Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The Curtis Counce Group

“The Counce quintet is one of the great neglected jazz bands of the 1950s. The reasons for this neglect are difficult to pinpoint.” Ted Gioia, West Coast Jazz: Modern Jazz In California [New York: Oxford University Press, 1992, p.318].

Boy, it’s great to have friends, especially when one of my closest friends, Bob Gordon, is also the author of the brilliant Jazz West Coast: The Los Angeles Jazz Scene of the 1950’s [London: Quartet Books Ltd., 1986]. Among it’s many attributes, the book contains an excellent section devoted to the Curtis Counce Group [pp.147-50 & 156-61] whose members are also depicted in the graphics that adorn the book’s cover.

Jack Sheldon on trumpet, Harold Land on tenor saxophone, Carl Perkins on piano, Curtis Counce on bass and Frank Butler on drums made up the original powerhouse group whose aggressive and hard-hitting style of Jazz certainly belied Grover Sales wrap that West Coast Jazz “… recordings … today strike us as bloodless museum pieces ….”

It is this point in contention that Bob takes on directly in the “California Hard (II)” chapter of his work which he has kindly allowed the editors of Jazzprofiles permission to reproduce in an effort to draw attention to the marvelous music of the Curtis Counce Group. [C]. Copyright protected. All rights reserved.

“It is hard to understand why the Curtis Counce Group failed to achieve the recognition ‑ either popular or critical ‑ it deserved. Perhaps it's because the group was so difficult to pigeonhole. As a Los Angeles‑based group it couldn't remotely be identified with the West Coast school. Stylistically, the Curtis Counce Group fit quite naturally with such groups as the Jazz Messen­gers or the Horace Silver Quintet, but such a comparison tended to upset the East Coast‑West Coast dichotomy that then figured so prominently in jazz criticism. So, stuck as they were thousands of miles from the centre of editorial power, the musicians in the group turned out their own brand of hard­-swinging jazz in relative obscurity. It wouldn't be fair to say they were totally ignored by the influential critics, but they were seldom evaluated at their true worth.

We've already discussed most of the band's principals. Bassist Curtis Counce had played with Shorty Rogers and numerous West Coast groups, and was one of the few black musicians to have gained acceptance in the Hollywood studios; he had just returned from a European tour with the Stan Kenton orchestra when he set about forming a band in August of 1956. Tenor saxophonist Harold Land had of course been a mainstay of the Max Roach‑Clifford Brown quintet. Trumpeter Jack Sheldon, shared the front line with Land, was born 30 November 1931 in Jacksonville, Florida and moved to LA in 1947, where he studied music for two years at LA City College. Following a two-year stint in the air force, he gigged around town with Jack Montrose, Art Pepper, Wardell Gray, Dexter Gordon and Herb Geller; he was also a charter member of the group centered around Joe Maini and Lenny Bruce. The rhythm section of the Curtis Counce Group was anchored by two exceptional musicians, pianist Carl Perkins and drummer Frank Butler. Carl Perkins (no relation to the rock‑and‑roll singer) had been born in Indianapolis, Indiana, 16 August 1928. A self‑taught pianist, Perkins had come up through the rhythm‑and‑blues bands of Tiny Bradshaw and Big Jay McNeely, and had forged a blues‑drenched modern style for himself. He had developed an unorthodox style and often played with his left arm parallel to the keyboard. Frank Butler was born on 18 February 1928 in Wichita, Kansas and had made jazz time with Dave Brubeck, Edgar Hayes and Duke Ellington, among others.
None of the musicians in the band was a household name, although Harold Land had gained some fame during his stay with the Clifford Brown‑Max Roach band. But this was, above all, a group, and it was as a co‑operative unit that the band excelled. Everyone is familiar with all‑star bands that somehow or other don't quite make it ‑ the chemistry between the players is somehow wrong; perhaps an ego or two gets in the way. The Curtis Counce Group was that sort of band's antithesis; a living, working example of a unit wherein the whole is much greater than the sum of its components. Although the original idea to form the group was Curtis Counce's, the band functioned as a collaborative affair. 'We were all close friends within the group,' Harold Land remembers, 'so it was a good idea for all of us, because we all liked each other personally as well as musically.' The Curtis Counce Group was formed in August 1956, played its first gig at The Haig in September, and entered the recording studios a month later. Lester Koenig always had an ear for promising musicians, and in the latter part of the 1950s he recorded a fascinating assortment of exciting and forward­-looking groups and musicians, including Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor, for his Contemporary label. The Curtis Counce Group was one of his happiest finds. The musicians entered the studio on 8 October for their first session, and the band's chemistry was evident from the start. The first tune recorded was Harold Land's 'Landslide', a dark yet forceful hard‑bop theme. Harold leads off with some big‑toned tenor work and is followed by some thoughtful Sheldon and grooving Carl Perkins. Two other originals were contributed by members of the band: 'Mia' by Carl Perkins, and Jack Sheldon's blues line 'Sarah'.

'Mia' sports a bright, bouncy tune with unexpected chord progressions and sparks swinging solos by all hands. Everybody digs deeply into the blues on 'Sarah', but Carl Perkins is especially impressive in his solo; throughout his all too short career Perkins displayed a close affinity for the blues. 'Time after Time' serves as a vehicle for Harold Land's tender yet muscular ballad style. 'A Fifth for Frank', as the title suggests, is a showcase for Frank Butler. Frank's driving support for the band throughout the session belies his relative inexperience ‑ this was in fact his first recording. A sixth tune, Charlie Parker's 'Big Foot' (recorded by Parker as both 'Air Conditioning' and 'Drifting on a Reed' for Dial), was also recorded at this original session, but was not issued until later. To round out the initial album, a tune recorded at the group's second session ‑ held a week later on 18 October ‑ was used. 'Sonar' (written by Gerald Wiggins and Kenny Clarke), is taken at a bright tempo and has plenty of room for stretching out by all of the musicians.
The first album, titled simply The Curtis Counce Group [Contemporary S-7526; OJCCD-606-2], was released early in 1957 and immediately gained favourable attention. Nat Hentoff awarded the album four stars in an admiring review in Down Beat magazine. Yet somehow national stature seemed to elude the band. Undoubtedly the main reason for this was that the Curtis Counce Group was not a traveling band. Harold Land does remember that the group 'went to Denver one time, but as far as getting back east, it never did happen'. In Los Angeles the band enjoyed an in‑group reputa­tion ‑ they were especially well‑liked by fellow musicians ‑ but they never achieved the popularity of, say, the Chico Hamilton Quintet. They did play regularly around Los Angeles. 'There was another spot down on Sunset: the Sanborn House,' Harold remembers. 'We played there quite a while, longer than we did at The Haig, and the group built up quite a following. The Haig was very small, but this was a larger club.'

In the meantime, the band continued to record prolifically for Contemporary. The group's second album contained tunes cut at various sessions held in 1956 and throughout 1957. In addition to 'Sonar', the band recorded a swinging version of 'Stranger in Paradise' at the second session of 15 October 1956; this tune and the aforementioned 'Big Foot' were on the second album, which was originally entitled You Get More Bounce with Curtis Counce [Contemporary C-7539; OJJCD-159-2]. Two more tunes were recorded 22 April 1957 ‑ 'Too Close for Comfort' and 'Counceltation'. The latter is an original by the leader. Curtis was studying composition with Lyle 'Spud' Murphy at the time, and 'Counceltation' is an experimental piece based on Murphy's twelve‑tone system. The tune is interesting, but smacks a little too much of the classroom. As if to balance this, another tune of Counce's, a bright blues named 'Complete', was recorded at a session in May. Everybody gets to let down his hair on 'Complete', and Jack Sheldon contributes a funky Miles Davis‑influenced solo in Harmon mute. A ballad version of 'How Deep is the Ocean', also recorded at the May session, and an up‑tempo 'Mean to Me', recorded in September, complete the album. When the album was released late in 1957, the Curtis Counce Group was riding high, but unfortunately several unforeseen events would soon contribute to the band's early demise. Chief among these was the tragic death of pianist Carl Perkins in March of 1958; an additional strong factor was the rapid decline of jazz, clubs in LA in the closing years of the decade.

Perhaps the most poignant example of the break‑up of a working band was that of the Curtis Counce Group, if only because the group had shown so much promise from inception. They did manage to hold together through 1957 when so many bands fell by the wayside, but finally broke a early in 1958. But before the group disbanded they manage produce two more albums, both enduring legacies of jazz in fifties.
The group's final recording for the Contemporary label titled ‑ when it was finally released in 1960 ‑ Carl's Blues [Contemporary S-7574; OJCCD-423-2]. The title was, unfortunately, especially apt, both because 'C Blues' by pianist Carl Perkins is one of the album's highlights and because Perkins died shortly after the tune was recorded. The album contains tunes cut at three sessions in all. J Sheldon's 'Pink Lady', a smoking work‑out on the standard ‘I Got Rhythm' changes, and a spirited version of 'Love Walked In’ are from the earliest date, held on 22 April 1957. There is also a grooving version of Horace Silver's Latin‑flavoured tune 'Nica’s Dream', recorded 29 August. The tempo here is slower and more deliberate than Horace Silver’s justly famous Blue Note recording, but the Curtis Counce performance is no less expressive.

