Thursday, September 16, 2021

Tommy Flanagan - A Bebopper of Gentlemanly Distinction - [From the Archives]

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

“One of the piano masters of Detroit, he played on many major recordings in the late '50's but thereafter sought an accompanist's security behind Ella Fitzgerald and Tony Bennett. Emerged as an undimmed creative spirit in the 1970's and 1980's, a bebopper of gentlemanly distinction.”
-Richard Cook and Brian Morton in The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD

Tommy Flanagan's discography falls largely into two categories: [1] those recordings on which he appeared before he became known as one of the finest accompanists in the business, backing Tony Bennett and, more memorably, Ella Fitzgerald in her great 1960s resurgence and [2] those he made after his tenure with Tony and Ella. On all of them, Flanagan's bop vocabulary is uplifted by his beautiful touch.

To put it another way or, the other way,, Tommy’s fabled delicacy is always complemented by a fine, boppish attack that can be very blunt and straightforward.

“Tommy Flanagan” is also the always-surprising answer to one of modern Jazz’s most enduring trivia questions: “Who played piano on John Coltrane’s first LP for Atlantic - Giant Steps?”

Most people assume that the answer is Coltrane longtime associate, pianist McCoy Tyner, and they always seem a bit puzzled to think of Flanagan’s wonderfully lyrical style in association with Coltrane’s piercing, “sheets of sound” approach.

Actually as noted by Richard Cook and Brian Morton in The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD:

“Throughout the 1970's and early 1980's, Flanagan explored aspects of harmony most closely associated with the late John Coltrane, often stretching his solos very far from the tonal centre but without lapsing into the tuneless abstractions that were such a depressing aspect of Coltrane's legacy.”

I’ve always thought of Tommy as a cross between two other Detroit pianists - the hip, Bud Powell-inspired bop phrasing of Barry Harris and the beautifully crafted melodicism of Hank Jones.

Tommy’s playing strikes me as something that has always been conscious that music is very precisely mediated by time, place and specific contexts.

There may be another reason for its distinctiveness as Gene Lees surmised in this following piece on Tommy which appears in Jazz Lives: 100 Portraits in Jazz:

“It has often struck me that musicians who learn another instrument first seem to bring the influence of that instrument to the one on which they finally settle as their life's work. It will probably not surprise you that Oscar Peterson played trumpet as a child, or that Bill Evans played flute and violin. Tommy Flanagan began studying clarinet at the age of six, and I do believe I hear it's mellow influence in his lovely, flowing, gracefully legato piano work.

Tommy worked in his early days in Detroit with Milt Jackson and with Thad and Elvin Jones. One of his influences was the third of the Jones brothers, Hank. Others were Bud Powell, Teddy Wilson, and Art Tatum. And after he moved to New York in 1956, Tommy sometimes substituted for Bud Powell at Birdland. In the next few years, he worked with just about everybody of stature in the New York jazz world, including Oscar Pettiford, Miles Davis, J.J. Johnson, Sweets Edison, Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, and Coleman Hawkins.

Tommy is a soft-spoken and self-effacing man, and one of the gentle and generous accompanists. Ella Fitzgerald hired him as her pianist and music director for many road tours. He worked for her in 1956, from 1963 to '65, and from 1968 to 1978. For a time, in 1966, Tommy was Tony Bennett's music director.

In recent years, he has been working more with small instrumental groups, where his elegant abilities as a soloist are on more advantageous display.”

In his essay Jazz Pianists of the 1940s and 1950s which graces Bill Kirchner [Ed.], The Oxford Companion to Jazz, the late pianist and Jazz scholar Dick Katz summed it up this way:

“Tommy Flanagan, a fellow Detroiter, is now one of the most esteemed pianists in the world. He played on some of the most historic records ever made, including Sonny Rollins's Saxophone Colossus (Prestige) and John Coltrane's Giant Steps (Atlantic). Tommy was definitely a Powell disciple, but he also listened closely to Nat Cole, Hank Jones, Al Haig, Art Tatum, and Teddy Wilson to forge his own wonderful musical personality. As with the other Detroit talents, this type of lyricism — "playing the pretty notes," as Charlie Parker was quoted as saying — is a salient feature of his playing.”

You can hear Tommy playing those “pretty notes” on the following video tribute to him. The tune is More Than You Know which is from his 1986 CD Tommy Flanagan: Nights At The Vanguard [Uptown UPCD27.29]. George Mraz is the bassist and Al Foster is on drums.

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Blue Train - John Coltrane Keeps His Promise

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

JOHN COLTRANE has often been called a "searching" musician. His literally wailing sound—spearing, sharp and resonant that seems to suggest (from a purely emotional standpoint) a kind of intense probing into things far off, unknown and mysterious. Admittedly such a description is valid only in a personal way but "searching" remains applicable to Trane in view of actual fact. He is constantly seeking out new ways to extend his form of expression — practicing continually, listening to what other people are doing, adding, rejecting, assimilating — molding a voice that is already one of the most important in modern jazz.

John's "sound" as mentioned in the lead is rather unique. It is certainly his most obvious trademark (similar to Dexter Gordon, his earliest and strongest influence) but has meaning apart from just a "different sound." His way of thinking is at one with his tonal approach. His ideas often seem to run in veering, inconsistent lines appearing at first to lack discipline but, like Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk (two of his closest musical associates, both of whom have been labeled by some as "eccentric" and/or "poorly equipped" instrumentalists) John is aware and in control of what he is doing. What may appear to be suddenly rejected is used, rather, as a basis for further exploration.

Trane feels that working with Miles and Monk have been "invaluable musical experiences." His employment with each of these giants has provided him with an education

Miles, and now Monk (being of this school themselves) have never inhibited John's musical sense of freedom. He is able to experiment while on the stand with no fear of being called down and with a good chance of being congratulated.

John, though highly self-critical, has broad and varied tastes when it comes to others. His favorites are many [but especially Miles and Monk]; Miles ("His style of playing is very interesting to me. He has a very good knowledge of harmonics and chord structure. I used to talk with him quite often."), and Monk ("He plays with a whole range of chords. I had never heard anything like it before and I've learned a lot from him.").

