Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Gerry Mulligan's Concert Jazz Orchestra at Birdland - Ira Gitler

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

The following appeared in the April, 1964 edition of Downbeat

Ira Gitler was one of the more esteemed Jazz critics at that time and anything praiseworthy from him was helpful in furthering an artist's career, especially if it appeared in an important Jazz World publication such as Downbeat.

Sadly, though, this appreciative review of Jeru’s Concert Jazz Orchestra might have been a case of too little too late as by the following year the band would be gone.

But if you look closely at the personnel, in addition to Mel Lewis, who was the drummer in the band almost from its beginnings, you’ll see Thad Jones listed on cornet.

That was a relatively recent personnel change at the time but it would have a lasting effect, one that is still being felt [heard?] to this day as after Gerry’s Concert Jazz Orchestra folded, Thad in combination with Mel would effectively resurrect its spirit in their own Thad Jones - Mel Lewis Orchestra which has morphed into today’s Village Vanguard Jazz Orchestra.

“Gerry Mulligan's

Concert Jazz Orchestra at Birdland

Personnel: Clark Terry, Nick Travis, trumpets; Thad Jones, cornet; Bob Brookmeyer, Willie Dennis, Alan Raph, trombones; Bob Donovan, alto saxophone; Phil Woods, alto saxophone, clarinet; Richie Kamuca, tenor saxophone; Tony Ferina, baritone saxophone, bass clarinet; Mulligan, baritone saxophone, piano; Bill Crow, bass; Mel Lewis, drums.

Most of the time Mulligan fronts a quartet, but his heart is really with the 13-piece big-little band. Anyone who observed him during the weeks that his Concert Jazz Orchestra spent at Birdland realizes this.

Walking among his men like a restless, though happy, tiger, Mulligan was completely immersed in his orchestra: setting riffs, adding his baritone to the main body or comping at the usually unattended piano, hand-signaling to indicate how many more choruses his ensemble should head-arrange before taking a theme out.

One can't blame him for the great enthusiasm he has for the orchestra. This edition, which played Birdland in January, boasted some fine soloists, drew upon a large, varied book in which the work of many excellent writers was represented, and, most importantly, had a great collective sound and spirit.

The texture it achieved on Mulligan's originals, Summer's Over and Ballad, and his arrangement of Django Reinhardt's Manoir de Mes Reves (Django's Castle), had a lyric depth that went far beneath the obviously beautiful surface. Darn That Dream, which sounded as if it might have been a Brookmeyer arrangement, contained these same qualities, with romantic, unsticky solos from Brookmeyer and Mulligan's piano.

The medium and up-tempo swingers gave the other soloists room to blow, too, while continuing to feature Mulligan and Brookmeyer. (On certain numbers, these two interwove to state the melody before the ensemble entered, thereby setting up a quartet-within-the-big-band feeling.)

Terry, Jones, and Woods, like Mulligan and Brookmeyer, are all consistently interesting soloists, but Kamuca, while he plays well, lacks muscle a lot of the time. This is not an indictment of "cool" playing, because he certainly did that with enough fire (albeit controlled) on that Pacific Jazz recording he made with bass trumpeter Cy Touff in the '50s and with Shelly Manne's group later.

During the band's second week, Kamuca had to fill another engagement, and Al Cohn took his place. Here were the muscles, together with that singular ability that Cohn has to construct compositional solos. In every band I've ever heard him in (Buddy Rich, Woody Herman, Elliot Lawrence), he always has managed to get the rapt attention of his fellow bandsmen when he is soloing. On this night he had Mulligan beaming and urging him to take extra choruses. He demonstrated his authority and sense of form on Mulligan's Five Brothers and rose to emotional heights on Mulligan's Bweebida Bobbida, with the band chanting behind him. Dennis, who doesn't get enough to play, sounded good in his personal, slurring style on Broadway and Gary McFarland's Chuggin'. On the latter lazy swinger, Travis and Ferina (bass clarinet) received their only solo space and performed well.

Donovan, who has been with all editions of the band, except the first, played the first solos I've ever heard from him on Broadway and Bweebida Bobbida. His model is clearly Gene Quill, but though he showed promise, his time was unsteady, and he had a tendency to lose control of his sound. This may have been caused by nervousness, and if Mulligan continues to let him blow, he may shake this.

Crow and Lewis work as a real team. To say they swing would be an understatement. Crow's choice of notes is especially keen, and Lewis really can make his cymbals dance.

An idea of the scope of the book may be gathered from a listing of the material played on the two nights I heard the band.

Besides the selections already mentioned, there were two by Cohn— Mama Flosie, a Gospel air that didn't lay it on too thick, and Lady Chatterley's Mother, featuring Brookmeyer as a hip bumblebee, a rich ensemble passage for the saxophones, and a driving ending that did handsprings off itself. There were two more by McFarland, Kitch and an arrangement of I Believe in You with Terry's fluegelhorn outstanding; one by Wayne Shorter, Mama G., a driving, boppish number; one by John Mandel, Black Nightgown; another by Mulligan, Youngblood, originally written for Stan Kenton; and a sketch by Brookmeyer, Let My People Be, a blues that Mulligan starts at the piano and that ends with some of the most exciting head-arranging I've ever heard. Then, too, there was the band's theme, Utter Chaos, by Mulligan, which was developed in several elongated, joyous versions at the ends of various sets.

In addition to Cohn, there were some other personnel shifts during the long run.

Raph always arrived after the first set. His capable replacements included Benny Powell (he had a good solo on Let My People Be) and Tony Studd. Young Jimmy Owens sat in for Travis one night and then finished the last three days of the engagement for Terry.

I'm told Ben Webster sat in one night. I'm sorry I missed that, but I heard enough in two nights to convince me that if this band cannot work when it wants to, there is something very wrong with the state of music in the United States.”

—Ira Gitler

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