Monday, November 23, 2020

Charlie Sepulveda: Algo Nuestro – “Our Thing”

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

A friend recently hipped the editorial staff at JazzProfiles to this 1992 recording by trumpeter Charlie Sepulveda’s which, much to our delight, contains an excellent version of one of our favorite Eddie Palmieri tunes – Puerto Rico.

“On Algo Nuestro, trumpeter Charlie Sepulveda leads a sextet that includes the up and coming tenor saxophonist David Sanchez, pianist Edward Simon, bassist Andy Gonzalez, Adam Cruz on drums, and Richie Flores on congas and bongos, with a few guest percussionists and bassists; trombonist Steve Turre sits in on Eddie Palmieri's "Puerto Rico."

The music is post-bop jazz with a strong dose of Latin and Puerto Rican rhythms. The solos of Sepluveda and Sanchez are consistently passionate, while Simon shows a great deal of potential during his spots. The band is quite strong on the nine obscurities (six of which come from Sepulveda, Sanchez, or Simon), making this a CD well worth searching for.” ~ Scott Yanow

Down Beat (6/93, p. 42) - 4.5 Stars - Very Good Plus - "... [Sepulveda] plays hard-bop with passion and grace. His second solo album, more focused than its predecessor, glows with energy and ensemble empathy. Sepulveda's fat, creamy tone crackles with bluesy intensity..." Musician (2/93, p. 94) - "... a delightful follow-up to his popular maiden voyage for Antilles, more fully thought out and developed, with greater play given to the ensemble and individual soloists... "

Sometimes, it's fun to just listen to the music and groove to it.

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Jimmy Gourley - A Portrait of An American Jazz Guitarist in Paris

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

The critic and author, Mike Zwerin, who for many years wrote a column on Jazz for The International Herald Tribune, often asserted that “Jazz went to Europe to live.”

Specifically, he was referring to the exodus of many American Jazz musicians who, after the modern Jazz halcyon days of 1945-1965, relocated to Paris, Copenhagen and other major European cities where they found work in clubs and on the concert circuit and were accorded a respect abroad that they rarely received at home.

Some American Jazz musicians including drummer Kenny Clarke, pianist Bud Powell and guitarist Jimmy Gourley beat the exodus and took up residence in Paris around the mid-1950s.

While Clarke and Powell are renown as two of the founders of Bebop, Jimmy Gourley is much less known, but no less significant, at least, as far as those Parisian musicians interested in learning about modern Jazz are concerned.

For as Norman Mongan explains in The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz explains:

“In the 1950s, when guitar playing in Europe was dominated by Django Reinhardt, Gourley introduced to the Continent a style that was inspired by cool-jazz musicians, especially Lester Young. Influenced at first by fellow-guitarist, Jimmy Raney's subdued melodies, he gradually made greater use of the instrument's harmonic potential and played with increased rhythmic urgency, but his tone remained characteristic of cool jazz - smooth and free of vibrato.”

While in the process of preparing a review of Noal Cohen and Michael Fitzgerald’s second edition of Rat Race Blues: The Musical Life of Gigi Gryce, I came across Jimmy Gourley’s name again in connection with a trip that Gigi made to Paris in 1953 as a member of Lionel Hampton’s big band. It seems that Gigi and other members of Hamp’s band [including legendary trumpeter Clifford Brown] made some “unauthorized” recordings for a French label on which Jimmy appeared.

This reference reminded me that I owned one of the few recordings that Jimmy ever made as a leader - The Left Bank of New York: Jimmy Gourley - Uptown UPCD 27.32.  Created by Robert Sunenblick, M.D., Uptown has a reputation for finding obscure recordings by famous Jazz musicians such as Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie and for producing sessions by obscure musicians such as the one that led to Jimmy Gourley’s recording for the label which was made on August 25, 1986 at Rudy van Gelder’s Englewoods Cliffs, NJ studio [which was also the setting for many of the famous Blue Note LP’s that were recorded by Rudy in the 1950s and early 1960s].

Robert Sunenblick’s sleeve notes to The Left Bank of New York: Jimmy Gourley  [Uptown UPCD 27.32.] contain the following, comprehensive overview of Jimmy Gourley’s career.  

“JIMMY GOURLEY is an American jazz guitarist who has lived in Paris during the last three and a half decades - a 'real' American in Paris. Although he has remained little known in his native U.S., he has played a pivotal role in the development of jazz in Paris, and all of Europe. His love of the great American songwriters of the 1930s and 1940s, his musical education in Chicago, and the fact that Europe was isolated from jazz developments in the U.S. during World War II, all contributed to Gourley's importance. When French musicians, such as Henri Renaud, heard his modern approach and his choice of popular and Broadway show tunes, they were exposed to a capsule of American jazz that they had never heard before.

