Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The Curtis Counce Group

“The Counce quintet is one of the great neglected jazz bands of the 1950s. The reasons for this neglect are difficult to pinpoint.” Ted Gioia, West Coast Jazz: Modern Jazz In California [New York: Oxford University Press, 1992, p.318].

Boy, it’s great to have friends, especially when one of my closest friends, Bob Gordon, is also the author of the brilliant Jazz West Coast: The Los Angeles Jazz Scene of the 1950’s [London: Quartet Books Ltd., 1986]. Among it’s many attributes, the book contains an excellent section devoted to the Curtis Counce Group [pp.147-50 & 156-61] whose members are also depicted in the graphics that adorn the book’s cover.

Jack Sheldon on trumpet, Harold Land on tenor saxophone, Carl Perkins on piano, Curtis Counce on bass and Frank Butler on drums made up the original powerhouse group whose aggressive and hard-hitting style of Jazz certainly belied Grover Sales wrap that West Coast Jazz “… recordings … today strike us as bloodless museum pieces ….”

It is this point in contention that Bob takes on directly in the “California Hard (II)” chapter of his work which he has kindly allowed the editors of Jazzprofiles permission to reproduce in an effort to draw attention to the marvelous music of the Curtis Counce Group. [C]. Copyright protected. All rights reserved.

“It is hard to understand why the Curtis Counce Group failed to achieve the recognition ‑ either popular or critical ‑ it deserved. Perhaps it's because the group was so difficult to pigeonhole. As a Los Angeles‑based group it couldn't remotely be identified with the West Coast school. Stylistically, the Curtis Counce Group fit quite naturally with such groups as the Jazz Messen­gers or the Horace Silver Quintet, but such a comparison tended to upset the East Coast‑West Coast dichotomy that then figured so prominently in jazz criticism. So, stuck as they were thousands of miles from the centre of editorial power, the musicians in the group turned out their own brand of hard­-swinging jazz in relative obscurity. It wouldn't be fair to say they were totally ignored by the influential critics, but they were seldom evaluated at their true worth.

We've already discussed most of the band's principals. Bassist Curtis Counce had played with Shorty Rogers and numerous West Coast groups, and was one of the few black musicians to have gained acceptance in the Hollywood studios; he had just returned from a European tour with the Stan Kenton orchestra when he set about forming a band in August of 1956. Tenor saxophonist Harold Land had of course been a mainstay of the Max Roach‑Clifford Brown quintet. Trumpeter Jack Sheldon, shared the front line with Land, was born 30 November 1931 in Jacksonville, Florida and moved to LA in 1947, where he studied music for two years at LA City College. Following a two-year stint in the air force, he gigged around town with Jack Montrose, Art Pepper, Wardell Gray, Dexter Gordon and Herb Geller; he was also a charter member of the group centered around Joe Maini and Lenny Bruce. The rhythm section of the Curtis Counce Group was anchored by two exceptional musicians, pianist Carl Perkins and drummer Frank Butler. Carl Perkins (no relation to the rock‑and‑roll singer) had been born in Indianapolis, Indiana, 16 August 1928. A self‑taught pianist, Perkins had come up through the rhythm‑and‑blues bands of Tiny Bradshaw and Big Jay McNeely, and had forged a blues‑drenched modern style for himself. He had developed an unorthodox style and often played with his left arm parallel to the keyboard. Frank Butler was born on 18 February 1928 in Wichita, Kansas and had made jazz time with Dave Brubeck, Edgar Hayes and Duke Ellington, among others.
None of the musicians in the band was a household name, although Harold Land had gained some fame during his stay with the Clifford Brown‑Max Roach band. But this was, above all, a group, and it was as a co‑operative unit that the band excelled. Everyone is familiar with all‑star bands that somehow or other don't quite make it ‑ the chemistry between the players is somehow wrong; perhaps an ego or two gets in the way. The Curtis Counce Group was that sort of band's antithesis; a living, working example of a unit wherein the whole is much greater than the sum of its components. Although the original idea to form the group was Curtis Counce's, the band functioned as a collaborative affair. 'We were all close friends within the group,' Harold Land remembers, 'so it was a good idea for all of us, because we all liked each other personally as well as musically.' The Curtis Counce Group was formed in August 1956, played its first gig at The Haig in September, and entered the recording studios a month later. Lester Koenig always had an ear for promising musicians, and in the latter part of the 1950s he recorded a fascinating assortment of exciting and forward­-looking groups and musicians, including Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor, for his Contemporary label. The Curtis Counce Group was one of his happiest finds. The musicians entered the studio on 8 October for their first session, and the band's chemistry was evident from the start. The first tune recorded was Harold Land's 'Landslide', a dark yet forceful hard‑bop theme. Harold leads off with some big‑toned tenor work and is followed by some thoughtful Sheldon and grooving Carl Perkins. Two other originals were contributed by members of the band: 'Mia' by Carl Perkins, and Jack Sheldon's blues line 'Sarah'.

'Mia' sports a bright, bouncy tune with unexpected chord progressions and sparks swinging solos by all hands. Everybody digs deeply into the blues on 'Sarah', but Carl Perkins is especially impressive in his solo; throughout his all too short career Perkins displayed a close affinity for the blues. 'Time after Time' serves as a vehicle for Harold Land's tender yet muscular ballad style. 'A Fifth for Frank', as the title suggests, is a showcase for Frank Butler. Frank's driving support for the band throughout the session belies his relative inexperience ‑ this was in fact his first recording. A sixth tune, Charlie Parker's 'Big Foot' (recorded by Parker as both 'Air Conditioning' and 'Drifting on a Reed' for Dial), was also recorded at this original session, but was not issued until later. To round out the initial album, a tune recorded at the group's second session ‑ held a week later on 18 October ‑ was used. 'Sonar' (written by Gerald Wiggins and Kenny Clarke), is taken at a bright tempo and has plenty of room for stretching out by all of the musicians.
The first album, titled simply The Curtis Counce Group [Contemporary S-7526; OJCCD-606-2], was released early in 1957 and immediately gained favourable attention. Nat Hentoff awarded the album four stars in an admiring review in Down Beat magazine. Yet somehow national stature seemed to elude the band. Undoubtedly the main reason for this was that the Curtis Counce Group was not a traveling band. Harold Land does remember that the group 'went to Denver one time, but as far as getting back east, it never did happen'. In Los Angeles the band enjoyed an in‑group reputa­tion ‑ they were especially well‑liked by fellow musicians ‑ but they never achieved the popularity of, say, the Chico Hamilton Quintet. They did play regularly around Los Angeles. 'There was another spot down on Sunset: the Sanborn House,' Harold remembers. 'We played there quite a while, longer than we did at The Haig, and the group built up quite a following. The Haig was very small, but this was a larger club.'

In the meantime, the band continued to record prolifically for Contemporary. The group's second album contained tunes cut at various sessions held in 1956 and throughout 1957. In addition to 'Sonar', the band recorded a swinging version of 'Stranger in Paradise' at the second session of 15 October 1956; this tune and the aforementioned 'Big Foot' were on the second album, which was originally entitled You Get More Bounce with Curtis Counce [Contemporary C-7539; OJJCD-159-2]. Two more tunes were recorded 22 April 1957 ‑ 'Too Close for Comfort' and 'Counceltation'. The latter is an original by the leader. Curtis was studying composition with Lyle 'Spud' Murphy at the time, and 'Counceltation' is an experimental piece based on Murphy's twelve‑tone system. The tune is interesting, but smacks a little too much of the classroom. As if to balance this, another tune of Counce's, a bright blues named 'Complete', was recorded at a session in May. Everybody gets to let down his hair on 'Complete', and Jack Sheldon contributes a funky Miles Davis‑influenced solo in Harmon mute. A ballad version of 'How Deep is the Ocean', also recorded at the May session, and an up‑tempo 'Mean to Me', recorded in September, complete the album. When the album was released late in 1957, the Curtis Counce Group was riding high, but unfortunately several unforeseen events would soon contribute to the band's early demise. Chief among these was the tragic death of pianist Carl Perkins in March of 1958; an additional strong factor was the rapid decline of jazz, clubs in LA in the closing years of the decade.

Perhaps the most poignant example of the break‑up of a working band was that of the Curtis Counce Group, if only because the group had shown so much promise from inception. They did manage to hold together through 1957 when so many bands fell by the wayside, but finally broke a early in 1958. But before the group disbanded they manage produce two more albums, both enduring legacies of jazz in fifties.
The group's final recording for the Contemporary label titled ‑ when it was finally released in 1960 ‑ Carl's Blues [Contemporary S-7574; OJCCD-423-2]. The title was, unfortunately, especially apt, both because 'C Blues' by pianist Carl Perkins is one of the album's highlights and because Perkins died shortly after the tune was recorded. The album contains tunes cut at three sessions in all. J Sheldon's 'Pink Lady', a smoking work‑out on the standard ‘I Got Rhythm' changes, and a spirited version of 'Love Walked In’ are from the earliest date, held on 22 April 1957. There is also a grooving version of Horace Silver's Latin‑flavoured tune 'Nica’s Dream', recorded 29 August. The tempo here is slower and more deliberate than Horace Silver’s justly famous Blue Note recording, but the Curtis Counce performance is no less expressive.

