comping Pete defers to Mel the way Mel deferred to Wes. The atmospheric Serenata is played much more slowly than usual and shows off Bernstein's beautiful sound and feeling for melody. He learned the tune in the studio without music. Mel told me that he thought Peter did a marvelous job; he was particularly happy with the trio's pleasing contrast of sound.

Dig the relaxed feeling and great solos on Savoy which is surely one of the highlights of the session. Mel digs in with a strong, dense sound and makes a blistering statement on The Trick Bag. Bernstein is an extension of Rhyne's lyricism and taste on a soulful Old Folks (gorgeous intro). Next Time You See Me was a 1958 hit for Frankie Lymon and many singers have done it since. Rhyne phrases the melody the way a vocalist would. True to his bebop roots and his own inner voice, Rhyne reinterprets Groovin' High at a brisk pace. Contributions from guests Brian Lynch and Don Braden brought the session to a close.

Melvin hopes to record again in the near future which will no doubt be eagerly anticipated. He is very happy with everyone's efforts and the music on The Legend. I'm sure all you listeners will agree with me -- it's been worth the wait!

Thanks are due to Ted Dunbar and Prof. David Baker for their invaluable insights on the Indianapolis scene. Enjoy!

Lora Rosner Jackson Heights, NY March 1992”

Mel Rhyne passed away on March 5, 2013. 

Peter Bernstein with Mel and Kenny on Billie’s Bounce.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

The Modern Jazz Quartet - "No Sun In Venice" [From the Archives]

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

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

It didn’t last very long, but it was fun while it did.

Movies and TV series with Jazz scores written and performed by prominent composers, arrangers and Jazz combos were all the rage for a while.

Johnny Mandel’s score to the movie I Want to Live, Miles Davis’ themes and improvised sketches for  Ascenseur Pour L'Echafaud (Lift To The Scaffold, and one that has always been among my favorites, pianist John Lewis’ original film score to No Sun in Venice which he performs with his colleagues on The Modern Jazz Quartet No Sun in Venice LP/CD [Atlantic 1284-2].

A recent listening of this recording prompted me to do a bit of research about the group and how John Lewis came to write and record the film score in 1957.

I must admit that the cover painting by J.M.W. Turner [1775-1851], one of a series of famous Venetian oils he created about la serenissima, may have had a great influence on my purchase of this recording as I had never heard the music of the Modern Jazz Quartet [MJQ], nor had I seen the movie.

Thus began my enamorment with one of the most unique groups in the history of Jazz.

Gary Giddins provided this background on the formation of the MJQ in these excerpts from his masterful Visions of Jazz: The First Century:

Modern Jazz Quartet [The First  Forty Years]

“‘In creating, the only hard thing is to begin,’ wrote James Russell Lowell [Poet, Harvard Professor, Editor of The Atlantic Monthly]. For the Modern Jazz Quartet, the world's most venerable chamber group in or out of jazz, the beginning was a three-year trial. Few people in the early '50s would have entertained the idea that a small jazz band could flourish over four decades, bridging generations and styles. Big bands had proved durable in part because, like symphony orchestras, they could withstand changes in personnel, and because they counted on dancers to sustain their appeal. No jazz chamber group had ever lasted more than a few seasons.

When the MJQ first convened, American music was in one of its many transitional phases. The public's taste changed with frightening alacrity. A decade earlier, the country was jitterbugging to swing. After the war, bop ruled jazz, while big bands struggled for survival and pop songs grew increasingly bland. In 1952, there was talk of a cool school in jazz, while younger listeners were drawn to rhythm and blues. A couple of years down the road, there would be hard bop, soul, and rock and roll. Then the deluge: third stream, free jazz, neo-romanticism, acid rock, new music, fusion, neoclassicism, disco, original instruments, hip hop, grunge, and more.

Yet through it all, the Modern Jazz Quartet persisted and prospered. We do well to remember that the fortieth anniversary of the MJQ in 1992 was only the seventy-fifth anniversary of jazz on records, if we honor as genesis the sensationally successful 1917 Victor release of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band's "Livery Stable Blues” b/w "Dixie Jazz Band One-Step.” Thirty-five years later, on December 22, 1952, John Lewis, Milt Jackson, Percy Heath, and Kenny Clarke met at a Manhattan recording studio leased by Prestige Records and recorded two standards ("All the Things You Are" and "Rose of the Rio Grande") and two Lewis originals with exotic names: "La Ronde," which had its origins in a piece recorded by the Dizzy Gillespie orchestra, and "Vendome," which prefigured the merging of jazz and fugal counterpoint that became an abiding trademark of the MJQ. The records were widely noted, but less widely embraced. With Lewis spending most of his time working toward a master's degree at the Manhattan School of Music, the first session was — notwithstanding a gig in an obscure Greenwich Village bistro called the Chantilly — an isolated foray.