- Robert Levin, liner notes to Blue Train [BN LP 1577] 

As developments outlined in the following pieces indicate, the title of this feature could just as easily have been “the accidental making of Blue Train, one of the greatest albums in Jazz history,” or something to that effect.

Along with Giant Steps, which John would record for Atlantic two years later in 1959, Blue Train recorded in 1957 for Blue Note - Coltrane’s only album for that legendary Jazz label - came about so casually that it could have just as easily not come about at all.

Here’s the back story from Richard Cook’s The Biography of Blue Note Records [2001] with a more technical analysis of the music to follow from Lewis Porter, John Coltrane: His Life and Music [1999].

The year 1957 was the one that saw Blue Note's recording activity really explode. No less than forty-seven sessions were recorded for release during the course of the year. Considering that the company was still basically being overseen -including all matters pertaining to A&R, recording, packaging and distribution - by the original two-man team, the pace was extraordinary. It was not, though, the label's finest year in terms of quality: if anything, a look through the session book for the year suggests that a sense of routine was already starting to set into the company's activities. But the strongest Blue Notes of the year were good enough to rank with the greatest jazz albums of the era.

A few players who'd already recorded as sidemen were offered their first Blue Note dates as leaders: Curtis Fuller, Sonny Clark, Clifford Jordan, John Jenkins. But the most important 'debut' of Blue Note's year was the sole record to be issued on the label under John Coltrane's leadership, Blue Train.

The existence of the album offers one of the most tantalising might-have-beens in jazz. At the beginning of the year, Coltrane, already attracting great attention through his work with the Miles Davis Quintet, paid an informal visit to the Blue Note offices around seven o'clock one evening, ostensibly to ask Alfred Lion for some of his Sidney Bechet records (Coltrane had not yet recorded on the soprano saxophone, an instrument which had been all but outlawed in modern jazz). Lion was there on his own, Wolff having left for the day. The two men talked about the possibility of a record deal, but with Wolff - the man who looked after the contractual side - absent, there was not much more than talk. Still, Lion sensed that he was on the verge of a deal with the saxophonist.

The chronology here is a little difficult to figure out. The meeting took place either late in 1956 or early in 1957, but Coltrane signed a deal with Prestige early in 1957 and made his first date for them as a leader on 31 May. On 6 April, though, he participated in the Johnny Griffin Blue Note date A Blowing Session. Did he discuss the earlier proposition with Lion once again at that session? Either way, the first office meeting concluded in somewhat bizarre circumstances. Lion offered Coltrane a small advance for the making of at least one record, which Coltrane took and agreed to. Just as things were about to be even further formalised, the cat which resided in Blue Note's office leaped out of the window and into the street (they were not very high up). Concerned for its welfare, Lion ran to the window, looked out, and saw the animal being shepherded into a taxi by a woman who'd just opened the door of the cab. Alarmed that someone was trying to steal his cat (the second time a feline had played a part in Blue Note history, after the incident with Bud Powell!), he ran down into the street, and apparently managed to recover the animal. But on his return, Coltrane had disappeared. The contract remained as no more than a handshake agreement.

However, even though he had a new deal with Blue Note's great rival, Prestige, Coltrane didn't forget his promise. On 15 September he led a top-drawer Blue Note line-up through five compositions at the Van Gelder Hackensack studios. Blue Train has acquired an enormous reputation through the years, and after A Love Supreme and Giant Steps it is surely Coltrane's most renowned and frequently encountered record. It sits in collections which otherwise have none of Coltrane's Prestige or later Impulse! recordings, the most convenient and tolerable example of the first period of a difficult musician.

It's not hard to see why the album has been so successful. As the sole Blue Note by one of the most famous musicians in jazz, it has always staked a comfortable place in browser bins. For once, Reid Miles did little messing around with Frank Wolff's cover shot, cropping closely in on Coltrane's head and shoulders: he looks down, apparently lost in thought, saxophone hanging off his sports shirt, his left hand caught in the crook of his neck, his right raised to his lips as if he is musing on an imminent question. The title, Blue Train, almost suggests a kind of mood music, bolstered by the warm blue tint which Miles put on the photograph.

The music is beautifully delivered. Bob Porter's adage about Blue Note having two days of rehearsal where Prestige had none is borne out better by Blue Train than by any other session. As big and powerful as many of Coltrane's Prestige recordings are, none has quite the precision and polish of his Blue Note offering. Even so, the album is, in many ways, a high-craft, functional hard-bop record. Coltrane brought four original compositions to the date, of which at least two - A Moment's Notice and Lazy Bird - became frequently used parts of the jazz repertory. But there's a sense of impeccable routine about the music, which perhaps prophesies the way hard bop would go. In the notes to the latest reissue of the record, Curtis Fuller, who plays trombone on the record, says that 'I've been with younger musicians trying to work out that tune ["A Moment's Notice"]. And I tell them that that's just how we did it ... on a moment's notice.' That prosaic summary says much about the occasion.

The opening four minutes of the record are still electrifying. The stark, sombre blues theme of the title piece is elaborated through Coltrane's opening solo, beginning with long notes but quickly departing into a characteristic labyrinth where the chords are ransacked for many-headed motifs and trails of melody. It's a quite magisterial statement which Van Gelder captured in a sound more handsome than Coltrane had hitherto been blessed with. Yet from there, the performance becomes almost a matter of playing the blues until its end. Lee Morgan and Curtis Fuller were plausible choices for the front-line roles, and ones which the leader was responsible for, yet neither does anything other than, well, play the blues. Morgan, still finding his way, could be excused (what might Kenny Dorham have made of the role?), and the dyspeptic Fuller sounds far better as an ensemble colourist than as a soloist. It is always Coltrane himself one waits to hear. Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones are men he knew well, and they play with exemplary attention, although pianist Kenny Drew is again perhaps too bland a presence. All that seems forgotten once one hears the proud beauty of the tenorman's interpretation of I’m Old Fashioned and the fast, controlled excitement of Lazy Bird.