The album’s remaining tunes were recorded at Carl Perkins's final session on 6 January 1958. For this date, Gerald Wilson replaced Jack Sheldon in the group's trumpet chair, although Wilson plays on only two tunes. One track, 'The Butler Did It', is an unaccompanied drum solo by Frank Butler. 'I Can't Get ' features Harold Land and the rhythm section, and the performance gives a strong indication of Land's growing powers improviser. The two tunes featuring the entire quintet are ‘Larue’ and the aforementioned 'Carl's Blues'. The ballad ‘Larue’ was written by Clifford Brown for his wife; Harold Land plays an especially tender solo on the tune. 'Carl's Blues', written by Perkins expressly for the session, is a leisurely examination of the blues and a fitting epitaph for the pianist.

Carl Perkins died on 17 March 1958, just five months short of his thirtieth birthday, another victim of drug abuse. He was the at of the Curtis Counce Group, and it is not surprising e quintet did not long outlive him. When Les Koenig issued his third album, several years after the selections en recorded, he had this to say about the band.

"While it lasted, the Curtis Counce Group was one of the most exciting ever organized in Los Angeles. Counce picked four men who almost immediately achieved a togetherness only long‑established bands seem to have. Today, Carl Perkins is dead, and the members of the group have gone off in different directions ... It would be difficult under the best of conditions to recapture the feeling of the 1957 quintet. Without Perkins whose unique piano style was basic to the group's special sound, it is impossible."

It is tempting to wonder how the band would have been received had it been based in New York; certainly it would have give some of the more famous groups of the fifties a run for the money.

Carl's Blues was not, however, the final recording of the band. A month after Perkins's death the restructured quintet recorded for Dootsie Williams's Dooto (Dootone) records. Counce, Land and Butler remained from the original group. The trumpeter the date was Rolf Ericsson. Ericsson, born in Stockholm, Sweden on 29 August 1927, had moved to the States in 1947 and had worked with various bands including those of Charlie Barnet, Elliot Lawrence and Woody Herman. He was a member of Lighthouse All‑Stars in 1953. The new pianist was Elmo Hope native New Yorker, whose brief tenure on the Coast in the late fifties sparked several outstanding recordings. Hope, born on June 1923, was a childhood friend of Bud Powell and an active participant of the New York jazz scene of the forties and early fifties, although he remained little known to the public at large. Hope's piano was not as blues‑oriented as that of Carl Perkins but was instead sinewy and spare, the hard‑bop piano style pared to its very essence. In view of the band's restructuring, it is significant that the group was billed as the Curtis Counce Quintet rather than the Curtis Counce Group.

This set is unfortunately something of a let‑down after the three previous albums. Contemporary and Pacific jazz were the class of the West Coast independents, and however one may quibble over Les Koenig's or Dick Bock's choice of artists or material on any given record, their records were always superbly engineered and professionally produced. The Dootone album Exploring the Future [Dooto LP DTL 247; CDBOP 007], is noticeably inferior to the Contemporaries in recording quality, and there seems to have been a lack rehearsal time as well. Of course this was not the tight working band of a year earlier ‑ Carl Perkins's death and Jack Sheldon's departure obviously disrupted the group's cohesiveness ‑ but a couple of the numbers could have benefited from an additional take or two.

There is also the matter of the album's 'theme'. The group was definitely not ‘Exploring the Future’, but was diligently laboring the well‑established vineyards of hard bop. The futuristic album cover, showing Curtis Counce floating through the void in a space suit, and the choice of titles, which include 'Into the Orbit', 'Race for Space', 'Exploring the Future', and 'The Countdown', promise things the album simply can't deliver. (It is possible that some of the names were tagged on to untitled numbers after they had been recorded, a common enough practice.) All of this is not to say, however, that the album is a lure: the record does deliver a satisfying amount of modern, hard‑driving jazz.

Four of the album's eight numbers were written by Elmo Hope; all are decidedly in the hard‑bop vein. 'So Nice', the record's opener, has a catchy tune and driving solos by Ericsson, Land and Hope. Rolf Ericsson's tone is brash, and fits well in the hard‑bop context, but his trumpet playing suffers in comparison with Jack Sheldon's fluid yet funky work. 'Into the Orbit' seems well-named, since each soloist is launched into his solo at a doubled‑up tempo. 'Race for Space' is a rapid minor‑key theme which has a burning solo by Harold Land. And 'The Count­down', the album's closing number, sounds very much as if it were used by Hope as a set‑closer; it features the rhythm section working as a trio. 'Exploring the Future' has a nice theme that is attributed to Dootsie Williams, but since he is also credited on the album for Denzil Best's classic 'Move', one wonders. 'Move' serves largely as a drum solo for Frank Butler. The album also has two ballads. 'Someone to Watch Over Me' is a solo vehicle for Curtis Counce's bass, while Ericsson, Land and Hope all contribute tender solos on 'Angel Eyes'.

Although this was the last recording of the band under Curtis Counce's leadership, two additional sessions featured largely the or same personnel. The first of these was under the leadership of Hope. On 31 October 1957 the Elmo Hope Quintet ‑ Stu Williamson, Harold Land, Hope, Leroy Vinnegar, Frank Butler -, recorded three tunes for Pacific Jazz: 'Vaun Ex', 'St Elmo's Fire’ and 'So Nice'. All three of course were the pianist's compositions. Whether Dick Bock had originally planned on an entire album for the group or not, these were the only tunes recorded (or at least ever released) by Pacific Jazz. Two of the numbers were released on anthologies the following year; all three eventually found their way on to an Art Blakey reissue in the early 1960s. The recording quality on these Pacific jazz sides is noticeably superior to that of the Curtis Counce Dooto album, but it's also true that the Dooto sides exhibit a bit more uninhibited fire.

At this point, Bob’s essay on the Curtis Counce Group/Quintet segues into the work of Harold Land, particularly his Harold in the Land of Jazz [Contemporary S-7550; OJJCD 162-2] which carried on the musical “feel” of the Counce groups. This may of course be due to the fact that with the exception of Leroy Vinnegar substituting for Curtis on bass, the group consisted of musicians who had all been with Counce’s combos, including pianist Carl Perkins, for whom this would be his last recording. Given these close connections, Bob goes on to write:
Perhaps the definitive recordings from this period came under the leadership of Harold Land for Contemporary records. Harold in the Land of Jazz (reissued later as Grooveyard) is significant both as the first album released under Harold Land's name and as Carl Perkins's last recording. The sessions were held on 13 and 14 January 1958, and the musicians were Rolf Ericsson, Land, Carl Perkins, Leroy Vinnegar and Frank Butler. These Contemporary recordings combine the fire of the Dooto recordings and the recording quality of the Pacific Jazz session.

The album opens with a driving arrangement of Kurt Weill's 'Speak Low'. The interplay between Land and Frank Butler here ‑ as always ‑ seems nothing short of miraculous. The two had been playing together almost daily since the formation of the Curtis Counce Group, of course, but beyond that Land and Butler could communicate on a telepathic level that was sometimes almost frightening. 'We've always been close friends, Land would later remember, 'and we were born on the same day of the month in the same year [Butler on 18 February, Land or 18 December 1928] ... and even our wives get sick and tired of our talking about how "in tune" we are with each other [laughs]. At times during one of Land's solos, the saxophonist will begin a phrase and Butler will immediately jump in, the two finishing together. 'Delirium', Harold Land's tune, is composed of descending sixteen‑bar phrases following each other like an endless succession of waves. 'You Don't Know What Love is serves as a solo vehicle for Land, who names it as one of his favorite ballads. Elmo Hope's 'Nieta' features Latin rhythm and some unconventional chord progressions. Two of the remaining tunes were written by Land. 'Smack Up' is a boppish tune which is propelled by some strong rhythmic accents, while the ballad 'Lydia's Lament' is a tender tribute to Harold's wife

The remaining tune, and the album's high point, is the Carl Perkins composition 'Grooveyard'. It has a relaxed and timeless theme with roots in both gospel and the blues, and yet it has none of the self-conscious posturing of so many of the soul tunes of the day. Land, Ericsson and especially Perkins reach deep into the jazz tradition with their solos. The performance remains a fitting tribute to the composer.”

In 1989, subsequent to the publication of Bob’s book, and thanks to the diligence of Ed Michel’s perusal of the Contemporary Records vault, a fifth album of the group’s music was released as Sonority [Contemporary CCD 7655].

Ed revels how his “creation” came about in the following insert notes to these recordings:

“I always feel like I m being given a treat when I get to work on materials from the Contemporary vault (not only because one of the things I’d hoped for in my salad days was to grow up to turn out something like Les Koenig): but this batch of Curtis Counce previously‑unreleased takes strikes some sort at special nerve. They were all recorded around the time I was starting out in the record business (for Contemporary’s down‑the‑street rival Pacific Jazz, run by the estimable Richard Bock), and featured players I was hearing with great regularity at the time on the active and exciting L.A. scene. And "active" and "exciting" are appropriate words to describe things.

In a recent set of Art Pepper notes, Gary Giddins refers to 'the cool posturing of those improvising beach boys who tried to recreate California jazz as fun in the midnight sun…,’ which pretty well reflects what was, at the time West Coast Jazz was getting lots of press, the Official New York Party Line on matters west of either Philly or, in the musings of particularly open­-minded writers, Chicago. It’s a little frightening to see this view coming around again as ‘the way it really was.’ Looking backward at art can certainly be an iffy business. There was certainly a great deal more going on along the Hollywood‑South Central‑East LA‑Beach Cities axes (for the life of me, I can't recall anything at all happening in the San Fernando Valley, which might be just another regional blindness) than one would have expected after reading the (non-­local) critics.

