Friday, August 18, 2017

On "Expedition" with Denny Zeitlin and George Marsh

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

“Our goal has been to approach the music without a score or any preconception; to be as fully present as possible, "riding the moment," and allowing the music to go where it wants — without any constraint of genre, or fixed harmonic, rhythmic, or melodic structure. We hope that what emerges are spontaneous compositions that have freshness, beauty, excitement, internal logic, new sounds, and a sense of journey — an "expedition."”
- Denny Zeitlin

This piece gets it title from the recently released Sunnyside CD Expedition [SSC 1487] that features keyboard artist Denny Zeitlin and percussionist George Marsh, which is a follow-up, or perhaps a better way to phrase it would be a follow-on to their critically acclaimed Riding the Moment which was issued by Sunnyside in 2015.

The common element in both of these recordings is spontaneous improvisation [or what Denny refers to as “spontaneous compositions”] by Denny and George in a quest for new sounds, what Stan Kenton termed “neophonic” music some years ago. Of course, the entire history of Jazz could be considered the ultimate neophonic musical progression as the sound of the music was constantly in flux due to the changing styles in which it is played.

The same holds true today and alterations in Jazz are even more dramatic now that it has assumed international proportions.

But while Kenton’s neophonic Jazz was predicated on arranged and written out compositions that select soloists used as a point of departure for their improvisation, Denny and George have opted for a more immediately responsive, almost reactive, basis for their improvisation by essentially interacting with one another while playing their instruments over a span of time or what Denny refers to as “real time.”

There are compositions on Expedition, thirteen of them, in fact, but I suspect that their real purpose is to basically set the mood for what is referred to as the duo electro-acoustic improvisations.

This is mind-centered music, which is not as redundant or obvious a description as it might seem, in that all musical performance requires a mental preparedness to execute along with trained muscle memory and breathing techniques depending on what instrument is being played.

Heard in the mind or intellectual music seems to be the central orientation of the music on Expedition which makes it no less interesting than that which is generated from the heart or the emotions.

This emphasis on the mental process of what author -journalist Arthur Koestler termed “the Act of Creation” is not coincidental because paralleling Denny Zeitlin’s career as a Jazz musician has been his professional life as a former Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at University of California at San Francisco and currently as clinical psychiatrist in private practice.

The Process of Creation is one that Denny has taken part in personally and professionally so he is on intimate terms with Koestler’s axiom that
creative activity can be described as a type of learning process where teacher and pupil are located in the same individual.

He and percussionist par excellence George Marsh continue to explore the dynamics of creation at an exciting level of interaction on Expedition. And what’s more, while doing so, they heed bassist Bill Crow’s admonition about the purpose of Jazz - they have fun. You can sense the thrill of adventure in the music they are making as the music is alive; boundless; unpredictable - just they way it should be at this stage of their long careers in music.

You know they know the rules, the conventions, the patterns associated with making Jazz, and the follow them to some extent to keep their bearings in the musical journey that they are undertaking together. But what you don’t know is where the music is going because you’ve never heard music that sounds like this before.

The luxury of being able to create unfettered music in this manner is as it should be at this point in their respective careers: these men have paid their dues; they have become accomplished musicians; the least we can do is accord them the privilege of listening to their not inconsiderable, yet unconventional, musical musings.

Interestingly, I found that of the thirteen tracks on the CD, I could listen to them as self contained units or as a suite in 13 parts; in other words, individually or as a continuum. These are not melodically memorable pieces but they do evoke moods some of which are almost introspective and meditative.

Track sequencing is a matter of taste so while I deferred to the manner in which the music is arranged on the CD during my first listening, I subsequently tried listening to it using the Random feature on my disc changer and this revealed further surprises in the music.

While listening to the music on Expedition, I became aware of the level of technical mastery that Denny and George have on keyboards and percussion which allows them to maintain an inner core of discipline in order to keep such freely created music from becoming a train wreck.

There is a constant balancing going on in the music - a tension and release - that requires Denny and George to come together at times, pull apart at other times and also parallel one another at other times as the music evolves through spontaneous improvisation.

Denny offers more insights into the “how and why” the music on Expedition came together in the following insert notes to the recording.

A Note From Denny Zeitlin... In the two years since Sunnyside's 2015 release of Riding The Moment, George and I have continued our expedition into new territories of spontaneous composition, and this CD chronicles what has been an exciting and enriching evolution. For listeners having a first contact with our duo, I'll repeat my remarks from our first album, since the set and setting remain the same.

