Wednesday, August 4, 2021

Hal McKusick - Cross Section-Saxes

 © Copyright ® Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Interview with Hal McKusick

“Composer and alto saxophonist HAL McKUSICK, born 1924 in Medford, Massachusetts, plays most saxophones, clarinets, and flutes. He was a member of the orchestras of Boyd Raeburn, Claude Thornhill, Woody Herman, Benny Goodman, Dizzy Gillespie, and Charlie Barnet. In the later 1950s he made recordings with George Russell, Art Farmer, Al Cohn, Manny Albam, Jimmy Giuffre, Gil Evans, among others, and appeared on the 1959 album Lee Konitz Meets Jimmy Giuffre. From 1958 to 1972 he was a staff musician for CBS in New York. His compositions for Boyd Raeburn, his own groups, and others show an original avant-garde sensibility. Today he teaches and performs on Long Island in New York, and makes fine handcrafted furniture.”

- Andy Hamilton, Lee Konitz: Conversations on the Improviser’s Art [2011]

Hal McKusick


Born 1 June 1924

McKusick was a section-player in many big bands in the 40s and early 50s, but he's best remembered as a studio man who led some interesting dates of his own for a number of different labels in the latter part of the 50s. His RCA set The Jazz Workshop (1956) was recorded contemporaneously with George Russell's of the same title, and features material by Russell, Jimmy Giuffre, Gil Evans and others: a quietly compelling record with some starkly challenging music, although Triple Exposure (Prestige, 1957) and Cross Section: Saxes (Decca, 1958) also have some fine and rewarding music. McKusick's own playing was soft-toned and wryly inventive. After this burst of activity, though, he doesn't seem to have recorded again as a leader, although he still did studio work into the 70s and carried on playing into the 90s with small groups. He is also a pilot.”

- Richard Cook’s Jazz Encyclopedia

“McKusick, Hal [Harold Wilfred] (b Medford, MA, 1June 1924). Alto saxophonist. He first worked as a sideman and a principal soloist with a number of big bands, including those of Les Brown, Woody Herman (both 1943), Boyd Raeburn (1944-5), the guitarist Alvino Rey (1946), Al Donahue, Buddy Rich, and Claude Thornhill (1948-9). During the 1950s he played with Terry Gibbs (1950-51,1955-6), Bill Harris  (1952), and Elliot Lawrence (1952-7), and also worked as a studio musician and led his own groups. In 1958 he joined the staff of CBS in New York, but continued to perform and record as a freelancer. McKusick is noted for his experiments in the 1950s with novel time signatures, modes, and counterpoint; the influence of Lester Young may be discerned in his delicate tone and phrasing, both well suited to the cool-jazz style.”

- DIANNA RHYAN in Barry Kernfeld, Ed., The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz [1995]

I’ve wanted to bring up a feature on multi-woodwind and reed specialist Hal McKusick [1924 -2012] for sometime be I couldn’t seem to find a starting point until I recently listened to a CD collection that contained Hal McKusick - Cross Section-Saxes which was originally released in 1958 as a Decca LP.

Hal was not only a fine soloist and an excellent arranger in his own right, but also an excellent interpreter of the work of other arrangers. In this case, George Russell, Jimmy Giuffre, Ernie Wilkins and George Handy who did some very intriguing work with sax sections on Hal McKusick - Cross Section-Saxes.  

On some of the tracks on this album, the sax arrangements sound like a forerunner to Med Flory and Buddy Clark’s Supersax, a sax section that came to prominence in Los Angeles in the 1970s playing unison and harmonic versions of Charlie Parker’s classic Bebop repertoire replete with his iconic, original solos.

This album is also of interest because it is one of the earliest to feature the work of pianist Bill Evans before his association with Miles Davis and his twenty year career as the leader of his own trio.

The details about this recording are discussed in full in the following liner notes by George Russell, Jimmy Giuffre, Ernie Wilkins, George Handy and Burt Korall and they are also contained in the booklet that accompanies Hal McKusick: Three Classic Albums - The Jazz Academy, Jazz Workshop, Cross Section-Saxes [Avid AMSC-1167]. Interestingly, each of the composers talks about the work of other composers on the album in a way that illuminates special features of their singular style of composing and/or arranging. Burt provides a summation.

“When the jazz musician no longer seeks out fresh avenues of expression, he shrivels on the vine. Of necessity, the creative artist must be refreshed and revived at frequent intervals. He must be challenged; it is essential to his continued vitality. Obviously, it is too easy to be trapped, to wallow in a comfortable groove, turning away from the more creative, and indulging in the pleasure or success of the moment.

Whether or not the jazzman becomes lax is dependent, in varying degrees, upon two things: talent and temperament. Those who are content to reach a comparatively modest level of accomplishment, and to exploit the attendant feeling of mastery over material and a sense of case for their own sake, are numerous. Fortunately for jazz, however, there are more musicians who are not content with the fulfillment of today and keep building for a more fruitful tomorrow. Musicians of this genre are acutely aware of the symptoms of stagnation, avoid the pitfalls manifest in jazz and themselves, and remain "alive", musically. These are the people that prevent jazz from suffering from an acute case of "tired blood."

Hal McKusick, since his stay with the adventurous Boyd Raeburn orchestra in the 'forties, when he collaborated with arranger-composer George Handy in the writing of some noteworthy compositions - Yerxa, Tonsillectomy, etc. - and was one of the more enthusiastic subscribers to the modern manner of playing fathered by Lester Young and developed by Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, T. Monk, Kenny Clarke - the Minton's- 52nd Street coterie - has found psychological and financial sustenance following the challenging paths in the jazz woods.

"A continuing sense of growth as a musician and as a person is of utmost importance to me," says McKusick. "I feel that very little can be gained by doing the same sort of things over and over, especially if there's no more to be learned by doing them. " I don’t wish to imply, however, that the jazzman should flit indiscriminately from one thing to another without adequate preparation, or that he should grow compulsively rather than naturally; but I do want to emphasize that standing still in jazz can only become an unfortunate habit.

