Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Little Blue Byrd - Part 2

Jazzprofiles continues with the second part of this piece as drawn from Kenny Mathieson’s Cookin’ Hard Bop and Soul Jazz 1954 -1965 [Edinburgh: Canongate Press Ltd., 2002, pp. 200-219]. [C] Copyright protected; all rights reserved.

"Blue Mitchell never made the breakthrough from well-respected professional to major artist, but his work as both leader and sideman - notably with the Horace Silver Quintet - in the peak years of hard bop have earned him a deserved place in the music's history. Mitchell went on to record in a variety of rock, rhythm and blues, fusion and pop crossover contexts in the late 1960s and 1970s, but for the purposes of this chapter, the focus of attention will be on his work for Riverside and Blue Note in the decade or so between his recording debut in 1958 and his last hard bop album for Alfred Lion in 1967.
In their publicity for the release of The Complete Blue Note Blue Mitchell Sessions (1963-67), Mosaic Records made the point that Mitchell suffered from being 'merely great at a time when the field was crowded with giants,' while Bob Blumenthal's session notes add the thought that Mitchell's relative neglect had its roots in 'his consummate professionalism. Most of the trumpeter's career was spent playing other people's music, and not always jazz in its most uncompromising form. His sense of what the circumstance called for was quite refined, which provides one explanation for why Mitchell was cherished as much by Earl Bostic and John Mayall as by Horace Silver, whose quintet featured Mitchell for nearly six years.'

Orrin Keepnews's notes for the trumpeter's debut recording for Riverside also makes strong claims for his originality, arguing that 'the individuality of Blue Mitchell's sound and approach is striking.' To contemporary ears, that sound is likely to seem less striking, but closer acquaintance with his work in the round will confirm his standing as a talented jazz craftsman, and he counted many top musicians among his admirers, including Horace Silver and Cannonball Adderley, who was responsible for introducing him to Riverside.

Like Adderley, Mitchell hailed from Florida. He was born Richard Allen Mitchell in Miami on 13 March, 1930, but did not take up the trumpet until the relatively late age (especially for a brass instrument) of seventeen, when he began to play the horn in high school, and also acquired his nickname. He made quick progress, serving a fast apprenticeship playing in local bands in the late 1940s, one of which included bass player Sam Jones. By 1952, he had arrived in New York via Detroit, and was touring with rhythm and blues artists like Paul Williams and Earl Bostic.

He recorded a couple of sides with Lou Donaldson for one of the saxophonist's early Blue Note albums in November, 1952, a session which - shades of things to come - included Horace Silver (he recorded several more albums with Donaldson in the late 1960s). He left Bostic in 1955 after two years in the saxophonist's band, and toured briefly with Sarah Vaughan. According to Keepnews, the routine of section playing began to pale after several years on the road, and he returned to Miami in 1955, where he continued to perform locally.
Mitchell had met the Adderley brothers in the late 1940s in Tallahassee, and it was Julian who suggested the trumpeter to Riverside. Orrin Keepnews heard him play in Miami, and agreed to take him on. Mitchell played as part of the group on Adderley's Riverside debut, Portrait of Cannonball and cut his own debut album for the label, Big Six, on the following two days, July 2 and 3, 1958 (Keepnews has said that the presence of Miles Davis as a spectator in the booth on the first day of recording so unnerved Mitchell that they had to do the whole thing again the next day).
It is notable for containing the first recorded version of a tune which became a hard bop anthem, Benny Golson's 'Blues March', although it is better known in Art Blakey's subsequent version. Mitchell had known Golson in the Bostic band, and the saxophonist's typically clever and effective arrangement for sextet provided fertile ground for the excellent band assembled for the date. The big six in question included Johnny Griffin on tenor, Curtis Fuller on trombone, and a rhythm section of Wynton Kelly on piano, Wilbur Ware on bass, and Philly Joe Jones on drums.

Mitchell more than holds his own in this fast company. The trumpeter paid tribute to his 'sponsor' in one of his two original compositions on the disc, the appropriately funky, hard-driving 'Brother I Ball', and impresses throughout with his rich, focused trumpet sound and coherent improvisations. He joined Horace Silver later that year, where his front-line partnership with tenor saxophonist Herman 'Junior' Cook, another strong journeyman on the bop scene, became a fundamental part of Silver's sound, and remained so until 1964.