This album, like Riding The Moment, has roots going back to the late sixties, when I began a decade of exploring the electro-acoustic integration of jazz, classical, funk, rock, and free-form music. My trio included Mel Graves or Ratso Harris on bass, and throughout, the incredible drummer/percussionist George Marsh. We recorded and toured the West Coast, concluding this period with my electro-acoustic-symphonic score for the 1978 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

I then returned to a focus on acoustic solo, duo, and trio music for a couple of decades, and George went on to numerous other projects. With the passage of the millennium, synthesizer and recording technological advances lured me back into a major and ongoing studio upgrade.

Both/And(Sunnyside 2013) was devoted to the electro-acoustic domain as a soloist. And since 2013, George and I have musically re-united, and have been exploring the potential of duo electro-acoustic free improvisations — the co-creation of what we often refer to as "sound paintings."

Our goal has been to approach the music without a score or any preconception; to be as fully present as possible, "riding the moment," and allowing the music to go where it wants — without any constraint of genre, or fixed harmonic, rhythmic, or melodic structure. We hope that what emerges are spontaneous compositions that have freshness, beauty, excitement, internal logic, new sounds, and a sense of journey — an "expedition."

Over 95% of this music was recorded in "real time" with one pass. On those occasions where I didn't have enough hands to play what I was hearing, I over-dubbed some orchestration or a solo voice. And in those instances, I typically went with the first take, to preserve the spontaneity of the project.

I believe you will hear in our interaction that George is a full partner in the co-creation of this album. To preserve acoustic separation during recording we were unable to see each other; we were carried by our shared musical vision, trust, and a rapport that seems telepathic. We often feel like we are some kind of galactic orchestra.”

And Bret Sjerven at Sunnyside sent along the following media release about Denny, George and Expedition:

“For longtime collaborators Denny Zeitlin and George Marsh much of their enthusiasm for music lies in exploration of new terrain. Their recording Expedition finds them continuing their journey into the worlds of sound and spontaneous composition.

Pianist Denny Zeitlin has long been in the vanguard of musical innovation. His 1960s acoustic trio was one of the first to advance beyond the concepts of Bill Evans, and his genre defying electro-acoustic experiments were some of the most intriguing from a jazz musician.

Zeitlin always wanted to develop his ability to be more expansive with his sound. As a child, the pianist dreamed of being able to control an orchestra with a single device. Zeitlin was obviously ready for the advances in synthesized sounds that developed, especially during the 1960s and 1970s, which put an orchestra at his fingertips. He quickly adopted synthesizers and sound design into his musical language, creating classic records like Expansion and the soundtrack to Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Innovative percussionist George Marsh was there through all of these electro-acoustic professional musical excursions, offering a sympathetic and advanced sense of what percussion could add in these widely varying situations. His egoless approach makes him a perfect partner for Zeitlin, as everything they do together serves the music.

During the past four years, Zeitlin and Marsh's collaboration has been reenergized. Meeting regularly at Zeitlin's home studio, the two have explored new topographies in collaborative music making. They both see their meetings as a privilege, as there are no pressures of time, finance or extraneous purpose to impede their enthusiastic music making.
Zeitlin's studio, with its array of keyboards, synthesizers, grand piano, pedals, outboard gear, computers, and monitors, evokes images of Mission Control at NASA.

Setting up to preserve track separation while recording, Zeitlin and Marsh are unable to see each other, and depend upon a rapport that seems telepathic. They have focused on free improvisation — spontaneous compositions that arise with no preconception. With their shared vision, the music is allowed to bloom on its own accord; there is a fluidity within the sound as harmonic and rhythmic textures weave themselves in and out. Times signatures often do not apply, as many of the pieces find the collaborators switching and blending continually.

The initial presentation of some of the fruits of their labor was the critically acclaimed Riding The Moment (Sunnyside, 2015.)

Two years later, their follow-up recording. Expedition, shows just how profound their relationship has become. The music demonstrates the very feeling of delight that the musicians take in the freedom they have in conjuring their music.