One of LA’s many joys was the music made by Curtis Counce and his associates. In what was, certainly, an often largely caucasian‑complected bandstand scene, Curtis's was a black face you could see with regularity in many contexts, It's my recollection that I first became aware of him during a Shorty Rogers‑ Shelly Manne stint at Zardi's, when he was featured on an ear‑opening "Sophisticated Lady." Harold Land was everywhere, and playing in a way that hardly fit any descriptions of an effete West Coast style. Jack Sheldon always seemed to be in the company of the lamentably‑undervalued alto saxophonist Joe Maini (you could catch them in the band at, if memory serves, Strip City, just off Pico Boulevard's Record Distributor's Row, around the corner on Western, where, more likely than not, Lenny Bruce was working as M.C.). And Carl Perkins. who really did play with his left hand cocked around so his thumb was aimed toward the bottom of the keyboard, ‘fingering’ bass notes with his elbow, was always working at some joint on Pico or somewhere south, more often than not with Frank Butler (who Miles Davis managed to find interesting enough to use on a few early Columbia sides).

Pianist‑composer Elmo Hope was in town from New York, and for some reason part of my job involved my spending a good deal of time driving him around to various record companies where he was selling his compositions (actually, I know for certain that he sold "So Nice" and "Origin" to both Pacific Jazz and Contemporary because I took him to both offices and watched negotia­tions go down, record business practices are learned under apprenticeship/ observation condi­tions. and I assumed everybody did business that way; I may have been right). And in addition to his splendid trumpet work and arranging in all sorts of contexts, Gerald Wilson was establishing his reputation as the leader of a remarkable, talent‑fostering band….

So it was a sweet surprise to find these cuts waiting in the can a bit more than 30 years after they'd been recorded, a reminder that there was a good deal more going an along the Pacific Rim than made the popular magazine covers. Or‑ more accurately than "surprise"‑ a reminder, and for some of us, lucky enough to have been mousing adolescently around the edge of the scene, no surprise at all.”
‑Ed Michel

In retrospect, we are fortunate that this music was recorded when it was as in 1963, just a few years after these splendid recordings were made, Curtis died of a heart attack while in an ambulance on its way to a hospital. He was thirty seven years old.

By then, as Ted Gioia points out [paragraphing modified]:

“The great flowering of modern jazz on the West Coast, which had begun in the mid-1940s on the street of Central Avenue, had reached a dead-end, financially if not creatively. It’s place in Southern California music culture was now taken over by innocuous studio pop records, the nascent sound of surf music, and the steadily growing world of rock and roll.

In retrospect, the music being played by Harold Land, Sonny Criss and Teddy Edwards … [and that had been played by the Counce groups], and the few other straggling survivors of the modern jazz revolution stands out as the last futile effort to hold onto the ground painfully won over a decade and a half of jazz proselytizing in the Southland, of attempts to spread the gospel of a rich, complex and deep music, a music now on the brink of being drowned out by the amplified sounds of garage bands, three-chord wonders somehow made into media stars.”

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Studio Precision+Chemistry+Swing = The Terry Gibbs Dream Band

Whether it’s the arrangements, the ensemble playing, the solos or the rhythm section, one would be hard-pressed to find a better big band in the history of Jazz than the Terry Gibbs Big Band.

Although it existed for only 3 years [1959 - 1962], performed in relative obscurity because it never toured and didn’t have most of its recorded output released until a quarter of a century after it folded, those who experienced it in person during its brief existence have come to refer to it by another name – The Terry Gibbs Dream Band.

I would have missed it, too, if it weren’t for the circumstance of opposites attracting in a high school band room.

The high school in question was a scant few miles from Hollywood just over the hill in Burbank, CA which with its then Lockheed aircraft plant and Warner Brothers movie studio was a largely suburban community nestled in the foothills of the eastern San Fernando Valley.

While attending high school in this lovely part of Southern California in the late 1950s, I had the immense good fortune to make friends with a somewhat quiet and largely introverted trumpet player [quite a feat for an outgoing, largely extroverted drummer]. We just hit it off. In addition to his many admirable qualities of personality and character, he owned a car and was a big band fanatic.

On the subject of big bands in general and trumpet players in particular, I soon found out that he had vast knowledge and impeccable taste and I usually deferred to him on both on these subjects with very satisfying results.

Thanks to him, I was exposed to the wonderment produced by the Maynard Ferguson on that band's “Newport” and "Birdland" Roulette LPs, the classic Marty Paich Art Pepper + 11 Contemporary LP [with the puckish trumpet of Jack Sheldon] and anything to do with the latest, annual release by the Stan Kenton Orchestra [aka - "trumpet heaven"].

So, one Monday night in 1960 when he picked me up and said that we were going to Hollywood to catch the Terry Gibbs Big Band at The Summit on Sunset Boulevard I just tacitly consented while asking him to turn up KNOB [the FM Jazz station – he was so cool he had an FM radio in his car].

Prior to this occasion, I had very little knowledge of Terry Gibbs. I knew him to be a vibraphone player who had been with Woody Herman’s band and who fronted a quartet with Frankie Capp on drums that played the Hollywood clubs.

By the time “we” discovered them, I gather that Terry’s band had been playing together for over a year, usually on Tuesday nights, at two other Hollywood locales: first at the Seville on Santa Monica Boulevard and later at the Sundown, a more glamorous location on the Sunset Strip.

The Summit was a huge super club cum ballroom type facility with a $5.00 cover charge and a rarely enforced two drink minimum which in our case translated into an all-you-could-drink Coca Cola for $1.75; we tipped the most accommodating cocktail waitress .25 cents – each!

For that, we got to hear almost four hours of a most incredible big band book of arrangements courtesy of Bill Holman, Bobby Brookmeyer, Shorty Rogers, Al Cohn, Lennie Niehaus, Marty Paich and Med Flory.

And was it any wonder that my trumpet playing buddy made a bee-line for the front row of tables with a trumpet section that on any given evening would be composed of four monster players selected from the following list: Al Porcino, Ray Triscari, Stu Williamson, Conte Candoli, Johnny Audino, Frank Huggins, Lee Katzman?

The trombone section was usually comprised of Frank Rosolino, Vern Friley and Bob Edmonson with Bill Smiley and Joe Cadena as subs.

The saxes was anchored by Charlie Kennedy [lead alto] and Joe Maini [solo alto], Bill Holman, Med Flory, Bill Perkins or Richie Kamuca on tenor and Jack Nimitz on baritone saxophone.

The rhythm section was made up of Pete Jolly, Lou Levy or Pat Moran on piano, Buddy Clark or Max Bennett on bass and the always cookin’ Mel Lewis on drums who was quoted as saying to Ted Gioia in his West Coast Jazz: Modern Jazz in California, 1945-60: [p. 164]: “I don’t think there was ever a better band than this one, including my own.”

Of Lewis, Gioia had this to say: “Lewis possessed the rare skill of being able to propel a big band without overplaying – a talent of vital importance during his [earlier] tenure with the Kenton band, whose heavy textures had been know to overpower more than one drummer.” [p. 166].

The mood at the club was very relaxed; it appeared that the musicians were glad to be out from under the rigors of playing in the movie and TV studios or dealing with the tedious nature of making the music for commercial and jingles. The fact that the musicians were enjoying themselves was certainly evident as they hooted and hollered to urge on the soloists [Terry’s in particular drew all sorts of ‘comments’ from Joe Maini along the lines of “Hammer, baby, hammer!]. You can hear this revelry and camaraderie in the background of the band’s in-performance recordings.

According to Gioia: “The Gibbs band is like a turbocharged roadster…the band’s pizzazz also stems from Gibbs penchant for dramatic flourishes and high-energy music. … Gibbs, ..., also apparently had a flair for bringing the best out of his musicians.” [p. 165]

Although most of the music recorded by the band remained unreleased in Terry’s possession until the late 1980’s when he finalized a deal with Fantasy for their production and distribution, there were some LPs issued on Verve and Mercury during the band’s existence. The Mercury albums were originally produced by Jack Tracy who also worked with Terry as co-producer on the reissue of Terry Gibbs and his Exciting Big Band/Explosion [Mercury 20704] when it was converted to digital as Terry Gibbs Dream Band: The Big Cat – Volume 5 [Contemporary CCD 7657-2].

With Jack’s permission here are the insert notes that he wrote for the CD reissue of this recording. After reading these notes, one can easily understand why Jack served as the editor of Down Beat magazine for many years. Any writer would be well-served by and proud to have such an editor. It’s an honor to share his writing with you on the Jazzprofiles website
. [C] Copyright protected. All rights reserved.

“One day some 30 years ago I sat there listening to this excited voice in my ear on the telephone. No surprise; Terry Gibbs sounds excited even if he's only asking you what time it is.

Dick.'" he yelled. (For some reason he always felt that my surname entitles him to call me Dick.) "Dick, you've got to come out to California and record the band ... we're breaking it up every night at the Summit. Let's get Wally Heider and do a live date."

