Thursday, January 18, 2018

Dwike Mitchell and Willie Ruff – “The Catbird Seat”

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

I’m always asking Jazz musicians and Jazz fans what they are listening to or for their opinions about my current listening and/or favorite recordings.

It’s a fun way to get differing opinions about the music.

But when I asked Italian Jazz pianist Dado Moroni what he thought of Dwike Mitchell’s performance on The Catbird Seat from the Atlantic album of the same name, I was momentarily surprised by his answer.

“I cried,” he said.

Although I was taken aback for an instant, I intuitively understood why Dado would react this way to Dwike’s playing on this piece on which he is joined by bassist Willie Ruff and drummer Charlie Smith.

As George T. Simon describes it on the album’s sleeve notes:

The Catbird Seat, a slow, swinging blues, gets its title because, as bassist Willie Ruff  points out, ‘it has such a groovy feel­ing. There's an old Southern ex­pression, “sitting in the catbird seat” which means you're sitting pretty and everything is groovy, and that's how we felt on this number. In fact, it's how we feel most of the time when we're at home in the club [Dwike and Willie owned The Playback Club in New Haven, CT].’ The piece projects a tremendously funky feel, but it's also full of musical polish, such as Willie's marvelous articulation, Dwike's tremendous technique and Charlie's beauti­fully controlled brush shadings. Note too the contrast between the long, tremulous, two-chorus build-up into the lovely, relaxed statement of the theme.”

The Catbird Seat is a slow burn all the way.  The very unhurried tempo at which it is played is one that is rarely heard today and very tricky to execute because there is a tendency to rush or drag.

The intensity is there but you have to let it quietly capture you. The track builds and builds and builds until it reaches an exciting climax. And just when you think it is finished, Dwike offers a different ending from the one that “your ears” are expecting.

In the Atlantic Jazz Keyboards CD [Rhino R2 71596], the noted pianist and Jazz author Dick Katz offered these comments about The Mitchell-Ruff Trio, featuring Charlie Smith performance of The Catbird Seat.

"Pianist Dwike Mitchell and bassist Willie Ruff are probably the least known {in the United States, at least) of any of the artists in this compilation. This is because they have chosen to function outside the mainstream of "the business." They are more comfortable in the concert hail and on college campuses than in clubs with cigarette smoke and long hours. [Ironically, Dwike and Willie took the plunge and later opened their own club in Hartford, CT called The Playback, but like most Jazz clubs, it was to be a short-lived enterprise]

Ever since their incredible triumph in the Soviet Union in 1959 — they were the first American jazz musicians to tour there — Mitchell and Ruff have thrilled audiences everywhere They are also educators of the first rank and have enjoyed special relationships with Yale University and New Haven, Connecticut

Make no mistake, here are two virtuosos ol unique ability. Dwike Mitchell rivals Oscar Peterson in the chops department, and Willie Ruff makes it rough on other bass players. His French horn playing, not heard here, is in a class by itself.

The Catbird Seat with the addition of the late drummer Charlie Smith finds them harking back to their Southern roots. It is truly a pianistic tour de force. Over a hypnotic, steady, unembellished quarter-note pulse, Mitchell builds to a thunderous climax via some awesome tremolo effects. The piece winds down gracefully and ends with a churchlike cadence.  This is state-of-the-art piano blues. It's interesting to compare it with Ray Charles' "The Genius After Hours." [Also included on the Atlantic Keyboards compilation.]

Elsewhere in his liner notes, George T. Simon has this to offer by way of background information on what came to be known as the Mitchell-Ruff trio.

“This is thrilling jazz. I know you read such superlatives in almost every liner note, but believe me, the music herein is really something special.

It's modern jazz with the emphasis on the jazz. Like many modernists, both Dwike Mitchell and Willie Ruff are thoroughly-schooled musicians. But, unlike most modernists, they haven't forgotten the basic romping, swinging beat of jazz, and the results here are pretty electrify­ing.

Maybe, like me, you remem­ber Dwike and Willie when they were just the Mitchell-Ruff Duo. They achieved international fame in 1959 when, as members of the Yale Russian Chorus that was touring the USSR, they tem­porarily tossed aside their ton­sils, hauled out piano and bass, and proceeded to regale the Rus­sians with American jazz.

At that time the group's jazz feeling was highly personal  -  al­most completely implied. Now though, with the addition of Charlie Smith's drums, you can't possibly miss it. Before his ad­vent, what they were playing had relationship to themselves only, just as in modern art a painting on an infinite canvas can only relate to itself. But now, thanks to Charlie, they have been supplied with a rhythmic framework inside which they are able to create jazz masterpieces with a spatial, or rhythmic rela­tivity that all of us can feel and understand.

Mitchell, a Floridian who graduated from the Philadelphia Musical Academy, and Ruff, an Alabaman who earned his B.A. and M.A. degrees in Music at Yale (they once played together in Lionel Hampton's big band) joined forces last year with Smith, a New Yorker, who has played for Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington and Billy Taylor, at a New Haven club called The Playback. It was founded by Ruff himself, ‘be­cause we needed a place in which we could work out things the way we wanted to, and just stay on until we felt we were really ready to show the rest of the world what we could do.’

For close to a year, the trio worked, played, and, in the case of Ruff and Smith and their fami­lies, even lived together. ‘We got so that each of us could feel what the others were going to do without even looking,’ says Smith. By early autumn of 1961 when they felt they were ready, they brought portable recording equipment into the club and re­corded the numbers heard herein. The first Artist and Repertoire man to hear the tapes, Atlantic's astute jazz-loving V.P., Nesuhi Ertegun, flipped, and - well, here's the result.”

Dwike Mitchell passed away on April 7, 2013 at the age of eighty-three.

The editorial staff at JazzProfiles wanted to remember him on these pages with this feature and the following video tribute on which the music is – what else but - The Catbird Suite.