Monday, November 12, 2018

Bill Hitz and Greig McRitchie - Jazz and Swing Orchestras: West Coast Series

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

On Music for This Swingin' Age, Bill Hitz's made his record debut with an orchestra spotted with driving West Coast soloists. All arrangements, by Hitz himself and Lyle (Spud) Murphy, use Murphy's 12-tone system, each building horizontally, full of incident and a fresh, satisfying approach. They deliver a rousing, brass-edged sound while Hitz's cool clarinet fits perfectly into the mood of the arrangements.

Greig McRitchie on his album Fighting Back aka Easy Jazz On A Fish Beat. certainly captured that swing era "feel", but he dressed it up with the distinctive rhythm and bass figures of Rock and Roll—piano, bass, guitar, drums and baritone, plus a rare, modern touch of harmonic color. His repeated use of vibes, alto, flute and guitar adds a refreshing perspective to a repertoire of easily identifiable tunes, all delivered by a powerful big band unit full of the cream of the crop of West Coast jazzmen.

Writing in 1986, Steve Voce in his fine book about the various Woody Herman Big Bands observed:

“Despite the never ending questions about the possibility of their return, the big bands never really went away. Admittedly they were crushed by heavy taxes and the advent of television in the second part of the forties, but the format proved resilient and there are probably more big bands today than there were during the golden era of big bands in the forties.” [p. 30; emphasis mine].

As if to corroborate Steve’s point, Jordi Pujol, the owner proprietor of Fresh Sound Records is currently issuing a series of Jazz and Swing Orchestra CDs while noting as a general introduction to the series:

“When the dust from the collapse of the Swing Era settled, there were few big bands left that had survived. Yet, because they loved the swinging drive of a full-on jazz orchestra, a series of adventurous and unsung bandleaders optimistically organize some fine, but short-lived, new orchestras that were packed with jazz and studio musicians, holding the flag of Swing high”

Jordi has place two Jazz and Swing Orchestras on each CD and further group these “rare and collectible albums by unsung bandleaders” as part of the West Coast Series and East Coast Series.

From the standpoint of the high quality of musicianship on display and the intriguing and well-written arrangements, these are “must have” CDs for anyone who is a serious collector of big band Jazz and you can locate more information about the series on the Fresh Sound website by going here.

The editorial staff at JazzProfiles will highlight a number of these excellent recordings in a week long series beginning with Fresh Sound CD-959 West Coast Series: Bill Hitz: Music for This Swinging Age … Greig McRitchie: Easy Jazz On A Fish Beat.

Original liner notes from the Decca album Music for This Swingin’ Age - Bill Hitz and His Orchestra (DL 8392)

“IT's become rather corny to talk about jazz as an art. People who talk and write about jazz have just about worn out the line while they were honestly trying to make a point with a preconceived notion that their listeners or readers were strictly square cut.

The trouble is that the "jazz is an art" pitch was being made much too early in the history of the form, for actually jazz is a cultural offspring, more a folk-music in origin, than it was an art.

Its development into an art form actually began with the advent of the first arranged jazz in the twenties with Fletcher Henderson and Duke Ellington, but this product was hardly more than one dimensional. The actual evolution of jazz as a full-blown art form began in the early and mid-forties with the rise of the Gillespies and Parkers. These efforts opened the door for more expansive thought, for more extended study, and for a development of the form far removed from even the wildest dreams of the early New Orleans jazz pioneers. For in a matter of 60 or 70 years, jazz music made progressive steps which have just about brought it alongside and even moved beyond the progress of serious or classical music.

Even die-hard jazz purists, the Dixieland lovers, are conceding  that arrangement and composition have become as integral a part of jazz as improvisation. And the strides taken in the forties and in recent years in
arrangement and composition have been lengthy and amazing, so much so that jazz has become as complex in structure and conception as the most challenging works of the classicists, with jazz still managing to retain that certain elastic quality which allows a freedom for improvisation.
Most of the progress made in this direction was made in the midst of the celluloid inferno called Hollywood, and the movement has been loosely labeled West Coast jazz, much in the manner that Dixieland is familiarly called New Orleans jazz, and there is Chicago jazz, Kansas City jazz, and New York jazz. The lure of the "big money" security of work in movie music-making drew some of the most talented jazz musicians, as well as arrangers. In the hours after the day's work, West Coast jazz was nurtured and developed by a combination of the sharp studio men's minds and the more aware young non-studio musicians who sought to study and learn from their elders.       

