Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Rain Check - Joe Henderson, Christian Mc Bride and Gregory Hutcherson

No New York - No Bebop, by Buddy DeFranco [Video Additions Buddy DeFranco-Sonny Clark Quartet]

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

It’s very rare that socio-cultural change can be attributed to one cause. Usually many influences come together to produce significant alterations in

the arts and other manifestations of human intellectual achievement - literature, music, painting, philosophy - known collectively as “culture.”

So while it would be difficult to affirm that New York City caused Bebop to happen, as the late clarinetist Buddy DeFranco asserts in the following excerpts from A Life in the Golden Age of Jazz: A Biography of Buddy DeFranco by Fabrice Zammarchi and Sylvie Mas [2002], it would have been very challenging for this music to have come into existence elsewhere.

The forces and factors at work during and immediately following World War II came together in a unique way to produce a style of music reflective of the energy and dynamism of that city during those times.

Interestingly, if one were to extend this argument, it might also explain why what came to be known as the Birth of the Cool music by Gil Evans, Gerry Mulligan and Miles Davis took root, not in New York, the place of its “Birth,” but rather, 3,000 miles away in California where socio-cultural conditions there made it an almost natural fit.

"Bebop is, in my opinion, the jazz of New York. It is really a product of this city. Two of its characteristics - the speed of execution and the rapid rhythm - accurately reflect the tension and agitation which reigns in New York. This style couldn't have been born in California, for example, because the mode of life is a lot more tranquil and one takes one's time to do things - but bebop is born of urgency. On the other hand, the earlier styles of jazz have diverse origins, although New York was always a catalyst. The important musicians are not especially from this town.

"Count Basie was born in Red Bank, New Jersey, but he organized his band in Kansas City. Duke Ellington and his first group of musicians came from Washington.

Tommy Dorsey was born in up-State Pennsylvania. Actually his kind of music was formed from Chicago Jazz and his band reflected Midwest and Chicago Jazz, even at the time when I joined his band. It was a Chicago and Kansas City influence originally - it was not New York.

"Then, of course, there is something about New York that attracts everybody in the arts. There is sort of a love/hate relationship you develop with this City - in fact, in many ways I hate New York, but I realize you cannot do without it - it is the focal point of the arts. Without New York, we would never have jazz or any of the arts. Jazz originated in the South, but none of the great jazz artists really matured and made it until they hit New York. Charlie Parker came out of Kansas City, but then he got to New York and began to absorb the flavor of that terrible thing in New York, and that made him great. In the 50's, I loved it, even though I had a closet for a room. You had to fight the elements in those days. Even now, New Yorkers brag about the marvelous apartment they have: three rooms and a kitchen that comes out of the wall - and a bed that comes out of the wall - and even that costs a fortune.

"There is a strange thing about New York that rubs off on everyone. I lived there for eleven years and the love/hate dichotomy is so evident that everybody gets used to yelling at each other. If you go into the average restaurant in New York and calmly say to the waitress 'I'd like a tuna on rye,' she'll yell to the chef in the back: 'Hey! Tuna on rye!' You ask the cab driver, 'Say, are you available?' and he might yell, 'I'm not going that way,' before you even have a chance to say any more. Nelson Riddle and I were at Lindy's, a famous restaurant, years ago. We were having coffee after finishing dinner and dessert, and the waiter came over and said: 'Are you going to sit there all day?' That's it - if you are finished, get out! There's no intentional hatred really; it's just a way of life. And that's sort of like what bebop is to jazz - it's fast and quick and it's a lot of notes and it swings and it's hot - hot and heavy at a fast pace!

"When you go to Los Angeles and sit by a pool in a sunny setting it's a completely different style. That is why a lot of jazz players said that the cool jazz didn't have any soul. That is cruel because a lot of the cool jazz did, but I can understand what they meant, because cool jazz has a lot of the tension taken out of it.

"If you went into a club in New York City to listen to a jazz performance, it was a fast-paced, hard-driving thing - almost hyper. One of the reasons for the tragic demise in jazz in the United States was that musicians just became so frantic they couldn't help it! But that sort of thing happens in all the arts. There hasn't been a phase of the arts that didn't rise and collapse.

