Sunday, June 17, 2018

The Red Mitchell and Harold Land Quintet

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


“Mitchell was known for a fluent improvising style in which pulled-off (rather than plucked) notes in a typically low register (Mitchell used a retuned bass) suggest a baritone saxophone rather than a stringed instrument; Scott LaFaro was later sanctified for a broadly similar technique.”
- Richard Cook and Brian Morton, The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, 6th Ed.

“The basic sound of the Mitchell-Land group is one that the musicians find elusive of verbalization. "Hard" is an adjective that has been applied too often lately to any brand of jazz with a substantial degree of aggressiveness; the implication that hardness involves harshness seems to invalidate the use of the term here. It is more relevantly a jubilant, sinewy, cohesive sound, in which the key factors are self-confidence and the kind of group feeling that can only stem from musicians who have been working together and listening to one another closely over an extended period.”
- Leonard Feather, Jazz author and critic

Among the unique voices in modern Jazz that always impress me everytime I hear them are Red Mitchell's singing bass lines and Harold Land’s “Texas Tenor Sax Sound,” the blues-inflected, “moan within the tone” that Cannonball Adderley ascribed to this style.

Imagine my delight then when I learned that Red and Harold had teamed up in a new quintet that featured Carmell Jones on trumpet, Frank Strazzeri on piano and Leon Petties on drums.

Although the group disbanded after only about a one year stint, it was one of the finest bands on the West Coast playing a style with an emphasis on “heat” rather than the “cool” usually associated with Jazz on the Left Coast during the 1950s and early 1960s [all of which was exaggerated marketing nonsense to begin with].

Gene Lees offered these observations and thoughts on Red in his Cats of Any Color: Jazz, Black and White:

“Back in the 1950s, two names loomed very large on the bass: Ray Brown and Red Mitchell, idols of other bass players. Mitchell has to be accounted one of the most influential of jazz bassists, in a line with Walter Page, Jimmy Blanton, and Charles Mingus, if only because one of his proteges. Scon LaFaro, influenced just about every younger bass player since his death at twenty-four — almost the same age at which Blanton died. But more bassists have obvious audible debts to LaFaro dian to Mitchell, who remains, as Mingus did, a phenomenon of one.

No one sounds like Mingus. No one sounds like Red Mitchell. What makes his playing so really odd is that he developed an approach to the instrument as if it were a saxophone, extracting from it melismatic vocal effects, glissandi diat bespeak enormous strength in the left hand. At times he would play bottom notes on the first and third beats of die bar and then strum the rest of the chord on two and four on the top three strings, using the backs of his fingers a little like one of the techniques heard in flamenco guitar.

He developed a huge sound, producing tones that lasted forever, and did things on the instrument that no one else had ever done, and possibly no one else will ever do. He long has been looked on as something of a curiosity because he changed the tuning of his bass from the conventional fourths to fifths. One of the things one would not figure out for oneself is that the tuning actually could affect the sound of his instrument by altering the nature of its resonance.

Ted Gioia in his definitive West Coast Jazz: Jazz in California, 1945-1960 offered these comments about Harold Land beginning with his early association with Max Roach and Clifford Brown’s Quintet before the group moved to New York and Harold, who chose to stay in Los Angeles, was replaced by Sonny Rollins:

“His early Coleman Hawkins sound had by now broadened to include a fluent command of the bebop idiom, complete with a polished technique that could navigate the most challenging progressions and tempos. Throughout his career Land has shown a continued ability to assimilate new sounds and musical ideas. First grounded in the music of the big band era tempered with a dose of R&B, Land later assimilated the modern jazz vocabulary and made it his own, just as, in the 1960s, he would adopt many of the musical mannerisms developed by John Coltrane and his followers.

A restless stylist, Land has been the jazz leopard who continually tries to change his spots. His stint with the Brown/Roach Quintet was no exception: For two years Land further refined his craft within the confines of this world-class ensemble, slowly forging a quintessential hard bop sound that would reach its fullest expression in his later work as a leader and with the Curtis Counce group.”


Sadly, Red and Harold’s quintet only made one recording together - Hear Ye!!!! [Atlantic Jazz 1376-2] which the distinguished Jazz author and critic Leonard Feather annotated in the following insert notes to the original LP.