Junior Cook, another Florida native (he was born in Pensacola on 22 July, 1934), also recorded with the trumpeter on his last album for Riverside, The Cup Bearers, and in a number of his later dates for Blue Note in 1964-69. Cook recorded very little as a leader in the period (one exception is a Jazzland album called Junior's Cookin' from April, 1961), but did make a number of recordings under his own name in the late 1970s and 1980s, the last of which, You Leave Me Breathless, was cut for Steeplechase only weeks before his death on 3 February, 1992. While his work with Silver provided his most high profile musical outlet, Mitchell also picked up his share of significant sideman dates elsewhere, working with the likes of Jimmy Smith, Jackie McLean, Elmo Hope, Tina Brooks, Johnny Griffin and Stanley Turrentine, among others. He continued to record as a leader, cutting seven albums in all for Riverside in the period 1958-62, before switching to Blue Note in 1963.

Orrin Keepnews; consistently matched the trumpeter with some of the best hard bop musicians around on the Riverside sessions, a floating roster of names which included saxophonist Jimmy Heath, trombonist Curtis Fuller, pianist Wynton Kelly, and a fine selection of bassists (Sam Jones, Paul Chambers, Gene Taylor) and drummers (Philly Joe Jones, Art Blakey, Tootie Heath, Charli Persip, Roy Brooks). The quality of his collaborators, allied to his own consistent level of performance, leaves little to choose between his discs for the label, although Big Six and the excellent Blue Soul are probably the pick of the bunch.
Blue Soul, his third disc for Riverside, was recorded in September, 1959, and followed Out of The Blue, another strong set laid down in January, 1959 (Mitchell also cut an obscure disc for Metrojazz that year, co-credited in a patriotic color spectrum with Red and Whitey Mitchell!). The earlier album featured Blakey on drums, adding his usual drive to proceedings, and included an unorthodox but effective outing on 'The Saints Go Marching In'. Blue Soul was split between a sextet playing arrangements by Jimmy Heath and Benny Golson, and a quartet in which Mitchell blew on three cuts with the rhythm section of Kelly and the two Joneses, Sam and Philly Joe, a sure fire combination which delivers in energized, swinging style.