With a working knowledge of jazz and all its previous elements, these men experimented with ideas which attempted to fuse jazz with the theories of modern classicists such as Hindemith, Berg, Stravinsky, Ravel, Delius, Shostakovich, Debussy, Schoenberg, and Milhaud. They even searched deeper to find a relationship between jazz and the Bach-Mozart period. The results have produced some of the most provocative of jazz sounds, with a greater variation of instrumental colors and a more stimulating flow of improvised ideas than has been heard since swing, the first successful arranged jazz, hit its peak in the later thirties.

This album is a prime example of the progressive movement. It's a product of the West Coast and it presents a vital student working with a teacher who can practice what he preaches. The student is leader Bill Hitz, who also is an arranger and clarinetist, and the teacher is Lyle "Spud" Murphy, an arranger-composer who is a veteran of the music scene, but who only recently has found his way into modern jazz.

The music they have produced on a collection of both standard songs and a number of their own compositions is based on Murphy's own theories and system, which he describes as his 12-tone system of equal intervals. The system still is comparatively young and barely tried, this album being the first collection of work fully developed from it. The arrangements, for the largest part, are written horizontally, and you will hear fugues, polytonality, fresh harmonies, new chord progressions — altogether a new vitality added to that basic form called jazz,

The Hitz-Murphy ideas and arrangements are played on this record by a group of other Murphy enthusiasts and students. The personnel of the band includes: Conrad Gozzo, Mickey Mangano, and Ray Linn—trumpets; Milt Bernhart and Dick Nash—trombones; Russ Cheevers, Buddy Collette, Bill Ulyate, and Chuck Gentry—saxes and winds; Gerald Wiggins—piano; Curtis Counce—bass; Larry Bunker—drums. And, of course, Bill Hitz on clarinet, and Hitz and Murphy, arrangers.

For special inspection, study Sampan, an original written in equal fourths, both melodically and harmonically, and containing several pure horizontally written (meaning the harmonies are the result of the moving lines played by the various instruments) passages featuring Hitz on clarinet; Something Blue, a polytonal blues featuring some wonderful Ray Linn trumpet and the amazing Buddy Collette on tenor sax; But Not for Me featuring some remarkable sax section passages and an interesting fugue development in the last chorus; Strike Up the Band blends jazz with a marching band flavor by employing the Murphy 12-tone system of writing and again features solos by Hitz and Collette, the latter both on alto and tenor sax.

Bill Hitz is a comparative stranger to the jazz field, and here makes his first entry as a recording artist. He has had a long string of credits as a sideman with some of the leading dance bands in the country including those led by Ralph Flanagan, Buddy Rich, Gene Krupa, and Charlie Barnet, and after this experience he sought out Murphy to merge this knowledge with a working knowledge of the most modern of jazz ideas. Murphy is a long-standing member of the music fraternity, having spent many years as an arranger for such bands as Jan Garber, Mal Hallett and Benny Goodman, and also was one of the most popular writers of music publisher stock orchestrations. He retired to the Coast some years ago and was hardly heard from while he developed his 12-tone system, and it was only in 1954-1955 that his name was heard from again when a number of Hollywood musicians "found" him and his ideas.

He has now become one of the key figures in the huge West Coast jazz movement.”
—Hal Webman

Original liner notes from the Cadet album The Greig McRitchie Band - Fighting Back aka Easy Jazz On A Fish Beat Bass (IPS 4058)

“Jazz has expanded at an alarming rate the past few years, but most of the influential sounds have come from small combos. "The big bands are dead" is a phrase that has been overworked since the mid-fifties. Greig McRitchie and company may just change a lot of minds. After listening to the first two cuts of this album, I was ready to roll back the rug and dance, and my mind began to wander back to those wonderful days when we would drive 200 miles a night just to stand in front of a band and listen. McRitchie has certainly captured that "feel" of the swing era, but he has dressed it up in a brand new bag. He has utilized all the basic elements of the swing era style of writing plus a modern touch of harmonic color that is as rare as a fine spice.