In the currently available CD edition of Blue Train, the originally issued version of the title track, take nine, is placed alongside take eight - with the added complexity that Drew's solo on take eight was the one featured on the familiar version, thanks to some tape splicing at the time of the first LP release. Some may be shocked that Lion's Blue Note would do such a

thing, but as Tony Hall remembers Alfred telling him, it was not an uncommon practice for them to adopt, particularly where an ensemble head was much cleaner than on a take where the solos were hotter. Since the advent of tape mastering, jazz had become no more immune to post-production than any other kind of recorded music, and while such matters are often thought to have grown up in the sixties and seventies, it was a convention that started early. One of the more famous examples in fifties' jazz was Thelonious Monk's Brilliant Corners date for Riverside, where a finished version of the title piece had to be spliced from three different takes.”

Lewis Porter, John Coltrane: His Life and Music [1999]:

“Just a few months after Coltrane [1957 Prestige – PRLP 7105, Prestige – 7105, Prestige – LP 7105], the Blue Note label got special permission from Prestige to produce the second album under John's leadership. According to Orrin Keepnews and Michael Cuscuna, Coltrane had agreed to do this album before signing with Prestige. Blue Train was recorded during his stint at the Five Spot, on September 15, 1957, and released that December. It quickly gained status as the best display of Coltrane's talents as a player and composer to date — all but one of the five tunes were his, and Blue Note paid for rehearsals.

The title piece is a haunting blues, basically a riff. The barrage of notes in his extended solo helps to create the urgency of a man spilling out his innermost feelings. (The first take, issued in 1997, has a much shorter, but still effective solo.) Locomotion is another blues riff, this time in AABA form— twelve-bar blues, blues again, eight-bar bridge, and blues again. Lester Young had used this structure in 1947 on D. B. Blues, which Coltrane probably knew. Coltrane was to reprise this structure on Trancing In.

On Moment's Notice, Coltrane is preoccupied with placing changing harmonies under a repeated note in the melody. That's interesting, because Dizzy Gillespie had done something like it on Con Alma, which had been in his repertory since 1954, when he recorded it with Latin percussionists. This exercise of finding different chords to harmonize the same note forces one to find some unusual chord connections, and I would suggest that sequences like these led partly to the unusual chord sequence of Giant Steps. In Con Alma the first two chords under each note are a major third apart, paving the way for Coltrane's exploration of roots moving by thirds in "Giant Steps." 

The chords to Coltrane's Lazy Bird, have the composer's cryptic comment "Heavy Dipper" under the bridge. The title of this piece is evidently a play on Lady Bird by Tadd Dameron, the much admired composer with whom Coltrane had in fact recorded in November 1956. This leads one to look for connections, but Dameron's piece is a sixteen-bar form without repeats and Coltrane's is a thirty-two-bar AABA. I suggest the following relationship: Take Dameron's sixteen-bar chord progression, transposed from C to Coltrane's key of G, but make each chord last half as long, so the whole progression takes eight measures. Now you basically have the A section of Lazy Bird—it becomes exact if you make the substitutions shown in parentheses:

For the bridge, Coltrane used a variation of the bridge of the standard tune Lover Man, which he had arranged for Jimmy Heath's band nine years earlier.

The coda may be seen as a very extended version of Dameron's original "turnaround" (which brings the piece back to the beginning). Coltrane's fresh and bubbling solo here is particularly full of what Barry Harris calls "[dominant] seventh scales."

On Blue Train Coltrane impresses as a player and as a writer. When Davis took Coltrane back into his group at the end of the Five Spot engagement, he was getting a powerhouse of a saxophonist who played with charisma and authority. And he was getting a powerhouse of a person, with a renewed vision of what he could accomplish in life.”

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Roy Eldridge - "Swingin' on the Town"

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

When they first came out in the late 1990s, I snapped up as many of the three dozen or so limited edition Verve Elite series CDs as I could while they were still available.

And why not?

The were packaged in beautiful multifold paper cases, with handsome jewel case artwork, loads of photographs and music by many of my favorite artists including Louie Bellson, Art Blakey, Ray Brown, Buddy DeFranco, Illinois Jacquet, Tal Farlow, Lee Konitz, Yusef Lateef, Sonny Stitt and Ed Thigpen - artists who had had a long association with impresario Norman Granz and his Jazz at The Philharmonic concerts [JATP] and/or had recorded for his various labels over the years including Clef, Norgran and, of course, Verve.

One of my earliest purchases in the select list of issues was Roy Eldridge: Swingin’ on the Town [Verve 314 559 828-2] which was originally released as a Verve LP in 1960 with Roy’s mellifluous and swinging trumpet accompanied by Ronnie Ball [p], Benny Moten [b], and Eddie Locke [d].

Roy is often characterized as the trumpet player whose phrasing bridged Louis Armstrong’s style of playing to the modernists such as Dizzy Gillespie, Fats Navarro and Clifford Brown. Since all Jazz musicians are said “to come from someone” in terms of influences on their playing this is probably true to some extent.

What is irrefutable are these assertions about Roy’s legacy by the highly regarded English Jazz critic Benny Green which form the original liner notes to Roy Eldridge: Swingin’ on the Town  Verve Records – MG VS-68389

“What a blessing Roy Eldridge is to those of us whose job it is to see the development of Jazz music as a single continuous process instead of a huge chaotic accident dominated by geniuses who just happen along every so often. It is one of those convenient over-generalisations of jazz theorising that Eldridge is the logical link between the classic style of Louis Armstrong and the revolutionary innovations of Dizzy Gillespie. There is a great deal of truth in this statement, but it always seems to me to reduce Eldridge himself to the proportions of a stepping-stone from one great man to another, which is gross aesthetic injustice.

There is a misconception on the part of the laity, and some critics too, that each new stylistic development is supposed to be an improvement on the fashions it has replaced, and that progress is a synonym for improvement, a kind of artistic demonstration of the old Shavian dictum "Onwards and Upwards''. Well, Dizzy Gillespie himself has punctured that one. He has testified to the fact that one of the factors which inspired him to evolve a personal approach to improvisation was the fact that he could never seem to approach the standard of his great hero Roy Eldridge, and it is true that some of the historic recordings of Little Jazz in prewar clays stand as perfect examples of the jazz art.

