Sunday, April 18, 2021

"Gerry Mulligan Feeling More Universal Than Geographical" by Andrew Jones

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

Here’s another late-in-his-career piece about Gerry Mulligan which featured in the December/January 1990 issue of Jazziz. Sadly, there aren’t very many to choose from as Gerry, along with Jazz itself, had become somewhat lost to a broader audience.

But the upside, as described in this 1990 interview by Andrew Jones is that Gerry was as busy as he could be preparing and playing his music in a variety of formats as he entered the new decade.

In the main, after recapitulating some of the high points in Jeru’s career, this becomes essentially a review of Gerry’s album Lonesome Boulevard [A&M - Verve 0602527068756] about which Gerry has this to say in the opening paragraph to his insert notes to the CD:

“Around the world with my quartet- New York to London, Venice to Valparaiso - people have come up to me after a concert to ask if they can get a recording of ihe group. But it seems in recent years, when it comes time to record, there's always some special project. I want to do, instead, so it's been a long time since there's been an album of the quartet that plays all the concerts.

This time it's different.

I've been very fortunate over the recent years of the quartet, to have fine musicians who also happen to be good people. I've been lucky to have Tom Fay, Mitch Forman. Harold Danko and Bill Mays on piano: Frank Luther, George Duvivier and Mike Formanek on bass; Billy Hart, Butch Miles and Bob Rosengarden on drums. Sometimes we became a quintet or sextet with John Scofield or Mike Santiago on guitar and Dave Samuels on vibes and percussion.

I've also been lucky that as players leave, for one reason or another, they found their own replacements! For instance. Billy Mays sent Bill Charlap to the group and Frank Luther sent Dean Johnson.

Traveling bauds live very close together for long periods of time, and I value the friendships that have resulted from our association. So, as well as being a presentation of the current group I travel with all the time, this is an expression of thanks to all the previous players in the continuing quartet.

As regards the music, I wrote nine new pieces, the titles of which are fairly self-explanatory, plus a theme of Dave Amram's I've always been fond of.”

GERRY MULLIGAN'S STORY is told in his music. Period. Everything you ever wanted to know about the gifted musician who contributed "Jeru" and "Venus de Milo" on the Birth of the Cool is there in his relaxed, sublime solos. For Mulligan, verbal descriptions of his work — the lyricism, wit, and contrapuntal cool of the West Coast sound, his skill at arranging for small ensembles and big bands, his passion for blazing new trails in compositional jazz, or his single-handedly creating a repertory of symphonic works for the baritone saxophone — fall miserably shore.

Even in his brief fling as an actor in Ranald MacDougall's trashy epic, The Subterraneans, Mulligan easily ambles through Jack Kerouac's bohemian San Francisco landscape as a priest with little more than a confident presence and an enigmatic smile. His acting style, like his playing, says everything. No further explanation is needed.

So it comes as no surprise that, when asked what he would think about appearing in a film on his life (New York filmmaker Charlotte Zwerin has been thinking of Mulligan as a possible subject lor the follow-up to her 1988 Thelonious Monk hagiography Straight No Chaser), Mulligan is mortified at the very thought of the idea. "It would embarrass me to death," he laughs. "I guess it doesn't really dawn on people much who don't have to contend with their name being part of what their living and working persona is, but sometimes it gets to be tiresome talking about yourself all the time. But I realize it's a fact of life and one I don't really suffer from very badly. Once I saw Gary Cooper in the lobby of a hotel in Las Vegas. The poor man couldn't walk three steps without being inundated with people. I felt really sorry for him. But, as a performer, you're in the public eye, and you have to have an attitude towards responding to the public. You want to give energy to people, yet how much have you got? It's like being schizophrenic, being an introvert and extrovert at the same time, and trying to get the best out of both."

While gracious and laid back in conversation, Mulligan the introvert stands firmly behind his belief that words will never rival the power of a sustained blue note, so Mulligan the extrovert gently deflects discussion of his current work in progress periodically to talk about the jazz festival syndrome ("Ever notice the bigger the jazz festival, the drier your town is the rest of the year when it comes to jazz gigs?"), film scoring, orchestral logistics, the pros and cons of breaking in a new mouthpiece ("They never quite match, but at least I won't have “to retire"), and sightseeing he's done throughout the world in his illustrious 45-year career. There are no in-depth revelations about his pioneering work which brought a brooding, introspective lustre to early 1950s bebop with the Miles Davis Nonet in New York. Nor any candid reminiscences of the now-famous nights with Chet Baker, Chico Hamilton, and Bob Whitlock at the tiny Haig Club in Los Angeles, steering a lyrical, pianoless quartet that had the critics hearing the West Coast sound for the first time. Just a powerfully quiet portrait of a modern jazz master who may have-fallen out of step with the times when John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman blew into town, but nonetheless stayed cool and copped twenty-nine consecutive Down Beat readers' polls as best baritone saxophonist. And who, despite his sixty-three'years, still has a healthy number of irons in the fire.