The album’s remaining tunes were recorded at Carl Perkins's final session on 6 January 1958. For this date, Gerald Wilson replaced Jack Sheldon in the group's trumpet chair, although Wilson plays on only two tunes. One track, 'The Butler Did It', is an unaccompanied drum solo by Frank Butler. 'I Can't Get ' features Harold Land and the rhythm section, and the performance gives a strong indication of Land's growing powers improviser. The two tunes featuring the entire quintet are ‘Larue’ and the aforementioned 'Carl's Blues'. The ballad ‘Larue’ was written by Clifford Brown for his wife; Harold Land plays an especially tender solo on the tune. 'Carl's Blues', written by Perkins expressly for the session, is a leisurely examination of the blues and a fitting epitaph for the pianist.

Carl Perkins died on 17 March 1958, just five months short of his thirtieth birthday, another victim of drug abuse. He was the at of the Curtis Counce Group, and it is not surprising e quintet did not long outlive him. When Les Koenig issued his third album, several years after the selections en recorded, he had this to say about the band.

"While it lasted, the Curtis Counce Group was one of the most exciting ever organized in Los Angeles. Counce picked four men who almost immediately achieved a togetherness only long‑established bands seem to have. Today, Carl Perkins is dead, and the members of the group have gone off in different directions ... It would be difficult under the best of conditions to recapture the feeling of the 1957 quintet. Without Perkins whose unique piano style was basic to the group's special sound, it is impossible."

It is tempting to wonder how the band would have been received had it been based in New York; certainly it would have give some of the more famous groups of the fifties a run for the money.

Carl's Blues was not, however, the final recording of the band. A month after Perkins's death the restructured quintet recorded for Dootsie Williams's Dooto (Dootone) records. Counce, Land and Butler remained from the original group. The trumpeter the date was Rolf Ericsson. Ericsson, born in Stockholm, Sweden on 29 August 1927, had moved to the States in 1947 and had worked with various bands including those of Charlie Barnet, Elliot Lawrence and Woody Herman. He was a member of Lighthouse All‑Stars in 1953. The new pianist was Elmo Hope native New Yorker, whose brief tenure on the Coast in the late fifties sparked several outstanding recordings. Hope, born on June 1923, was a childhood friend of Bud Powell and an active participant of the New York jazz scene of the forties and early fifties, although he remained little known to the public at large. Hope's piano was not as blues‑oriented as that of Carl Perkins but was instead sinewy and spare, the hard‑bop piano style pared to its very essence. In view of the band's restructuring, it is significant that the group was billed as the Curtis Counce Quintet rather than the Curtis Counce Group.

This set is unfortunately something of a let‑down after the three previous albums. Contemporary and Pacific jazz were the class of the West Coast independents, and however one may quibble over Les Koenig's or Dick Bock's choice of artists or material on any given record, their records were always superbly engineered and professionally produced. The Dootone album Exploring the Future [Dooto LP DTL 247; CDBOP 007], is noticeably inferior to the Contemporaries in recording quality, and there seems to have been a lack rehearsal time as well. Of course this was not the tight working band of a year earlier ‑ Carl Perkins's death and Jack Sheldon's departure obviously disrupted the group's cohesiveness ‑ but a couple of the numbers could have benefited from an additional take or two.

There is also the matter of the album's 'theme'. The group was definitely not ‘Exploring the Future’, but was diligently laboring the well‑established vineyards of hard bop. The futuristic album cover, showing Curtis Counce floating through the void in a space suit, and the choice of titles, which include 'Into the Orbit', 'Race for Space', 'Exploring the Future', and 'The Countdown', promise things the album simply can't deliver. (It is possible that some of the names were tagged on to untitled numbers after they had been recorded, a common enough practice.) All of this is not to say, however, that the album is a lure: the record does deliver a satisfying amount of modern, hard‑driving jazz.

Four of the album's eight numbers were written by Elmo Hope; all are decidedly in the hard‑bop vein. 'So Nice', the record's opener, has a catchy tune and driving solos by Ericsson, Land and Hope. Rolf Ericsson's tone is brash, and fits well in the hard‑bop context, but his trumpet playing suffers in comparison with Jack Sheldon's fluid yet funky work. 'Into the Orbit' seems well-named, since each soloist is launched into his solo at a doubled‑up tempo. 'Race for Space' is a rapid minor‑key theme which has a burning solo by Harold Land. And 'The Count­down', the album's closing number, sounds very much as if it were used by Hope as a set‑closer; it features the rhythm section working as a trio. 'Exploring the Future' has a nice theme that is attributed to Dootsie Williams, but since he is also credited on the album for Denzil Best's classic 'Move', one wonders. 'Move' serves largely as a drum solo for Frank Butler. The album also has two ballads. 'Someone to Watch Over Me' is a solo vehicle for Curtis Counce's bass, while Ericsson, Land and Hope all contribute tender solos on 'Angel Eyes'.

Although this was the last recording of the band under Curtis Counce's leadership, two additional sessions featured largely the or same personnel. The first of these was under the leadership of Hope. On 31 October 1957 the Elmo Hope Quintet ‑ Stu Williamson, Harold Land, Hope, Leroy Vinnegar, Frank Butler -, recorded three tunes for Pacific Jazz: 'Vaun Ex', 'St Elmo's Fire’ and 'So Nice'. All three of course were the pianist's compositions. Whether Dick Bock had originally planned on an entire album for the group or not, these were the only tunes recorded (or at least ever released) by Pacific Jazz. Two of the numbers were released on anthologies the following year; all three eventually found their way on to an Art Blakey reissue in the early 1960s. The recording quality on these Pacific jazz sides is noticeably superior to that of the Curtis Counce Dooto album, but it's also true that the Dooto sides exhibit a bit more uninhibited fire.

At this point, Bob’s essay on the Curtis Counce Group/Quintet segues into the work of Harold Land, particularly his Harold in the Land of Jazz [Contemporary S-7550; OJJCD 162-2] which carried on the musical “feel” of the Counce groups. This may of course be due to the fact that with the exception of Leroy Vinnegar substituting for Curtis on bass, the group consisted of musicians who had all been with Counce’s combos, including pianist Carl Perkins, for whom this would be his last recording. Given these close connections, Bob goes on to write:
Perhaps the definitive recordings from this period came under the leadership of Harold Land for Contemporary records. Harold in the Land of Jazz (reissued later as Grooveyard) is significant both as the first album released under Harold Land's name and as Carl Perkins's last recording. The sessions were held on 13 and 14 January 1958, and the musicians were Rolf Ericsson, Land, Carl Perkins, Leroy Vinnegar and Frank Butler. These Contemporary recordings combine the fire of the Dooto recordings and the recording quality of the Pacific Jazz session.

The album opens with a driving arrangement of Kurt Weill's 'Speak Low'. The interplay between Land and Frank Butler here ‑ as always ‑ seems nothing short of miraculous. The two had been playing together almost daily since the formation of the Curtis Counce Group, of course, but beyond that Land and Butler could communicate on a telepathic level that was sometimes almost frightening. 'We've always been close friends, Land would later remember, 'and we were born on the same day of the month in the same year [Butler on 18 February, Land or 18 December 1928] ... and even our wives get sick and tired of our talking about how "in tune" we are with each other [laughs]. At times during one of Land's solos, the saxophonist will begin a phrase and Butler will immediately jump in, the two finishing together. 'Delirium', Harold Land's tune, is composed of descending sixteen‑bar phrases following each other like an endless succession of waves. 'You Don't Know What Love is serves as a solo vehicle for Land, who names it as one of his favorite ballads. Elmo Hope's 'Nieta' features Latin rhythm and some unconventional chord progressions. Two of the remaining tunes were written by Land. 'Smack Up' is a boppish tune which is propelled by some strong rhythmic accents, while the ballad 'Lydia's Lament' is a tender tribute to Harold's wife

The remaining tune, and the album's high point, is the Carl Perkins composition 'Grooveyard'. It has a relaxed and timeless theme with roots in both gospel and the blues, and yet it has none of the self-conscious posturing of so many of the soul tunes of the day. Land, Ericsson and especially Perkins reach deep into the jazz tradition with their solos. The performance remains a fitting tribute to the composer.”

In 1989, subsequent to the publication of Bob’s book, and thanks to the diligence of Ed Michel’s perusal of the Contemporary Records vault, a fifth album of the group’s music was released as Sonority [Contemporary CCD 7655].