Perhaps I should fill you in. At the time I was Jazz director for Mercury Records, based in Chicago, and Gibbs was one of the top artists on the roster. He was a poll‑winner, worked regularly, enjoyed a strong following, and had a compellingly infectious personality. Matter of fact. he still does. He talks approximately as fast as he plays the vibes, and if hypers ever need a poster child, they should pick him. Wally Heider (God rest him) was, hands down, the best sound engineer who ever did a remote. No one since has been able to record a big band on location like Wally. It was in his blood.

To get me out there didn't take a lot of convincing on Gubenko's part. (I call him Gubenko. His surname entities me.) I'd heard the band before and I knew how good it was. Listening to it was much like riding a roller-coaster ‑ there was excitement, yelling, speed, giddiness. breath‑sucking, stomach‑tightening elation and just plain awe. Perhaps as good an ensemble band as ever was; certainly none have been perceptibly better. They came roaring out of the chute on every set, clean and high‑flying and with great pride in performance. Swing, dynamics, shading, crispness, and confidence were all there all the time and the phrase "joyous abandon" comes readily to mind when describing their playing. They could set a house on fire.

So I said yes, let's do it.

Besides, who in his right mind would pass up an expense‑covered trip to a Hollywood that was still lush and green, graffiti‑less and smog‑free and full of long‑legged, healthy blonde ladies with golden tans?

So for three nights we recorded every set, and the fitting climax to this tale would of course be that the record was a smash hit and the Dream Band would become one of the biggies of the Sixties.


Because by the end of the 1950s big bands were desperately trying to stay alive. (Big jazz bands, anyway. You take Lawrence Welk ... Please.) Travel costs were up, jazz was on a down cycle, airplay was next to impossible to get, forget about TV, the Beatles came over from ­England and screwed up everything.

The days of the big bands were over, save for an occasional dinosaur like Basie, Ellington, Herman, or Kenton found hanging on for dear life, and the world of music had changed. Ever the second coming of Christ wouldn't have drawn a crowd if he had returned leading a band.

So although we didn't know it then, this was to be the last recorded gasp of the Terry Gibbs big band. For nearly 30 years, anyway, until a perceptive record company recognized that great is great no matter the date and has re‑released every album recorded by the Dream Band.

This one is the finale, and if you'll accept admittedly prejudiced opinion, it is even better than the preceding four. These are flawless performances of some beautifully written charts. I have listened to them many a time, first when they were initially released and more recently when preparing this essay, and I can't hear a single thing that should be changed, corrected, or improved upon. The band never played better.
Most of the credit for that should go to the leader. Yes, I know that a chain is never stronger than its weakest link, but Gubenko knows how to select personnel so that there are no sore thumbs or red asses among them, knows how to draw the best effort from every player, knows when to be boss and when to be one of the guys, knows how to pick tempos and pace a set according to the mood of an audience, can play hell out of his instrument and not just stand up front waving his arms, and sets everyone an example by giving 125 percent at all times. In short, he is one helluva bandleader, and had he been born ten years earlier would have been one of the biggest names of the swing era, when bands were bands and you'd better believe it.

I was always struck by the closeness of this band. One well remembers the Ellington orchestra, for example, where on any given day half the guys might not be talking to the other haft. or even to each other. Or Basie's outfits, where there were generally a couple of fiefdoms to be reckoned with. In other instances it might be the case of a star‑struck leader communi­cating with the troops only through an underling.

But this conglomeration of personalities somehow managed to act like a high school cheer team. There was the irrepressible alto saxist, Joe Maini, another of the God‑rest‑hims, leading the sax section, contributing those startling, angular solos, and cutting up something awful. The brass section was, to be truthful. plain raucous, with Al Porcino, Conte Candoli, and Frank Rosolino the chief truants. (When you hear the guys in Doc Severinsen's band on the Carson show yelling "Yo‑o," you know where it all started, don't you? On the Gibbs band.) And if there were any jealousies about anyone getting fewer solos than the next guy, or not being properly recognized, they were well hidden. This was a team that hit the bandstand ready to blow you out of the room.

And if you have never experienced the electrifying shock of hearing a great jazz band up close in a nightclub, you are to be pitied. Concert halls are fine, jazz festivals are OK, but unless you've had your head in the lion's mouth at a Blue Note or Birdland or Summit and actually smelled his breath, you don't know what it was really like to physically feel the energy being generated and to be absorbed into it.

You may have heard me say this before. but on some nights a band would come at you in waves, and you couldn't do much but sit there helplessly. You knew you were being had, and you knew you were being stripped of all propriety and decency, but you just didn't care. There was a joy unmatched, and somehow you had shared something deep and unspoken with those men on the bandstand that you'd never forget. It was thrilling, and if it has never happened to you I am ­truly sorry.

Gubenko's guys could do it to you. The rhythm section was tight, with Pat Moran on piano (in case you don't remember Pat, a Ms. goes in front of her name) and Buddy Clark (no, not the singer) on bass, with the marvelous Mel Lewis playing drums. Mel (damn, but it hurts to keep saying God rest him) looked sort of funny and all hunched up back there, peering nearsightedly over the ride cymbal, but he was so good. Every nuance of every chart, every little hole that needed filling, every breath that lead trumpeter Porcino took, every shading and inflection, there was Mel, right on top of ft.

Gibbs used to call him "Mel the Tailor" because “I had this old Jewish tailor in Brooklyn who had bunions and he walked funny. Mel walked just like him, so I called him The Tailor and it stuck." In later years Mel was to tell people that he got his nickname because he played “tailor‑made drums," but many of us knew better.

As I was saying, Porcino played lead trumpet and he was about as good as they get, right in the same ballpark with Conrad Gozzo, Snooky Young. Johnny Audino, that bunch. Al talks ver‑r­‑y slow‑w‑wly, and it has been said that a person could spend the better part of an afternoon listening to Porcino and Shorty Rogers say hello.

Most of the trumpet solos came from Candoli and Stu Williamson. Conte blew with great verve, fire. and dash‑he came up listening to Dizzy. Stu’s solos were pretty, more ruminative. He was never in a hurry.

Rosolino (from now on I'm just abbreviating ‑God rest him" to G.R.H., OK?) simply leaped out of the trombone section on his solos. Blindingly facile. and full of musical humor, he would draw “who was that?" looks from the uninitiated after one of his rapid‑fire, take‑no‑prisoners sorties during which he took no prisoners.

Both tenor saxes in the section, Bill Perkins and Richie Kamuca, were also featured as soloists. Kamuca (G. R. H) always used to say he didn't like to play in big bands; he liked the looseness of small groups. But he was proud to play in this one, and often made that known to Gubenko. I loved Kamuca's playing: his solos were such a deep reflection of his quiet, thoughtful, and sensitive personality.

This band was a delightful crew, one that worked chiefly for the fun and fulfilling ness of it, certainly not the money. "We got paid scale at, the Summit," remembers Gubenko, "which at that time was $15 a night. I got double. $30, but gave half to the band manager. My bar bill was usually about $20, because I'd pick up a tab or two, so it cost me at least five bucks a night to work there. But I never had more fun or musical satisfaction in all my life."

Neither did a lot of other people. And, please do me a favor. Put this disc on your machine. kick up the volume, to hell with the neighbors and stick your head in the lion's mouth.

You'll smell his breath.

‑Jack Tracy
Santa Barbara, CA
February 1991

Jack Tracy was the editor of Down Beat in the 1950s and has been a jazz record producer and freelance writer ever since. He no longer drinks or smokes.” [C] Copyright protected. All rights reserved.

It took almost a quarter-of-a century for most of the music by this dream of a band to make itself available. Don’t wait that long to get your copies of their recordings as the opportunity to do so may never come again. And it would be a shame to miss out on such a dream.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Jazz Repertory: Raymond Scott - The Chesterfield Arrangements - Metropole Orchestra

Jazz Repertory: Raymond Scott - The Chesterfield Arrangements - The Metropole Orchestra

conducted by Jan Stulen and

“We Yanks are long accustomed to the irony that it often requires Europeans to tell us what's best about our own culture.” – Will Friedwald

The Raymond Scott Chesterfield arrangements commissioned and performed by the Paul Whiteman Orchestra in 1937-38 and recorded by the Metropole Orchestra with The Beau Hunks Saxtette is stunning music both in conception and execution. As beautifully reproduced on this BASTA CD, it deserves to be heard and appreciated by the widest possible audience.

In searching for a context in which to highlight this music, the editors at Jazzprofiles came across the phrase “Jazz Repertory” as used by Jeffrey Sultanof in his essay of the same name that appears in Bill Kirchner, ed., The Oxford Companion to Jazz [New York: Oxford University Press, 2000, pp. 512-521].

According to Mr. Sultanof: “The phrase ‘jazz repertory’ has many definitions and dimensions. Perhaps the most basic is: the study, preservation and performance of the many diverse musical styles in jazz. In recent years, the phrase most often applies to big bands and jazz ensembles performing classic and new music written for reeds, brass, and rhythm section in various sizes and combinations.” [p.512]

The Dutch Metropole Orchestra and Beau Hunks Saxtette performance of the Paul Whiteman Orchestra’s Raymond Scott Chesterfield arrangements would seem to fit precisely into this definition and, as such, become the initial Jazz Repertory feature on JazzProfiles. Other jazz repertory performances by both groups will be offered on future JazzProfiles.

What follows are the insert notes to the BASTA [30-9097-2] CD as written by the erudite, Will Friedwald.
[C] protected. All rights reserved. Graphics added.

