© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
One thing often leads to another when the editorial staff at JazzProfiles goes hunting through its extensive library and recording collection to prepare these features.
Inevitably, we get so caught up listening to the music of a proposed feature such that other ideas about related postings come to mind.
This is exactly what happened while preparing a general overview of Noal Cohen and Michael Fitzgerald Second Edition of Rat Race Blues: The Musical Life of Gigi Gryce.
Out came the Gigi Gryce recordings and while listening to them I was reminded of my particular fondness for the LPs that Gigi made with The Jazz Lab, a quintet that he co-led with trumpeter Donald Byrd.
When we returned to Noal and Michael’s “Gigi Book,” here’s what we found about The Jazz Lab’s short-lived but amazingly productive existence.
“BY THE MEASURE OF RECORDING ACTIVITY, at least, Gryce's jazz career peaked in 1957. This would be his most productive period nor only as a leader, but as a sideman and writer on several recording sessions of high quality and great importance. It was at this time also that he would solidify his group conception of jazz, utilizing as a unifying element his series of recordings as co-leader of a quintet with Donald Byrd. And having entered the elite group of New York musicians capable of filling roles in a variety of settings, he was now getting sufficient work to ensure financial security. …
A very important event occurred in early 1957 when Gryce and Donald Byrd decided to join forces and co-lead the Jazz Lab ensemble. Seven years Gryce's junior, Byrd (1932-2013) relocated from his native Detroit to New York permanently in 1955, and soon thereafter was ensconced in the jazz scene, working and recording with nearly all of the hard bop stalwarts including Jackie McLean, John Coltrane, George Wallington, Art Blakey, and Horace Silver. He shared with Gryce a formal musical training, having received a Bachelor of Music degree from Wayne State University in 1954. Byrd also studied in Paris with Nadia Boulanger (1963) and later became an educator, obtaining advanced degrees from Manhattan School of Music and Columbia University. At the time of his death  he was teaching at Delaware State University as a distinguished artist-in-residence.
Fluent and lyrical, Byrd's style, like that of Art Farmer before him, fit beautifully with the conception of Gryce, spinning long, graceful lines in his solos. His facility at very fast tempi was notable, and in general his approach was somewhat more aggressive than that of Farmer, but not to the extent that it conflicted with or overshadowed that of Gryce. Furthermore, Byrd had an interest in writing and would contribute both originals and arrangements of standard tunes to the group's repertoire.
The name "Jazz Lab" might suggest an esoteric or academic approach to ensemble performance, but in reality the music the band offered was most accessible. It consisted of original compositions (many taken from Gryce's publishing company) and cleverly reworked standards. Blues were an important component of the repertoire. Gryce, who appeared to be the more dominant musical force of the two co-leaders, summed up the philosophy the band espoused:
The Modern Jazz Quartet will come to a club or concert and play very soft subtle music, and then Blakey will come around like thunder. We're trying to do both, and a few other things he-sides. Insofar as I can generalize, our originals and arrangements concentrate on imaginative use of dynamics and very strong rhythmic and melodic lines. We try to both give the listener something of substance that he can feel and understand and also indicate to the oriented that we're trying to work in more challenging musical forms and to expand the language in other ways.
One advantage, we hope, of the varied nature of our library, which is now over a hundred originals and arrangements, is that in the course of a set, almost any listener can become fulfilled. If he doesn't dig one, he may well dig the next because it will often be considerably different. Several people write for us in addition to Donald Byrd, myself, and others within the group. We have scores by Benny Golson, Ray Bryant, and several more.
A point I'm eager to emphasize is that the title, Jazz Lab, isn't meant to connote that we're entirely experimental in direction. We try to explore-all aspects of modern jazz—standards, originals, blues, hard swing, anything that can be filled and transmuted with jazz feeling. Even our experimentations are quite practical; they're not exercises for their own sake. They have to communicate feeling. For example, if we use devices like counterpoint, we utilize them from inside jazz. We don't go into Bach, pick up an invention or an idea for one, and then come back into jazz. It all stays within jazz in feeling and rhythmic flow and syncopation. In any of our work in form, you don't get the feeling of a classical piece. This is one of the lessons I absorbed from Charlie Parker. I believe that one of the best — and still fresh — examples of jazz counterpoint is what Charlie did on "Chasing the Bird."
We want to show how deep the language is; in addition to working with new forms, we want to go back into the language, show the different ways the older material can be formed and re-formed. We want to have everything covered. My two favorite musicians among the younger players may give a further idea of what I believe. Sonny Rollins and Benny Golson are not playing the cliches, and they play as if they have listened with feeling and respect to the older men like Herschel Evans, Chu Berry, and Coleman Hawkins. They're not just hip, flashy moderns.
In its brief existence of barely a year, the Jazz Lab quintet utilized some of the finest rhythm section accompanists available: pianists Tommy Flanagan, Wynton Kelly, Hank Jones, and the underappreciated Wade Legge (1934-1963), a great talent who passed away at the age of only 29; bassists Wendell Marshall and Paul Chambers; and drummers Art Taylor and Osie Johnson. During this period, the Jazz Lab recorded for no fewer than five different labels, at thirteen sessions, producing a total of six LPs, all of which helped to establish a high standard for ensemble performance within the hard bop genre.'
