Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Dick Grove: Little Bird Suite

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Although we couldn’t remember exactly when, an Internet friend informs us that we acquired our LP copy of composer-arranger Dick Grove’s Little Bird Suite [Pacific Jazz #74] in 1963.

Dick was very active in Southern California Jazz and musical circles dating back to the mid-1950s when, as its pianist, he was a member of the Westlake College of Music Quintet that won the “Easter-week, Intercollegiate Jazz Festival” sponsored by bassist Howard Rumsey and the famed Lighthouse Café in Hermosa Beach, CA.

Under the direction of John Graas, one of the few French-Horn players who specialized in Jazz and who was also a composer-arranger, the award winning quintet recorded an album for Decca – College Goes to Jazz: The Westlake College Quintet [DL 8393]. For your review, we have included a video tribute to the group and the music on this album at the end of this piece.

Dick would subsequently teach at Westlake, the archetype for Jazz conservatories. The college was founded in 1945 in a Beaux-Arts house located near 6th and Alvarado, not too far from downtown Los Angeles. The college is no longer in existence.

He later formed his own Dick Grove School of Music in the San Fernando Valley, north of Los Angeles. Dick’s school offered classes in harmony & theory, composition, orchestration and arranging, keyboards, songwriting, et al. For a full list of Dick’s credits go here.

We spent some time in one of Dick’s rehearsal bands. He was a marvelous educator, an extremely kind and gracious person and one of the few composer-arrangers who actually knew how to write a drum part that keyed the drummer into what was going on in the music instead of simply writing “8-bars of swing on the hi hat” and having a few downbeats noted here and there for “bass drum” or “cymbal crash.”

While re-discovering the Pacific Jazz LP and making the following video tribute to Dick, we were very surprised to learn that this wonderful music had not been digitalized and transferred to CD. The audio track is entitled Circlet and the soloists are Paul Horn on alto saxophone and Bill Robinson on baritone saxophone.

Leonard Feather wrote these informative liner notes for Dick Grove’s Little Bird Suite  Embedded into Leonard’s notes is a video that features another cut from the album. This one is entitled Doodad.

“It seems that there is always a stage in the career of every major artist at which the remark is made by surprised listeners: "Where has he been all these years?," or "Why hadn't I heard of him before?" With the obvious exception of child prodigies, most of the important contributors have to go through this phase; in the case of Dick Grove there can be no doubt that it will be the near-unanimous reaction to this album.

As was the case with Clare Fischer, Gil Evans and others now recognized as important arrangers, Dick Grove had to wait until he was in his thirties before he could make any impact on the jazz scene. Unlike the others, he is a latecomer in the actual craft of writing. "It's only in the last three years," he says, "that I really learned to write, to the point where I could say I wanted to."

Born December 18, 1927, in Lakeville, Indiana, he was not seriously interested in music until about 1942. "My mother and brother were both musicians; he was quite a bit older and played in movie houses, piano and organ. I didn't study until I got out of high school and went to Denver U. for a couple of years. I'm mainly self-taught, trial and error style. I picked up piano and-used to double on vibes."

In 1954 he moved out to California, concentrating for the most part on backing singers, writing and teaching. He played with Alvino Rey for a while (but then, who hasn't?), and lately has done some effective playing and writing (without any credit for the writing) on records with Mavis Rivers.

"Didn't you ever try to submit anything to any of the name bands?" I asked him.
"No, I got into sort of a trap, by getting things going in my own direction. If I were to submit something to Harry James, say, I would have to write the way the Harry James band plays. Or if I wrote for Basie in the Basie style, it wouldn't be me at all. I almost got to the point where I was going to have to do something like that, but I feel I have something of my own to say and it finally dawned on me that anything I do is worth more to me under my own name."

In this manner, the necessity for personal expression became the mother of orchestral invention and the Dick Grove Orches­tra came into existence.

The band has been together, with a few personnel variations, for three years, but chiefly as a rehearsal group. Lately there have been a few in person appearances at college concerts; the plan, now that the group has finally been committed to records, is to keep together, play more concerts and go on the road if and when the demand warrants it.

Of his influences, Dick says: "Naturally I admire Gil Evans, mainly for the mature conception he has; but rhythmically I write very differently." An important difference also is that Gil's best known ventures have been arrangements of standard material, whereas Dick essentially is a composer-arranger who concentrates on his own original themes.

Of the instrumentation, he comments: "I use the regular basic set-up of reeds, brass and rhythm, but I don't write by sections. There are so many ways to create variety through unusual voicings or instrumental combinations.

