Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Ronnie Cuber - The Early Years

© Copyright ® Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Sixty Years after he made his first appearance on the Jazz scene in 1960 with the Newport Jazz Festival Youth Band, Ronnie Cuber is still going strong, most recently, as a recording artist for Nils Winthur’s Steeplechase label and in numerous club and concert dates both at home and abroad.

The man is a Force of Nature!

Ronnie has been such a fixture for so long that it's hard to remember where it all began for him as a recording artist under his own name.

The earliest recording by Ronnie as a leader in my collection is Cuber Libre which was recorded on August 20, 1976 on Don Schlitten’s Xanadu label [Xanadu 175]. 

Thank goodness for Don Schiltten as during the vast wasteland that was recorded Jazz in the 1970s and 80s, Xanadu produced over 100 LPs by such established mainstream artists as Red Rodney, Barry Harris, and Tal Farlow, among many others. The label also gave a start to artists who had been around a while but had not recorded their own albums like trumpeter Sam Noto [whose work on Xanadu was covered earlier on these pages], guitarist Ted Dunbar, and Ronnie Cuber.

As was the case earlier with Bob Weinstock at Prestige Records, the Jazz author and critic Ira Gitler became a sort of aide de camp to Don at Xanadu and helped with production and marketing duties including writing many of the liner notes.

Here’s what he had to say about Ronnie on Cuber Libre which provides an overview of the early years of Ronnie’s career as well as some keen observations about the music and the musicians on the recording.

“In 1960, while a member of down beat's record reviewing staff, I had occasion to write about Marshal! Brown's Newport Youth Band Recorded Live at the Newport Jazz Festival. I liked the band — with reservations. Various soloists were singled out for praise. One in particular was Ronnie Cuber. "Cuber's baritone solo will gas you," I wrote in the vernacular of the time. "His 'break' on Tiny’s Blues at the beginning of the solo shows a wonderful sense of time."

The ability to swing with the rhythm suspended has always been an informal, unofficial, yet revealing test for jazzmen and to hear it done so well by one so young made me mark Ronnie Cuber in my mind as a "File For the Future," as in the feature of the same title used to herald bright, up and coming musicians in the pages of Metronome years ago.

That future is now, which is not to say that Ronnie has not been an excellent, ever-deepening player from the time of Tiny’s Blues, nor that he hasn't been featured as a soloist in a variety of contexts, but that this is the first opportunity he has had to step into the spotlight as a recording leader. This did not happen overnight anymore than did his development. Don Schlitten had admired his work for a long while and when he formed Xanadu it was just a matter of finding the right time to record him.

Ronald Edward Cuber was a Christmas present to his parents in 1941, 18 days after Pearl Harbor. His father played accordion; his mother piano. In this musical atmosphere Ronnie began studying clarinet at age nine. At Alexander Hamilton High School, in his native Brooklyn, N.Y., he played tenor sax, the instrument on which he auditioned for the Newport Youth Band. There were just so many chairs to be filled and an abundance of tenor players but no baritone saxophonists. Marshall Brown obviously heard something in Cuber because he offered to buy him a bari if he would agree to anchor the reeds.

"Over the years it got to be my horn," says Ronnie whose first idol was Stan Getz. When he bought a Gerry Mulligan sextet record it was more for Zoot Sims than the leader. At 16 friends took him to the Cafe Bohemia to hear Miles Davis and Sonny Rollins. "When Sonny came up to the mike to play, that was it," he reminisces.

There were other tenor influences, too, after he was full into baritone. He liked Hank Mobley and tried to simulate some of that sound on the baritone. He also had begun listening to Pepper Adams at the time he joined the Newport Band in 1959. Adams was the new baritone man on the scene at the time and Ronnie's cohorts urged him to try to get a sound like Pepper — "more edge."

Other influences, according to Cuber, were Cecil Payne, John Coltrane and Harold Land. There Are certain places in this album when Ronnie reminds one of the late Leo Parker. Had he heard Leo? "Not very much," he replied, "but Don Schlitten played a track for me recently and it flipped me out.

"I listened occasionally to Serge Chaloff," he continued. "His dynamics were something. I heard Cecil Payne with Randy Weston and that made me go back and play his older records with Dizzy. They were tremendously spirited with a big, fat sound."

Ronnie also paid close attention to altoists, trumpeters and pianists. "In the '50s I listened a lot to Horace Silver and his type of sound. I always wanted to have or be part of a group like that."