Today Eldridge, like many others of his generation, is demonstrating on album after album that the years are having little effect on his instrumental prowess. When Eldridge toured Britain with JATP a few months ago his was easily the outstanding musical contribution, for he played with a power and imagination which blew several of his fellows off the stand. At one concert he performed with such enthusiasm that he split the seam in his trousers. Later in the band room he showed me this split with some pride.

On this album there is one moment of captivating historical interest, and it occurs on "Sweet Sue". After stating the theme Eldridge moves into his first chorus of jazz. And immediately pushes the clock back thirty-two years to a day in 1928 when Bix Beiderbecke, surrounded by the lumbering legions of Paul Whiteman's circus, blew some jazz on the same "Sweet "Sue". On that day Bix, pushing aside the hindrances of stodgy accompanists and idiot vocalists, created a musical fragment which possessed a wonderful skipping gaiety, and Eldridge, no doubt appreciative of the fact, quotes Bix almost verbatim over the first eight bars. Within a few moments Eldridge has moved on to harmonic movements which belong to a period far more sophisticated musically than Bix's day, and it is this very quality of eclecticism in the players of Eldridge's generation which makes them such stimulating listening. Eldridge, who has lost none of his high spirits as a man (in Britain he is always the most courted of the visiting raconteurs), has lost none of them as a Jazzman either. After only a few bars of, for instance, "The Way You Look Tonight", one senses that old quality of pent-tip excitement, that feeling that power latent is behind the power actually expressed. It is at these moments that I find it so hard to believe that Roy Eldridge is several inches shorter than I am. One should never go by appearances.”


The Observer, London

Personnel:  Roy Eldridge, trumpet; Ronnie Ball, piano; Benny Moicn. bass; Edward Locke, drums.

When Roy Eldridge: Swingin’ on the Town [Verve 314 559 828-2] was released as a Verve Elite CD in 1999, Alun Morgan, another of England’s many knowledgeable writers and critics about Jazz provided these booklet notes: 

“When the bebop movement made its impact on the jazz scene, Roy Eldridge found himself marginalized by some jazz writers. He was relegated to the position of a link between Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Giliespie, a gross and inaccurate oversimplification. Eldridge was very much his own man, with a unique style and a career that included years of experience with big bands (Teddy Hill, Fletcher Henderson, Gene Krupa, Artie Shaw}, his own small groups, and units led by such men as clarinetist Benny Goodman and saxophonist Coleman Hawkins, plus tours with Norman Granz's Jazz at the Philharmonic troupe. The album Swingin' on the Town is typical of the quartets he led for nightclub engagements in the late Fifties.

In the jazz pantheon, Eldridge was a true giant: his nickname "Little Jazz" referred only to his physical stature, it was a sobriquet given to him by alto saxophonist Otto Hardwicke when the two of them were working for banjoist Elmer Snowden in 1931. As Eldridge told it, "I was very small at the time. I weighed about a hundred and eighteen pounds — soaking wet — and I used to play all the time. If I couldn't play on the bandstand I'd go in the men's room and play. Otto caught me there one night and said, ‘I’m going to call you Little Jazz because you've always got that horn in your face,' and the name stuck."

A strong competitive spirit and a compulsion to play at every opportunity were important qualities in Eldridge's makeup from his earliest days. Born in Pittsburgh on January 30, 1911 (the same year as fellow trumpeters Buck Clayton, Cootie Williams, Yank Lawson, Bill Dillard, and Louis Prima), Eldridge started out on drums at the age of six, encouraged initially by his brother Joe, three years his senior. But it was Joe who later convinced Roy that he should switch his talents to the trumpet, largely because he felt that his younger brother lacked the physical stamina to carry a drum kit from one gig to the next.

"But I was lazy," Eldridge told Leonard Feather. "I barely learned my solfeggio, and couldn't read music." He was sixteen when he left home to play with the Nighthawk Syncopators, a band of young musicians all with one thing in common: None of them could read a note.

By now Eldridge had learned to play Hawkins's solo on the Henderson band's recording of "Stampede", a feat that got him a job with a carnival band in Youngstown, Ohio. His inability to read a score was seriously affecting his professional career, but his empirical approach to the trumpet was not without its compensations, as he explained in a 1977 BBC interview with Charles Fox:

“From my mother I had developed an ear. Anything I heard, classical or anything, I could automatically play. I didn't know what key I was playing in but I could automatically play. That's why today all the trumpet players, like Dizzy, say to me, 'I don't know how you finger things like that,' and it's because I didn't know what I was doing, I never knew the legitimate way to do things. I just played what came out.”

It was his brother who insisted that Eldridge make the effort to learn the rudiments of music. And it is some measure of the trumpeter's determination to succeed that he was eventually employed by CBS Radio in 1944 to work in the studios as a member of an orchestra fronted by Paul Baron, which also contained such jazz stalwarts as pianist Teddy Wilson, xylophonist-vibraphonist Red Norvo, and trumpeter Charlie Shavers. He told Feather, "It's a nice feeling at first to know that you can make it, that you can read well and fast enough. But after the thrill of reading, I mean of blowing along with everyone else and not having to have an orchestra of thirty men stopped because of you, then what do you have? Playing the same thing again and again becomes monotonous. I guess I don't have the temperament for it. That's why I've stayed with jazz."

Here lies the key to Eldridge's success as an outstanding jazz soloist. He had mastered the academic side of his profession, but his heart lay in the creation of spontaneous improvisation. The very sound of his instrument immediately stamps his identity on the music; a handful of notes at the beginning of a soio and the listener knows that he is hearing Roy Eldridge. His involvement with his music was total, and a strong emotional quality was always manifest. Don Ferrara, a fellow trumpeter who contributed a column to Metronome magazine in the Fifties, wrote, "When Eidridge plays it's his feelings rather than his fingers which push the valves down" — surely one of the most penetrating statements ever made about Eldridge's playing.

The writers who dismissed Eldridge as merely a link between Armstrong and Gillespie were obviously unaware of his upbringing. His first influences were Rex Stewart and Bobby Stark, both members of the Fletcher Henderson trumpet section in the late Twenties and early Thirties, but he was also very impressed by the work of two saxophonists, Coleman Hawkins and Benny Carter. In fact, he did not hear Louis Armstrong in the flesh until 1931. He admired Armstrong greatly, but Armstrong was never a major figure in Eldridge's development as a soloist in his own right.