"Swing was designed for dancing, even though it was jazz-oriented, but then New York introduced the style called bebop which was ushered in by Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie - mostly Charlie Parker -where it was tense, frantic, and fast-paced intellectually - a lot of notes - and there was no way you could hang any kind of a dance on it. Well, they started along with that pace, they started getting the more intellectual chords and much more highly developed structured triads, cadences etc. - and all of a sudden it is no longer the same earthy dancing music because you are playing something that is well-structured. This music no longer had its place in the popular dance halls, which, in New York, were the Savoy Ballroom or Roseland. They couldn't dance to it, so they started jazz clubs. But then the dancers, who had been left high and dry by the beboppers, embraced this infantile music called 'Rock and Roll' out of frustration. Actually it wasn't called 'Rock and Roll' at first - it was called 'Rhythm and Blues' and 'House Rocking Music.'

"It started with some musicians who bordered on dementia but had some degree of talent. But they had the acumen to know that their music was basic and rhythmic and they decided then that the drummers would lay down a hard, strong, simple rhythmic pattern that got to the dancers. Unfortunately, young audiences don't like to sit back and absorb an intellectual experience or even an emotional experience from the stage.

"Those were the worst years for jazz and for me economically, because all the clubs where I had played regularly either closed or turned to Rock and Roll. Everyone was concerned - even stars like Dizzy Gillespie and George Shearing. After eleven years in New York, my favorite town, I went to California to work for the movie studios."

Monday, February 26, 2024

The Three Sounds [From the Archives]

© -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 stage...like 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 you...it 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 came to prominence as a member of The Three Sounds, a piano, bass and drums trio that made its 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.

This video features The Three Sounds performing On Green Dolphin Street from their Moods CD. 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.” With Andy Simpkins on bass and Bill Dowdy on drums.

Saturday, February 24, 2024

The Three Sounds - On Green Dolphin Street

This video features The Three Sounds performing On Green Dolphin Street from their Moods CD. 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.”

With Andy Simpkins on bass and Bill Dowdy on drums

Oscar Peterson at the London House, Summer of 1961 [From the Archives]

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

“There was a time when a cohesive, relatively long standing jazz band was recorded live for the sake of the music, pure and simple. Miles Davis at the Blackhawk and Plugged Nickel, Shelly Manne at the Blackhawk, Coltrane at the Village Vanguard, all manner of groups at Carnegie Hall (e.g., Dave Brubeck, Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington, you name it). Nothing contrived. The notion of a "concept" for recording was obvious: Here was a great band in a great locale, playing what they always play. Guest stars were great, but it was the band that mattered most.

In fact, the idea of recording live seems like a dated way to present a working band. One of the great on-site recording dates that's come and gone was the Oscar Peterson Trio (featuring Ray Brown and Ed Thigpen, clearly the pianist's best group) live at Chicago's London House (also come and gone).” 

- John Ephland excerpt from insert notes to The Trio Verve 539 063

“Peterson's Best

It's amazing how the clink of cocktail glasses, the cash register's jingle, and the voice of some loudmouth can be so annoying when you're actually at a jazz club, and so endearing when you're listening to a recording of a live performance. Listening to Verve's new five-CD set Oscar Peterson Trio: The London House Sessions ($80) won't solve this mystery, but every sound on this set is joy, whether it comes from Peterson and his trio or not. Peterson was a great entertainer who spun radiant, crystalline sounds out of the piano seemingly without effort. And while he usually locks into a bouncy groove, he can, with a seamless flourish, turn a tune on a

dime, shifting from something that makes you smile to something that stirs your soul. From his upbeat "I've Never Been in Love Before" to a contemplative version of "Confirmation," Peterson hits two extremes and makes every stop in between. Recorded at Chicago's London House in 1961, this is Peterson at his best. It just might be one of those rare occasions when listening to the recordings is better than being there.” 

— Ed Brown

“And yet, in the late 1960s, I had a number of piano playing friends who assured me that Oscar was really a different pianist than the one who was making LP’s by the fistful for Norman Granz and that what he really had to offer was being put on display in a series of six recordings that he made for the MPS label which was based in Germany one of which was entitled - The Way I Really Play! [The exclamation point is mine.]

I sought out these LP’s and after listening to them, it didn’t take me long to agree that there was indeed another Oscar Peterson, one who seemed to perform differently when he was doing so - Exclusively For My Friends - which is the title of the 4 CD set of the MPS albums that was issued by Verve in 1992 [314 513 830-2]

Oscar had told me on several occasions that his best playing had been done in private. I had heard him play with a wonderful muted pensiveness, and nothing on record - even the London House records themselves - equaled what I used to hear in the late-night sets at the London House.

