Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Bam Bam Bam !!! - Part 2

What better way to segue into this second of Ray Brown’s last-quarter-of-the-20th-century trios than to use its pianist Gene Harris’ thoughts about his predecessor Phineas Newborn, Jr. as revealed in the Blindfold Test of the June 20, 1963 edition of Down Beat magazine:

“This is the greatest thing that ever happened to jazz – [Phineas is] the greatest pianist playing today. In every respect he’s tremendous. He is just beautiful. A wonderful jazz musician.”
As was the case with his efforts in not allowing Phineas Newborn, Jr. to pass into relative obscurity, we also have Ray Brown to thank for talking Gene Harris, who had settled in Idaho in the 1970s, out of a premature retirement in 1982.

As was the case with Ray’s long association with pianist Oscar Peterson in the decade of the 1950s, Gene Harris also had a similar, lengthy musical involvement during this same period as the pianist in the Three Sounds with Andrew Simpkins on bass and Bill Dowdy on drums. With its heavy emphasis on a gospel-influenced, blues sound, the group specialized in what some have referred to a “soul-jazz” and was well-documented through its many records on the Blue Note label.

The Three Sounds (in a variety of configurations) recorded and performed into the mid-1970s when Harris decided to quit [quite suddenly, according to some sources] the music business and transition into semi-retirement at his home in Boise, Idaho.

According to C. Michael Bailey writing in

“In 1983, just when he thought he had been forgotten, bassist Ray Brown appealed to Harris to return to the studio and stage. Harris joined Brown's trio for a score of notable recordings before leading his own trios and small groups through the late 1980s, recording for the Bay Area-based Concord Jazz. At the close of that decade, Harris was approached by Andrew Whist, then president of the Phillip Morris Jazz Grant, to lead an all-star big band on a world tour. This resulted in two superb big band recordings that, added to his earlier Tribute to Count Basie mark Harris as a great large band arranger and leader.”

Strictly speaking, Gene’s first trio recording with Ray was The Red Hot Ray Brown Trio [Concord 4315] was not Gene’s first recording with Ray, but it was his first “trio” recording as a member of The Ray Brown Trio.

It is a set made up of standards such as Have You Met Miss Jones?, Street of Dreams, and That’s All, a lovely bossa nova treatment of Jobim’s Meditations and a wonderful romp through Brown’s blues original entitled Captain Bill, the trio offers polished arrangements largely based around vamps and riffs that serve to launch Harris into funk-inflected, solos escapes.

And Harris can really wind it up with huge locked-hands chordal passages, tremolos, and most importantly, his sensitive use of dynamics to build solos that attain house-rocking climaxes. The result is blues-oriented, Sunday-come-to-meetin’ soulful piano trio Jazz that has everyone in the audience at the Blue Note in New York testifyn’ its approval.

A few years after Harris joined Ray Brown to form what Leonard Feather has called – “… one of the most naturally compatible threesomes ever to go public with their creative impulses,” Ray acquired a business interest in THE LOA, a club located a few miles from the beach in Santa Monica, CA.

In 1988, not surprisingly, the trio recorded Summer Wind: The Ray Brown Trio – Live at the Loa [Concord Jazz CCD-4426]. Here’s a review of it by Ken Dryden that appeared in
`”Ray Brown has many great contributions to jazz as a leader and a sideman, but one additional way in which he helped jazz was his encouraging Gene Harris to give up his early retirement and go back out on the road. The pianist was a part of Brown's groups for several years before he formed a working quartet and became a leader for good once again. This 1988 concert at a since-defunct Santa Monica night club (co-owned by Brown) finds the two, along with drummer Jeff Hamilton, at the top of their game. A phone ringing in the background distracts momentarily from Brown's opening solo in his composition "The Real Blues," during which Harris repeats a bluesy tremolo, which may be an inside joke about the early distraction. Harris take a blues-drenched approach to "Mona Lisa" before giving way to the leader's solo, while his lyrical approach to "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man" is shimmering. Hamilton's soft brushes are prominent in "Little Darlin'," but his explosive playing provides a powerful pulse to the very unusual strutting take of "It Don't Mean a Thing." This extremely satisfying CD is warmly recommended.”
And Chip Deffaa had these observations to offer about Ray, Gene and Jeff in his liner notes to the original vinyl release of this recording:

“Brown’s colleagues are Gene Harris, who plays a lot of piano – rich, full-bodied, and not so overly-refined as to have the life squeezed out of it – and Jeff Hamilton, one of the stand-out drummers of the latter-day Woody Herman Herds. Brown doesn’t hold his sidemen back. Harris notes: ‘There’s a lot of musical respect between Ray and I, on the bandstand and off. What’s important is that each musician can put as much in the song as possible.’Hamilton says Brown ‘is one of the best leaders I’ve worked for; he lets you find your own way, like Woody did. A lot of leaders will not do that. When I joined the trio, he said, ‘OK, just play; I’ll let you know when it gets in the way.’ Hamilton recalls he initially tried playing safely, conservatively. ‘Ray said: “Go ahead and play the drums. That’s what I hired you for.” Most trios have a lighter touch. At first, I was trying to play lightly. I found out very quickly, it’s a little big band.’”What I found particularly engaging about the trio’s work on this album is contained in Jeff Hamilton’s observation: “… I found out very quickly, that it’s a little big band.” As is the case in a big band setting, each tune played by Ray’s trio is framed in a very accomplished arrangement which has interludes and other motifs to add contrasts and shading between the solos, shout choruses and well-scripted finales. A little big band, indeed.

