Thursday, March 12, 2020

The Three Sounds

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

“AT this writing it has been just a little over two years since the Three Sounds, a group formed in South Bend in 1956 and later based in Washington, D. C., arrived in New York City for its first gig. Not long afterward, Alfred Lion had corralled the trio into the studios for an initial LP date, Introducing The 3 Sounds, (Blue Note 1600).

It is common knowledge by now that the Sounds have established themselves firmly on the jazz scene from coast to coast (currently they are playing to enthusiastic audiences at the Zebra Lounge in Los Angeles). Their progress is remarkable; first, because a piano-bass-drums group, having the commonest of all trio instrumentations, is the hardest kind to lift out of the musical and economic rut; second, because the Sounds managed to accomplish this with precious little help from the critics.

In a sense it might be said that the critics did help, but inadvertently. A negative review of their first LP, published in Down Beat, was cast in such clearly exaggerated terms that a wave of sympathy reaction resulted. Their second album, Bottoms Up (Blue Note 4014), received a four-star (very good) rating in the same publication; but by that time the Sounds had already been solidly established with a substantial following of fans. It is entirely possible that had the first LP been assigned to the same reviewer who covered the second, it too would have been rated four stars, since the two albums were virtually identical in musical concept and execution.”
- Leonard Feather, insert notes to Moods [Blue Note 4044]

DURING the mid-to-late 50's, jazz piano trios sprung up across the nation. Perhaps it was the popularity of Oscar Peterson or Errol Garner or the stylization of the intimate image a piano trio can evoke, but for whatever reason, the piano trio explosion was in full gear. There was The Ahmad Jama! Trio, The Red Garland Trio, The Ray Bryant Trio, The Bill Evans Trio, The Ramsey Lewis Trio just to name a few. They were all modern jazz units. Some trios served as the core group backing up a singer. Ella Fitzgerald had The Tommy Flanagan Trio, Joe Zawinul's Trio backed up Dinah Washington (after Wynton Kelly's trio had done the same).

The Art of the Trio is taken by jazz musicians as seriously as the Art of the Fugue is studied by organists. Even though the basic instrumentation is the same (piano, bass and drums), an avid listener could easily discern the differences between the Hampton Hawes Trio and The Sonny Clark Trio. Each trio had its own signature, a way of weaving various influences into a cohesive statement and direction.

The THREE SOUNDS were part of the trio explosion. …

The THREE SOUNDS had a natural chemistry and beautiful rapport with the audience. The national audience began to build for the group, and soon the THREE SOUNDS were playing clubs across the country. The group did very well in the booming jukebox business evidenced by the large number of singles that Blue Note released on 45-rpm vinyl.
Alfred Lion's strategy for the group was simple; record them as often as possible, playing material rehearsed in clubs and fine tuned for the recording session. Sometimes a single session would yield not one, but two LP's worth of material. Over the course of 5 years (1958-62, the 'classic' trio years), the "Sounds" released 9 LP's.
- Bob Belden, insert notes to Standards [Blue Note CDP-21281]

"This is the trio I've been waiting for!"

"The Lighthouse is the best jazz club in the country!'

"You're presented respectfully like you're playing on a concert you're the star tonight, baby — you can't do anything wrong! And you never
lose the closeness of the audience there. The people are up tight and right next to feels like they're breathing down your throat digging everything every minute. The Lighthouse is beautiful, and I'm delighted we recorded there."
- Pianist Gene Harris to Herb Wong, insert notes to The Three Sounds: Live at The Lighthouse [Blue Note CDP 7243 5 23995 2 9]

“This is the second of only three occasions that this group was captured live, the last being at the It Club in 1970 with Henry Franklin on bass and Carl Burnett on drums. It's a pity they didn't do more. In a club setting, their range, groove and interaction with the audience made for exciting music.”
- Michael Cuscuna, Producer, The Three Sounds: Live at The Lighthouse [Blue Note CDP 7243 5 23995 2 9]

The Loa Jazz Club was located on Pico Boulevard in Santa Monica, CA and for about two years in 1987-1988, it was my hangout.

I was at a phase in my professional career during which working long hours was the rule rather than the exception. Since The Loa was located not too far from my office, I’d grab a bite to eat and then go over to the club to catch the early set.

The cozy club was divided into three listening areas: a front room, where a handful of tables and booths surrounded the bandstand; a middle room with about two dozen tables, and the bar area, with stools at the bar and along a wall. The sound system was first-rate, so everyone could hear the music equally well.

The Loa Jazz Club was owned by Mariko Omura who had a long involvement with Jazz including working as a disc jockey for Tokyo Broadcasting System in Japan from 1960 to 1973 and producing LPs with greats such as Sonny Stitt and Art Pepper for the Atlas label.

As Omura explained in an interview with Zan Stewart of The Los Angeles Times, “I’ve always had a desire to run a Jazz club and, when I was able to line up some investors in Japan, I opened the Loa, which means "eternal" in Hawaiian.

The club books both "name" artists such as Oscar Peterson, Dudley Moore, Benny Carter, J.J. Johnson and Tommy Flanagan, and lesser-known though excellent musicians such as guitarist Bruce Forman and pianist George Cables.”

Thursday was my favorite night at The Loa because that’s when bassist Ray Brown’s trio often performed and the atmosphere was pretty much the way Zan describes it in this excerpt from his review of the group at the club:

“On a recent Thursday night on the bandstand of the Loa jazz club, Ray Brown smiled and swayed as he played his upright bass.