So when Oscar told me that he believed these German recordings were the best he had ever made, my eyebrows rose. He said he wanted me to write liner notes for at least two of the albums, both containing only solo performances. 

- Excerpt from the JazzProfiles feature Oscar Peterson - In The Black Forest

I rarely take exception to Gene Lees’ opinions, but after re-posting the feature on Oscar Peterson’s recordings on MPS [aka “Black Forest recordings”], which Gene believes are superior to the 1961 London House recordings, I decided to revisit the London House sides, the result of which is the following feature. Actually, before he heard the MPS sides, Gene, too, held a different opinion as is reflected in the following quotation excerpted from his Oscar Peterson: The Will to Swing [1988]:

Richard Palmer, in his eighty-page 1984 monograph titled Oscar Peterson, [Jazz Master Series] wrote: "I have the highest regard for Granz; and over the 35 years of his close association with Oscar, there is no doubt that he has been a wise and creative influence on the pianist. But I don't think it can be denied that nearly all the '50s studio dates fail to present Peterson and his groups at their absolute best. Oscar more or less admitted this when he remarked that many people felt that 'the delicate and communicative rapport that they sensed in our in-person appearances was usually lost in the mechanical and cold confines of the studio' and 'I am inclined to agree to the extent that our group performs much better ... [when] a live audience is present.'" And the London House recordings, despite the unfortunate piano, attest to this.”

As to the “unfortunate piano,” when I asked pianist Tom Ranier if the piano on the Oscar Peterson London House recordings was out of tune he responded: WAY out!  And gets worse as the sets go on. Nevertheless some of the greatest ever IMHO.”

From 1955 when it first welcomed Jazz [it opened its doors in 1946] until its closing in the early 1970s when the interest in Jazz began to wane nationally, the London House at the corner of Wacker Drive and Michigan Avenue was a stalwart venue for both domestic and touring Jazz groups.

Those who were familiar with the club talk about it with the same reverence usually associated with Birdland in New York, the Black Hawk in San Francisco and Shelly’s Manne Hole in Los Angeles [Hollywood].

Over the years, “live” [in performance] recordings were made at the London House by a host of Jazz artists including Johnny Pate, Billy Taylor, Marian McPartland, Gene Krupa, Sarah Vaughan, Bobby Hackett, Teddy Wilson and Earl “Fatha” Hines, Tyree Glenn, Dorothy Donegan, Henry “red” Allen, Charlie Shavers, Coleman Hawkins, The Three Sounds, Barbara Carroll and “Brother” Jack McDuff.

Perhaps one of the most artistically satisfying of all the performances recorded at the club were those made with the Oscar Peterson Trio over a span of time from July 11 - August 6, 1961.

Although it became commonplace in later years with advancements in on-location recording equipment and techniques, it should be kept in mind that 1961 was definitely “early days” as far as on site recordings were concerned.

But despite its technical and acoustic drawbacks [tinkling glasses, loud blenders, ringing telephones, talking audiences, AND out-of-tune pianos]] the movement to record Jazz in this format was whole-heartedly supported by Jazz musicians who had long maintained that they sounded better in performance before an audience than in the “controlled environment” of a sterile and often cavernous recording studio.

Michael Ullman’s booklet notes to the London House boxed set offers a number of these salient observations including an excellent comparison between the similarities and differences of the styles of Oscar and Art Tatum; why Oscar departed from the piano-guitar-bass trio format and opted to include a drummer instead of a guitar and why that drummer was Ed Thigpen; why the inspiration of an audience produces a different Oscar Peterson performance as compared to those recorded in a studio.

 “Oscar Peterson has been playing piano professionally for about fifty years and for much of that time he has been compared to Art Tatum. It's a comparison he has done nothing to discourage. Peterson meant his version of Ill Wind in this collection to be a tribute to his early idol: ‘It's a musical reminder of the way he would handle this type of thing', Peterson told critic Dom Cerulli in the Sixties-: ‘We used to discuss this it great length,’ he added.

