© - Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
Simon Spillett prepared this piece on Booker Ervin to accompany a 2017 release on the Acrobat label - Booker Ervin: The Good Book (Acrobat ACQCD 7121) which compiled his three earliest albums - The Book Cooks, Cookin' and That's It! together - with sideman appearances on recordings led by Teddy Charles, Mal Waldron and Bill Barron.
This boxed set received favourable reviews in several English jazz publications (Jazzwise, The Jazz Rag) and one nationally circulated newspaper, The Financial Times, who gave the collection a four star rating, praising Ervin's "passion with a positive vibe".
Although this is essentially the same piece included in the booklet for the Acrobat box, I have corrected some minor errors and added a small amount of significant "new" information. I believe this may be the first extended essay on Ervin and his work.”
In addition to fronting his own quartet, Simon has won several awards for his music, including the tenor saxophone category of the British Jazz Awards (2011), Jazz Journal magazine, Critic's Choice CD of the Year (2009) and Rising Star in the BBC Jazz Awards (2007).
Simon has his own website which you can visit via this link.
© - Simon Spillett, copyright protected; all rights reserved, used with the author’s permission.
NEW YORK - “Man, you better be good...”
“Booker Ervin liked New York. He liked its performance opportunities and its vibrancy. He liked its disparate cast of musical characters and its many clubs. Above all, he liked its air of positive musical stimulation. And in 1958, the city was alive with the toughest of competition for a young player wishing to make his way up the ladder of notability.
Stop for a moment to consider what was going down tenor saxophone-wise in the city during the year he arrived. Sonny Rollins was then at the height of his pre-Bridge phase, without doubt the most influential tenor of the day, riding the crest of a series of high-profile poll wins and releasing one classic album after another. To some listening at this point though, Rollins now had a serious contender in John Coltrane, then still a sideman with Miles Davis' group, but in possession of one of the most sophisticated harmonic minds within the music, seeking new ways to drive the music forward toward the 1960s.
The Hard Bop tree continued to bear fruit too; Hank Mobley, its sturdy trunk, was a key influence on a raft of younger players, enraptured by his subtle mix of lyricism and rhythmic brinkmanship, including Junior Cook, Tina Brooks and George Coleman. Other styles flourished too. Tenor twins Al Cohn and Zoot Sims represented the best of the city's swing-to-bop. Then there were the founding fathers – Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young – both then addicted to a jazz-lore lifestyle that would end their days far too soon, but still capable of sounding as modern as tomorrow. To stand out among these men, Ervin knew that not only did a young player have to have something to say, he had to be damn good at saying it. “You just have to be good,” he said of New York's pressures in one interview. “It's not a question of whether you want to. Man, you better be good – else you don't work.”
And for Ervin being “good” meant that within a few months of hitting New York, other leaders besides Charles Mingus were also helping ink in his diary. In August 1959 he appeared at the city's Randall's Island Jazz Festival with pianist John Bunch and in December of that year he was part of a quartet led by another pianist – Roland Hanna – that worked a stint at the legendary Five Spot café. Occasionally, he travelled much further afield (a 1962 USO-organised trip to Greenland, for example) but for the most part, Ervin was a firmly East Coast jazzman, often leading his own groups, but occasionally playing the part of hired gun. During the early 1960s there were scattered club dates and recordings with organist Don Patterson, vibraphonist Teddy Charles (partnering Ervin with jazz's other great Booker – trumpeter Booker Little), vocal trio Lambert, Hendricks and Bavan and drummer Roy Haynes. But it was to be pianists, it appears, who had the softest spot for Ervin, most notably Randy Weston, a musician whose adventurous compositions had a strong African bent, who he began an association with around 1960, and with whom he would travel to Lagos for Nigeria's Performing Arts Festival in 1961.
Talking to Rashidah E. McNeil in 1993, Weston helped unlock part of the mystery of Ervin's failure to reach higher into the jazz firmament; “He was very sensitive, very quiet - not the sort of guy to push himself or talk about himself. You know what happens with Black artists - they [the music business] can never let too many come out at the same time. There was a big emphasis on Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane. And everybody was into Coltrane but meanwhile Booker Ervin was kind of left out.”