“The record debut of the Red Mitchell-Harold Land Quintet may mark a turning point not only in the career of this group, but in the whole image of West Coast jazz.

For too many years this slogan was associated with a brand of music, emanating exclusively from Los Angeles, that employed tautly scored little performances with all the shine and sparkle of a prune. It was claimed at times that this represented a new trend in jazz, that the music had its own validity and was not a mere faded reflection of some ideas that had become desiccated on their way west from New York. Time has killed theory and music alike.

Red Mitchell and Harold Land were never a part of that scene. True, they have worked at times with some of the musicians said to typify West Coast jazz, but this has no more direct bearing on their musical ambitions than Red's TV shows with Mahalia Jackson or Harold's Las Vegas excursion with Brook Benton. Both were interested in a new, fresh, bold sound, one that could give the tired West Coast slogan a valuable meaning.

That their paths crossed, leading to the creation of what John Tynan in Down Beat aptly called "the most stimulating and creatively alive jazz group resident on the West Coast," was the product of a series of fortuities. Red, a New Yorker, had worked in the East with Chubby Jackson (as pianist doubling on bass), Charlie Ventura and Woody Herman. He moved to Hollywood in 1952, when he began a two year membership in the Red Norvo Trio.

"I can't remember exactly where and when I met Harold," says Red, "but I heard him with the Clifford Brown-Max Roach group around 1954-5, and then really got to listen to him extensively a year or two later when he was with Curtis Counce's combo. Later on

I guess there was a mutual respect thing going; we started hanging out more, got to like each other a lot personally, and found out we had a lot of things in common, a lot of musical ideas and ideals.."

"It seemed a natural thing for us to get together. Even our families had grown close — our wives and sons — and somehow we started out with an idea for a quartet. But we wanted a fuller sound, and different voicings, and we had this concept of using the bass as a third voice on some things, so we agreed that the quintet is a perfect jazz instrumentation,"

"I can't remember exactly where and when I met Red," says Harold, completing the mutual oblivion pact, "but I think it was in San Diego, where I lived before I came to Los Angeles. He played there in a little group that Woody Herman had with Bill Harris and Bags, in 1950. That was four years before I moved north."

"The first time we played together was at an art exhibit, with a quartet. By that time I had known and admired Red's work for a long while. We both got to thinking that we could provide a few fresh approaches to the quintet sound. We felt there weren't enough well-organized, tightly-knit combos on the scene. . ."

The three sidemen lined up by these two leaders were all logical choices. "Carmell had come out to the coast primarily to work with Harold; he dug him that much," says Red. "Of course, I knew him well too; he had sat in with me several times. Frank Strazzeri and I had worked together a lot, and Leon Petties came here from San Diego, like Harold, and had been jobbing with Harold's quartet. I had known Leon since he sat in with me in 1956, when I was with Hamp Hawes' Trio; in fact, I had tried to get Hamp to hire him."

The five musicians began rehearsing in the summer of 1961. All but Petties doubled as writers, and all five had identical feelings concerning the group's objectives and musical potential.

"There has been so little of this kind of music organized out here," Red points out. "Curtis had a fine group, but it didn't last too long. We realized, too, that forming a group like this in Los Angeles and trying to keep it together was not the easiest thing in the world."

Despite the evident handicaps, the men were unflaggingly cooperative in making- rehearsals. All made sacrifices of one kind or another to keep the group intact. (On one occasion, in order not to miss a rehearsal, Red turned down a gig that would have meant a whole TV series for him.)

The basic sound of the Mitchell-Land group is one that the musicians find elusive of verbalization. "Hard" is an adjective that has been applied too often lately to any brand of jazz with a substantial degree of aggressiveness; the implication that hardness involves harshness seems to invalidate the use of the term here. It is more relevantly a jubilant, sinewy, cohesive sound, in which the key factors are self-confidence and the kind of group feeling that can only stem from musicians who have been working together and listening to one another closely over an extended period.

Fortunately the opportunities for the quintet, though limited by their geographical situation, have exceeded their original expectations. In addition to stretching out for several weeks at Los Angeles' Town Hill club, they have worked every Monday at Shelly's Manne Hole for several months, played weekend concerts at Le Grand Theatre, and have gigged at the Renaissance and other local spots. With the release of this album they plan to make their first joint trip East.

