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.

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