When Gourley arrived in Paris in April of 1951, it seemed it would never stop raining. "I remember it rained, as it can only rain in Paris." He ran into an old friend from Chicago, "a real crazy painter," who put him up and most important provided him with conversation. "Like it was the end of the world. I couldn't talk with anyone." Eventually, as he had done in his native Chicago, he took his amplifier and began sitting in with Don Byas, Henri Renaud, and other musicians and pretty soon was thrust into a most exciting and beautiful period — postwar Paris.
St. Germain des Pres was "a little Greenwich Village" filled with many small clubs, musicians, U.S. servicemen, students, and hangers-on wanting to enjoy the movement and life of Paris - and jazz was the music they were listening to.

Gourley lived in a hotel in the center of Montparnasse, where many musicians, artists, writers and students lived. Both in the hotel and at the many bistros and cafes that line the narrow streets, Gourley played and talked jazz. "There was a very relaxed atmosphere. There was not the 'professionalism' one sees today, where everybody is seeking his place in history. We played - and good musicians were numerous."

Gourley was raised in Chicago. When he was discharged from the military service in June 1946, he returned home and found a music scene "full of effervescence." He joined "all his old friends" in the Jay Burkhart Band and brought his guitar to numerous jam sessions in Bronzeville, the black area in the southern part of the city. He saw Charlie Parker in late 1946. "They'd say, 'Bird's coming, man! Everybody left any job they had, anything they were at. Everybody was there." He played with many great musicians: Gene Ammons, Sonny Stilt, Lou Levy, Johnny Griffin, Wilbur Ware, Jimmy Raney, and Sonny Rollins. Two guitarists influenced him: Jimmy Raney and Ronnie Singer. "When I heard Raney, it was a shock. He was the best." Singer is described as a "beautiful guy, maybe even more melodic than Raney."

Why did he leave Chicago? In the jazz community, drugs were everywhere. "It was happening all around me. Guys dying, guys getting busted." Gourley, a non-user, was especially affected by the suicide of his good friend Ronnie Singer. "Ronnie went to New York. He worked with .Artie Shaw a bit. But he was terribly strung out. Couldn't get off it. A nice guy. He finally married a chick who was using and they committed suicide. They found them dead in a hotel room with a Bud Powell record playing." Gourley ran away to Paris.

Friends had told him about Paris, and because the Gl Bill guaranteed ex-U.S. servicemen an education, he had a little financial security. He enrolled in a music school in Paris, but soon found that he could "learn Paris again - the rhythm, the food, the bistros - and in 1957 he left the U.S. for good. "I didn't know it was for good, but it happened that way."

Ben Benjamin was opening the Blue Note jazz club and offered Gourley a key role. For a few months, he led a quartet; however, because the club was new and there were no names in Gourley's group, the Blue Note adapted a new policy toward the end of 1957. Gourley was to be part of the rhythm section along with Kenny Clarke, Pierre Michelot, and Rene Urtreger, accompanying name players. "Everybody wanted to play with Kenny Clarke." Therefore, the Blue Note featured such names as Stan Getz, Kenny Drew, Bud Powell ("I wish we had tape recorders in those days), Dexter Gordon, Brew Moore, J.J. Johnson, Chet Baker and most memorably Lester Young ("Pres played there for two months. I was on his final recording which he made in Paris."). This arrangement lasted until 1963, but when he left the Blue Note he often returned during the next four to five years. Therefore, Gourley became closely associated with this famous jazz club. In fact, it was his description and consultation that led to the Blue Note set in the film, Round Midnight. In the movie, guitarist John McLaughlin occupied Jimmy Gourley's place, as part of the renowned rhythm section.

After the Blue Note closed, Gourley continued his association with Kenny Clarke in organ trios, first with the American Lou Bennett (heard on a French RCA release, Amen), then with the French organist Eddy Louiss (two Lps on the America label). Based in Paris, he has remained an important musician in Europe - at festivals, club dates in Paris, and has appeared in or recorded the soundtracks for several movies (The Only Game in Town; Ballade Pour Un Voyou; Paris Blues, with Duke Ellington). He has also recorded three albums under his leadership for small French labels (Promophone, Musica, Bingow).

In July 1986, Gourley returned to the U.S. to show his new bride New York City, and visit old friends in Los Angeles. He appeared for a week at Bradley's, a piano club in the Village, then went out to the West Coast where he appeared with Mundell Lowe at Donte's in North Hollywood. It was on his return East that this album was recorded. Although Gourley has played and recorded with many of the jazz masters (Clifford Brown, Zoot Sims, Kenny Clarke, Bud Powell, Duke Ellington, and Lester Young) and occupied a central place in the Parisian jazz scene, this is Gourley's first album recorded in the U.S. Backing him are bassist Marc Johnson and drummer Victor Lewis who have appeared and recorded with him in France. The exciting tenor saxophonist Ralph Moore and trumpeter Don Sickler round out the quintet tracks. Several selections from his Le Tabou  days [a Parisian Jazz club on the Left Bank of the river Seine] have been updated (Au Tabou, Toot's Suite, and Salute to the Bandbox) and Gourley's choice of material includes rarely heard tunes.

