Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Gerry Mulligan: Born Again On the Little Bighorn by Brian Morton

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“ … perhaps Mulligan’s most significant single contribution to modern Jazz has been, until recently, poorly recognised and largely mis-attributed. Mulligan has spoken without rancour of the history books being "re-written" on the legendary "Birth of the Cool" sessions, performances which only acquired that millstone title many years after the event, in 1954, when the original 78s were brought together on a single 10" long player (and later still on the dominant 12" format) and (here was the crunch) issued under the late Miles Davis's name.

It was clear that the trumpeter had provided the original impetus for the band but it's focus was, as Leonard Father has recently described, Gil Evans's poky basement rehearsal room behind a Chinese laundry in New York City. Orthodox bebop enjoyed only a remarkably short life among its more innovative exponents. The patronage accorded Charlie Parker by the likes of Norman Granz, with his Verve label and Jazz at the Philharmonic packages, extended its perceived, public life and creative aftermath enormously. But at the tail-end of the 1940s, a substantial group of musicians, of whom Miles and Mulligan were among the most restless, were already looking for a new synthesis. What they created, with substantial contributions from Evans, pianist/composer John Lewis and the undersung John Carisi, was a music that consciously avoided the false climaxes of bop, the easily stage-managed harmonic and rhythmic tensions and obsessive individualism, in favour of a simpler, contrapuntal approach, with greater emphasis on instrumental texture and interplay, on modal patterns and intervals not associated with blues-based jazz.

“The intention was to create a sound that combined the rich palette of a big band with the speed of response associated with small group jazz.” ...

The recent European tour by his "Rebirth Of The Cool" tentette has put the spotlight firmly back on Gerry Mulligan. Critic Brian Morton assesses the career of the great baritone saxophonist.
- Brian Morton, Jazz on CD, 1992

“Ask almost any jazz horn player what attracted him to his instrument and chances are he'll make some reference to its proximity to the human voice. Since Bird and 'Trane, the notion of a “vocalised" tone has been closely bound up with that of the saxophonist as an impassioned shaman or a pentecostal adept, howling and crying and chanting in a language at several removes from everyday speech. Perhaps because he fails to fit the mould, Gerry Mulligan has been consistently undervalued as a saxophone improviser; perhaps because his language is so effortlessly logical, he has also been substantially discounted as a composer/ arranger.


If anyone's tone is vocalised, it is Mulligan's. He plays, as he speaks, in a deep, chesty burr, developing ideas logically (but not so logically that he can't indulge the odd non sequitur), punctuating his argument with unexpected gurgles of humour and outbreaks of quiet passion that sit uneasily athwart his allotted place in the ranks of the "Cool". The baritone saxophone, Mulligan's favoured instrument for over 40 years now, is one of the most thinly subscribed in the jazz orchestra. Harry Carney, in the Ellington band, was among the first to give it speech. Cecil Payne and Pepper Adams demonstrated that Carney's forceful, often dramatic approach was not just a one-off. Leo Parker played a brand of jovial bop on the big horn, trading on the same Eb tonality to create a deeper and inevitably slowed-up version of his namesake's dizzying flights. There was little more of substance until the ill-starred Serge Chaloff, who gave the baritone a dark, almost aggressive resonance.

Chaloff was Mulligan's first model, but tempered with the fleet, melodic scampers of Johnny Hodges and a hint of Hodges's aching ballad style. There is a story that Mulligan once walked into a studio where Chaloff was recording. Seeing his rival in the booth, Chaloff executed a perfect parody of the younger man's still awkward style and then tore it to shreds. Whatever impetus the experience gave him, Mulligan advanced by leaps and bounds and by the early fifties had become a soloist of astonishing poise and confidence. He has always denied hotly that the baritone is a cumbersome instrument, insisting that it has a physical balance and ease of execution that is missing on the lighter horns. Certainly, anyone who saw or heard Mulligan playing soprano saxophone during his brief flirtation with the straight horn may have heard "cumbersome" suggest itself as a paradoxically appropriate epithet. If he has made his name as an exponent of "cool" jazz, his work on soprano sounded merely frosty.