The music presented is inspired and stylistically varied. There are atmospheric pieces, like "Geysers" and the quietly surging "The Hunt," and ballad-like ruminations, like the ambient "Thorns of Life" and "Spiral Nebula." The pulsating uptempo tracks are rhythmically fascinating, like the skittery percussion highlight "Shooting The Rapids" and the driving "Sentinel." The triumphant "Expedition" is a perfect example of the duo's goal of creating a succinct composition with direction and arc, all spontaneously in the moment.

Zeitlin and Marsh's forward-thinking collaboration spans 50 years. Their connection has only gotten stronger as they have invested themselves in expanding their vocabularies in electric-acoustic and improvised music. Expedition brilliantly displays what two highly attuned and flexible musicians can create on the fly.”

You can locate order information about Expedition and sample the music on it by visiting Denny at

Thursday, August 17, 2017

"John Cassavetes" by Tim Hagans and the NDR Big Band

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

“John Cassavetes was a jazz director, a visionary who knew that all humans desire love and acceptance. He understood that our life actions are improvisations based on the influence of our environment, the impulses received from those close to us, and the constant flux of our emotions. He also knew that our imperfect human state often hinders us from achieving what we most desire; the attempt, however, with its immense failures and magnificent successes must be observed, documented, and honored.”
-Tim Hagans, New York City, 2017

"Fetchingly situated between Brownian blasts and Milesian murmurs, the trumpeter's lines cover lots of emotional breadth. It makes for a straight-ahead quintet approach that is quite willing to bend the rules to suit a tune's forgotten corners. His poetry with standard ballads might hush this room. Evidently he does know what love is."
- Jim Macnie, The Village Voice

“Tim Hagans was nominated for Grammy awards for Best Instrumental Composition for "Box of Cannoli" from The Avatar Sessions (2010 Fuzzy Music); Best Contemporary Jazz CD for Re: Animation (2000 Blue Note); and Animation*Imagination (1999 Blue Note). In addition to his own bands, he has performed and recorded with Thad Jones, Ernie Wilkins and Dexter Gordon. For fifteen years Tim Hagans was artistic director and composer-in-residence for the Norrbotten Big Band, traveling to Sweden to perform, conduct and arrange projects with guest artists such as Rufus Reid, Randy Brecker, Peter Erskine, Dave Liebman and Joe Lovano. The Avatar Sessions CD features music he created during that tenure. Tim Hagans is the featured soloist on the soundtrack by Howard Shore for the movie The Score, starring Robert DeNiro and Marlon Brando.”
- Michele Brangwen, Media Release, Waiting Moon records

John Cassavetes [1929-1989] was an actor, writer and director and a pioneering independent filmmaker. His work paralleled that of the trailblazing group of French New Wave cinema directors [Nouvelle Vague] who exploded on the film scene in the late 1950s.

French directors such as Louis Malle, Francois Truffaut, Claude Chabrol, Jean-Luc Godard, Alain Resnais, Jacques Rivette and Jacques Demy revolutionized cinematic conventions by marrying the rapid cuts of Hollywood with philosophical trends [auteur theory].

The French New Wave and the New Hollywood directors of which Cassavetes was a member saw film as a product of the director’s absolute imaginative and inspired aesthetic vision.

These directors brought about the cult of the director as an artistic icon on a par with writers, painters and other intellectual artists. To them, the director was the artistic creator who implements his or her own aesthetic and narrative vision to the screen.

Trumpeter, composer, arranger Tim Hagans has a new CD out on his Waiting Moon Records entitled Faces Under The Influence: A Jazz Tribute to John Cassavetes on which he is joined by the Hamburg, Germany-based NDR Big Band.

Background information about how this recording came about as well as the structure for the music on this recording is explained by Tim in the following insert notes to the CD:

“When I first viewed - actually the more accurate word is witnessed - John Cassavetes’ cinema realite film Faces in 1977, I was disturbed, confused, inspired and excited. I remember walking from the theater without any immediate destination, wandering the night streets chilled by an early autumn mist. I examined why I was experiencing consternation and intense joy. As a young adult, many of the film's emotions were foreign to me, and the motivations propelling the events seemed unnecessary and destructive. After forty more years of life and countless viewings of Cassavetes' films, I realize that his characters brilliantly portray the complete emotional pallet of humanity, with its fears, desires, failings and most importantly, its victories. With each film, I feel I have been given access to a story that began long before the first frame and is presently continuing. I am an undetected visitor viewing actual events being lived by actual people, and from my voyeuristic involvement in the drama, I hear music.

