A Fickle Sonance
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When I was in high school, in the dim, distant past, I had a history teacher who wore rumpled jackets and skinny ties to class; probably in his 30s, he had black-rimmed glasses but wasn’t nerdy, always seemed more than a tad distracted and permanently on the verge of a world-weary sigh, as he pushed the hair out of his eyes to make a point about the Habsburg Monarchy or the battle of Bunker Hill to a bunch of boys who couldn’t care less – in other words, he was cool. Having no other pressing demands on my future, I decided at that time I too would become a history teacher. In a few years my interests changed somewhat, gravitating towards the arts. And naturally, being young, I was inspired not by the shadows of the past, but the fresh blood pulsing through the here-and-now, and so was drawn to the avant-garde, those things ahead of their time, not yet appreciated or assimilated by the masses. New music, new poetry, new art. It had to be new. Once I started writing about music, I felt I had a responsibility to the present – if I didn’t write about certain contemporary topics, maybe no one would. Delusional, perhaps, nevertheless, I was on a mission.
Today, I’m a couple of decades older than my history teacher was back then, and I find my attention wandering. The new doesn’t seem so crucial, so cutting, so new anymore. Post-everything (Adorno, Cage, Mapplethorpe, Ayler, Ashbery, and on and on), there is no more avant-garde – though the need for one is always there. Or maybe I just don’t surprise as easily. There are exceptions of course, specifically those current jazz musicians whose work challenges my preconceptions or piques my curiosity, but for the most part, traveling the back roads (not necessarily the major highways) of the past, rummaging around in dusty discographies and discovering some overlooked or forgotten session by a Vance Dixon or Kjeld Bonfils is more of a turn-on than monitoring the progress of the next Michael Brecker… or trying to distinguish between the most recent Peter Brötzmann wannabes. History once again has its charms; I’ve become the archeologist I never thought I’d be.
While it’s true that uncovering some ultra-obscure slide-saxophonist’s four-tune session for Gennett would be a kick, it’s just as rewarding to bring to light some uncommon music that got lost in the shuffle even if it’s by relatively well-known artists. Here are three examples that you might not be familiar with, each of which features an incongruity of ensemble that heightens the creative tension in unexpected ways.
Lee Konitz is definitely among the most prolific jazz musicians of the post-WWII period; one of the strangest and least-known items in his catalog has to be the 1967 album he made for Music Minus One (a company that specialized in practice materials for beginning musicians). One side of the original LP is a boon for Konitz fanatics – the earliest available examples of unaccompanied Lee (two a cappella performances recorded for Verve in 1960 have not been released). The four solo alto sax pieces (improvisations on the changes of “Out of Nowhere” and “Lover,” a ballad, and a free-form line) were intended to allow budding saxophonists to provide their own counterpoint to Konitz’s statements, and he holds back appropriately to give his “partner” plenty of room. But there are still moments where he constructs complex twists of phrase and leaps over extended intervals in spite of himself. Even more interesting are the five “examples” where he supplies the second alto line as well, prodding and playfully attacking his alter ego with double-timed, asymmetrical rejoinders and oblique harmonies. On the overdubbed, etude-like “Free Form No. 1,” he sounds like two distinct personalities meeting for the first time. But the other side of the LP is even weirder – Konitz, alone in the studio, plays solos over tracks MMO had recorded eight years earlier. There’s a single chorus of Jobim’s “Meditation” with an unnamed, barely breathing rhythm section and Lee on his best behavior, melody-wise; a one-chorus version of “You Go to My Head” where he sounds distant and plaintive against a Johnny Richards-style strings-and-french horn arrangement; an uptempo “Three Little Words” with Konitz offering a nice sequence of shapes in his solo, responding to a kicking rhythm section (pianist Don Abney, bassist Oscar Pettiford, drummer Kenny Clarke, and a guitarist neither MMO nor the discographies have identified); and, of all things, a version of “Basin Street Blues” by an echt-52nd Street lineup: Buck Clayton on trumpet, Vic Dickenson on trombone, clarinetist Bob Wilber, Bud Freeman on tenor sax, pianist Dick Wellstood, bassist Ahmed Abdul-Malik, and drummer Panama Francis. Konitz sounds out of his element on the opening chorus (I guess he wasn’t up on his Capt. John Handy chops that day), but snakes around Dickenson’s solo, then picks up on a few of Bud Freeman’s ideas before finding his own beat over the closing ensemble.
