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Interview with Hal McKusick
“Composer and alto saxophonist HAL McKUSICK, born 1924 in Medford, Massachusetts, plays most saxophones, clarinets, and flutes. He was a member of the orchestras of Boyd Raeburn, Claude Thornhill, Woody Herman, Benny Goodman, Dizzy Gillespie, and Charlie Barnet. In the later 1950s he made recordings with George Russell, Art Farmer, Al Cohn, Manny Albam, Jimmy Giuffre, Gil Evans, among others, and appeared on the 1959 album Lee Konitz Meets Jimmy Giuffre. From 1958 to 1972 he was a staff musician for CBS in New York. His compositions for Boyd Raeburn, his own groups, and others show an original avant-garde sensibility. Today he teaches and performs on Long Island in New York, and makes fine handcrafted furniture.”
- Andy Hamilton, Lee Konitz: Conversations on the Improviser’s Art 
Born 1 June 1924
McKusick was a section-player in many big bands in the 40s and early 50s, but he's best remembered as a studio man who led some interesting dates of his own for a number of different labels in the latter part of the 50s. His RCA set The Jazz Workshop (1956) was recorded contemporaneously with George Russell's of the same title, and features material by Russell, Jimmy Giuffre, Gil Evans and others: a quietly compelling record with some starkly challenging music, although Triple Exposure (Prestige, 1957) and Cross Section: Saxes (Decca, 1958) also have some fine and rewarding music. McKusick's own playing was soft-toned and wryly inventive. After this burst of activity, though, he doesn't seem to have recorded again as a leader, although he still did studio work into the 70s and carried on playing into the 90s with small groups. He is also a pilot.”
- Richard Cook’s Jazz Encyclopedia
“McKusick, Hal [Harold Wilfred] (b Medford, MA, 1June 1924). Alto saxophonist. He first worked as a sideman and a principal soloist with a number of big bands, including those of Les Brown, Woody Herman (both 1943), Boyd Raeburn (1944-5), the guitarist Alvino Rey (1946), Al Donahue, Buddy Rich, and Claude Thornhill (1948-9). During the 1950s he played with Terry Gibbs (1950-51,1955-6), Bill Harris (1952), and Elliot Lawrence (1952-7), and also worked as a studio musician and led his own groups. In 1958 he joined the staff of CBS in New York, but continued to perform and record as a freelancer. McKusick is noted for his experiments in the 1950s with novel time signatures, modes, and counterpoint; the influence of Lester Young may be discerned in his delicate tone and phrasing, both well suited to the cool-jazz style.”
- DIANNA RHYAN in Barry Kernfeld, Ed., The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz 
I’ve wanted to bring up a feature on multi-woodwind and reed specialist Hal McKusick [1924 -2012] for sometime be I couldn’t seem to find a starting point until I recently listened to a CD collection that contained Hal McKusick - Cross Section-Saxes which was originally released in 1958 as a Decca LP.
Hal was not only a fine soloist and an excellent arranger in his own right, but also an excellent interpreter of the work of other arrangers. In this case, George Russell, Jimmy Giuffre, Ernie Wilkins and George Handy who did some very intriguing work with sax sections on Hal McKusick - Cross Section-Saxes.
On some of the tracks on this album, the sax arrangements sound like a forerunner to Med Flory and Buddy Clark’s Supersax, a sax section that came to prominence in Los Angeles in the 1970s playing unison and harmonic versions of Charlie Parker’s classic Bebop repertoire replete with his iconic, original solos.
This album is also of interest because it is one of the earliest to feature the work of pianist Bill Evans before his association with Miles Davis and his twenty year career as the leader of his own trio.
The details about this recording are discussed in full in the following liner notes by George Russell, Jimmy Giuffre, Ernie Wilkins, George Handy and Burt Korall and they are also contained in the booklet that accompanies Hal McKusick: Three Classic Albums - The Jazz Academy, Jazz Workshop, Cross Section-Saxes [Avid AMSC-1167]. Interestingly, each of the composers talks about the work of other composers on the album in a way that illuminates special features of their singular style of composing and/or arranging. Burt provides a summation.
“When the jazz musician no longer seeks out fresh avenues of expression, he shrivels on the vine. Of necessity, the creative artist must be refreshed and revived at frequent intervals. He must be challenged; it is essential to his continued vitality. Obviously, it is too easy to be trapped, to wallow in a comfortable groove, turning away from the more creative, and indulging in the pleasure or success of the moment.
Whether or not the jazzman becomes lax is dependent, in varying degrees, upon two things: talent and temperament. Those who are content to reach a comparatively modest level of accomplishment, and to exploit the attendant feeling of mastery over material and a sense of case for their own sake, are numerous. Fortunately for jazz, however, there are more musicians who are not content with the fulfillment of today and keep building for a more fruitful tomorrow. Musicians of this genre are acutely aware of the symptoms of stagnation, avoid the pitfalls manifest in jazz and themselves, and remain "alive", musically. These are the people that prevent jazz from suffering from an acute case of "tired blood."