Charles Mingus and Shafi Hadi wrote incidental music to Shadows, Cassavetes' first film from 1959. Bo Harwood also wrote sparse music for some of the films. I entertained the notion of how would the unwritten soundtracks sound, and with that rumination, Faces Under The Influence, A Jazz Tribute To John Cassavetes was conceived. I decided to write music that describes the emotional development that each character experiences rather than compose episodic descriptions. Many of the compositions are through-composed with melodic and harmonic developments that reference the characters earlier emotional states, states that are present before the film begins. Many of the final passages hint at what may happen to the characters after their film's conclusion.

I have chosen characters from Cassavetes' first six films: Lelia from Shadows (Lelia Goldini); Richard Forst from Faces (John Marley); Harry, Archie and Gus from Husbands (Ben Gazzara, Peter Falk and John Cassavetes); Seymour Moskowitz from Minnie and Moskowitz (Seymour Cassel); Mabel Longhetti from A Woman Under The Influence (Gena Rowlands); and Cosmo Vitelli from The Killing Of A Chinese Bookie (Ben Gazzara). The final composition, John Cassavetes, is a tribute to the vision and genius of his oeuvre, and is influenced by the passion of his directing and acting style. The themes and harmonies in this work are derived from the first six compositions.

John Cassavetes is heralded as the progenitor of independent film. To finance his films, he used his own money from mainstream acting jobs, and over the years mortgaged his home multiple times. His initial experience making films within the Hollywood system left him disappointed and outraged, so he vowed he would never have his artistic vision compromised in that way again. In 1957, one could say he initiated crowd source funding by going on Jean Shepherd's radio show Night People and asking for small donations to finance Shadows. He surrounded himself with a gang of artistic fellow travelers that included Gena Rowlands, Peter Falk, Ben Gazzara, Seymour Cassel, Val Avery, Tim Carey and Al Ruban. From the very beginning, Cassavetes was creative in getting what he needed with the limited resources available to someone not a part of the studio system. New York street shots for Shadows were made through windows or guerilla style on the streets of New York with a taxi driven by a friend waiting to whisk the camera to safety if they were caught. Although Shadows was based on improvised scenes performed at the acting school that Cassavetes founded with Bert Lane (there is a credit describing this at the end of the movie), Shadows and his other films, were actually fully scripted and included his acute observations of human life, relationships and the consequences of choice. His propensity to always allow actors to riff on his dialogue and go with their instincts, gave his films an improvised feeling that is both immediate and engrossing.

Faces Under The Influence, A Jazz Tribute To John Cassavetes was commissioned by the NDR Bigband. It is an exceptional orchestra. The band swings, roars and tips, and is technically impressive and supremely nuanced. Every musician is a soloist and the combination of their innovative and distinct voices make this ensemble a true jazz band. I have collaborated with the band many times and knowing the band so well, composed this suite with each musicians' sound and vibe in mind. I implemented John Cassavetes' methods into the compositions and recording process, and the musicians became the characters from the films. The soloists integrated their character's emotional base and developments into their improvisations. There are composed sections that sound improvised because they are "scripted" but there is interpretation granted to the soloist/actors. The NDR Bigband gloriously embraced this concept. I am elated with the results and eternally grateful for the opportunity.

John Cassavetes was a jazz director, a visionary who knew that all humans desire love and acceptance. He understood that our life actions are improvisations based on the influence of our environment, the impulses received from those close to us, and the constant flux of our emotions. He also knew that our imperfect human state often hinders us from achieving what we most desire; the attempt, however, with its immense failures and magnificent successes must be observed, documented, and honored.”

-Tim Hagans, New York City, 2017

Order information for Faces Under The Influence: A Jazz Tribute to John Cassavetes can be located by going here.

Click on the red dot to listen to a sample of the music on display in this recording.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

OSIE JOHNSON: An Undistinguished Distinctive Drummer

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

“In studio work, you’re always under the gun. You’re expected to play the parts right no matter how difficult they are …. It’s a matter of being precise and right, all the time. It’s brain surgery, that’s what it is. And every operation has to be a success. There are no failures – a failure and you’re gone.”
- Alvin Stoller, drummer

Burt Korall, a writer who, among his other significant writings about Jazz, authored two books on Drummin’ Men: The Heartbeat of Jazz, only makes one reference to him when he cites him as “… the gifted drummer, Osie Johnson,” on page 200 of the second volume, The Bebop Years.

