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"Mulligan's brainy but playful artistry gets the attention it deserves in this valuable study by Alyn Shipton. His writing teems with clear, meticulous scholarship, musical understanding, and a desire to make his subject appealing and accessible to everyone from casual jazz lovers to musicians."
—James Gavin, award-winning music journalist and author of Deep in a Dream: The Long Night of Chet Baker
“I often get asked by interviewers what it was like to play in the quartet with you [Gerry Mulligan], and the answer has not changed in the last 42 years. ‘It felt like playing with Bach.’ And indeed it did.”
- Bob Brookmeyer, valve trombone, composer-arranger, bandleader
Alyn Shipton is a writer, publisher, broadcaster, and jazz musician. He has hosted music programs on BBC Radio 3 in the UK since 1989. His previous books include the award-winning Groovin' High: The Life of Dizzy Gillespie (1999) and Nilsson: The Life of a Singer Songwriter (2013). He is currently lecturer in jazz history and research fellow at the Royal Academy of Music. My favorite is his Hi-De-Ho: The Life of Cab Calloway , but Alyn’s many writings are all important contributions to the Jazz Literature.
Available in both hardcover and paperback editions, the context for Alyn Shipton’s splendid The Gerry Mulligan 1950s Quartets [New York: Oxford University Press, 2023] is stated in the Series Preface by its editor, Jeremy Barham of the University of Surrey:
“The Oxford Studies in Recorded Jazz series offers detailed historical, cultural, and technical analysis of jazz recordings across a broad spectrum of styles, periods, performing media, and nationalities. Each volume, authored by a leading scholar in the field, addresses either a single jazz album or a set of related recordings by one artist/group, placing the recordings fully in their historical and musical context, and thereby enriching our understanding of their cultural and creative significance. With access to the latest scholarship and with an innovative and balanced approach to its subject matter, the series offers fresh perspectives on both well-known and neglected jazz repertoire. It sets out to renew musical debate in jazz scholarship, and to develop the subtle critical languages and vocabularies necessary to do full justice to the complex expressive, structural, and cultural dimensions of recorded jazz performance.”
The Gerry Mulligan 1950s Quartets joins and expands the [hopefully] ever growing works about Gerry Mulligan [1927-1996], one of the grandmasters of Jazz in the second half of the the 20th century which now includes the following book length treatments:
Raymond Horricks, Gerry Mulligan's Ark (London, Apollo, 1986); Jerome Klinkowitz, Listen: Gerry Mulligan—An Aural Narrative in Jazz (New York, Schirmer, 1991); Sanford Josephson, Jeru’s Journey (Milwaukee, Hal Leonard, 2015). Gerry Mulligan with Ken Poston, Being Gerry Mulligan: My Life in Music (Lanham, MD, Backbeat, 2023).
The Gerry Mulligan 1950s Quartets is divided into five chapters:
3 The First Quartet
3 The Second Quartet
4 The Quartet with Art Farmer
5 The Aftermath and Legacy
Some of the factors that makes Alyn’s work distinctive are stated in these excerpts from his Preface [paragraphing modified]:
“In 2002 I was commissioned to make a four-part series for BBC Radio 3 that explored Mulligan's music, and this gave me the opportunity to meet with fellow musicians and associates from all periods of his career. I was particularly grateful for the participation of his widow Franca Mulligan, who opened doors for me in the Mulligan world, and also consented to be interviewed herself. Fortunately, as we worked on the programs, my producer Felix Carey (and his colleague from the BBC World Service, Oliver Jones) gave me time to have extended conversations with most of those interviewees, going way beyond what we needed for the broadcasts. Some of the material in this book was included in the series, but many of the interview segments appear here for the first time.
My fellow critic and broadcaster Charles Fox (who died in 1991) knew of my interest in Mulligan and kindly gave me a transcript of a long conversation he had with him at the time of his visit to Scotland in 1988. This has been an invaluable guide through the music, and also ensures that his voice is represented here along with those of his colleagues.
Gordon Jack was fortunate enough to talk to Mulligan, and to several of the members of the 1950s quartet. On a number of subjects, his interviews dovetail with mine. ….
Although he is also mentioned in the acknowledgments, I would especially like to single out bassist Bill Crow for his help, not only in interviews, on both sides of the Atlantic, but in being a willing and informative correspondent on many matters of detail, as well as kindly providing pictures from his collection.”
Because he is a bassist and has a background in theory and harmony - in other words, a musician himself - Alyn adds something that is often lacking in other treatments about Mulligan: a musical analysis of how Gerry’s music works and what generates its uniqueness, in this case, within the context of the various quartets that he formed between 1952-62.