It is a healthy sign that a group of this type has been able to get going in Southern California. After having lived out here for a year, this writer can attest to the frustrations that beset Los Angeles jazzmen whose ambitions are analogous with those of, say, a Blakey or Silver or Adderley in New York. Removed by thousands of miles not only from the principal jazz clubs but also from the booking agencies' headquarters, most of the record companies, and many of the influential jazz critics, the musicians in Los Angeles are sometimes tempted to become bitter as they see extensive publicity and work opportunities falling in the path of other groups, whose musical value may be equal to their own but is certainly not so far superior as to justify the great disparity in recognition.

Had the above-mentioned New York groups been stationed in Los Angeles during the past six or seven years while Red, Harold & Co. were transplanted to New York, it is entirely possible that jazz history might have been written a little differently.

Although I have stressed the importance of the group's overall sound, obviously no combo that relies heavily on improvisation can be any stronger than its weakest solo link. The steel links in this chain know no weaknesses; all ensemble considerations aside, this is, man for man, as strong an alliance of compatible talents as you will find on the scene today — and this does not just mean the California scene.


Harold Land, in the course of these sides, manages to communicate all the essential values of contemporary jazz: not merely the harmonic knowledge and technical virtuosity, but the obvious respect for basics, the understanding of the blues force in jazz, the emotional quality without which all his equipment would be earth-bound. He is a modernist whose respect for tradition and traditionalists has prevented him from transgressing beyond the true orbit of this music. The influences are clear from time to time — Coleman Hawkins, whose Body And Soul, played a large part in forming his love of the instrument; Lucky Thompson, whose warmth of sound and fluency of style impressed him a few years later; and of course Charlie Parker, whose soul was Bird's legacy to a whole generation. Above and beyond the influences, Harold is vitally and consistently himself, both as instrumentalist and composer.

Red Mitchell, whether playing arco (as in his solo during the title number) or in the round, clear pizzicato that has made him the most consistently respected bassist of the past decade, remains the most supple and subtle of artists. He takes pride in his work, in his associates, in his remarkable bass fiddle with its big sound, and in the compositions he has contributed to the books. Rosie's Spirit, named for his wife, is an energizing up-tempo sample of his writing,

Carmell Jones is the most recent Californian of the five. Born in 1936 in Kansas City, Kansas, he took up trumpet at 11, studied locally, went to the University of Kansas for two years and moved to Los Angeles in August 1960. Originally influenced by Miles Davis, and for a while by Chet Baker, he was traumatically impressed by a Clifford Brown record; it is clear from the lyrical timbre and the Brownie-like touches in much of his phrasing that he remembers Clifford very well. Samara, a slow and beguiling minor theme, is an admirable example of his promising work as a composer.

Born in Rochester, N. Y., where he studied at the Eastman School of Music, Frank Strazzeri lived in New Orleans and Las Vegas before moving to Hollywood early in 1960. He names Teddy Wilson and Bud Powell as early influences, Al Haig and Hank Jones as overall preferences. Trained empirically in every phase of jazz — he has worked in Dixieland bands as well as with Sweets Edison, Kenny Dorham and Conte Candoli — Frank has developed amazingly in the past year. He might be called a West Coast equivalent of McCoy Tyner or Wynton Kelly in terms of fluidity, technique and imagination.

Leon Petties, since he moved to L.A. from San Diego, has gigged with Buddy Collette, and worked with Shorty Rogers a few times when Shorty took over Harold's quartet en masse for a series of engagements. Petties is admired by his colleagues in the quintet for his steady time, taste and consistency.

These are the men of whom Tynan reported: "They are the happiest jazz news to sing out on the coast in years." The key word is "happiest." If you are among those who have expressed alarm at the neurotic trend in modern jazz, and are looking for a group that is fresh, vital, integrated (in both senses of the word), you will find the joyous answer in the Mitchell-Land Quintet.”

LEONARD   FEATHER

The following Soundcloud audio-only track of Harold’s original composition Tippin’ Awhile is taken from a performance by the Mitchell-Land Quintet at Howard Rumsey’s Lighthouse Cafe in Hermosa Beach, CA in 1962.


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