In addition to fronting a crew that is smooth, swinging and powerful, Greig has added another ingredient that is essential for today's jazz listener... great solo players. The rhythm section includes Shelly Manne (drums), Russ Freeman (piano), Joe Mondragon (bass), and Tony Rizzi (guitar). It's no wonder the band boots all the time. Buddy Collette's alto and flute work falls into an easy groove and Larry Bunker's vibes add a beautiful icing to a swinging cake.

There is no mistaking that McRitchie's writing has a personality and sound of its own that reflects the thoughtful goal he wants to achieve. His repeated use of vibes, alto, flute and guitar has a refreshing appeal that makes it a sound for sore ears.

If you combine all of the aforementioned elements with some of the best West Coast players and a group of easily identifiable tunes, you just can't miss. In the first thirty seconds of listening, you'll know that Greig McRitchie hasn't missed.

Opening side one with the rhythm and bass figures of a rock beat on Jeepers Creepers, the band paves the way for a swinging second chorus that provides ample blowing room for Buddy Collette. The brass swings, and Shelly gets a chance to add a few bars to wrap it all up.

McRitchie Doodle is a fine example of the flute-vibes-guitar sound I mentioned. You'll immediately recognize this as Polly Wolly Doodle All the Day— personally, I like McRitchie's version; Grandma never swung the tune like this. Russ Freeman has a little freedom and Buddy Collette adds a fluid alto chorus before the bones come in to close it.

Vincent Youmans evergreen, Sometimes I'm Happy, gets a gentle treatment from McRitchie. The ensemble sound of trombones and muted trumpets is reminiscent of Les Brown's renowned sound of the fifties. Solo spurts from Larry Bunker on vibes and Ray Linn on trumpet fill the middle before the band comes back in for the easy, two-beat finish. Dig Russ Freeman getting in the last word on the ending.

Runnin' Wild is "finger-snappin’ good". Marty Berman establishes the fooling on baritone and Larry Bunker provides the opening and closing themes. That retarded ending with the seventh chord gives it the old blues close.

What would jazz have been without the blues! Fishbeat Blues is really a vehicle for the soloists to stretch out a little bit. Russ Freeman, Buddy Collette, Tony Rizzi and Larry Bunker provide the single highlights. With Marty Berman laying down the "rock" foundation, the band swings in again for a closing chorus, with a key change thrown in for good measure.

Lonely Night is one of Greig's originals, a pretty tune that shows the fine flute work of Buddy Collette. Get a good hold on your chair when the brass section blows... you'll flip!

On side two, they should have titled the first tune Mammy's Little Baby Loves... Greig McRitchie [instead of Greig’s Bread].

Sally's Back is another McRitchie original that gives Buddy Collette and Russ Freeman the green light. Good, crisp brass work and a happy, danceable beat. It swings!

To Shuffle Off to Buffalo, McRitchie again relies on Marty Berman's baritone to establish the rhythmic pattern. The brass has a fat sound and Collette and Freeman do the solo honors.

Robbin's Nest is a nice revival of the great jazz item of the forties. The tune was penned by Sir Charles Thompson and Illinois Jacquet for New York disc jockey Freddie Robbins, and McRitchie's arrangement makes for easy digging.
Goodnight is a fitting close to the album. It opens like a down south camp meetin' before the band romps. Russ Freeman lays down a chorus and Buddy Collette turns on for one.

For digging or dancing, Greig McRitchie has found the secret sound. Stop reading and put the needle on... you're wasting some good moments if you don't hurry and listen to the Greig McRitchie Band "Fighting Back"!”                                                                                                       —Jim Boten. KADI-FM, St. Louis

Original recordings produced by Charles "Bud" Dant and Geordie Hormel Produced for CD release by Jordi Pujol © & ® 2018 by Fresh Sound Records.

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