It provides several fine examples of Mitchell's lyricism and his melodic invention, always the strongest aspect of his playing, as well as his ripe, finely burnished trumpet sound, which remained strong through all the registers, but hit home most tellingly in the middle range. Heath and Fuller contribute resourceful, agile solos without cramping the leader's authority, and the arrangements add some lovely touches to the material, which included originals by Mitchell, Golson and Heath, a fine version of Horace Silver's 'Nica's Dream , and a couple of standards. This is hard bop connoisseur territory, offering endless pleasure to anyone who dug the idiom, but with no real pretensions to the kind of mass appeal which the likes of Miles Davis and Chet Baker had found.
Mitchell (or more likely Keepnews) rang the changes by recording a 'with strings' session, Smooth As The Wind, cut over a couple of dates in 1960-61, which came off tolerably well, and provided a vehicle for the trumpeter's most lyrical moods, although the orchestral contribution seems as supernumerary as usual in these situations. A Sure Thing, recorded in March, 1962, also featured a bigger group, a jazz nonet with Clark Terry on trumpet, Julius Watkins on French horn, a four man reed section of Jerome Richardson (alto and flute), Jimmy Heath (tenor), and both Pepper Adams and Pat Patrick (best known as a long-term member of the Sun Ra. Arkestra) on baritones. Kelly and Sam Jones were joined by Tootie Heath, while Jimmy Heath's deft arrangements put a fresh spin on familiar standards like 'I Can't Get Started' and 'Gone With The Wind', the latter arranged just for quintet.
It was a quintet which featured on his last Riverside date, The Cup Bearers, in April, 1963. The line-up is essentially the Horace Silver group - Mitchell, saxophonist Junior Cook, bassist Gene Taylor and drummer Roy Brooks - but with Cedar Walton on piano. As Joe Goldberg explains in the sleeve note, Mitchell chose to play new compositions solicited from two up and coming jazz composers of the day, trombonist Tom McIntosh (who supplied the title track and 'Capers') and saxophonist Charles Davis ('Dingbat Blues'), alongside Walton's elegant 'Turquoise' and Thad Jones's 'Tiger Lily', all written for the session, which also contained imaginative treatments of two standards. The music has a rather deliberate air at times, as opposed to a fluid blowing feel (the title track and Davis's tune are exceptions), but it made a fine sign-off to his Riverside period.
Having recorded so often for Alfred Lion with Horace Silver, it seemed a natural enough step to cut a disc for the label in his own right. The first session they recorded, on 13 August, 1963, featured saxophonists Joe Henderson and Leo Wright and pianist Herbie Hancock (Bob Blumenthal points out the conceptual parallels between this session and Johnny Coles's Little Johnny C in the Mosaic booklet), but it did not see the light of day until 1980, when it was released as Step Lightly. By the time he returned to the studio, he had more or less inherited the Silver group, which the pianist had disbanded in March, 1964, but he had already made changes, bringing in young pianist Chick Corea and drummer Al Foster, both at the outset of their studio careers, to join Cook and Taylor. That personnel appeared on two sessions, on 30 July, 1964, and 14 July, 1965, released as The Thing To Do and Down With It! respectively.
These are all characteristic Blue Note sessions of the day, mixing stabs at a hit tune - it wasn't only Lee Morgan who was looking for another 'Sidewinder' - through funky groovers like Joe Henderson's 'Mamacita' (on Step Lightly), Mitchell's infectious 'Funghi Mama' (on The Thing To Do), or the uninspired 'Hi Heel Sneakers' (on Down With M), with the usual concoction of bop and blues originals (notable contributors of material included Jimmy Heath, Sonny Red, Chick Corea, and Melba Liston), Latin tunes, standards and ballads. The performances are never less than enjoyable, with Mitchell again underlining the sheer consistency of his playing, while the youthful Corea is already full of good ideas. The trumpeter's warmth and overtly lyrical approach is emphasized on commanding ballad performances like 'Cry Me a River' from the Step Lightly session, Jimmy Heath's elegant 'Mona's Mood' on The Thing To Do, or 'Portrait of Jenny' from his next date for Alfred Lion, Bring It Home To Me.
Recorded on 6 January, 1966, it featured two new faces, pianist Harold Mabern and drummer Billy Higgins, and was his last straight-ahead quintet date for the label. The final two sessions he cut while Alfred Lion was still in charge at Blue Note, Boss Horn (from 17 November, 1966) and Heads Up! (from the same date, 17 November, but exactly one year later) both featured larger groups, with arrangements by Duke Pearson.

They reflect little of the social, political or musical ferment of the mid-1960s, although one or two tunes suggest a more ambitious reach, as in the compositional intricacies of Corea's 'Tones For Joan's Bones' on Boss Horn or Jimmy Heath's 'Togetherness' on Heads Up!, or imply a more serious extra-musical agenda, as in Mitchell's jauntily defiant 'March On Selma' from Down With R!, although it is reflected more in the designated subject than its musical treatment. Pushing the envelope was not Blue's bag, and for the most part, these are all strong but standard issue Blue Note recordings of the period, and none the worse for it.
By the time he recorded his last two crossover-oriented albums, Collision in Black in 1968 and Bantu Village in 1969, Lion had sold Blue Note to Liberty Records (they are not included in the Mosaic set), and Mitchell had felt the cold wind blowing for hard bop in those years. Much of his subsequent work was in more commercial forms as a studio sideman, and touring or recording with artists like Jimmy McGriff, Ray Charles, Mike Bloomfield, John Mayall, Big Joe Turner, Papa John Creach, Tony Bennett and Lena Horne. He settled in Los Angeles in the 1970s, and worked with Harold Land in a bop band, drummer Louie Bellson, and bassist Ray Brown, among others. His recordings of the 1970s, made for several labels, including Mainstream, Just jazz and Impulse!, were a mixed bag of acoustic and electric, hard bop, soul and pop, and never as satisfying as his classic Riverside-Blue Note period. He died from cancer on 21 May, 1979, aged only forty-nine."

No comments:

Post a Comment

Please leave your comments here. Thank you.