There is also a reference to Osie in Gary Giddins’ Vision of Jazz: The First Century where in the context of talking about Bud Powell and the drummers he performed with he notes: “He worked only with the best: Max Roach, Kenny Clarke, Roy Haynes, Art Blakey, Art Taylor, Osie Johnson – percussionists who complemented his dynamics, speed, and shifting rhythms.” [p. 321]

Outside of incidental references such as these, you’d be hard-pressed to find any information about Osie other than in the ever-reliable Encyclopedia of Jazz.

The lack of mention of Osie is made even more striking by the fact that this was a drummer who was everywhere, and I mean everywhere apparent, on the New York studio and Jazz scene especially in the 1950s and mid-1960s.

Osie worked with all of the top arrangers –Manny Albam [with whom, he was close friends], Quincy Jones, Oliver Nelson, Bob Brookmeyer, Hal McKusick, Al Cohn, Gerry Mulligan, George Russell – the list is endless. The Lord Discography cites Osie’s name as having appeared on 670 recording sessions!

He toured with pianists Earl “Fatha” Hines, Erroll Garner and Dorothy Donegan as well as tenor saxophone legend Coleman Hawkins and clarinetist Tony Scott. Osie, who made his own album as a singer – A Bit of the Blues [RCA CD 74321609832] -  was a favorite of vocalists Carmen McRae and Dinah Washington, both of whom he wrote arrangements for in the 1950s.

Osie had studied theory and harmony in high school in Washington, D.C. and privately, so he knew music and was an excellent reader, both of which may help explain why he was so heavily in demand at recording sessions.

He was the staff drummer for extended periods of time on both the NBC and CBS studio orchestras in New York City and he appeared as a freelance percussionist on a slew of independent TV commercials and radio jingles.

Perhaps, part of the reason for his obscurity was due to the fact that he died in 1966 at the relatively young age of 43 from renal system infections that led to kidney failure.

Fortunately, Georges Paczynski in the second volume of his prize-winning Une Histoire de la Batterie de Jazz has three entire pages devoted to Osie and his style of drumming. Fortunately, that is, for those who read French as the work has not [to my knowledge] been translated into English.

Paczynski includes Osie along with Harold “Doc” West, Rossiere “Shadow” Wilson, Gus Johnson, Gordon “Specs” Powell and Alvin Stoller in his chapter entitled – La fin de l’ère swing - les batteurs charnières.  With charnières translated to mean “hinge” or “pivotal,” the author is grouping Osie among those drummers whom he considers to be among those who made the successful transition from the Swing Era to Bebop.

Many better known Swing Era drummers never did make this transition, among them Davy Tough and Gene Krupa.

To be able to do so was a considerable accomplishment as it required getting out of playing down into the drum kit [think hands on snare and an incessant bass drum beat] and playing up, onto the cymbals using the snare and the bass drum for accents.

Keeping time in this manner involved a total reorientation in the way in which a drummer thought about time.

Drummers like Osie and the other transition drummers in Paczynski’s grouping who accommodated the change in style did so by keeping things simple.

They became, first-and-foremost, timekeepers with a steady ride cymbal beat and an accent here and there.  Nothing complicated requiring the independence and heightened coordination of a Max Roach or a Philly Joe Jones or a Joe Morello.

More drumming to establish a pulse and to keep things moving along. Clean, simple, and staying out of the way; Osie just blended in with the musical environment instead of trying to dominate it – it was a style of drumming that was more felt than heard.

In fact, Osie’s drumming bordered on the indistinct and yet, everyone loved playing with him precisely because as Paczynski explains:

« En fait, il est absolument impossible d'identifier Osie Johnson. A l'inverse d'un musicien qui ne peut investir son jeu trop personnel et « engage » dans tous les contextes musicaux, il est capable de s'adapter avec plus ou moins de bonheur a toute proposition musicale, et est constamment sollicite en tant que tel. »

A very loose translation of which would read:

“In fact, it is absolutely impossible to identify [in the sense of classifying] Osie Johnson. He was the opposite of those who try and interject their personality into the music. Instead, he tried to contentedly fit himself into all musical contexts, and he was sought out by other musicians precisely because of his willingness to do so.”