Not to take anything away from Mickey Roker, and perhaps it is because of his big band drumming experience, but Jeff Hamilton adds so many additional dimensions to the trio’s performances.

His drums are tuned to a sound that is full and deep, with cymbals that match harmonically [blend in; don’t stand out or clash with the other instruments]. He instigates unique beats such as the rock-infused, marching drum figure that forms the introduction to Duke’s It Don’t Mean a Thing. These distinctive beats serves to give many of the more familiar tunes a new lift and spirit. With an understanding of piano, he plays musically and melodically. And he swings – consistently and constantly! Jeff Hamilton is Jazz drumming at its best.

Ed Berger, Curator of The Rutgers Institute of Jazz Studies, has characterized Gene Harris’s style as:

“a fascinating amalgam of varied influences. Having assimilated the two-handed blues and boogie of early idols Albert Ammons, Pete Johnson and Freddie Slack, he added the fluidity of Oscar Peterson, and seasoned the mixture with a hint of Erroll Garner’s timing and sly humor. Above all, Harris is a master of the blues, with the tools and imagination to weave endless variations on that timeless and universal pattern.”
Harris instills the blues into everything he plays whether it’s the use of a single note, quarter note triplet phrase that impels a full chorus of his solo on Milt Jackson’s Bluesology on the Summer Wind album or in a funky gospel interpretation that completes transformed the Gershwin evergreen – Summertime – on the Bam Bam Bam CD [Concord CCD-4375] which the trio recorded live at the 1988 Fujitsu-Concord Jazz festival in Japan.

In his
www.allmusic.com overview of Gene Harris’s career, C. Michael Bailey is so impressed with Harris’ performance of Summertime that he advises the purchaser of this recording to:

“Skip directly to the seventh selection and listen to a definitive reading of the Gershwin classic “Summertime.” Harris explores all of the song's hidden treasures, breaking into a crowd-pleasing Albert Ammons boogie woogie.”
Aside from Gene’s sparkling rendition of Summertime, Bam Bam Bam also contains two very listenable [and quite remarkable] drum solos by Jeff Hamilton on Victor Feldman’s Rio and Dizzy Gillespie’s A Night in Tunisia. And Ray gets the solo spotlight with a lovely Arco treatment on If I Loved You.
Here are Leonard Feather’s discerning insert notes to what, in my opinion, ranks as the very best recording by the Gene Harris-version of The Ray Brown Trio:

“Ray Brown is a man of many images, a wearer of several hats. Though his primary identification remains that of a nonpareil bassist, he has also established himself as a composer (his "Gravy Waltz" won a Grammy award), an entrepreneur and a talent scout.

In this last capacity we owe him a special debt for his major role in bringing Gene Harris, surely one of the most exciting blues-oriented pianists around, out of semi-obscurity in Idaho. He had a steady job in Boise until Ray began luring him away for a series of jobs that culminated, in 1987, in his triumphant Tribute to Count Basie all star big band session (Concord Jazz CJ-337).

Carl Jefferson, of course, was the other key figure in the Brown-Harris alliance. Late in 1988 Ray, Gene and the redoubtable young drummer Jeff Hamilton were on tour in Japan, playing ten concerts of their own in addition to taking part in Jefferson's Concord Festival unit. During that time, this session took place before an audience that was exceptionally enthusiastic (needless to say, none of those applause sounds had to be amplified).

"The Kan-i Hoken Hall is a big auditorium:' Brown recalls, "around 2,000 people, and we really had them with us all the way. This was one of those nights when everything came together."

The Brown original now known as F.S.R. (For Sonny Rollins) began as a rehearsal of Rollins' own "Doxy" on a record date with Milt Jackson. "Then," Ray says, "I wrote this other theme as a sort of pre-out chorus for 'Doxy,' and it came off so well that I thought, why not make a separate tune out of it?" The basis is a 16 bar chord pattern that goes back decades before either Brown or Rollins.Put Your Little Foot Right Out is a simple piece based on just two chords (tonic and dominant), probably of traditional origin, but best known in jazz circles through Miles Davis's recording, then under the title "Fran-Dance." Note Gene's subtle behind-the-beat tactics, the perfect time and creative force of Ray's solo, and the agreeably subdued ending.