Probably they were discussing the way each pianist introduces a tune freely, ranging over the piano in out-of-tempo swirls and glittering scales while offering the wary listener only an occasional glimpse of the melody. Both pianists like to approach a ballad obliquely, fluffing their feathers and flaunting their colors like jungle birds trying to impress an impassive potential mate. Both artists are technical marvels, tirelessly inventive players with astonishingly broad repertoires. Peterson likes to talk about his debt to Tatum, whom he calls one of his two best friends, the other being his father. Why, then, is Tatum, who is the favorite of dozens of celebrated pianists, including Tommy Flanagan and Hank Jones, still an acquired taste for many listeners where Peterson is one of the music's most popular figures? And why was Tatum most effective playing solo and Peterson at his best playing with a trio? 

'For all of their similarities, and despite Peterson's admiration of his elder, they use their techniques differently. Listening to Tatum can be mind-boggling, even scary. In the middle of a ballad or mid-tempo piece, Tatum will pull the rug out from under you, seeming to abandon the beat while transforming the harmonies of a popular piece in unsettling ways, only to return to both the beat and more predictable chords when all hope seems lost. He plays cat-and-mouse with every aspect of a song; sometimes the listener feels like the mouse. With Peterson, you always know where you are, that you're in safe hands. Even at his most impressive, he's reassuring. His rhythms are insistent, his devices more decorative or engaging than disorienting. In a place where Tatum would follow a series of brilliantly executed runs with a chorus of manic, celebratory stride [piano], Peterson would offer repeated riffs that owe more to Basie's big band than to James P. Johnson or Fats Waller. The results are more predictable but also more comfortable.

The two pianists were, after all, raised in different eras. Tatum grew up with the stride players, who provided their own oom-pah or walking bass lines, and he dipped into the repertoire of Waller and others until the end of his life. Peterson came to the music towards the end of the Swing Era, when bop was first being heard: His early hero may have been Tarum, but he heard the big bands as well. ("My roots go back to people like Coleman Hawkins, harmonically speaking,' he told interviewer Len Lyons in the Seventies.) Peterson has such a wealth of technical devices and capabilities that one tends to forget that he rarely does more than flirt with stride's oom-pah bass or its repertoire. (An exception is his 1975 "Honeysuckle Rose", which he recorded in a duet with Joe Pass.) Even when he is playing more modern tunes, such as Bobby Timmons's Moanin' his models are Swing Era or early bop players. He uses the sweeping scales we hear in Tatum but also block chords like those of Nat Cole or Milt Buckner. His chomping left-hand chords and passages in tenths are in the tradition of Teddy Wilson; his percussiveness is a link to Bud Powell. At his best, Peterson is a lyrical player as well as a powerhouse.

The bebop numbers he chose to play here are all especially tuneful, among them Scrapple From the Apple, Daahoud, and Confirmation. He cares about touch: His favorite pianists, including Tatum, Cole and, a near contemporary, Hank Jones, all have light, pearly sounds and clean as well as dashing techniques. It's a sound we hear on the early choruses of Peterson's two takes of On Green Dolphin Street.  

Tatum’s flights of fancy were sometimes so unexpected that they could freeze any accompanists he had. No wonder he usually played alone. Peterson is a blusier player and, when he wants to be, as in the ballad In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning, a more intimate, restful player. In certain situations, Peterson may play as many notes as Tatum did, but he naturally leaves room for a bass line - and he isn’t so unpredictable that an alert rhythm section can’t follow him. The rhythm section anchors Peterson’s playing. When that rhythm section consisted of Ray Brown and Ed Thigpen, it also inspired him.

"The Trio" as Peterson, Brown, and Thigpen were known, came together in 1959, two years before these live recordings took place at London House in Chicago. Brown had been playing with Peterson since 1950. (Their first recording session together, in March, began with the appropriately named "Debut", a series of duet records followed.) Then Peterson, perhaps with the famous King Cole Trio in mind, added a guitarist - first Barney Kessel, then Irving Ashby, and finally Herb Ellis. Peterson replaced Ellis in 1959 with drummer Ed Thigpen, he said, for reasons of "ego" In the same conversation with Lyons, he elaborated:

“There was a lot of talk about my virtuosity on the instrument, and some people were saying, "Oh, he can play that way with a guitar because it's got that light, fast sound, but he couldn't pull off those lines with a drummer burnin' up back there" . . We chose Ed Thigpen because of his brushwork and sensitivity in general.”