"It is for this reason that I generally try to vary my activities, to have my albums project something of the extensiveness, the variety that is jazz; each one of them calling for something different from the players and myself,

McKusick has done "free-blowing"' sets, where the disciplines and general sense of interest are dependent upon improvisation. Altering the emphasis, other McKusick programs have placed stress on incorporating free-blowing in a "lightly" arranged framework. As of late, Hal has veered to what he considers a most fruitful set-up-a close interrelation between the writer and the players; the writing in the latter situation, ranging from the deceptively simple to the more complex, according to the composer's bent. The value of the performances is, once again, relative to the invention, the interpretive strength of the players; but the organizational elements basic to scoring render a more overt sense of form of a written score that tends to inhibit the jazz blower" Yes and no. It could well inhibit individuality if the writers had no understanding of the needs of the jazz player. However, the writers involved in this album, through their experiences in jazz, have come to realize that the player must be given a chance to play, and/or be challenged by the feel, the variety and unity of the writing. In essence allowance must be made for the player to contribute meaning to the work, not only on the group level, but as an individual as well.” -GEORGE RUSSELL

“Composer-arranger George Russell realizes this. Like the jazz soloist, George creates compositions and arrangements that underline adventure and flexibility, the basic and not so basic.

Russell feels that he, too, is an improviser. Discussing jazz composition he said, "Given a set of musical facts, he (the writer) can, in the same way a soloist improvises on chords, improvise upon musical facts pertaining to his composition and produce a swinging, logical, vital-sounding piece of music. Improvisation on various levels is an integral part of jazz.

In the process of composing music over the years, George has evolved his "Lydian Concept of Tonal Organization," encompassing the whole of composition - the consonant (tonality) and the dissonant (atonality). There is dissonance in his work, but always in relation to a tonal center. As Russell said to Jack Maher in JAZZ TODAY: "I feel that writing tonally, in many ways, is more of a challenge. The limitations of tonality force you to look and feel harder for the endless variations that exist."

In the manner of Duke Ellington, Russell emotionally and scientifically measures the capabilities of his instrumentation and the artists he is dealing with, writing for the player and the unit, rarely overextending himself, for he always seeks to fully understand all the elements with which he is working. This is something he tried to do even in his fledgling period as a writer for Dizzy Gillespie, Benny Carter and Charlie Parker.

Russell, at 35, has been over a decade in finding himself. Through self examination and study, he has come to a point in his development when forging his own message is possible. Relatively unheralded today, his future is fraught with possibility.

The Russell contributions are played by Hal McMusick, alto: Art Farmer, trumpet; Bill Evans, piano: Milt Hinton, bass; Charlie Persip, drums: and Barry Galbraith, guitar.

YOU'RE MY THRILL - Russell maintains the identity of the song without adhering too closely to its melody or form. "I tried to compose on the song," said Russell. Perhaps the chief recommendation of this arrangement is that the written ensemble lines move well and in a most natural manner. The solos follow as release for the tension set up by the lines; the interweaving of both add to the pulsing feeling of the selection. Speaking for the soloists, Hal succinctly commented: "George sets you up his own way, and makes you play."

STRATUSPHUNK is a medium-tempoed blues that intimates atonality though it maintains an essential tonality-Blues in F. The prime motif is a bass line built on the interval of a minor seventh that is picked up by trumpeter Farmer, then further enlarged upon by the ensemble. Piano and drums drop out for the first six or eight bars of each solo, after which the full rhythm section plays in double-time, and then reverts back to straight time, thus establishing a variety of rhythmic tensions and enriching this deceptively inornate, well organized opus.

Russell seems to follow an emotional plan: By building from the opening bass line through ensembles to solos, diversifying his rhythmic and melodic colors and buoyantly supporting soloists along the way, Russell logically reaches climaxes, and then returns, in progressive steps, to bare essentials - bass line in close.

END OF A LOVE AFFAIR is an apt illustration of the degree of inner organization of Russell's writing. One is aware of planning, the form of the arrangement, but the loose, natural quality of the work never makes that knowledge any more than a convenience.

Opening with a 32 bar verse, a colorful affair notable for shifting rhythms and clever handling of melodic elements, the emphasis changes in the theme sections to the more straightforward as Russell underlines "the romantic feeling and a definite sense of swing." The general flow of the solos is aided by the "dancing feel" of the rhythm section headed up by drummer Charlie Persip.” - JIM GIUFFRE

“The challenge to the players is continued in the work of the next writer to be considered. Jim Giuffre, the man and the musician, functions as he feels he must. A product of the mainstream of jazz, the man who wrote Four Brothers for the Woody Herman Orchestra, played tenor in the tradition of Lester Young for Woody, Buddy Rich and other bands, has come to know himself, and now feels a good deal of security concerning his concepts.

Indeed, Jim has taken hold over the last few years. By organizing his thinking and his life, he has managed to free himself of the shackles of influence, and has gone his own way. His writing exhibits individuality and is identified by "low volume, gentleness and restraint, which makes more clear attitudes often not found in jazz: pensiveness, compassion, even meditation. Because of those same three major elements, his music makes the relationship between other musical forms and jazz more evident, since the relationships arc not obscured by the

overwhelming power and intensity representative of most jazz performances."

Giuffre's music shows an express concern for American folk elements: a closeness to the blues, spirituals, the feeling of the land and people of this country. It is a personal, earthy kind of music.

Not inhibited or circumscribed in his writing, Giuffre does not hesitate to make use of devices or techniques native to musical forms other than jazz. No matter what techniques or materials he incorporates into a composition or arrangement, however, one never gets the feeling that he is grafting anything alien onto the body of the work. On Jim's three efforts here, his objective was to set three distinct moods, sustaining the basic flavor of each tune by developing a long line throughout; the balancing of the instruments generally, utilizing each instrument as a "contributing" melody instrument, fundamental to his method.

Hal McKusick is heard on bass clarinet and alto on the Giuffre selections. Art Farmer is the trumpeter: Bill Evans is at the piano; Paul Chambers, bass; and Connie Kay, drums.

The treatment of Yesterday brings out the essential sadness and yearning of the tune, ascertains a deep blues feeling and spots Connie Kay playing finger cymbals throughout. Sing Song is a Giuffre spiritual, notable for building continuity and a close interrelation of the instruments in the development of one basic motif.