Ed revels how his “creation” came about in the following insert notes to these recordings:

“I always feel like I m being given a treat when I get to work on materials from the Contemporary vault (not only because one of the things I’d hoped for in my salad days was to grow up to turn out something like Les Koenig): but this batch of Curtis Counce previously‑unreleased takes strikes some sort at special nerve. They were all recorded around the time I was starting out in the record business (for Contemporary’s down‑the‑street rival Pacific Jazz, run by the estimable Richard Bock), and featured players I was hearing with great regularity at the time on the active and exciting L.A. scene. And "active" and "exciting" are appropriate words to describe things.

In a recent set of Art Pepper notes, Gary Giddins refers to 'the cool posturing of those improvising beach boys who tried to recreate California jazz as fun in the midnight sun…,’ which pretty well reflects what was, at the time West Coast Jazz was getting lots of press, the Official New York Party Line on matters west of either Philly or, in the musings of particularly open­-minded writers, Chicago. It’s a little frightening to see this view coming around again as ‘the way it really was.’ Looking backward at art can certainly be an iffy business. There was certainly a great deal more going on along the Hollywood‑South Central‑East LA‑Beach Cities axes (for the life of me, I can't recall anything at all happening in the San Fernando Valley, which might be just another regional blindness) than one would have expected after reading the (non-­local) critics.

One of LA’s many joys was the music made by Curtis Counce and his associates. In what was, certainly, an often largely caucasian‑complected bandstand scene, Curtis's was a black face you could see with regularity in many contexts, It's my recollection that I first became aware of him during a Shorty Rogers‑ Shelly Manne stint at Zardi's, when he was featured on an ear‑opening "Sophisticated Lady." Harold Land was everywhere, and playing in a way that hardly fit any descriptions of an effete West Coast style. Jack Sheldon always seemed to be in the company of the lamentably‑undervalued alto saxophonist Joe Maini (you could catch them in the band at, if memory serves, Strip City, just off Pico Boulevard's Record Distributor's Row, around the corner on Western, where, more likely than not, Lenny Bruce was working as M.C.). And Carl Perkins. who really did play with his left hand cocked around so his thumb was aimed toward the bottom of the keyboard, ‘fingering’ bass notes with his elbow, was always working at some joint on Pico or somewhere south, more often than not with Frank Butler (who Miles Davis managed to find interesting enough to use on a few early Columbia sides).

Pianist‑composer Elmo Hope was in town from New York, and for some reason part of my job involved my spending a good deal of time driving him around to various record companies where he was selling his compositions (actually, I know for certain that he sold "So Nice" and "Origin" to both Pacific Jazz and Contemporary because I took him to both offices and watched negotia­tions go down, record business practices are learned under apprenticeship/ observation condi­tions. and I assumed everybody did business that way; I may have been right). And in addition to his splendid trumpet work and arranging in all sorts of contexts, Gerald Wilson was establishing his reputation as the leader of a remarkable, talent‑fostering band….

So it was a sweet surprise to find these cuts waiting in the can a bit more than 30 years after they'd been recorded, a reminder that there was a good deal more going an along the Pacific Rim than made the popular magazine covers. Or‑ more accurately than "surprise"‑ a reminder, and for some of us, lucky enough to have been mousing adolescently around the edge of the scene, no surprise at all.”
‑Ed Michel

In retrospect, we are fortunate that this music was recorded when it was as in 1963, just a few years after these splendid recordings were made, Curtis died of a heart attack while in an ambulance on its way to a hospital. He was thirty seven years old.

By then, as Ted Gioia points out [paragraphing modified]:

“The great flowering of modern jazz on the West Coast, which had begun in the mid-1940s on the street of Central Avenue, had reached a dead-end, financially if not creatively. It’s place in Southern California music culture was now taken over by innocuous studio pop records, the nascent sound of surf music, and the steadily growing world of rock and roll.

In retrospect, the music being played by Harold Land, Sonny Criss and Teddy Edwards … [and that had been played by the Counce groups], and the few other straggling survivors of the modern jazz revolution stands out as the last futile effort to hold onto the ground painfully won over a decade and a half of jazz proselytizing in the Southland, of attempts to spread the gospel of a rich, complex and deep music, a music now on the brink of being drowned out by the amplified sounds of garage bands, three-chord wonders somehow made into media stars.”

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Valery Ponomarev's Muscle Jazz - "Universal Language"

Steven Cerra [C] Copyright protected; all rights reserved.
Because his CDs are still available on Reservoir Music – www.reservoirmusic.com - Mark and Kayla Feldman’s gift to recorded Jazz, and because the music on these recordings is very special and deserves to be heard by a wider audience, Jazzprofiles turns the “solo spotlight” [with apologies to Howard Rumsey] onto Valery Ponomarev.

“Universal language,” the subtitle of this feature, has a dual meaning. It not only denotes the name of Valery’s quintet, but it also connotes the qualities in Jazz that reach out and touch the soul of people everywhere as is borne witness to by the following anecdote.

One day, in the spring of 1961, Valery Ponomarev, an 18 year old Russian studying trumpet at a college in the then, Soviet Union would hear a Voice of America broadcast that a friend had taped.

What Valery heard that day was “Blues Walk” as performed by the Clifford Brown-Max Roach Quintet and it would change his life, forever – “That was music! Pinpoint accuracy, excitement, beauty, logic. It was just too much, man … and I was ‘bug-bitten’ ever since.” [see reference to Nemeyer interview below, p. 108].

Ponomarev would go on to become a fierce and fiery proponent of the hard bop trumpet style that Brownie helped pioneer and which can be heard in some of its earliest, recorded manifestations in the Birdland performances issued on Blue Note featuring Lou Donaldson on alto sax, Horace Silver on piano, Curly Russell on bass and Art Blakey on drums [Blue Note CDP 32146-2; 32147-2].

Ironically, almost 25 years later, Valery was to join Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers and be featured nightly on performances of “I Remember Clifford.” Valery would go on to record nine albums with the group after joining Blakey and the Jazz Messengers in 1977.

For more details of the various stages of his career, please see the in-depth interview Eric Nemeyer conducted with Valery which can be found in Volume 4, No. 3 of Jazz Improv Magazine, pp. 108 – 114. Back issues may be available by contacting

Here are a few excerpts from that interview that may help provide some insights into Valery’s style and his thoughts about music.

“Jazz Improv [JI]: “Once you have the vocabulary – the harmonic and melodic understanding, then soloing gets progressively easier. Working in a drummer-driven band [such as Blakey’s], I imagine that you begin to realize that it’s rhythm that’s really important.

Valery Ponomarev [VP]: Rhythmic, harmonic, melodic, form-wise , it’s all language. And to teach, or to learn to speak jazz is identical to learning to speak any language. Just like a baby starts with first sounds [vocalizes non-verbal sounds] …. And then he goes on and on until those speech particles become words, then become a string of words then become a sentence. And then the person’s just talking …, it’s the same way with improvising. At one point it all goes to the subconscious and you’re playing music.

JI: How did you develop your own sound?

VP: I tell you. Maybe blowing long tones and all that helped me to acquire the sound I’m playing with, but … to develop an original sound – you can’t really. I mean, you’re already given an original sound, like your own voice. You know, you speak without any accent, right? You speak perfect English, right? But when you pick up the phone … when I pick up the phone, and you’re on the other end of the line, I know it’s Eric.

JI: Right, the nature of the sound, the tone, the inflections, the articulation – that combination of elements are all there. You can’t help but be yourself.

VP: Do you know how you get the concept of sound? You listen, as a little baby. You listen to your parents talking, or whoever it is nearby – your grandmother, or close kin. Then it crystallizes into a total concept. Then you start speaking. That’s your voice. Of course, you physical set-up has something to do with it, but more than anything it’s what you hear. The same with me: the same with anybody. I listen to my heroes – Clifford Brown, Lee Morgan, Freddie Hubbard, Blue Mitchell, Nat Adderley, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis … and out of this crystallizes one sound that I want to play with. No matter what trumpet I pick up, sooner or later there will be exactly the same sound, anyway.”

And since Valery is “… also an accomplished composer of memorable themes” [Ian Carr, Fairweather, and Priestley, Jazz: Rough Guide, p.513], I thought it might be of interest to also cite this portion of the Jazz Improv interview with the question of:

“JI: How do you approach composition; that is, how do you begin a song and then develop it.

VP: I do not write just for the sake of new music. I basically work on it when I need it, especially if I have a recording date coming up and I know I need a certain number of new songs….

I apply everything I know about composition. Then, slowly but surely, melodies start to come. And then I catch myself walking the streets and singing these songs. Beautiful! And then I realize that all of a sudden I’ve written an original and I go home and write it down.

As far as technique, as far as compositional devices, it’s the same as playing a solo, it’s the same as telling a story. … It’s development – melodic, harmonic. And it’s emotional charge. Ultimately you have to touch your listener emotionally. … And when it moves me, it will move others. I never write just a string of notes just for the sake of putting … [something together]. That just doesn’t make sense to me.”

If you like your Jazz with Clifford Brown’s explosiveness, Art Blakey’s pulsation, both interwoven into unison-lined and closely harmonized hard bop compositions with lots of riffs, countermelodies, and interludes punctuating and propelling the soloists, you are going to love the music on the following CDs under Valery Ponomarev’s leadership. This is Muscle Jazz at it’s best and is guaranteed to have you bopping-on-down-the road with a huge smile of your face.