Labels, though, don't sit well on Mulligan. If you call him a radical only at your peril, it's equally unwise to dismiss him as a conservative. He has proved himself able to play in virtually any context, Dixieland, swing, be-bop, up to but significantly excluding free jazz. For Mulligan, there was no break in the continuity of jazz, in what it was possible to do with blues intervals and standard tunes, until in the 1960s (his "lost" decade) the scorched-earth campaign of the New Thing laid waste to much of what had gone before. (Mulligan was able to play comfortably not just with his mentor Johnny Hodges, but also with the supposedly maverick Thelonious Monk, whose own "modernism" was grounded on a strongly traditionalist view of jazz.) Mulligan believes that what Charlie Parker did was "logical" (which is still one step away of saying that it was predictable) and that there was nothing in any of his own so-called revolutionary work that wasn't already present in classic jazz and in the broad-brush arrangements of the swing era.

The fact remains, though, that just as Mulligan's crew-cut and Ray-Bans were once icons of West Coast "Cool", the sunny flipside of New York be-bop, so his music was once considered to be revolutionary, even "difficult". In his short story "Entropy", written in 1960 (and featuring a character bearing Monk's middle name, Sphere), the novelist Thomas Pynchon turns Mulligan's early 50s quartets with Chet Baker into the defining gesture of post-modernism, an accolade Mulligan would doubtless reject. The accepted version of the story is that when Mulligan and Baker turned up at the Haig Club in Los Angeles in June 1952, there was no piano available, and that the famous "pianoless" quartet was merely another instance of necessity mothering invention. Mulligan tells a slightly different version. There was, of course, a piano (what jazz club would be without one?) but it was no great shakes, and the saxophonist was already experimenting with small group, arrangements in which the baritone, already comfortably pitched for the task, took on much of the piano's role. Pynchon's version is more dramatic: improvisation without a safety net! No chords! Freedom! Uncertainty! The revisionist version is convincingly pragmatic: aren't most artistic revolutions a combination of inspiration and compromise? Mulligan's own account, though, is the most straightforward and the most illuminating. The relation between a be-bop solo and the informing chords had become ever more distant and uncertain and a growing understanding of modal or scalar improvisation - which abandoned the usual hierarchy of the harmonic sequence, allowing scales to be derived from any given note - was opening up the possibilities available to a jazz arranger in a way that suggests the experiment of a jazz group without harmony instrument was both '"logical" and, with a little hindsight, predictable, too.


Mulligan's gifts as an arranger were largely innate. While still in his teens, he was writing arrangements of popular material for Johnny Warrington's radio orchestra, but he first came to wider notice, after his recruitment to the sax section of the Gene Krupa band, with a hit arrangement of Disc Jockey Jump in 1947. He had an instinctive feel for the relationship of instrumental    voices and for the transpositions required to keep instruments with dramatically different stride-lengths in step. The two-part counterpoint he developed with Baker and later with valve-brass players like Art Farmer (who has been working with Mulligan again recently in the reformed Tentette) and Bob Brookmeyer had a robust logic that belied its deceptively understated delivery. The quartet with Baker was a resounding success and created a climate of expectation that afforded Mulligan enviable freedom of movement in an idiom that ran counter to commercial trends in jazz and popular music. He has long been insistent that there is still considerable public affection and demand for big band music and that the only reasons for its decline are economic. In 1960, Mulligan organised the legendary Concert Jazz Band, whose very title enshrined the importance he placed on big band jazz as music to be listened to, not just danced to. With rock and roll on the rise, the band folded and Mulligan's career as a leader was somewhat eclipsed. Though he continued to arrange and work as a sideman, opportunities to work on his own account were limited until the formation in 1972 of a new big band, named (in recognition of his passion for old locomotives) The Age of Steam. The new band saw Mulligan make a surprisingly comfortable accommodation to the rock idiom that had denied him work so long, and it set him back on a insistently successful course that has been maintained up to the present. The story, though, runs a little ahead of itself, which is appropriate, for Mulligan's career almost needs to be seen in reverse. keeping with a spirit of revisionism, of critical    misunderstanding and ungenerosity that has stalked him at every stage it is clear that perhaps his most significant single contribution to modern Jazz has been, until recently, poorly recognised and largely mis-attributed. Mulligan has spoken without rancour of the history books being "re-written" on the legendary "Birth of the Cool" sessions, performances which only acquired that millstone title many years after the event, in 1954, when the original 78s were brought together on a single 10" long player (and later still on the dominant 12" format) and (here was the crunch) issued under the late Miles Davis's name.

