© Copyright ® Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
It's always a treat when Simon Spillett reaches out with one of his informative and well written essays and offers to have it posted to these pages.
The piece that follows is from the notes prepared for Electrifying Sounds Of The Paul Jeffrey Quintet Harkit HRCD8611.
Simon Spillett is a Jazz tenor saxophonist and an authority on the music of many of the great players of the instrument who blossomed during the second half of the 20th century, both in Great Britain and in the USA.
He is the author of The Long Shadow of the Little Giant: The Life, Work and Legacy of Tubby Hayes which Equinox has recently published in a second edition. You can locate my review of it by going here.
In addition to fronting his own quartet and big band, 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 previously shared essays on Hank Mobley, Hank with Miles Davis, Booker Erwin, Stan Getz, Jim Hall, and Al Cohn and Zoot Sims. on this page, and he has his own website which you can visit via this link.
© - Simon Spillett, copyright protected; all rights reserved, used with the author’s permission.
Electrifying: a new look at Paul Jeffrey
Even to those deep within the jazz cognoscenti the name Paul Jeffrey is unlikely to ring any significant bells. Despite being a featured sideman with two of the music's most demanding bandleaders – Thelonious Monk and Charles Mingus – and holding down several notable academic posts, the last of which at North Carolina's Duke University helped two generations of aspiring jazz performers gain valuable practical insights into the art form – Grammy© winning trumpeter Terence Blanchard prominent among them – Jeffrey spent the majority of his lengthy career tagged with a label that can be as much a curse as an endorsement – that of “musicians' musician.”
It was true though. Indeed, by the time he cut this, his début album, in 1968, the 35 year old saxophonist had worked through a highly catholic variety of musical appointments; besides the stints with Illinois Jacquet, Maynard Ferguson and Howard McGhee mentioned by annotator Rudi Blesh in his original sleeve notes for Electrifying Sounds of The Paul Jeffrey Quintet, there were also spells with Wynonie Harris, Big Maybelle, B.B. King, Count Basie and Dizzy Gillespie, each adding to Jeffrey's journeyman hands-on apprenticeship within the broad mainstream of mid-20th century Afro-American musical culture. The results were instantly apparent in his playing, which drew on all the best elements of the leading tenor saxophone voices of his time – Lester Young, Ben Webster, Dexter Gordon, Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane. How successful he was in synthesising the styles of these giants into his own dialect can be measured by those who considered him an equal. From the mid-1960s up to his death aged 81 in 2015, Jeffrey was a close personal friend of Sonny Rollins, a man who certainly knows a thing or two about real deal saxophone talent (the two can be seen practising together on New York's Williamsburg Bridge in the Dick Fontaine film Who Is Sonny Rollins?, shot the same year as this album was taped.). Coltrane loved him too. In J.C. Thomas' Chasin' The Trane, Jeffrey remembered how on their initial meeting “he gave me his address and said to stop by whenever I was in the neighbourhood”. As well as being a powerful instrumentalist, Jeffrey was also a prolific composer and arranger, forming his own octet in the 1970s, once again utilising what he'd learned first hand from the best.
Fittingly for a début album, Electrifying Sounds tried to capture all these facets; there are reminders of Jeffrey's blues-playing/dues-paying past, a nod to the classic tenor ballad traditions of Young and Webster, and, in his own writing, suggestions of his appetite for musical adventure. As such, the record comes up as something of a portmanteau of jazz in the late-1960s, one which, had it not appeared on a label which had by then all but disappeared from the jazz racks, might have gained more cachet upon its original release. Imagine, for example, that this was a Blue Note or Impulse! release; how much more value - both fiscal and artistic - would it now have?
It's worth pausing for a moment to explore this point further; by 1968, Savoy Records was a company in decline. Barely twenty-years earlier it had been the home of Charlie Parker, a great deal of whose seminal early work had been taped for the label, and during the 1950s, the imprint had captured the first steps of future icons such as Cannonball Adderley, Donald Byrd and Lee Morgan. By the early years of the following decade, however, it had begun to run out of steam. Although they signed a small share of interesting talent during the 1960s – pianist Paul Bley, tenorist Bill Barron and clarinettist Perry Robinson – Savoy's profile was now built primarily upon gospel music, leaving whatever jazz it taped marooned in an otherwise sanctified sea.
Paul Jeffrey's album was among the last jazz records ever released by the label, its production values giving a sad indication of how much things had changed. By 1968, Savoy's early regime of taping its sessions at Rudy Van Gelder's celebrated studio was long over. Like its other 1960s jazz sessions, Jeffrey's date was most likely recorded at Medallion Studios in Newark, New Jersey, a facility whose somewhat dull acoustics hardly helped the music on offer. There were other signs of marginalisation too; the rear of the LP carried the legend “The Soul Sounds Are On Savoy!!”, a clear enough indicator as to where its producers saw the future. Even the front cover design spoke more of expediency than artfulness - Jeffrey, his saxophone and German Shepherd snapped in the open air in a photo shoot that must have taken all of five minutes to organise.