Almost as unusual is the group Blue Note put together for a 1961 Tadd Dameron date canceled after four tunes and unreleased until a 1991 compilation CD, The Lost Sessions, appeared for a brief moment. On hand were Dameron’s usual suspects Cecil Payne on baritone sax and drummer Philly Joe Jones, with french hornist Julius Watkins, who was in the orchestra for Dameron’s That Magic Touch (Riverside) in 1952. But the trombonist was Curtis Fuller, label fave Donald Byrd handled the trumpet, and the tenor saxist was Sam Rivers, 38 and a veteran of both the blues circuit with T-Bone Walker and B.B. King and Boston’s ‘50s modern jazz scene, but still three years in advance of his debut as a leader for Blue Note. The tenor sax always played an important role in Dameron’s music – Allen Eager, Wardell Gray, Dexter Gordon and/or Charlie Rouse took the chair in the boppish late-‘40s, Johnny Griffin, Benny Golson, and Coltrane in the ‘50s – and Rivers fills the bill with solos of characteristic brawn and skittish boisterousness. He even gets to contribute a tune, “The Elder Speaks,” with a hip-pocket groove and gospel changes as he preaches from the pulpit. But the rest of the session has a haunted quality; Dameron’s “Bevan Beeps” has a wistful simplicity that the soloists expand upon, and “Lament for the Living” emits a dark, mysterious aura. The arrangements hint at bolder colors and voicings of greater breadth, and this ensemble, rough around the edges, doesn’t quite click. Ironically, Dameron, never known as a particularly distinctive soloist, provides a few atypical, modernist maneuvers in his brief episodes – some sparse, Monkish clusters insinuated behind Rivers on “The Elder Speaks” and a tentative yet tantalizing chorus on “Bevan Beeps” – suggesting that a subsequent session featuring his piano might have yielded an updated, if idiosyncratic, perspective on his “sophisticated” post-bop that was an influence on, for one, Sun Ra. But Dameron, at this point in time only recently released from incarceration for his drug addition, never got the chance.
There’s an essay to be written (or perhaps someone’s already written it…if you’re aware of one please let me know) on the ingenuity and exhilaration of bands with the moniker Big Four. Buck Clayton’s Big Four, waxed for the Hot Record Society in 1946, is no exception. Clayton’s snug trumpeting notwithstanding, the star here is guitarist Tiny Grimes. Never afraid of sounding, or appearing, indecorous – remember, he once fronted a band called the Rockin’ Highlanders, complete with kilts – Grimes spurts out of the suave ensembles like Groucho Marx at a penthouse soirée. He tries to start “Dawn Dance” (penned by Dicky Wells, who’s not in the band) as a boogie, but the others insist on a smoother swing, so the guitarist resorts to a jolt of jive in his solo. Tiny bubbles up out of the foursome and throws in some Hawaiian-style slides on “Wells-a-poppin’” (another Wells tune, this one sounding like an inversion of “Woody’n You”), adds electric echo effects on “It’s Dizzy” (by Brick Fleagle, one of the truly great names in jazz, but that’s another essay), and swoops and dive-bombs through “Basie’s Morning Bluesicale” (also by Fleagle). And yet, my favorite contribution to the music comes from clarinetist Scoville Brown. Known primarily as a section man in big bands, especially Louis Armstrong’s, Brown seldom if ever got to step out front and show off; I’m aware of a New Orleans-flavored small group session – twenty years after this one – for RCA by the aforementioned Capt. John Handy where Brown fits into a nice, tight band including Doc Cheatham and Bennie Morton, but precious little else. His harmonic conception is the most modern on the Clayton date, yearning on “Wells-a-poppin,’” a subtoned sotto voce with resonating blue notes on “Basie’s Morning Bluesicale,” and bursting with breathless intensity on “Dawn Dance.” It’s just a taste, not a meal, but it’s enough to bemoan the fact that he wasn’t invited back for his own session. By the way, the fourth member of the band was bassist Sid Weiss; no drummer needed, thank you.
The Buck Clayton Big Four date is still available, though it’s buried in a limited edition Mosaic box of The Complete H.R.S. Sessions, so act fast. (Fortunately there’s plenty more fine material in the six-CD collection, including some great Pee Wee Russell and the famous Bechet/Spanier Big Four.) Rumor has it that the Konitz MMO record is now available on CD (there will always be students). Blue Note’s The Lost Sessions is lost again, but you can find copies at Amazon.com ranging from 12 to 69 bucks. I guess history is where you find it, and it ain’t always cheap.