Hal McKusick, since his stay with the adventurous Boyd Raeburn orchestra in the 'forties, when he collaborated with arranger-composer George Handy in the writing of some noteworthy compositions - Yerxa, Tonsillectomy, etc. - and was one of the more enthusiastic subscribers to the modern manner of playing fathered by Lester Young and developed by Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, T. Monk, Kenny Clarke - the Minton's- 52nd Street coterie - has found psychological and financial sustenance following the challenging paths in the jazz woods.
"A continuing sense of growth as a musician and as a person is of utmost importance to me," says McKusick. "I feel that very little can be gained by doing the same sort of things over and over, especially if there's no more to be learned by doing them. " I don’t wish to imply, however, that the jazzman should flit indiscriminately from one thing to another without adequate preparation, or that he should grow compulsively rather than naturally; but I do want to emphasize that standing still in jazz can only become an unfortunate habit.
"It is for this reason that I generally try to vary my activities, to have my albums project something of the extensiveness, the variety that is jazz; each one of them calling for something different from the players and myself,
McKusick has done "free-blowing"' sets, where the disciplines and general sense of interest are dependent upon improvisation. Altering the emphasis, other McKusick programs have placed stress on incorporating free-blowing in a "lightly" arranged framework. As of late, Hal has veered to what he considers a most fruitful set-up-a close interrelation between the writer and the players; the writing in the latter situation, ranging from the deceptively simple to the more complex, according to the composer's bent. The value of the performances is, once again, relative to the invention, the interpretive strength of the players; but the organizational elements basic to scoring render a more overt sense of form of a written score that tends to inhibit the jazz blower" Yes and no. It could well inhibit individuality if the writers had no understanding of the needs of the jazz player. However, the writers involved in this album, through their experiences in jazz, have come to realize that the player must be given a chance to play, and/or be challenged by the feel, the variety and unity of the writing. In essence allowance must be made for the player to contribute meaning to the work, not only on the group level, but as an individual as well.” -GEORGE RUSSELL
“Composer-arranger George Russell realizes this. Like the jazz soloist, George creates compositions and arrangements that underline adventure and flexibility, the basic and not so basic.
Russell feels that he, too, is an improviser. Discussing jazz composition he said, "Given a set of musical facts, he (the writer) can, in the same way a soloist improvises on chords, improvise upon musical facts pertaining to his composition and produce a swinging, logical, vital-sounding piece of music. Improvisation on various levels is an integral part of jazz.
In the process of composing music over the years, George has evolved his "Lydian Concept of Tonal Organization," encompassing the whole of composition - the consonant (tonality) and the dissonant (atonality). There is dissonance in his work, but always in relation to a tonal center. As Russell said to Jack Maher in JAZZ TODAY: "I feel that writing tonally, in many ways, is more of a challenge. The limitations of tonality force you to look and feel harder for the endless variations that exist."
In the manner of Duke Ellington, Russell emotionally and scientifically measures the capabilities of his instrumentation and the artists he is dealing with, writing for the player and the unit, rarely overextending himself, for he always seeks to fully understand all the elements with which he is working. This is something he tried to do even in his fledgling period as a writer for Dizzy Gillespie, Benny Carter and Charlie Parker.
Russell, at 35, has been over a decade in finding himself. Through self examination and study, he has come to a point in his development when forging his own message is possible. Relatively unheralded today, his future is fraught with possibility.
The Russell contributions are played by Hal McMusick, alto: Art Farmer, trumpet; Bill Evans, piano: Milt Hinton, bass; Charlie Persip, drums: and Barry Galbraith, guitar.
YOU'RE MY THRILL - Russell maintains the identity of the song without adhering too closely to its melody or form. "I tried to compose on the song," said Russell. Perhaps the chief recommendation of this arrangement is that the written ensemble lines move well and in a most natural manner. The solos follow as release for the tension set up by the lines; the interweaving of both add to the pulsing feeling of the selection. Speaking for the soloists, Hal succinctly commented: "George sets you up his own way, and makes you play."
STRATUSPHUNK is a medium-tempoed blues that intimates atonality though it maintains an essential tonality-Blues in F. The prime motif is a bass line built on the interval of a minor seventh that is picked up by trumpeter Farmer, then further enlarged upon by the ensemble. Piano and drums drop out for the first six or eight bars of each solo, after which the full rhythm section plays in double-time, and then reverts back to straight time, thus establishing a variety of rhythmic tensions and enriching this deceptively inornate, well organized opus.
Russell seems to follow an emotional plan: By building from the opening bass line through ensembles to solos, diversifying his rhythmic and melodic colors and buoyantly supporting soloists along the way, Russell logically reaches climaxes, and then returns, in progressive steps, to bare essentials - bass line in close.
END OF A LOVE AFFAIR is an apt illustration of the degree of inner organization of Russell's writing. One is aware of planning, the form of the arrangement, but the loose, natural quality of the work never makes that knowledge any more than a convenience.