Means of Identification [RSR CD 101] was not only Valery Ponomarev’s debut CD, but also that of the Reservoir Music label’s. It was issued in 1985, about four years after Valery left The Jazz Messengers. Joining him on this set was Ralph Moore on tenor saxophone, Hideo Takao on piano [a last minute substitute for guitarist Kevin Eubanks], and the dynamite Engine Room duo of Dennis Irwin on bass and Kenny Washington on drums.

Ponomarev wrote six straight-ahead originals for the date – Dialogue, Means of Identification, Mirage, Fifteenth Round, Envoy and Take Care and he is also featured on his, by now, signature version of Benny Golson’s I Remember Clifford. Valery’s tunes all have their roots in hard bop and many of them have a variety of 4-bar or 8-bar motifs and riffs that serve to literally launch the next soloist into their improvisation. Everything is so well-constructed and such a joy to listen to and Kenny Washington’s various drums breaks are set up for him as though he were jumping to a volleyball net to deliver a can’t-miss-spike.

Richard Cook and Brian Morton had this to say about the recording in the Sixth Edition of the Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD:

“When Ponomarev was with The Messengers, Art let him loose on ‘I Remember Clifford’ night after night. It’s the outstanding performance here, a flowing, feeling solo on what the trumpeter considers to be one of the greatest jazz compositions ever. His admiration is evident, as it is for Art Blakey himself in “Envoy,’ a fresh and soulful original. The opening ‘Dialogue’ pits him against Moore, an exciting duel that recalls the great Blue Note recordings. No surprise that this session was made at the van Gelder studio in Englewood Cliffs, NJ. … Takao came in on short notice and sight read the charts with ease …. Irwin is a former Messenger, beautifully featured on ‘Mirage.’ Washington has his moment on ‘Dialogue’ and keeps things tight throughout.’

Three years later, in 1988, Valery and Reservoir followed this initial release with Trip to Moscow [RSR CD 107]. Such a journey was very much on the ex-patriate Ponomarev’s mind at a time when the years of the Brezhnev “freeze” was melting under the “glasnost” of the Gorbachev regime. This sentiment is also reflected in the titles of Valery’s originals on the date such as Gorky Park, Gettin’ to Bolshoi and Trip to Moscow. I particularly treasure the group’s arrangement of Irving Berlin’s The Best Thing for You which is done as an up-tempo cooker and it provides another superb examples of one of Valery’s 8-bar rhythmic interludes following each soloist that serves to propel everything forward in unrelenting, hard-bop style.
Ralph Moore on tenor saxophone once again joins Valery on the front-line and Dennis Irwin and Victor Jones return as the back-line with Larry Willis in on piano for the date. Lee Jeske had this to say about the recording in his insert notes :

“This is one of those easy-going, hard-blowing, hard bop dates that jazz fans cherish: the kind of session that Rudy van Gelder steered so many times for Blue Note and Prestige back in the hard bop heyday; the kind of session that Valery, Ralph, Larry, Dennis and Victor gobble up like a handful of Raisinets. These guys dig their heels in an blow, and if you think this is one of those ‘bands for a day,’ forget it. Ralph and Dennis have played in Valery’s band for years … Larry Willis and Victor Jones slide in like they’re oiled, and the date just slips along….”

1991 would see the release of Profile [Reservoir RSR CD 119] on which Valery is joined by Joe Henderson on tenor saxophone and Kenny Barron on piano with Essiet Essiet taking over for Dennis Irwin on bass. Victor Jones, who made such a large contribution to Trip to Moscow and is one of the most overlooked and/or under-appreciated drummers around continues to power the Engine Room.
Three more of Valery’s captivating originals are offered on this recording along with two standards – I Concentrate on You and My Shining Hour – and Richie Powell’s Time; all tunes that seem to appeal to the virtuoso side of Jazz trumpeters at one time or another during their career.

Messer’s Cook and Morton, in the Sixth Edition of the Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD commented on the recording in this fashion:

“Henderson makes an enormous difference …, as you’d expect, and his shrewd exchanges with the trumpeter are marked with the kind of wry humor and playfulness that sometimes gets lost in his more brooding work. Ponomarev’s tone … has become broader and more resonant in Henderson’s company. He also seems inclined to follow the saxophonist and let lines spin out an unravel at very much greater length, notably on a superb version of ‘I Concentrate On You,’ which is one of his key recorded moments. The rhythm section are flawless and the sound very rich and responsive. An excellent disc all around."

Here’s a review of the CD by Eugene Chadbourne from www.allaboutjazz.com:

“This is a dream date for Russian hard bop trumpeter Valery Ponomarev that should keep fans of the hard bop style of jazz wide awake. The program is an even mix of standard selections and the trumpeter's original compositions, which the band digs into with the type of appetite that might have been stimulated by the previous sentence. The truth is that Ponomarev is in fine form throughout. "I Was Afraid You'd Never Call Me" kicks off the album, the title perhaps a reflection on the career of this often-overlooked but never under-swinging trumpeter and composer. If this early-'90s session sounds exactly like an old Blue Note or Prestige session, it isn't just because of the players' style; engineer
Rudy Van Gelder was in the booth, doing his usual beautiful thing.”
Given how difficult it would have been to following such a superb studio recording, Valery and Reservoir cleverly switched to Live at Sweet Basil [Reservoir RSR CD 131] as their next release and also wisely added Don Braden on tenor saxophone, John Hicks on piano and Peter Washington on bass while keeping the irrepressible Victor Jones in the drum chair.
With the exception of Fred Lacey’s Theme for Ernie, all of the tunes on this recording are Ponomarev originals and the form and composition of each is explained to insert notes writer James Rossi along with these comments by Valery about the musicians in the group:

“John Hicks not only plays the contemporary language, but he also plays the instrument incredibly well. His pianism is on an extremely high level. He enjoyed playing my tunes so much that I really loved watching him play on this date. He was inside the music. It flattered the hell out of me.
Peter Washington provided such a reliable foundation that you can literally free yourself over it. His time and his swinging are so impeccable that it added a great deal to the overall excitement of the record.

Victor Jones is an extremely musical person. He responds and reacts so quickly. He feels music extremely deeply, and never just bangs the drums behind you. He plays the music and plays the tune. Whenever I solo, I feel his accompaniment; he’s not soloing behind me.

Don Braden has an incredible command of his instrument. As far as vocabulary is concerned, he’s on the cutting edge. He uses a lot of vocabulary that’s been recently introduced into the language. His tone, pitch, and ensemble work are beautiful. He feels very comfortable with the changes.”

And Cook and Morton had this to say in the form of glowing praise about Valery and the CD:

“The trumpeter’s love affair with the language of jazz has shown no signs of cooling….What has changed is the subtlety of Ponomarev’s perception. ‘Friend or Foe’ has a totally surprising twist [“At the end of the melody, instead of going into B-flat as you’d expect, the last chord is an A13.”] which everyone negotiates with ease but which might throw less seasoned players than Hicks or such carefully listening youngsters as Braden. The pianist is a key element on every cut of this crisply registered live session, but he excels himself on ‘Be Careful of Dreams’ and ‘Theme for Ernie.’ Jones turns out to be a key recruitment. On “My Alter Ego,’ … [Ponomarev has] a quiet flirtation with free jazz, [but] he never quite leaves the chords behind; … they are interpreted … within a much less regular pulse. Intriguing stuff.”

A Star for You was to follow in 1997 [Reservoir RSR CD 150] with a complete change of personnel. Scott Yanow offered the following in
“Valeri Ponomarev, one of the most underrated trumpeters in jazz, has a style based in the hard bop tradition of Clifford Brown, Lee Morgan, and Freddie Hubbard, yet he keeps an open mind toward newer developments. On this CD, he is teamed with tenor saxophonist Bob Berg (whose soulful post-bop style has long been influenced by Michael Brecker), the little-known but talented Philadelphia-based pianist Sid Simmons, bassist Ken Walker, and drummer Billy Hart
. The quintet performs six of the trumpeter's tricky yet swinging originals and a reharmonized rendition of "We'll Be Together Again." Ponomarev's very impressive range (hitting high notes with little difficulty), full sound and inventive ideas clearly inspire his sidemen .Berg puts plenty of passion into his solos, and Simmons makes one wish that he were recorded more extensively. Easily recommended to modern straight-ahead jazz collectors.”

And Cook and Morton were effusive in their praise giving the album 4-stars and a “Highly recommended.” They authors go on to say in their review [paragraphing modified]:

“Perhaps the vintage Universal Language to date. Hart is as revelatory as ever, a hugely musical drummer who always has ideas to impart and energy in superfluity.