A number of times in his essay, Paczynski stresses the fact that Osie emphasized drumming “fundamentals” in his playing: a rock solid beat, precision in the placement of accents, a perfect placement of kicks and fills and a clear and uncomplicated sound from both the drums and the cymbals.

Oh, and he was an excellent reader for as Alvin Stoller, Osie’s counterpart as an in demand studio drummer on the West Coast stated: “In studio work, you’re always under the gun. You’re expected to play the parts right no matter how difficult they are …. It’s a matter of being precise and right, all the time. It’s brain surgery, that’s what it is. And every operation has to be a success. There are no failures – a failure and you’re gone.”

More indications of what makes Osie’s style so distinctive can be found in the following question that was put to the online drummer chat group:

What do you all recommend for tuning a 5x14 brass snare to capture a tight, crisp sound with minimal after ring? The snare sound I'm after is similar to the following:

1. Osie Johnson's playing on "Please Don't Talk About Me When I'm Gone" from Sonny Stitt's Now! (mp3 attached). The first 20 seconds of the track provide a good snapshot of Johnson's crisp snare sound.

In order to achieve that kind of sound, do I need to have

a) both top and bottom heads tuned the same
b) the top head tuned higher/tighter than the bottom head
c) the bottom head tuned higher/tighter than the top head
d) ??

At the moment, I have my Tama 5x14 brass snare tuned with top head close to 90 and bottom head a little over 80, I believe (according to my Drum Dial). I have a standard Remo Coated Ambassador on the batter side.

Thanks in advance for any help anyone can offer!”

An answer to this question might also serve to explain the title of our piece on Osie –An Undistinguished Distinctive Drummer.”

The title is not a Zen koan [an insoluble intellectual problem: think – “What was your true nature before you mother and father conceived you?”]

Osie Johnson was unfortunately undistinguished as a drumming stylist, and yet, his drumming was immediately discernible. He was distinctive without trying to be so.

Most of Osie’s distinctiveness did begin with the sound of his snare drum, which he tightened to within an inch of its "life." How he kept it from tearing in two is beyond me.

So the choice from the chat group options would be – “a) both top and bottom heads tuned the same”  - although a much more complete answer might address everything from the quality and composition of the maple shell that formed Osie’s snare drum to the type of drum heads he used, ad infinitum.

The most instructive portion of the chat group question is the example that was sent along with the annotation - The first 20 seconds of the track provide a good snapshot of Johnson's crisp snare sound.

We have used the very same track - "Please Don't Talk About Me When I'm Gone" from Sonny Stitt's Now! - in the video below, but we would rephrase the chat group statement to read: The first 20 seconds of the track provide a good snapshot of Osie Johnson's approach to drumming.

For in addition to his distinctively crisp snare sound, this short segment reveals Osie playing time on the hi-hat before switching to the ride cymbal, his gentle but insistent sense of swing and the lightness of his touch which allowed him to fit into the music almost seamlessly.

This is a perfect illustration of the drummer as an accompanist and also the reason why melody and harmony guys loved working with Osie: his drums are not resonating and booming, his accents are not distracting and he isn’t calling attention to himself with complicated drumming figures.

On this track, Osie is a musician among a group of musicians intent on making music and therein lies the key to his success and to his distinctiveness.

Whatever the musical context – piano trio Jazz, small group Jazz or big band Jazz – Osie always sounds just right; he fits in.

And he always nails it, characteristically.

For all of his blending in, I would venture to say that anyone – musician or not – that is familiar with Osie Johnson’s playing would recognize it … “after [listening to] the first 20 seconds” of a recorded track.

Very few drummers have ever been as distinctively undistinguished as Osie Johnson.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Remembering The Mastersounds

Appearing as it did on 5/31/2008, this feature was one of the blog's earliest. And despite the difficulty in navigating the Blogger platform to "leave a comment," this feature has garnered a dozen comments over the years. Who knew that the Mastersounds were as widely popular and highly regarded by the general Jazz public

As was often the case in those "early days," the piece was posted without a video which exemplifies the music under discussion. That has now been corrected with the addition of a not-very-easy-to-find montage of images of the group and its recordings at the conclusion of this profile in the form of a Playlist

It was always been a "tough go to find enough regular work to keep a small Jazz combo with local or regional appeal going."

Given these circumstances, the miracle of The Mastersounds is that they lasted as long as they did and left such a relatively rich recorded legacy.