To his Raney-influenced style, he brings a European flavor developed during his life in Paris. "I don't know whether I’ve got regrets about taking up roots in the States and putting them down in Paris. For me, jazz is American. But, Paris will stay my home."

In Paris, Gourley introduced many European jazz musicians to an American phenomenon - Charlie Parker and bebop music. Now in New York City, let Jimmy Gourley  -  a 'real' American in Paris  -  musically introduce you to a phenomenon that has occurred since his departure, the development of a French presence in New York City - coffee bars, bistros, croissant shops, French spoken everywhere — reminiscent of the atmosphere of Le Tabou and the Blue Note  -  The Left Bank of New York.”

Saturday, November 21, 2020

Russ Freeman - Part 2

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

“L'association avec Russ Freeman, "experience en quartette fait du trompettiste introverti, parfois peu assure techniquement, un soliste imaginatif, pour lequel sensibilite ne rime plus avec timidite.

[Through his] association with Russ Freeman, " [Baker’s] experience in a quartet [with a piano] makes the introvert trumpeter, sometimes technically insufficient, an imaginative soloist, for whom sensitivity no longer rhymes with timidity."
- Alain Tercinet, West Coast Jazz

“Baker now found in pianist Russ Freeman a musical collaborator as stimulating, if less well known, than the baritone saxophonist. Like Mulligan, Freeman was both an instrumentalist and a composer. Less restrained than the emotionally cool writing by Mulligan, Freeman's compositions, as well as his supportive comping style, gave Baker free rein to stretch out. In fact, Freeman's pieces stand out as among the finest musical settings Baker ever found. Freeman, in return, saw Baker as the ideal interpreter of his music. "He's the only one who could play my songs the way I hear them," Freeman would say in 1963. "He had such an innate feeling for them."
But Freeman was much more than composer-in-residence for the new Baker quartet. He also served, in a rare combination, as musical director, road manager, and personal advisor all rolled into one. In Richard Bock's words:

He was the perfect pianist for Chet at that time. He gave him an enormous amount of room. He was really the musical director, you know, and he was largely responsible for the success that the quartet had as far as being able to be a unit to work. Not only did he pick the tunes, he wrote the tunes, he taught Chet what he needed to know to play them, [and] took care of business on the road….

The music Baker and Freeman recorded for Pacific Records forms the trumpeter's most important legacy from the 1950’s. …

In assessing the Baker quartet of this period, one's attention is invariably drawn to Freeman's contributions as a composer. His collaboration with Baker brought out the best in him as a writer, just as his compositions in turn evoked some of the finest improvisatory work from the trumpeter. It is difficult to generalize about this large body of work, and this reflects the music's strengths: There is an invigorating range and breadth in these recordings, a wideness of musical inquiry that belies the stereotyped view of Baker as a limited specialist in moody ballads. Much of Baker's reputation at this time was, of course, based on the success of his recording of "My Funny Valentine/' but these first Pacific dates avoided the obvious temptation to focus on only one side of Baker's talent. The quartet's first sessions, in late July 1953, show his comfortable mastery of Freeman's Latin-tinged "Maid in Mexico" and his fast bop chart "Batter Up." A follow-up session from October 3 produced especially memorable up-tempo work from Baker and Freeman on the latter's "No Ties," "Bea's Flat," and "Happy Little Sunbeam." ...

Russ Freeman [also] stands out as the most compatible of all the pianists who worked with Shelly Manne during the decade [of the 1950’s]. In contrast to Freeman's performances with Chet Baker, where the pianist's harmonic knack was brought to the fore, the Manne collaborations evoked some of the strongest rhythmic playing of Freeman's career. One might expect pianist and drummer to be tentative without a bassist, but Manne and Freeman take more rhythmic chances in this setting [referring to their Contemporary Records LP The Two] than they typically did in the context of a full ensemble. When Freeman later joined Manne's working band — where he served for some eleven years from the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s —  the two musicians continued to build off this striking rapport. On gigs they often had the rest of the group fall out for a chorus or a bridge while they worked their striking interplay on piano and drums.
- Ted Gioia, West Coast Jazz, Modern Jazz in California, 1945-1960

“By the time The Two was recorded, Russ Freeman had left the Giants and joined the Chet Baker Quartet, both as pianist and business manager. Freeman, an absolute perfectionist, is a very rhythmic piano player, very conscious of the time feeling. On the Contemporary liner notes he states, "1 think one reason Shelly enjoys working with me is that though 1 play what is commonly thought of as a melody instrument, I am very interested in using it percussively."