Left out by others that was; the saxophonist was an integral part of Weston's musical vision, and, like Mingus, he wrote some of his compositions with Ervin firmly in mind. “African Cookbook, which I composed back in the early 60's, was partly named after Booker because we [musicians] used to call him 'Book,' and we would say, 'Cook, Book.' Sometimes when he was playing we'd shout, 'Cook, Book, cook.' And the melody of African Cookbook was based upon Booker Ervin's sound, a sound like the north of Africa. He would kind of take those notes and make them weave hypnotically.” In fact, so definitively was Ervin able to cast his spell on Weston's music that several of the pianists compositions quickly became sacrosanct property. “The song I wrote for my mother, Portrait of Vivian,” Weston maintained, “only [Ervin] could play it; nobody else could play that song.”
Weston and Ervin were close off the bandstand too, but he remained tightest of all with Horace Parlan, the pair launching a cooperative band together in 1960, known as The Play House Four owing to the rhythm section – Parlan, bassist George Tucker and drummer Al Harewood – being the resident trio at the iconic Minton's Play House, legendary incubus of Bebop back at the dawn of the 1940s and then still in business. The bands existence was sporadic at best, as Parlan remembered in 1977; “we made a few records together [actually the albums That's It! issued under Ervin's name and Parlan's Up and Down, with Grant Green added to the Four] and the group lasted for about one year...economic conditions forced us to disband at the end of that time.”
The fiscal uncertainties of freelance work weren't the only dangers in New York either, as Ervin found out in frightening fashion in 1961. “A few year ago, he was held up a knifepoint by a gang of thugs and relieved of his tenor”, reported Mike Hennessey in a 1965 article for Melody Maker (the horn stolen appears to be the King Super-20 which Ervin plays on the majority of his 1958-61 sessions). If this were not bad enough shortly after “he left his [replacement] instrument in the boot of his car, went into Count Basie's [club] for five minutes and returned to the car to find the tenor gone.”
OUT OF THE MIDDLE – the style of Booker Ervin
Jazz critics love the label game. In fact, it could be argued that many jazz journalists would be at a total loss for any opinion about a musicians work were it not for the fact that another writer had already tagged the player in question with a handy little earmark saying “Parker-derived” or “Cool School” or “Hard Bopper” or whatever other sound bite deemed fit. This isn't to imply that tracing a musicians influences or stylistic lineage is merely an academic parlour game or a waste of time, but in the case of Booker Ervin the majority of his critiques illustrate two woeful failures; one, a tendency to repeat, almost tautologically, the same observations about the impact of his music and, two, an equally insulting insistence on viewing Ervin's playing in the light of others. The former is quite understandable as, like it or not, certain aspects of a musicians playing will always ultimately defeat even the most creative wordsmith – after all how many times was John Coltrane called a “groundbreaker” or “challenging” or even “spiritual”? The latter is slightly less excusable; like all jazz individuals, Ervin's playing should be appraised for what it is not what it isn't. Indeed, the “was he or wasn't he like Coltrane” argument ought now to be laid to rest, once and for all, as should the rather overblown suggestion that Ervin was among his generations most daring harmonic adventurers.
First, let's deal with the critique. A quick glance through the sleeve notes to Ervin's sixteen or so albums as leader (or co-leader) reveals him to be a magnet for colourful adjectives and metaphors. In his notes to his début album – The Book Cooks – taped in spring 1960, Ira Gitler called Ervin's style “a shouting, sometimes screaming sometimes tender thing...just as likely to come out in long tones as in rapid flurries”; Tom Wilson, writing for Cookin', Ervin's second album, recorded in November 1960, noted “wild sweetness...dizzying virtuosity and..angular modernity...not devoid of warmth, beauty and humour.” Moving further along the time-line we have “a definiteness in execution, an absorbing sense of thematic and rhythmic continuity, and enveloping pulsation” (Nat Hentoff, That's It!, 1961); “a blowtorch tone in the service of a beat that wallops like Sonny Liston's fist” (David A. Himmelstein, Exultation, 1963); “fire and conviction...nothing strikes the ear as forced or meretricious” (Dan Morgenstern, The Song Book, 1964); “heat, intensity, raw emotion and a relentless sense of swing...plus his straight-from-the-soul sincerity” (Mark Gardner, Heavy!!!, 1966) and finally, to pick one example from a posthumously issued album, “his sound was loud and strong; his playing conveying jubilance or sorrow with equal power; he had complete command of the blues and bebop and wasn't shy of leaving Earth's orbit for unchartered territory.” (Michael Cuscuna, Tex Book Tenor, recorded 1968, first issued 1976).