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

The Mastersounds were formed in 1957 and included Charles Frederick “Buddy” Montgomery on vibes, Richie Crabtree on piano, William Howard “Monk” Montgomery on bass [originally a Fender electric bass, but later an upright string bass] and Benny Barth on drums. The Montgomery Brothers were natives of Indianapolis, IN as was their more famous guitar playing brother Wes, who was to join with them on two of their group LPs.

Monk Montgomery developed the idea for the combo while living in Seattle after he got off the road with the Lionel Hampton Big Band in 1956. According to Ralph J. Gleason, a down beat columnist at that time: “Monk, from his experience in Seattle, was convinced a good jazz group would have a chance to work in that city and he was right.”

The Mastersounds opened at Dave’s Blue Room on January 14, 1957 for a successful three month engagement. However, a dearth of work followed prompting the group to pool its meager resources and send Monk Montgomery on a trip to San Francisco and Los Angeles looking for gigs and a recording contract.

Shortly after arriving in San Francisco, Monk Montgomery stopped by The Jazz Showcase, a then newly formed club on venerable Market Street with a unique “soft drink only” policy. Dave Glickman and Ray Gorum, owner and manager of the club, respectively, upon hearing the Mastersounds tapes Monk Montgomery had brought along, booked the group into the room beginning in September, 1957 for an unlimited engagement.

The fairy-tale quality of Monk Montgomery’s California trip was to get even better when he continued his ‘quest’ down to Hollywood. There he met fellow bassist Leroy Vinnegar whose immediate reaction to listening to the Mastersounds demo tapes was to call Dick Bock, president of World Pacific Records. Upon hearing them, Bock signed the group to a contract that would result in six albums being produced for the World Pacific/Pacific Jazz Series until The Mastersounds disbanded as a performing group in December, 1959.

Sadly, none of the Pacific Jazz recorded legacy of the Mastersounds has found its way onto compact disc. Ironically, the group reunited in the recording studios of Fantasy Records on August 10 and November 2, 1960 and the two albums that group made on these dates [Fantasy 3305 and 8862] have been combined and issued as The Mastersounds Fantasy FCD 24770-2. The cover art for this CD is by Ray Avery and is shown as the graphic lead-in to this article.

The CD tray plate annotations offers the following comments about The Mastersounds:

"Because their instrumentation of vibes-piano-bass-drums mirrored that of the contemporaneous Modern Jazz Quartet, one of the finest and most celebrated groups of all time, the Mastersounds may have been somewhat overlooked. Moreover, the Mastersounds best known members, vibist-arranger Charles “Buddy Montgomery [b. 1930] and William “Monk” Montgomery [1921-1982], who pioneered the electric bass in jazz, were the younger and older brothers, respectively, of Wes Montgomery, merely the greatest jazz guitarist of the post-bop era. (The ensemble was completed by drummer Benny Barth who, like the Montgomerys, was from Indianapolis and pianist Richie Crabtree). Still, the West Coast foursome’s coolly soulful, tastefully-arranged approach won them their share of fans, as well as the 1959 Down Beat Critic’s Poll for Best New Group."

At World Pacific, The Mastersounds first LP – Jazz Showcase … Introducing the Mastersounds [PJM-403] incorporated many tunes and arrangements that had become staples of their repertoire during the group’s tenure at the club including a spirited [an oft-requested] version of Bud Powell’s Un Poco Loco, Wes’ Tune by Wes Montgomery, and Dexter’s Deck by tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon. This debut album also offers intriguing Buddy Montgomery arrangements on such standards as Lover, If I Should Lose You, That Old Devil Moon and Spring is Here.

Fortunately or unfortunately, depending upon your point of view, what followed this initial release were three Mastersounds albums on World Pacific which were intended to capitalize on the Jazz-Impressions-of-Broadway-Show craze that swept the country in the late 1950s.

In the span of about two years, Dick Bock was to release The King and I: A Modern Jazz Interpretation by the Mastersounds [PJM-405], Kismet: An Interpretation by the Mastersounds [WP-1243] which included Wes Montgomery, and Flower Drum Song: A Modern Jazz Interpretation by the Mastersounds [WP-1252].

These three LPs were a commercial success for Dick Bock’s label and helped to enhance public awareness of the Mastersounds. Somewhat surprisingly, given the inappropriateness or unwieldiness of much of the material for Jazz treatments, each does contain some interesting music.