“The Raymond Scott boomlet of the ‘90s has already outlasted the “lounge music” fad (which resulted in acres of randomly-programmed reissues driven almost exclusively by their gaudy packaging) and will hopefully also survive the so-called “retro swing” movement (which continues to produce naught but warmed over rock and roll laced with ill-trained horn players paying misguided homage to Louises Jordan and Prima). It’s true that there are far fewer CDs available of Scott’s own performances than there ought to be, but Scott’s music dominates the mass media more at the millennium than at any other time since his initial 15 minutes of fame in the late 1930’s. You can’t watch any kind of programming on TV, from commercials to contemporary animation(not to mention much of the vintage contents of The Cartoon Network) without hearing “Powerhouse.” At venues all over (in New York at least), all manner of bands from The Knitting Factory to the Bottom Line and the Jewish Museum feature his work. Much of this has been due to the tenacity of Irwin Chusid, who’s served as the late composer’s posthumous rabbi for over a decade already, but Irwin would be the first to tell you that Scott’s music doesn’t need much pushing; you just lay down a few bars on the cats and recognition and delight will instantly set in. The stuff has a life of its own.

And yet Scott’s Quintette music of the ‘30s was hardly listened to or played by anybody (especially the composer himself) from the ‘40s to the ‘90s, only to be rediscovered around the time of Scott’s death in 1994. One obvious answer would have to be because of Carl Stalling: people know “Powerhouse” and “The Toy Trumpet” mainly from growing up with these melodies on television as accompanying arias for the wacky antics of wabbits and ducks. In the early 1960s, Scott composed three LPs worth of electronic music with the intent of quieting toddlers entitled Soothing Sounds For Baby (reissued on BASTA 90642, 90652, 90662), yet his Quintette music had already supplied the soundtrack for several generations of our collective childhood.

Yet the cartoon connection isn't the only reason. Quan­titatively speaking, Stalling made use of many more tunes, for instance, by Harry Warren, Warner Brothers own in-­house giant of the movie musical. Many Looney Toons and Merrie Melodies even took their titles from Warren's tunes. (Other slices of cartoon music rate the same recognition factor: the premiere episode of South Park quoted Harold Arlen's "I Love To Singa.") Thus the motivation behind the Scott resurgence can't be attributed entirely to the fami­liarity of the themes themselves.
What makes Scott so relevant to our times, ultimately, is the rhythmic accessibility of his work. Scott supporters lament that the composer is invariably given scant notice in histories of jazz (the inevitable reference to his Duke Elling­ton‑Cootie Williams homage "When Cootie Left the Duke"), but in truth, it would be difficult to consider the ‘30s Quintette music jazz in any except the broadest defini­tion of the term. Scott's groups may have used essentially the same instrumentation as Fats Waller and his Rhythm, but that was about as far as he went. The Quintette didn't utilize improvisation, it had no connection to the blues (not a necessary element of jazz, but it doesn't hurt to use blues harmonies if you want your music to be considered jazz), and it didn't swing. That is to say, it doesn't adhere to the rhythmic patterns codified for jazz by Louis Armstrong, then expanded upon by Benny Goodman, Count Basie and others for what became known as the "Swing Era." The Quintette music has a rhythmic drive of its own, and it "swings" in the same way that Bach or Hank Williams or Marvin Gaye can be said to swing, but Scott never tried to make it swing the way a swing band swings.

Jazz purists of the '3os decried that Scott's music wasn't strictly jazz even then. (While working on the original Raymond Scott Project in 1990, Irwin and I sent some tapes of Raymond's CBS acetates to an authority on Bunny Berigan, hoping to identify which tracks might contain that great trumpeter. Said authority was very helpful, but returned the tapes denouncing The Scott Quintette as nothing more than “junk music.") Today, however, the fashion in which Scott used rhythm, and in general avoided a jazz conception of time, ultimately works in his favor. Those wonderfully tricky, rinky‑dinky, mechanical sounding pieces fall very easily on the ears of contemporary listeners who've grown up with a rock and roll sense of time.
You'll note that I'm specifying "Quintette" music as opposed to “Raymond Scott Music." That's because Scott himself only made music that sounded like the '30s Quintette for a few brief Years. When fie put together his own big band, starting in 1939, he only infrequently played his classic Quintette compositions and in general avoided making the Raymond Scott Orchestra sound like an augmented edition of The Raymond Scott Quintette. In the early ‘40s, Scott went in for mainstream swing in a big way, and his CBS studio orchestra was a legendary jazz organization that, to Scott's credit, was said to be the first to regularly employ jazzmen of all races side by side in a studio situation. There's even a tape somewhere of Ben Webster soloing with Raymond's orchestra and making “Powerhouse” swing like Duke Ellington.

However. If Scott wasn't playing the Quintette compositions with his own big band, plenty of others were. The tunes were especially popular in England, where "experimental” or “novelty” composers, such as Scott's unduly neglected colleague Reginald Foresythe, had long found favor. Popular dance orchestras like Ambrose ("Powerhouse”) and Harry Roy ("Dinner Music For A Pack of Hungry Cannibals”) crafted their own big band interpretations of classic Scott small group pieces. In Ameri­ca, even as dedicated a trio of proselytes for the cause of swing as Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey found “Twilight In Turkey" worthy of their admiration. The father of swing himself, Pops Louis Arm­strong, later recorded "Christmas Night In Harlem," right before that song became terminally un‑PC.

Yet bassist, researcher and producer Gert‑Jan Blom of the Beau Hunks has recently established that the biggest supporter of Scott's music from the musical mainstream, both figuratively and physically, was The King of Jazz him­self, Paul Whiteman.
In 1937, Whiteman was nearing the end of his second decade as the most celebrated bandleader in the nation. The former violinist began his career by hiring composer and arranger Ferde Grofe’ to all but invent the popular dance orchestra, and throughout the '20s, Whiteman's band, his physical girth and his ambitious vision for Ameri­can music matched each other for sheer size. He brought jazz‑influenced dance music to recordings, to the new medium of radio and, very early on, the concert hall. Along the way, Whiteman nurtured careers as varied as George Gershwin, Bix Beiderbecke and Bing Crosby.

Whiteman stayed on top‑continuing to score high ratings on radio deep into the swing era‑because he was always able to find something new. An early supporter of the long form, he commissioned Gershwin's “Rhapsody in Blue and continued to play extended works by everyone from Victor Herbert and Fettle Grofe’ to Duke Ellington and even a symphonic narrative by Rodgers and Hart. With Bing Crosby and Mildred Bailey, Whiteman defined the concept of the dance band vocalist. His was the first orchestra to create its own audio identity in the era of elec­tronic media, even including motion pictures. Whiteman played everything from the loftiest classical adaptations (even a "fantasia" medley of Wagner‑definitely not your basic foxtrot) to the hottest treatment of "Tiger Rag" that money could buy; from Hoagy Carmichael's gully low "Washboard Blues" to waltzes (like "Coquette") to silly novelties like "C‑0‑N‑S‑T‑A‑N‑T‑1‑N‑0‑P‑L‑E."

When Whiteman switched to Columbia Records in 1927, the company rewarded him by putting his potato­-headed caricature in full color on the labels of his discs. That drawing confirmed Whiteman's iconic status as the single best known figure in all of popular music, and he was only beginning to tumble from that pinnacle in 1937. The swing band boom, ignited by many of "Pops'” own alumni (most notably Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey) was beginning to steal some of Whiteman's formidable thunder. At first, Whiteman assumed that swing was just anot­her trend that he could assimilate into his presentations. In truth, he did launch a "swing wing" within his larger orchestra, a group that could dispense the same kind of hotter dance music that the newer bands were offering, and also premiered a number of jazz combinations from within his ranks, such as the Bouncing Brass, Swinging Strings and Sax Soctette. It took a while for it to dawn on Whiteman that such groups were beside the point‑that his whole concert presentation was irrelevant in a world that now wanted to forget its troubles by dancing to the hottest, fas­test and loudest music it could find.

But in 1937, Whiteman was still on top, and his new Chesterfield series for CBS was one of the most popular on the airwaves ‑former employee Bing Crosby was one of the few who matched Pops in ratings. For Whiteman, Raymond Scott offered a whole new realm of possibilities. His tunes were now being heard everywhere (although not yet cartoons for a few more years), both in perform­ances by the Quintette and other bands. But Whiteman did everything in first class fashion: where other leaders could merely offer Scott's tunes, Whiteman's Chesterfield show brought listeners Scott himself (it helped that Scott spent most of his career under contract to CBS, under whose aegis the Quintette had been developed). The pianist and his six man fivesome became semi regulars on the series.
In total, Whiteman commissioned 18 different arrange­ments of Scott's most popular pieces (among them two very different treatments of "Powerhouse") from his orchestrating staff, which included Roy Bargy, Irving Szathmary, Nathan Van Cleave, Joe Glover, Russ Case, and Fred van Eps. All 18 charts were heard on the series between December 1937 and December 1938, but although Whiteman was recording prolifically for Decca at the time, he recorded almost none of these works. (The only discs that have come to our attention are "The Toy Trumpet" and "Minuet In jazz," released by "Paul White­man's Swinging Strings." "Christmas Night in Harlem" is an exception on several levels, it's a song with lyrics and not a Quintette instrumental.
The Quintette never recorded it, but Whiteman did in 1934. Thanks to Whiteman, "Christmas Night in Harlem" became a much‑reprised duet feature for Johnny Mercer and Jack Teagarden as well as landing Scott his major success as a songwriter from then up to the time of his Broadway show, Lute Song.)
It's likely that some or even all of the original CBS bro­adcasts were transcribed (several LPs worth of material spotlighting Jack Teagarden has, thankfully, been availa­ble) but no aircheck of the Whiteman‑Scott works has come to light. Therefore, when the Metropole Orchestra (one of the finest large jazz ensembles in all of Europe) combined forces with The Beau Hunks Sextette (who've already recorded two definitive discs of Raymond's Quintette arrangements, Celebration on the Planet Mars, Koch KOC 3 7907-2, and Manhattan Minuet, BASTA 90362) it meant the chance to document these orchestrations both for the first time and in the best possible way. What you'll hear in this disc is a revelation in both careers.