Ponomarev makes it clear that this set is very much dedicated to the spirit and memory of Art Blakey…. The opening ‘Commandments from a Higher Authority’ is absolutely in the spirit of The Messengers’ great days, a wheeling driving theme which never quite comes to rest but exudes authority in every measure. ‘Uh Oh’ was apparently a Blakey vocal mannerism. It’s a more jocular idea and the trumpeter has fun trading figures with Hart.

Bob Berg is the key addition to this group, superb on ‘Dance Intoxicant’ and the long standard, ‘We’ll Be Together Again,’ adding a warm-toned confidence to every track. Simmons and Walker get to show why the got the call, playing with intelligence and taste, never over fussy, but subtle when the tunes calls for another dimension.

Back at van Gelder’s place, the band gets exactly the sound it deserves; rich and ringing with plenty of space round the horns and kit, but not so much that you feel the guys are working in parallel rather than as a unit.”

In 2000, Reservoir’s unwavering support of Valery and his music resulted in The Messenger [RSR CD 166].

Over the years, Valery has paired-off with on his recordings with Ralph Moore, Don Braden, Bob Berg and Joe Henderson all of whom are superb tenor saxophone players. This recording introduces to a wider audience another absorbing tenor saxophonist, Michael Karn, about whom Valery had this to say:

‘He’s a fine young talent. The first time I heard him I was amazed at how well he plays and how much music he knows. He’s a natural musician. Music is all he breathes, thinks, sleeps and eats and I’m so happy he’s on my record.”

One can recognize the influences of the likes of Coltrane [early years], Dexter Gordon, Hank Mobley and Joe Henderson in his playing. Karn’s solos on this CD are consistently well-constructed and interesting; they will serve to announce a fine new talent on today’s Jazz scene.

Perhaps the quality of Karn’s performance on this recording has something to do with Valery for as Bob Bernotas observes in his insert notes:

“Valery always seems to stimulate his sidemen to perform at their highest level and tell their own stories. ‘You know, I can’t argue with that,’ he agrees. ‘I actually do see the pattern. My personality, or the way I play, or whatever, is kind of contagious. And when musicians play with me, they tend to show their absolute best. I think I acquired that quality from Art Blakey, who knew how to help musicians let their best out. So, subconsciously, I, in turn, have helped people bring their best out of themselves.”

Speaking of “best,” there more of it on this recording as Jimmy Cobb assumes the drum chair and adds his defining presence to a rhythm section that continues with Sid Simmons on piano while introducing the young German bassist, Martin Zenker.

In addition to Stardust, an evergreen, which like I Can’t Get Started, it seems all Jazz trumpet players want to try their chops at, the album also contains six more of Valery’s original compositions with their characteristic complex and intricate lines, shifting tempos and imaginative harmonies – a veritable feast of hard bop from beginning to end.

In 2005, Reservoir issued Valery’s Beyond the Obvious [RSR CD 186] and although I have not had the opportunity to listen to its music at the time of this writing, for the sake of ‘completeness’ [with apologies to Michael Cuscuna], I located this review by Ken Dryden on
www.allaboutjazz.com and have included it as follows:

“Russian expatriate Valery Ponomarev has been an impressive trumpeter from the time he arrived in the U.S. after fleeing his homeland. This 2005 session pairs him with several younger musicians, including seasoned tenor saxophonist Don Braden, bassist Martin Zenker, and Juilliard student Jerome Jennings, who the leader compares favorably with veteran drummers. With Braden stuck in traffic, Ponomarev improvised a blues to warm up with the others and ended up with the peppy opener "You Dig, I Hear You, You Know What I Mean, Etc." The trumpeter makes use of the full range of his instrument in his expressive solo, also trading licks with Jennings. The blend of trumpet and tenor sax in Lee Morgan's slinky "Party Time" gives the piece a bit of an eerie flavor. His arrangement of "Chelsea Bridge" has more of a mournful air than the typical bittersweet setting of this landmark Billy Strayhorn composition. Ornette Coleman's "The Blessing" proves very accessible and features some great interplay and a bit of arco bass by Zenker. Ponomarev's Latin-tinged "Sale on Love," a barely disguised reworking of Cole Porters "Love for Sale," is a harmonically rich extended performance. The lack of a pianist is never a problem, as the musicians filled in the missing chords in their heads as they played their hearts out throughout this rewarding studio date.”

Clifford Brown left us some time ago; Max Roach only recently. Art Blakey is gone, too. But one would suspect that, from their vantage point in Jazz Heaven, listening to Valery Ponomarev and Kenny Washington/Victor Jones/Billy Hart would only serve to put a huge smile on their faces, respectively.

From your vantage point down-here-on-the-ground, these recordings will only serve to do the same.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Nascent Lennie Niehaus

For different reasons, the author Max Harrison and the alto saxophonist, composer and arranger, Lennie Niehaus have been people I have admired over the years, so what better way to celebrate them on Jazzprofiles than to feature a Marx Harrison article on Lennie Niehaus that was originally published in the March, 1958 edition of Jazz Monthly.

Somewhat ironically, as Ted Gioia points out in his seminal West Coast Jazz: Modern Jazz in California, 1945-1960 [p. 163]:

“Despite the striking virtues of his playing, Niehaus never achieved more than passing notice from the critics. One notable exception, however, was Max Harrison,…, whose insightful essay on Niehaus captures the essential virtues of the altoist’s work ….”

Lennie’s plaintive wail on many of the Stan Kenton’s mid-1950s albums such as Back to Balboa, Cuban Fire and The Stage Door Swings, to my ears the quintessential sound of West Coast Jazz, and Max’s acerbic wit and unconventional views each had a powerful impact on my appreciation of Jazz at a very early [impressionable?] age.

If I may be so bold, Max and I do disagree on one aspect of Lennie’s career as I happen to very much enjoy Stan Kenton and Lennie‘s playing during his stints with the Kenton Orchestra. However, not to belabor the point, Max and I do agree on the four wonderful recordings that Lennie made for Contemporary records in the 1950s that are the subject of his essay.

I have taken the liberty of augmenting Max’s essay with the addition of Volume 4: The Quintets & Strings [Contemporary C-3510; OJCCD 1858-2] which was not referenced in Max’s essay, as well as, with the inclusion of excerpts from the original Contemporary LP liner notes by John S. Wilson, Arnold Shaw, Lester Koenig, and Barry Ulanov, respectively. Lennie was also very gracious in granting me time to answer a few interview questions about these albums at recent events sponsored by the Los Angeles Jazz Institute at which he appeared.

[Incidentally, the Los Angeles Jazz Institute is currently offering as it’s latest members only CD: Stan Kenton’s Artistry in Comedy – “rare recordings captured by his friend Jimmy Valentine at dances and concerts from November 7, 1948 through September 29, 1962.” You can find out the details by calling [562] 985-7065].

Lastly, I hope that Max will forgive me for taking some liberties with the paragraphing of his original essay. And lest you get confused, Max’s writings are in blue while everyone else is in the other color.

“It was unfortunate Niehaus first became widely known as a result of the tours he undertook in the mid-1950s with Stan Kenton’s band, for the records he was then producing under his own name made it obvious that he had nothing in common with that master of the unintentionally comic bombast.

The second thing to be learnt from them was that Niehaus had little to learn about playing the alto saxophone. His ease and fluency conveyed a feeling of relaxation and security that is always rare, and his attack and swing were almost equally striking.

But the most notable feature of the twenty-six performances considered here is the consistency of his inventive power in improvisation. He never seems to be at a loss for a good melodic idea, and even though his phrasing is concise and pre-eminently logical, an element of the unexpected is never absent.

Lester Koenig noted: “He is a remarkable alto soloist, with a sense of flowing melodic line, lovely cool tone, and a strong feeling for rhythm. He is a thoughtful and serious musician, who composes in his own style, with definite ideas of where he is going and what he wants to achieve.”

In some ways, Niehaus first LP – Lennie Niehaus Vol. 1 ‘The Quintets’ [Contemporary C-3518; OJCCD- 1933-2] – with a quintet instrumentation remains the most informative of his abilities as a soloist.

The scored passages are generally brief, and, apart from a few meandering contributions from Jack Montrose and Bob Gordon on tenor and baritone saxophones respectively, the leader fills all the available solo space with notable effect.

His consistency makes it hard to single out an performance as exceptional, though the quick-fire Whose Blues? Is a reminder that real spontaneity is less a matter of technical command than of a steady flow of ideas. Almost impressive in this respect are Prime Rib, with its double-time phrases, and the breaks of You Stepped Out of a Dream.

Niehaus wrote the arrangements for all the recordings dealt with here, and these show a nicely understated skill, nearly always being shorn of unnecessary gesture. As his was a musical family, he began his studies early and thus had a better chance of acquiring sound theoretical knowledge than many jazzmen. This places an agreeable variety of writing techniques at his disposal, but he is aware of the dangers of over-elaboration in the modest circumstances of small combo jazz.

The Original Jazz Classic CD tray plate notes offer this overview of the recording.

