Sunday, December 3, 2017

Mundell Lowe - “Our Waltz”

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

 “Improvisers intimidated by the unhurried ballad’s unavoidable requirement to think often address the problem by doubling the established tempo and falling back on a familiar pattern of notes. Mundell Lowe, a deep thinker and consummate guitarist, uses no such trick because he doesn’t need to. He observes the melodies of these cherished songs, sometimes embellishing them a bit, sometimes using their harmonies as touchstones for lovely melodies of his own. It is an album of mood music for the mind as well as the spirit.”
- Orrin Keepnews

Mundell Lowe has been a part of my Jazz Life almost from its beginnings as I was fortunate to acquire two of his earliest recordings for Riverside Records just after they were issued in 1955/56.

Orrin Keepnews, the owner, operator of that label, was also fortunate in terms of his association with Mundell because due to Mundell's southern "roots," Lowe introduced him to pianist Bill Evans who was then a student at Southeast Louisiana State College [Mundell is from Laurel, MS, about a two drive northeast of SELSC].

Mundell passed away yesterday, December 2, 2017 in San Diego, CA at the age 95. The editorial staff at JazzProfiles wanted to remember him on these pages with a retrospective of the highlights of Mundell’s career by Gene Lees, some excerpts from Orrin's insert notes to Mundell's two Riverside albums and with a video montage with Mundell's beautiful rendition of David Rose's Our Waltz serving as its soundtrack.

© -Gene Lees, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“Guitarist Mundell Lowe has performed in a notable variety of styles and idioms. From 1936, when he was fourteen, until 1940, he played traditional New Orleans jazz in that city, at a time when many of its founding figures were still around. Then he went to Nashville and played what was then known as hillbilly music, later refined to country and western, per­forming on Grand Ol' Opry radio broad­casts. He went with the Jan Savitt band in 1942, then into the U.S. Army. On being discharged in 1945, he joined the Ray McKinley band and stayed for two years. Somewhere along the way, he—like Herb Ellis and just about every other guitarist in jazz — came under the influence of Charlie Christian, and then in the period of bop evolution, of Jimmy Raney.

Mundy, as he is known to friends, then played in small groups led by Mary Lou Williams, Red Norvo, and Ellis Larkins while studying composition with Hall Overton, working on staff at NBC, and even doing some off-Broadway acting. He formed a quartet that included Red Mitch­ell on bass, and while working with Mitch­ell in New Orleans discovered and hired a pianist from New Jersey who was then a student at Southeastern Louisiana Uni­versity— Bill Evans. Mundy Lowe was Bill's first champion in the business.

Mundy was a member of the Sauter-Finegan Orchestra in 1952 and '53, and in 1952 began working with Benny Good­man. He played with Goodman intermit­tently until 1984.

In 1965 Mundy moved to Los Angeles, where he worked mostly as a film and tel­evision composer. In 1983 he became music director of the Monterey Jazz Fes­tival. All the while he continued to per­form in his polished, thoughtful, unassuming style, touring from time to time with Benny Carter. He also toured with his gifted wife, singer Betty Bennett. He speaks pretty much as he plays, softly and with a sound of the South.”

Guitar Moods [Riverside RLP 208/Original Jazz Classic OJCCD- 1957-2]

"In these days of apparently countless quantities of jazz albums, variety would seem to be the watchword. The end-product of more than a few recording sessions appears merely to be a rather casual cross-section of the work of a particular group or artist; as if to say "here is a sampling of just about all the types and tempos we have to offer." Not that this is necessarily a poor way to go about things: much good music (as well as some bad and a great deal of indifferent) has been produced by this kind ot approach. Nevertheless, it does serve to point up just how rare it now is for a jazz musician to be so daring as to attempt an LP entirely devoted to a single specific theme, or to building and maintaining a single mood—that, in short, has unity.

It is precisely this sort of rarity that Mundell Lowe has created here. The strongly enthusiastic critical reactions to his work customarily lay stress on the warm, flowing lines of his guitar. This eventually and inevitably has encouraged Mundell to proceed with a project that has long been close to his heart: an album exclusively concerned with the sort of tune that listeners used to call (and musicians still call) "ballads'—songs that demand a slow tempo and delicate, sensitive handling, and that are capable of rewarding the proper treatment by conjuring up a soft and warm glow.

This is music with a deep romantic tinge, but it is never in any danger of slipping over the line into banality or saccharine sweetness. For it remains thoroughly in the jazz idiom. Backed by firm, sure rhythm, and making rich use in his arrangements of the unusual colorings offered by such nonstandard instruments as bass clarinet, flute, and oboe, Lowe emphasizes the beauty and pathos that are among the basic features of jazz.

The repertoire he has selected here is an important part of the picture. From the haunting tenderness of Kurt Weill's "Speak Low" (and it took a little willpower to avoid turning that title into a pun and making it the title of the album!), through the work of such superior artists as Alec Wilder and Harold Arlen to Gordon Jenkins's mournful "Goodbye" (inevitably the closing number), these are melodies of sufficient depth and structure to lend themselves with great effectiveness to the web of intricate and subtle improvisation that Mundell spins. . . .

This album marks another large step in Lowe's progress toward recognition as an outstanding figure among the top-ranking modern jazz guitarists. He commands—as any artist of real stature must—a distinctive, highly personal style. While quick to admit his admiration for several other ma|ot guitarists of today—men like Tal Farlow, Jimmy Raney, Johnny Smith—he is clearly not exactly like any of them. One influence, of course, he does share with just about all current performers of this instrument. For all owe a very substantial debt to Charlie Christian, who must be given credit not only for the prevalence of the electric guitar in jazz today."

The Mundell Lower Quartet [Riverside RLP-204/Original Jazz Classic OJCCD 1773-2]

"On this LP a talented quartet led by guitarist MUNDELL LOWE creates some highly interesting, inventive, often intricate and always melodic jazz. Their music is exciting — because of the swinging drive on most numbers, and the fascinating and thoughtful interplay between instruments on all of them. It's also extremely pleasant, easy-listening jazz — because these men just couldn't play jagged or unrelaxed music, and because Lowe is a particularly fine hand at the clean and beautiful sounds the guitar is so capable of.

These days, quite a few musicians — such as Tal Farlow, Jimmy Raney, Johnny Smith, Barney Kessel — are putting the electric guitar to most impressive and varied use. And Mundell Lowe, as this album should clearly indicate, is rapidly staking out a claim to recognition as a very top-ranking member of this distinguished company.

His approach is very much his own. "I admire men like Farlow and Raney and Smith, but I don't want to play exactly like any of them.") For one thing, his sound is somewhat mellower than most guitarists, avoiding both shrillness in the upper register and that booming effect that can so easily crop up in the low tones on an amplified instrument. This certainly does not keep him from swinging crisply and vividly on up-tempo numbers, nor from achieving the full richness of a ballad. Also, although Lowe is the featured performer here, he does not attempt to stand out alone and unaided. The quartet's unique sound gains much of its effectiveness from being so thoroughly integrated."

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