On February 4, 1957, a landmark jazz recording took place, the debut of the Donald Byrd-Gigi Gryce Jazz Lab on Columbia Records [CL998], the most prestigious label in the business. At this time it was the label of Dave Brubeck, Miles Davis, and Duke Ellington. The Jazz Lab was signed just after Columbia dropped Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers upon completion of three albums, the first of which Byrd had participated in. Gryce returned to the nonet instrumentation (the working Jazz Lab quintet augmented by four additional horns) to reprise three compositions from earlier sessions. The fledgling Signal label on which Gryce had recorded in 1955 would soon be history, and Gryce was apparently hoping to capitalize on the distribution and publicity advantages now available through his association with a large, well-established record company.
To this end, "Speculation" was recorded for the third time in two years in very much the same format as the original version but with some modifications in the solo patterns. Now Byrd, Gryce, and pianist Tommy Flanagan each take an introductory chorus to begin the proceedings, but Gryce's solo following the theme is only two choruses as opposed to four in the earlier version. This is unfortunate since his playing is now more assertive and developed, although still very much in the Charlie Parker mold in this blues setting. In general, solo space on the nonet tracks is limited, probably because of Gryce's desire to include as much material as possible.
"Smoke Signal" is also performed using the same basic arrangement as on the Signal date but in a slightly shorter version wherein Gryce and Byrd split a chorus, the piano solo is omitted, and Art Taylor's drum feature is only a half chorus versus Kenny Clarke's earlier full-chorus outing. This track was not released with the original LP, Don Byrd-Gigi Gryce Jazz Lab, but appeared for the first time on a Columbia anthology entitled Jazz Omnibus (and not on CD until 2006) along with selections from many other artists associated with that label, including Louis Armstrong, Dave Brubeck, J.J. Johnson, Erroll Garner, Miles Davis, and Art Blakey.
Gryce's fourth recording of "Nica's Tempo" borrows elements from the Oscar Pettiford chart but features a new and attractively voiced introduction. The soloists, who again take only one chorus each, are the composer (in fine form), Byrd, Flanagan, and Taylor.
The very next day the quintet recorded two tracks, again for Columbia. Gryce's arrangement of "Over the Rainbow" is typical of the jazz Lab approach to standards, fresh yet accessible. This 1939 chestnut is transformed from a ballad into a swinging medium-tempo piece in which the melody has been reformulated rhythmically and embellished harmonically to provide a very appealing and memorable frame for the improvisations. Byrd, Gryce, and Flanagan each provide two choruses, while bassist Wendell Marshall plays one.
In the same lyrical vein, a second version of "Sans Souci" was recorded, this time at a faster tempo than in 1955 and now featuring Flanagan's celeste in the introduction and coda. Gryce utilized this instrument more and more during 1957 sessions for a different orchestral color (it was probably only available at the better recording studios). The pianist lays out or "strolls" during the first of Gryce's two solo choruses, a practice commonly employed by hard bop ensembles of this period to offer some variety and tension to performances. The routine conforms to the 1955 Prestige version with Byrd and Flanagan each taking two choruses, and the same shout variation leads to Marshall's solo which continues for another chorus. The final track of the first Columbia Jazz Lab LP was recorded a few weeks later (March 13) and was yet another return to earlier material, this time "Blue Concept," in its third incarnation. Wade Legge was back on piano in the quintet. Always conscious of form and eager to avoid a haphazard jam-session approach, Gryce updated the Prestige version with shout figures behind the horn soloists and an interlude incorporating "The Hymn," made famous by Charlie Parker.
On March 13, 1957, Gryce returned to the nonet instrumentation to record the very first version of Benny Golson's touching tribute to Clifford Brown, "I Remember Clifford," arranged by the composer, as well as the waltz by Randy Weston, "Little Niles," dedicated to Weston's son. Gryce's playing on all the Columbia sessions is especially robust and consistent, and his solo on the Weston piece displays his most soulful traits. Jimmy Cleveland has a special fondness for these Columbia sessions:
“Yeah, they're great. I thought they were just out of sight. The personnel was great, you know. That's the other thing too. He made sure he got the right kind of guys to work together great and get the concept that he’s looking for.””
The following video montage features The Jazz Lab on Gigi’s An Evening in Casablanca which can be heard on the group’s second Columbia LP - Modern Jazz Perspective [CL 1058]. Here’s how Gigi described the structure of the tune in Nat Hentoff’s liner notes:
“While with Lionel Hampton's band a few years ago, Gigi played North Africa, including Casablanca, and while still there, excerpts from what later turned out to be An Evening In Casablanca began forming into a song. "I guess," he adds, "you could call the introduction Arabian-like, It's also an attempt to describe musically what I'd seen and felt. It had been the warm part of the year; it was dusty; the winds were blowing; and yet it was relaxed. It's based on a minor key and ends in major and some of the inner harmonic workings are a little unorthodox. The first statement is 24 bars; there's an 8-bar bridge; and then a final 14. We do another thing differently here in that we switch parts. After the introduction, the trumpet takes the melody while the alto plays the moving harmony part in the background. At the bridge, the alto takes melody and the trumpet plays the background. The alto keeps the melody from the bridge throughout the latter part of the return of the theme. Then there's an interlude reminiscent of the introduction followed by a piano solo. The trumpet takes the bridge of the piano solo ad lib and the alto freely improvises the last statement of the them toward the end of which the horns come together for a retard ending."