A few pages ago, we went to great pains to discuss how the Quintette music was essentially not jazz and shouldn't be expected to swing like, say, Fletcher Henderson (or even John Kirby, Scott's darker "brother"). Apparently no one told the Whiteman arrangers. While keeping more or less true to Raymond's original rhythmic conception, the time feel has been pushed ever so gently more towards that of a conventional big band, and the result is a middle ground that will satisfy both ends.

The only listeners who might be disappointed are those died‑in‑the‑wool Raymondites who want a big band treat­ment of "Twilight In Turkey" to sound like an exact elabo­ration of the way the Quintette played it. Of all 18 tracks here, only one of the two versions of "Powerhouse" make the listener think he's hearing four Dave Wades playing trumpet in unison or a whole reed section doing what Pete Pumiglio and Dave Harris did in the original. Most of the time, the arrangers took considerable leeway with Scott's compositions. Knowing how fussy the composer was regarding his music (particularly in this, his pre‑jazz chase), it's doubtful that Scott himself enjoyed these treat­ments much, but nonetheless they are exciting, creative interpretations of tunes that do much to make the Quintette music work in a genuine swing band setting.

The Scott‑Whiteman collaboration, in essence, repre­sents a meeting of two traditions: Scott comes out of the era's trend of novelty or experimental jazz‑pop composers (the terms were essentially interchangeable at that point) such as Foresythe and Red Norvo; Whiteman was the grandfather of radio "program" music, a genre associated by that time with Andre Kostelanetz. Although Kostelanetz (like Percy Faith) became a muzak maven later on, his presentations in the '30s were considerably more challenging, a fact which can be verified by the presence of Claude Thornhill on his arranging staff. The traditions had met before; Whiteman had recorded Foresythe's "Serenade to a Wealthy Widow” and Kostelanetz had done an elaborate treatment of Don Redman’s “Chant of the Weed.” (The only Maestro to continue making this kind of music into the television decade, and not take it straight into the realm of elevator arias, was probably Leroy Anderson).

Therefore, in addition to making the Scott tunes swing a’ la Benny Goodman, the Whiteman arrangers also succeed in making the charts work as “program” music. Scott’s penchant for exotica was especially useful in this regard. Over the decades, a sort of aural folklore had clustered around the concept of sounds from other than white, western sources; by the ‘30s, Hollywood score composers were relying on even-then-old notions, clichés even, of what Native American and middle eastern music was supposed to sound like.

Scott embraced these hand‑me‑down ideas and made them a solid part of his repertoire: when he wasn't depic­ting the mechanical rhythm of a factory or the no‑less mechanical walk of a penguin, chances are he was depic­ting some far away place with a strange‑sounding name. Indeed, probably one of the reasons Scott was tapped to write Lute Song was because of his fondness for "world music" style themes. Although none of the Quintette pieces was overtly oriental, Lute Song at last gave him plenty of opportunity to compose such chinoiserie.

Even Raymond himself would have had to admit that the Whiteman Orchestra was, in some instances, better equipped to carry out his artistic vision than the Quintette. Where the six‑piece group can simulate only a handful of wooden Indians, the full band puts you in mind of an entire tribe. The same is true of the other geographically‑driven works‑the Whitemanites expand "Dinner Music for a Pack of Hungry Cannibals," "Twilight In Turkey," and "Egyptian Barn Dance" to Cecil B. DeMille‑like propor­tions, with hundreds of extras up to their “buttskis” in red Jell-O. "Siberian Sleighride" opens with near‑silence, and gradually the sleigh bells theme gets louder, as if the sleigh itself were barely visible on the mountain slope and slowly coming into view. The orchestra's expanded potential for dynamics renders one of Scott's more cinematic devices a lot more effective.

"Tia Juana" may be Scott's most unusual travelogue; he wrote it some years before the Quintette, and it has the least to do with the Quintette music of all the pieces here. Scott draws a connection between those two pentatonic cousins, Spanish music and middle eastern music. While the Quintette never recorded it, Desi Arnaz and his Babalu band actually did. Without so much as a suggestion of the Quintette's trademark herky‑jerky beat, this piece comes most closely to sounding like an authentically ethnic piece, offering Scott's approximation of a bolero.

The Whiteman orchestrations also call attention to the concept of interpretation. One Scott piece not done by Whiteman, "In an 18th Century Drawing Room," offers Scott's treatment of a melody written by Mozart for one of his piano sonatas; likewise, "The Happy Farmer" was in­spired by Robert Schumann (it's a theme that you'll hear, in another re‑interpreted form, in the background to the opening scene of The Wizard Of Oz). "Tia Juana," like­wise, is Scott's version of a bolero, while "Mexican Jump­ing Bean" (another oddity, Scott didn't record this piece until October 1939, on his first session with "His New Orchestra") has Scott suggesting a typical south‑of the-­border theme. The Whiteman arrangers then re‑interpret Scott's own interpretations of these familiar motives and concepts, and elaborate upon Scott's own elaborations.

Lastly, Scott's music is loaded with conflict: often he sets it up as kind of a culture clash‑"A (presumably American) Boy Scout In Switzerland"‑what would he be doing there? "Christmas Night in Harlem"‑un‑PC as it was for Raymond to suggest it back in 1935, that was not the locale where the holiday was normally depicted in pop culture, then or now. "Minuet In Jazz"‑that about says it all right there. On "Twilight In Turkey," Scott choreo­graphs the contrast between an original theme of his own devising and another "received" melody, an archaic motif associated with the faux‑middle east in carnivals and vaudeville going back at least to the 19th century, a piece sometimes known as "Snake Charmer" and often encum­bered with a lyric concerning the absence of pants in the sunny side of France.

Such contrast, it's almost needless to say, is grist for the mill for a larger jazz ensemble, and as a result the battle between the two warring themes of "Turkey" has never sounded more exciting. Likewise, the dichotomy between the two ideas described in the title of "Minuet in Jazz," with the Whiteman crew (or, rather, the Metropolites) illustrating the difference between the symphony and the swing band. "Egyptian Barn Dance" essentially pivots around a series of exchanges between the full ensemble and the drummer; "Suicide Cliff," which may be the sleeper sensa­tion of the current collection, is a dark, noirish theme that Scott never recorded. Although "Egyptian" exists in a Quintette version, after hearing the BH6‑Metropole per­formance you'll agree that both times properly belong to Scott’s orchestra oeuvre. As "Reckless Night on Board an Ocean Liner" and other pieces show, the Whiteman arrangers make a much greater use of background themes and countermelodies than was possible in the six‑piece group. Victor Herbert's "March of the Wooden Soldiers" can be heard in the background to Scott's fairyland foray, "The Toy Trumpet." The growling trumpet also gets considerably bluesier than Dave Wade by himself could ever hope to be on the blues theme of "Toy Trumpet."

What's also remarkable is that all this unique music was written, performed once or twice on the air and then forgotten, all within a one year period, By 1940, both Scott and Whiteman were no longer making noises that sounded anything like this ‑ both had given in to the swing thing and were individually leading two of the best bands in the contemporrary style (coincidentally, the often excellent recordings that both leaders made in that period are equally unduly neglected). Scott's 1940 big band, included future salon music auteur Hugo Winterhalter on clarinet and tenor, as well as, future band­leader and driver of the Woody Herman rhythm section, Chubby Jackson. The Quintette had already employed CBS house musician Johnny "Drummer Man" Williams (who had recorded with them under his own name, play­ing more straight-ahead stuff), and the drummer's son, pianist and composer‑John Williams, would grow up to win Oscars for his movie music and to succeed Arthur Fiedler as the conductor of The Boston Pops Orchestra. It would complete a nice full circle if The Pops would mount a pro­gram of the Whiteman‑Scott orchestrations, hopefully in conjunction with the Beau Hunks, as the Metropole does here.

We Yanks are long accustomed to the irony that it often requires Europeans to tell us what's best about our own culture. In documenting the remarkable collaboration of Raymond Scott and Paul Whiteman, these Dutchmen have rendered a major service to American music.”