Peterson first heard his drummer-to-be while the latter was in the army. But Thigpen was a veteran in another sense as well, having worked with Cootie Williams and Bud Powell, among others. When he became available to Peterson, the Trio was formed.

It was an instant, and one suspects inevitable success. There should have been no doubt - about Peterson's ability to play with a drummer - he had taken part in countless live sessions with drummers and played as a sideman on dozens of studio recordings. His bassist was a star in his own right, and his drummer would soon become one. Thigpen may have been chosen for his sensitivity with brushes, but he also had - and has - a bright, swinging style on mid- and up-tempo pieces. He has a cheerful as well as propulsive sound: Listen to the joyous bounce of his cymbals on 'Scrapple From the Apple.' Brown had already been featured with the Dizzy Gillespie big band and had toured with Ella Fitzgerald. One of the greatest jazz bassists, he was also the first bassist in the Modern Jazz Quartet. He plays the fastest lines with a huge, rich sound. He's steady as a rock and he's an inventive, witty soloist, as we can hear on Tricrotism. This trio recorded almost incessantly from their onset in 1959, making albums of Cole Porter, Ellington, and Gershwin material, as well as a half dozen assorted records, all in their first year. There's a lot of Peterson to choose from.

Still, the London House sessions stand out. Peterson is a tough self-critic; he had the final say on which of his recordings would be released during his tenure with Verve (ending in 1962). Eventually there was enough material selected from the London House engagement to make four LPs.They're all included here: The Trio (V6-8420), The Sound of the Trio (V6-848D), Put on a Happy Face (V6-8660), and Something Warm (V6-8BB1). With this collection, the available music from those sets is almost doubled. When Lyons asked the pianist what his favorite albums were amongst all he had recorded, Peterrson started a short list with The Trio.

One can hear why Like most jazz musicians, Peterson tends to be inspired by nightclub audiences. He lets go, playing longer versions of standards than he might otherwise, wowing the crowd with buoyant, powerful riffing. He's more showy here than in the studio and more dramatic. At times he sounds sportive, even satirical. (At least that's how I hear the exotic splashes of color at the beginning of On Green Dolphin Street. The melody is virtually lost in waves of decoration until suddenly Peterson plinks it out with the glassy spareness of Ahmad Jamal. The contrast is comical as is his later quotation of Tenderly.)

There are of course disadvantages to a live recording: The ballads sometimes take place over the audible shuffling of silverware, and the microphones also pick up a ringing telephone and an occasional nonmusical conversation. At the end of one set, Peterson praises his fans: "We would like to thank most of you for being a wonderful audience. There's one in every crowd” But usually the audience brings out the best in the trio.

There are plenty of highlights, moods ranging from the ripping exuberance of the up-tempo Swamp Fire to the easygoing bluesiness of Better Luck Next Time to the comparative sobriety of quieter numbers, such as Peterson's own The Lonesome One with its hints of "Here's That Rainy Day".

Few listeners think of Peterson as a ballad player, but his most touching performances are frequently his most modest renditions of sophisticated tunes, such as the version of 'In the Wee Small Hours' included here. (He follows it up with a jaunty Chicago that sounds glib by contrast. We can excuse him because of his need to pay tribute to his host city.) He's equally affecting on Jim, which he begins with an expansive solo introduction. It's a performance that shows the sensitivity of his band members. At one point in his improvisation, the pianist is strumming with his left hand while playing thirds with his right. He plays an ascending arpeggio, followed by a bluesy descent. Meanwhile Brown is dancing about lightly and Thigpen swishing with brushes. With a repeated passage, Peterson gives the subtlest hint that he wants more energy, and Thigpen responds instantly, providing a more buoyant, rocking beat for the next few choruses until Peterson suggests that he wants to return to the original mood.

Peterson features Thigpen on Thag's Dance, a piece he wrote to display his drummer's brushes. Brown gets his feature too: Oscar Pettiford's knotty bebop line, "Tricrotism" (Evidently Peterson used to tease Brown by saying that Pettiford, a great bebop bassist whom Brown idolized, was in the audience - even when he wasn't. Brown paid his boss back by telling him at various gigs that Tatum was sitting at the bar. One night Tatum actually was, and Peterson froze, ending his set abruptly.) Peterson can play ballads, but he is rarely wistful for long. I Remember Clifford is Benny Golson's touching tribute to his friend, the late Cliiiord Brown. Peterson evokes something of its tender spirit - for a while. Then launches into double-time choruses that prove exciting ii not particularly germane to the composer's intentions. 

