Thursday, June 21, 2018

Exploring The Scene with The Poll Winners - Barney, Ray and Shelly

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

This post features another recording from our earliest Jazz experiences which the editorial staff at JazzProfiles wanted to commend to you as a reminder, if you’ve heard it before, or as an invitation to move your ears in a different direction, if you’ve not heard it previously.

Actually, this post highlights what is the fourth in a series of albums on Contemporary Records by The Poll Winners and it was issued under the title The Poll Winners Barney Kessel, Shelly Manne and Ray Brown: Exploring the Scene [s-7581; OJCCD 969-2].

Since guitarist Barney Kessel, bassist Ray Brown and drummer Shelly Manne regularly scored high in jazz fans' polls of the day, Contemporary's decision to record them as a trio was commercially impeccable. But they were also a committed musical group too as indicated by the quality of their performances on this disc and their three previous LPs: [1] The Poll Winners [1957, OJCCD 156], The Poll Winners Ride Again [1958 OJCCD-607] and Poll Winners Three [OJC 692].

[There is also a reunion recording from 1975 entitled The Poll Winners/ Straight Ahead OJCCD-409].

As the lead voice in the trio, guitarist Barney Kessel best fits this description from Richard Cook and Brian Morton’s The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, 6th Ed.:”The blues he heard as a boy in Oklahoma, the swing he learned on his first band job and the modern sounds of the West Coast school': Nesuhi Ertegun summary of Kessel, written in 1954, still holds as good as any description.  Kessel has often been undervalued as a soloist down the years: the smoothness and accuracy of his playing tend to disguise the underlying weight of the blues which informs his improvising and his albums from the 1950s endure with surprising consistency.”

Along with Paul Chambers and Ron Carter, Ray Brown was probably the most frequently recorded bassist in modern Jazz. His big sound, uncluttered rhythm and tasteful melodic sense developed into bass lines that were among the best in the business.

Shelly Manne’s cool melodicism, restrained dynamism, and sophisticated playing made him one of the finest musicians in modern Jazz - whatever the instrument. Jack Brand in his bio on Shelly called him “the most melodic Jazz drummer who ever lived."

Although not as common as piano-bass-drums Jazz trios, this is one of the best of the guitar-bass-drums version of the trio format even though it existed only for recording purposes.

The always dependable Leonard Feather prepared the liner notes to the original LP and they contain a wealth of background information about the musicians and the music on this album.

“DESPITE THE ELEPHANT ON THE COVER, and in an election year to boot [1960], the polls relevant to the participants in this album are those conducted annually by three leading U.S. magazines with jazz oriented readers: Down Beat, Metronome, and Playboy. Each year for the past four years Barney Kessel, Ray Brown, and Shelly Marine won first place in all three polls as the most popular jazz guitarist, bassist, and drummer. And each year Contemporary has acknowledged the poll results with a new Poll Winners album.

The "scene" explored by Messrs. Kessel, Brown, and Manne in this fourth set of improvisations is, of course, the jazz scene - particularly the scene of the past few years during which their poll winning activities took place. Jazzmen are among the most non-conforming of all non-conformists, and a run-down of the nine selections in this album illustrates the point very well. Their composers are among today's best-known jazz players. Yet what a group of strongly individual personalities they are! They range from ebulliently swinging Erroll Gamer to brilliant, moody Miles Davis, from lyrical Brubeck to the far-out cry of Ornette Coleman, from the subtle sophistication of John Lewis to the blues-rooted Horace Silver, and the gospel-rooted soul jazz of Bobby Timmons. Together, the nine pieces represent a cross-section of today's many-faceted and fascinating jazz world.

CERTAINLY NOT LEAST among the strongly individual talents in that world are Barney Kessel, Ray Brown, and Shelly Manne. Barney has been "on the scene" since the mid-1940s when he played with Artie Shaw, appeared in the movie short Jammin' the Blues, and toured with Jazz at the Philharmonic. He was born in Muskogee, Oklahoma, October 17,1923, was self-taught, and received early encouragement from Charlie Christian. When he arrived in Los Angeles in 1942, he knew no one, and had not one cent in his pockets, yet within a few years he was known internationally. He won the Esquire Silver Award in 1947, first of many accolades to come his way. He has played and recorded with most of the top jazz artists (Oscar Peterson, Charlie Parker, Lester Young, Billie Holiday, etc.) and since 1953, as an exclusive Contemporary artist, has made a number of his own albums. Barney has also been extremely active in motion picture, radio, and TV studio recording. In 1960 he formed his own quartet, and is currently appearing in the nation's leading jazz clubs.

Ray Brown was bom in Pittsburgh, October 13,1926. While not yet twenty he played with Dizzy Gillespie. Much of his playing since 1951 has been with Oscar Peterson's trio -which for a time in '52 - '53 included Barney Kessel. Ray Is generally conceded to be the bassist of the past decade. He received his first award, Esquire's New Star, in 1947 and has won the Down Beat poll every year since 1953. the Metronome poll every years since 1955, and the Playboy poll each year since it began in 1957.