Nobody could argue against any of the above descriptions of Ervin's playing – his was indeed a hot, relentless and angular style – but what made this style so, in definite technical terms? Jazz critics never seemed to be able to say for sure. (Perhaps the most frequently quoted description of Ervin's playing – again by Ira Gitler – is worth reprising here, if only to show how mixed metaphors and too much creativity only add romantic confusion to our understanding Ervin's methods; “'[his] tenor is like a giant steamroller of a brush, painting huge patterns on a canvas as wide and high as the sky.”)
We've already seen how several Ervin's colleagues viewed his talent – Horace Parlan's observation that “[Ervin] plays with such fervour and honesty that each performance becomes a part of him” can serve as a neat summary here – but what did he himself think made his style? By all accounts, Ervin was a quiet, no-bullshit kind of guy and of the few statements on record about his inspirations, influences and ambitions are typically pithy and direct, perhaps the most expansive being his comments made during a 1967 Blindfold Test in DownBeat, during which he said “as far as style [goes] I like Dexter. My influences were Dexter and Sonny Stitt when I was coming up. Then Coltrane and Sonny Rollins came on the scene, and I tried to come out of come out of Dexter Gordon's and Sonny Stitt's style and come into my own style. I tried not to follow Trane, which a lot of tenor players did, and I can see why they did it. You know Trane was a very strong influence on a lot of tenor players. I tried to come out of the middle of that.”
Ervin had earlier told another writer that “after a while you have to develop your own individual sound, your own style. You get to a point where you must branch out and develop entirely on your own, using all the knowledge you have gathered on the road, in music school, from 'woodshedding', and what you learned from life.”
By the early 1960s, this quest to find his “own style” had become paramount, as he told Nat Hentoff; “I'm playing, or trying to, like myself now. It's the only way to make playing worthwhile. Music means so much to me that it wouldn't figure to play like anyone else.”
These statements reveal no great technical analysis; Ervin simply wasn't wired that way (neither was Coltrane. Despite his enormous theoretical knowledge, his interviews were also remarkably free from overt technical exposes). Booker’s most revealing comment on his own playing, made in a 1965 interview in Melody Maker, says virtually everything we need to know about how he approached music; “Every time I play I try to play as is it's the last time I'm ever going to blow.”
Rather unsurprisingly, performing at this level of intensity inevitably led to alignments to John Coltrane, a player who at various times Ervin was both like and unlike. True, the two men shared some similarity of tone quality; in the late 1950s both favoured a narrower, more channelled sound than that hitherto expected from Afro-American tenorists (although their instrumental equipment was quite different, Coltrane favouring Selmer saxes and Otto Link mouthpieces, Ervin King horns and Berg Larsen 'pieces), yet beyond this the coincidences were marginal at best. Mingus, Randy Weston and other players went out of their way to state that Ervin's sound had been developed independently of Coltrane's, and even the greatest of all jazz genealogists, writer Leonard Feather wrote of Ervin as early as 1961, “I hear little if any direct Coltrane influence.”
Another point is key - unlike many Coltrane-inspired saxophonists Ervin rarely used the tenor's altissimo register – only towards the very end of his life do we hear him soaring away up there in what is a superficially Coltrane-like manner (in particular on 204, from 1968's Tex Book Tenor). If they shared one thing it all, it was a dedication to using sound as a calling card. In Ervin's tone - as in Coltrane's - one could certainly hear the essence of Dexter Gordon and Sonny Stitt (Ervin recorded with both in the mid-1960s – the albums Setting The Pace, with Gordon, and Soul People, with Stitt – enabling one of those quirks of recorded jazz history in which one hears the master and pupil together) but right from his first on-record appearance with Mingus (Jazz Portraits) there was no way he could truly be mistaken for another player. And many observers think it is Ervin's sound that remains the key to unlocking his entire identity; the Texas Tenor tradition and his apprenticeship in touring blues bands were heavily played up in his critiques (Ervin himself had said in 1961, “Sure I keep working a lot of different harmonic things but I still feel the blues and keep coming back to them”) while others heard in Ervin's questing tone a far wider frame of reference. Randy Weston believed Ervin's sound was “like the north of Africa” and, in his 2007 retrospective of the saxophonist, Neil Tesser opined that “it reflected far-flung points of the African Diaspora, from the Moroccan muezzin to the delta bluesman, from the lyric swing of his native Texas to the complex demands of his adopted New York.” Not for nothing was one of the saxophonist's albums called The In Between!