The Newport Youth Band was a valuable learning experience for Cuber, and among the benefits derived from playing in an orchestra is the acquisition of a personal sound and a sense of shading and phrasing. Ronnie continued to develop these with Maynard Ferguson (1963-65), Lionel Hampton (1968) and Woody Herman (1969) with whom he toured Europe. He also did a couple of weeks with Kai Winding's four trombone unit except with Ronnie it was only three trombones. He played the bass trombone parts on baritone. There was much jamming in a downtown Manhattan loft with tenorman Joe Farrell, pianist Gil Coggins, bassist Henry Grimes and drummer Vinnie Ruggerio. He was around Slide Hampton's little band and, as a result, did some playing with it and its baritone saxophonist, Jay Cameron.

Although Cuber had some exposure in all these situations the jazz public really became aware of him in the George Benson quartet in 1966-67. He recorded four albums with the guitarist and received more stretching room. "We got a hard-hitting rhythm and blues feel," he explains. "Since it was an every night thing I did most of my playing on that band." It was in 1966 that he won the down beat International Critics' Poll as baritone sax deserving of wider recognition. Check out The George Benson Cookbook on Columbia.

In 1970-71 Cuber played with a jazz-rock mixture band called White Elephant and in 1972 was with King Curtis. This group evolved into Aretha Franklin's backup band. Then he jumped into another kind of experience with Eddie Palmieri from 1972, following up in the Latin-jazz vein with Bobby Paunetto in 1975.

It was also in 1972 that he studied flute with Danny Bank. This new instrument and his doubling bass clarinet has helped him to do studio work during the 70s, no small aid toward helping a serious jazzman survive. Ronnie is not afraid of being harmed by versatility. "I feel I can play disco just as well as play '50s, '60s or '70s jazz," he says.

This album is strictly for blowing, however, and it properly shows off Cuber's command of the big horn's many aspects from steam rolling forward motion to tender, throaty love calls. The supporting trio is most sympathetic.
Albert "Tootie" Heath, youngest of the illustrious Heath brothers, spends his time between the U.S. and Scandinavia. He is a young drum master capable of functioning at top level in a variety of settings. As Dexter Gordon once put it: "Tootie is very loose. You can play anything with him."

Mention Sam Jones’ name to any of the multi-factioned, hypercritical New York players and you will receive nothing but positive feedback from all quarters. The unflagging time and the quality of each note have marked him as just about everyone's favorite bassist in the Apple.

Anyone who has heard Barry Harris knows the kind of magic he can weave as leader or sideman. In the latter role he is unusually empathic and supportive. He and Cuber had never played together before but Ronnie felt "a lot of rapport with Barry. It went naturally that way."

From his very first notes on Star Eyes, the Don Raye-Gene De Paul song Charlie Parker helped immortalize, it's obvious that Ronnie's sound has that "edge" and a most attractive one it is, cutting benignly through the lovely melody and harmonies. Everyone in the group gets a chance to work out.

Cuber unleashes his tidal swing on Rifftide, the Coleman Hawkins line on Lady Be Good which Hawk first revealed as the out chorus of the Gershwin evergreen in an Asch recording with Mary Lou Williams. Ronnie's tone and intensity on this one was what prompted me to ask him if he had ever listened to Leo Parker.

Tin Tin Deo dates originally from a 1948 recording by James Moody, Ernie Henry, Cecil Payne, Dave Burns and Chano Pozo, all members of the Dizzy Gillespie band at the time. The pretty, mysterioso Latin opus is a collaboration between congero Pozo and Gillespie's chief arranger of the period, Gil Fuller. Ronnie uses a growl effectively in the theme statement and goes to create and sustain a completely effective mood.

Luiz Bonfa's Samba D'Orfeo puts him in another kind of Latin groove which metamorphoses into straight-ahead North American swing after the theme. Barry, with Tootie's help, mixes his idioms to advantage.

The ballad of the date, Erroll Garner's classic Misty, is treated languorously and lovingly before it is swung and bluesed but never bruised by the benevolent bludgeon of a baritone. Ronnie's is a mailed fist in a velvet glove.

Sudwest Funk is a down blues by Donald Byrd, first recorded by the composer in 1959 with Pepper Adams and Jackie McLean. Harris opens with some vintage bebop blues, setting the stage for an impassioned statement by Cuber that flows naturally back into the funky Sudwest.

Back in 1949 Kenny Dorham and Max Roach combined to conceive Prince Albert, a lovely, intricate line on the chords of All the Things You Are. Later, in the '50s, Art Blakey's Messengers used to play it when Dorham was a member of that quintet. It is still a very valid vehicle for improvisation as Cuber and Harris so ably demonstrate. Ronnie's out chorus utilizes All the Things You Are as well as Prince Albert.

Ronnie has put in a lot of hard work on his natural talent in the more than fifteen years since he zoomingly rumbled through that break on Tilly's Blues. Cuber Libre is Cuber free—free to pursue his natural inclinations to honest, hard-driving, beautiful music. Cuber Libre is the gateway. The door is open.”

Produced & Directed by DON SCHLITTEN

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