by Scott Yanow
Each Wednesday night for the past couple of years, Leroy Downs and Just Jazz TV (www.justjazz.tv) have been presenting jazz at the Mr. Musichead Gallery in Hollywood. Recently I caught a performance by alto-saxophonist Terrace Martin who was joined by bassist Dominique Sanders and drummer Eric Harland in what was billed as a tribute to the late great drummer Billy Higgins.
It began with Martin and Harland playing a duet. Martin, who has a tone a little reminiscent of Jackie McLean (but not sharp) built his improvisation from a fairly simple melody and played passionate long tones over the steady but loose drum patterns, building and cooling down his solo effectively. Bassist Sanders joined on what became a one-chord piece, adding quiet authority to the group. The music continued as Martin switched to piano for a time, playing rhythmic patterns. When he resumed on the alto, pianist Gerald Clayton joined the group and the music became more intense for a time. Then, quite spontaneously, the ensemble became quieter and quieter, having a John Cage moment of silence before the one-hour improvisation ended with some passionate outbursts by the quartet.
Terrace Martin talked a bit about the inspiration of Billy Higgins and the World Stage. After he launched into the Cedar Walton piece “Lithium,” he was joined by tenor-saxophonist Kamasi Washington. While Washington (who always looks like a star) played well, Martin was easily his match in this setting. Clayton created his own powerful statement before the saxophonists played quite freely together, eventually turning the piece into a celebratory blues as Martin and Washington emulated Eric Dolphy and Pharoah Sanders. The overflow crowd enjoyed the night of inspiring jazz.
THE LATEST FROM MOSAIC
During the past 30 or so years, Mosaic (under the direction of Michael Cuscuna) has consistently been one of the major jazz reissue labels. Their limited-edition box sets are full of timeless music that is perfectly packaged and invariably are worth a mint both musically and financially.
Woody Herman had his greatest bands during 1945-46 (The First Herd) and 1947-49 (The Second Herd). A while ago, Mosaic put out the limited edition seven-CD Complete Columbia Recordings Of Woody Herman And His Orchestra & Woodchoppers (1945-1947) which covered the First Herd and the earliest recordings of the Second Herd. The remainder of the latter’s output has been put out through the years by Capitol.
The newly issued Complete Woody Herman Decca, Mars and MGM Sessions (1943-1954) is a seven-CD set (with just a very few unreleased alternate takes) that fills in some gaps, compiling music from three different periods. Herman, who began leading orchestras in 1937, originally had a group that was known as “The Band That Plays The Blues” due to the success of “Woodchopper’s Ball.” His orchestra of 1937-42 worked steadily but was a minor outfit mostly featuring the leader’s vocals along with swinging ensembles that sometimes hinted at Dixieland.
All of that gradually changed during 1943-44 as can be heard on the Decca studio recordings and radio transcriptions that comprise the first two CDs of this set. Bassist Chubby Jackson was the first member of the future First Herd to join Herman and he acted as a talent scout for future replacements, recommending tenor-saxophonist Flip Phillips, trombonist Bill Harris and other up-and-coming stars. Dave Matthews’ arrangements hinted at Duke Ellington and on some sessions such guests as tenor-saxophonist Ben Webster, altoist Johnny Hodges, and cornetist Ray Nance are heard, along with tenors Budd Johnson and Georgie Auld. By early 1944, Ralph Burns was playing piano and contributing adventurous and boppish arrangements that would help to shape the new orchestra. Trumpeter Cappy Lewis, Hy White (a pioneering electric guitar soloist) and altoist Johnny Bothwell are heard on the earlier titles before the First Herd really solidified. While some of these Decca performances are vocal ballads for Herman and Francis Wayne, there are enough hot numbers (“Basie’s Basement,” “It Must Be Jelly,” “Ingie Speaks,” and “Perdido”) to satisfy swing fans.
The Mosaic set next jumps to Woody Herman’s Carnegie Hall concert of Mar, 25, 1946 which was originally put out by MGM. The recording quality of this concert used to be bad but was greatly improved in a Verve CD a decade ago; in its new version it sounds a little more improved. While this was an important event for the First Herd, including the debut of Igor Stravinsky’s “Ebony Concerto” (which unfortunately was only partly recorded), most of the music does not reach the heights of Herman’s studio recordings of the period despite some strong moments. The band gets to cut loose on “Blowin’ Up A Storm,” “The Good Earth,” “Your Father’s Mustache,” and “Wild Root” but overall the results are not quite as explosive as one would expect from the First Herd.
After the breakup of the Second Herd, Herman briefly led a small group and then put together an orchestra that would logically be called the Third Herd. A calmer and cooler ensemble than the first two Herds, the orchestra played music that was purposely more danceable (Herman was doing his best to survive the difficult times) but was also quite capable of playing exciting jazz. Their MGM recordings of 1951-52 were topped by “Leo The Lion,” “Cuban Holiday,” “Hollywood Blues,” and an exciting remake of “New Golden Wedding,” but also contained mostly forgettable vocal numbers by Herman and Dolly Houston, a session dominated by Billy Eckstine, and Herman’s guest spots with Fran Warren, David Rose and Leon Kelner’s orchestra. Frustrated by MGM’s indifference (and the low record sales), Herman switched to the tiny Mars label for the two years that it existed (1952-54). With Mars, his big band got to play more hard-driving numbers and a few surprisingly successful calypsos although, once again in a struggle to survive, Herman also waxed some novelties and fairly straight dance music.