Peterson for the most part is irrepressible even if controlled. He may surprise his audience, but he never seems to surprise himself, working up steadily to his most excited moments, churning through choruses that lead him seemingly inevitably to the riffing of his climaxes. 

Peterson likes to play the blues as well as standards; he plays them cheerfully. On the other hand, he can turn virtually any song into a crypto-blues, including the unlikely Sometimes I'm Happy, to which he adds crushed notes and thumping, repeated phrases. Bluesy, exciting, full of singable lines, the issued version of "Sometimes I'm Happy' is one of Peterson's most successful performances. Now we have a second version.

There's a bonanza of previously unissued material, including a magisterial performance oi Sophisticated Lady, Clifford Brown's "Daahoud" and, for a change in meter, The Gravy Waltz, to say nothing of a bunch of new versions of Billy Boy, which Peterson uses as background music while he thanks the audience. The LPs from London House have been among the most treasured collector's items of generations of Oscar Peterson fans. There's twice as much to treasure here, and a lot to celebrate.”

Michael Ullman, April, 1996


Thursday, February 22, 2024

Johnny Richards: Big, Brash and Bold Sounds [With Video Additions]


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

“There has been much talk in recent years about the close relationship between jazz and what is usually called classical music (or sometimes, "serious" music, as if jazz musicians were kidding). They're coming closer and closer together, this talk usually goes. It's getting so you can't tell where one leaves off and the other begins, somebody says — wistfully, as if it were sinful or something to be ashamed of. And then somebody else — me, if I'm part of this familiar conversation — asks what all the sad words are about; why such viewing with alarm; why the dissatisfaction; it's music, isn't it?

Johnny Richards doesn't do much talking about the relationship, close or distant, between jazz and the classical traditions in music. He just does. He composes and arranges, and when he can, conducts. The strongest arguments, one way or the other, are on music paper or in performance.”
- Barry Ulanov, Jazz author and critic

“The two characteristics of Johnny Richards that usually come first to my mind when his name is mentioned or his music is played is fervor and tenacity. … Johnny Richards is a writer who likes to challenge his men and himself through a wide range of sounds and colors and he usually finds the sidemen who can fulfill his designs.”
- Nat Hentoff, liner notes to Wide Range

“Richards always painted with bold strokes, applying his considerable training and knowledge to create a variety of orchestral pictures.”
- Burt Korall, liner notes to My Fair Lady [paraphrased]

Johnny Richards was one of the more progressive-minded arranger of the 1950s and '60s, turning out big, heavily orchestrated scores with a sometimes unabashed use of dissonance and a good feel for Latin rhythms.

Richards was born in Toluca, Mexico in 1911, as Juan Manuel Cascales, to a Spanish father (Juan Cascales y Valero) and a Mexican mother (Maria Celia Arrue AKA Marie Cascales), whose parents were Spanish immigrants to Mexico. He came to the United States with his parents and his three brothers in 1919.

The family lived first in Los AngelesCalifornia and later in San FernandoCalifornia where Johnny, and his brothers attended and graduated from San Fernando High School. In 1930 Richards enrolled at Fullerton College where he received formal training in music.

He started writing film scores, first in London in 1932-1933, and then in Hollywood for the remainder of the decade, as Victor Young’s assistant at Paramount while studying composition with Arnold Schoenberg.

Forming a big band in the 40s, he had trouble finding musicians who could cope with his involved scores, so he gave it up to write for Charlie Barnet and Boyd Raeburn's forward-looking band.

Oddly enough, considering the reputations of both men, Richards' contributions to the Raeburn library were pretty, romantic, woodwind scores such as "Prelude To The Dawn", "Love Tales" and "Man With The Horn".

Hardly a commercial success, Richards was nevertheless a musical, if sometimes misused asset to any employer.

He also arranged a string album for Dizzy Gillespie in 1950, along with recording dates with Sarah Vaughan, Helen Merrill, and Sonny Stitt. His most famous association was with Kenton, with whom he started arranging in 1952. His collaborations with Kenton on the albums Cuban Fire! and West Side Story are outstanding examples of Richards’ work. 