The competitive spirit was strong, and Eldridge always tried to play higher and faster than anyone else: "I started to feel that if I could combine speed with melodic development while continuing to build, to tell a story, I could create something musical of my own that the public would like." The public certainly liked what he did to "Rockin' Chair" and "Let Me Off Uptown" when he played them with the Gene Krupa band in the Forties. At Jazz at the Philharmonic concerts, Eldridge was the spark plug, the man who could move the excitement level up several notches in his opening chorus. But there was an unhappy period when he felt that public acceptance of the beboppers was likely to leave him stranded, a jazz anachronism in a rapidly changing world.

An offer to tour Europe with Benny Goodman's sextet in the spring of 1950 seemed the perfect excuse to remove himself from the New York jazz scene long enough to take stock of his position. In fact, he did not return home with the Goodman group but stayed on in Paris until April 1951, making records and enjoying the adulation of French audiences. It was a break that restored his self-confidence, and his return to America was the beginning of a new and successful chapter to an already noteworthy career.

Norman Granz put him in the studio with a succession of similarly talented and individual players, such men as saxophonists Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Sonny Stitt, Stan Getz, and Benny Carter, pianists Oscar Peterson and Art Tatum, and drummer Buddy Rich. "He's purely my kind of musician," Granz told Leonard Feather. "I always want the guy who thinks he's a bitch. Coleman Hawkins does, but in a 'quiet contempt' sort of way. Roy has that extra ounce of competitiveness, and because he's an emotional guy, he rises to the heights. And he's completely honest, not only musically but as a person."

During the late Fifties Eldridge led his own small group and also worked as a single, appearing frequently at clubs such as the Cafe Bohemia in New York and the Blue Note in Philadelphia. This was the period when supper-club owners found that audiences were attracted to small units playing well-known songs in a comparatively subdued manner. The most successful group of its kind was trumpeter Jonah Jones's quartet, and this may well have been the original concept behind Swingin’ On the Town.

Eldridge uses a mute on nine of the twelve tunes, while drummer Eddie Locke uses brushes throughout. The rest of the group comprises British-born Ronnie Ball at the piano and Benny Moten (no relation to Bennie Moten, the Kansas City pianist-bandleader who once had Count Basie as a sideman) on bass. Locke was Eldridge's first-call drummer for more than twenty years, and the recording sessions from which these sides were made were his very first. Locke was also on hand for one of Eldridge's final dates, a concert at St. Peter's Church in New York City in May 1978. That concert, which also featured trombonist Vic Dickenson, was recorded and later issued as Roy Eldridge and Vic Dickenson With Eddie Locke and Friends.

In his youth, Eldridge had attacked every piece of music as a personal challenge: "I had to play everything fast and double fast. I couldn't stand still. Like a lot of youngsters today, all my ballads had to be double time. I was fresh. I was full of ideas. Augmented chords. Ninths.” When he made this quartet album, he was forty-nine years old, a mature and experienced player with an appreciation of melody. Some of his most attractive ballad playing will be found here, each note given its correct value, the trumpet tone as individual and expressive as ever.

He plays the Erroll Garner ballads "Crème de Menthe" (Garner's title for the instrumental that became better known as "Dreamy" once lyrics were added) and "Misty" unmuted, giving the listener the opportunity to enjoy that golden sound and perfect control. There are brass men who dislike playing in mute and some who have difficulty in controlling the power of their playing in such circumstances. But Eldridge was a master of mutes (one of his earliest was made from a tin can painted gold), and there are plenty of opportunities to hear his control, starting with the muted wah-wah playing on "Bossa Nova". 

There are many moments to cherish in this program. Eldridge commences with the verse on George and Ira Gershwin's "I've Got a Crush on You", played with the same delicacy that another trumpeter, Bobby Hackett, brought to the melody when he played on Frank Sinatra's memorable 1947 recording of the tune. "Honeysuckle Rose" was always an Eldridge favorite, and even in the context of this album he succeeds in building a three-chorus solo of strength before handing over to Ball, whose playing throughout is relaxed and tasteful. "When I Grow Too Old to Dream" observes the conventions of the "muted jazz" concept, but Eldridge finds it difficult to suppress his natural exuberance in the vamp coda.

Swingin' on the Town was to be Roy Eldridge's last album as leader for some time. A few months after the session took place, Norman Granz sold the Verve label, leaving Eldridge without a recording contract for a time. He continued to work regularly, appearing at jazz festivals in the United States and Europe until October 1980, when he suffered a heart attack. Despite this

setback he managed to make guest appearances as a vocalist; he died on February 26,1989, in a Long Island hospital.

The tributes were many and sincere, for Eldridge had been one of the most admired and loved of all jazz players. As one club owner remarked: "Some of the younger guys with reputations are children. Roy is a man."”

Alun Morgan

February 1999

Monday, September 13, 2021

The Genius of Coleman Hawkins

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

Every so often, I like to pull a record out of the collection and share some comments and thoughts about it with you. I’m especially fond of calling to your attention recordings by musicians who helped me - in pianist Barry Harris’ phrase - “look out a bit.” [In other words, that helped to broaden my understanding of Jazz.]

Such is the case with The Genius of Coleman Hawkins [Verve 825 673-2] which features “Bean” with a rhythm section comprised of pianist Oscar Peterson, guitarist Herb Ellis and bassist Ray Brown - the Oscar Peterson Trio of that time - augmented with drummer Alvin Stoller, a wonderful player who would go on to become a first call studio drummer.

“Genius,” notwithstanding, on his recordings, “Hawk” always put forth a straightforward interpretation of songs from the Great American Songbook along with a few tunes from the Jazz Standards and the occasional original.

On The Genius of Coleman Hawkins the melody for each tune is stated in a recognizable manner, Hawkins improvises for a chorus or two and the group then takes the tune out. All but one of the 12 tracks are 3.30 to 4.00 minutes long and each manages to encapsulate one or more aspects of Coleman’s genius as described in the accompanying notes to the original LP by the distinguished Jazz writer and critic Nat Hentoff.