New York City, June, 1999

“Jazz repertory represents an important direction and challenge for the future: to acknowledge the creative gifts of the men and women who created ensemble music for listening and dancing, and to prepare usable performance materials so that ensembles can easily play and study it. Just imagine if materials from the baroque and classical eras of music had been allowed to collect dust in attics or to languish in special collections in colleges and archives without editing and publication; by this time, they would probably have ceased to exist. We are only now accepting that the music of the big band era is unique and warrants saving, not just in terms of American cultural history but of world music as well. It is imperative that this work continue for the sake of indigenous American music. Perhaps wide interest in this music is still several years away; yet the time to save it is now." Sultanof, p. 521.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Valery Ponomarev's Muscle Jazz - "Universal Language"

Steven Cerra [C] Copyright protected; all rights reserved.
Because his CDs are still available on Reservoir Music – www.reservoirmusic.com - Mark and Kayla Feldman’s gift to recorded Jazz, and because the music on these recordings is very special and deserves to be heard by a wider audience, Jazzprofiles turns the “solo spotlight” [with apologies to Howard Rumsey] onto Valery Ponomarev.

“Universal language,” the subtitle of this feature, has a dual meaning. It not only denotes the name of Valery’s quintet, but it also connotes the qualities in Jazz that reach out and touch the soul of people everywhere as is borne witness to by the following anecdote.

One day, in the spring of 1961, Valery Ponomarev, an 18 year old Russian studying trumpet at a college in the then, Soviet Union would hear a Voice of America broadcast that a friend had taped.

What Valery heard that day was “Blues Walk” as performed by the Clifford Brown-Max Roach Quintet and it would change his life, forever – “That was music! Pinpoint accuracy, excitement, beauty, logic. It was just too much, man … and I was ‘bug-bitten’ ever since.” [see reference to Nemeyer interview below, p. 108].

Ponomarev would go on to become a fierce and fiery proponent of the hard bop trumpet style that Brownie helped pioneer and which can be heard in some of its earliest, recorded manifestations in the Birdland performances issued on Blue Note featuring Lou Donaldson on alto sax, Horace Silver on piano, Curly Russell on bass and Art Blakey on drums [Blue Note CDP 32146-2; 32147-2].

Ironically, almost 25 years later, Valery was to join Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers and be featured nightly on performances of “I Remember Clifford.” Valery would go on to record nine albums with the group after joining Blakey and the Jazz Messengers in 1977.

For more details of the various stages of his career, please see the in-depth interview Eric Nemeyer conducted with Valery which can be found in Volume 4, No. 3 of Jazz Improv Magazine, pp. 108 – 114. Back issues may be available by contacting

Here are a few excerpts from that interview that may help provide some insights into Valery’s style and his thoughts about music.

“Jazz Improv [JI]: “Once you have the vocabulary – the harmonic and melodic understanding, then soloing gets progressively easier. Working in a drummer-driven band [such as Blakey’s], I imagine that you begin to realize that it’s rhythm that’s really important.

Valery Ponomarev [VP]: Rhythmic, harmonic, melodic, form-wise , it’s all language. And to teach, or to learn to speak jazz is identical to learning to speak any language. Just like a baby starts with first sounds [vocalizes non-verbal sounds] …. And then he goes on and on until those speech particles become words, then become a string of words then become a sentence. And then the person’s just talking …, it’s the same way with improvising. At one point it all goes to the subconscious and you’re playing music.

JI: How did you develop your own sound?

VP: I tell you. Maybe blowing long tones and all that helped me to acquire the sound I’m playing with, but … to develop an original sound – you can’t really. I mean, you’re already given an original sound, like your own voice. You know, you speak without any accent, right? You speak perfect English, right? But when you pick up the phone … when I pick up the phone, and you’re on the other end of the line, I know it’s Eric.

JI: Right, the nature of the sound, the tone, the inflections, the articulation – that combination of elements are all there. You can’t help but be yourself.

VP: Do you know how you get the concept of sound? You listen, as a little baby. You listen to your parents talking, or whoever it is nearby – your grandmother, or close kin. Then it crystallizes into a total concept. Then you start speaking. That’s your voice. Of course, you physical set-up has something to do with it, but more than anything it’s what you hear. The same with me: the same with anybody. I listen to my heroes – Clifford Brown, Lee Morgan, Freddie Hubbard, Blue Mitchell, Nat Adderley, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis … and out of this crystallizes one sound that I want to play with. No matter what trumpet I pick up, sooner or later there will be exactly the same sound, anyway.”

And since Valery is “… also an accomplished composer of memorable themes” [Ian Carr, Fairweather, and Priestley, Jazz: Rough Guide, p.513], I thought it might be of interest to also cite this portion of the Jazz Improv interview with the question of:

“JI: How do you approach composition; that is, how do you begin a song and then develop it.

VP: I do not write just for the sake of new music. I basically work on it when I need it, especially if I have a recording date coming up and I know I need a certain number of new songs….

I apply everything I know about composition. Then, slowly but surely, melodies start to come. And then I catch myself walking the streets and singing these songs. Beautiful! And then I realize that all of a sudden I’ve written an original and I go home and write it down.

As far as technique, as far as compositional devices, it’s the same as playing a solo, it’s the same as telling a story. … It’s development – melodic, harmonic. And it’s emotional charge. Ultimately you have to touch your listener emotionally. … And when it moves me, it will move others. I never write just a string of notes just for the sake of putting … [something together]. That just doesn’t make sense to me.”

If you like your Jazz with Clifford Brown’s explosiveness, Art Blakey’s pulsation, both interwoven into unison-lined and closely harmonized hard bop compositions with lots of riffs, countermelodies, and interludes punctuating and propelling the soloists, you are going to love the music on the following CDs under Valery Ponomarev’s leadership. This is Muscle Jazz at it’s best and is guaranteed to have you bopping-on-down-the road with a huge smile of your face.

Means of Identification [RSR CD 101] was not only Valery Ponomarev’s debut CD, but also that of the Reservoir Music label’s. It was issued in 1985, about four years after Valery left The Jazz Messengers. Joining him on this set was Ralph Moore on tenor saxophone, Hideo Takao on piano [a last minute substitute for guitarist Kevin Eubanks], and the dynamite Engine Room duo of Dennis Irwin on bass and Kenny Washington on drums.

Ponomarev wrote six straight-ahead originals for the date – Dialogue, Means of Identification, Mirage, Fifteenth Round, Envoy and Take Care and he is also featured on his, by now, signature version of Benny Golson’s I Remember Clifford. Valery’s tunes all have their roots in hard bop and many of them have a variety of 4-bar or 8-bar motifs and riffs that serve to literally launch the next soloist into their improvisation. Everything is so well-constructed and such a joy to listen to and Kenny Washington’s various drums breaks are set up for him as though he were jumping to a volleyball net to deliver a can’t-miss-spike.

Richard Cook and Brian Morton had this to say about the recording in the Sixth Edition of the Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD:

“When Ponomarev was with The Messengers, Art let him loose on ‘I Remember Clifford’ night after night. It’s the outstanding performance here, a flowing, feeling solo on what the trumpeter considers to be one of the greatest jazz compositions ever. His admiration is evident, as it is for Art Blakey himself in “Envoy,’ a fresh and soulful original. The opening ‘Dialogue’ pits him against Moore, an exciting duel that recalls the great Blue Note recordings. No surprise that this session was made at the van Gelder studio in Englewood Cliffs, NJ. … Takao came in on short notice and sight read the charts with ease …. Irwin is a former Messenger, beautifully featured on ‘Mirage.’ Washington has his moment on ‘Dialogue’ and keeps things tight throughout.’

Three years later, in 1988, Valery and Reservoir followed this initial release with Trip to Moscow [RSR CD 107]. Such a journey was very much on the ex-patriate Ponomarev’s mind at a time when the years of the Brezhnev “freeze” was melting under the “glasnost” of the Gorbachev regime. This sentiment is also reflected in the titles of Valery’s originals on the date such as Gorky Park, Gettin’ to Bolshoi and Trip to Moscow. I particularly treasure the group’s arrangement of Irving Berlin’s The Best Thing for You which is done as an up-tempo cooker and it provides another superb examples of one of Valery’s 8-bar rhythmic interludes following each soloist that serves to propel everything forward in unrelenting, hard-bop style.
Ralph Moore on tenor saxophone once again joins Valery on the front-line and Dennis Irwin and Victor Jones return as the back-line with Larry Willis in on piano for the date. Lee Jeske had this to say about the recording in his insert notes :

“This is one of those easy-going, hard-blowing, hard bop dates that jazz fans cherish: the kind of session that Rudy van Gelder steered so many times for Blue Note and Prestige back in the hard bop heyday; the kind of session that Valery, Ralph, Larry, Dennis and Victor gobble up like a handful of Raisinets. These guys dig their heels in an blow, and if you think this is one of those ‘bands for a day,’ forget it. Ralph and Dennis have played in Valery’s band for years … Larry Willis and Victor Jones slide in like they’re oiled, and the date just slips along….”

1991 would see the release of Profile [Reservoir RSR CD 119] on which Valery is joined by Joe Henderson on tenor saxophone and Kenny Barron on piano with Essiet Essiet taking over for Dennis Irwin on bass. Victor Jones, who made such a large contribution to Trip to Moscow and is one of the most overlooked and/or under-appreciated drummers around continues to power the Engine Room.
Three more of Valery’s captivating originals are offered on this recording along with two standards – I Concentrate on You and My Shining Hour – and Richie Powell’s Time; all tunes that seem to appeal to the virtuoso side of Jazz trumpeters at one time or another during their career.