The Woody Herman Third Herd, which along the way featured such soloists as trumpeters Doug Mettome, Don Fagerquist and Stu Williamson, trombonists Urbie Green and Carl Fontana, tenors Phil Urso, Arno Marsh, Dick Hafer and Bill Perkins, pianists Dave McKenna (featured on “Brother Fats”) and Nat Pierce, and the leader on clarinet and alto, would survive and Herman continued leading bands for another 33 years. But Mars died quietly in 1954 after producing enough music to fill up most of the last four CDs of the admirable Mosaic release.
Hank Mobley deserved to have a happier life. A joyful sounding tenor-saxophonist who first emerged with Max Roach in 1951, he worked with Dizzy Gillespie, the original version of The Jazz Messengers, Horace Silver, and Miles Davis (1961). A shy personality who rarely gave interviews, Mobley mostly quietly led groups in New York clubs during the 1960s. But after co-leading an album with Cedar Walton in 1972 (Breakthrough), he slipped away into obscurity, only appearing on one more song (1980’s “Autumn Leaves” in a set by pianist Tete Montoliu), and passing away in 1986 when he was only 55.
Fortunately Mobley made many recordings during his prime years, most notably for Blue Note. The long out-of-print six-CD Complete Blue Note Hank Mobley Fifties Sessions has now been joined by the recent eight-CD Complete Hank Mobley Blue Note Sessions 1963-70. Included is all of the music that the tenor recorded for the Blue Note albums No Room For Squares, The Turnaround, Dippin,’ A Caddy For Daddy, Hi Voltage, Reach Out, The Flip, Far Away Land, Straight No Filter, A Slice Of The Top, Thinking Of Home, and Third Season. During this era, Mobley’s tone gradually became harder and his hard bop style loosened a little but he is quite recognizable as the tenor stylist that he was in the 1950s, and he continued to define the Blue Note sound for 15 years.
Mobley is primarily featured in quintets and sextets with two albums using slightly larger groups. Among his sidemen are the cream of the crop including trumpeters Donald Byrd, Lee Morgan, Freddie Hubbard, Blue Mitchell, Woody Shaw, and Dizzy Reece, trombonists Curtis Fuller and Slide Hampton, altoists James Spaulding and Jackie McLean, pianists Herbie Hancock, Andrew Hill, Barry Harris, Harold Mabern, McCoy Tyner, Cedar Walton, and John Hicks, guitarists Sonny Greenwich and George Benson, bassists Butch Warren, John Ore, Paul Chambers, Larry Ridley, Bob Cranshaw, Walter Booker, and Ron Carter, and drummers Philly Joe Jones and Billy Higgins.
While only one of the 66 performances (an alternate take of “Me ‘N You”) was previously unissued, the Hank Mobley box (which has a typically definitive and colorful Lp-sized booklet) is highly recommended to anyone with an interest in the great if underrated tenor. There is a great deal of music to savor, and it is certainly worth your time. It is available, along with the Woody Herman package, from www.mosaicrecords.com.
Beyond The Notes is an 85-minute film by Sophie Huber that is available as a DVD from Eagle Rock Entertainment (www.eagle-rock.com). It is a documentary about the fabled Blue Note label.
The film begins at a recording session by the Blue Note All-Stars that resulted in the 2015 recording Our Point Of View, and it regularly returns to the session throughout this production. The musicians talk about the legacy of Blue Note including trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, tenor-saxophonist Marcus Strickland, keyboardist Robert Glasper, guitarist Lionel Loueke, bassist Derrick Hodge and drummer Kendrick Scott plus veterans Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter and label head Don Was. Also captured in interviews are producer Michael Cuscuna, altoist Lou Donaldson, saxophonist Terrace Martin, and the late engineer Rudy Van Gelder. Briefly heard are the late executive Bruce Lundvall (who brought the label back from the dead in the 1980s) and Norah Jones.
To help illustrate the story, one sees a lot of session photos by Francis Wolff and album jackets, there are excerpts from a radio interview of Blue Note’s founders Alfred Lion and Wolff, brief film clips (particularly of Thelonious Monk), and recordings. It is all expertly edited together to tell much of the Blue Note story.
One learns a bit about the early days of Blue Note when Alfred Lion recorded New Orleans jazz, swing and boogie-woogie, his love of Monk’s music (recording many sessions even though he was losing money) and Bud Powell, the freedom that Lion gave the musicians, the rise of hard bop thanks in large part to Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, and a bit on Miles Davis and Horace Silver. Skipped over quickly are the decline of Blue Note starting in 1966 when it was sold (resulting in it becoming completely inactive for a decade) and its 1984 comeback. Nothing is said about Bruce Lundvall’s decision to include some nonjazz recordings (such as by Al Green) on the Blue Note label which might have helped the label’s sales but not its reputation as the #1 jazz record company.
The last 20 minutes or so of this film wanders away a bit, with the younger musicians talking about hip hop and sampling, and how their current music, which sometimes mixes together hip hop and jazz, reflects the times just as hard bop was representative of the 1950s. Whether their current music is on the same level and is as timeless as the classic Blue Note recordings is open to question.
In addition to the main documentary, there is some extra material: lengthy versions of “Bavyinah” and “Masqualaro” that total 24 minutes and show what some of the music on today’s Blue Note sounds like. Beyond The Notes is well worth seeing.
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