If there is one particular aspect of his style that unites all these opinions, it is the “seizing 'cry of jazz'” which Nat Hentoff notes on That's It! - Ervin's repeated (literally) use of held, keening notes, a wailing, mewing sound, often trailing off in pitch, that can be wildly exciting and is instantly recognisable, like a musical signature.
Energising it may be, but like any personal musical tick it could also occur all too frequently, especially if inspiration were running short - some listeners even find it a very real impasse to appreciating Ervin's work.
Online music forums are rarely the place to get a balanced, authoritative take on a jazzman's work but a few years ago one such board – Organissimo – contained a heated thread in which Ervin fans defended him against some extremely pointed criticism. Inevitably his “moaning” tone was a talking point, coming in for a thorough hammering from one especially virulent individual, while another contributor described how he thought Ervin had two solos - “one fast and one slow.”
Freed from the need for any obsequiousness – the curse of the contemporary sleeve note writer – these listeners had scored direct hits on several raw nerves, causing the biggest jolt by calling into question what – if any – were Ervin's claims to be among the “great” jazz tenors of his age. He created his own identity, for sure, they argued, but how can anyone say he was great in the way Coltrane, Rollins or Dexter Gordon were?
Forty-seven years after Ervin's death, we can now be much more objective, and we can see his individuality for what it truly was - resolute, non-showy, unconcerned with dazzling technical exploits - but back in the 1960s, there were some pretty thinly-argued attempts to elevate him to the musical pantheon, especially in the notes to his albums on the Prestige label. Some of these now need to be taken with a liberal pinch of salt, for example Michael Morgan's statement that “I doubt if any tenorman of his generation (and that included the slightly older Coltrane and Rollins) is playing as much as The Book today” in the notes to Groovin' High (1966), a declaration that, even at the time, would have hardly held up to serious scrutiny. In another note, Morgan went one better, claiming Ervin to be “one of the top practitioners of his very popular instrument today... no other tenorman can out-think and out-swing Booker in the idiom of today's jazz.”
But before we dismiss these encomiums out of hand, it's also worth remembering that by the early 1960s Prestige had lost both Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane from their roster of artists and were – up until the signing of Dexter Gordon in 1968 – somewhat bereft of heavyweight modern tenor talent. Ervin was clearly being touted as the labels “answer” to these other men, entirely understandable as a commercial proposition in the cut and thrust world of the independent record label.
On the one hand, these comparisons were practically helpful – Ervin was being talked up rather than down for a change – but simultaneously they slighted him. Indeed, it's altogether depressing to find that exaggeration was the only way many critics could show their support. This understandable sycophancy (a phrase which can explain away many a sleeve note) wasn't just limited to Prestige though. When Ervin switched to Pacific Jazz in 1966, the annotator on his first album for the label, Leroy Robinson, wrote “he is an innovator and creator in his own right”, a statement that offers in a few words the very crux of Ervin's dilemma.