It was clear that the trumpeter had provided the original impetus for the band but it's focus was, as Leonard Father has recently described, Gil Evans's poky basement rehearsal room behind a Chinese laundry in New York City. Orthodox bebop enjoyed only a remarkably short life among its more innovative exponents. The patronage accorded Charlie Parker by the likes of Norman Granz, with his Verve label and Jazz at the Philharmonic packages, extended its perceived, public life and creative aftermath enormously. But at the tail-end of the 1940s, a substantial group of musicians, of whom Miles and Mulligan were among the most restless, were already looking for a new synthesis. What they created, with substantial contributions from Evans, pianist/composer John Lewis and the undersung John Carisi, was a music that consciously avoided the false climaxes of bop, the easily stage-managed harmonic and rhythmic tensions and obsessive individualism, in favour of a simpler, contrapuntal approach, with greater emphasis on instrumental texture and interplay, on modal patterns and intervals not associated with blues-based jazz.

The intention was to create a sound that combined the rich palette of a big band with the speed of response associated with small group jazz. The "Birth of the Cool" nonet made unprecedented use of French horn and tuba and divided its sound range in such a way that the middle register (where one might expect to hear a tenor saxophone) was significantly attenuated. The effect was a music of superficial simplicity that nonetheless afforded the arrangers (and also the soloists, it shouldn't be forgotten) the possibility of considerable complexity. Mulligan's contribution to the sessions as composer was highly significant. He wrote and set three pieces for the group, Godchild and the wonderful Jeru for the January 1949 sessions, Venus de Milo, which featured his best solo of the time, for the second batch, cut in April, and the bouncy Rocker, recorded almost a year later.

It's difficult in retrospect to evaluate accurately the impact of these sessions, but Max Harrison has persuasively suggested that jazz's inability or unwillingness to capitalise on and develop its own innovations is what has condemned it to the status of a minor art. The ensemble playing on the "Birth of the Cool" sessions is as sophisticated as anything being attempted at the time by "legitimate" or "straight" composers and yet within a couple of years, jazz in general (though commendably few of the original participants) was content to settle back into the four-square thump of theme-and-solo "improvisation" on popular tunes.

The only slightly sour note surrounding The Birth of the Cool (as a product, rather than a misnamed historical moment) was the fact that it seemed to have been hijacked in Miles Davis's name. The trumpeter's subsequent career cast him with some unlikely bedfellows and with an acrobatic self-conception that pitched him at the opposite extreme from the notably purist Mulligan. Not least of his affectations seemed to be the belief that at every stage of his progress he shed yet another stylistic skin. Even at the end of his life, though, when he was set against (some thought) unpromising electronic backgrounds, Miles was still exploring the ensemble effects and minimalist gestures with which he and Mulligan had experimented in 1948 and 1949.

In the jazz fan's wish-list of great might-have-beens, there are few potential reunions more piquant than one that was mooted one summer night a year ago in Rotterdam. Mulligan told Miles of his desire to play the "Birth" music again. Miles asked to be kept posted, a willingness that may have seemed astonishing by the diffident standards of the Sixties and Seventies but which can't quite be explained away by his ubiquitous "special guest star" status of the final few years; for Miles's resistance to "jazz" was very specifically a resistance to the endless rehearsal of be-bop egotism. Sadly, he was already stricken in health, and died before the projected reunion could be realised.

Mulligan, though, stuck to the original idea and assembled a band that more than passed muster. With Phil Woods in for the otherwise-committed Lee Konitz (who has nonetheless appeared since in the reformed Tentette), and the young trumpeter Wallace Roney in for Miles, the band had a freshness and bounce that more than matched the original conception. With digital recording, "Re-Birth of the Cool" (not to be confused with a similarly-titled compilation of hip-hop music, a fact that caused Mulligan some little pain) dissolves the intervening four decades and brings to life some of the most effective charts in modern jazz. Mulligan's own voice has matured over the same period, losing some of the slight infelicities of diction and awkward caesuras [interruptions; breaks; pauses] that marked his soloing in the early days. At 65, he sounds stronger and more committed than ever, but committed not to a narrow conception of jazz as a particular ideology that has broken free of its own historical moment ("Re-Birth of the Cool" is emphatically not an exercise in nostalgia) but to the widest possible conception of music. [The recording is another of] … Mulligan's increasingly important forays into formal orchestral writing and can't be seen as a rejection of jazz, but simply as a rejection of the view that jazz is the only road to the joyous freedoms it expresses and stern disciplines it imposes. When Mulligan hooks on the big baritone, the voice is unmistakable. It's a speaking voice, which doesn't disdain to sing when the song is worth the breath.”



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