By far the most obvious contemporary tell-tale was the albums' title, the Electrifying part of which wasn't just an attempt to generate excitement but which referred to the fact that for much of the record Jeffrey's tenor was hooked up to a Gibson Maestro Octave box, which enabled him to add either a higher or lower parallel musical line to whatever he played. He was by no means the only jazz hornman to try the effect. Indeed, as jazz went head-to-head with rock music - and all its attendant amplification - during the late 1960s, Clark Terry, Roland Kirk, Sonny Stitt (on record) and even John Coltrane (in private) all tried plugging in, if not going the whole hog, as Miles Davis was shortly to do, nevertheless equally willing to see if a new sound could supplement their existing methods. Most of these experiments now sound rather time-locked, and Jeffrey's are no exception, sometimes causing one to wonder if a little too much time was spent in trying to graft the effect on to what was otherwise a unreconstructed straight-ahead date. Occasionally though, the Gibson creates something worthwhile; on The Dreamer, Jeffrey's tone is transformed into that of the worlds' hippest bassoonist; on Green Ivan, a sort of updated Jordu, the Maestro unit is set to mimic the melody an octave down, the ensemble sound emerging being oddly reminiscent of the records John Coltrane and tubaist Ray Draper had made a decade earlier.
Fortunately, Jeffrey's sidemen didn't add to the electrified stunts. Instead they offer a neat encapsulation of a whole era, each man a representative of the last wave of jazz musicians to emerge before the great jazz/rock/fusion explosion. Trumpeter Jimmy Owens, then just 25 years of age, had already turned heads as a member of the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis band, and was a player of startling maturity and self-assurance, sounding neither in thrall to the prevailing Hubbard/Shaw influences nor like a would-be Miles Davis. Pianist George Cables – later to be a hand-in-glove partner for saxophonists Art Pepper and Dexter Gordon – comes on like a felicitous amalgam of McCoy Tyner and soul-jazz pioneers Horace Silver and Les McCann, while the bass and drums team of Larry Ridley (who would shortly become a colleague of Jeffrey's in the Thelonious Monk Quartet) and soon-to-be Herbie Hancock sideman Billy Hart form the backbone of a rhythm section that tackles every demand the leader makes of it with aplomb. In fact, the various approaches Jeffrey uses over the course of the album make for a record which maintains consistent interest; contrast the boogaloo/The Sidewinder groove of Ecclesiology (a track today's jazz performers really should dust down, such is its dance friendliness) with the shifting metres of The Dreamer, or the playful appropriation of the avant-garde in A.V. G., a breakneck burner whose dissonant fanfare-like theme propels the leader into a garrulous, fevered improvisation revealing an ear attuned to Coltrane and Rollins.
The track that undoubtedly says most about Jeffrey isn't one of his originals though; it's his solo feature rendition of I Guess I'll Hang My Tears Out To Dry, a 1944 Jule Styne composition immortalised in jazz by Dexter Gordon's epic 1962 reading on the Blue Note album Go. Jeffrey is less full-on than Gordon, but he's definitely connected to the same stylistic tree, his hollowed out tone and warm, affecting vibrato echoing the grand traditions of swing-era tenor, carried forward the dawn of the 1970s.
And it was to be that decade in which Jeffrey's career-visibility peaked, a success story that sits rather awkwardly with the folk-memory of the Seventies being an age in which acoustic jazz went to ground. Recruited by Thelonious Monk in 1970, he appeared on the majority of the pianists' final engagements up to around 1975 (The New York Times' John S. Wilson praised him as “an unusually skilful interpreter of Mr. Monk's music”), remaining a close personal associate during Monk's sad mental decline. Simultaneously, he became a musical aide and confidant to Charles Mingus, as the bassists' health also began to falter.
Despite never really breaking through to wider critical notice, Jeffrey's association with men like Monk and Mingus said it all: both were imposing musical figures, who'd always sought out highly compatible partners to amplify their innovations, as had Dizzy Gillespie, the third man in a triumvirate of modern jazz pioneers to employ Jeffrey. In fact, we shouldn't be at all surprised that Jeffrey prospered (musically at least) during the early 1970s. After all, this was a decade in which so much front-rank tenor talent was missing from the New York jazz scene: Coltrane was gone: Rollins was again in retirement; Dexter Gordon, Johnny Griffin and Stan Getz had departed for foreign shores. Jeffrey may never have truly been a pretender for their titles, but his was a honest voice, steadfastly maintaining the core values of the music at a juncture in which jazz otherwise looked to be in deep trouble.
Ultimately though, his wasn't the career of a globally renown instrumental innovator – rather it was that of a facilitator, one gifted with a knack for identifying others' artistic ambitions. More than a touch of Jeffrey's later role as an educator can be felt in the Electrifying Sounds, in which he does exactly what he'd subsequently do at Duke University and his other seats of learning, helming a band of young Turks, giving them both challenges and their heads. Nobody would argue that this album is a ground-breaker, but in these days of all-too-frequent musical pretence, lessons like these are priceless.”
Paul Jeffrey Quintet
Paul Jeffrey (tenor sax); Jimmy Owens (trumpet); George Cables (piano); Larry Ridley (bass); Billy Hart (drums)
Possibly Medallion Studios, Newark, New Jersey, August 8th, 1968
All compositions by Paul Jeffrey except*
Originally issued on Savoy MG 12192 (released 1969)