Like all jazzmen, Ervin was certainly a creator, in that he quite literally created improvisations, but an innovator? At one level you can argue that, yes, he cultivated a tenor saxophone identity that was unique – thus innovative – but the very word innovator implies that whoever owns the title changes the nature of his or her chosen art form, and as a result spawns many other copyists, stylistic descendants and so on. In Ervin's case this is a fantasy. It's difficult – almost impossible, in fact – to name one musician who has since taken him as a seminal influence. This needn't be viewed negatively though, and in some regards it speaks volumes for Ervin's individuality that nobody has decided to – or perhaps can – copy him. Perhaps his is one of those jazz styles that is so personal, so tied up with the man creating it that it's impossible to extricate and duplicate it? Just think of some of the others with this kind of gift – Pee Wee Russell, Henry Red Allen, Jack Teagarden, Jimmy Giuffre, Eric Dolphy, Don Cherry - all distinct voices upon their instruments yet none of whom has left a trail of copycats. Like theirs, Ervin's was a honest style, in every sense, neither aping others nor chasing fashion, but quite simply reflecting who he was and how he saw jazz. As Ed Williams notes in his sleeve text for one LP; “The important thing is the fact it's Booker's [style], and his way of doing it. Self-expression is indeed a precious possession.”
Another equally misleading and frequently encountered assertion is that Ervin's style was notably musically advanced, especially in the area of harmony. A typical example of this “Chinese whisper” summary is that in The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Jazz (Salamander Books, 1978) wherein Ervin is described as “harmonically adventurous” without any qualification give to the label. Another is the back-label copy on one reissue of The Space Book, which stated Ervin “superimposed alternative harmonic patterns that stamped his music with an exploratory edge”.
The truth is that, for all his post-modernist intensity and drive, Ervin's musical language remained highly diatonic – and even in settings where modes were the basis for improvisation rarely did he exercise much in the way of radical harmonic licence, in the manner of John Coltrane (hear the So What-derived S'bout Time, recorded with organist Don Patterson in 1964). Nor was he ever an inside-style bopper along classic Mobleyesque lines. No, it was the blues that remained Ervin's default mode, even when the music around him became ever more challenging.
This emphasis on emotion over harmonic sophistication was no secret to musicians - think of Shafi Hadi and Charles Mingus' comments in the late 1950s – and occasionally it was alluded to in sleeve notes. In 1965, Ira Gitler wrote “[Ervin] does not play 'changes' in the manner of the bop and immediate post-bop changes [but] he has the imagination to build his own harmonic sequences with huge invention in modal or limited-chord situations,” an opaque way of saying that the saxophonist was at his best on simple harmonic frameworks, as indeed he was. Ervin's albums are littered with them and, as the 1960s increased, his comfort and contentedness to trade in ever more limited harmonic stasis was to reach epic proportions (The Trance, a nineteen minute modal churner recorded in 1965, is a rare example of a jazz composition's title mirroring exactly the music its appended to). Outside of this comfort zone, Ervin occasionally reached a dead-end. Listening his version of All The Things You Are, from The Song Book (1964), one of the ultimate harmonic test pieces in jazz pre-Giant Steps, one hears a player who sounds not full of daring and drive but at times almost as if he's flailing.
Accordingly, The Song Book en masse, on which Ervin addresses “standards” with more involved sequences, come off as the least successful of his celebrated 'Book' series, and it's telling that its best moments come of the themes with what might be termed semi-modal construction, such as The Lamp Is Low and Yesterdays.
Ervin's work as a composer also stressed simplicity and tended to fall into two main categories – brisk, often melodically simple blues lines (“he has a special penchant for writing good basic blues lines”, said Horace Parlan in 1961) or longer themes with a marked tendency towards static or modal harmony. The former are littered throughout his discography while the latter come in various tempos and bar-lengths, ranging from the moody ballads Uranus and Largo, through to the nervy energetic sketches like One For Mort (The Blues Book), A Lunar Tune (The Freedom Book), Sweet Pea (The In Between) and Tune In (Exultation). Sometimes, one could detect the trace influences of Tadd Dameron and Dexter Gordon in his themes, such as the delightful Lynn's Tune (Tex Book Tenor).
Ervin's ballad playing, whether on standards or originals seemed to bring all these sources together, his crying tone making sad songs sadder still, no matter where they might hail from. And, like Sonny Rollins, Ervin could take material from highly unlikely places, from performers as disparate as Louis Armstrong (Black and Blue, Exultation, 1963), The Andrews Sisters (Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen, Heavy!!!, 1966) and even Tony Bennett (I Left My Heart In San Francisco, Booker and Brass, 1967) and forge it in his own image. Once again, more often than not, the more spare the harmonic movement the better Booker played.