Tranquil, somewhat pastoral. It Never Entered My Mind is representative of the Giuffre sound and sense of beauty. A feeling of completeness -that of a vignette well told - is this selection's essential strength. The McKusick and farmer solos, Hinton's sustained excellence, and Connie Kay's sensitive cymbal work are certainly to be noted.” - ERNIE WILKINS AND GEORGE HANDY

“The remaining four selections - Whisper Not, Now's The Time, La Rue, The Last Day Of Fall -were arranged for sax section (and rhythm) by Ernie Wilkins or George Handy. Stress was placed on dynamics, blend and feeling in the performance of these arrangements. (Ed. note: the compounding of these three elements in sax section work today is certainly a rarity.)

"The sax players were selected for their ability to work in a section," McKusick pointed out. "We aimed for a feeling of unity, a togetherness that is best illustrated by the sax sections of the early Benny Goodman band, and the Basie crew that recorded "Jump The Blues Away," over a decade ago."

Ernie Wilkins, a long-time sax section inhabitant (Earl Hines, Count Basie) before he began to arrange and compose on a full-time basis, comes well equipped to write for reeds. Always a writer closely identified with techniques and source material in jazz, Ernie feels the future lies within the idiom itself, not in amalgamation with elements native to other musical forms.

Though consistently aligned with Basie by critics, (he's been writing for the band since 1951) this association is not all there is to the man. In recording projects of his own, equally reflective of his jazz roots. Ernie has shown he can voice a message of his own, without the "fashioned for Basie" trademark.

For this program, Ernie arranged Benny Golson's beautiful jazz melody, Whisper Not, and the Charlie Parker blues, Now's The Time, complete with scoring Parker's memorable solo for full sax section. Both are the work of a craftsman acutely aware of the possibilities of his material

Ever so "experimental" when writing for the Boyd Raeburn band in the 'forties, "often echoing Bartok and Stravinsky and Debussy," as Barry Ulanov phrased it, 38 year old George Handy has consolidated his thinking in the last decade. Much of the dissonance of his life has become consonance; his music, just as authoritative as before, like the man, has become more settled.

George has become more traditional. His maturation has allowed him to really deal in jazz terms. He is just as thoughtful and clever as in the past, but now is more flexible, and can write for all situations. His two scores for this set, La Rue and The Last Day Of Fall, reveal a more swinging Handy than his old fans will remember. The former is a line written by the late Clifford Brown; the latter, a "Handy capture" of the improvisations of one of our leading jazz tenormen.

On the four aforementioned titles, Hal McKusick and Frank Socolow are heard on altos; Dick Hafer, tenor and Jay Cameron, baritone. Bill Evans is at the piano; Connie Kay, drums; and Paul Chambers, bass.

In summation, the most valid thing to say is that this program has a point of view. It is an expression of the musicians and the writers and their need to pump fresh life into the body of that which they love and obviously respect. With people of this kind - the restless, the adventurous yet well-rooted-lies the future of jazz. If for no other reason, this cross section of jazz thought is important.” - BURT KORALL

Tuesday, August 3, 2021

E.S.P. - Miles Davis

 © Copyright ® Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“This [1965-68] has always been an enigmatic period in Miles's career, a band and a set of relationships which didn't so much develop as go through a looping sequence of self-discoveries and estrangements. The leader himself often sounds almost disengaged from the music, perhaps even alienated from it, though one always senses him there, listening. Miles Smiles opens up areas that were to be his main performing territory for the next few years, arguably for the rest of his career. The synthesis of complete abstraction with more or less straightforward blues-playing (Shorter's 'Footprints' is the obvious example of that) was to sustain him right through the darkness of the 1970s bands to the later period when 'New Blues' became a staple of his programmes. 

After Miles Smiles, E.S.P. is probably the best album, with seven excellent original themes and the players building a huge creative tension between Shorter's oblique, churning solos and the leader's private musings, and within a rhythm section that is bursting to fly free while still playing time. Miles returns to his old tactic with Coltrane of paring away steadily, often sitting out for long periods or not soloing at all. It is simply that with Shorter he has a saxophonist who is capable of matching that enigmatic stance, rather than rushing off on his own.” 

- Richard Cook and Brian Morton, The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, 6th Ed.

“(The first incarnation of this Miles Davis Quintet (with George Coleman, Herbie [Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams) entered the studio for the first time May 14,1963 before it was a working band. Studio albums were used to introduce new material into the Miles Davis songbook. Kind Of Blue gave us "So What" and "All Blues" and Someday My Prince Will Come gave us the title track and "No Blues." The live albums would be conceived as vehicles to capture the sound of his current quintet performing both the classic and recent material. This session gave birth to a new band and contributed two pieces, "Seven Steps To Heaven" and "Joshua,"

to Miles' live repertoire.

For the next 19 months, live recordings charted this band's extraordinary progress: In Europe (Antibes —July '63), My Funny Valentine and Four & More (both from Lincoln Center— February '64), In Tokyo (July '64 with Sam Rivers replacing Coleman) and In Berlin (September '64 with Wayne Shorter finally in place).

By January of 1965, the Quintet (now only 5 months old} had toured Europe and was just beginning to travel in the U.S. During the first part of the new year. Miles and the group enjoyed a two-week stay at San Francisco's Basin Street West. After finishing up the weekend, they found themselves in Hollywood at the Columbia Studios, where Irving Townsend was set to produce a new Miles Davis studio recording.

The idea of going into the studio with new material for the first time in 19 months must have stimulated the group. The first track recorded was Wayne Shorter's "E.S.P."

The album My Funny Valentine was released in May of 1965 to great acclaim. E.S.P was issued in November of 1965, when Miles began touring. again after a six-month recuperation from his first of many hip operations. The album did not get the hurrahs expected of a new Miles Davis Quintet studio recording. The momentum that the group had built up from 1964 had to start over.

The group was taped at the Plugged Nickel in December of 1965, but the 

tapes remained unissued for 11 years. Of the new material, only "Agitation" had made it into his book, but he was still playing "Stella By Starlight" and "My Funny Valentine" as well as other standards and blues associated with his earlier bands.

Still, E.S.P. summed up the form and rhythm experiments that the Quintet was developing from live performances into a compositional structure. Stop-and-go ("R.J.," "Agitation"), pedal points ("Little One," "Mood"), creating a "harmonic" direction from "suggestions" and implications ("E.S.P."), rhythmic suspension ("R.J.," "Eighty-One") and form modulation ("Iris"). The melodies themselves became more independent of the harmony, and thus strengthened the idea of improvising phrases (as Ornette Coleman) and not clichés.