In addition to his playing on Contemporary's three previous albums, Ray has recorded several of his own albums and a great many with Peterson for Verve Records.  He is on the faculty of the Advanced School of Contemporary Music in Toronto, Canada, and lives in nearby Downsview when not on tour.

During the past year, Shelly Manne has been one of the busiest of all jazzmen: leader of his own group, composer of the score for the movie, The Proper Time, impresario of his own jazz club, the Manne Hole in Hollywood, and constantly in demand for studio recording work for motion pictures, TV, and records. Born in New York City, June 11,1920, Shelly's first playing was done there on 52nd Street in the early 1940s. In the twenty years since, he's played with almost every major jazz figure - in small groups and big bands. He won the first of his eleven Down Beat plaques in 1947, the year in which Barney and Ray won their first national awards. Since 1952 he has lived in the San Fernando Valley, near Los Angeles; since 1953 has been an exclusive Contemporary recording artist.

Little Susie is a blues by pianist Ray Bryant, named for his daughter. It was written in 1957, but became popular in 1960 as a single, and is the title song of Bryant's recent trio album (Columbia CL 1449/stereo CS 8244).
The Duke, Dave Brubeck's best-known composition, was written in 1955 as a tribute to Duke Ellington. It was recorded several times by Brubeck's quartet for Columbia. The first version is on Jazz: Red Hot and Cool (CL 699).

So What was conceived by Miles Davis as a setting for an improvised recording by his sextet. It is described by pianist Bill Evans as "a simple figure based on 16 measures of one scale, 8 of another, 8 more of the first." It is on Miles' Kind of Blue (Columbia CL 1355/stereo CS 8163). For the Poll Winners' version, Shelly used two unusual percussion instruments. The lujon is a teakwood box enclosing six tubes of different lengths. On top of each tube is an aluminum plate, which is struck by a mallet producing a marimba-like sound. The lujon is the brainchild of Bill Loughborough of San Francisco, also the inventor of the boo-bam. The second instrument Shelly plays is a mbira, a small, African thumb-piano which is shaken to produce rhythmic sounds; at the same time the thumbs can produce tones by activating light metal strips. The pitch of neither instrument can be controlled; Shelly's "melodic lines" are not intended to be accurate melodically or harmonically. They serve to heighten the primitive intensity of this hypnotic work.

Misty was written by Erroll Garner in the early 1950s, and has been recorded by him several times. It’s a lovely ballad which has achieved a popularity both in and out of jazz. An interesting treatment with piano and orchestra is heard in Garner's Other Voices (Columbia CL 1014).

Doodlin' is by Horace Silver, the pianist-composer. It’s a blues, dates from 1956, and was recorded by Silver for Blue Note on Horace Silver and the Jazz Messengers (BLP 1518).

The Golden Striker is by John Lewis, pianist and musical director of the Modern Jazz Quartet. It comes from Lewis' 1957 original film score for No Sun in Venice. The Golden Striker was inspired by the life-size figures which revolve and strike the hours atop a building near St. Mark's in Venice. (Atlantic 1334/stereo 3D 1334.)

Li’l Darlin' was written in 1957 by ace arranger and trumpet-leader Neal Hefti for Count Basie, and is one of Hefti's own favorites. It is usually associated with Basie who recorded it for Roulette (52003/stereo SR 52003.)

The Blessing is by Omette Coleman, one of his first compositions, recorded by him for Contemporary (M3551/stereo S7551). It was written in 1952 in a park at Fort Worth, Teas at two in the morning, but not recorded until 1958.

This Here by pianist Bobby Timmons, was recorded in 1959 and made popular by Cannonball Adderley's Quintet, of which Timmons was a member. It’s a jazz waltz, which Cannonball describes in his delightfully informal introduction to his recording In San Francisco (Riverside 12-311/stereo 1157) as having "all sorts of properties. Ifs simultaneously a shout and a chant, depending upon whether you know anything about roots of church music and all that kind of stuff. I don't mean, un, Bach chorales and so - that's different, you know what I mean. This is soul, you know what I mean. You know what I mean? (laughter) All right.. It’s really called This Here, however for reasons of soul and description we have corrupted it to become 'dishyere."'

The style and outlook of the nine composers represented are extremely varied, yet the album has its own consistency and unity because Barney, Ray and Shelly have transformed the material at hand, playing it in their own highly personal way, and bringing to it new meanings, new emotional content.

In listening to the three hours of their recorded music now available, one realizes The Poll Winners are not just three jazz stars who get together to record because they won the popularity polls. They have a separate identity as a group. Their ensemble sound is more than the result of the unusual instrumentation, and more than the sum of their strongly individual talents.
Nat Hentoff has described what they do as a "three-way conversation."
Shelly explains: "You know the minute you do something, Barney and Ray are going to pick it up and make something of it. I think this interplay - back and forth - is the most wonderful way to play, it's the kind of playing I really enjoy the most."

- Leonard Feather


Cover photo of Manne, Brown, and Kessel by William Claxton. design by Guidi/Tri-Arts. Elephant from the collection of Don Badertscher Antiques. Album front and liner © 1960 Contemporary Records. Inc. Printed in U.S.A.

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