“Shelly commented during the same interview, "We have a lot of confidence in each other, particularly in each other's time." — and — "Russ has a way of inverting time, and it stimulates me. Instead of just playing constant lines of eighth or sixteenth notes, he plays long lines and breaks them in rhythmic patterns, without losing the melodic structure." So the sympathetic relationship between the unusually melodic drummer and the very percussive pianist was forever captured for the Contemporary label.”
- Jack Brand, Shelly Manne, Sounds of the Different Drummer

Although it was conducted primarily for the insert notes for The Complete Pacific Jazz Studio Recordings of The Chet Baker Quartet with Russ Freeman [Mosaic Records MD3-122], I’ve always found these interviews to be particularly insightful about pianist Russ Freeman life and music at this point in his career.

And, as such, they along with the above quotations from Ted Gioia, Alain Tercinet, and Jack Brand constitute Part 2 of our profile on Russ who was a superb musician and one heckuva nice guy.

“Russ Freeman is three years older than Chet Baker. Born in Chicago in 1926, he came to Los Angeles in 1931, studied piano with an aunt, somewhat indifferently, from the ages of eight to twelve, and then stopped playing. "At fifteen I went to a Friday dance and heard my high school dance band. I thought 'that looks terrific to me — I want to do that!” The band was pretty bad — just perfect for me — I fit right in! I couldn't read music and didn't know anything about chords or harmony. From then on it was all self-taught."

Freeman worked hard and learned quickly. "I wasn't really into jazz, then, but traveling around the country with a big band seemed to me the greatest, most glamorous thing I could do with my life. I went on the road at sixteen with a big band led by a guy who fancied himself a Benny Goodman type. He really couldn't play at all — he held clarinet. I had to beg my mother to let me leave high school. The guy ran off with all the money and left us stranded in Quincy, Illinois. My mother came for me by train, all the way from Los Angeles — it was wartime and we didn't have airplanes. She put me back on the train and took me right back to school. I graduated."

In 1945, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie came to Billy Berg's in Hollywood. "Nobody had ever heard anybody play like that in the history of the world!," Freeman remembers. "We were just dumbfounded by the whole thing. We had sort of been fooling around with jazz up to then, but that really set things off. There was a guy out here named Dean Benedetti who was sort of our leader. He was a bit older than us, and he put a sextet together including Jimmy Knepper, who'd been with me in high school. We were the first organized bebop band on the West Coast. We had charts and everything, and spent day and night listening and playing. I think we only worked one or two gigs in the whole time we were together, but we learned a lot. ...

"At that time there were a lot of jam sessions in Los Angeles — a lot of clubs, late-night, after-hours clubs. Some didn't start a session until two in the morning; they'd serve liquor illegally, put it in coffee cups. There were a lot of weekend sessions, too — Sunday afternoons, for example. Maybe a club would pay a rhythm section eight or ten dollars apiece for a session and everybody else would go there and play. We sort of followed the circuit to find some place to play, because that's all we wanted to do.

I'd been doing that for a while when I got hooked up with trumpeter Howard McGhee. We both lived in sort of the same neighborhood, within a couple of miles of each other. I lived at the time around 52nd and Western and he lived at 42nd near Main. So I used to hang out at his house all the time. Eventually, we started working together. The horns in the band were usually Howard, Sonny Criss and Teddy Edwards, or some combination of the three. Roy Porter was the drummer. When Bird got out of Camarillo, he joined the band and the front line became just Howard and Bird. We worked a number of one-nighters and a lot of after-hours clubs, places like 'Jack's Basket', on Central Avenue. Playing with Bird was an indescribable experience.

"You know," Freeman said, "you listen to some of those old records back from the '40s and early '50s and the horn players sound terrific. You listen to the rhythm sections and they sound terrible. It took them longer to catch up to what was happening in those days than it did the horn players. My first influence was Nat Cole.

"I never heard him play in person, I just listened to him on record and on the radio. He was really a giant player. Everything about him — the style, touch, time — was perfect. Then I heard Bud Powell. Nobody ever articulated on the piano the way Bud did, not even Nat Cole. Not many pianists realized that they could do what a horn player does as far as the various weights that are given to notes, and the phrasing, and the whole way of playing. Bud is the first one to have done that. Where he came from, I don't know, because he didn't play like anybody else."

By the early fifties, Fuss Freeman had performed with Wardell Gray, Dexter Gordon and Art Pepper. And he had begun to run into Chet Baker at sessions.