Behind the success of My Funny Valentine, Columbia released the rest of the February 14,1964 Lincoln Center concert as Four & More in March of 1966 (barely 4 months after E.S.P.!). Prestige repackaged old sessions (For Lovers and Classics) and then went further by releasing a greatest hits compilation in December of 1966, making a total of six Miles Davis releases in 17 months.

No wonder E.S.P. confused the public. The music is light years ahead of anything previously released. The public was bombarded with Miles' accessible side, the romantic lover. The success of My Funny Valentine further imbedded that stereotype into the minds of the jazz public. Eventually. Miles would completely separate the studio recording process from the live performance process, but it took two incredible sessions to launch him on his way.”

— BOB BELDEN, insert note excerpts from E.S.P.

For fans of the classic Miles Davis Quintet [with John Coltrane on tenor sax, Red Garland on piano, Paul Chambers on bass and Philly Joe Jones on drums] and the classic sextet [subtract Garland and Jones and add Julian “Cannonball” Adderley on alto sax, Bill Evans on piano and Jimmy Cobb on drums], the six LPs that Miles made for Columbia from 1965 to 1968 are as perplexing as they are paradoxical. 

They are less straightforward and more puzzling, if not downright mystifying, to the snap your fingers and pat your foot Jazz fans who were accustomed to more easily relating to Miles’ post Bebop groups that played a style of Jazz based on a mixture of songs from the Great American Songbook and tunes from The Jazz Standards. And then there were all of the “romantic Miles” LPs that Bob Belden references in one of the quotations that open this piece.

In fact, to these modern Jazz fans, the music on the albums from the mid-sixties did indeed appear to require a form of extra sensory perception - that is a telepathic sixth sense - to experience what was going on in the music.

And yet, just as Miles had made the transition from the flying notes and quickly progressing chord changes of Bebop to the more expansive and lyrical Jazz of the classic quintet and sextet of the second half of the decade of the 1950s, E.S.P, Miles Smiles, Sorcerer, Nefertiti, Miles in the Sky and Files De Kilimanjaro marked Miles’ transition to an association with a band made up of younger musicians that was working its way out of one phase and into another in which time and harmony, melody and dynamics were being radically rethought. Or as Richard Cook explains it:

“The improvisations here would have been inconceivable a mere couple of years earlier; they don't so much float on the chords as react against them like phosphorus. Three years later, they fed directly into Miles's electric revolution and the beginning of what was to be (he long dramatic coda.”

Beyond the more technical treatment of the music on the recording contained in Bob Belden excellent notes, in combing through the Jazz literature to identify a more accessible explanation of Miles’ work on E.S.P., I was pleased to find the following treatment of both the band and the music on the recording by Gary Giddins and Scott DeVeaux in their work Jazz [2009] which is available in both a trade [commercial] and education [suggested listening guides] editions. Their narrative provides a comprehensive context for appreciating the significance of the album.

© Copyright ® Gary Giddins and Scott De Veaux, copyright protected; all rights reserved.


“After the back-to-back triumphs of Kind of Blue and Sketches of Spain, Miles Davis endured a slump of uncertainty. Coltrane, Adderley, and Evans had left to pursue their own careers, and Davis expressed contempt for the avant-garde. He continued to release effective records, including a reunion with Coltrane that produced a minor hit in "Some Day My Prince Will Come." But his music was caught in a bind, much of it devoted to faster and harder versions of his usual repertory, including "Walkin'" and "So What."

Then in 1963, once again, he produced magic. He turned to younger musicians who would surely have had important careers on their own but who, under Davis's tutelage, merged into a historic ensemble, greater than its very considerable parts. The rhythm section consisted of three prodigiously skillful musicians who valued diversity over an allegiance to one style of music: pianist Herbie Hancock, bassist Ron Carter, and seventeen-year-old drummer Tony Williams. Davis auditioned many saxophonists before temporarily settling on George Coleman, who played with facility and intelligence but lacked the drive and curiosity of the younger guys. In late 1964, Wayne Shorter, who had made his name as a saxophonist and composer with Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, joined the band, a decision that changed his life and Davis's, and made this second

great quintet, a worthy follow-up to the 1955 group with Coltrane. This time, however, Davis took as much from his sidemen as he gave, drawing on their compositions (especially Shorter's) and sensibilities. These musicians were keenly interested in the avant-garde, and Davis adjusted his music to assimilate their tastes, as he struggled to make a separate peace in a confusing era.

Jazz was beset on one side by avant-garde experimentalism that estranged much of the audience, and on the other by rock, which had matured from a teenage marketing ploy to the dominant pop music. Davis would eventually inch his way to a fusion of jazz and rock, but first he adapted modal jazz to include elements of the avant-garde in a postbop style far more extreme than anything he had previously done. This approach, which also attracted other accomplished musicians caught between the conventions of modern jazz and the excitement born of the avant-garde, involved harmonic ambiguity, original compositions with new harmonic frameworks (rather than those built on standard songs), and a radical loosening of the rhythm section. Some of the tunes written by Davis's sidemen actually encouraged free improvisation (Ron Carter's "Eighty One" is a blues but also a minefield of open terrain). In the most advanced of these pieces, chord progressions were omitted while time and meter might evaporate and coalesce several times in the course of a performance.

Most first-rate rhythm sections work like the fingers in a fist. Coltrane's quartet, for example, achieved a fiercely unified front, devoted to supporting the leader. Davis's group was no less unified, but its parts interacted with more freedom, often rivaling the soloists. So much was going on between Hancock's unruffled block chords, Carter's slippery bass lines, and Williams's rhythmic brush fires that they all appeared to be soloing all the time. Davis gave them leave, enjoying the excitement they created, but he imposed a discipline that left space for the lyrical drama of his trumpet. Interestingly, on those few occasions when Davis failed to show up for a set in a jazz club, the other four musicians played in a more traditional, straight-ahead style. Free of chord changes, unapologetic about fluffs, and stimulated by his band's ceaseless energy, Davis became a more expansive trumpet player. He began to forage in the upper register at precipitous tempos, ideas spilling from his horn with spiraling confidence despite infrequent technical failings. He cut back on his signature ballads and began to jettison standard tunes and his classics. Between 1965 and 1968, he found his own way to be avant-garde.