The world was a different place that chilly day. At the very moment the quartet cut those records, President-elect Eisenhower was at the Commodore Hotel a few blocks away, meeting with a group of Negro clergymen to whom he expressed "amazement" that discrimination was widely practiced; he promised to appoint a commission to study the matter, adding that he was determined to abide by the law even if every Negro in America voted against him. Also in the news: the Soviets accused the U.S. of murdering eighty-two North Korean and Chinese POWs; allied fighter-bombers strafed Korean supply depots; more than seven hundred protesters staged a rally for the Rosenbergs at Sing Sing; Sugar Ray Robinson announced his retirement from the ring. The New York Times''s music pages noted a concert by George Szell and Guiomar Novaes and two debuts by Stravinsky, but, as was customary, expended not a word on jazz or popular music, and devoted twice the space to radio listings as to television.

In jazz, 1952 is best remembered for the formation of the MJQ, but it was also the year Count Basie (a profound influence on Lewis) returned to big band music after leading an octet for two years; Gerry Mulligan started his pathbreaking quartet; and Eddie Sauter fused with Bill Finegan. Norman Granz took Jazz at the Philharmonic to Europe, where Dizzy Gillespie's sextet was also on tour. Fletcher Henderson died, and trombonist George Lewis was born. Clifford Brown went on the road with an r & b band, while John Coltrane played section tenor for Earl Bostic and Cecil Taylor matriculated at the New England Conservatory. Louis Armstrong had two hit records, "Kiss of Fire" and a remake of "Sleepy Time Down South"; George Shearing introduced his "Lullaby of Birdland"; Thelonious Monk recorded with a trio for the first time in five years. Charlie Parker didn't record in a studio, but he kept busy, performing "Hot House" with Gillespie on TV, leading his strings at the Rockland Palace and Carnegie Hall, and working Birdland with four musicians who, one month later, would make their recorded debut as the Modern Jazz Quartet.”

[Connie Kay replaced Clarke in 1954 and remained in the drum chair with the MJQ until his death in 1994.]

In reviewing the MJQ’s recordings from 1955-onward that have been released as CD’s on Prestige, Atlantic and Pablo Records, some of the qualities that make the Modern Jazz Quartet’s music unique are described in Richard Cook and Brian Morton’s The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, 6th Ed.:

“Frequently dismissed - as unexciting, pretentious, bland, Europeanized, pat - the MJQ remained hugely popular for much of the last 30 years, filling halls and consistently outselling most other jazz acts. The enigma lies in that epithet 'Modern' for, inasmuch as the MJQ shifted more product than anyone else, they were also radicals (or maybe that American hybrid, radical-conservatives) who have done more than most barnstorming revolutionaries to change the nature and form of jazz performance, to free it from its changes-based theme-and-solos cliches. Leader/composer John Lewis has a firm grounding in European classical music, particularly the Baroque, and was a leading light in both Third Stream music and the Birth Of The Cool sessions with Gerry Mulligan and Miles Davis. From the outset he attempted to infuse jazz performance with a consciousness of form, using elements of through-composition, counterpoint, melodic variation and, above all, fugue to multiply the trajectories of improvisation. And just as people still, even now, like stories with a beginning, middle and end, people have liked the well-made quality of MJQ performances which, on their night, don't lack for old-fashioned excitement.

The fact that they had been Dizzy's rhythm section led people to question the group's viability as an independent performing unit. The early recordings more than resolve that doubt. Lewis has never been an exciting performer (in contrast to Jackson, who is one of the great soloists in jazz), but his brilliant grasp of structure is evident from the beginning. Of the classic MJQ pieces -'One Bass Hit', 'The Golden Striker', 'Bags' Groove' - none characterizes the group more completely than Lewis's 'Django', first recorded in the session of December 1954.

The Prestige [The Artistry of the Modern Jazz Quartet]is a useful CD history of the early days of the band, but it's probably better to hear the constituent sessions in their entirety. Some of the material on the original two-disc vinyl format has been removed to make way for a Sonny Rollins/MJQ set ('No Moe', 'The Stopper', 'In A Sentimental Mood', 'Almost Like Being In Love'), which is a pity, for this material was long available elsewhere.

Connie Kay slipped into the band without a ripple; sadly, his ill-health and death were the only circumstances in the next 40 years of activity necessitating a personnel change. His cooler approach, less overwhelming than Clarke's could be, was ideal, and he sounds right from the word 'go'. His debut was on the fine Concorde, which sees Lewis trying to blend jazz improvisation with European counterpoint. It combines some superb fugal writing with a swing that would have sounded brighter if recording quality had been better. Though the integration is by no means always complete, it's more appealing in its very roughness than the slick Bach-chat that turns up on some of the Atlantics.

The label didn't quite know what to do with the MJQ, but the Erteguns [Ahmet and Neshui, brothers who emigrated to the USA from Turkey] were always alert to the demographics and, to be fair, they knew good music when they heard it. One of the problems the group had in this, arguably their most consistent phase creatively, was that everything appeared to need conceptual packaging, even when the music suggested no such thing. Chance associations, like the celebrated version of Ornette's 'Lonely Woman', were doubtless encouraged by the fact that they shared a label, and this was all to the good; there are, though, signs that in later years, as rock began to swallow up a bigger and bigger market share, the group began to suffer from the inappropriate packaging. Though home-grown compositions reappear throughout the band's history (there's a particularly good 'Django' on Pyramid), there are also constant references to standard repertoire as well and some of these are among the group's greatest achievements.