"Our friendship and musical association started around 1952," Freeman remembered. "Chet lived in Lynwood with his wife and they had this little house-behind-a-house where Chet and I played together a lot, days and nights. There had been a time earlier when I had been pretty strung out. By 1952 I had straightened myself out and I was seeing a lot of Chet and we were playing together every chance we could get. …”

"We all decided to move to Hollywood while I was working at the Lighthouse and Chet was working with Gerry," said Freeman, "so I got to be around at the time the quartet was organized. A lot of the things that were being done on the West Coast were, in retrospect, really not very good. But Gerry and Chet were astonishing. They had a rapport between them that was unique—like an intuitive conversation. You'd think, 'well, they've got this stuff worked out — he's going to come in here, and he’s coming in here — but it wasn't that way at all. Whatever they played it was different every time." …

"Chet had suddenly, overnight, blossomed into a major star — or at least a very big fish in the small pond of jazz," Freeman said. "And I think Dick Bock wanted to take advantage of the fact that he had two stars — not just Gerry but Chet, too."

"It didn't help my relationship with Gerry," Bock said. "I think in a way he felt that I broke up his band by recording Chet on his own, by helping to make Chet a star. Of course it wasn't all on my head — there were personal disagreements between them. I'd have been happy to record Gerry and Chet for as long as they were together, and Chet could have made his own records in the studio and not needed to travel — I think it would have been better for both of them. But it was apparent that Chet was going to have his own thing: he wanted it, and if I hadn't recorded it he would have gone someplace else."

"I had ambivalent feelings," said Russ. "I thought the breakup was really unfortunate, but I liked the idea that Chet and I were going to get to play together.

Gerry's things sound terrific still: they're lyrical — jazz compositions, and what these two were playing between them was just gorgeous. One of the reasons Gerry didn't want to use the piano is because he didn't want to have anything that would interfere with the flow between the two of them. I never heard that same flow between them whenever anyone was playing the piano; somehow it went away. The format gave, particularly Gerry, the freedom to cushion him with that baritone sound underneath, those notes he would pick to play when Chet was playing a solo. It was really just beautiful.

"With Gerry, Chet was so free — it was almost as if there wasn't any space between the idea and the execution," Bock said. "Russ played differently than anyone else that it was difficult for me to accept, at first. He didn't sound like Al Haig or any bop pianists that I liked at that time. But it wasn't long until I began to admire Russ because of his compositions. He wrote some great things, I think equally as memorable as Gerry's.

And he was the perfect pianist for Chet at that time. He gave him an enormous amount of room. He was really the musical director, you know, and he was largely responsible for the success that the quartet had as far as being able to be a unit to work. Not only did he pick the tunes, he wrote the tunes, he taught Chet what he needed to know to play them, took care of business on the road. There was something in Chet's personality that was, I think basically irresponsible — toward himself and toward anything else. That's probably the thing that upset Gerry the most, because Gerry was able to function as a leader, and his career is ample proof of his ability to do that. He always looked upon Chet as a sideman.

"Mulligan once said to me 'You're a songwriter,'" Russ said. "I wondered for a while what he meant and I realized that the things I wrote back then, with Chet, were very melodic, very lyrical. Part of that was the influence of Lester Young and Charlie Parker. Bud Powell, too. Those were the major influences on me, the people who influenced me the most. Monk, too, in a way. Monk always sounded like a self-taught player, as if he evolved that style of playing and writing totally by himself. He heard the piano in a different way than anybody else, he made fanny noises — not the right word — funny sounds came out of the piano. He played some of the damndest things — when you play one of his tunes, either by yourself or with a band, the structure of the tune makes you play a certain way even when you go into the solo. That's a unique ability. He was incredible.

"Some of the things that I wrote I still like. BEA'S FLAT, I think is good...THE WIND [written for CHET BAKER AND STRINGS, on Columbia] is a good song...and I like SUMMER SKETCH. I'm more pleased, I think with the things that I wrote than with the records I was on — the way I was playing in those days. I liked my playing better later on.

"Chet struck me as a giant player, than. You listen to the album we did in '57, the one with SAY WHEN and that unbelievable solo on LOVE NEST, and you hear how lyrical he could be even while playing fast and hard. You know, he doesn't have any idea what key he's playing in or what the chords are — he knows nothing from a technical standpoint — it's all just by ear. Of course, we all play by ear when we play jazz, but he has nothing to fall back on. If he had a bad night, which he had occasionally, he didn't have any way to say 'Well, okay, I'll just go back and cool it and sort of walk through this path.' He didn't know how to do that — he had to rely on what his ear told him to do. And if he was not on that night, then it didn't happen. But there would be certain nights, maybe once a week when it was absolutely staggering. To the extent where I would sit there comping for him, listening to him play, and think 'Where did that come from? What is it that's coming out of this guy? You mean I have to play a solo after that?' Now that didn't happen all the time you know, but when it did it was like he'd suddenly got control of the world.