The 1965 album E.S.P. was a critical event, but not a popular success. It represented the first studio recording by the new quintet, and the seven new compositions, all by members of the group, challenged listeners who expected to hear the tender, meditative Davis who incarnated jazz romanticism. This music is audacious, fast, and free. The title of the album (and first selection) emphasized the idea that extra-sensory perception is required to play this music. Shorter composed "E.S.P." as a thirty-two-bar tune, but its harmonic structure is far more complicated than that of "So What."

The melody is based on intervals of fourths (recalling the indefinite quartal harmonies of "So What" and "Acknowledgement"), and is married to a mixture of scales and chords in a way that offers direction to the improvisers without making many demands. The main part of the piece (A) hovers around an F major scale, while the B sections close with specific harmonic cadences that are handled easily and quickly—especially at this expeditious tempo. The soloists (Shorter for two choruses, Davis for six, Hancock for two) take wing over the rhythm, bending notes in and out of pitch, soaring beyond the usual rhythmic demarcations that denote swing. No less free is the multifaceted work of the rhythm section: the bass playing is startlingly autonomous, and the drummer's use of cymbals has its own narrative logic.

The public reception accorded E.S.P and succeeding albums by Davis's quintet (Miles Smiles, Sorcerer, Nefertiti) suggested the tremendous changes that had taken place in the cultural landscape in the few years since Kind of Blue and Sketches of Spain. They were received favorably and sometimes enthusiastically by musicians, critics, and young fans, but achieved nothing of the broader cachet enjoyed by his earlier work: there was nothing easy or soothing about these records. By 1965, rock and roll could no longer be dismissed by jazz artists as music for kids, and Davis was feeling the heat, not least from his disgruntled record company.”

Monday, August 2, 2021

The Creative World of Stan Kenton -The Rock Years - Part 7

 © Copyright ® Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Kenton 70's music had many things in common with the bands of other eras including great soloists, great section leaders and a select number of arrangers who played a key role in shaping the orchestra's identity. 

But one thing that was different about Stan’s music during this period was the infusion of Rock ‘n Rock into the band’s book of arrangements.

In this chapter from his definitive Stan Kenton: This Is An Orchestra, the erudite Kenton-scholar Michael Sparke explains how this development, or, at least an attempt to do so, came about.

Kenton Goes Rock


“Bob Curnow was 31 when he joined the Kenton organization, ten years older than his first stint with the mellophonium orchestra in 1963, but still a young man. He was certainly young enough to have been influenced by the fusion music that had actually worked both ways, with a few of the rock bands like Chicago and Blood, Sweat and Tears injecting a little from the jazz idiom into their arrangements. Much as Bob might have preferred to get straight into writing for the band himself, his first, full-time task was to ensure the survival of Creative World Records.

At the same time, Bob's impossible instructions from Stan were to expand the label by recording other artists, so that CW was not dependent solely upon the Kenton orchestra. But Curnow had neither the experience, nor (more importantly) the finances to groom the better pop artists who helped subsidize the jazz and classical catalogs of the major companies; and popular jazz stars were not only expensive, but generally contracted to other labels. Curnow had little option but to feature new jazz talent, but if anything sells slower than established jazz groups it is little-known names, and after some few releases by such as Les Hooper and John Von Ohlen, this part of the project was abandoned, leaving Bob free to concentrate on obtaining a "hit" record by Kenton himself.

In consultation with Curnow, Stan was persuaded this could best be achieved through "fusion," a combination of jazz that he hoped would retain the regular fans, and rock to involve the younger generation. In other words, the music was to be dumbed down. Stan had little choice if Creative World was to remain operational, but at the same time his musical instincts resisted the change, so that he was never 100% committed. To live in two musical worlds at the same time is a precarious existence, but some artists had achieved the near-impossible, Miles Davis being the prime example.

Over the summer of 1973 the character of the band changed considerably. As Stan looked to implement his new policy, he commissioned Gene Roland to come up with a rock-oriented album while retaining the Kenton sound, seemingly overlooking (or possibly forgetting) Gene's previous failure at the same task. Although he traveled with the band for three months, Roland's glory days were long behind him, and he was no more successful in 1973 than he had been in 1966. Most of Gene's output was unceremoniously dumped, and only two titles made it onto the new album now coming together. "Those Roland compositions were not up to his earlier standard," observed Bob Curnow, "and that's why you don't hear them any more." But whether "Blue Gene" and "Country Cousin" were any worse than the other titles on 7.5 on the Richter Scale is a matter of opinion. Hank Levy hit "rock" bottom with "Down and Dirty," and even Hanna's band vocal version of "It's Not Easy Bein' Green" is embarrassingly bad. The two big "hits" were both melodically dire film themes: Curnow's "Live and Let Die" and Dale Devoe's adaption of "2001" retitled "2002—Zarathustrevisited" for copyright reasons.

7.5 on the Richter Scale was produced by Bob Curnow and largely conducted by Hank Levy, with seemingly minimum Kenton participation. "The album was done in a very hurried fashion in one of Wally Heider's small studios," commented Curnow. "It was a low-budget deal, and a lot of the music had never been played before the session, and that band was not at its strongest sight-reading. The change in style arose out of the Company's poor financial state—we were looking for something that would sell."

And set amongst all this dross was a single jewel that shone like a gem, an oasis in a desert wasteland. Marty Paich's vision of "Body and Soul" was orchestrated in the same classical style as his previous "My Old Flame," an almost cruel reminder in this setting of how fine the music of Stan Kenton could sound. "A beautifully crafted work of art," opined Mike Suter. "When 100 years down the road Kenton is rediscovered, 'Body and Soul' will be the representative of the last decade. It's fitting!"

There's a wicked irony in the fact Stan had set up Creative World in order to enjoy the freedom to record the music he wanted, and now economics were forcing him to compromise just as he had at Capitol. Although Stan's lack of judgment (the sacking of Clinton Roemer in the States, and the floundering Dutch subsidiary in which he held a 51% stake) was partly to blame, the band was now very dependent on university and college bookings. Every artist likes to bask in audience approval, and the rock charts created more enthusiasm from the kids than "Body and Soul" ever did. As final proof (if any were needed) that junk always sells better than serious music, Audree Coke confirmed: "7.5 on the Richter Scale was an attempt to appeal to a younger audience, and is turning out to be the biggest seller we have ever had."