He wasn't the only one who was happy. In the crowded, intimate Santa Monica nightspot, the audience appeared to be having a great time. As Brown's trio - sparked by earthy pianist Gene Harris and drummer Jeff Hamilton - got down , people smiled, rocked back and forth in their chairs, clapped their hands and tapped their feet in time to the music. More than occasionally, they shouted, ‘Yeah!’ and ‘All right!’
Three times during the group's performance, there was a rare sight in a jazz club: a standing ovation.
After the set, as Harris mingled with members of the audience, one patron grabbed him by the arm and exclaimed: “That was wonderful!’ Nearby, another customer was heard to say: ‘That was worth missing a little sleep for!’”

I first heard pianist Gene Harris about thirty years earlier when he first came to prominence as a member of The Three Sounds, a piano, bass and drums trio that made it recording debut on Blue Note Records.

Richard Cook, in his definitive Blue Note Records: The Biography, [London: Secker and Warburg, 2001 provides this background into how this association came about.

“Tirelessly, Alfred Lion and Frank Wolff went on recording and releasing. Blue Note recorded sixty-eight sessions during 1958-9, not all of them producing results which Lion deemed worthy of release, but still setting an extraordinarily high standard for the label. There were several new names to add to the leadership roster: saxophonists Tina Brooks and Jackie McLean, trombonist Bennie Green, trumpeters Dizzy Reece and Donald Byrd, and pianists Walter Davis and Duke Pearson. But the most important additions to the ranks were two groups.

One was the Three Sounds [the other was the return of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers].

The piano trio was becoming one of the most popular of jazz units. Small enough to offer the kind of closely focused sound which wouldn't deter listeners who didn't want to try too hard with their jazz, it was still able to carry all the sophistications which a more committed follower expected. At least two figures outside the hard-bop arena - Oscar Peterson and Erroll Garner - had won huge audiences with the format, often made up of people who rarely listened to any other kind of jazz (which is why Garner's Concert By the Sea album can still be found in old LP accumulations as a lone example of a jazz album). But besides Garner and Peterson, many younger pianists were following the format to considerable success, and soon every jazz label had at least one such trio on its books, playing what was often a kind of hip cocktail music: Red Garland at Prestige, Ahmad Jamal at Argo, Bill Evans at Riverside (though Evans was perhaps more self-consciously 'artistic', he probably appealed to much the same people who bought the other records).

Blue Note hadn't gone too far in that direction, but when he heard the trio from Washington DC called the Three Sounds, Lion went after that market in a serious way. The group had made a single set for Riverside with Nat Adderley, and when they arrived in New York, Lion signed them and cut some initial sessions on 16 and 28 September 1958, eventually released as Introducing The Three Sounds (BLP 1600). The trio was Gene Harris (piano), Andrew Simpkins (bass) and Bill Dowdy (drums), and that is the group which eventually cut sixteen albums for Blue Note over a ten-year period (only later on were Dowdy and then Simpkins replaced).

Although they had originally featured a saxophonist, it was when Harris took centre stage and began making the most benign and good-hearted improvisations on popular material that the Sounds began to click. Light, bluesy, discreetly swinging - Dowdy was a drummer who believed in gentle persuasion, not bullying or bravado - their music was almost a definition of jazz formula. Harris would state the melody, maybe out of tempo, maybe with his partners there; then take a chorus or two where he gradually built the genteel intensity and fashioned a modest improvisation, probably with some locked-hands touches along the way; then a return to the tune, with a tag at the close. The steady mid-tempo lope was the normal setting, but ballads -where Harris would really arpeggiate the melody line - might follow a funereal beat and double the duration.

As a result, all their records were the same. If you liked one of them, you'd like any one of them, and in one of those curious situations where the law of diminishing returns doesn't seem to apply, the Three Sounds sold consistently well over their Blue Note life. It didn't hurt that Lion released more than twenty singles off the various albums. As smart background music, the Three Sounds were as fine as anybody could wish.

Long after the trio ended, Harris continued as an old-school jazz entertainer, having spent most of his adult life pleasing crowds of one sort or another. The Scottish guitarist Jim Mullen, who toured with him in later years, recalled how it worked:

“Gene used to say that these people have come out to see us, and it's our job to give them a fantastic time. He used to say at the end of the evening, 'If you leave here with a smile on your face, remember that Gene Harris put it there.' I've never seen anyone turn a room of strangers into family that way. We never rehearsed. He'd do this big rubato solo piano introduction with no clue as to what's coming up. Then he'd just start playing and you had to be ready to jump in there. That's how he wanted it.”
- The Jazz Review, Issue 11, 2000.

The following video tribute to The Three Sounds uses On Green Dolphin Street from their Moods CD as an audio track. Leonard Feather offered these comments about the tune’s background and the trio’s arrangement.

On Green Dolphin Street is a Hollywood movie melody by Bronislaw Kaper, whose previous peripheral association with jazz came through part-authorship of All God's Children Got Rhythm. Here again Harris uses the extended-introduction technique, built here around the tonic chord, with the melody gently moving in against an E Flat pedal point and the second chorus swinging loosely in exuberant contrast. A return to the pedal point leads to a discreet fade at the end.”

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