"I've never heard anyone get quite the sound on trumpet that Chet gets. I don't think he's ever been captured on record the way I've heard him play — that's not surprising; it's true of most players, because it's not a natural thing to go into a recording studio and try to play jazz. It's not impossible but it's not as comfortable.

There's something about playing in a nightclub, knowing that you're just going to get up there and play a few sets, so that if it doesn't happen you can still get back on the stand later. Playing jazz — is there anything else that's comparable to it? Do those people who write words have the same sense of inspiration? Do painters, or dancers, or architects? I don't know. Is there the same sense of mystery?

I'm not a religious person at all, I mean zero; but three or four times in my life, while playing, I suddenly have become disembodied — in the sense that I seem to be behind my right shoulder watching myself play, literally watching my hands on the keyboards. And sitting there saying to myself, 'Isn't that interesting — what's he going to do now?' I'm serious! — it's bizarre! In all the years that I played jazz in clubs, I only had it happen those three or four times — and never in recording. It's the strangest experience: you're at your peak, you're not falling back on cliches or hot're just creating music and it's like pouring water out of a pitcher. And part of your mind is sitting there saying 'Oh, that's nice...' All of a sudden everything gets easy — nothin' to it — and you say to yourself 'Well, I've got it now! No reason why tomorrow or the next week I can't do the same thing I'm doing now! Of course, it doesn't work that way.

"That's what you're after, that high. There are a lot of layers, though, that go along with it. It's a zig-zag existence and it's one of the reasons I stopped. I just couldn't handle that up and down. The up was wonderful, but the down was so bad I just couldn't stay with it.

"It became very painful to go through those periods where you get on a bandstand and you try something and it's not happening."

— Will Thornbury June, 1987

If one were to look closely and comparatively in terms of all the Giants of Jazz that Russ Freeman performed with from 1945 - 1965,  particularly those on the West Coast, one would be hard-pressed to find anyone whose career surpassed it.

And there’s a reason for this 20-year association and that reason is because Russ Freeman was a Giant, too.

Friday, November 20, 2020

Fan Tan - Russ Freeman & Chet Baker

Russ Freeman - Part 1

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

I didn’t realize it at the time, but I met pianist, composer and arranger Russ Freeman just after his days as a professional musician were over. He was a member of the Executive Board of Musicians Union Local 47 when I made a presentation to it in 1988 regarding a health and welfare benefit that the union was considering for its members.

The negotiations were protracted so I spent quite a bit of time before the Board during its weekly meetings at its offices on Vine Street in Hollywood.

About 10 years later in May, 1999, the Los Angeles Jazz Institute put on a 4-day festival under the theme of “Jazz West Coast II.” One of the evening concerts during this festival was devoted to Russ’s original compositions. The event was held outside in one of the small amphitheaters on the property of the Hyatt Newporter Hotel in Newport Beach, CA. [Earlier that day, Russ had participated in a panel discussion on the subject of West Coast Jazz which is the source for the photo at the outset of this piece.]

It seemed very fitting to be listening to the cool sounds of West Coast Jazz in the balmy evening weather along the southern California coast.

After the concert, I noticed Russ sitting alone and I approached him to share with him how much I’ve always enjoyed his music and to ask him to autograph my copy of a book about the West Coast style of Jazz that predominated from about 1945-1965.

As I was turning a chair around to straddle it [I wanted to stretch my back], Russ said,“I know you.” I thought he was referring to the aforementioned health and welfare benefits meetings at the union which I started to comment on.

But then he said, “No, no. You used to come to The Manne Hole a lot when it first opened [early 1960’s] and you’d always turn a chair around, fold your forearms over the back of it and stare at Shelly playing drums for hours on end!”

To which I said: “Yeah, if you look closely at the photo on the cover of Shelly Manne and His Men at The Manne Hole, you’ll see me sitting there doing just that.”

Russ and I reminisced for almost an hour while the crew broke down the stage and put away the audio gear.

It was the last time I saw him. Russ died three years later in July, 2002 at the age of 76.

I thought it might be fun to remember him on these pages by posting a two-part feature about Russ consisting of excerpts from interviews he gave over the years and portions of commentaries by writers familiar with his music.

Let’s start with Len Dobbins insert notes to Russ Freeman: Safe at Home, a CD of a performance that Russ gave in 1959 at The Orpheum Theater in Vancouver [Just A Memory Records - JAM 9160-2]. The CD was issued in 2005 and Len’s notes provide a comprehensive overview of Russ’s career and highlight many of his best known original compositions.

“If I were asked to list ten I underappreciated pianists, Russ Freeman's name would certainly be on that list The previously-unreleased material at hand and the 1953 trio sessions done with Joe Mondragon and Shelly Manne in October and with Monty Budwig and Manne in December, issued on a CD in 1989 shared with the ill-fated Richard Twardzik, are the only sessions as a leader that I've come across.