Like most of us, Stan Kenton frequently changed his mind. In 1948 he had told Down Beat that strings produced a thrilling sound, but were definitely not for his band. In 1950 he had fronted the Innovations Orchestra, featuring a full 16-piece string section. The following quotes to me are also set two years apart:

Stan Kenton, February 22, 1973: "I've always felt that jazz is jazz and rock is rock, and I never felt that we should get into playing rock music."

Stan Kenton, February 6, 1975: "Rock rhythms are more exciting than the old-fashioned jazz rhythms. Rock rhythms have become fused with jazz, they're part of today's music, and there's no going back now."

But again like most of us, Kenton sometimes said things that were expedient rather than what he really believed. So was it a case that Stan had genuinely changed his mind, or more that he was making the best of a bad job? Lillian Arganian asked Hank Levy, who had already done more than anyone to introduce rock into the band, for his opinion. "He didn't believe in it that much," said Hank.

Trombone player Howard Hedges also told the story that whenever Levy submitted a chart that had "rock feel" written on it, Stan would rehearse the music and say he liked it, but would subsequently pass. Hank discovered that if he retitled the SAME CHART and inserted "Latin feel" instead, the music would make it into the book.

Some of the young musicians naturally liked the rock influence more than others. In Peter Erskine's view, "A good number of Hank's charts did employ 'backbeats.' Hank specified 'Jazz/Rock' and we played it as such, for better or worse—but the man's writing should not be indicted. Hank Levy was a lovely gentleman, and I know that Stan cherished their musical association."

A different view of Levy's music (and much closer to my own) was offered by Mike Suter: "Hank was a wonderful man. I loved him dearly— and loved is the word I have chosen after careful consideration. He was totally committed to jazz and jazz education. But he was NOT a good composer or arranger. His gimmick was time charts. For Kenton he stuck pretty much with 5/4 and 7/4 time signatures, probably at Kenton's request. But I've played many of his more 'adventurous' pieces, and they all share the same deficiencies as those he wrote for Kenton: they're predictable, forced, harmonically weak, and unimaginative. I hate to say all this because he was such a great guy. So incredibly supportive. But he was a college-level writer at best. That Kenton recorded so much of his music reflects just how far the band had declined in those last years."

At best, Stan's commitment to rock was half-hearted. "For one thing," observes Suter, "rock is a rhythm-based music led by the guitar, and the Kenton band had only three full-time rhythm players—drums, bass, and Latin percussion—but no guitar and only an occasional piano. Therefore any true rock was impossible. Both Stan and Hank were from an older generation, and neither had any real understanding of rock. In my opinion, Bob Curnow proved best at melding rock and Kenton."

The prospect of Stan Kenton playing rock piano was as preposterous as Benny Goodman trying to switch from swing to bop 25 years earlier, so Hank Levy and Dick Shearer tried to convince Stan to hire a younger pianist who would add the textures of electronic keyboards to the band. As Mike Suter recalls, "Stan was playing less and less, so many of the jazz players were looking for more support, and Hank had a kid he was high on who played synthesizer. Hank and Dick hatched the idea that this kid should join the band and play keyboard parts—synthesized piano on traditional tunes and more modern sounds on our version of rock—when Stan chose not to play.

"According to Dick, Stan wouldn't entertain the idea. Dismissed it out of hand. The fans would never accept another piano player. Stan simply said 'No,’ and that was it. Hank kept on to Stan, but Dick dropped out after the first time Stan said 'no.' Dick recognized the tone and stopped. He knew it was pointless —and maybe even dangerous—to continue. In my view and Dick's, the idea had merit. Synthesized sounds would have helped the inadequacies of what Hank wrote and called rock, and would have aided Curnow's music the most, because Bob was the best at reshaping music from the rock idiom to fit Stan's style. I don't remember Dick mentioning whether Curnow played any part in the effort to add a keyboard player. Personally, I'd bet Bob stayed out of it—no evidence, just a gut feeling."

Curnow confirmed he had no knowledge of the move at all, adding, "I never felt the necessity for a second pianist, and even if I had felt the need for electronic keys of some kind, I would NEVER have mentioned it to Stan. One didn't 'discuss' things with Stan very often. You made your (hopefully) well-thought-out suggestion, and then waited for his decision."

So (thankfully in my opinion—and that's phrasing it mildly!), the Kenton band never became a rock band, though it went far enough to alienate some older fans, but not far enough to really enthuse the rock generation. At concerts, the contemporary music like "2002" and "Live and Let Die" was interspersed with more traditional Kenton music, resulting in the very real danger that in trying to please everyone, you end up fully pleasing no one. Stan returned for an extensive tour of Europe in September 1973, its relative failure (especially in Germany) being attributed to "over-exposure"—this was the second visit to England in the same year—rather than a failure to connect with its core audience.

As often happened after an overseas tour, personnel changes took place once the band returned Stateside, among them John Park, who was forced to leave following a heart attack on October 10, soon followed by saxists Kim Park (John's step-son) and Mary Fettig, who had formed a relationship that allegedly resulted in pregnancy. Also given notice was Dale Devoe (trombone), whom Stan appreciated more for his writing than his playing. "2002" had been a sizable hit for the band, though it was the bossa nova-ish "Love Theme from The Godfather" that was the more musically attractive. Dale was a youngster just getting started, and probably wasn't best pleased that Stan had considerably simplified his arrangement when recording the 7.5 album, so that it emerges as effective but over-bland. Much more cutting-edge Kenton was Dale's "El Cordobes" (named after the Spanish bull-fighter) which Stan never saw fit to record. But Dale's biggest hit was "Roy's Blues" for Roy Reynolds, which remained in the book to the end. From Devoe's own account in Steven Harris' invaluable book The Kenton Kronicles, Dale's stay in the band was short but not always sweet, and he perhaps fits Bill Fritz' comment as well as any, that "The tragedy lies in the minds of those who join the band with great expectations, and end up dwelling on what might have been."

From producing one of CW's top sellers, Bob Curnow moved to one of its weakest: Solo—Stan Kenton without His Orchestra. Even the ever-prudent Audree Coke admitted, "The Solo album is selling rather slowly." The truth was, the fans had always adored Stan despite, rather than because of, his instrumental abilities, because as a jazz pianist Kenton didn't even reach the starting gate. There were literally hundreds of piano players in the business with more jazz feeling and rhythmic sense than Kenton brought to the keyboard.