It was only a short hop from modal to free-form and, as with many musicians coming up in the early 1960s, Ervin's energy, intensity and curiosity naturally edged him towards the fringes of the avant-garde. Work with Charles Mingus – always one of the more capricious of jazz's performers – certainly helped, putting Ervin toe-to-toe with Eric Dolphy, the multi-reed maverick whose improvisations brokered a new ground between bop and free. The influence of Dolphy upon Ervin is rarely noted, but one hears it in parts of The Space Book – in particular the driving Number Two with Ervin's jittery, conversational improvisation shooting out in all directions at once in much the same manner as Dolphy. The two men also came together on The Quest a 1961 album led by pianist Mal Waldron – a curious musician whose compositions are as exciting and edgy as his piano playing is not – in which the music moves from near-avant garde to Third Stream and back again. Once more, Ervin runs the middle ground, proving that, like Dolphy, he was ultimately a transitional musician, neither old school nor new thing. (There is remarkably little footage of Ervin but one piece – filmed at the Antibes jazz festival in summer 1960 – captures him with the Mingus band featuring Dolphy. The two men’s contrasting appearances are fascinating - Ervin stands rigidly when playing, while Dolphy wriggles about as if connected to a mains socket. The resulting music sounds much the same; one man's contributions earnest and focused, the others' charged and overblown).
Ervin's attitude towards the avant-garde was recorded during his April 1967 DownBeat Blindfold Test, for which he was played a recording by Albert Ayler, whose controversial music had slammed down one of the most imposing artistic gauntlets of the 1960s. “The music gave me no feeling of direction or anything,” Ervin began.“I heard no arrangement. I just heard guys running up and down their instruments and making sounds. I don't particularly like that. I don't have anything against avant-garde - I like some of it that is good, and I've heard Albert Ayler play some good avant-garde. I've heard Coltrane play some things that I liked with Pharaoh Sanders. But this thing, I couldn't make it...The music had no direction - not to me. I'd give it one star.”
The criticism of “guys running up and down their instruments and making sounds” reveals a lot about Ervin's thinking; his was a musical ideal still rooted in certain traditional instrumental roles, in the idea that a rhythm section should still function as such. As Michael Morgan noted in 1966; “He has his own 'new thing': a thing that combines real freedom, the kind that retains logic and balance, with that creative discipline without which there can be no art worthy of the name.”
The notion of creative discipline is also key. If one looks at Ervin's albums from the mid-1960s – especially the famed 'Book' series, which Mark Gardner once compared to the Miles Davis' Quintet Prestiges of the previous decade, “inject[ing] a new spirit into the sagging mainstream of our music” – one hears a player staying just this side of wholesale freedom and, at times, especially when pianist Jaki Byard is at his most subversive, appearing to want to reinforce a sense of form over mounting abstraction. This contrast can be hugely exciting, but it can also wear, which is why Ervin's two later sixties albums – The In Between and Tex-Book Tenor, which feature less “interactive” pianists in Bobby Few and Kenny Barron, in some instances give a better picture of him as a soloist. Sadly, by the time these two recordings were taped, there was precious little time left in which to expand his canvas.
BOOK'S ON TAPE: “Well, that's the way I play...”
The early 1960s were a hot-bed of recorded activity for New York jazzmen, and, as “new horn in town” Booker Ervin soon found himself making albums under his own leadership, the first three of which tell something a story within a story.
His initial album - The Book Cooks – was recorded in April 1960 for the Bethlehem label and was produced by vibraphonist/composer/bandleader Teddy Charles, once a ubiquitous figure on the NYC jazz scene but now all but forgotten. Charles was a man with connections to all manner of jazz figures old and new and accordingly Ervin's first date featured an eclectic line-up of trumpeter Tommy Turrentine (brother of Stanley and then a member of the Max Roach Quintet), pianist Tommy Flanagan, one of the most versatile accompanists of the era, bassist George Tucker, Ervin's colleague in The Play House Four and drummer Dannie Richmond, a regular confrère from the Mingus band. In addition, Charles had booked another tenorist, Zoot Sims, a player whose style could sit comfortably within virtually any sphere of jazz. Featuring a collection of blues pieces, original compositions by Ervin and one standard song, the album was hardly ambitious, but it did provide Ervin with his first opportunity to shine under his own spotlight, with the driving title track, a blues duel with Sims - illustrating the influence of Lester Young at its broadest - proving to be the albums highlight. As if sensing commercial potential, Bethlehem also released edited versions of two of the tracks – Ervin's themes Git It and Little Jane – as a 45rpm single, which, rather unsurprisingly, sunk almost without trace.