Freeman was bom in Chicago on May 28, 1926 and moved to L.A. where he studied classical piano from 1934 -1938. By 1947 he was, like George Wallington and A! Haig in New York, one of a handful of white pianists heavily involved in the burgeoning bebop scene in Los Angeles.

By 1947 you could find him playing with Howard McGhee, Sonny Criss and Dexter Gordon as well as recording with Charlie Parker on February 1st at a jam session at the home of trumpeter Chuck Copely, this shortly after Bird's release from hospital in Camarillo. From the late 40s into the 60s, Freeman was part of drummer Roy Porter's big band, one that also included Eric Dolphy, Joe Maini, Teddy Edwards, both Art and Addison Farmer and Jimmy Knepper. He was later to work in large ensembles led by people like Benny Goodman (that's him along with Pepper Adams heard on recordings of "Happy Session Blues") and Charlie Barnet. In the spring of 1949 he also did a big band date led by Charles Mingus for the Rex of Hollywood label (Included in the invaluable "Charles 'Baron' Mingus: West Coast 1945-49" on the Uptown label.)

A muscular player, Freeman did much to insure the success that was to come to Chet Baker. He appeared with the trumpeter as early as 1952 and is heard to great advantage on many of Chet’s early recordings beginning in July 1953 when they did "Isn't It Romantic" with Red Mitchell and Bobby White.

Other memorable recordings from that period were done with people like Charlie Parker in Englewood in 1952, Miles Davis and many others at the Lighthouse in 1953, Clifford Brown in 1954, an afternoon session at the Tiffany Club in LA with Chet and Stan Gets from the same year and the success of Lambert, Hendricks and Ross's 'The Swingers" session of 1959 owes much to Freeman's strength as an accompanist.

He did a number of recordings with Art Pepper and Shelly Manne during this period as well including 'The Two", a drums and piano duet with Manne and "Double Play" with Manne and fellow pianist Andre Previn. On the latter all the titles had something to do with baseball.

By the late 60s Freeman pretty well dropped out of playing and began acting as a musical director and got involved in film work in that capacity as well as a player. Among these films was 'The Wild One" (with Brando) in 1953, "I Want To Live" in 1958, "Porgy and Bess" and "The Proper Time" in '59, 'The Subterraneans" in '60 and, as a player, in a 20 minute short, "Shelly Manne and His Men" 1962. Among his later recordings were a number with Art Pepper, "Funk 'n' Fun" in 1978, a March 1979 session with Pepper and trombonist Bill Watrous and a July 1980 set with Pepper and Sonny Stitt.

In June 1982 he did "One On One" for Contemporary, a reunion with Manne and Previn and the sole session listed under Freeman's name in the sixth and latest edition of the "Penguin Guide To Jazz On CD". Russ Freeman died in Las Vegas, where he spent the latter part of life as a music director, on July 27, 2002; he was 76.

He was also a composer of note and his 'The Wind," first recorded for Columbia on a "Chet Baker & Strings" session in 1953/54 has become a jazz standard - Mariah Carey added lyrics and recorded it and Annie Ross did likewise with Freeman's "Music Is Forever." Chet also recorded Freeman's "Maid In Mexico," "Band Aid," "Happy Little Sunbeam," "Bea's Flat" and "Russ Job," and in a 1956 reunion, "Fan Tan" (included here), "Summer Sketch," "An Afternoon at Home," "Say When," "Amblin" and "Hugo Hurwhey." Among the others are "Bock's Tops" (for Dick Bock of Pacific Jazz), 'The Eye Opener" and "Laugh Cry" as well as the sports related titles that suggest a liking of football and baseball. Included in this valuable "live" set from 1959 are his "Backfield In Motion," "Safe At Home" and "Fungo."

I for one am delighted to have this superb trio session to add to the rather sparse discography of a major talent and I urge listeners to search second hand stores for some of the earlier material listed herein.”

'A Touch Of Genius': Chet Baker and Russ Freeman, from Jeroen de Valk, Chet Baker: His Life and Music.

“After breaking with Mulligan, Chet again hooked up with an experienced musician — Russ Freeman, three-and-a-half years his senior (born May 28, 1926) and an active member since 1945 in the LA jazz scene. The quartet with Freeman lasted (with two brief interruptions) from the end of June 1953 until August 1955. After that, the pair still teamed in the studio occasionally. Freeman plays on both of Chet Baker's two best LPs from the '50s: Chet Baker Sings (1954/56), and Quartet (1956).

Russ Freeman: "From the start we got on well together. We met the first time at the end of 1951. Chet had just gotten out of the army and was still completely unknown. He lived with his first wife Charlaine in Lynwood. Behind their apartment there was a small, freestanding little house that we used as a practice area. We didn't perform publicly, but we practiced a lot together. At his place, at my place—wherever we could. Already he played just like he did later, more or less. In 1953, after my divorce from my first wife, we lived for a while together: Chet, Charlaine, and I. We had a house in Hollywood Hills. He played with Gerry at that time, I had a job with the Lighthouse All Stars. When we went on tour with the quartet, it was all over between Charlaine and Chet, and we moved out of the house." ...