By the Seventies, as his fingers stiffened, Stan was featuring his "concerto" piano style most extensively. Arrangers found their charts were more likely to be accepted if they included a piano solo, often as an introduction to the piece. Audiences appreciated this "hors d'oeuvre," an appetizer, knowing that the orchestra would soon come roaring in, and Kenton basked in this warm glow of affection. But remove the "main course"—the band—and an audience would soon have grown restless. Stan Kenton and his orchestra could fill New York's Carnegie or London's Festival halls. But be honest, how many "bums on seats" would a Stan Kenton Piano Recital have filled?

There had been suggestions for a Kenton piano album for many years, but Stan had always deferred, perhaps sensing it wasn't his greatest strength, and also because he invariably tensed up and became very apprehensive when recording solos. By all accounts Kenton suffered agonies during the sessions, and a hilarious compilation of out-takes that includes Stan's many expletives is a mind-boggling prize among serious collectors. Bob Curnow relates: "I remember when we first went to record at United and Western, the studio was in darkness, but a light from the control room was focused on this nine-foot grand—this big, black, Baldwin piano—and as Stan saw it he said, 'I feel like El Cordobes walking into the ring, and that's the bull!' And it was quite an experience, a real eye-opener. Some things Stan played beautifully, and some things he played terribly. A lot of times he didn't even remember his own compositions, and I had to go out and find the sheet music for things like 'Theme to the West.'"

For Kenton to record an entire album without even rhythm support was certainly a brave—some might say foolhardy—venture on his part. There's very little "jazz" on the completed album, and even then you are by no means hearing the music as Stan played it, as Curnow explains: "It was very hard. We recorded something like 11 hours of music, and then I took the tapes and edited those 11 hours down to 42 minutes. Every note on the album is Stan's, but it's a real patchwork quilt of many takes over many days on quite a few of the cuts. My memory tells me there were well over 150 intercuts and edits in the final album. I worked on it for an entire month before going back into the studio to put together the master. What a labor of love, with an emphasis on the LABOR part!"

The best summary of Solo that I have seen comes from Ed Bride on Kentonia: "To me, the Kenton solo album is more of a personal statement than great jazz piano-playing. You hear melodies of compositions that were played by the big band, and you get to think about what might be going on in his mind. He's talking to us. It's more personal than musical, at least to me."

The next musician to cause the greatest stir after John Park was also an alto sax player. Tony Campise joined in March 1974, the most "avant-garde" soloist the band had ever featured (and that includes Jay Daversa), giving rise to strong pro and anti opinions both inside and outside the orchestra. Kenton allowed Campise complete freedom of expression, and featured him at concerts on such disparate titles as "Inner Crisis" and "Street of Dreams" (from rock to ballad). I asked Stan how he found Tony compared with Park: "Campise's an exhibitionist and Park isn't. Campise has such tremendous technique he can't help but use it, and sometimes he plays too much. He'd take a lot of wild chances and scare guys to death, the things he'd get going on that horn. But he didn't play with the taste that Park played with."

Dick Shearer continues, "Campise probably knew more about saxophone than anyone I've ever heard in my life. Technically he knew how to do everything, and he could change styles: if he wanted to sound like Johnny Hodges or Lee Konitz or whoever, he could do that very easily. There were times when he'd be playing he'd do something like that just for the fun of it. Every time he played you didn't know what was going to happen. Tony had no inhibitions, whatever he felt, whatever he wanted to do, he did it. His lead playing was always fine, but I'm less sure whether his solos always fitted the style of the band.

"Tony was popular with the public, and sometimes he'd get these ethnic-type things going, where he'd talk like a Japanese, or he'd do his Mexican imitation. And he could literally talk backwards. He could speak what sounded like nonsense into a tape recorder, and when you played it the other way it came out as, 'Yes, my name is Tony Campise.' Tony's the type of person who could hear a language once or twice, and have the pronunciation down, whether or not he understood what was said."

Despite Campise's strong personality, Mike Suter insists this was the "John Harner band." John played lead trumpet through 1974-75, and according to Suter: "Brought phrasing and dynamics back to Stan's music. John willed the band to excellence and personally burnished the rough edges. I wish I knew how he did what he did, but I don't have a clue. He would decide to make a change, and somehow through his sound we were aware that a change was coming, and be ready. I'm afraid Stan's ambiguity towards John prevented him from recognizing his talent until it was too late. Great lead players only come along a few times, and Stanley blew it."

Following a successful if less than overwhelming tour of Japan in April, the band plunged into a brace of new scores written by Bob Curnow, a very diverse talent whose skills ranged from the traditional Anthems music to the fusion charts he saw as the best way for Stan to make contact with the younger generation. Bob's original concept had been an album featuring the music of Chicago, and another from Blood, Sweat and Tears, but Stan was never fully convinced. While he could endorse translating classical composers like Wagner into the Kenton idiom with composure, rock groups carried a certain stigma that he found impossible to overcome. Kenton ended up advising Bob to use some music by both groups on a single LP, and even that should be filled out with some original Curnow compositions. One senses Stan's lack of conviction from his comment (displaying more optimism than realism), "We used music made popular by Chicago because we felt it would call attention to the band and gain a lot of the younger listeners—and we've begun to believe now that we didn't have to do it, because the kids are coming to us in droves anyway."

Even post-Kenton with his interest in Pat Metheny's music, Curnow never wrote pure rock; at most his music might be described as "fusion," and the centerpiece of the Chicago album ("Chicago Suite III") veers towards jazz. As Mike Suter phrased it, "Bob was the best at melding rock and Kenton. He squeezed the music into the Kenton mold, writing great arrangements, let's say 85% Kenton and 15% rock, that worked. At the same time, the music itself, regardless of the arrangements, doesn't have the 'drama' that a Kenton piece should have." While I might quarrel slightly with Mike's percentages, he is right that the music isn't really strong enough to support Bob's imaginative arrangements, so that a sense of total fulfillment is lacking. Music from rock groups might be a workable basis to sell records, but it was never going to replicate the great Kenton achievements of the past. And the Chicago music had the disadvantage of seldom being played in public, according to Curnow because, " 'Chicago III Suite' was a very complicated piece of music. They played it for just a few months after the recording, and then stopped because Stan would get lost, and it'd get all screwed up. Stan was aware he wasn't as sharp any longer, and he couldn't do it justice. And that's why in the Seventies he allowed the arrangers to conduct their own things on the recording sessions whenever possible."