“One value judgement on which everybody in jazz agrees is the perennial vitality and imagination of Coleman Hawkins. Now in his mid-fifties, Hawkins can still take command of any session in which he becomes sufficiently interested. He can still record with the most "modern" players (Thelonious Monk, for one example); and he is still recognized by fellow musicians as one of their continuing resources. Sonny Rollins, for instance, always lists Bean when asked the tenor saxophonists he most admires, and these days so do many modernists even younger than Sonny.

Hawkins' stature has never been in doubt historically since he began — while with Fletcher Henderson in the twenties — to liberate the tenor saxophone and become the first major, pervasive influence on that instrument. Jazz fashions being as mercurial as they are, however, he experienced a relative eclipse in poll-like estimation for some years in the forties and even into the early fifties when the Lester Young-dominated school of tenor was predominant. Hawkins' "return" (he had never, of course, been away) to interviews in the jazz magazines and higher rungs in the polls was partially set in gear by the rise of such younger, post-cool players as Sonny Rollins who clearly owed him as well as Charlie Parker a basic debt.

Coleman himself has never worried especially about who's been in office nor, unlike some of his generation, has he become embittered by the changes in styles and popularity. He hired Monk and Dizzy in his bands and on his records during that period when "bop" was used as an epithet by most writers and even by many older musicians. "It's all a natural way that jazz grows," he said recently. "You can't stop it. That's the way it is, and you're bound to pick up things yourself if you listen."

Hawkins, while always remaining strongly himself, has always been listening. Garvin Bushell, while traveling with Mamie Smith, heard Hawkins in the pit band of the 12th Street Theatre in Kansas City as early as 1921. "He was ahead of everything I ever heard on that instrument. It might have been a C melody he was playing then. He was really advanced. He read everything without missing a note. I haven't heard him miss a note yet in 38 years. And he didn't — as was the custom then — play the saxophone like a trumpet or clarinet. He was also running changes then, because he'd studied the piano as a youngster. The only thing he lacked in the early twenties," Bushell added, "was as strong a sense of the blues and the 'soul' the southern players had. He was like a typical midwest musician of that time in that respect."

Compare, however, his first recordings with Henderson with those that followed his growing absorption of the influences brought to New York by players from the south and southwest, most notably by Louis Armstrong in his stay with the Henderson band. By the end of the twenties, Hawkins was supreme on the tenor. Wherever he traveled, he was looked up to by all the younger players. Jo Jones, explaining a rare time when Coleman Hawkins was bested at a session (in Kansas City by Ben Webster, Lester Young and Herschel Evans) points out: "You see, nobody in those days would walk in and set up with Hawkins, except maybe in New York where Chu Berry was just coming up. But most of the time at sessions guys would just be trying to show Hawkins how they had improved since he had last heard them."

Hawkins continued being the  arbiter for many young musicians  — without

publicity — for years. British writer Nevil Skrimshire noted in the Jazz Journal:

"Coleman Hawkins was apparently one of the musicians responsible for Oscar Peterson's discovery. Peterson told me that one night at a club in Toronto, Hawkins sat and listened to him all evening without saying a word. When everyone had gone, Hawkins asked him to play a tune. He said, 'I'd like to hear It's The Talk of the Town but I'd like to hear it in B natural.' As Peterson said to me, he managed that one and a couple of other teasers and was thus accepted by Hawkins."

Hawkins enjoyed this date. He'd played with the Peterson trio before on the JATP tours; and with his customary disinclination to go into long verbalizations of music, he said of this session: "It all went down pretty easy. We got several first takes that were so good we didn't do any more. They were all 'heads' and I picked most of the tunes." The original, Blues for Rene, is by Hawkins.

This is unfettered Hawkins — no strings, no paper, nothing but his horn and rhythm. He remains as described by Benny Green, the British musician, in a chapter in The Decca Book of Jazz: ". . . He was the first of the jazz saxophone virtuosi, with a technique equal to the task of playing anything his mind could conceive. And his mind could conceive patterns of great ingenuity and beauty. For all the apparent hot-headedness of Hawkins in full cry over a faster tempo or his seeming blind fervor on a ballad, the Hawkins mind behind the Hawkins heart was always perfectly poised, weaving ingenious melodic patterns almost mathematical in their precision and in the inevitability of their resolutions."

Inevitability, the feeling that a solo could not have been otherwise, is one mark of a major improviser. Coleman Hawkins, for one.”

—NAT HENTOFF, Co-Editor, The Jazz Review

Saturday, September 11, 2021

Sir George Shearing and The Guv'nor, Robert Farnon [From the Archives]

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

“To call George Shearing a jazz pianist is certainly accurate, yet also limiting and nowhere near complete. It fails to encompass the immense diversity of riches in his playing and a sheer pianistic brilliance which can move easily from what Whitney Balliett calls the "swinging abandon" of improvisation to a grasp of the language of Beethoven or Bartok or Mozart or Bach. 

Pianist Marian McPartland says, "Without question, he's a genius. Every time I hear him or play with him, I rediscover how much music of all kinds he's absorbed." 

All of the Shearing influences — from classical composers to the jazz masters — Art Tatum, Teddy Wilson, Nat Cole, Hank Jones, Erroll Garner, Bud Powell — become a natural part of what is a very individual sound. Each performance he creates is a little gem, a sort of tone poem of invention that relates a story, building dramatically and logically with incredible wit.
- Donald Elfman, Jazz producer, director and writer

"Most of what I know is based on having stolen everything I could from Farnon. I'll say that right off. I've listened to him and tried to approximate what I thought he was doing. He made strings sound like they always should have and never did. Everybody wrote them skinny. He knew how to write them so that it could wrench at you. I'd never heard anybody like him before and I've never heard anybody like him since. We're all pale imitations of him, those of us who are influenced by him."
- Johnny Mandel, Academy Award and Grammy winning composer-arranger

Pianist George Shearing [1919-2011] was one of the most accomplished Jazz musicians who ever lived. 