By the same inverted snobbery that demands standards rather than 'pretentious classical rubbish', it's long been a useful cop-out to profess admiration only for those MJQ albums featuring right-on guests. The earlier Silver collaboration isn't as well known as a justly famous encounter with Sonny Rollins at Music Inn, reprising their encounters of 1951, 1952 and 1953, which were really the saxophonist's gigs. Restored in a fresh mastering, it's clear how much Sonny was an interloper on an already skilled, tight unit. Most of the record is by the MJQ alone, including one of their delicious standard medleys and a brilliant reading of Lewis's 'Midsommer'. The two (live) tracks which Rollins appears on aren't entirely satisfactory, since he cannot make much impression on 'Bags' Groove', already a Jackson staple, and sounds merely discursive on 'A Night In Tunisia'. Overall, this set very much belongs to the MJQ.

Lewis's first exploration of characters from the commedia dell’arte came in Fontessa, an appropriately chill and stately record that can seem a little enigmatic, even off-putting. He develops these interests considerably in the simply titled Comedy, which largely consists of dulcet character-sketches with unexpected twists and quietly violent dissonances. The themes of commedia are remarkably appropriate to a group who have always presented themselves in sharply etched silhouette, playing a music that is deceptively smooth and untroubled but which harbours considerable jazz feeling and, as on both Fontessa and Comedy, considerable disruption to conventional harmonic progression.

Given Lewis's interests and accomplishments as an orchestrator, there have been surprisingly few jazz-group-with-orchestra experiments. More typical, perhaps, than the 1987 Three Windows is what Lewis does on Lonely Woman. One of the very finest of the group's albums, this opens with a breathtaking arrangement of Ornette Coleman's haunting dirge and then proceeds with small-group performances of three works - 'Animal Dance', 'Lamb, Leopard' and 'Fugato' - which were originally conceived for orchestral performance. Remarkably, Lewis's small-group arrangements still manage to give an impression of symphonic voicings.

Kay's ill-health finally overcame him in December 1994 and the following February, the MJQ issued in his memory a concert from 1960, recorded in what was then Yugoslavia, a relatively innocuous destination on the international tour. Whatever its historical resonance, it inspired (as John Lewis discovered when he auditioned these old tapes) one of the truly great MJQ performances, certainly one of the very best available to us on disc. It knocks into a cocked hat even the new edition of the so-called Last Concert. Jackson's playing is almost transcendentally wonderful on 'Bags' Groove' and 'I Remember Clifford', and the conception of Lewis's opening commedia sequence could hardly be clearer or more satisfying. Dedicated To Connie is a very special record and has always been our favourite of the bunch, ….”

Gary Kramer provides this explanation of the turn-of-events that brought about the occasion of John Lewis’ film score for No Sun in Venice in his insert notes to The Modern Jazz Quartet No Sun in Venice LP/CD [Atlantic 1284-2].

“In December 1956 the globe-trotting Modern Jazz Quartet found itself in Paris. Among the enthusiastic Parisians who flocked to St. Germain-des-Pres to hear the group was Raoul Levy, producer of the film And God Created Woman and other international cinema hits. Levy did not come over to the Left Bank merely to spend a pleasant evening digging jazz sounds, but to make John Lewis a business proposition. He was about to produce Sait-On Jamais, a film to star Francoise Arnoul, and wanted to know whether John would be free to write the background music and whether it would be possible to use The Modern Jazz Quartet to make the soundtrack.

John consented to write the score and worked on it assiduously during his scanty leisure hours while he and the Quartet were touring the United States in the first months of 1957. Despite the fact that some of the music was written in Los Angeles, some in Chicago, some of it in New York, the score has structural unity and a high degree of internal organization. It was John Lewis' first film score and represented a special challenge. As he put it, "Jazz is often thought to be limited in expression. It is used for 'incidental music' or when a situation in a drama or film calls for jazz, but rarely in a more universal way apart from an explicit jazz context. Here it has to be able to run the whole gamut of emotions and carry the story from beginning to end."”

Sait-On Jamais (a literal translation of which is One Never Knows) was released in the United States in 1957 as No Sun In Venice by Kinglsey International Pictures.

As I write this feature almost fifty years later, I still have not seen the movie. I noticed that it is now available on DVD, but at $60 bucks, I think I’ll pass.

However, in the intervening half century, I have listened to John Lewis’s score to the film many times and I highly recommend it to you.

The following video contains lots of the renown artist JMW Turner's iconic images of Venice as set to the Cortege track from John Lewis score to One Never Knows.

Connie Kay's use of triangles, finger cymbals, tambourines, open high hats and mallets on cymbals to create gong-like effects almost adds a forbidden sense of joy to this dirge.