Ira Gitler’s sleeve notes gave little description of the music, preferring instead to tell Ervin's back story, and, in some senses there was no need: each soloist was readily identifiable and the performances themselves were as direct and forthright as the list of featured players would have you expect. Sales and reviews were hardly startling though. Issued at a time when figures such as Coltrane, Charles Mingus and Art Blakey were making some of their most profound recorded statements, the album got somewhat overlooked. When released abroad in 1962 it was a rather different story, with British music journalists in particular welcoming the chance to hear the man they'd enjoyed on Mingus Ah Um stretching a little farther. “An entertaining and swinging album” by “a consistently interesting player” was Melody Maker's verdict, their reviewer hearing “a good deal of John Coltrane and a little of Sonny Rollins in [Ervin's] harmonic make-up and phrasing.”
Jazz News' asked no lesser figure than the legendary blues supremo Alexis Korner to review The Book Cooks, which he found “a good LP” full of “natural ferocity” with Sims “most pleasingly seem[ing] to catch some of Ervin's 'prickly heat'.” But there were doubters too, among them Jazz Journal's Gerald Lascelles who began his review unpromisingly by saying “if the boot fits, this is modern jazz”. Lascelles actually said very little about Ervin, but was moved to commend Zoot Sims performance on The Book Cook's for “retain[ing]...tone and sense of proportion with great dignity against a rather shrill assault.”
Ervin's second album – Cookin' – was recorded seven months later for the Savoy label, a key jazz imprint going back to the 1940s for which Charlie Parker had recorded much of his seminal work. By 1960, however, Savoy was headed off-radar. Although it signed some interesting new artists during the Sixties – pianist Paul Bley, clarinettist Perry Robinson and tenorist Bill Barron, among them – its production values had clearly begun to slip. Gone were the days when the labels sets would be taped at Rudy Van Gelder's studios; by the time Ervin recorded his sole album as leader for the company (he would appear as a sideman on one of Bill Barron's Savoy dates, the rarity Hot Line, in 1962) Savoy were using Medallion Studios in Newark, New Jersey, a room whose piano had seen better days and whose engineer never quite struck the right recording balance for those present.
Cookin' is, accordingly, a rather more informal album, largely comprising Ervin's straight-forward originals – including the catchy Mr. Wiggles – with an ad-hoc blues (the powerful Well, Well) and a couple of busked standards, Autumn Leaves, appended with an ethereal introduction and You Don't Know What Love Is, a theme Ervin would record again several times and in this version an early indication how his haunting tone could lend a heartbreaking ballad still more poignancy.
Ervin's sidemen on the date were less of a mixed bunch than on The Book Cooks; trumpeter Richard Williams (with whom he'd record again in 1968) was then something of a rising star, a player whose big sound and powerful delivery then made a marked contrast to the fashionable, delicate muted stylings favoured by Miles Davis. Cookin's rhythm section comprised Horace Parlan, George Tucker and Dannie Richmond, all regular Ervin associates. As with The Book Cooks, the albums sleeve notes concentrated more upon the leaders life story than the music on offer, producer Tom Wilson mitigating that “the highly evocative uncontrived musical performances contained herein will be self-explanatory to everyone who is not so inhibited or so over-intellectualized in his approach to jazz that he cannot tap his foot or pop his fingers.”
The gem among Ervin's pre-Prestige discography, and his first “classic” album proper, is undoubtedly That's It!, recorded for the Candid label in January 1961.