During his lifetime Robert Farnon [1917-2005] was considered by many to be the finest arranger in the world an acclamation connoted in the reference to him by many in his trade as “The Guv’nor.”

It took a very long time in their respective careers for them to record together and when they finally did with George’s trio and the Farnon Orchestra in 1979 on the MPS album entitled On Target, the LP had very limited distribution when it was released in 1982, and subsequently has not, to my knowledge, made it to CD/digital. 

Those of us who love beautiful sounding Jazz had to wait again until 1992 when George Shearing [who was knighted for services to music in 2007 hence the honorific in the title of this piece] had switched to the Telarc label which issued the magical results of the union between the George Shearing [this time with his quintet] and The Robert Farnon Orchestra on the CD named after an original composition by Farnon entitled How Beautiful is Night [Telarc CD-83325].

Inexpensive copies of the CD are still available through online sellers along with MP3 and audio cassette versions of the recording.

George recounts the background to both of these unions in these excerpts from his autobiography written with Alyn Shipton, Lullaby of Birdland.

“Through the years I've been with several record labels. First there was Decca in England, then my first American recording was on Savoy and the launch of the Quintet on Discovery. I joined MGM in February 1949 and stayed with them until I began my long association with Capitol in the fall of 1955. That ran until the end of the 1960s and after recording in the early 70s for my own label, Sheba, I went first to MPS, and then to Concord, where I had another long-running business relationship, including all my work with Mel Torme.

At the beginning of the 1990s, I made another move to Telarc. Things began for them with a couple of live albums from the Blue Note in New York, where I appeared during February 1992 with Neil Swainson on bass and Grady Tate on drums. I never had to say one word to Grady or Neil about the musical conception of the album; we just played. We covered all kinds of material from bebop pieces by Charlie Parker and Bud Powell to Brazilian tunes by Antonio Carlos Jobim. Plus there were some originals, too, by me and Neil, including his waltz Horizon.

Later that same year, I made an album in London with Robert Farnon for Telarc, called How Beautiful is Night. Bob wrote the arrangements and conducted a full orchestra. I've been a fan of Bob's since the days of World War Two. In the world of composing and arranging, he's known as the guv'nor and deserves all the many accolades he's received over the years. Our first recording together, On Target, dates from my MPS period, in 1979. That was an interesting recording, because I originally made the trio cuts in Villingen-Schwenningen in the Black Forest. Hans Georg Brunner-Schwer, the producer, decided it was going to be a Bob Farnon album and that we would lay in the orchestral tracks at a later date in England. So Bob received the cuts from MPS and worked on the orchestrations. I had the MPS engineer record an "A" on the piano for the orchestra to tune to, and they only did so in Wembley, two years later!

Hans Georg, the owner and chief engineer of MPS, is one of the nicest people in the world, with a marvelous family and a great studio in his house, although you did occasionally get the impression that he loved everything he did so much that he was reluctant to see it leave his shelves. Nevertheless, the studio he had set up was fantastic, and overall it was one of my best experiences in terms of recording of my whole career. When you went to the Black Forest to work there, you flew first class, stayed in the finest hotel in the area, and were well paid. This was followed up by regular accounting, so the company was good to work for, except as I say it sometimes took a long time to get things out. It certainly can't have been cheap to bring in Bob and a big orchestra to complete the disc we made together. Overall, recording with Hans Georg was a joy and a privilege, never just another job.

When I was reunited with Bob for the Telarc recording, How Beautiful Is Night, we did the whole thing live with all the musicians — my Quintet and his orchestra — together in the studio. Prior to the sessions, Bob came over to our cottage in the Cotswolds during the summer before we recorded, and spent the whole day with us. He had no manuscript paper with him, just a notepad and a pencil. He'd jot down a note or two here and there, and more often than not he'd write down a word, rather than a musical idea.

Later, his son told Ellie that what Bob did next was to go home to the Channel Islands, where he would sit down in his favorite chair. Once he's there, he thinks and thinks, and then he thinks a while longer. Then he pulls out some manuscript paper and starts writing. There's no piano involved. 

And the sounds that come out from the orchestra are not to be believed.
I can't think of anybody better at writing a beautifully orchestrated ballad than Robert Farnon. But he has his jazz moments too. He has been a good friend of many jazz musicians over the years, including a lot of the guys who played at Minton's, as well as leading the Canadian Band of the Allied Expeditionary Force during the war. He stayed on in London to write for Ted Heath, Ambrose, and Geraldo, and to make his own discs for English Decca. In the days when I had my own radio show on WNEW in New York I played several of Bob's jazzier London recordings from the 1940s, including You're The Cream In My Coffee, which I announced as You're The Crime in My Cafe.

On four of the tracks we recorded together in 1992,1 featured a group playing in the style of the old Quintet, with the English musicians Frank Ricotti on vibes and Allan Ganley on drums alongside guitarist Louis Stewart, an Irishman who had played in my trio in the 70s, and Neil Swainson on bass.”

More details about the Shearing-Farnon association are recounted in Neil Tesser insightful sleeve notes to  How Beautiful is Night [Telarc CD-83325].

“In 1957, Jack Kerouac wrote:

‘Suddenly Dean stared into the darkness of a corner beyond the bandstand and said, Sal, God has arrived.

I looked. GEORGE SHEARING. And as always he leaned his blind head on his pale hand, all ears opened like the ears of an elephant, listening to the American sounds and mastering them for his own English summer's-night use. Then they urged him to get up and play. He did. He played innumerable choruses with amazing chords that mounted higher and higher till the sweat splashed all over the piano, and everybody listened in awe and fright. They led him off the stand after an hour. He went back to his dark corner, old god Shearing, and the boys said. There ain't nothin' left after that.’

It's a long drive from Kerouac's off-road encounter with Shearing, in a Chicago bop dive, to the reserved-seat, black-tie collaboration heard on this disc. Too long? Kerouac might think so; he might tell us the old god Shearing had wandered off into the long dark night of "culture," far from the seeds of the music heard on that magical summer's night north of the Loop.

But George Shearing, the many-faceted product of two English-speaking cultures, would beg to differ. The world of the concert hall belongs to him by rights, just as he made the bebop nights of the '50s his own; and he has almost always navigated these two poles with ease.