Richards continued to lead his own orchestras in 1956-1960 and 1964-1965, recording for Capitol, Coral, Roulette, and Bethlehem, and co-wrote one of Frank Sinatra’s signature songs, "Young at Heart."

He died in 1968 from complications arising from a brain tumor.

Of his time with Stan Kenton’s orchestra, Michael Sparke has written in his Stan Kenton: This Is An Orchestra!:

"Rendezvous at Sunset (originally titled Evening) reflects the romantic face of Johnny Richards, and is one of the loveliest original ballads in all of jazz. Whatever the mood, Richards' music post-Cuban Fire has substance and symmetry, and nobody wrote more effectively for the French horns within a jazz framework. Towards the end of Richards’ arrangement of I Con­centrate on You the horns rise out of the orchestral timbre in a truly gorgeous surge of sound. (A talent not lost on Kenton when it came time to forming the mellophonium orchestra in 1960.)”

Michael’s book also contains the following observations about Johnny’s writing by three members of the Kenton orchestra.

[Trombonist] Don Reed noted that "Stan liked Johnny Richards. I think he was Stan's favorite arranger, but those scores were so demanding physically on the band, because the trumpets were constantly screeching. Every­body was playing loud all the time, long sustained notes that blared, and the arrangements didn't swing.”

And Phil Gilbert [trumpet] is typically blunt: "Richards was a highly educated musician with great orchestrat­ing skills, but he was also very disturbed and drank heavily. Cuban Fire was his best, and he wrote some nice ballads like The Nearness of You' and The Way You Look Tonight' with no explosions or head-on colli­sions. We did not enjoy his Back to Balboa charts at all. I hated them. Too hard, and to what end? Uniting those tunes with Latin rhythms was no help at all."

On the other hand, Jim Amlotte [trombone] was unexpectedly positive: "I really liked those Latin charts on 'Begin the Beguine,’ 'Out of this World,' and so forth. Johnny Richards is one of my favorite composers, but his music taxed you to the end. To Johnny, nothing was unplayable, and his music was challenging: very, very challenging. Richards put his arrangements together so well. Some guys will say there's too much tension, but this is what I like. Some things are going to swing, and some things aren't, but as long as there's a pulsation, that's enough for me. They don't all have to be Basie-type swing."

There is a published biography on Johnny by Jack Hartley entitled Johnny Richards: The Definitive Bio-Discography [Balboa Books, 1998], although copies of it may be difficult to locate.

Thankfully, Michael Cuscuna and his team have made Johnny’s long-out-of-print recordings available on a three disc Mosaic Select set [MS-017].

The booklet that accompanies the Mosaic Select set has a good detail of information about Johnny and descriptions of his writing some of which is excerpted below.

© -Michael Cuscuna/Mosaic Records, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Recorded from 1955-1966, the Mosaic set is comprised of music from six albums recorded under Johnny’s name: Annotations of the Muses, Wide Range, Experiments in Sound, The Rites of Diablo, My Fair Lady - My Way, and Aqui Se Habla Espanol/English Spoken Here.

In his notes to Annotations of the Muses, John S. Wilson wrote:

“It might seem to be belaboring the obvious to say that what you hear on this record is music.

Yet an essential point of this composition by Johnny Richards is that it is just that — music, without qualifications: not jazz nor what is sometimes called "serious" music (as though this music were always unbearably solemn or no other music could be considered to have any intellectual merit) nor a violation of one by the other.

Annotations of the Muses is a composition which draws on several musical roots. There are jazz elements in it but they appear as natural developments, not the graftings of a desperate plastic surgeon. There is even more evidence of "serious" music but it is used purposefully, gracefully, to make a point rather than an impression.

The unique flavor of this work derives from the skill with which Richards has made use of both jazz and "serious" elements without seeming awkward or ostentatious in his treatment of either one. There is a homogeneity of conception whether the means by which it is expressed are tightly grouped, accented woodwinds with a flavor of Hindemith, or canons and rounds, or a solo trumpet with a steady 4/4 beat.

What Richards has achieved by this blending is a lighthearted vitality, a form of lyricism with guts which could scarcely be brought about by any other integration of instruments or styles. He has, to begin with, a woodwind quintet for which he has written with that mixture of merriment and brooding which seems inherent in woodwinds. But the quintet is simply a starting point for it soon expands into a nonet which plays with a pulsing beat.