Messer’s Cook and Morton, in the Sixth Edition of the Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD commented on the recording in this fashion:

“Henderson makes an enormous difference …, as you’d expect, and his shrewd exchanges with the trumpeter are marked with the kind of wry humor and playfulness that sometimes gets lost in his more brooding work. Ponomarev’s tone … has become broader and more resonant in Henderson’s company. He also seems inclined to follow the saxophonist and let lines spin out an unravel at very much greater length, notably on a superb version of ‘I Concentrate On You,’ which is one of his key recorded moments. The rhythm section are flawless and the sound very rich and responsive. An excellent disc all around."

Here’s a review of the CD by Eugene Chadbourne from www.allaboutjazz.com:

“This is a dream date for Russian hard bop trumpeter Valery Ponomarev that should keep fans of the hard bop style of jazz wide awake. The program is an even mix of standard selections and the trumpeter's original compositions, which the band digs into with the type of appetite that might have been stimulated by the previous sentence. The truth is that Ponomarev is in fine form throughout. "I Was Afraid You'd Never Call Me" kicks off the album, the title perhaps a reflection on the career of this often-overlooked but never under-swinging trumpeter and composer. If this early-'90s session sounds exactly like an old Blue Note or Prestige session, it isn't just because of the players' style; engineer
Rudy Van Gelder was in the booth, doing his usual beautiful thing.”
Given how difficult it would have been to following such a superb studio recording, Valery and Reservoir cleverly switched to Live at Sweet Basil [Reservoir RSR CD 131] as their next release and also wisely added Don Braden on tenor saxophone, John Hicks on piano and Peter Washington on bass while keeping the irrepressible Victor Jones in the drum chair.
With the exception of Fred Lacey’s Theme for Ernie, all of the tunes on this recording are Ponomarev originals and the form and composition of each is explained to insert notes writer James Rossi along with these comments by Valery about the musicians in the group:

“John Hicks not only plays the contemporary language, but he also plays the instrument incredibly well. His pianism is on an extremely high level. He enjoyed playing my tunes so much that I really loved watching him play on this date. He was inside the music. It flattered the hell out of me.
Peter Washington provided such a reliable foundation that you can literally free yourself over it. His time and his swinging are so impeccable that it added a great deal to the overall excitement of the record.

Victor Jones is an extremely musical person. He responds and reacts so quickly. He feels music extremely deeply, and never just bangs the drums behind you. He plays the music and plays the tune. Whenever I solo, I feel his accompaniment; he’s not soloing behind me.

Don Braden has an incredible command of his instrument. As far as vocabulary is concerned, he’s on the cutting edge. He uses a lot of vocabulary that’s been recently introduced into the language. His tone, pitch, and ensemble work are beautiful. He feels very comfortable with the changes.”

And Cook and Morton had this to say in the form of glowing praise about Valery and the CD:

“The trumpeter’s love affair with the language of jazz has shown no signs of cooling….What has changed is the subtlety of Ponomarev’s perception. ‘Friend or Foe’ has a totally surprising twist [“At the end of the melody, instead of going into B-flat as you’d expect, the last chord is an A13.”] which everyone negotiates with ease but which might throw less seasoned players than Hicks or such carefully listening youngsters as Braden. The pianist is a key element on every cut of this crisply registered live session, but he excels himself on ‘Be Careful of Dreams’ and ‘Theme for Ernie.’ Jones turns out to be a key recruitment. On “My Alter Ego,’ … [Ponomarev has] a quiet flirtation with free jazz, [but] he never quite leaves the chords behind; … they are interpreted … within a much less regular pulse. Intriguing stuff.”

A Star for You was to follow in 1997 [Reservoir RSR CD 150] with a complete change of personnel. Scott Yanow offered the following in
“Valeri Ponomarev, one of the most underrated trumpeters in jazz, has a style based in the hard bop tradition of Clifford Brown, Lee Morgan, and Freddie Hubbard, yet he keeps an open mind toward newer developments. On this CD, he is teamed with tenor saxophonist Bob Berg (whose soulful post-bop style has long been influenced by Michael Brecker), the little-known but talented Philadelphia-based pianist Sid Simmons, bassist Ken Walker, and drummer Billy Hart
. The quintet performs six of the trumpeter's tricky yet swinging originals and a reharmonized rendition of "We'll Be Together Again." Ponomarev's very impressive range (hitting high notes with little difficulty), full sound and inventive ideas clearly inspire his sidemen .Berg puts plenty of passion into his solos, and Simmons makes one wish that he were recorded more extensively. Easily recommended to modern straight-ahead jazz collectors.”

And Cook and Morton were effusive in their praise giving the album 4-stars and a “Highly recommended.” They authors go on to say in their review [paragraphing modified]:

“Perhaps the vintage Universal Language to date. Hart is as revelatory as ever, a hugely musical drummer who always has ideas to impart and energy in superfluity.

Ponomarev makes it clear that this set is very much dedicated to the spirit and memory of Art Blakey…. The opening ‘Commandments from a Higher Authority’ is absolutely in the spirit of The Messengers’ great days, a wheeling driving theme which never quite comes to rest but exudes authority in every measure. ‘Uh Oh’ was apparently a Blakey vocal mannerism. It’s a more jocular idea and the trumpeter has fun trading figures with Hart.

Bob Berg is the key addition to this group, superb on ‘Dance Intoxicant’ and the long standard, ‘We’ll Be Together Again,’ adding a warm-toned confidence to every track. Simmons and Walker get to show why the got the call, playing with intelligence and taste, never over fussy, but subtle when the tunes calls for another dimension.

Back at van Gelder’s place, the band gets exactly the sound it deserves; rich and ringing with plenty of space round the horns and kit, but not so much that you feel the guys are working in parallel rather than as a unit.”

In 2000, Reservoir’s unwavering support of Valery and his music resulted in The Messenger [RSR CD 166].

Over the years, Valery has paired-off with on his recordings with Ralph Moore, Don Braden, Bob Berg and Joe Henderson all of whom are superb tenor saxophone players. This recording introduces to a wider audience another absorbing tenor saxophonist, Michael Karn, about whom Valery had this to say:

‘He’s a fine young talent. The first time I heard him I was amazed at how well he plays and how much music he knows. He’s a natural musician. Music is all he breathes, thinks, sleeps and eats and I’m so happy he’s on my record.”

One can recognize the influences of the likes of Coltrane [early years], Dexter Gordon, Hank Mobley and Joe Henderson in his playing. Karn’s solos on this CD are consistently well-constructed and interesting; they will serve to announce a fine new talent on today’s Jazz scene.

Perhaps the quality of Karn’s performance on this recording has something to do with Valery for as Bob Bernotas observes in his insert notes:

“Valery always seems to stimulate his sidemen to perform at their highest level and tell their own stories. ‘You know, I can’t argue with that,’ he agrees. ‘I actually do see the pattern. My personality, or the way I play, or whatever, is kind of contagious. And when musicians play with me, they tend to show their absolute best. I think I acquired that quality from Art Blakey, who knew how to help musicians let their best out. So, subconsciously, I, in turn, have helped people bring their best out of themselves.”

Speaking of “best,” there more of it on this recording as Jimmy Cobb assumes the drum chair and adds his defining presence to a rhythm section that continues with Sid Simmons on piano while introducing the young German bassist, Martin Zenker.

In addition to Stardust, an evergreen, which like I Can’t Get Started, it seems all Jazz trumpet players want to try their chops at, the album also contains six more of Valery’s original compositions with their characteristic complex and intricate lines, shifting tempos and imaginative harmonies – a veritable feast of hard bop from beginning to end.

In 2005, Reservoir issued Valery’s Beyond the Obvious [RSR CD 186] and although I have not had the opportunity to listen to its music at the time of this writing, for the sake of ‘completeness’ [with apologies to Michael Cuscuna], I located this review by Ken Dryden on
www.allaboutjazz.com and have included it as follows:

“Russian expatriate Valery Ponomarev has been an impressive trumpeter from the time he arrived in the U.S. after fleeing his homeland. This 2005 session pairs him with several younger musicians, including seasoned tenor saxophonist Don Braden, bassist Martin Zenker, and Juilliard student Jerome Jennings, who the leader compares favorably with veteran drummers. With Braden stuck in traffic, Ponomarev improvised a blues to warm up with the others and ended up with the peppy opener "You Dig, I Hear You, You Know What I Mean, Etc." The trumpeter makes use of the full range of his instrument in his expressive solo, also trading licks with Jennings. The blend of trumpet and tenor sax in Lee Morgan's slinky "Party Time" gives the piece a bit of an eerie flavor. His arrangement of "Chelsea Bridge" has more of a mournful air than the typical bittersweet setting of this landmark Billy Strayhorn composition. Ornette Coleman's "The Blessing" proves very accessible and features some great interplay and a bit of arco bass by Zenker. Ponomarev's Latin-tinged "Sale on Love," a barely disguised reworking of Cole Porters "Love for Sale," is a harmonically rich extended performance. The lack of a pianist is never a problem, as the musicians filled in the missing chords in their heads as they played their hearts out throughout this rewarding studio date.”

Clifford Brown left us some time ago; Max Roach only recently. Art Blakey is gone, too. But one would suspect that, from their vantage point in Jazz Heaven, listening to Valery Ponomarev and Kenny Washington/Victor Jones/Billy Hart would only serve to put a huge smile on their faces, respectively.

From your vantage point down-here-on-the-ground, these recordings will only serve to do the same.