In fact, when Shearing first unveiled his innovative quintet sound in 1949, he had already begun to bridge his musical interests. The band's foreground instrumentation — featuring vibraphone, guitar, and piano, but no horns — seemed to straddle the worlds of chamber music and bebop combos. (The quintet proved politically correct before the phrase, let alone the concept, even existed. It comprised four men — two white, two black — and a woman, the vibraphonist Margie Hyams.) And Shearing's own compositions contributed to this sense of fusion: songs like "Conception" and "Lullaby of Birdland." while undeniably jazz, nonetheless showed a restraint and attention to development not always present in the exuberance of bop.

Shearing's previous Telarc release, I Hear A Rhapsody, briefly recounts his biography; for our purposes, it is important to note that by the late '50s Shearing had returned to the classical music he studied as a teenager, performing concertos with symphony orchestras and occasionally using his quintet within the same context. So by 1979, when he first collaborated on record with the Canadian-born composer and arranger Robert Farnon, the biggest shock lay in how long it had taken them to get together.

Farnon's career contains as many accolades as Shearing's; while his name may turn fewer heads, his music has been at least as influential, a result of his arrangements for such singers as Bennett, Sinatra, and Vaughan. and of a flurry of film scores (including Captain Horatio Hornblower, Where's Charley? and the last Hope-Crosby travelogue. The Road To Hong Kong). What's more, his colleagues lend to regard him with the respect, if not awe, that Kerouac accorded Shearing. Andre Previn has called him "the greatest living string writer in the world." and Tony Bennett says that every orchestrator with whom he's worked "steals from Robert Farnon. They really look at him like he's a god."

As a result, this album stacks up as much more than "George Shearing with Strings." That phrase — which connotes jazz performances sweetened by violins and the occasional high reed — has virtually nothing to do with these elaborately conceived settings for the style of George Shearing (and, on four tracks, his quintet). In wedding his control of the orchestra with Shearing's taste and swing, Farnon has done all but the impossible: he has created an album full of mini-concertos, in which the piano plays the prominent role while fully blending into the larger ensemble, and in the process he has drawn on a vast array of musical devices.

Only a handful of orchestral jazz projects have so fully accomplished this integration of seemingly incompatible components, and for obvious reasons. First, only a handful of orchestrators display the conceptual prowess of Robert Farnon. And second, only a handful of modern instrumentalists combine the traditional virtues of classical and jazz musics with the elegance of George Shearing.

Dancing In The Dark, the darkly romantic, even fatalistic Arthur Schwartz ballad, concerns more than ballroom swirls in a power failure. Titled after a book by the philosopher Martin Buber. who used the phrase as an analogy for the human condition, it reflects lyricist Howard Dietz's ambition to delve beneath the usual love-song surface. The arrangement showcases Shearing's lovely quintet sound — a sound for which he is noted — and Louis Stewart's carefully stated improvisation on guitar.

Farnon's treatment of Heather On The Hill (from the musical Brigadoon) is less an arrangement than a fantasia, which uses the original song as its source material. It contains some unusual associations. For instance, in the flute solo of the introduction, Farnon borrows a phrase from the verse of
Gershwin's But Not For Me: at the end, the music is reminiscent of Debussy's Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun. The piece has the structure of ballet music, with Shearing's piano the lead dancer.

Farnon further extends his invitation to the dance on the next two songs. He has unexpectedly turned Oh, Lady Be Good! — the classic Broadway tune from the show Lady Be Good, and a longtime jazz vehicle — into a waltz, delightfully reharmonized by Shearing (who tosses in a snippet of Farnon's own Portrait of a Flirt in closing). After a somewhat melodramatic verse, he treats More Than You Know with a light, swinging lope. If you listen carefully, you will hear a quote from Farnon's To a Young Lady.

Our Waltz will surprise those fans of television's Red Skelton Show, who figured never to hear it again after Skelton left the air in 1971. Written by David Rose, who led the orchestra on Skelton's show, it served as an intermittent theme for much of the program's twenty-year history. A double-time waltz feeling sets the mood for the quintet entrance.

Shearing insisted that this recording contain one of Farnon's compositions; thus the new arrangement of How Beautiful Is Night, one of Farnon's most recorded compositions. With its chromatic harmonic movement and pastel tone portraiture, it's Farnon's Clare de Lune. and Shearing brings to his part all the impressionistic passion and control one could want. Once Upon A Time calls for similar qualities in the entirely different context of northern European folk music. The piece is actually an adaptation of an adaptation: Farnon has grounded his flights of fancy in Edvard Grieg's Lyric Pieces For Piano, which is itself based on both a Swedish folk song and Norwegian folk dance.

Days Gone By,a sweepingly gorgeous ballad by the Canadian jazz bassist and pianist Don Thompson, glories in a perfectly realized setting. It also adds a new sound to the wide palette explored by Farnon and Shearing: the unmistakable jazz color of Tommy Whittle's tenor saxophone and Shearing's piano obligato, against a layered backdrop of strings and harp. The full quintet returns, front and center, for Farnon's inventive version of Put On A Happy Face (from the first "rock musical," Bye Bye Birdie). For the theme, Shearing unveils his famed quintet sound — vibes on top, guitar on the bottom, and piano chords sandwiched in the middle — before a classic locked-hands solo.

If Haunted Ballroom sounds like more dance music, it comes by il naturally: the theme derives from a ballet of the same name, composed by Geoffrey Toye. Farnon opens with harp, vibes, strings, and bass flute combining to create pools ot raindrops before the waltz tempo grows active. Towards the end of Just Imagine, from the musical Good News, there is an interesting question and answer segment between the piano and solo violin. The quintet returns lor this program's finale, The Surrey With The Fringe On Top, for which Farnon has saved some of his best ideas. His rhythmic displacement of the theme both confounds our expectations and re-examines the melody, while the arrangement's airy reliance on flutes provides an orchestral correlative to the lightly swinging sound of the Shearing ensemble.
— Neil Tesser

What a joy it was to record this album with Robert Farnon. He has earned every accolade he has received. To me. he will always be "The Guv'nor."
— George Shearing