“Lennie Niehaus’s first album is his most intimate. The music is rich in the colorful, complex writing that he would pursue on larger canvasses as his career progressed, while the compact sound of the quintet focuses attention on Niehaus, the fluent, Parker-inspired yet quite personal alto saxophonist. What emerges are well-balanced performances from two distinct ensembles.

Eight tracks recorded in 1954 … feature an inspired three-saxophone front line with Jack Montrose and Bob Gordon, plus the great Monty Budwig/Shelly Manne rhythm section. Four additional titles by a 1956 unit with Manne, Stu Williamson, Hampton Hawes, and red Mitchell were added for a 12-inch release, and represent Niehaus, a paragon of West Coast Jazz, in his most East Coast mood.”

On the sleeve of his second LP [Zounds! The Lennie Niehaus Octet! – Contemporary C-3540; OJCCD- 1892-2] he [Lennie] writes: “With the more intellectual and academic approach there is a tendency for … work to become contrived and esoteric. It must be remembered that most modern jazz compositions written during the past few years are no more ‘modern’ than things Bartok, Berg, Schoenberg and others wrote twenty of thirty years ago.”

Such a viewpoint is healthy, first because it is historically and technically realistic, and second because it is a corrective to the attitude of many jazzmen who in the past have imagined themselves to be daring iconoclasts while purveying what actually was simple and conservative music.

On the octet performances on his second LP Niehaus still occupies most of the solo space and is fully able to justify this. His arrangements are similar in general style to many others being written on the West Coast at that time, and what individual character they possess is due more to certain technical details than to an overall new approach. Such features most often arise from his concern with unity, and he is fond of deriving introductions, bridge passages and codas from the theme, or part of it, whenever possible. Instances are Night Life, Have You Met Miss Jones? and Circling the Blues; also typical of Niehaus is the way the introduction to The Night We Called It A Day recurs in sequential form to effect a modulation.

The first batch of octet scores have a pleasingly full texture, with the themes announced mainly in block chords. By the jazz standards of his time, Niehaus had a quite extensive, though in no way personal, harmonic vocabulary, so these parallel chords often are interesting, and are effectively distributed over the ensemble.

The result, however, could easily have been a rather too consistent harmonic richness, so he occasionally scores a passage for the horns without the rhythm section, as in How About You?, or has the drums only supply interjections, as on Figure Eight. He has many similar procedures to ensure variety, such as the bridge to Night Life, first played in block chords then scored contrapuntally on its return.

Another example is the first section of the code on The Way You Look Tonight, where each horn plays a separate line based on a different part of the theme; the result is of considerable harmonic and contrapuntal interest, and one regrets this passage only being four bars long. Even drum solos are made to further the development of the piece, as in The Way You Look Tonight, where, the piano and bass silent, the percussionist for a while alternates bars with the front line. There is a similar episode on Seaside.

Such devices, though, are very far from exhausting the scope of an ensemble … [featuring Lennie - alto sax, Jack Montrose - tenor sax and Bill Perkins - baritone sax, Stu Williamson - trumpet, Bob Enevoldsen - value trombone, Lou Levy – piano, Monty Budwig – bass and Shelly Manne – drums], and Niehaus appears to have been conscious of the almost unrelieved homophony of the above scores.

Since Max doesn’t discuss the four compositions featuring Octet No. 2, made up of Lennie – alto sax, Bill Perkins moving to tenor sax, Pepper Adams – baritone sax, Vince De Rosa – French Horn, Frank Rosolino – trombone, James McAlister – tuba, Red Mitchell – bass, and Mel Lewis – drums, that also appear on Zounds!, I thought perhaps the following comments from the original LP liner notes by Arnold Shaw might prove descriptive in this regard:

“ The fact is that the four new arrangements are less linear. The various horns do not have completely free, independent lines, and the drive is toward a coordinated swinging beat. ‘I still don’t go for blowing arrangements,’ Lennie said recently. ‘I like to write backgrounds and interludes, and my goal is a swinging line’ Whether the octet is taking an ensemble chorus or Lennie weaving, at break-neck speed around the ensemble, the Niehaus combo jumps and rocks and swings.”

In his third LP [Lennie Niehaus The Octet #2, Vol. 3 Contemporary C-3503; OJCCD 1767-2] there is a certain amount of section differentiation though not enough.

Alto saxophone and trombone contrast tellingly with the full band on Cooling It, as do alto and tenor in Bunko, yet such antiphony is infrequent, and counterpoint mainly conspicuous by its absence.

I thought, since Max gives rather short shrift to this album in his essay, the following comments about the recording’s personnel and Lennie’s playing from John S. Wilson’s liner notes to the album might prove germane.

“The present bath of octet selections is played by a slightly different group than the preceding set. Newcomers to this octet, but familiar figures on the West Coast jazz scene, are Jimmy Giuffre on baritone saxophone, Bill Holman on tenor and Pete Jolly on piano. Along with the holdovers – Stu Williamson on trumpet, Bob Enevoldsen on valve trombone, Monty Budwig on bass, Shelly Manne on drums and, of course, Niehaus himself – they make up a select group of top-ranking Coast jazzmen.

Niehaus’ playing has an ease, an unharried continuity which can only be accomplished by a musician who is beyond being consciously concerned with technique, whose feeling in performance is instinctively a swinging one and who can, consequently, devote himself completely to the creative requirements of his performance. There can be no doubt that these creative requirements are exceedingly demanding. ….

[Niehaus’] tone is almost unique among modern alto saxophonists. It is rich, rounded and warmly full-blooded and yet light enough not to clog up the quickly moving line of his style. It gives a vitality to his playing which is missing in some of the more wraith-like attacks adopted by current alto men.

A rich tone and a riding sense of swing would be of little use to Niehaus, of course, if his ideas were routine. Fortunately, his concepts are fresh and provocative not only in his individual solo performances but in his writing, too.”

As previously noted, not included in Max’s article was any reference to Lennie Niehaus, Vol. 4: The Quintets & Strings [Contemporary C 3510; OJCCD 1858-2] that tracks with strings and Lennie on alto, strings augmented by Lennie on alto, Bill Perkins on tenor and Bob Gordon on baritone and four cuts with a quintet fronted by Lennie on alto and Stu Williamson on trumpet with a rhythm section of Hawes, Budwig and Manne.
In his liner notes, Barry Ulanov offered the following reflections on Lennie’s playing:

“The alto is to the present jazz era what the tenor saxophone was to the one just before it; a great many musicians play it, and some of them inordinately well. As a result, the instrument currently enjoys much favor with the jazz public …. But if it has reached high jazz rank, it has also suffered: there is a terrible sameness about the work of all too many of these stars, a monotony based on the brilliant examples of a Parker, a Konitz or the like ….

All of which explains why I enjoy the playing of Lennie Niehaus as much as I do ….
One can say that it is his sound, a quite modern one, that makes him so welcome betwixt and alongside his colleagues; but others offer a not dissimilar sound. Perhaps, then, it is his beat; but that too, though not as familiar among present-day altoists, can be heard and felt on his horn. If not the sound and the beat, then the length of his lines. This, maybe, but not all by itself, for the long line is very much with us these days on alto, and good to have, but not any guarantee of identity.

No, not one of these things, but all of them in copious abundance, and held together, as he holds everything else in the proceedings in balance and bearing, by a widely resourceful musicianship. Thus diversity, thus originality; thus ripeness and no monotony and, for what it is worth, my very high esteem for Lennie Niehaus."

On his fifth record [Lennie Niehaus Vol. 5: The Sextet, Contemporary C-3524; OJCCD 1944-2] for sextet, however, Niehaus included well-paced duets between alto and tenor saxophones and trumpet and baritone saxophone in Thou Swell, and Three of a Kind has an adroit fugal introduction and coda.

There are effective dialogues between soloist and ensemble here, also, particularly on Belle of the Ball and As Long As I Live, some imaginative scored background to solos ….

The Original Jazz Classic CD tray plate notes offer this overview of the recording.

“In the mid-1950’s, Lennie Niehaus avoided cliché, incorporated audacious harmonic ideas, and distilled the essentials of big band writing into arrangements for small groups. His recordings are still notable in the 21st century for their freshness and daring.

In this fifth of his series of albums for the Contemporary label, Niehaus sets himself the chamber music challenge of achieving proportion among four horns, bass and drums, without piano to cushion the sound, delineate the harmonies, and unify the ensemble.

The result was a collection of pieces performed with gem-like clarity by players who executed his writing perfectly and brought to their solos the creativity that made them star improvisers.

Niehaus’ alto saxophone was matched by Bill Perkins, Jimmy Giuffre, Stu Williamson, Shelly Manne, and the brilliant, underappreciated bassist Buddy Clark.”

In solo Niehaus is as good as before, although the only other improvisations of real merit on these recordings are by pianist Lou Levy in the first octet disc and by Stu Williamson on both trumpet and valve trombone in the sextet LP. Indeed, the assurance and conviction of the latter’s work on the former instrument in Thou Swell, I Wished on the Moon, Knee Deep and As Long As I Live mark it as being among his best on record. Bill Perkins, on tenor saxophone, is also heard to pleasing, if rather nonchalant, effect in Three of a Kind and As Long As I Live. The gulf (in terms of invention) between the leader and several of his other bandsmen, however, is rather clearly shown by the chase passages of Whose Blues? and Rick’s Tricks, and even more by the long series of twelve- and – twenty-four bar solos in Circling the Blues.