Kenton's deterioration since his operations was highlighted by Mike Suter: "The Stan Kenton I knew in 1974 was very different from the man I knew in 1963. His health problems had taken a huge toll. He still loved being a bandleader, standing in front of his brainchild. He still loved the Clinics, which to him wasn't just a way to rake in a few extra bucks—his belief and leadership in jazz education was for real. He even still loved the road. But he no longer had the drive, the energy, to be the front-running innovator he once was. He no longer drove the band as in earlier years; now the band drove him."

More to the taste of Kenton traditionalists (and possibly Stan himself) were the two Curnow original compositions, which showed no trace of rock influences. "First Child" is a sombre, sololess work, dedicated, Bob said, to his first-born son, replete with all the majesty one associates with Kenton music. "Rise and Fall of a Short Fugue" is more experimental, with weird Campise flute, written, Bob said, because "Stan wanted something which he could play every night and conduct differently. Originally the piece was constructed in such a way that there were different directions to work through, so that Stan could change tempos, appoint different soloists, and bring out the backgrounds behind the soloists at his bidding. That piece could comfortably go ten or twelve minutes, and be pretty interesting." But this recording is over all too quickly in just four, and the basic concept worked no better than it had with Russo's "Improvisation," resulting in the title soon being dropped from the repertoire.

Much was clearly expected from Curnow, as illustrated by these quotes to me:

Stan Kenton: "Bob Curnow is basically a brilliant composer and conductor, and he shouldn't be wasted running Creative World—he's got too much to say." (February 6, 1975)

Dick Shearer: "He's my brother! I think Bob is the new Johnny 

Richards—he's marvelous!" (February 18, 1975)

Audree Coke: "Bob is remarkable. He is talented, intelligent and totally creative, and he writes specifically and correctly for the Kenton band. Bob is the logical successor to Pete Rugolo." (February 19, 1975)

I asked Curnow why it didn't happen, and his simple explanation was that Stan eventually found him most indispensable running Creative World successfully, and there was no time to write as well, so the Chicago album was Bob's swan-song. (Two further titles were recorded in 1975, but left on the shelf.) Stan returned to relying on his two reliables Levy and Hanna (especially Hank) and a sprinkling of other writers, but never found anyone to replace Maiden. Fusion was lost in the shuffle, but Stan had no great ideas to replace it with, so that the band lacked a clear direction. It's a real potpourri on Fire, Fury and Fun, a pretty meaningless album title itself, and since Curnow's idea was to fashion an LP featuring the band's soloists, something drawing attention to that concept might have been more explanatory.

Stan's thematic piano is prominent (though not really a headlined soloist) on Levy's "Quiet Friday" (not so hushed during its rockier moments) and Hanna's "Montage." I appreciate Hanna's ballads are not universally regarded with the same admiration I have for them, but "Montage" is one of Ken's finest achievements, a dark, brooding work with a powerful theme that builds to a dramatic orchestral climax. Conducted by Curnow in Hanna's absence, the initial arrangement has been considerably simplified for recording purposes, yet still presented problems on the date. The recording log shows it took 14 takes to perfect "Montage," and Stan became tetchy, afraid the session would run into overtime he couldn't afford. During a break, Shearer gave Suter the nod to switch from tuba to bass trombone, because (said Mike), "The tuba part was just impossible, but in the end we never played 'Montage' again as good as we got it on the record." And they never went back to playing the original, superior orchestration again either!

The remaining pieces are more legitimately solo features, the "fun" presumably intended to come from Tony Campise's voice and flute on "Hogfat Blues," if you find pig-like noises masquerading as music amusing. A much more musical score comes from veteran arranger Chico O'Farrill for the conga drums of Ramon Lopez. Ramon told me he chose Chico based on his previous writing for Stan and Machito, and that he specified the congas should melt in and out of the music, rather than just being percussive. Chico slows the tempo mid-piece for a short piano spot which cleverly leads into the closing section, and as Lopez notes, "We made only two takes, and the band played so great we left it at that. Stan didn't like the original title 'Hit and Rum' [Ramon's favorite tipple], and elected to put my name on it instead."

The album's big hit was "Roy's Blues," which according to composer Dale Devoe experienced changes to its structure along the way. A basic blues chart of no great melodic worth, it was one of the few Seventies titles to really take the public fancy. Reynolds started out on baritone sax as heard here, the tone of which I preferred to the tenor he adopted in January 1975. Both Reynolds and the band soon grew tired with the monotony of the piece, and Suter relates, "We tried Roy on a lot of other charts, but none were as effective. Roy played 'Yesterdays' a few times, and it was beautiful. But the audiences didn't want to be touched, they wanted to be thrilled. The band was still playing it in '78, and the crowds still ate it up. It got one of the biggest reactions every night."

Peter Erskine certainly displays a great deal of "fire" on "Pete Is a Four-Letter Word." The piece is orchestrally structured, and is certainly not an endless drum solo, though whether Levy's score is better musically than Rugolo's for Shelly Manne almost 30 years earlier is a matter of opinion. "I think the feature was Stan's idea," said Erskine, "but I had no input into the chart's design or form, and it wasn't an easy tune to play—a bit 'left-handed' rhythmically. Typical procedure for the band at that time was to play a piece a couple of times (at most) in concert before the recording session, then go into the studio and scramble like crazy to get a decent take for the album, and then begin playing it nightly until the album came out."

Under these conditions, considering the inexperience of most of the band and Stan's loss of vigor since his illnesses, it's not surprising producer Bob Curnow worked under pressure. In a comment that showed how much Stan's attitude had changed since earlier times, Bob explained: "The Creative World albums were hard, especially in the post-production stage, because I had to go in and mix-out all the clams, and some of the solos were troublesome. More time should have been put into the recordings, and Fire, Fury and Fun was done in just two days: the band was in and out of the studio because they left Chicago after that real fast. Stan really left everything in my hands. He rarely expressed any interest in anything like the art-work or liner notes. On the sessions he rarely interfered or said anything. He'd leave it to me to decide whether we needed another take, and I always pushed for one more. I wanted that extra something that wasn't there yet, and that nearly always turned out for the best."

This look at Kenton’s music is to be continued and concluded in Part 8.