The King and I offers intricate arrangements by Buddy Montgomery particularly on Getting to Know You and Shall We Dance; Kismet has a lovely interpretation of Baubles, Bangles and Beads and some fresh ideas on how to syncopate the usually stodgy Stranger in Paradise; Flower Drum Song with tunes such as Love Look Away, Grant Avenue, Chop Suey and I’m Going to Like it Here provide many opportunities to employ pentatonic scales, modal vamps and even a Max-Roach-tympani-mallet extended drum solo by Benny Barth.

It wasn’t until late in 1958 with the issuance of Ballads and Blues [WP 1260] that the Mastersounds returned to its jazz roots.

This album includes a captivating Blues Medley made up of Milt Jackson’s Bluesology, Dizzy’s rarely heard Purple Sounds, and John Lewis’ Fontessa, as well as, first-rate interpretations of Miles’ Solar and Dizzy’s The Champ.

In late 1958 and throughout 1959, the Mastersounds became a frequent fixture at the Jazz Workshop in San Francisco, while also appearing that year at the Blue Note in Chicago, Birdland in New York and Rhode Island’s Newport Jazz Festival.

With their return to Southern California in 1959 for a stint at Jazzville in Hollywood, Dick Bock picked their April 11th concert at Pasadena Junior College to record an issue their only in-performance recording – The Mastersounds in Concert [WP 1269].

As C.H. Garrigues, jazz critic of The San Francisco Examiner at the time comments in his liner notes for the recording:

“From the opening of ‘Stompin’ at the Savoy’ through the tongue-in-cheek sentimentality of ‘In a Sentimental Mood,” into the flying carpet of ‘Love for Sale,’ through the thoughtfully lyric development of ‘Two Different Worlds,’ … it would be difficult to find any area of sincere jazz feeling in which they are not at home.”

And, in celebration of their warm reception as artists-in-residence at their beloved North Beach San Francisco bistro, The Jazz Workshop, at the end of 1958, World Pacific released The Mastersounds Play Compositions of Horace Silver at the Jazz Workshop [WP-1282].

With their sensitive interpretations of Horace’s Ecaroh, Enchantment, Nica’s Dream, Doodlin’, [the-all-too-rarely-heard] Moonrays and Buhania, as Richard Bock points out in his liner notes:

“The music of Horace Silver provides a perfect vehicle for the Mastersounds to project their very earthy concept yet sophisticated jazz conception. The group has never been recorded in better form. …

The Mastersounds have reached a jazz maturity that has developed from over three years of playing together. This collection of the music of Horace Silver, one of Jazz’s greatest new composer-arrangers, represents a high point in the Mastersounds’ career.”

For a variety of reasons both personal and professional, the Mastersounds decided to disband as a performing and touring group in 1960, although the fact that they all took up residence in the greater San Francisco area after this decision made it easy for them to regroup later in the year to record the two sessions for Fantasy.

From the standpoint of what might have been, and to my great delight since these are their only recordings in a digital format, the Fantasy recordings made on August 10 and November 2, 1960 which have been combined and issued as The Mastersounds [Fantasy FCD 24770-2] show the group to be in exceptional form both individually and collectively.

The ensemble work is superb, the arrangements are intricately complex, and their improvisations are, to a man, their best on record, especially those of Benny Barth who had developed into a inventive and technically adroit drummer over the 4 year span of the group’s existence.

Unfortunately, the Mastersounds existed during a time when the World of Jazz, unlike today, basked in a surfeit of riches making their superb contributions to the genre all too easy to overlook.

And, with all due respect to Messer’s Jackson, Lewis, Heath and Kay, the Mastersounds during its brief life, were the equal musically, of anything offered by the MJQ with the exception of its longevity which, in and of itself is not always the ultimate standard of judgment.

The problem in any “Age of Excess” is that the star that burns the longest is not necessarily the brightest.

And yet, the existence of the Mastersounds made my formative days in the World of Jazz all the better for having not missed the opportunity to know them and their music.

It is always important to remember those who helped "make you as you go,” thus - a remembrance of the Mastersounds.

[The Jazzprofiles editorial staff wishes to acknowledge Ralph J. Gleason, Russ Wilson, Nat Hentoff, Richard Bock and C.H. Garricules whose Mastersounds liner notes provided much assistance in the factual and interpretive material contained in this feature.]