The point is confirmed in a different way by Niehaus’ success with slow ballads, particularly The Night We Called It a Day and Our Love is Here To Stay on the octet records. Best, however, is the quintet Day by Day, which begins and ends with some exceptionally subtle harmonic writing that creates a feeling of remoteness which is quite contrary to the original melody’s banality and exactly appropriate to Niehaus’ very sensitive improvisation.

This can stand beside Jimmy Giuffre’s beautiful Lotus Bud recorded with Shorty Rogers or Art Pepper’s Jazz Chorale recorded with John Graas. The same side of Niehaus’ musical personality is also reflected in two compositions, Night Life and Debbie, slow lyrical pieces of some melodic distinction. Also attractive are Take It from Me, which has a forty bar chorus instead of the usual thirty-two, and Elbow Room, a blues with a bridge.

Writing and playing like this did show perfectly explicit promise for Niehaus’ further growth. Despite a few excellent later recordings [I Swing for You, Mercury MG 36118; Lone Hill Jazz CD 10241], such as his striking version of Perkins’s Little Girl Blues and Benny Golson’s Four Eleven West, that promise was not really fulfilled, eventually he stopped making LPs, and, finally, dropped out of sight. Presumably Niehaus must be regarded as another casualty of the hostile circumstances in which jazz has always found itself.

As we know, the “hostile environment” for Jazz that Max refers to was to become even more hostile as the years rolled along, and Lennie was to survive it by taking his orchestrating skills into the Hollywood studies and to become a prolific writer for films. But we’ll save that part of Lennie’s story for another time.

While preparing this feature on Lennie Niehaus, the editors of Jazzprofiles couldn’t help but agree with Ted Gioia’s following assessment of Lennie Niehaus:

“His powerful technical command of the saxophone, his intuitive linear approach to improvisation, and his sweet tone made Niehaus a likely candidate as the next alto star on the coast.” West Coast Jazz: Modern Jazz in California, 1945-1960 [p. 163]:

And while a Niehaus star did ascend, it would take on a different form.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Whatever Happened to Larry Bunker?

By Mal Sands, LA Jazz Scene, May 1994 [copyright; all rights reserved]
“That is the question that many people, including myself, have been asking for several years now in jazz clubs and at concerts and festivals, especially those that celebrate the ‘West Coast sound’ of the 1950s.

Bunk, as he is fondly called by friends and colleagues, was right there at the evolution of the California Cool movement.

He was a mainstay of the L.A. jazz nightclub scene during the 50s, 60s and 70s and worked with such legends as Chet Baker, Gerry Mulligan, Stan Getz, Art Pepper, Bud Shank, Shorty Rogers, Bill Evans and Peggy Lee. By the time the 1980’s rolled around, Bunker had all but disappeared from public performance in the clubs. Only on the rarest occasions and for the best of friends would Bunker extend his services as a sideman.

I asked saxophonist Gary Foster about Bunker’s whereabouts and he told me that Bunker was alive and well and busy working in the studios where he has been for over forty years now. It was through Foster that I got to meet this legendary percussionist who I had wondered about for so many years. The first thing that impresses one about Bunker is his very casual attitude and laid-back demeanor. He is such an easy-going, down-to-earth, regular kind of guy, that after a few minutes, I was so comfortable with him, I felt that I already knew him.

Our first meeting took place in a recording studio in Burbank, … [but] it was several months before I had the opportunity to interview him.

I drove out to his beautiful, Spanish-styled home in the [Hollywood] hills above Los Feliz and spent the better part of three hours chatting and asking him questions, and listening to his stories, recollections and opinions about himself, his career and all of the legendary musicians and assorted characters that he knew and worked with.

I began the interview by asking Bunker to give me a brief biography. He was born in Long Beach, CA on November 4, 1928. He took up drums in grammar school at the age of seven and began fooling around with the piano at the age of ten. … He became self-taught on both [drums and piano], as well as, tenor saxophone, which he played briefly in junior high school.

After high school, Bunker enlisted in the army for a one and a half year stint in 1946. During that period he played drums and piano with several different outfits. Upon his discharge in 1948, he settled in Monterey, CA. It was shortly thereafter that he first learned how to play the vibraphone.”

LA Jazz Scene [LAJ]: You played both drums and piano as a youngster. At what age did you start playing the vibes?

Larry Bunker [LB]: It was 1950. I was 21 or 22 and I was playing drums with a trio that included the Hammond organ and the guitar. The organist, who was the leader, asked me if I’d ever played the vibraphone and I said, “No, I’ve never played one in my life.” He said, “Well, the fact that you know harmony and are an improvising player and know the keyboard and drums, it’s a natural for you. I’ve got an old set of vibes in my garage. Why don’t you take it home and work out a couple of tunes and we’ll see what happens.” Now I was aware of Lionel Hampton and just beginning to get into Milt Jackson. So I took the thing home, figured out how to put it together and spent three days just doing exercises and playing scales.

LB: So I went on the job and did the first set on drums and then the guys asked: “What have you worked out?” I said that I had worked out a solo on a song and when he asked my what I wanted to play I said just play anything. So we played a couple of standard ballads and then some up-tempo things and got screaming applause from the audience. We came off the bandstand and there were people in the audience, musicians I had worked with who came up to me and said: “Geez, Larry, I didn’t know you played the vibes. How long have you been doing that?” I said: “Three days.”

LAJ: Wow! That’s amazing! Now in the 1950s when you were playing drums and vibes in Monterey, the Dave Brubeck Trio featuring Cal Tjader on drums and vibes was doing more or less the same thing up in San Francisco, correct?

LB: Sure, exactly! And I used to hear the radio broadcasts of that group in San Francisco and I was aware of Cal and what he was doing on vibes. Not long after that, I left Monterey to tour with a very bad four-piece band that got me back to Los Angeles. I moved back in with my Mom in the house that I had lived in since I was nine years old and set up shop there. We had a piano, drums and a set of vibes right there in the living room and that’s where I set up shop.

LB: In 1951, I got the job of drumming at the Lighthouse with Howard Rumsey, Hampton Hawes, Teddy Edwards and Sonny Criss, among others. That was three or four nights a week. On Mondays I had an invitation to jam sessions on the East side of LA, mostly to play vibes, so that’s how the whole thing got started for me here in town in 1951.

LAJ: Were you becoming better known as a drummer or as a vibist?

LB: It seemed like it was happening both ways, but I worked mostly as a drummer with occasional gigs on vibes. On rare occasions I played both like when I was with Georgie Auld when I worked with him both in town and on a tour back East. The idea was that he and I would tour and we would pick up a piano player and a bassist wherever we were. I took drums and vibes with me and he featured me on both. We traveled cross-country by car and worked at the old Blue Note in Chicago and also hit Philadelphia, Minneapolis and several other places.

LAJ: By car, huh? That must have been quite an experience. Now was this around the same time as the ‘West Coast Jazz’ movement was beginning?

LB: Yes, exactly. In 1951-52, things were really starting to happen in LA. As guys were leaving the road bands and setting up in Southern California. Within a year or two, Shelly Manne, Art Pepper, Shorty Rogers, Bud Shank, Bob Cooper, Don Bagley and Frank Rosolino had all left Stan Kenton. That’s when this whole West Coast thing started. I replaced Chico Hamilton in piano-less Gerry Mulligan’s Quartet with Chet Baker.

Dick Bock formed Pacific Jazz Records and I started to record with these guys. We were in the studio two or three times a week making different albums. It was also at that time that I recorded my first motion picture soundtrack. I received a called from an old Russian viola player, named , Franz Waxman, who was scoring the movie Stalag 17, starring William Holden and he needed a jazz vibist and a drummer. I said that I did both so he hired me to play in the Paramount studio 75-piece orchestra.

LB: I was absolutely awestruck. As an 8-year old kid, I had lived to blocks away from the place and ride past it on my way to school without any idea that I would ever see the inside of a place like that. I was very intimidated, but I got through it and that’s how I started working in the studios.

LAJ: And it was also during this period that you began working the club circuit with Gerry Mulligan, Chet Baker, Stan Getz, Art Pepper and later on with Shorty Rogers and Bud Shank, right?

LB: Right. I worked with Chet and Gerry at The Haig.

LAJ: What did you think of those individuals?

LB: Chet Baker was unbelievable. I have never been as impressed with anyone more than I have been with him, with the exception of Bill Evans, who I worked with later. Baker could come up with something every night, every set that would just bring you out of your seat. He was a stunning, creative musician, but a horse’s ass as a human being and became legendary for that. … just an all-around bad-ass, but a brilliant musician. Gerry Mulligan was okay. He was kind of stand-offish, but appreciative of my work and that was all right.