That the quintet should provide a foundation and that the nonet should have a moving beat are factors which reflect, as any honest musical composition must, something of the composer. Johnny Richards has run a musical gamut from serious composition to movie music to jazz writing of the wildest stripe. If his past has any connection with his present, it must be assumed that Annotations of the Muses is a synthesis of the more vital elements of all the areas in which he has worked. In this suite he has stripped himself of any extreme attitudes which he may have felt forced or drawn to use in the past — the form for the sake of form which crops up in much serious composition, the emptiness that keeps movie music from intruding on plot-centered sensibilities, or the hair-raising appeal for attention with which he ventured into the jazz world.

But Richards has put this experience to advantageous use. For, in this case, there is certainly form but it is judiciously selected form, useful only insofar as it has pertinent meaning. There is flexibility, that sinewy feeling for modulation which is the essential tool of the composer of film music. And there is the organic appeal of the subtle jazz musician's attack.

This is quietly convincing music which is — in the best sense — unpretentious. It sets out, with directness and honesty, to charm the listener. Because it is counting on charm, any false note, any obvious reaching for effect, would be its undoing. And so it introduces itself politely but in familiar vein with genial five-art counterpoint and, in hostly fashion, settles the listener comfortably before leading him on into some animated, varied and occasionally adventurous musical exposition. There is revealed in this process warmth, logic and a notable absence of condescension in any direction. The charm shines resolutely through.

Burt Korall wrote the insert notes to Aqui Se Habla Espanol/English Spoken Here and offered the following comments about Johnny and his approach to music.

“Today, many streams of musical thought pour into the main flow. The world is smaller; a trip from the familiar to anywhere on the globe, a matter of hours. Because of this, our existence has become far less closeted than in times past. We are increasingly exposed in mass media to the people, pulse and melodies of other lands. The result is the mixing and mingling of diverse heritages, increasingly reflected in music composed and performed, here and abroad.”

The maker of music, Johnny Richards feels, should bring into play expressive structures, regardless of source. With jazz as his base, he has given this concept life, having created a library for his orchestra that is a true reflection of his stance, "...there are so many wonderful sounds and multiple rhythms elsewhere in the world that we...can make use of," he has said. "We can learn from them all. People in other areas swing in so many different ways. Swinging, after all, is not unique to jazz. I've been delighted, for example, to see jazz musicians in the past few years finally trying to swing in 3/4 and 6/8. So many meters, so many tone colors have been in existence for hundreds of years, and it's about time we got around to them."

For Richards, composing and arranging are continuing exploratory and illuminating processes; he moves more deeply into himself and the multiple materials available to him. An optimistic man, he retains great enthusiasm for his work. It remains at the center of his life. He writes as he feels he must, sometimes at great cost. This form of integrity has inspired his musicians; they stay with him, answering his call, whenever he can field an orchestra. Richards' music challenges, sometimes wilts them, but never bores them. Moreover, they are provided freedom to add something of themselves to his compositions.”

In his Postscript to the Mosaic set, Todd Selbert observed:

“Of the five genius big band composers and arrangers who emerged in full bloom in the 1950s — Gil Evans, Shorty Rogers, Gerry Mulligan, Bill Holman and Johnny Richards — Richards is the forgotten one. When Richards is remembered, it is for his works for Stan Kenton and not for the recordings of his own bands. So it is hoped that the recordings at hand — the earliest of which were recorded 50 years ago — help to remedy this neglect. It is inconceivable that music so brilliant has been out of circulation for so long. …

Richards formed a new band in spring 1957 and the recordings herein cover the last and most fertile decade of his abbreviated career. They are a treasure. The music is at turns passionate and fiery, romantic and melancholic and, above all, majestic. One of its characteristics is its wonderfully deep and visceral bottom, achieved not only through the French horn, tuba and baritone saxophone that had been utilized by Evans and Rogers but extended by bass saxophone. Tympani and piccolo are rarely heard in the jazz orchestra, but Richards incorporated them and they added texture and color to his music. He introduced unusual time signatures and authentic Latin and African rhythms to big band jazz. But the key ingredients in Richards' orchestrations are his gorgeous voicings and development of melody through harmonically-sophisticated and sublime counter lines.”