"All the trumpets double on flugelhorn, which gives a better blend with the woodwinds. I use the piano occasionally, but only as an orchestral thing, not in the rhythm section.

"All the originals in this album except Little Bird were origi­nally commissioned by Dave Robbins' Jazz Workshop. Dave is a trombonist and conductor; his orchestra is heard every other week from Vancouver in a government-subsidized Canadian radio series. I've been writing for him regularly for a couple of years. The versions in the album are slightly different.

"As for Little Bird —it started out as a thing called Blues Two Ways. Pete Jolly took the background theme of the minor part and made a separate 16-bar thing out of it, as a bossa nova. Tommy Wolf added lyrics and it became Little Bird. As it turned out, we were pretty lucky with it; we got seven recorded ver­sions, and my own makes it eight."

There is a suite-like relationship, Dick says, between the three tunes on the first side and the first two on the second side. In other words, the five compositions with bird references in the titles, though they stand by themselves as entities, are tied together in the sense that they make logical continuous listening.

Nighthawk, the moderately paced but firmly-swinging opener, gives immediate exposure to Grove's extraordinary flair for color and variety of timbres in orchestration. There is also a prompt introduction of the soloist who, on the strength of this album, seems certain to earn the belated publicity as an instru­mentalist that Grove will acquire as a writer. His name is Joe Burnett; coincidentally, he is Grove's age. Dallas-born, he has played with just about every name band from Stan Kenton and Maynard Ferguson to Woody Herman and (of course) Charlie Barnet; but he has never had any substantial solo exposure on records. His solo vehicle here is the flugelhorn and his work shows a lyrical beauty that establishes him as the orches­tra's most remarkable instrumental voice.

Bird of Paradaiso, the longest and most brilliantly variegated track, is practically a concerto for Burnett. His lonesome wistful sound, unaccompanied, serves as an introduction and main­tains a sense of tension until, a minute and a half in, a tempo is established by Pena and Jeffries. By using a cluster type of voicing, Grove achieves special moments of rich orchestral texture, these passages being skillfully interwoven with the flugelhorn’s statements.

Mosca Espanola is a vivid pastiche of sounds all the way from the opening F and B Flat triads, through the opening ensembles into the sharply delineated Bill Robinson baritone solo, the gracefully swinging Dick Hurwitz trumpet, and on to the closing passages throughout which bass and drums are ingeniously integrated. The instrumentation in a passage near the beginning, in which I thought I heard muted trombones, actually is played by four open horns, with flugelhorn on top, two tenor trombones and bass trombone.

This voicing, Dick points out, is used at other points, some­times with bass clarinet added, as is the case in Canto de Oriole. The latter is a moody, almost stately piece, performed with an obviously keen, sensitive ear for dynamic and phrasing requirements on the part of every man in the orchestra. Both here and on the preceding track, Little Bird, one is constantly aware of the importance of Jeffries' and Pena's roles, not only as resolute swingers but as part of the overall sound. (Pena's parts in Oriole and Paradaiso were all written out.) Little Bird is noteworthy also for the work of Paul Horn, one of the most accomplished flutists in contemporary jazz; and for the tenor by Bob Hardaway.

Doodad and Circlelet, as noted above, are in a slightly dif­ferent bag from the rest of the compositions, though they retain the ingredients essential to the very personal Grove palette. Paul Horn is the featured alto soloist on both; his sound on alto for several years has been one of the very few distinctive ones on this horn. Circlelet also provides another glimpse of Bill Robinson's full-blooded baritone. Doodad is perhaps closer to the standard big band concept, in structure and sounds; than any of the other works in this set.

Repeated hearings of the album will reveal much more than can be outlined in any verbal summation. There are so many intricate or unusual uses of various tonal colors —the flute dou­bling the lead an octave higher, the woodwinds above the brass, the added warmth obtained through the use of the flugelhorns — that the whole set of performances takes on more interest at each hearing, both technically and harmonically.

Not the least noteworthy aspect of Dick Grove's success is his ability to achieve these results without resorting to such devices as atonality or continuous meter-shifting. "There are so many things that can be done within the present frame­work," he says, "and my feeling is, if you can't hear it, you shouldn't write it."

Clearly there are so many things he can hear that the lis­tener's ear is engaged from the first moment and never allowed to wander as the album follows its polychromatic course.

If orchestral jazz is going to survive, the strength of its will to live must depend on the initiatives of men like Dick Grove. And because of men like him, I am confident that its survival is assured.