LAJ: How about other players during these early West Coast Jazz years? [interjection]

LB: I worked with Stan Getz at Zardi’s and that wasn’t too pleasant. This was just after his bust for holding up a drugstore, for which he did some time in the county slam. I worked with Art Pepper at the Surf Club in downtown L.A. with Hampton Hawes and Joe Mondragon. I really enjoyed Art’s playing, but didn’t enjoy being around him because he was so heavily into junk at that point. He would show up an hour late for work and it was always the same story. “My battery went dead,” or “I had a flat tire.” On the bandstand he was either trying to play, keep from nodding off or looking to score. I had no contact with him socially and had no reason to. Shorty Rogers, Bud Shank, Bob Cooper and Bill Perkins were all good cats and professional musicians.
As far as other drummers were concerned, there was a period in the 50s that Shelly Manne was the drummer of choice. He, Mel Lewis and Stan Levey kind of had the jazz scene sewed-up. I kind of got what was left over.

LAJ: Every year, just before the Playboy Jazz Festival, Mark Cantor hosts an evening of rare jazz film clips from his private collection. At last year’s program he showed a clip from a television show that was broadcast in the late 1950s with the Art Pepper Quartet featuring you on the piano. Cantor said that you were a last-minute replacement for Pepper’s regular pianist, Carl Perkins, who apparently was too high on dope that night to make the gig. Do you recall that?

LB: I don’t, but several other people mentioned seeing that same clip, so I guess it must have happened. When I first started playing with Bud Shank in 1960 or ’61 here in town, he hired me as a vibraphone player and a pianist. His regular drummer was Chuck Flores and his bassist for a short while was Scott LaFaro, who later left for New York to work with Bill Evans. His place was taken by Gary Peacock. Scott, unfortunately was killed in a car crash at a very young age.

LAJ: You also worked with Bill Evans. What was that experience like?

LB: Phenomenal! Bill Evans was my hero, and my association with him is probably the highlight of my career. I worked with him for about a year and a half between 1963 and ’65 and the projects that I did with him are the things that I am most proud of. We recorded three of four albums together. Trio 65 is the one I am most fond of.

LAJ: That was an excellent album. Your work with Bill Evans was exclusively on drums, correct?

LB: Yes. I never played vibes with Bill. My best vibes work in my opinion was with Dave Grusin in the early 1980s.

LAJ: You also became involved with Latin music when it became hot in the mid-fifties. How did that come about?

LB: I had no interest in Latin music whatsoever, until I started listening to the radio and heard all the great Latin jazz bands that were playing in New York.

LAJ: Are we talking about Tito Puente, Tito Rodriguez and Machito?

LB: Exactly, and that triggered my interest. The more I listened to it, the more I liked it and tried to play it. I auditioned for Bobby Short in ’54 or ’55, and he told me that he did a couple of Caribbean-type numbers in his act and that I was required to play the congas. Well, I had never played the congas in my life and told him so, but I wanted the job so I went out a bought a set of congas. These were the old ones that looked like skins nailed to a pickle barrel. Tune-able instruments were still a thing of the future. As a result, I started working with Latin bands here in town, primarily with Eddie Cano, who was a crossover musician. His style was very Latin-oriented, yet he was really like a jazz piano player. I played and recorded with him on vibes, but occasionally played Latin hand percussion and became known for that.

LB: During that period I received a great many calls to do hand percussion in the studios because most of the guys in town, the true Latin drummers, had no concept of reading music. They were authentic players but they couldn’t start or stop when they were supposed to and if you were doing a motion picture that required sight-reading and playing with a jazz feeling, they really didn’t do that.

LAJ: I didn’t realize that you played hand percussion instruments. Are there any recordings of you playing these?

LB: Yes, there was an album I did in 1972 with Pat Williams called Threshold which we recorded at the Phil Ramone studio in New York. The rhythm section included Mike Melvoin, Jim Hughart, John Guerin and Larry Carlton. People like Tom Scott, Buddy Childers, Billy Byers and Marvin Stamm were also involved. I was the utility percussion man and played congas, bongos, vibes, marimba, chimes and tympani. That album won a Grammy.

LAJ: Do you miss the L.A. jazz scene of the 1950s? What were some of your favorite clubs and hangouts of that era?

LB: Jazz City is one I miss. They used a lot of local musicians and occasionally would bring in some headliners. It was there that I first saw Miles Davis in person. He had John Coltrane, red garland, Paul Chambers and “Philly” Joe Jones with him. It was there that I got to see and meet Cannonball Adderley for the first time. I also worked there with a variety of people including Barney Kessel and Conte Candoli. I also worked there with Shorty Rogers opposite Lenny Bruce.

LAJ: Lenny Bruce; what was he like?

LB: Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant. We also worked across the street at a place called Peacock Lane. We would do a set and then Lenny would do a set and offend everybody and then we would have to come back on and try to calm everybody back down. In the 1960s I worked and hung-out at Shelly’s Manne Hole all the time. In the 1970s it was Donte’s.

LAJ: Do you have any desire to work clubs again?

LB: At this point, I really don’t think so. It was fun while I was doing it in the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s, but by the ‘80s it got to be less and less gratifying. It was no longer emotionally satisfying so I decided to hang it up. I think I have said everything I’m going to say in that way.

LAJ: Do you have any idea how many recordings you have made, either jazz, television and motion picture soundtracks, commercial jingles or whatever, all together? Even a ballpark figure?

LB: No idea. It’s not something I ever considered important.

LAJ: Of the many recordings that you have made, are there any with you as a leader?

LB: Only one. It was an album that I produced and did at the old Shelly’s Manne Hole with vibraphonist Gary Burton. We had met and became great friends and I became a great admirer of his. He was working with George Shearing at the time and would stay at my house when George was in town. We decided that we should record together. This was in late 1963 when Gary was barely out of his teens. I contacted engineer Bones Howe and we rented Wally Heider’s portable recording equipment and went into the Manne Hole to record. We had to postpone the date a couple of weekends due to the [J.F.] Kennedy assassination. We did it with Mike Wofford on piano and Bob West on bass and I spent the next couple of years trying to sell the thing. There were no takers. I finally gave the masters to a producer named Jackie Mills and he got it marketed. It wasn’t out very long and sold maybe about 20 copies. I never realized a dime from the thing.

LAJ: That’s too bad. Where is the record now?

LB: In limbo. Several years after we recorded it, Gary called me from New York and told me it had surfaced in Europe entitled “The Gary Burton Quartet.”

LAJ. But it was actually “The Larry Bunker Quartet, right?”

LB: Yeah, but you got to remember that when he called in 1967 or ’68, Gary Burton was hot. Nobody over there knew who the hell “Larry Bunker” was. The masters were eventually lost but surfaced some twenty years later in Japan. I got a call from a guy who wanted to issue it over there on the Vault records label. I said “fine.” In the meantime, a set of alternate master takes surfaced in Spain and was issued on the Fresh Sound label.

LAJ: So there are two different versions of the album?

LB: Yes, and maybe even three.

LAJ: Who is your favorite vibes player?

LB: Milt Jackson, hands down. There’s nobody like him. He has influenced so may vibe players and you can hear it in their playing. Gary is phenomenal and he really has kind of revolutionized the vibraphone insofar as what’s possible to play on it. He, too, has had a profound influence, especially on the younger players that have come up. But the guy who still touches my heart is Milt.
LAJ: And on drums?

LB: Elvin Jones, Tony Williams and Dave Weckl.

LAJ: Throughout your long and distinguished career you have worked with many of the jazz legends and greats. Is there anyone living or dead that you didn’t get to work with, but wish you could have?

LB: Oh sure. John Coltrane, Miles Davis. I would have loved to gig with those cats. I got to play with Dizzy at the Monterey Jazz festival back in the ‘60s and I did actually get to play once with Charlie Parker when I played a couple of tunes on piano at a dance job with him in L.A. at a place called the “Five-Four Ballroom. Some guys I knew where playing with them so I went down to catch the gig. There was a tune they wanted to play and the piano player didn’t know it. Larance Marable saw me and called me up to the stand and said: “You know that tune, don’t you?” I said: “Sure.” So I sat in and comped for Bird.

LAJ: What do you do for recreation or relaxation during your leisure time?

LB: Mainly I just stay at home and listen to classical music on my cable radio hook-up. I am able to get symphony broadcasts from all over the country.

LAJ: Classical music?

LB: Yes, I have become totally caught up in classical music, particularly when it comes to playing tympani. I have been playing tympani seriously now for ten or twelve years and really enjoy it. As a matter of fact, if I knew then what I know now, I might have gotten some serious training and become a timpanist with a major symphony orchestra. Unfortunately it is too late now. You don’t decide at the age of sixty-five that you’re going to change careers and look for an almost non-existent job as a concert timpanist.

LAJ: So what’s next for Larry Bunker?

LB: To just keep doing what I’m doing. Working in the studios and making a living."