"I kind of jump from one thing to another," Mulligan confesses. "I'm writing new material for the quartet, and trying to get some orchestral pieces done for a few pop concerts. I'm working on a new piece for a symphony concert, and now I find myself going over some big band chart ideas because of a project I'm going to do in Chicago next June. In fact this is the first time I've had at home in a while to spend uninterrupted time in the studio and get things in order. Working on so many projects at once and then going on the road. I come back and I find all my papers are ultimately confused, I go look for the symphony thing I'm working on and I can't find it. I've spent ten days so far trying to straighten the place up, and I'm starting to make some progress. I find all the jumping around debilitating, but doing so many different projects stimulates ideas between them"

Until fifteen years ago, when he finally settled down in Connecticut, Mulligan fed this obsessive eclecticism with constant travel. "It's hard to say where I've lived, because I've spent most of my life in no place in particular," he quips. Ever since the move at the age of nineteen from Philadelphia (where he was writing arrangements for the CBS Radio Orchestra) to New York to play saxophone with Gene Krupa's band, Mulligan has been somewhat of a jazz nomad. Soon after he was not only arranging for Krupa, but for the Claude Thornhill and Stan Kenton bands as well.

It was in Thornhill's ensemble that Mulligan met the gifted composer and arranger Gil Evans, who ushered him into a group of young jazz lions — John Lewis, Lee Konitz, George Russell, Thelonious Monk, Zoot Sims, and Miles Davis — whose idyllic, subtle musical vision was to set the tone for post-war jazz. While the Miles Davis Nonet went unheralded in its time, the impact of their breakthrough sessions released as Birth of the Cool has been considerable.

The restless Mulligan moved to Los Angeles, assembling his pianoless quartet, the one that turned trumpeter Chet Baker into an overnight sensation and launched the "West Coast" school of cool. He toured Europe as the 1950s drew to a close, played with Duke Ellington at Newport in '58, dabbled in scoring for movies, and found himself handling larger and larger ensembles — the acclaimed 1960 Concert Jazz Band, a thirteen-strong outfit with four reed players, six brass players, and a big space where the piano ought to be, and the 1972 Age of Steam big band.

These days, Mulligan's music revolves around his quartet, with whom he spent the last decade crisscrossing the globe. "The quartet is an ongoing thing. Most of what I write will go to the quartet first, and then depending on what we wind up doing with it will ultimately dictate what I will do with a piece. If I were working with a big band all the time, that's probably where my first thoughts would be."

Typically, Mulligan insists that there was no grand design behind his new collection of material for A&M's Modern Master Series Lonesome Boulevard, other than to provide a memorable snapshot of his current working band. “I enjoy playing with them so much," he says. "I've played all over the world, I realized that when I go to my record collection, I don't have much to play."

In a jazz age dominated by boxed sets of CD reissues, cookie-cutter British beboppers, and market-researched, demographically adjusted nostalgia, Lonesome Boulevard is like a fresh breeze. Opening with an uptempo valentine to a fondly remembered stagehand at the Apollo Theater in Harlem and ending with an openly lyrical coda that would make a hyper-romantic like Kip Hanrahan or Teo Macero blush, Lonesome Boulevard looks backward affectionately to the classic sound of Mulligan's small ensemble records like Jeru with Tommy Flanagan.

This time around, Jeru's quartet is far from pianoless. While Lonesome Boulevard isn't the first time Mulligan has reintroduced the piano to his work (he did that as long ago as Age of Steam), here he's restored the Steinway to its rightful place in a classic quartet formation, giving pianist Bill Charlap plenty of room to soar. Charlap takes a breathtaking solo on "Ring Around a Bright Star" and fiendishly spikes the whirling dervish of "Flying Scotsman" with chords of unsurpassed clarity, and elegance. The spirited tango of Charlap's dawdling piano and Mulligan's husky, cello-like baritone on the jovial "Good Neighbor Thelonious" says all there is to say about why Mulligan decided to use piano again.

The subtle colors that timekeepers Dean Johnson and Richie De Rosa bring to the material are not to be overlooked either. De Rosa deploys his arsenal of cymbal accents on "Ring Around a Bright Star," while Johnson's fluid bass shines when they slow things down with the noir vamp of the title cut or David Amram's "Splendor in the Grass."

With its buoyant, unhurried playing, gorgeous heads, and timeless quarter feel, Lonesome Boulevard could cynically peg Mulligan as returning to his West Coast roots. But Mulligan argues there's more to his new album than just a return to cool. "The 'West Coast' sound is whatever they tag 'West Coast,' they being critics who like to put tags on thing's," he explains. "As long as there are players around who are from the West Coast, and the tag reflects the way they play, of course there will be a West Coast sound. But what I wrote, then and now, has nothing to do with the West Coast in particular. I like to think that my ideas and feelings are more universal than geographical." 

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