Rio is one of a group of songs sent to Brown by the late Victor Feldman. "I liked a lot of Victor's tunes," Ray says, "particularly one called 'The Haunted Ballroom' and this one, which was new to me." Rio moves from a bluesy vamp into a fast, samba-esque theme in F Minor, with Gene displaying mighty chops, Jeff and Ray trading ideas, and Jeff soloing with the discretion that has earmarked him as the most tasteful drummer of his generation (at 35, he has been in steady demand since the late 1970s, when he worked with Monty Alexander and Woody Herman).
If I Loved You is a 1945 Richard Rodgers melody, serving here as an ideal vehicle for Ray Brown's Arco bass. The spotlight then switches to Gene Harris for a version of Summertime that was embellished with enough breaks, blues moments and other touches to assure that this would suggest a funky, humid summer.

Days of Wine and Roses finds the men playing this 1962 Mancini standard in what Ray aptly calls a scaled down big band style.

Dizzy Gillespie's imperishable Night in Tunisia undergoes a transmogrification here. I designed it:' Ray says, "mainly as a vehicle for Jeff, for a marvelous hand drumming exhibition. We kept going back and forth, around rather than on the melody."

Bam Bam Bam is a blues, with Jeff's introduction suggesting the title. Gene and Ray have long been masters of the blues; certainly neither of them can recall how many blues they have recorded over the years, but it may well average out at one to a session. Again you will be transported by the phenomenal togetherness of this unit; essentially it's three minds that think as one.

During the past two years it has been my good fortune to hear Brown, Harris and Hamilton, both as a trio and in various other configurations, at the Loa Club, a Santa Monica rendezvous in which Ray was an active partner. With the release of this album, observers around and beyond this country will be able to share the exultant joy conveyed by what must be one of the most naturally compatible threesomes ever to go public with their creative impulses.”

Judging from the audience reactions on these in-performance recordings by Ray’s trio with Gene Harris, it appears as though the following comments about Gene by Scottish guitarist Jim Mullen who later toured with him in the 1990s are spot on as to how this effervescent performer “went about his business” as “an old-school jazz entertainer:”

“Gene used to say that these people have come out to see us, and it’s out job to give them a fantastic time. He used to say at the end of the evening, ‘if you leave here with a smile on your face, remember that Gene Harris put it there.’ I’ve never seen anyone turn a room of strangers into family that way. We never rehearsed. He’d do this big rubato solo piano introduction with no clue as to what’s coming up. Then he’d just start playing and you had to be ready to jump in there. That’s how he wanted it.” [From Richard Cook, Blue Note Records: The Biography, London: Secker & Warburg, 2001, p. 234].
With the issuance of 3-Dimensional [Concord CCD-4520] in 1991, Gene Harris would make his last recording as part of the Ray Brown Trio [although Gene Harris would continue to record with Ray and for Concord in a variety of settings in the 1990s].

Richard Cook & Brian Morton in The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, 6th Edition [p.207] had this to say about it:

“Vintage stuff from the very best of Brown’s groups. This line-up has the easy cohesion of Oscar Peterson’s trios, and Brown’s busy lines often suggest Peterson’s approach to a melody. Following on form from an Ellington melody, Coltrane’s ‘Equinox’ … is a rare stab at a post-bop repertoire, and the group handles it comfortably.”Expanding on the tile of the disc, Fred Bouchard of Down Beat offered these apt, opening remarks in his insert notes:

The sassy triumvirate of Jeff Hamilton, Gene Harris and Ray Brown has earned the stature, cultivated the variety, and accrued the experience that make every tune they play sound multi-dimensional.”The little big band that Jeff Hamilton spoke of is out in full force on this one with kicks and fills everywhere present on the medium cookers like Ja-da and You Are My Sunshine, more of Jeff’s unique beats, this time in the form of a Gumbo Hump’s New Orleans Processional Band drum cadence that should have your hips gyrating in no time, and on a rousing Cotton Tail finale to a seven minute Ellington medley with Ray’s huge, booming bass sound driving it all home.

That three virtuoso performers on their instruments could form such a tight-knit trio is a compliment to the musical integrity and greatness of Gene, Ray and Jeff, respectively. These guys listen to one another and find ways to urge the utmost creativity out of each another’s playing. The listener comes away enthralled and stimulated having heard piano-bass-drums trio Jazz at its best. What they have to put on display is beautifully encapsulated in the 3:45 minute version of Time After Time that closes this recording – perhaps we could call it a Jazz Time Capsule?

As previously noted Gene Harris left Ray’s trio and was replaced by the young pianist Benny Green, a protégé of Oscar Peterson [was this Ray’s way of coming full circle and ending his trio Jazz career where it began?]. Before we leave Gene, perhaps these thoughts about him by C. Michael Bailey might serve well as closing remarks:

“Throughout the 90s, Harris was given free reign to record how he wished. The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD opined that Harris always ended up making the same record...but that was all right. Gene Harris' music always sounded as if it had a smile on its face as big as the one Harris himself wore while performing. That type of sunshine can never be dimmed. Gene Harris died on January 16, 2000 while awaiting a kidney transplant from his daughter. His beaming personality illuminates all through his recorded legacy.”

… To be continued

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