For example, he provides this explanation of Walkin’ Shoes, one of the tunes with an enduring relationship to Gerry’s music in a variety of settings, both big and small [the actual score is printed on the preceding page]:
Although the piece has a simple AABA structure, the melodic line plays with time, notably the eighth-note displacement of the first beat of measure 2 in Example 2.8, which contrasts with the downbeat on the drums; the anticipation of the long-held trumpet F sharp in the sixth measure; and the three groups of eighth notes in measures 7 and 8. The mixture of delay and anticipation is a potent one, and the melody is easily memorable. What is also notable here is that on the first eight measures and the repeat, the trumpet and baritone play a harmonic sequence that is sometimes at odds with the logic of the walking bass line. This is particularly notable in measure 2, where the B flat played by the horns and the A natural in the downward B to A movement of the bass would be expected to sound dissonant, when the major and minor sevenths of the C chord coincide. But Mulligan's strong melodic lines and his skill as writer and arranger overshadow the rules of harmony. This would not work so well outside the context of a "pianoless" group in which the full harmony is implied, rather than explicitly stated. From measure 4, the bass more closely underpins the harmonies of the head, and the chords played by the horns are shown in Example 2.8. It is also notable that these are simplified for the following solos, so that the blowing sequence is:
| G | C7 | G | Bm7 /E7 |Am7 | D7 | G | Am7 / D7 |
| G | C7 | G | Bm7/ E7 | Am7 | D7 | G | G |
| F#m7 | B7 | Em7 | Em7 | A7 | A7 | D7 | D7 |
| G | C7 | G | Bm7 / E7 | Am7 | D7 |G | Am7 / D7 |
Obviously, this might fall into the category of “too much information” for the general reader, but Alyn presents his explanations of the inner workings of Mulligan’s music in such a way that it doesn’t interrupt the flow of his overall narrative. It’s unobtrusively there for the taking if the reader has the background to work with the information.
Also of importance is the fact that Alyn writes well; he doesn’t make the telling of the story complicated or convoluted. The style is simple and straightforward and helps the reader easily grasp the points that he’s trying to bring across.
Another helpful feature of the book is its robust discography which allows the reader to pair recordings with the narrative to better follow Alyn’s examples and annotations.
In this regard, just when as a long-standing an avid fan of Gerry’s music (which I first discovered in 1958 while Gerry was still in his active quartet phase) I thought I was familiar with the entire Quartet discography, along comes the closing pages of Alyn’s work which reveals one which I had entirely missed.
This is the Gerry Mulligan Quartet Zurich 1962 [TCB 02092] issued as part of the label’s “Swiss Radio Days Jazz Series [Volume 9].” The recording was made with the quartet in performance at Kongresshaus, Zurich, Switzerland on October 18, 1962 and, judging by the taped reaction of the audience, the fans in attendance couldn’t have been more adoring.
Perhaps its because valve trombonist Bob Brookmeyer and Gerry has been working together for a decade, or maybe it was due to the locked-in rhythm section of Bill Crow on bass and Gus Johnson on drums [a relative newcomer to the group] or it may have been caused by the electric atmosphere generated by the enthusiastic audience - whatever the reason - I don’t recall ever hearing Mulligan playing baritone saxophone so aggressively.
As pianist Brubeck noted during their 5 years association from 1968 -1972, when Gerry got excited he had a tendency to cut into Dave’s solos; his enthusiasm for what was happening in the music was unrestrained to the point that it became the musical equivalent of finishing another person’s sentence.
To my ears, Gerry’s pushy exuberance is particularly noticeable on the last track Blueport which was composed by trumpeter Art Farmer, who began working with the quartet in 1958 and intermittently thereafter.
Here are Alan’s comments about the track and the band on this recording:
"The set closer is a very speedy rendition of "Blueport" that stands as perhaps the finest example of this particular quartet, not least because of Johnson's uninhibited drumming. Every member of the band solos with dazzling accomplishment, and the rapport between Mulligan and Brookmeyer is so close and telepathic that they barely sound like the same musicians as on their Parisian Salle Pleyel recordings from eight years before. This flamboyant recording could not be a greater contrast to the comparative restraint of the 1952-1953 Chet Baker edition of the quartet, with the whole band here playing with extrovert flair, and displaying no notion whatsoever of "West Coast cool." It is, as Jimmy Woode commented [in the insert notes to the TCB CD], "a don't-hold-me-back blues," propelled by "one of the most heralded straight ahead swingers of all time" on drums.”"
For those of us who lived through the evolution of some of the Gerry Mulligan Quartets, it’s easy to take for granted the incredible variety of music that Jeru managed to create in this rather limited format, by the manner in which he approached the way the musicians interacted with the music, the original compositions he wrote for them and the new take on standards that he created through his arrangements and, of course, by the new voices he brought to the group via changes in personnel.
Gerry’s genius was that he created these quartets in the first place while making its music sound so natural and so effortless.
With this book, Alyn’s gift is to remind us of that genius and how and why Gerry Mulligan’s Quartets both reflect it and, at the same time, pave the way for thirty more years or so of Jeru’s artistic brilliance.
This book belongs in every Jazz fan’s library.