Launched as a jazz specialist subsidiary of Cadence Records in 1960, Candid enjoyed a brief moment in the sun during the early Sixties before folding ignominiously. It did, however, survive long enough to establish a house style and graphic look almost as striking as Impulse!, another new jazz imprint launched the same year. The music the label offered occupied similar stylistic ground too, covering the avant-garde (Don Ellis, Cecil Taylor, Steve Lacy), blues (Memphis Slim, Otis Spann. Lightnin' Hopkins), classic jazz (Coleman Hawkins, Pee Wee Russell), mainstream-bop (Phil Woods, Clark Terry) and important works by the two great iconoclasts from the days of bebop, Max Roach and Charles Mingus. Candid liked its new stars too, usually offered a one-shot album deal, many of them brought to the label by A&R director Nat Hentoff, including Jaki Byard, Richard Williams and Booker Ervin.
The hand given to Ervin by Hentoff was far more generous – artistically speaking – that those afforded by Bethlehem and Savoy, and the saxophonist repaid in kind, bringing in a sheath of new original material; “I had done some other record sessions, but I've been saving these songs for the right time, and I felt this was it.”
In tandem with Horace Parlan (appearing under the literary pseudonym Felix Krull, owing to his exclusive Blue Note contract), George Tucker and Al Harewood – thus making this the only recorded document of the band known as The Play House Four – Ervin delivered a six-tune resume of his contemporary approach, mixing moody, semi-modal originals – Boo, Uranus and Mojo, the latter to become something of a theme for the saxophonist – with yet another down home blues (Booker's Blues) and two surging transformations of standard songs, Speak Low and Poinciana. The success of the album, from both an A&R and personal standpoint, was celebrated in its exclamation point title. “Listening to a playback”, recalled Hentoff in the LP's notes, “[Ervin] nodded, 'Yes, THAT'S IT!'”
Others clearly thought so too, with the English jazz press especially welcoming That's It! as the tenorists finest outing on disc to date. “An attractive record, particularly for those with a leaning towards the new wave in modern jazz”, reported Melody Maker's Bob Dawbarn, who praised the leaders marked individuality: “Ervin is always recognisably Ervin and, and despite a marked predilection for for unexpected intervals, his playing has directness and a somewhat angry charm.”
“The slow, sinister 'Booker's Blues' is one of the highspots of the album,” another reviewer, Jazz News' Danny Halperin opined, noting “on the second side of this excellent LP Booker Ervin...plays a ten minute blues that is about as relaxed and basic as you can get,” He also offer unstinting praise for Ervin's successful meeting of a “tough test for as new tenor man; an LP all on his own...Ervin comes through magnificently.”
But as always there were doubters, including Jazz Journal's editor Sinclair Trail who took the opposite view to Halperin, carping “[Ervin] hasn't yet enough to say to fill a twelve-inch LP by himself.” He also puzzled over the saxophonists' “strange bag-pipish tone” and use of original material “I can't see...ever being performed again.”
Whether they liked Ervin's “angry charm” or hated his “bag-pipish tone” all of these writers had agreed on one thing; that these albums had successfully captured a sound unlike that of any other jazz saxophonist. To their respective producers, The Book Cooks, Cookin' and That's It! had also revealed much about Ervin's working modus operandi while in the studio, one refreshingly free from egocentric concerns and creativity-sapping multiplicity of retakes. Another musician who recorded frequently with the tenorist – drummer Alan Dawson – remembered how liberating this attitude could be. “Ervin in the recording studio, playing with him was as close to a pure emotional experience as you could get,” he told Bob Blumenthal in 1977. In a memorial for the saxophonist penned shortly after his death in 1970, he went into more detail; “the way he went about his recording sessions was always the way that I felt I would want to do jazz records...we would only do one, two or three takes maybe and that was it. And he was willing to stand up and be counted and say, 'Well, that's the way I play and that's the way we play. Go ahead and take it.'”
Dawson's recollections provide yet another example of the quality Ervin appeared to have by the bucket-load, both on and off the stand – honesty. And it is this frequent and consistent display of confidence in his own identity that makes all the Coltrane and Rollins comparisons both redundant and insulting. If Ervin ultimately lacked Coltrane's harmonic savvy – so what? If he didn't quite have the high-level rhythmic nous of a Sonny Rollins – who cares? His recordings – right from the off - proved that he had the most valuable assets a jazzman can ever possess – his own voice, and that must remain something worth applauding in its own right."
To be continued and concluded in Part 4.”