Opening with a 32 bar verse, a colorful affair notable for shifting rhythms and clever handling of melodic elements, the emphasis changes in the theme sections to the more straightforward as Russell underlines "the romantic feeling and a definite sense of swing." The general flow of the solos is aided by the "dancing feel" of the rhythm section headed up by drummer Charlie Persip.” - JIM GIUFFRE
“The challenge to the players is continued in the work of the next writer to be considered. Jim Giuffre, the man and the musician, functions as he feels he must. A product of the mainstream of jazz, the man who wrote Four Brothers for the Woody Herman Orchestra, played tenor in the tradition of Lester Young for Woody, Buddy Rich and other bands, has come to know himself, and now feels a good deal of security concerning his concepts.
Indeed, Jim has taken hold over the last few years. By organizing his thinking and his life, he has managed to free himself of the shackles of influence, and has gone his own way. His writing exhibits individuality and is identified by "low volume, gentleness and restraint, which makes more clear attitudes often not found in jazz: pensiveness, compassion, even meditation. Because of those same three major elements, his music makes the relationship between other musical forms and jazz more evident, since the relationships arc not obscured by the
overwhelming power and intensity representative of most jazz performances."
Giuffre's music shows an express concern for American folk elements: a closeness to the blues, spirituals, the feeling of the land and people of this country. It is a personal, earthy kind of music.
Not inhibited or circumscribed in his writing, Giuffre does not hesitate to make use of devices or techniques native to musical forms other than jazz. No matter what techniques or materials he incorporates into a composition or arrangement, however, one never gets the feeling that he is grafting anything alien onto the body of the work. On Jim's three efforts here, his objective was to set three distinct moods, sustaining the basic flavor of each tune by developing a long line throughout; the balancing of the instruments generally, utilizing each instrument as a "contributing" melody instrument, fundamental to his method.
Hal McKusick is heard on bass clarinet and alto on the Giuffre selections. Art Farmer is the trumpeter: Bill Evans is at the piano; Paul Chambers, bass; and Connie Kay, drums.
The treatment of Yesterday brings out the essential sadness and yearning of the tune, ascertains a deep blues feeling and spots Connie Kay playing finger cymbals throughout. Sing Song is a Giuffre spiritual, notable for building continuity and a close interrelation of the instruments in the development of one basic motif.
Tranquil, somewhat pastoral. It Never Entered My Mind is representative of the Giuffre sound and sense of beauty. A feeling of completeness -that of a vignette well told - is this selection's essential strength. The McKusick and farmer solos, Hinton's sustained excellence, and Connie Kay's sensitive cymbal work are certainly to be noted.” - ERNIE WILKINS AND GEORGE HANDY
“The remaining four selections - Whisper Not, Now's The Time, La Rue, The Last Day Of Fall -were arranged for sax section (and rhythm) by Ernie Wilkins or George Handy. Stress was placed on dynamics, blend and feeling in the performance of these arrangements. (Ed. note: the compounding of these three elements in sax section work today is certainly a rarity.)
"The sax players were selected for their ability to work in a section," McKusick pointed out. "We aimed for a feeling of unity, a togetherness that is best illustrated by the sax sections of the early Benny Goodman band, and the Basie crew that recorded "Jump The Blues Away," over a decade ago."
Ernie Wilkins, a long-time sax section inhabitant (Earl Hines, Count Basie) before he began to arrange and compose on a full-time basis, comes well equipped to write for reeds. Always a writer closely identified with techniques and source material in jazz, Ernie feels the future lies within the idiom itself, not in amalgamation with elements native to other musical forms.
Though consistently aligned with Basie by critics, (he's been writing for the band since 1951) this association is not all there is to the man. In recording projects of his own, equally reflective of his jazz roots. Ernie has shown he can voice a message of his own, without the "fashioned for Basie" trademark.
For this program, Ernie arranged Benny Golson's beautiful jazz melody, Whisper Not, and the Charlie Parker blues, Now's The Time, complete with scoring Parker's memorable solo for full sax section. Both are the work of a craftsman acutely aware of the possibilities of his material
Ever so "experimental" when writing for the Boyd Raeburn band in the 'forties, "often echoing Bartok and Stravinsky and Debussy," as Barry Ulanov phrased it, 38 year old George Handy has consolidated his thinking in the last decade. Much of the dissonance of his life has become consonance; his music, just as authoritative as before, like the man, has become more settled.
George has become more traditional. His maturation has allowed him to really deal in jazz terms. He is just as thoughtful and clever as in the past, but now is more flexible, and can write for all situations. His two scores for this set, La Rue and The Last Day Of Fall, reveal a more swinging Handy than his old fans will remember. The former is a line written by the late Clifford Brown; the latter, a "Handy capture" of the improvisations of one of our leading jazz tenormen.
On the four aforementioned titles, Hal McKusick and Frank Socolow are heard on altos; Dick Hafer, tenor and Jay Cameron, baritone. Bill Evans is at the piano; Connie Kay, drums; and Paul Chambers, bass.
In summation, the most valid thing to say is that this program has a point of view. It is an expression of the musicians and the writers and their need to pump fresh life into the body of that which they love and obviously respect. With people of this kind - the restless, the adventurous yet well-rooted-lies the future of jazz. If for no other reason, this cross section of jazz thought is important.” - BURT KORALL