In the first year of the quartet with Freeman, Chet was still performing well. His playing sometimes reached an amazing level. Russ Freeman: "He had a touch of genius. When he was in form, he played as well as the best musicians I've met—on the same level as Bird, Diz . . . whoever. I played with Charlie Parker once, in Howard McGhee's band. I was just a beginner, but by luck I got the chance to play with him. So I know what it's like to work alongside a genius. And Chet was on the same level. He could have the same emotional impact. He had an original approach. He was a thinking artist. His improvisations were not simply a bunch of licks, they were small compositions. Sometimes he was in such dazzling form that it embarrassed me. He blew a solo, and if I was to go next, I would think to myself, What is the point of playing another piano solo? He's already said everything there is to say I could only do a pale repetition.

"In a theoretical sense, Chet was a total illiterate. He never knew what key he played in. He also had nothing to rely on if he happened to be having a bad day. I must admit that Chet was not in form on occasion, especially after he started with the drugs. He could already read a little music in the studio. The parts of course could not be too hard. I cannot remember that he ever wrote anything down in musical notation. That's probably also the reason he never composed anything, so far as I know." …

Freeman describes the climate in the band as Veal good'. "There were difficulties sometimes of course, but that is inevitable. Here we were, eight of us on the road, four young men and four pretty girls. That easily leads to conflict. It also happens when young people go on vacation together. But we were always able to talk about it. Chet was somebody you got along with easily. He was an easygoing person. He was open to every suggestion. He made few demands. If there were problems, it was usually because of money or a girl. We didn't earn an awful lot if you take into account that we had trip and hotel expenses. There would be some grumbling if we stayed in bad hotels or had to play in funky clubs. Now the working conditions for jazz musicians in California have improved somewhat.

"Toward the end of 1954, when we played Birdland for the third or fourth time, I left the band after a big dust-up with Chet. Chet at that time had a relationship with a French girl who tried to insulate him from the other band members. She pulled us to pieces. I can't remember the details and I also can't remember what her name was. But she was certainly the reason I drove back to LA. Fortunately the conflict was resolved quickly, and by the beginning of 1955 I was back in his quartet. …

"Chet was quite a normal kid, in the sense that he showed up promptly on stage, dressed well, and so on. The real problems only began in the spring of 1955 when I returned to the band. He was now truly addicted. He became unreliable….

Shortly before a long European tour, I finally left the group. There were several reasons for it. Chet was addicted, his drummer was addicted, and there is always a division between musicians who are clean and those who are using. Addicts hang with other addicts. Our old friendship no longer existed. I finally had enough of bearing all the responsibility. Chet was the leader officially, but in practical terms I had to take care of everything. I had constant headaches, a kind of migraine. After I left the group, I played for years in the band of [drummer] Shelly Manne. We played night after night in his club, Shelly Manne's Hole. Sometimes I met Chet when he visited the club. ...

"In 1956, we did two sessions for Chet Baker Sings. After that we played only one time together—on the album Quartet from 1956. I believe that to be the best record we did together. The way he plays 'Love Nest' on it ...

"I spoke with him for the last time about four years before his death. He called me and asked whether I wanted to do a European tour with him. I passed on it. The financial conditions were not very attractive and were not going to get better.
Furthermore, I was incredibly busy with studio jobs and arranging. We would have had to arrange a lot before I could leave Los Angeles. In retrospect I regret that I didn't do it ... Well, things can't be changed now."

In 1983 Chet mentioned a plan of Japanese organizers to reunite him with Freeman and the rhythm section from that period—Carson Smith and Bob Neel. Chet thought it was a great idea, and Wim Wigt was prepared to sponsor the project. But Freeman again declined.

Freeman: "In the last ten years of my career I was a dance arranger. I wrote the music arrangements, sometimes also the compositions, for many big television shows. The Andy Williams Show, the Academy Awards show, variety shows, you name it. It was a terrible job. I hated every minute of it, but it paid well.

In 1987, when I could afford it financially, I quit working. Since then I haven't touched the piano. I still sometimes get telephone calls from people asking me whether I want to play this gig or that. I always say 'Sorry but I don't play anymore. There are so many good young musicians in LA, just ask them. 'But why,’ they ask, 'don't you have the time?' And I say 'Because I just don't want to anymore. I worked my whole life, and now I no longer work. It has been beautiful but I'm retired.’

"I played jazz for the last time in 1982. I did a duet album for the Japanese market with Shelly Manne. I've heard little about it since then."

To be continued in Part 2.